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A Mild-Mannered Reporter: Be the nemesis

Eliot Lefebvre

I have a nemesis, but it's not a person. It's an idea, and that idea is optimization.

Given enough time (about seven minutes), people will figure out the best builds and abilities for pretty much every single character class in any game. This is great if all you're interested in doing is banging out the best possible character to tackle endgame challenges, but it's kind of disappointing if you like creating odd characters, ones that play strangely or feature under-utilized abilities or specs. That's the sort of stuff that I like, the things I find fascinating.

City of Heroes is hardly the first game to do this, so I've had plenty of time to learn how to fight my nemesis. And so I offer you today the lessons of nemeses, the path to figuring out how to make your bad character into a force to be reckoned with. There are certain rules to being a nemesis rather than simply an adversary, and some of them aren't what you think.

Never a Goblin fan, myself, but he's a better nemesis than Venom.A creative approach

The biggest thing that sets a nemesis apart from more mundane villains is that the nemesis, on a fundamental level, is someone you root for. Oh, sure, you're cheering for the hero to win eventually... but you don't want the win to come out right away. You want to see the plot come to fruition and then see the hero win because the nemesis is, for all intents and purposes, a surrogate hero.

See, superheroes are lazy. They don't do much of anything. They don't go out on the streets and beat up people who look like they might be committing a crime; they go out and stop people in the process of committing one. That means that by nature, they have to be reactive rather than proactive. Superman can't just break into Lex Luthor's office and cold-cock him on the suspicion that he might be doing something evil. And so the reader needs to stay interested, to be teased by watching the plot unfold. Otherwise, it just doesn't keep her interest.

Think about it. How often does a book's hero wind up teaming up with his or her nemesis? I'm going to go ahead and say nearly all the time.

And that's the core of making a bad character. You want to do something creative in the game. You want to express your ability to take a character, even one that shouldn't really work and make it work, and not just make it work but make it work well, enough to surprise people with your creativity. To some people, the ultimate compliment in terms of game mechanics is being told, "I've never seen a character like yours work so well."

City of Heroes is all about creativity to begin with. Using the character creator is the most obvious creative route, but being able to put together a character that works out of completely nonsensical pieces is even more amusing. It's the stuff that starts with ideas like "can I make a character with only three non-Power Pool selections?" or "can I make a melee Blaster?" It's that spark of finding out that you can be an active participant in twisting the game out of its mold and into a new, more interesting shape.

"This is a lesson so fundamental it's almost silly to type it out, but here it is: If you wish to break the system, you must know the system."

The opposite of what's expected

A lot of comics -- and I do mean a lot of them -- have an evil mirror of the hero. In some cases, this character is the nemesis of the hero, but far more often that's not the case. The hero's nemesis isn't his exact opposite. Superman's nemesis isn't Bizzaro; it's Lex Luthor. Even though there are a lot of storied tales about Spider-Man vs. Venom, his nemesis is the Green Goblin. Why?

The reason is that the nemesis shouldn't just be the hero with different clothes and morals. A nemesis should, by his very nature, oppose something fundamental about the hero. Even in the cases in which a hero's nemesis is his precise opposite, there's usually more to it than that. (Sinestro was the Green Lantern's nemesis for years, but his big schtick was the fact that he made yellow constructs -- things that the Green Lantern couldn't affect with his flawed power ring.) A change of clothes doesn't make for a nemesis; a fundamental challenge makes for a nemesis.

Bad characters are meant to do the same thing. A character with nonsensical power selections isn't the sort of bad character we're talking about. Good bad characters (and yes, I'm aware of the strangeness behind that statement) are the sort that pick powersets known to be underpowered or conflicting in their focus and then find a way to make those sets work despite their nature. Your goal is to make something happen that you wouldn't expect was possible.

We'll just ignore the silliness of the body armor for the moment, okay?You must be friends

If you were asked about the nemesis of the X-Men, disregarding poorly written angst, you'd probably say Magneto. It's not a hard question; there are several other noteworthy villains in the group's history, but Magneto has always been its opposite number. But you have to admit that for a dyed-in-the-wool enemy to the X-Men, he sure spends an awful lot of time working with them. There are even a couple of times when he's been the group's leader.

A hero's nemesis is almost always somewhat friendly toward the hero and vice versa. Sometimes they were friends before superhuman antics got in the way, and sometimes after, but there's always a sense of understanding between them. They'll team up to get rid of grander threats, and even if you have someone like Doctor Doom justifying his cooperation with the Fantastic Four via asserting that he wants to be the one who winds up destroying them, the fact of the matter is that the hero and his nemesis are peers. They're close.

It doesn't mean they necessarily get along very well. Depending on the nature of the conflict, it may simply be a vague understanding of the other person that goes to an instinctive level. But there's always that nugget, that sense that the two people in conflict don't just want to kill one another.

This is a lesson so fundamental that it's almost silly to type it out, but here it is: If you wish to break the system, you must know the system.

You can't hope to build a functional bad character if you don't understand what you're working with. Before you can hope to break fundamental rules about how characters are supposed to function, you have to know what those rules are, which ones need to be in place, and which ones can be tweaked without consequence. You have to understand whether or not "underperforming powerset" means that its damage is slightly below-par or that it barely deals any damage. You need to know what you're focusing on; you can't just march in and essentially demand that you get to break things because you want to.

One of my professors in college was very fond of a phrase from Dr. Seuss: "It's fun to have fun, but you have to know how." It's as true of building bad characters as it is of anything else.

"The nemesis defines the hero, yes, but the hero defines the nemesis."

Where they are weak, you are strong

Here's a question for the comic geeks in the audience (i.e., all of my readers). Everyone knows that Batman's nemesis is the Joker, but why? What makes the Joker so dangerous?

Aside from a very small number of appearances, the Joker is generally agreed to not even be in the same league as Batman in a physical contest. He's certainly not any smarter; he's equally smart, at best. And he doesn't have any real powers. He's got the occasional arsenal of hidden gadgets, but it's not as if Batman doesn't. So why does he earn the spot of nemesis?

The answer, I think, is simple: He targets Batman's fundamental weakness. Batman is a detective, a logical thinker, someone who examines crimes and goes off to hunt down criminals based on evidence and facts. He creates a logical sequence and then bases his actions upon that. The Joker defeats that by, ironically, not having a logical sequence of events that's visible to anyone with a reasonable mind. He seeks out bizarre goals, sets off on ridiculous schemes, and generally defies all of Batman's logic about cause and effect.

Case in point: the plot of Arkham Asylum. Batman and the GCPD were planning to ensure that the Joker didn't break out after capture, but he wasn't trying to break out. He just wanted control of the asylum. His goal was just to have a playground to match wits against Batman, not any sort of freedom -- the sort of crime that doesn't make any logical sense but makes perfect sense to a maniac in clown makeup.

Making a bad character is essentially about trying to find whatever the game mechanics have as a weakness, then driving through it. The trick is finding a specific build where an underperforming power set actually works better or finding an aspect of a power that isn't primary to its functionality but winds up making a big difference in the long run. Unfortunately, City of Heroes doesn't usually allow us to use actual drawbacks to powers as net advantages (at least, not yet), but it does give us power with secondary effects to exploit via slotting, power combinations that target unusual weaknesses, and the like.

Of course, maybe the Joker just really doesn't like flying mammals.The passion is there

There's something else that drives a hero's nemesis, something that drives no other sort of villain. It's tied to all of the above elements, and yet it stands on its own.

The nemesis has passion. The nemesis doesn't just want something that the hero prevents him or her from getting; she wants to beat the hero.

Lex Luthor has his plots that chiefly center around power, sure, but he also has plots that center around nothing more than just getting rid of Superman. The Green Goblin goes out of his way to aim at Spider-Man, even when he could just sidestep the wall-crawler altogether. The Joker sometimes even gets upset at the thought that someone else might kill Batman. He barely even wants money or fame; he just wants to face off against the bat again.

It's not a win unless the nemesis does better than the hero. The nemesis defines the hero, yes, but the hero defines the nemesis. When it briefly appeared in the Superman comics that Luthor was dead and his estranged son had taken over the company, Superman himself noted that it felt strange, almost depressing, because Luthor wasn't there to spar with him any longer. He didn't know what to do without the opposition.

So it goes with making a bad character. You have to care about this. You have to look in the eye of doing something that you know the game will not approve of, and you have to pick yourself up and make it work. And when it gets broken time and again, you need to find another way to make it work. You have to be dedicated at finding something that everyone says cannot be done and insisting that it can.

And when everyone agrees, you'll play something else -- because that's what being a nemesis means.

I'm curious to see if people feel that this post was worth the wait, if it hit its marks, and so on. Comments can be mailed to or left in the comments below, naturally. Next week, it's all about feedback and my thoughts on Issue 22, although if you listen to this week's installment of Massively Speaking, you can get a preview.

By day a mild-mannered reporter, Eliot Lefebvre unveils his secret identity in Paragon City and the Rogue Isles every Wednesday. Filled with all the news that's fit to analyze and all the muck that's fit to rake, this look at City of Heroes analyzes everything from the game's connection to its four-color roots to the latest changes in the game's mechanics.

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