I faced an interesting problem while preparing the adventure for the first Starship Commandos adventure. This is going to be a riff on Aliens, in which the PCs are tasked with investigating a mining colony that has gone signals-dark.
In the first version of the adventure, the alien menace wasn’t actually that menacing. It was smart, peaceful, and only reacting out of fear. If everyone could just sit down and talk, everything could have been settled. And there were no real stakes. The alien menace had put all the colonists in a form of stasis. Basically, they were prisoners who would be released once everyone figured out that we could all just get along.
It’s nice to know that this is my default position – cautious optimism. Doesn’t make for an exciting game. Can you imagine the movie Aliens once the Colonial Marines realized the colonists were just tied up, and the xenomorphs didn’t really want to hurt anyone?
Yeah. Not so hot.
Now, sympathetic villains certainly have a place in fiction, and I think they have a place in RPGs as well, but only if the PCs will be interacting regularly with said villain. This is generally not the case. Think of Star Wars. The heroes interact with the villains only slightly, and it’s really only Leia. This is not to say Vader and Tarkin are not good villains – they are – but they aren’t terribly interesting as characters. Remove the baggage from later movies and novelizations and they are basically just bad guys doing bad stuff. Now think of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indy and Marion regularly interact with Belloch, and Belloch is an interesting and somewhat sympathetic villain. I don’t know about you, but I kind of like Belloch. He’s Indy if Indy had gone wrong somewhere along the line. He’s Indy if Indy had joined that criminal gang from his childhood (the story of the Hat).
Of course the villains need to have goals, and those goals need to be logical, but bad guys aren’t always just misunderstood. It isn’t always just miscommunications or mistakes. Sometimes, the alien menace really is a menace.
And it wants to eat your face.
You can read more about Starship Commandos here.