Thursday, July 16, 2009

Evil is Petty

Following on from good men doing evil for the greater good, I'm moving towards one of my favorite, touchiest topics in terms of good and evil.

One of the commonest mainstay fantasy fiction (and sci-fi fiction for that matter)is the Evil Overlord. So common, in fact, that he has his own list that's moderately famous around the internet. Typically, the control vast armies of evil (draconians, orcs/goblins, insert evil monster of the week here) and are hell bent on conquering the world and molding it in their own image, but spend a great deal of time brooding in their tent or castle like Achiles until the heroes of the story (in our case, the PC's) are ready for the confrontation. It's a concept that's at once familiar and comforting to our inbred sensibilities, that a face can be put on evil, that there's an apparatus it has built up around it. The ability to name and identify the evil and, more specifically, to identify it as "that one over there" is empowering for most people, not only because it builds up the image of a confrontable font of darkness, but it's pseudo-exoneration of those who would oppose it, even if only in principle.

The industrial sized, world threatening, archetypal evil lord is such a common image and device that I'm sure everybody here could name at least half a dozen of them, even excluding Morgoth/Melkor, Sauron, and Hitler (as a literary device, really, and not neccessarily the real life figure).

At a game level, the concept is tremendously convenient since it allows us to build everything around a single, larger conflict. Dark Lord McScarypants is threatening Utopiaville and all kingdoms of sweetness and light in a bid to conquer the world and oppress the innocent and kick little puppies on the street. It's up to the heroes to stop him! Everything else just writes itself into that framework and there's really nothing wrong with it.

When we try to break out of the stereotypical molds of games, we tend to do away with the conspicuous Dark Lords and replace them with "the Big Bad Evil Guy" or BBEG as he's commonly referred to on the mind numbing gaming forums. This guy is a bit like a demoted evil overlord. He gives us the convenience of an identifiable source of evil, or at least of the identifiable troubles, but he's somehow less hokey than the overpowering overlord ruling from his thrown of skulls and clotted blood in the land of shadows somewhere over that direction, but could you maybe look into this strange influx of goblins we seem to be having before you run off and take care of that? More conveniently, with the redefinition of "campaign" as a 1 year start to finish story by the newer editions of D&D, it's something that gives a strong focus to the game. The players are there to investigate the machinations and doings of some evil being who is causing troubles locally or globally or whatever. Over a 1 year time period, sandbox play really isn't that great and, it seems, that D20 type D&D requires a stronger focal point than simply wandering around and looking for adventure. The big bad(s) are a narrative tool, just on a slightly less cosmic scale.

As comforting and convenient as that all is, it ignores some specific and overt realities: and how I do love reality for inspiration. The issue is that evil is petty. Evil is, for the most part, small, relatively contained, and self-interested. World spanning and archetypal evils like that are relatively rare. Far more common are small things, like wife beating, child abuse, murder of local political opponents, and so on. Open up the news today, and you'll find an example of just what I mean. For the record, I find that particular news item extraordinarily unpleasant and the punishment leveled against the girl far insufficient.

For every Morgoth, there are ten Sharky's. For every Hitler inaugurating genocidal campaigns against hated ethnicities, there are a thousand Cheyenne Cherry's throwing kittens into hot ovens just to hear the cries of pain and fear it makes before dying. And more often than not, these evils are motivated almost entirely by self-interest and not some Moorcockian esoteric concepts of law and chaos, good vs. evil. The evil priest lurking at the outskirts of civilization sacrificing innocents in the hopes that his dark master will grant him immortality in the form of undeath as a lich or vampire or specter. A man who rapes and murders a woman who, in town council, blocked one of his pet projects.* A woman who bathes in the blood of her handmaidens in order to preserve her youth and beauty. These kinds of people are memorable simply because they are realistic and believable and because their crimes are far more personal than any plotting and scheming dark lord.

Why am I talking about this? Simply because, hand in hand with "all politics are local" goes "most evil is petty, small, and local." While there might be vast, brooding evil intelligences out in the game world, plotting the overthrow of order, the downfall of light, or whatever, far more effective game villains are of the smaller sort. These kinds of opponents tend to stick in players' minds when they are encountered and, as I said within the Bernardo Gui post, force the players themselves to confront something that is challenging or difficult for them.

*I'm very clear here that such topics are not always suitable for all games, nor am I encouraging those who don't want to deal with such unsavory topics to every include them in their games, nor should such topics EVER be treated lightly.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting topic. I once long ago (5 years!)posted a review of an item in the long-gone Companions series, a review of their generic FRP adventure Plague of Terror ( that I think showcases this concept. Most of the excellent Companions items perfectly illustrate this "banality of evil" concept; the main villains in the stories are rarely very powerful or overtly disgusting; few are even readily identified as bad guys (until you realize what is going on behind the scenes). Rice and Wheeler excelled in this sort of background that was far ahead of it's time in the realm of roleplaying baddies. The bad guys of their adventures are typically local, small time operators trying to take over a town or village by slowly insinuating themselves into every aspect of the local atmosphere, using whatever means necessary(secret murder and charming are the two most used) and they are the kind of guys you could imagine having a beer with in the local tavern, if you were'nt so worried about them slipping a dram of poison in your drink while you weren't looking...

    The aforementioned Plague of Terror, along with The Curse on Hareth, Streets of Gems and Gems for Death(the last two which periphially deal with the delicate subject of child sacrifice) all have great examples of the kind of game villain you describe.

    As for the girl in the story, I'm surprised she got a year in prison (although she'll probably not serve any time or very little). I'm usually not interested in politics of the uber animal lovers but in this case I do hope they manage to make her life a living hell...