D&D Ideas — Evil
Welcome once again to the weekly newsletter. This week’s topic is evil, which we discussed in our live chat. We hangout every Monday evening at 8 p.m. EST and talk about D&D, RPGs, gaming, life and whatever nerdy stuff comes up. Speaking of evil, Friend in Need is one of the most evil encounters in Out of the Box! Say what you will about Abyssal demons or ancient curses, a mimic outhouse is downright heinous am I right? This and 54 other dynamic encounters ready to drop right into your game come straight Out of the Box here. You can get the Nerdarchy Newsletter delivered to your inbox each week, along with updates and info on how to game with Nerdarchy, by signing up here. Our new channel Nerdarchy Live experienced second strong week. Jacob Budz from XP to Level 3 stopped by along with five other Live Chat Revivified guests and we started a live play D&D campaign! Those Bastards brings our private team game to the internet. Learn more about Nerdarchy Live and how to make sure you don’t miss a thing right here.
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Delving Dave’s Dungeon
Evil in Dungeons & Dragons can invoke different thoughts and emotions. For some it will make you think of the alignment system, others a cosmic force in the universe opposing all that is good. To me evil is better for stories when it isn’t looked upon as an absolute. My favorite villains are the ones who believe themselves to be righteous. One of my favorite examples of this is Magneto from the X-Men.
Or those who have a tragic backstory invoking sympathy for the villain. Mr. Freeze from the Batman comics is a great example of this. He’s just trying to fund research to cure his sick wife. You still want your players to want and need to stop the bad guy, but at the same time if you can make them feel something while they do it even better. D&D is so much better when you can create these moral quandaries for your players.
For example, a slaver calls upon the party for aid because his slaves have been stolen. They haven’t committed any crime, because slaving is legal in this kingdom. That doesn’t make it moral or good.
Another example, the thief who gets caught stealing a loaf of bread to feed their family. While this act is criminal it isn’t motivated by greed or malice. Perhaps the only skill they had was rat catching in the sewers of the city. Now the city has employed gelatinous cubes in the sewers putting all the rat catchers out of work.
Let’s come up with some traits to add to your villains to make them more interesting.
- Victims. (race, people, or species) They are fighting for their rights or survival.
- Example: Fey spirits keep attacking loggers outside of town. Cutting down the trees is killing them. The lumber is needed to build walls to protect the town under constant threat of attack by neighboring gnolls. The loggers will lose their livelihood and the town will be in danger without the lumber.
- For Love. They do bad things in the name of love. They seek to save someone they care about by any means.
- Example: A spouse or child is wasting away from a magical disease. Only the blood of a type magical creature can stave off this disease. Perhaps the loved one doesn’t even know what is involved with their treatment. The process ultimately kills the creature and is only a temporary fix. This villain has to keep capturing these creatures and bleeding them to death to keep their loved one alive.
- No Choice. This antagonist doesn’t choose this, it’s been chosen for them. They literally have no choice.
- Example: A paladin afflicted with curse that forces them to follow the commands of a dark master. When given autonomy they always seek to do the least amount of harm or evil, but ultimately they can’t break the hold of this curse. They may plead with the player’s character to end their suffering openly weeping as they commit atrocities. Perhaps even death can’t offer solace as they don’t stay dead.
These are just a few of many twists to add to evil creatures to make them more interesting. It’s more fun when players need to solve problems and not just stab or fireball their way to a solution.
From Ted’s Head
There are many types of evil in the world. Or I should say in the gaming world. It is easy for Game Masters to say the Big Bad Evil Creature is just evil and leave it there. But we really should be looking at the motivating factors of said BBEC and how they’ll change how they handle a situation.
Are they a maniac, or wired wrong? Did they suffer at the hands of another and now react to the only thing they know? Is the BBEC simply misguided in their viewpoint? I was watching She-Ra last night and when you look at Hordak Prime seeking purification of all things through destruction, I thought this is a good villain archetype to play against as you could easily have a conversation with him, even if you would never be able to persuade him of your viewpoint.
When you are designing your BBEC make sure they are not being evil for evil’s sake, but have a reason to be evil or maybe just a different type of evil.
When we look at evil from the players’ side of things we have to tread carefully. Fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons seems designed for heroes but this does not mean you need to avoid evil as a player character. It just means you need to play, again, a different kind of evil. If you decide to play a warrior who just likes causing trouble and killing people, eventually something is going to find and want to kill you. It could be the monster you pick a fight with, it could be a mob of angry villagers or it could be the town watch come out in full force to bring you in using tower shields and war lances.
What kind of evil is okay to use as a player? If you ask some DMs, the answer is none. Others I have seen alignment not come up at all as we discuss what type of characters we are going to play. The selfish or money hungry archetype gets seen pretty regularly in games but if you ask me, if you want to play an evil character the best type of evil to play is the smart evil. You have your objectives and you have patience to wait for the right time so you are going to go along with the plan of the party, happily helping with quests and goals until whatever subtle thing you want done gets done. If you desire you can leak clues about how your character reacts to the violence or maybe enjoys the way the kobold writhes in pain from the fireball you just loosed but you do not need to get too dark.
Violence for violence sake is not all that great for characters after all as adventurers there will be plenty of room for violence when you are killing monsters and taking their stuff. But talk to your DM and see if they allow evil and how you can work within the rules they set up. Plan a story arc and be willing to lose the character if you are found out or once the arc is over and you need to flee. Not all characters need to live to see the end of a campaign. Dying is part of the risk and fun.
Use use evil wisely in your RPGs and have fun doing it!
From the Nerditor’s desk
Nerdarchists Dave and Ted covered the concept of evil in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons from perspectives of Dungeon Master and players respectively. They both offer nuance for the idea of evil in your 5E D&D games and how to incorporate this aspect without being evil for evil’s sake whether from an antagonist or the adventuring characters themselves.
Thinking of evil and presenting it these ways in our games certainly contributes to storytelling but if I’m honest evil villains and antagonists sometimes feel like a guilty pleasure for me.
Don’t get me wrong. I love exploring gray areas in campaign development. Misunderstandings, greater threats making strange allies and subtle evils make for fantastic story elements but you know, there’s plenty of times I find it thoroughly refreshing when there’s not more going on than meets the eye.
Both as a player and DM more often than not I prefer situation be more cut and dry. This is likely why I lean towards terrible monsters and reprehensible cultists so often in my own games. Players in my games come to really despise their enemies. There’s no misunderstanding to the Devourer cultists mind controlling innocent villagers and making sacrifices to their evil god for example. When the party confronts undead or demonic minions and the masters they serve, I can’t recall a single time anyone wished to try and make friends or talk them out of their wicked ways.
Balance is the key to presenting evil in a campaign. Not every foe the party faces needs to be repugnantly evil but for my 2 cp I prefer the majority this way. The longest campaign I’ve ever run is a 5E D&D Spelljammer game and the players’ most memorable foes were straight up evil. Explictica Defilus the self-styled reptile god, mi-go wiping out entire dwarven populations and turning them into elemental goo for grander schemes, star spawn seeking to send all existence into oblivion — no one wanted to befriend any of them!
All this being said, perhaps the most evil villain in the whole campaign was a commoner. On their way back from an adventure the players asked if there’s anything like resort planets in the crystal sphereverse and they stopped at one such vacation asteroid for some R&R.
But like adventurers do they asked around about any action. They met a miner, one of a few who worked the opposite side of the asteroid. The miner explained how a new mining company of duergar recently started operations and how they were terrible people, up to no good and ruining business for everyone else.
The party went to the duergar mine to check it out, sneaking into their territory and assaulting guards there. They fought their way into the mines and eventually came across someone they never expected — a one time duergar ally from one of their earliest adventures.
This duergar explained how they held legitimate rights to mine there and in fact were allied with another unusual NPC the party liked, an illithid. The asteroid contained a rare mineral useful to combat the threat from the Void (the main campaign plot).
The characters felt terrible for being so easily duped! This scenario became a major turning point for the whole campaign, and our group in general since the players realized maybe they shouldn’t take everything they hear at face value.
To me, this is one of the best kinds of evil because it’s no innocuous in context. The fantasy worlds of 5E D&D are filled with evil on a wide spectrum, from misunderstood villains to player characters pursuing an evil goal. But in this case the most reprehensible creature was not a demon from the Abyss but simply a greedy, awful commoner who told the party a lie for their own gain.