In almost every fantasy setting you have a stark distinction between good and evil, the light side and the dark side or chaos and law. In most cases the PC’s are meant to fight the evil and do good, or to play the heroes that eventually will save the day, one way or another.
Perhaps one of the oldest tropes of fantasy roleplaying is the cliche about the evil overlord. The one who is evil incarnate and even before the narrative starts everyone, both players and characters alike, know and accept this. Sauron, Iuz, Kalak of Tyr, Takhisis and Lloth, all fulfil this role and you could probably name a dozen more. When the narrative opens this or that evil overlord poses a great threat to the balance or order of things, the status-quo. Hence, enter the PC’s who will fight and, of course, eventually defeat the overlord, bringing back balance or order to the land.
This fight between good and evil or order and chaos is in narratives probably just as old as storytelling. You can find this theme in fairy tales, myths and it thrives in modern literature just as well. No wonder this is something that many game masters, when designing their narratives, use and rely on. After all, this is something that resonates deeply with us as humans and we easily suspend our disbelief to enjoy the narrative.
Types of evil
Despite this theme being very popular, you can’t say it’s creative. In fact, it’s rather stale and full of clichés. But please note, I don’t mean that in a bad way, because we as players and readers gladly accept these clichés and we even seek these narratives out. They can, after all, be quite fun. The evil in these narratives usually falls into the same categories of archetypes and sometimes this is so obvious that we as players don’t need that much information about the evil, because we know the archetype. This is by no means a complete list of archetypes, but here are a few.
The Satanic Archetype
In many settings you have an evil overlord that seems to be a sort of a Satanic figure, though clearly they aren’t Satan himself. This archetype is the fallen angel, the one who rebelled against order, the creator or whatever force rules, and seeks to either usurp their power and/or supplant them to oppress and enslave those who revere the creator, the order or the gods of good.
In fantasy roleplaying the Satanic archetype can appear as an evil tyrant, a god of evil or even a ruler of demons. This kind of overlord is often associated with evil races, like orcs, goblins and demons.
Sauron is of course a good example of this. Sauron is a fallen Maia who seeks to enslave the people of Middle-Earth. Right from the start of Tolkien’s novels we as readers know that Sauron is evil. We know it and accept it because all the novels’ characters accept that as truth, after all he tried to enslave the rulers of the good races through the One Ring.
The same goes for the demi-god Iuz of Greyhawk. The simple fact that the Old One is the son of Graz’zt and seeks to enslave and oppress the people of Flanaess is enough information for us, the players. Since he matches so perfectly with the archetype, we really don’t need to know anything else. After all, he is demon, he is evil, he seeks to oppress. What more do we need to know?
These archetypes don’t always need that much of explanation or reasons for their actions. They do evil because they are evil. They seek power for the sake of power. Their motives are pretty straightforward and almost naive in their simplicity, though their plans can be quite extensive and elaborate.
The Gnostic Demiurge Archetype
The Gnostic demiurge archetype presents a distinction between the highest, unknowable God and the demiurgic “creator” of the material. Several systems of Gnostic thought present the Demiurge as antagonistic to the will of the Supreme Being: its act of creation occurs in unconscious semblance of the divine model, and thus is fundamentally flawed, or else is formed with the malevolent intention of entrapping aspects of the divine in material form.
In fantasy settings the Gnostic demiurge archetype is often displayed as some demonic or unholy force that seeks to corrupt, seduce and change the hearts of men. The Gnostic demiurge archetype has a strong streak of existentialism.
The best example of the Gnostic demiurge archetype are the gods of Chaos in Warhammer fantasy. The Chaos Gods are the flaws of humankind personified. They are the inner literal demons of living things, they seek to corrupt sentient races of the world. The gods come back through spells cast by evil and corrupted spellcasters. The ultimate victory of these forces is often hinted at, highlighting a strong assumption that sentient beings are fundamentally flawed and will eventually bring about their own destruction via the forces of Chaos. The sentient races have little hope against these powerful malignant forces.
The dark mirror archetype
In many modern fantasies you no longer have the clear distinction between good and evil, as you have in Lord of the Rings or Narnia novels. Instead you have blurry lines between light and dark, or different shades of grey, like in the Game of Thrones novels by George R. R. Martin. The antagonists in these stories are often a dark reflection of the protagonists. They are human in nature (even though they are not humans) and easy to relate to.
This archetype is not the kind that thinks that they are doing evil. No one is the villain in their own story. These evil persons are driven by the thirst for revenge and have ample and even justifiable reasons for their actions. They face the same choices as the protagonists but choose different paths and act in a more selfish manner. This archetype is often the nemesis of the PC’s, the one person that they love to hate and hate to love.
Probably one of the most iconic D&D nemeses or dark mirror archetypes is Artemis Entreri, the human assassin. He leads a lonely and empty live, devoid of pleasures and companionship. Where Drizzt has friends, Artemis has clients. Still, Artemis is a superb swordsman and a cunning warrior, just as Drizzt is. The drow can therefore see his reflection in Artemis, if only he would’ve made different choices in life.
Reasons to fight evil
The problem with using tried and tested tropes like these archetypes is we often forget making sure that the characters have good reasons to fight evil. For some players fighting evil because it’s evil is good enough, but not for all players. And unfortunately many modules presume that this is the only reason characters need. There are however many ways to introduce reasons to fight evil and make things more personal for the PCs, here are a few.
Fighting for freedom, either your own or for the freedom of others, to be free of oppression, is a rather strong incentive. Also, there are few things that help you feel more like a hero than to free others from imprisonment or slavery.
In Out of the Abyss the PC’s need to find a way to escape a drow prison and later the Underdark. In the old AD&D Dark Sun module Freedom the PC’s fight for their own freedom from slavery and for the freedom of the city-state Tyr from the oppression of the sorcerer-king Kalak. Both modules use this reason quite well.
I think that perhaps one of the most underused theme in published fantasy roleplaying modules is love. And not necessarily romantic love, but the love for your parents or your children. Of course, many players use love in the backstories of their characters, but still, I feel that this theme could be used more, since love is a powerful motivator.
In the Dragonlance Chronicles love is a huge part of the narrative. Tanis’ torn heart, the love between Goldmoon and Riverwind, Tika and Caramon, not to mention Sturm’s quest to learn more and get to know his father, the love between Raistlin and Caramon. All persons, even Raistlin, make choices based on love in the narrative.
Many modules evolve around discoveries of some sort. The discovery is often something that has major impact to the PC’s lives and to the setting as a whole. The most common use of this trope is to have the PC’s discover something that unsettles the status-quo and after their discovery they need to find a way to restore it.
In the Times of Trouble trilogy Midnight, Kelemvor, Cyric and Adon discover that the gods have been cast out of their domains by Lord Ao, because the Tablets of Fate were stolen. Their discovery leads them to go searching for the tablets. They finally deliver them back to Lord Ao, thus restoring the status-quo. The same might be said about Dragonlance Classics. The discovery of the Blue Crystal Staff is monumental to the narrative. It is one of the main reasons why the companions leave Solace for Xak-Tsaroth to find the Disks of Mishakal, which brings back the knowledge of the gods to Krynn.
Make it interesting
I think perhaps one of the biggest mistake I make when I gamemaster is to assume that my players see the evil the way I do. Therefore they have no problems with finding reasons for their characters to act and to fight evil. I learned the hard way that this is not always the case.
To make sure that they are ready to invest time chasing leads and evildoers across the world, fighting dragons, vampires and demons, risking their characters’ lives time and time again, I need to make it worth their while.
And the best way to do that is to make sure that the narrative and the evil that they fight is interesting enough. That the evil, despite being an old and tired cliché, is multi-layered and challenges both players and characters. Finally, it needs to be rewarding. I don’t necessarily mean that the characters should gain mountains of gold and magical items, though of course that can work too. No, it needs to feel rewarding for the players. Many players look for a sense of accomplishment when playing. By keeping the evil interesting, dangerous and challenging you can help them achieve that.