If you were a kid in the late 1990s, there’s a good chance you watched the Pokémon anime on Saturday mornings*. The villains of that show were the somewhat dysfunctional Team Rocket, and their shtick was to show up every episode, try to steal someone’s Pokémon, and then get defeated in a manner which would usually send them hurtling off into the stratosphere, Wile E. Coyote style. They stopped being a real threat after the first three episodes or so, and eventually got so ridiculous that they were reduced to making fun of themselves to stay relevant.
I invoke the terrible memories of Team Rocket because they are the most extreme example of something that pervades a lot of other stories: recurring villains who simply lose their potency as time goes on. This can ruin an otherwise great story, because villains provide opposition for protagonists to overcome. If the opposition is lacking, the story becomes unsatisfying.
Some of the worst offenders on TV were the villains from Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Season after season, villains would try to kill Buffy, and they would always fail*. These weren’t just the monsters of the week, either. Each season had its own overarching villain, and they would all fall into the same trap. It quickly became obvious to anyone watching that Buffy was not going to die, because then there wouldn’t be a show – so there was no tension.
Even otherwise great bad guys had this problem. When Spike first showed up, he was such a welcome breath of sarcastically fresh air that the writers actually ditched their original season two villain to keep him around*. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before Spike was just like all the others, trying and failing to kill Buffy episode after episode.
It’s even worse when Team Rocket Syndrome ruins previously fantastic villains, as we got to see on Star Trek: Voyager with the Borg. These all consuming cyborgs had been the dark shadow looming over The Next Generation, but that show had the good sense to use them sparingly. Indeed, Picard and his crew had only one no-holds-barred confrontation with the Borg, in the episode Best of Both Worlds, which is widely considered to be the best episode of Star Trek ever made. The few other Borg appearances always had some kind of mitigating factor. In Q Who, the titular Q ended the conflict before it really got out of hand. I Borg was more about examining what the Borg are than using them as villains. Even in Descent, which at first glance looks like a Borg smackdown episode, the crew are only facing a handful of drones disconnected from the collective.
The Voyager writers looked at all of that and thought it would be a great idea to bring the Borg back as direct antagonists. Over and over again, they failed to destroy Voyager and assimilate its crew. By the third or fourth time this happened, people had become fed up. The Borg had gotten boring, little more than glorified villains of the week.
In Books and Comics
The Dresden Files, by Jim Butcher, is a book series that combines noir detective tropes together with high magic urban fantasy. The main character, Harry Dresden, is a wizard and a detective, with a host of supernatural enemies to trouble him. Some of these villains only ever appear in one book, but others are a constant presence throughout the series, returning time and again to rain misery upon our stalwart hero.
For the most part, Butcher is good about keeping the recurring villains fresh and interesting. They usually have some new trick up their sleeves, or at the very least are spaced far enough apart so as not to become tedious. The glaring exception are the vampires. Because of certain events which I won’t spoil, Dresden comes into conflict with the blood suckers over and over again, and each time he comes out on top. It gets to the point where even the scenes in which Dresden summons the fires of creation to destroy his enemies feel tedious, and that should never be true.
A far more pronounced example of Team Rocket Syndrome is in the graphic novel Bone. The main characters, setting, and art style of Bone are great, but its initial villains become less threatening each time they appear. To a certain extent this is intentional. The two rat creatures who first oppose the main character are more for comedy relief than to provide a threat, but it becomes a real problem in the case of Kingdok. For some time, this monstrous creature served as the story’s primary antagonist, but he only got weaker every time he appeared. Not only would he be soundly defeated, but he would suffer serious injuries that made him even less threatening later. Put simply, this is the opposite of what a good villain should be. If the bad guy’s appearance is greeted with a yawn and a desire to skip ahead several pages, something is wrong.
In Roleplaying Games
The default of most roleplaying games is still to end each story with a big fight, PCs on one side, boss villain on the other. The PCs are usually victorious, because if they weren’t, then they would die and the campaign would be over. When GMs try to insert recurring villains into this formula, it’s perfect recipe for Team Rocket Syndrome. The players can only defeat Arch-Lich Baddude so many times before they lose interest.
Of course, it can happen in less direct stories as well. I once played in a campaign where the villain was a mysterious figure we knew only as ‘the Whisper.’ He never fought us directly, instead sending minions. Each session a new group of hired muscle would show up, and each time we would defeat them without too much trouble. Instead of intriguing us as to the Whisper’s identity, these repetitive victories only served to convince us that he would probably be a pushover in person too. We lost interest, and the game suffered.
This can happen regardless of the GM’s wishes. Roleplaying games are a bit of a different animal than other mediums, in particular because random chance often plays an important role in shaping the story, to say nothing of player free will. Sometimes a villain will just roll poorly over and over again, to the point where the players no longer take them seriously. I ran a game of Burning Empires some time ago, and one of my antagonists simply could not roll well enough to succeed at anything. I kept trying to bring him back, convinced that I could make it work if I had just one more chance. Fortunately, I realized before it was too late that the players had lost all respect for him as a villain. Even if he had started rolling really well, they wouldn’t have taken it seriously. He had become comic relief in their eyes, and nothing I did was going to change that.
How to Avoid It
The simplest method to deal with Team Rocket Syndrome is to allow your villains to succeed sometimes. If they are victorious on occasion, then there is always the chance they might be victorious again, and that will make the story far more interesting to read or watch. To do this, you have to make sure they can have victories that won’t damage the story overall.
As exhibit A, I present The Mayor, main bad guy for season three of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Unlike almost every other villain on the show, his goal was not to kill Buffy or any of her friends. He just wanted to enact a ritual that would turn him into a giant snake demon, and to do that he had to gather a whole list of ingredients. This meant the writers could sometimes let his plans succeed, because doing so wouldn’t make the show less fun to watch. The Mayor came across as a menacing and worthy adversary, even though he was probably the least threatening main villain Buffy ever faced.
Deep Space Nine did something similar with the Dominion War. It would have been all too easy for the Dominion to become like the Borg on Voyager, non-threatening bad guys who shake their fists at the end of every episode and promise they’ll be back next time. Instead, the DS9 writers created a story in which the Dominion gained the upper hand several times, keeping the Federation on the back foot until the very end of the series. This made the Dominion’s eventual defeat all the sweeter, because the characters had to work for it.
Roleplaying games present a slightly more complicated problem, because of the aforementioned die rolls. Unlike with a TV show or book series, GMs don’t always have the ability to create a scenario where the villain walks away victorious. If a bad guy fails too many rolls to be taken seriously, and there’s no way for you to credibly make them more threatening, sometimes the only solution is to retire them and bring out someone new. This requires careful handling, because you don’t want to leave a villain’s story unresolved, but it can usually be done with a bit of effort. I recommend introducing a plot twist where the villain you are retiring was actually the pawn of someone far more powerful. That usually gets the PCs to sit up and take notice.
To say that a good villain is important to the story would be something of an understatement, and good villains must provide a credible threat. They cannot be threatening if they establish a pattern of repeated failure, because we humans are good at pattern recognition. There’s a reason Darth Vader is victorious at the end of Empire Strikes Back, and that reasoning applies to just about any story in which the bad guy plays a major role. Having a villain feature in multiple appearances can be good for a story, but only if you’re careful to keep them from losing their edge.
Need an editor? We’re at your service.