Biblyon the Great

This zine is dedicated to articles about the fantasy role-playing game Gods & Monsters, and other random musings.

Gods & Monsters Fantasy Role-Playing

Beyond here lie dragons

Spotlight on: Evil

Jerry Stratton, July 1, 2006

See No Evil

Photo courtesy David Monniaux via Wikimedia

Last week at an Asian restaurant, my fortune cookie contained this advice:

For a good cause, wrongdoing may be virtuous.

Depending on what it means by “wrongdoing” this is a perfect example of an evil mindset. The end—a good cause—justifies the means—an otherwise wrong act. And by “justifies” the evil actor doesn’t merely mean “makes necessary” but “makes virtuous”. A good cause can turn an evil act into a good act.

That is the kind of justification that gives the word “justification” such a seedy ring. Circumstances might make an evil act pragmatic; they may make the evil act the easiest solution; they may even make the evil act necessary. But circumstances cannot turn an evil act into a virtuous act.

The more evil an act is, the more human nature requires us to “justify” it as not just necessary but virtuous. That is the way of corruption. It is how evil gains converts.

As a person justifies more and more often, they will exert themselves less often towards avoiding the situations which make evil “necessary”. Evil is easy. It lets us avoid decisions when both the right and wrong solutions will be effective, until the only practical solution is the evil one.

Stealing medicine

The classic example of the “good” evil act is stealing medicine to help a sick person. And, indeed, characters may find themselves in a situation where harming one person or group is the easiest, or only, means to avoid harm to another person or group. But if stealing medicine for profit would not be a virtuous act, then neither is stealing it to save a life.

It may be necessary. It is not virtuous.

The evil character will either try to justify it as virtuous, or define virtue away.

For those who enjoy this sort of moral dilemma, you might try a variation on this that makes the issues more clear: the characters are enticed into stealing “medicine” for an individual who cannot afford it. In the apothecary’s shop each dose is marked with a number. In the apothecary’s books, each number corresponds to a name. Those names are customers who, if their dose is stolen, will not receive the medicine until supplies are replenished.

The reason that the medicine is expensive is because the supplies are rare. The plants required are seasonal, and won’t be replenished until the next season.

The characters might choose to ignore that dilemma. They may even choose to ignore the book so as to avoid knowing about the dilemma. There are easy choices, and there are difficult choices. The temptation of evil is to wait until only the easy choices remain.

Villains

How does this apply to villains, the non-player characters whose evil requires adventures to end their evil acts?

Remember the following guidelines for evil:

  1. Selfishness and envy
  2. Pragmatism and expediency
  3. Justification and rationalization

The evil character never has enough of whatever their goal is: more money, more power, more whatever. Selfishness is the least form of evil, but it is also where even the greatest evil is likely to trip itself up: always reaching for one more acquisition.

Selfishness does not always manifest itself as wanting to hoard. It can also be envy that others have something the evil character does not have. Envy can be assuaged either by gaining more or by destroying (or redistributing) what others have.

And the evil character doesn’t likely view their actions as evil; they will justify them to some other cause. That other cause may be their own selfishness (wanting power, or money, or love, or sex, or things that other people have) or it may be some cause they’ve built up as a higher cause. It may even be a higher cause.

If the villain is also either ordered or chaotic, that code will affect how they justify and choose their evil. Chaotic and ordered moral codes are both higher causes which evil characters may believe justify their actions.

Evil characters will choose the shortest route to their goals regardless of who else it hurts. They are practical. “You have to break some eggs to make an omelette.” Whether or not an action is right is irrelevant. To the extent that they think about it, the most pragmatic solution is the right solution. “It’s every man for himself in this dog-eat-dog world.”

Expediency is a common form of evil, as it seems very practical. Expediency is typified by the diplomat who continually compromises away good until there is no good left. Who, for example, avoids or postpones a massive war between multiple great powers, by trading the freedom of some other small nation. There’s an element of selfishness in that kind of trade also: let them suffer. Better them than us.

If questioned, there will also be justification: they will suffer less under this solution than they would by going to war. The greater good demands a lesser sacrifice. “Be reasonable.”

For adventurers, going to war can be an adventure, as can taking part in a peace conference. Another possibly interesting adventure, however, would be being members of that country whose freedom is being traded for the wider good. If they oppose the expedient solution—the trading of their own freedom—they will be called selfish by those who need to justify their own evil actions.

Besides justifying their own actions as virtuous, the virtuous can be denigrated. For example, the adventure might be one of freeing an enslaved people. Those whose virtuosity is invested in inaction will attribute evil motives to this good act.

Exemplars of Evil

In Arcane Lore, I wrote that being an exemplar “requires a sense of a moral grand design. Evil isn’t very good at that.” This is because evil tends to lose track of its goal while applying the means. So what can make an evil exemplar?

One possibility for an evil exemplar is the diplomatic politician, exemplified by Senator Palpatine in the second Star Wars trilogy. Palpatine combines a power-hungry selfishness with a devotion to the greater good (order) with himself in control. He corrupts the Jedi by tempting them with expedient, but wrong, means to stop him. Eventually the Jedi are willing to take any action necessary to preserve a Republic that no longer deserves preservation.

An evil exemplar will want to corrupt their good opponents. It isn’t important just to win. Their enemies must also lose. They will do so by creating situations that require evil solutions, and by making the evil solutions readily available. This is what the Sith did by fomenting revolution and then providing the Jedi with the means to become generals and end that revolution.

When Qui-Gon Jinn said “I can only protect you, I cannot fight a war for you,” he was not just making a tactical decision but was paraphrasing a principle of the Jedi. Yet, by the end of the second movie the Jedi had become generals and were waging war. It was the easiest way to achieve their arguably good goal of preserving the Republic.

Munich Agreement

“Peace with honour.”

Ordered or Chaotic exemplars of Evil are probably easier to imagine than exemplars of pure Evil. The higher cause requires that the exemplar gain converts and ensure the long-term success of their actions.

Good Evil villains

A moderately more subtle evil—and one that is not likely an exemplar—is that of the Steward of Gondor in The Lord of the Rings. From a practical perspective, his desire for the weapons of the enemy were very reasonable. But they were grounded in a selfishness that said his needs were more important than the needs of others, and that said his group’s needs were more important than the needs of other groups.

To create a really good Evil villain (exemplar or not), first identify their goal. It may be a long-term goal, such as public order or personal freedom. Or it may be a short-term goal, such as avoiding a bloody war.

Second, identify the direction of their selfishness. Is it personal? Or both personal and group-oriented? Do they, that is, hold their own group, race, or nation up as the most deserving and the most virtuous? Do they want to gain more, or to destroy what others have gained? Is there a group that can be easily targeted for persecution? Will it be a purge or a war?

Third, identify conflicts that will have both expedient (but evil) and difficult (but good) solutions. And identify conflicts that will have only expedient solutions. These are where adventures are most likely to occur.

Finally, identify the means by which evil is made virtuous: how will those who wish to follow the route of expediency justify their actions? How will they make their opponents seem selfish?

If the evil villain is an exemplar or if you want the evil to be one that spreads across a culture, identify how (and why) they spread their evil and how (and why) they gain converts to their greater cause. How will evil corrupt good? What temptations will they create?

Some common goals can include very good goals. The difference will be the means used to achieve these goals:

  • Public order: there is too much violence and lawlessness in the city or nation.
  • Peace: war is imminent and must be avoided, or war is necessary to correct some evil; compromise is required to avoid that war.
  • Personal freedom: order and hierarchy are exercised arbitrarily and must be destroyed.
  • Public good: some danger to public health or safety needs to be alleviated, or some benefit should be provided to the public.
  • Justification of past evils: the desire to appear good may cause an evil person or group to take more and more extreme positions to show that they truly believe their past actions were good.
  • Perpetuation of past solutions: characters of average to low wisdom may lose sight of their original goals and seek to perpetuate the failed means of achieving those goals.

Really good evil goals aren’t usually evil in and of themselves. Almost any good end can be corrupted by evil through evil means.

Are too many people dying from alcoholism? Consider a movement to end this problem. First, the movement tries to convince people to avoid excess alcohol. They soon pass from calls for moderation to calls for avoiding alcohol entirely. They attempt to assist alcoholics in conquering their addiction. But that doesn’t help everyone, because everyone doesn’t want their help. They are tempted to a more pragmatic solution: ban alcohol entirely. Make it against the law. It’s not a bad decision because no one will choose alcohol when it means going to jail.

But people continue to choose alcohol even in the face of legal sanction. Criminals begin selling alcohol in greater and greater quantities. Deaths due to illegal alcohol consumption rise. The movement progresses from banning alcoholic drinks to banning high-sugar foods that can be used to make alcoholic drinks, and later to banning implements that can be used to grow foods that can be used to make alcoholic drinks.

But the recipients of their good works remain ungrateful, and continually evade their prohibitions. Eventually, the movement calls for the death penalty for anyone who uses alcohol or who buys black market sugary foods.

This cycle illustrates one of the most dramatic examples of the corruptive effects of evil on good causes: once a person starts compromising their principles in service to a greater good, they may end up causing—and even supporting—the very thing they originally started out trying to stop.

Because they have been justifying their actions as not just a means to an end but as virtuous means to an end, they can’t turn back. Doing so would require acknowledging that they have not been virtuous.

Public policy-makers seem especially susceptible to this. Their original goal no longer matters. The means they’ve enacted to reach those goals become ends in themselves.

Some common means of achieving goals:

  • Establishment of one group over others.
  • Persecution of one group so as to glorify another.
  • Destruction of an imaginary group, where any enemy or object of envy can be accused of being a member of that group.
  • War or purges.
  • Revenge upon some convenient person or group.
  • Land or resource acquisition.

Many of those can be combined: revenge on a group can lead to war or to purges, for example.

Adventures

It is the means by which evil attempts to achieve its goals that creates an adventure.

In our world, such evil can manifest itself in war, in avoiding war, in ethnic cleansing, in draconian laws, and in persecutions.

Rulers can war to gain land or to control natural resources. “We deserve this benefit” and “they do not deserve it” or “they are selfish for withholding it from the world.”

In a fantasy world there is also magic and divinity. Magic items and magical knowledge can provide power or otherwise advance a goal. Divine favor can be a goal in itself or a means to achieving a goal.

An adventure can involve the player characters trying to stop these means through war and/or intrigue, and perhaps trying to determine the ultimate goal their opponent has in mind. Adventures can be the player characters trying to protect themselves or someone else from the greater things happening around them. Adventures can be the player characters realizing that their own actions are wrong, and working to right the wrongs that they have done or atone for some unwitting assistance they’ve lent to evil.

Usually, adventures will involve the first two. Even an adventure that starts with self-realization will likely end with stopping or alleviating an evil.

What’s important for the Adventure Guide to know is what the goals of the evil are, how they will try to achieve those goals, and why they will use those methods.

Persecution of Witches

Example

Resorting again to Clinton R. Nixon’s Cheap and Cheesy Adventure Generator, let’s see what kind of evil we can create. Perhaps one that isn’t (yet) earth-shattering, but rather the stuff of one or two adventures.

The first roll didn’t give me anything I wanted, to I took the expedient route of reloading the page.

  • Locations: A high, wind-scoured crag, strewn with rubble. (Wilderness)
  • Events: A great convocation of mages, with many orders attending. (Magical)
  • Locations: A clearing of mossy boulders by a forest brook. (Wilderness)
  • Characters: An ambitious farmer, hungry for gossip or silver. (Countryside)

Hm… That looks pretty interesting. A convocation of mages, perhaps either in a clearing or a high crag. A selfish local who will assist them or who thinks to use them for his own ends. It should be easy enough to create some evil mages for this adventure.

Here’s the setup: the rubble on that high, wind-scoured crag is the ruins of an old mage’s tower, perhaps built on a place of power. The temple was found recently by a farmer, who sold the knowledge to as many mages as he could send copies of the strange runes on the broken rock to.

Obviously there are a lot more details that need to be filled out, such as what they’re going to actually find in the ruins. The mossy clearing I’ll save for either some ritual involving what the mages find, or some danger involving a neighboring farmer.

One or more of the players might be mages who have heard the gossip of the new find, or apprentices to a mage that has purchased the location from the farmer.

Goal

The farmer is always gossiping about his neighbors, and looking for more dirt about them. He feels that they’ve cheated him out of better land. They have richer lands than he, and they do not deserve it. His goal is to get more for himself, and to reduce what his neighbors have.

Each mage is likely to have different goals. Some will want to gain knowledge for its own sake. Some will want to gain knowledge so as to pursue other personal goals. And some will want to deny knowledge to those they feel don’t deserve it or who will use it wrongly. Some will want to right wrongs or end injustices.

Not all of them will be evil. I’ll make two of the evil ones up for purposes of this example.

Leonidas Stavros is affiliated with an ancient, dying schismatic order of warrior priests. The order was originally created to reduce the suffering following a great disaster. They call themselves the Stigmas di Cristo, and originally worked to accept the suffering of others and alleviate their pain. Leonidas wishes to restore his fading order to their former glory. His outlook has been corrupted by contact with the Night Priests and the demonic servants of Laten, the Horse of Hunger whom the Night Priests serve. Any price is worth paying to gain his goal, as long as he doesn’t have to pay it.

Emeus is a gypsy, and resents the treatment that gypsies receive throughout the world. He wishes to raise them up and to make the world fear their power.

Selfishness

If it comes into his power to do so, the farmer would rather see his neighbors’ farms go barren than his own become richer. The farmer is a sinister figure, but he is also an element of comedy in this adventure. When he realized that so many mages would be arriving, he drove the animals from his barn and turned it into a makeshift hotel for which he charges a shilling a day and serves poor meals nightly. He gossips with the mages and hints that they should curse his neighbors’ fields.

Leonidas is jealous of the power and reach of the church hierarchy. If he can reduce their power, he will do so. Mostly, however, he wants more resources for himself to bring to the Stigmas di Cristo.

Emeus would bring himself to rule over some nation or all nations, and apportion his power to the downtrodden gypsies.

Conflicts

Obviously, it will be better off for the world in general if some mages don’t receive any special knowledge from the ruins. This is most likely the route the adventure will take: the player characters will either need to find the information first, keep others from finding it, or deal with the consequences when the wrong mage or mages find it.

Because the farmer really is skilled at gossip, he may well know some information that the player characters want. They’ll need to provide their own gossip, or otherwise pay his price, to receive that information.

Leonidas is likely to find himself in the position of harming those who already suffer in order to gain his desires, especially if he chooses to bargain with the farmer.

Emeus will, if he gains any notoriety, be completely opposed by any gypsies whose paths he crosses, as they will submit to no yoke, not even one of their own.

Justification

The farmer will argue that he doesn’t get what he deserves, and everyone else gets more than they deserve. Any harm that befalls his neighbors is the world becoming fair again, at least for a little while.

Leonidas will argue that for all suffering to end tomorrow, some must suffer today.

Emeus will argue that any gypsy who opposes him is not a true gypsy. They’re a traitor, and thus there is no conflict between his goals and his actions towards them.

As the game progresses, more rationalization will be necessary for these and other characters.

A Brotherhood of Evil?

In most games there will be no “brotherhood of evil”. While Gods & Monsters uses “evil” as the term for one of the moral codes, this is because for the most part no player character will be evil and it otherwise describes that moral code well.

Evil characters may well work together, simply because they have similar outlooks. Those non-player characters who are evil will not, however, consider themselves evil. Even in a world where moral codes are the overriding supernatural powers of the world, evil will not call itself evil.

The classic definition of the psychopath closely resembles the game’s evil: self-centered and manipulative, with a feeling of extreme entitlement. Evil encounters will subscribe to a world-view in which evil actions are pragmatic and normal. If they have low charisma, they might not even understand that other people don’t think this way. Everyone’s the same; it’s stupid to take sides.

Sometimes, the main difference between evil and good will be the means by which evil attempts to reach its goals. Other times, the goals themselves will also be clearly evil. But evil will have goals, and will believe that their goals are both right and virtuous.

“Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies, The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”—C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock

  1. <- Silver Sails
  2. Die Chi ->