The pitch: “What if the world’s greatest supervillain were not actually an idiot?”
Superhero role-playing games, superhero role-playing games, all over the place like cockroaches. Right upon the heels of D&D, a bevy of them scuttled forth, and then after the appearance of Villains & Vigilantes in 1979 and Champions in 1980, wham, you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting some new spandex-goober game. And now, right when we’re seeing new games, interesting games, even games that are built to challenge every assumption in the hobby, what do they have festooning their covers? Superheroes.
Scuttling like cockroaches, I say!
Late in 2004, Matt Snyder asked me if I’d contribute again to his wonderful e-zine, Daedalus. What’s the theme this time, I asked … sure enough, he said spandex-goobers, I mean, superheroes. I said no, but I kind of lied about why. I said, these RPGs are too hung up about the powers, and not enough about soap operas, so “superhero gaming” just wasn’t anything I was interested in any more. Not after a decade of playing Champions with great love and verve. Besides, Michael S. Miller was already fully embarked on the soap/angst approach in designing With Great Power…, and there was nothing I could add to his excellent points and plans for that game.
And that was all true, but here’s really why I couldn’t get my engines going for it. Matt had used the wrong word.
Because mock superheroes as I might, I’ll never mock the supervillain. I love supervillains. I loved Stan Lee’s book from the 1970s, Bring On the Bad Guys. I loved almost every one of my villains in all those Champions and other superhero role-playing games I was in.
One great type is the poor-bastard villain, caught between some flawed values and a raw deal, often with disfigurement thrown in for extra pain. I made up tons of these “blessed with suck, cursed with awesome” bad guys, and wrote lengthy essays about them as fictional entities and game-mechanics entities in the APA The Clobberin’ Times. Paul Dini is a master of this approach, producing the finest revisions ever for the villains in Batman: the Animated Series: raw, needy blends of neurosis and menace.
I also like those straightforward super-crooks. I mean, venal supervillainy makes sense. There you are, you now have electro-powers, whoopee! And what do you do with them? Well, first things first, you zap your appliances and phone line and so on, so you never have to pay an electric bill again. Then you figure, correctly, that someone will be happy to pay you for, say, disposing of someone else with a mysterious and untraceable fibrillation. Do this every so often and quit your job; when the IRS wonders about you, destroy their records. And why think small? The city council will respond very nicely to the possibility that you will engineer a city blackout such that the darkened blocks, from above, spell the name of the girl who wouldn’t go out with you in the tenth grade.
Good golly, I spent half my time in prepping for those games figuring out ways for supervillains to make money through thuggery, cleverness, terror, blackmail, and stunts. And most of the ways would behoove the authorities to make damn sure nothing was ever known about it. The gaudy names and costumes weren’t expressions of neurosis for these guys; they were promotional devices, like rock stars and pro wrestlers.
The most fun comes with the ultra-villains, who really aren’t “criminals” at all – they don’t even notice such piddly opposition as law enforcement. Most of the best ones came from Marvel Comics. You know them too.
Magneto. Dormammu. Thanos. The Kingpin, at a smaller scale. Mephisto. And of course, Victor von Doom, a.k.a. Doctor Doom, spiritual son of Doctor No, and spiritual father of Darth Vader and Skeletor.
These guys’ powers were impressive, yes, but that wasn’t the point at all … they had the presence, the purpose, and the guts to turn their hand to changing the world. Not just getting rich. Not just getting revenge or chewing up some real estate. No, they wanted things to be different, and their observation that things weren’t different was no setback – merely an affront. Then they didn’t just sit in the coffee shop, they pulled on the gauntlets, welded metal masks to their faces because “pain is for mere ordinary men,” and set to organizing armies, inventing time machines, opening gates from Hell to Earth, building androids of themselves, usurping command of the invading alien armada, organizing or enslaving various other super-powered folks (hardly “super” in comparison), ripping asunder the very fabric of time and space, ruling small countries, and that sort of thing.
It takes more than powers or even a cool concept to make an ultra-villain. Some examples from the comics weren’t bad on paper, but didn’t really fly in practice, like Kang the Conqueror. What made these guys less compelling? The answer is simple: they didn’t have any issues that mattered. They may have been nuts, or determined, or festooned with powers, but they didn’t have any right on their side, not even a little bit.
Remember Graviton? If you do, you probably groaned aloud, just now. Quite likely the lamest villain in the history of the Avengers, despite insanely powerful, kick-Avengers’-butt control over gravity. Why? Because he was some goob in spandex. He had no issue, no point, no reason to be cluttering up the pages except that they had to fill a couple of issues and this was all they came up with – “controls gravity.” If I recall correctly, he had a thing for his blonde secretary. Thud. Graviton wasn’t about anything. To this day I can’t remember how they stopped him or escaped his trap or anything like that, and you sure won’t see him in any retrospective collections or spin-off products like porcelain figures, much less inspiring other cultural icons.
It doesn’t matter that by the gamer-numbers, Graviton was “equal to” Magneto or Doctor Doom. Imagine either of these two, facing off with Graviton over something, and you know the show would be over instantly. It has nothing to do with “powers.” Victor von Doom would simply … I shudder to think, actually. ‘Bye Graviton.
The difference lies in pure theme. The ultra-villain not only has phenomenal power and personal presence, he also cares about important stuff, and has taken a stand about it that in some ways makes sense. We may disagree, but we recognize that it’s not a matter of the perfectly sensible superhero opposing the perfectly bonkers/evil villain.
And so a few months went by after my conversation with Matt, and finally, finally a couple of the right neurons rubbed together. Hey! A role-playing game about these guys and their ilk, that’s a different thing entirely. But no, that’s wrong too. A story with two of them in it is no good either. You need one – the best one, the most important one, the perfect one for the story you want to be creating.
Let me introduce you to …
Who is hands-down the primo ultra-villain ever, the one you knew you could make up in seventh grade, except when you tried he was lame for some reason. Only this time, you’ll do it right, using the parameters I’ll give you.
How does he compare to Doctor Doom, Magneto, Dormammu, and so on? It’s not a matter of comparison – what those villains were to their comics, so is he to yours. And he’s the best.
Everyone playing this game will make him up all together, before you do anything else. I’ll provide the rules for doing this soon, but there’s no point unless you prepare yourselves mentally for this awesome task. You aren’t just making up “a” supervillain.
Doctor Χaos is mighty. No single hero can defeat him up-front, and he is more than equal to any institution or organization. He is expert at physical confrontation, cosmic energies, psychological and political strategy, technological innovation, and magical dimensions.
Doctor Χaos is also significant. He really could rule the world, and for all purposes can be considered a nation’s worth of resources and relevance to others. Cosmically, he has “place.” Demon-lords are polite to him.
Doctor Χaos is not an idiot. He understands all the things which could stop him and has figured everyone out already. His plans will work and his drive is more than sufficient to see them through. He considers “Hamlet” to be a stupid story.
Doctor Χaos has a point. His outlook may be warped or inhuman in some way, but it has its roots in human ideals which can be identified with and perhaps, in some other context, admired. Some of the stuff he does or decisions he makes in the crunch may approach nobility.
Finally, Doctor Χaos is masterful. He commands more presence than anyone else, can overawe any gathering, can convince anyone he’s right through logic or fear as he sees fit. Unlike heroes, timing has nothing to do with his impact – his entrances make the timing right.
This is his game.
Some older stuff
In 2005, I was really interested in multiple players contributing to shared characters. You can see it here, in The People’s Hero, in It Was a Mutual Decision, and to a lesser extent in the political games (Spione, Shahida, Amerikkka). In Doctor Chaos, people trade off playing the same ultra-supervillain, while those who aren’t playing him at the moment try to thwart his plans.
Initial development, 2005: [Doctor Chaos] Cards, bad guys and [Doctor Chaos] Next phase playtesting
Revived, 2010: [Doctor Chaos] World peace, my way, Doctor Chaos Thoughts and Questions, [Doctor Chaos] Orccon 2011, [Doctor Chaos] May 2013 playtest, and [Doctor Chaos] Ice-enberg, CloNU and USB-ees (and Liefeld-heroes dinosaurs) from summer 2014.
Also, a couple of threads regarding another super-hero RPG which are relevant to this project: [WGP ...] Cosmic zap @ GenCon and [With Great Power ...] Brief but strong play in Sweden
Here’s the current playtest version (February 2015)! Play it and post about it at the Adept forum.