George Lucas is a friggin genius. It’s really a damn shame he can’t write dialogue to save his left testicle.
There, I said it. Moving on.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about villains lately, and when I do, my mind is forever drawn back to the iconic movie series for my generation: Star Wars. If you’re not familiar with the names and tropes I’m about to throw around… well, you’re likely reading the wrong blog. Lucas has done an amazing job of distilling (some would say blatantly stealing, but I’m a Shakespeare fan too, and he did the same damn thing) classic stories, themes and topics into a story that was relevant and accessible for his audience. His villains are no exception to this. He produces a series of interesting, intelligent, capable villains who do a great job of opposing the protagonists. Especially if you read some of the associated fiction, these villains are fleshed out remarkably well with motives and characters of their own instead of just being punching bags for the heroes to beat up on (Darth Maul, I’m looking at you).
But here’s the thing: all of these villains are great on their own, but that’s not where they shine the best. Each villain in the series is a piece of the greater epic puzzle, a cog in the great machine of evil that has truly universe-spanning ramifications if you think about it even a little. Each villain is both completely integral and utterly expendable at the same time. If you look at the series on a macro scale and really draw out the webs of power and influence, its really cool to see what pans out, and most especially it’s cool to see how Lucas reveals that to us.
Here’s my hypothesis: all of the villains in the Star Wars series are at their best when they are considered to be a piece of the same, epic villain. And that villain isn’t who you think it is, either. It’s not Palpatine/Sidious/Emperor sitting in his rotating throne (one of the coolest “entrances” in film history in my opinion) plotting and scheming. The true villain in the Star Wars series is, in fact, the Dark Side of the Force itself, pulling strings from the very opening scenes of the first prequel until the ending of Return of the Jedi.
If you personify the Dark Side even a little (which Lucas himself does by bringing in the Will of the Force and the Prophecy angle–if the Light Side has a Will, surely the Dark Side must as well), you can see how there’s a force–pardon the pun– at work even greater than the physical characters we see on screen, spouting sadly over-melodramatic lines in scenes that should be emotionally shattering. The Dark Side is the master motivator behind all of the villains in Star Wars in some way, shape or form; whether they are directly serving the Dark Side through a Dark Jedi or a Sith Lord or manipulated by one of them through layers and layers of lackeys and minions, everybody (with the possible exception of Jabba) is dancing on the strings of the Dark Side of the Force.
Let me elaborate a little bit, and then I’ll get into the practical application part. By now, you should know I really like that bit.
Like I said above, the villains of Star Wars are at their best when they are considered as a part of the whole story; each has their own motivations and personalities, but in the end they are all working for the same thing— the Dark Side of the Force triumphing over the Light Side. When considered in this manner, I think it could be beneficial to think of these villains as part of the same creature, and then work outward form there. Individual entities, yes, but all of them working toward the same goal, knowingly or not. This is how Lucas really ties all of his villains and plots together and makes them all seem so unified. Sure, all the bad guys are different, but in the end they all work for the same goal, just in their own ways. I’m going to call this idea the Onion of Doom theory for shorthand.
On to the practical application. I’m going to break down the components of the Onion of Doom so that you can build your own Onion, much to the detriment of your player characters. As I see it, there are four major components to the Onion of Doom:
The Beast— You might consider this component to be the arms of the Onion of Doom. This guy is represented by Darth Maul, Asajj Ventress, General Grievous, Starkiller and even Darth Vader (trust me–it’ll make sense in a minute) This villain is the most straightforward of the three, being at his essence a combat machine. His job is to crush things, and he’s usually really good at doing this. Often as not, he is in training to step up to the next echelon of villain but hasn’t gotten there yet–he’s still learning. Frequently he has few “lines” and serves mainly as a huge roadblock in the protagonist’s way– very seldom does the Beast hatch plots of his own. He is often the first villain the protagonists encounter and his activities serve as the hooks that lead the protagonists into the deeper web of the plot. TVtropes refers to this villain rather unsurprisingly as The Brute. For the record, I acknowledge that most if not all of these characters command others at various times, adding yet another layer to the Onion of Doom. I’m not talking about specifics here– I’m talking about the way the character is used in terms of plot.
The Schemer– This villain is the eyes and ears of the Onion of Doom. He often serves as the obvious face of whatever plot is going down, or as the face of the A plot while another Schemer is the face of the B plot; likely neither of them are aware that they serve the Chessmaster. Count Dooku is the most obvious example of this villain in the series, but an interesting aside here is Darth Vader. He starts as The Beast at the beginning of his career and as we encounter him in Episode 4; after his “resurrection” by Sidious and for a good long time after he is basically a cyborg thug, tracking down the Jedi who managed to escape Order 66 and serving as The Onion–er, I mean Emperor’s– strong right hand. Then, somewhere between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, Vader steps up and embraces The Schemer role; his “changing the deal” at Cloud City is perfect example of this. Then, according to the Expanded Universe, Vader cements his graduation to the next tier of villainy by doing what every good Schemer does– he chooses and trains his own Beast to fill the slot he vacated. He starts this with Starkiller and when that doesn’t work out the way he wants, he moves on to that zany kid who turns out to be his own son. A key point when observing the Schemer is that he typically only has ONE plot going at a time; though the hero may thwart his plans and plots repeatedly, he remains monogamous to his beloved schemes–only one plan at a time for the Schemer. He has yet to step up to the third tier of villainy. Again TV Tropes to the rescue.
The Chessmaster– Here is the pinnacle of the villainy that Lucas shows us explicitly in the Star Wars series. This is, obviously, Palpatine/Sidious/The Emperor. It’s really amazing to me how brilliant this guy is when you look at the long picture. He has plans within plans, spanning at least three human generations (far longer if you consider the events of Dark Empire). In addition to those nested plans, Sidious also has several backup plans for those plans, contingencies that capitolize on events and bending them in his favor no matter who wins or loses. If the Trade Federation win at Naboo and kill Amidala, he can call for a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Valorum because he couldn’t protect a member of the Senate and control the Federation. If the Federation loses and Amidala survives, she can be manipulated into calling the vote herself. Skipping ahead by several plots, if the Separatists win the war, he can step in as the “real” leader of the movement, likely after Dooku has been used as a figurehead to hunt the Jedi, and declare himself Emperor. If the Seps lose, the powers he has granted himself over the course of the war are easily expanded and he triumphs there, too– both plans have the insurance policy/ace in the hole of Order 66 to make sure his one major hurdle, those pesky Jedi, are taken care of.
Think about Order 66 itself for a moment. Backtrack it. In order to have that plan work, the clones have to be programmed with the subconscious command–which means that Sidious has to own the cloning AND training effort lock, stock and barrel. He has to stay hidden as the hand behind it for long enough for an entire army to be bred and trained. So how does he do it? Manipulates the Senate to approve the Executive Powers necessary and the funds necessary to get the project approved. Next he lets the Senate think he has the power but isn’t going to use it, but secretly gets the Kaminoans involved. Then he manipulates the Jedi to have them send one of their own to get the project off the ground and oversee it to its fruition– he used his worst enemies to build the weapon he would use to overtake the universe and they didn’t know it until the blaster bolts hit them in the freaking back. As far as I am concerned, Darth Sidious is the absolute Poster Boy for Big Bad.
I’m going to leave you at a cliffhanger. The fourth type of villain in the Onion of Doom is so cool, and I can talk about him so long, that I’m going to give him (and his D&D application) his own post. He’s deserves it. He’s that awesome. Literally.
After that, I’m going to put everything together and show you step by step how to build your own Onion of Doom–and some of the plots and plans that can form the basis for an entire campaign!