Proper Villainy Profiles: The Joker

2008 July 22
by Vanir

I had the pleasure of seeing The Dark Knight over the weekend. I’d been looking forward to this one because I’d heard that Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker was completely amazing, and he didn’t disappoint. TDK’s Joker was a standout example of what a real villain ought to be — and you can take some of his complete batshit insanity (no pun intended) and use it with some of your villains. Let’s take a look:


Chaotic Evil With A Side Order Of Insanity

If ever you were wondering what the difference between Lawful Evil and Chaotic Evil is, the Joker’s your poster boy for Chaotic Evil. Whatever he does, it’s to suit whatever plans he has. Granted, not all Chaotic Evil people have desires as sick and twisted as our purple-suited antagonist, but it does show that Chaotic Evil-aligned people don’t so much care about how they accomplish their goals or who has to die.

Just being Chaotic Evil isn’t what makes the Joker so frightening. Think about it for a second. Just because you’re evil doesn’t necessarily make you motivated. I’m sure most of us have known people over the years who really wanted to do some bad things to get their way, but they were too scared to. The Joker’s got that motivation somehow. The scary part is what he’s motivated to do. And most don’t find out what that is until it’s way too late.

Why So Serious?

Though the Joker has been portrayed in a variety of ways over the years, the main thing that separated him from most of the other Bat-villains (especially after the 80’s, when they really started to turn up the homicidal cuckoo) is that he’s not really after anything aside from chaos and mayhem. Yeah, he might rob a bank, but you can bet he’s going to use all of that loot to fund some sort of scheme that will sow the seeds of terror in the streets of Gotham somehow. As Alfred says during the movie, “Some men just want to see the world burn.”

That’s scary stuff. That means that you can’t reason with a person like this. You can’t make them go away by giving them what they want. If you give them what they want, horrible things happen to you and your loved ones and their loved ones and your dog and their dogs and probably their dogs’ friends and everyone’s neighbors. People like this love to see others suffer, and probably the single scariest thing about TDK’s Joker is that he lives to see people corrupted and to make themselves and their loved ones suffer. It’s like he can make a Diplomacy check gone horribly, horribly wrong, and if he succeeds then you’ve crossed the line where you’re not sure if you’re a good person anymore.

This maniac was born to tear places and people down, and he’s frighteningly good at it. Somehow he’s charismatic (or frightening enough) enough to have a bunch of minions following him. He makes unbelievably effective plans to accomplish his insane goals, probably due in part to the fact that he doesn’t need to have an exit strategy most of the time. Nobody’s quite sure if he even cares if he lives or dies so long as the chaos continues to spread. As he put it himself in TDK, “It’s like I’m a dog chasing cars. I don’t even know what I’d do if I caught one.”

Bringing Mr. J to Your Campaign

I’ve just detailed a lot of things that make the Joker a frightening and unique villain. You can use a lot of the things he does in TDK and weave them into your adventures in D&D.

Suppose you have a mad wizard laying waste everywhere he goes. Nobody knows why he’s doing this. Guess what happens if the PC’s try to talk him out of it! (Hint: it ends in “ireball”.) Or worse, their conversation points out to the arcane psycho another abomination that needs to be…. corrected. At the root. In the PC’s hometown.

Or, how about a fallen villain from earlier in your campaign who wants nothing more than to see the heroic party shamed before all who hold them up as a shining example to their people? This villain could set up a trap with a seeming no-win situation in which the PC’s would have to look bad one way or the other. Or he could just plain try to tempt or goad them into doing something morally questionable and let the stone continue to roll down the hill of evil.

I could go on quite a bit more, but you get the idea. The Joker is, in my mind, the epitome of a Proper Villain. Use characters like him as a resource, and your own characters will get a lot more colorful and believable. And if any of your PC’s hunt you down because your villain was just too damn evil to stop, then I apologize in advance for giving you just a little push in the right (wrong?) direction.

3 Responses leave one →
  1. Louis Porter Jr. permalink
    July 22, 2008

    Personally, I feel the Joker is best used as a “One-a-Year” type of villain. He really ramps up any type of danger and fear that he causes. That is the kind of thing you don’t want your PCs getting use to on a regular basis.

  2. Ravyn permalink
    July 22, 2008

    Nifty. I’ll admit, I haven’t seen the movie yet–not that it matters for advance warning here, as one of the reviews I read spoiled it far more than you have–but I can definitely see how a character like this might work. Another fun Joker-element to add would be something that’s been one of his staples since before the movie: conflicting backstories. The group comes close to catching him, and he gives them a sob-story that almost justifies the mess that he is, perhaps enough that they themselves, upon winning, even choose to try to rehabilitate him. But whatever happens next, at some point they hear from him again, or about him, and attached to the story is a different set of “reasons” why he is what he is. Is the first set true? The second? Or is he just making all of these tales up because it amuses him? Even you don’t have to know for sure.

    LPJr: Agreed. If nothing else, because eventually they are going to win, and if you’re establishing that kind of villain as the norm, how the heck are you going to keep creating antagonists that top that?

  3. Francois B permalink
    July 23, 2008

    Another Joker-like would be Padan Fain in the Wheel of Time books. I really like how, being twisted by the evil, he resents what the evil as done to him as towards his mission, find Rand Al’Thor.

    Some text from the wikipedia on Padan Fain :
    The hatred of the Shadow felt by Mordeth combined corrosively with Fain’s resentment of the changes forced upon him. After this merger, his compulsion to hunt Rand, Mat and Perrin grew even stronger, aided by the fact that he could already sense where they were. He blamed the boys, on some level, for causing what had happened to him. Following them along the Ways from Caemlyn to Fal Dara in Shienar, he was able to remove his ties to the Dark One and claimed to be a changed man; in fact, any changes wrought made him more dangerous and evil than ever (Myrddraal can make men sweat, but Fain makes Myrddraal sweat).

    That makes him totally dangerous and wants to see the whole world burn for what happened to him and what he had to endure since becoming a Darkfriend.

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