A game like Dungeons and Dragons has loads of creatures who are evil for a supernatural or instinctual reason. Bit by a vampire or werewolf? Your alignment has shifted and you are now evil. Chromatic dragons? Born evil. Some even say orcs are simply inherently evil and there’s nothing to be done about it.
I can understand this approach to evil in a fantasy role-playing game. There’s a bit of a tradition when it comes to that idea. Dragons are evil and steal princesses and gold in many children’s storybooks because a nice dragon who never bothers anyone makes a pretty boring story. We don’t need to relate to the dragon, we just know he’s a baddy who must be stopped. Sometimes you just need evil to make an exciting story and don’t care how or why the evil came to be. It just is.
As many of us grow older we seek out more sophisticated stories with layered villains. The most compelling antagonists are the ones we can relate to on some level. The baddies who makes us think, “That could have been me…” They’re the villains who say to a hero, “We’re a lot alike,” and are actually right. I’m talking about your Darth Vaders, your Wilson Fisks, and your Purple Men. They are complicated, round characters who are more terrifying than those who are evil just because a story needs a baddy.
The sort of malice that comes out of causes or emotions we can understand is in many ways far more terrifying because your heroes can understand the villain. They can see what’s broken inside and have the realization that many people are one terrible tragedy away from becoming Norman Bates. In other words, the best evil creatures, don’t think of themselves as evil.
Reasons to be Evil
Below are a few humanizing, understandable motivations for evil NPCs.
Almost all D&D villains seem to lust after power, but give your villain a reason to want total control beyond, “being in charge is great.” It isn’t always great. It’s a lot of high stress work. A motivation beyond wanting power for the sake of having it not only makes a villain relatable, it also makes sense. When an evil creature plots to seize power, it is often because they feel powerless in some way. The baddy wishes to show someone specific, a group of people, or the world at large that they are far more significant than their current lot in life suggests.
Examples: A forgotten bastard child of a monarch wants to show her royal father she is just as good as his other children, so she seizes the throne for herself with the help of an undead army she raised. An ancient dragon is incensed by the memory of a time when his kind didn’t hide in caves, so he begins destroying villages that do not swear allegiance to dragonkind. A maimed beholder told he’ll never be as powerful as the others because he’s missing some eyestalks begins murdering wizards for their magic items to make up for his disability.
Similar to power, creatures who desire wealth and obtain it in a less-than-honest way don’t need a deeper motivation other than greed but a richer villain will have a drive beyond avarice. Wealth is very close to power because in most areas of life money is power. So just as a powerless creature may seek power by any means necessary, a villain who was once wretchedly poor make seek wealth and let nothing stand in the way.
Examples: A once rich noble has fallen on hard times and cannot feed her children so she turns to a life of crime, eventually becoming the head of a murderous thieves’ guild. A wizard keeps getting rejected from magical grant programs for his magical experiments which he believes will change the world for the better, so he begins selling orange spice. A mind flayer believes he can reconnect his ancestors’ home of the Far Realm to the rest of the multiverse if he can steal enough diamond dust to power a ritual.
If you’ve played the original Ravenloft adventure, then this motivation needs no explanation. In fact if you’ve ever experience unrequited love, then this motivation needs no explanation. A good person can go bad when their heart aches, either because love isn’t returned, a lover’s heart is stolen by another, or a loved one suffers an untimely death. Remember love isn’t limited to romantic relationships. Children with absent parents, a sibling who has experienced another’s death, and more are tragedies that often results in great personal change. Many come out on the other side stronger, but some might seek retribution from the world in some way.
Examples: A necromancer who loses his family is determined to bring them back as evil wights. A woman loses her lover to the prince, and plots to kill each member of the royal family to make the prince and her ex suffer. A demon lord falls for an angel and hatches a plan to invade Mount Celestia and make her his bride.
Of course there are those villains who not only don’t think of themselves as evil, but see themselves as actual heroes. These villains might be the most terrifying of all, for they believe their cause is just. These baddies have an agenda and may even seek a noble outcome, but their means do not justify the end goal.
Examples: A druid seeks the end of humanity’s harm to nature, so she summons the princes of elemental evil to come cleanse the land of all human civilization. To stop a demon incursion in the Underdark, a drow wizard devises a ritual which requires a large number of surface humanoids to be sacrificed. In order to ensure the continued existence of their kind, a group of near-extinct lycanthropes plans a coordinated attack on schools to infect children with their curse.
One of the most powerful motivators in many stories is the idea of revenge. Many heroes are motivated by this ideal, but how far a person goes and for what crimes a person seeks vengeance can tip the scales of this motivation from evil to good. If nothing can get in the way or if the sin being punished is small or unintentional, then the revenge might be bad news.
Examples: After her parents were killed when a conjurer lost control of an elemental, a young woman sets out to rid the world of wizards everywhere. A once peaceful orc king vows to murder all gnomes after a group of gnome bandits murder his queen. A dragon has a cup stolen from his hoard and razes the entire countryside in a rage.
If you look at the examples above you’ll see that some of the most-relatable motivations could belong under two or more of these motivational categories. For instance, “A maimed beholder is told he’ll never be as powerful as the others because he’s missing some eyestalks begins murdering wizards for their magic items to make up for his disability,” could be seen as power, wealth, and revenge. The more complex a motivation, the richer your villain’s story and the greater the emotional arc.
Tempt the PCs
While you can use the motivations above to make your villains relatable, you should also think about these motivations a way to tempt PCs into committing evil acts. If you have the kind of players who enjoy playing complex, layered characters and don’t take real world offense when another PC does something evil, then maybe try tempting a character with one of these motivations and see what happens. Odds are your players have included some pain and misery in their backstories which you can use as a powerful motivator. If the PC is tempted and commits an evil act (and the other players are cool with it), then you’ve just added a layer of complexity to your story. If the PC is tempted but doesn’t give in, then you’ve added a layer of complexity to that character that’s even subtler and more sophisticated. Maybe next time you tempt that character will give in…
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