Exploring Evil in RPGs

As promised, Vanir over at StupidRanger posted is 1st part of a series on defining Evil in NPC.

His definitions of evil and the motivations that may lead a non-evil being to cross the line are spot on. A lot can be said on Evil and we actually have quite a few gaming books written on this. Chief among those for the D&D crowd:

  • Book of Vile Darkness by Monte Cook. While written for 3.0 (or at the cusp of the 3.0-3.5 change). The fluff in that book is still very usable.
  • The 2 Fiendish Codex (here and here) which are absolutely wonderful from a mechanics crunch perspective.
  • Evil by AEG (Never read it)

So I’m not going to try to steal Vanir’s spotlight and will try to tackle believable evil NPCs from a different perspective. Since my initial post touched on the fine line a DM must walk when playing an Evil NPC (Schoolyard Bullies on one side and Clichéd laughable evil on the other) I want to make this exploration a DM’s challenge.

As my new campaign will revolve around some Fiend’s bid to corrupt and bring a material world to its knees, I want to have believable, intense evil characters that will trouble the PCs, even after they killed the bastards.

Since I returned to D&D with the release of version 3.0, I played a lot of Campaigns where the themes was based on absolute Evils. We played through the whole Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil adventure, we played through an adventure called the Demon God’s Fane (Yeah I’m one of those Monte Cook fanboys). I’ve even started playing one of the key Campaign Paths of the Ptolus book. But only rarely have I have had the feeling of playing truly evil characters. Except two clearly remembered NPCs, most of the bad guys felt more like bullies or worse: Incompetent Insane Cultists (boy am I sick of those).

So now I’ll try to inject all truly evil bad guys, even minor ones,with one or two evil traits: Selfishness, Disdain for other people’s well being, cruelty, big words, etc. I plan on bringing these traits forward in all parts of an encounter. I’ll chronicle this challenge in my future DM chronicles.

I think that to pull it off, I need to stop focusing on how I will roleplay the evil NPC and start focusing on the in-world details and descriptions of the NPC’s actions and consequences of evil acts. Torture Chambers filled with moaning innocents, panicking mothers screaming about their’s children’s whereabouts, The self-satisfied smirk on the BigBad’s lieutenant’s face even after death.

In fact Evil vs Player Character is rarely effective and can be a great source of resentment if abused. But Evil vs the environment seems to me to be easier to deal with. If I can find something outside of the character sheet that the player’s care about, it becomes material for exploitation, deceit and threats. If my players don’t care about anything outside of their character sheets well I might as well go back to basics

Part one of the challenge: Make an inconsequential bad guy feel truly evil to the players even past its death. I have my scene prepared and will spring this on my players this Friday (They know to drop by here for hints on the game, sorry guys, this one is lame).

Looking forward to this.


  1. Stupid Ranger says:

    As a player, I absolutely applaud the Evil vs the Environment angle. It truly is much easier to hate an Evil who will terrorize your family home or the sacred ceremonial grove. Good luck with your Evil development. 🙂

  2. Thanks Ranger!

    Evil vs PCs has never been very successful in my groups. Capture, torture and especially gear theft is universally booed by my group.

    I did however have a Method Actor player once who thrived on these things, so I had him captured, tortured and stolen from, while the rest of the party went out time and again to bail their drama-king buddy.

  3. It’s an interesting objective to have the PCs remember the villains after the villain’s death.

    I find my players mostly remember the harder stuff. There was especially one *very* anonymous mage that kicked the PCs arse because he was well prepared and they were ecstatic when they found him and exacted revenge. He didn’t have much to do in the grand scheme of things, but he was memorable nonetheless.

  4. There are at least three things going on here, and they frequently get confused:

    1) Evil
    2) Menacing
    3) We HATE this guy

    They can appear alone or in any combination.

    Menacing is the easy one. Just pile on the raw power. In D&D, it’s simple math: if CR > average party level +2, it’s a serious threat.

    But that’s not the same as being scary, right? A bunch of 1st level characters may recognize a CR 3 ogre as a potential-TPKing BBG, but they’re not likely to respond to it as Evil.

    We Hate This Guy needs a bit more work. This is the NPC who’s messed up the PCs or those they care about. Can also be evil or menacing. But not necessarily; the gnome rogue/illusionist who keeps ripping them off is HTG, but not all that Evil.

    Evil is hard. Evil is horror. Evil is mostly chrome, and it’s all about creeping out your players. Since all players differ, you have to sit and think about this.

    Here’s one example that worked IMC (YMMV). A recurring NPC was a rogue who was a henchman of the BBE wizard. The rogue wasn’t a serious threat — he was about the same level as the party. But he was both Evil and WHTG; he was the BBEG’s torturer, and a clinical sadist.

    I played this straight — no camp, no giggling. Let the PCs see one of the rogue’s victims. Let them meet the guy, and described how his cold, fishlike eyes seemed to linger on them. How, at the prospect of interrogating a captive, “he doesn’t say anything, but — roll a Spot check? — well, he starts breathing a little heavily, and you see sudden beads of sweat appear on his forehead.”

    At one point the party was briefly forced to ally with some of BBEG’s minions. While travelling, I had the PCs come across sad little masses of fur and feathers — small woodland animals the rogue had caught and tortured.

    I tried to walk a balance between showing and showing too much (which is just a gross-out). And I guess it worked, because the PCs came to really loathe and fear this character. At one point two of them were captured by the BBEG’s minions, and were sort of blase about it — metagame thinking, we’ll escape and get our stuff back. And then I said, “the door opens and [the rogue] walks in. When he sees you two he goes perfectly still.”

    The shout of “Ohhhh SHIT!!” that went up was, I can’t deny, satisfying.

    Doug M.

  5. Thanks for posting Doug. I appreciate the work you put in that. You make a series of good point. I have been known to lump a few of these things together and label them Evil, especially We Hate that Guy + Evil Chrome.

    And that Rogue sounded nasty. I hated him just by reading about him!

    I’ll ponder on this and will probably do a few mini-posts on your bullet points this week.