Four Types of Supervillains

Forget the ice claws, the glowing brains, and the hooks-for-feet for a minute. Despite their surface differences, all your supervillains fall into four categories: soldiers, menaces, masterminds and thieves.

The distinction is not about powers or how much of a threat they pose, it’s about how the supervillain behaves. As a GM if you know a villain’s type you know when you can best use him, her or it.

soldier — The soldier is the default supervillain: if a villain isn’t clearly one of the other types, he’s a soldier. The soldier commits crimes (or attempts other goals), fights when confronted, but tries to escape when necessary. When the heroes are knocked out, the soldier generally gloats and then leaves.*

menace — The menace is destructive. A soldier villain will fight, but generally tries to get away. On the other hand a menace villain sticks around and destroys things even when it serves no real purpose. The menace may not even like smashing things — misunderstood by society, it just might be how things turn out whenever he shows up (like the Neutron Fist, for example). Any encounter with a menace is a public threat. When the heroes are knocked out, the menace starts to destroy downtown.

mastermind — The mastermind is the schemer, the planner, the leader. The mastermind hatches the schemes that give all the soldier villains something to do. From the GM’s point of view the mastermind is usually the instigator of all the interesting plots. If you check your list of masterminds and they are all in jail, it’s time for a prison break. When the heroes are knocked out, the mastermind multitasks and puts the heroes in a cunning deathtrap while continuing the master plan.

thief — The thief doesn’t want to fight, the thief just wants to take things and get out of there. You’d think that since supervillains are by definition criminals, lots of supervillains would fall in the thief category. Instead it’s the reverse, with more soldiers than thieves. The reason is simple: if you want a superhero action game, who wants a villain who goes out of his way to avoid fighting? If the heroes are knocked out the thief escapes with the loot, but it’s not likely to happen since the thief will try to get away rather than fight in the first place.

Again, it’s all about the character’s behavior, not abilities. Abilities just determine how successful or powerful a character is in the role. A mad inventor can be a genius but still act like a soldier villain type (resorting to direct confrontation instead of plots). An underworld thug might have nothing more than a crowbar and some streetwise, but still run operations like a mastermind. A phantom stealth character might still participate in combat like a soldier rather than avoid it like a thief. A massive brute monster might stick with the team and follow the plan, not rampage like a menace.

How common is each type? As a wild guess let’s say most superhero games would have 70% soldiers, 15% menaces, 10% masterminds and 5% thieves. Change the ratios and you change the kind of adventures you get. If you have more menaces replacing some soldiers, you’ll see a lot more mayhem threatening innocent bystanders. A higher percentage of masterminds vs soldiers means the mastermind has fewer supervillains to do the fighting, so expect more armies of clones/zombies/robots or “blow up the world” plots instead of masterminds leading teams of soldier villains.

These categories only address how a supervillain behaves, not why a supervillain behaves that way. Motivation and other subtleties of character are a whole different matter.

* Unless you’re running a dark game where supervillains kill unconscious superheroes. Hey, whatever you’re into.

    Ben Robbins | August 24th, 2006 | | hide comments
  1. #8 Redforce says:

    I just had another realization – the only two stats a supervillain really needs are Threat Level and Cunning. Threat Level is how directly powerful the villain is, and Cunning represents the villain’s resources, ability to evade capture, planning ability, and, well, cunning. You can call them by other names if you want. The great thing about this is two things:
    1. Villains are a snap to stat up. You could establish a min and max Threat Level (and maybe Cunning) for each of your villain types (and of course break the limits in special cases).
    2. Villains easily scale up or down depending on whether they are fighting their own nemesis or taking on the whole super-team, or if they get a power-up, just like in the comics.

    The base Threat Level would be a number of dice or a bigger die or whatever, but the actual Threat Level may be higher depending on what the villain can do – a mind-controlling villain or one who can summon a horde of undead or drain all your powers may have a higher Threat Level than the base die/dice/rating may indicate.

    What do you think, Ben? I know it doesn’t make as much sense out of context of an actual RPG system, but what do you think of the general idea?

  2. #7 Redforce says:

    One thing I forgot – the base Threat Level would be a number of dice or a bigger die or whatever, but the actual Threat Level may be higher depending on what the villain can do – a mind-controlling villain or one who can summon a horde of undead or drain all your powers may have a higher Threat Level than the base die/dice/rating may indicate.

  3. #6 Redforce says:

    I just had another realization – the only two stats a supervillain really needs are Threat Level and Cunning. Threat Level is how directly powerful the villain is, and Cunning represents the villain’s resources, ability to evade capture, planning ability, and, well, cunning. You can call them by other names if you want. The great thing about this is two things:
    1. Villains are a snap to stat up. You could establish a min and max Threat Level (and maybe Cunning) for each of your villain types (and of course break the limits in special cases).
    2. Villains easily scale up or down depending on whether they are fighting their own nemesis or taking on the whole super-team, or if they get a power-up, just like in the comics.

    What do you think, Ben? I know it doesn’t make as much sense out of context of an actual RPG system, but what do you think of the general idea?

  4. #5 Redforce says:

    Alright, I agree with you about Anti-hero. I am going to use it in my character spreadsheet, however, to mark any heroes that don’t mind bending (or breaking) the law to further their agenda – for instance, one of them guards the nearby swamp, and will destroy or disrupt any large-scale construction efforts. However, he’s not fanatical like Poison Ivy and is otherwise a good guy; he’s just wanted by the cops and the mayor.

  5. #4 Ben Robbins says:

    Redforce, I think Nuisance definitely fits. If you look at anti-hero though, I think that might be more motivation. They could be any of the other categories, except they are sometimes allies, sometimes enemies. Sounds like a modifier on the other categories.

  6. #3 Redforce says:

    Well this is just dang brilliant. I just happened to be working on a list of villains for an upcoming superhero campaign I want to run, and this is a very handy way of classifying them apart from motivation – a ‘niche’ if you will. I’m adding two new categories:

    Nuisance – not necessarily villains, the Nuisances are the superbeings that just get in the heroes’ way, are underfoot, try to steal their thunder, or just simply villains who provide a comical distraction. Examples would be Foxbat, the Impossible Man, or the Kid Hero who wants to be the hero(es) sidekick.

    Anti-hero – these are the heroes that don’t necessarily follow the hero code, or simply villains that sometimes help out the heroes or have a code of honor of sorts (the rogue-ish pirate or Robin Hood types). Examples would be the Environmental Guardian who destroys construction in his/her domain, the Punisher type heroes, or sometimes-hero sometimes-villain characters like Catwoman.

  7. #2 Ben says:

    Thanks Dave, glad you like it. Keep up the good work at Arbor.

  8. #1 Dave Anderson says:

    That’s a pretty good reduction of villains to their core archetypes. A good thing to keep in mind when one creates a villain for a game. I’ll have to remember it next time.

    I just found your blog and so far it’s very interesting. So I’d like to say hi. “Hi.”” I’ll have to read back a few months (like finding a new comic that is up to issue #100 and going through the back issues to catch up). But keep up the good ideas.

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