I’ve been playing a lot of City of Heroes, Champions, and Batman: Arkham Asylum in the past week, and also watching things like Sanctum. That led me to think about ways to create memorable villains in a superhero RPG.

Essentially, the most memorable villains for a hero are those that in some way reflect his or her own morals, ethos, virtues, and flaws. The Joker is an inverted Batman: just as smart, but using humor and bright colors for evil while he uses fear and darkness for good. Dr. Doom and Magneto are very similar to Mr. Fantastic and Xavier, just taking the darker path. The Red Skull is just as much of a paragon of his country as Captain America is of his. And so on…

You can use this to create memorable archvillains for your heroes in a superhero game in a very simple way:

  • Have each player list the character’s core virtues and flaws (three of the first, two of the second is a good number)
  • Arrange the characters in a table with heroes that are the most likely to share opponents next to one another (e.g., if two heroes were partners before joining the team, they should be adjacent on the chart).
  • Randomize the traits the player gave you and list them next to the hero for each character.
  • Make boxes around one or more traits: the more traits in the box, the more often the villain will show up.
  • Turn each box into a villain by using the traits in the box either straight or inverting them and then making them the core attributes of the villain.

For example:

A list of virtues and vices for creating villains

The matrix above is broken into 11 possible villains. In the upper left is a major villain with Loyal, Cold, Lecherous, and Vengeful as major traits. Played completely straight, it immediately suggests a femme fatale character: an incredibly loyal agent of a rival group that uses sex as a weapon. The bottom right corner features two virtues: Trustworthy and Faithful; they might both work better inverted. Suddenly, the villain is a lying traitor: a good villain to spring on the group from someone they thought was an ally.

After creating each villain, remember where the villain’s informed traits came from. In many ways, the villain exists as a way to explore what is noble and flawed about the heroes, and get them to confront their own life decisions.