Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Creating Nemesis Characters

Salutations, my curious congregation~ I've decided to try something a little different for a while. I know some of you are here for the tabletop and some of you are here for the writing, and a lot of what I write about on this blog applies to both, but enough of it doesn't that I'm thinking I'm going to try to get into a schedule and write about tabletop on Tuesdays and writing on Thursdays.

Most character-based things apply to both, of course, and that's what I've got for you today. So this one is for my Dungeon Masters and Writers. I'm not saying I won't be writing a lot of things that apply to both still, but I'm hoping I can get to the point that if you check on Tuesday there will for sure be tabletop and if you check on Thursday there will for sure be writing, and maybe it will be both.

So!  Today we're looking at our Moriartys and Lex Luthors. We're going to talk about how to make a nemesis character, for the PCs at your table or possibly for your protagonist.

Content Warnings: As always, a healthy dose of irreverence and probably some swearing. Also, if you couldn't tell by the title, the distinct possibility of obsession and revenge.

Let's dance.

There's nothing quite as fun as a nemesis. Or at least nothing fun in quite the same way. So we're about to break down what makes a nemesis really click against another character, and how to get your PCs to bite.

Make it Personal

Here's your step one. No one is going to latch onto a villain that hasn't done something to get their attention. If you're writing, this is doubly important. A player character by necessity has agency because there is another person behind that wheel but if you're writing both characters there's a pitfall to be aware of.

If your PC bites too easily (or indeed if your Nemesis does) it is going to make them look obsessive and unstable. If this is what you're going for (see: Artemis Entreri) wonderful, that's step one taken, but in a lot of cases you aren't going to want that.

So, what can you do to make this look like it isn't coming out of nowhere?

First, you want to look at what's important to your PC or Protagonist. If they love their family, perhaps the nemesis kills a relative of theirs or does something to hurt their family's wellbeing or way of life. Their livelihood. If your PC wants to be the best at something perhaps this nemesis is a rival and both of them want something that they can't both have. If your PC is driven by doing the right thing, perhaps it is simply enough that the nemesis does the wrong one and makes it harder for the PC to garner a reputation for doing what's right as a result (say if they have the same species or occupation).

There are two ways to tackle that.

It happened in the backstory: You talk to your PC or you work it into the backstory of the characters that something happened in their past. If you have a short campaign or don't have a lot of words to work with, this might be the way to go. It takes space to establish this kind of rivalry and if you don't have it, backstory can be an easy out. Just remember that how and when this comes out is going to be tricky because people that are both in the know about something don't just go talking about it.

It happens on screen: This one is a little bit more difficult but you get more credibility for it and the reader/player is likely to be more invested. The thing is, you have to be careful to make sure this is something they will actually bite with. Watch your characters. Make sure you know what they are likely to be motivated by. The thing is, you have to have players that want things to make this work. If they don't actively want things, try throwing a variety of situations at them, and see what makes them sit up straighter. Even a player motivated only by amassing wealth will be spurred to action if someone robs them.

Foils and the Dark Mirror

The nemesis should be the opposite of the protagonist in some way, but not every way. They should have something in common and they should have something to set them apart.

For instance, Sherlock Holmes and Professor James Moriarty are both brilliant. Masterminds in their own right. They are skilled in many of the same areas but where Sherlock uses his brilliant mind for good, Moriarty uses his for nefarious purposes and it pits them at odds more often than not. Even so, there is a begrudging respect between them.

Professor Xavier and Magneto were (and occasionally still are) friends. They are both incredibly powerful mutants who want a better world for their own kind and go about it in drastically different ways that ensure their friendship cannot stay friendly forever.

The Joker and Batman have very different skillsets, but both dress up in costumes and break the law. They both have incredibly strong convictions and are willing to die for them, but they clash over what those convictions are.

Look at the character you want to make this nemesis for, and consider what you want to be similar about them and what that one point of conflict between them should be. This cannot be something that they can compromise on; I don't remember who said it and I'm having trouble finding it right now, but there's a quote about "if the character can walk away from the conflict so can the reader". So can the player. This crux point cannot be something the character can turn their back on, and it cannot be something the nemesis can turn their back on. That is what makes it juicy.

A Worthy Opponent

Finally, a good nemesis will be able to clash with this protagonist over and over again and that means you can't let them die or be caught right away. They have to be a veritable Houdini at escaping the protagonist or PC. And this can't be for no good reason. The nemesis has to be smart enough to get away.

Setting up contingencies is a way to handle this. A ring of teleportation, setting up their conflicts on their own home ground so they have a back door, or having minions to throw at the PCs are all valid ways to handle this. Just remember that if the PCs really want to catch someone they are going to work out contingencies of their own.

Some villains like to set up killswitches. If they don't call in their allies are going to do something dastardly in a place the hero cannot reach. They take hostages. They play dirty. Just remember that whatever they are holding hostage has to matter to the character in question or it has no teeth. If the hero doesn't care, this rivalry is going to be dead in the water.

The more clever and the more prepared this villain is, the better it is going to feel when the protagonist finally takes them down. It should be an uphill battle every step of the way, but not so uphill that the villain wipes the floor with them. Make the nemesis one or two levels higher. One or two steps ahead, every step of the way until the end. Make defeating them feel like an accomplishment.

And Dungeon Masters, remember one thing: It doesn't hurt to be up front with your players about this. There is no shame in asking "I want this character to be a nemesis to yours, how can I best do that for you?", because at the end of the day, most players want to be Batman or Sherlock Holmes. They want to be the epic hero with the epic villain and they will be much more likely to work with you if they know you're trying to give them what they want.

Fortune Favors,
Megan R. Miller

P.S. If you're enjoying reading my blog you might consider popping over and giving Torchlighters a read. It's 99 cents on kindle. Print copies are still coming, bear with me while life is kicking my ass. Thanks so much for sticking with me regardless <3

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