How Team Rocket Villains Ruin Stories

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.

In Television

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.

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  1. Animus83

    Nice. This does get pretty tedious, and it basically reminds me of 80’s Saturday cartoons. Question: have you guys ever examined what I call the Scooby Doo Effect? It’s where a story has a varied cast of protagonists with just as unique motivations that at some point, for no reason, all decide to do the exact same thing? These guys (Velma, Fred and even Shaggy) all at some point get together to lecture “bad guys” about morality. Fred should be trying to bang what’s her face, Velma should be trying to figure out what it means when people smile, and Shaggy should be stoned. JRPGs are the worst for this; they go to great lengths to make sure you know how different everyone is. Then, before you know it, you are all on an airship trying to stop some dude. You can’t get Vincent to join the crew, but once he does, he’s your man ’till the end.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      That comes up in pen and paper roleplaying games a lot too. Everyone makes their own character with unique goals and ideas, then the GM tells them it’s a game about gathering the best dragon eggs for the king’s omelette or something.

    • Chris Winkle

      A lot of stories, tv shows especially, introduce characters with strong personalities and then water them down as they go. Many times it’s because the character they created is difficult to plot with. I see what you’re saying about the groupthink issue, I’ll keep my eye out for that.

  2. Tyson Adams

    Animus83 raises a good point, the 80s cartoons were filled with this trope. How many times were the Decepticons painted as the super bad guys only to be defeated week after week? Or Dr Claw, or Mumm-Ra, or Skelator?

    I think part of the problem is the episodic nature of many TV shows, which gives us either villain of the week or season long near misses, and the inability of writers to kill off characters. The latter point applies to the bad guys as much as the good guys.

    By kill off characters I don’t necessarily mean that characters die, but that they are written out of the series. So permanently incarcerated or stripped of their powers could be an option for one of the bad guys. Without that threat hanging over everyone the story always feels like fluff.

    • Hunter_Wolf

      That’s why (like the example shown above about the Mayor in Buffy) the more interesting villains are the ones whose goals aren’t to kill the main characters or destroy the world, but rather goals the main character/s might consider immoral or wrong that they feel urged to fight the villains over.

      With that you achieve two thing not one, first you can let the villains win from time to time without anyone dying, then you will have the chance to raise the stakes and make some of the villains or heroes kill each other for real near the end of your story.

      Also having one of the main characters severely injured or put in a coma by the villains makes them feel competant and dangerous, and if the injured character won’t be with a permanent disability at the very least they will be out of the picture for few chapters/episodes forcing the other characters to work harder or change tactics to fight the villains (who will look even more competent now), and don’t get me started on the psychological impact on the heroes as after they saw their friend suffer a near lethal injury from the main villain, each will react in a different way (some will be eager for revenge, some will get more timid, ..etc) allowing you to showcase their personalities and growth.

    • Cay Reet

      80s cartoons (and other TV series) often were formulaic. In addition, a lot of them showed no progression for the leads. The characters weren’t supposed to grow in any way (unless the whole series was about it, which rarely happened in cartoons and not all that often in kid’s TV). So at the end of every episode, things were basically reset to default. That changed later, already when Buffy was out.

      Yet, there’s a difference between ‘the hero(es) is (are) so good that they can always foil the villain’s plans’ and ‘the villain is so stupid that the heroes wouldn’t even need to be around.’

      Scooby Doo always had the seemingly supernatural problem, the split up, the chase scene, and the big reveal at the end. You could always rely on the villain to be human, not something supernatural. That was how it worked. That was what you relied on. Only a few of the lesser spin-offs later and a few of the movies had real supernatural creatures. It was actually a comforting moral: whatever it looks like, there’s no ghosts, just humans doing bad things who can be caught.

      And a lot of kid’s series kept a main villain simply for easy recognition. There could be other villains or monsters of the week (Sailor Moon had lots as well, but the series also had definite main villains per season), but there would be one which usually was behind things.

      But by now, that has changed, even on kid’s TV. Which is good.

  3. Adam Reynolds

    Another series that occasionally had this problem was Leverage. Because it was all about competence porn on the part of the heroes, there were several occasions in which the baddie of the week came across looking like an absolute buffoon. Though the series was still smart enough to have antagonists that were just as smart as the heroes, who occasionally manged to get the better of them, like Sterling.

    On the specific issue of RPGs, Fate can handle part of this situation quite nicely. Because of the concession mechanics that are built into the system, it is always possible for heroes to get out alive, if in a state that qualifies as less than ideal. Luke’s fall in The Empire Strikes Back is an example of that idea, he chose to escape in a manner that could have easily led to his death, but he was just barely saved.

    Because of the above, you can always give a baddie stats that are massively superior to what players can dish out in the relevant areas, which somewhat negates the problem of dice rolls.

    For a more creative approach, you could play two different campaigns against the same enemy, using completely different systems such that the threat can be built up in a system that virtually guarantees the heroes will loose(like Dread*) before switching to the set in which players get a great deal of control and thus would emerge victorious. The first game could play out like the prologue. If the heroes of the Dread game happen to actually win, all the better.

    *There are two alternatives to horror that I was considering with this system in the loose sense. The nature of building a Jenga tower could be used in a slightly different context.

    The first idea is for something of a gritty investigative thriller. In this case, the tower would represent the strength of the investigation rather than the potential for characters to die. For a one off story, it could be the case that if the characters knock over the tower, their investigation falls apart and it is left up to a new set of characters to figure it all out, though with the ability to pick up where the first left off. Knocking over the tower intentionally could be something like a character death in the normal sense.

    Or for another related option, it could be the case that the investigation is built up using a more conventional system and the GM makes pulls from the tower as each clue is uncovered.

    It could also work for a gritty war drama, in which each player controlled a handful of characters with different strengths, most of whom are expected to die. Each time the tower is knocked over, a player could decide which of their remaining characters they are willing to lose and which need to survive to achieve the final objective. Unlike standard Dread, it would be about awesome yet extremely risky heroics. Characters would often have to make multiple pulls for feats of the same magnitude. If the player happens to knock over the tower while doing this, their character succeeds, but also dies in a heroic sacrifice.

  4. Alex

    One counter to the Team Rocket Villain problem that I think works especially well in RPGs is having your BigBad run one or more Xanatos Gambits on the party over the course of the campaign — they achieve an apparent victory, only to discover later that they actually advanced the BigBad’s real plan, or at best that the threat they defeated was a distraction that prevented them from interfering while the BigBad was advancing his real plan somewhere else. This will get frustrating if it’s overused, of course, but in moderation it can get the party thoroughly invested in hating the villain and wanting to deal him a genuine defeat.

    Several of the Pathfinder adventure paths do a good job of introducing their BigBads early on, when the PCs are far too weak to threaten them directly, and gradually build up to a climactic confrontation; as the heroes advance in level, they cause more and more problems for the villain’s master plan until he (or she, in the case of the malevolent queens Ileosa Arabasti in Curse of the Crimson Throne and Elvanna of Irrisen in Reign of Winter) decides to deal with them directly. Others have villains who remain hidden in the background, but their activities subtly influence the events the PCs deal with over the course of the AP, and the characters gradually gather clues that point to the existence of an unseen hand guiding the threats they face.

    Also, some major AP villains must be defeated more than once in person — after being slain once, they’re encountered again as more powerful undead, demonic or diabolic versions of themselves. Nothing like a villain who can honestly say, “That which does not kill me makes me stronger, and so does that which does!”

  5. Tumblingxelian/Vazak

    This was a solid analyse and I definitely find myself agreeing with it.

  6. Endor 8

    I don’t disagree with the idea treated in this topic, since it is true that bad villains in heroic stories always ruin the hook of any plot.
    However, I think it is wrong to name this after the Team Rocket, since they cannot even be considered villains in the Pokemon anime. The main plot of the Pokemon anime (other than mere world building in favor for the RPGs series) is Ash meeting new Pokemon, battling other trainers to get Gym badges and eventually win (lose) the Pokemon League.
    Jessie, James and Meowth appear eventually as a comedy trio, only to humor the show with their constant puns and crossdressing disguises. They never represent a main threat that chases Ash in his dreams. I think they could be better defined as anti-villains rather than villains (same as anti-heroes).
    In fact, they have much deeper character designs than any other character in the series, and show many times themselves to be even better Pokemon trainers than Ash (I’ve never seen James capturing a Pokemon without asking them first (or getting him ‘captured’ either way), while Ash is an inexperienced innocent kid who can only think of fighting everything on his way because of no reason, usually risking his own Pokemon). Even more, they were revealed to have been expulsed temporarily from the real Team Rocket without them even being aware.
    They are a parody of a villain, and as such a figure of humor, being their usual motto a mistaken antithesis of the real, evil, Team Rocket’s motto, so I don’t see the point in seeing them as villains.

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