Role-playing games typically present the players’ characters as forces for good in the world. They might have a dark secret past or (in the case of Warlocks and other misbegotten souls) liaise with devils & demons, but their core character trait is that of hero. Your hero is the righter of wrongs, the slayer of evil and the vanquisher of any who would darken the land with their vile machinations.
Is he (or she) really on the side of good? I’m not so sure.
Often, scenarios follow a familiar pattern. Heroes are told of a “great evil” and journey into the dungeon/temple/secret base/death star/shopping mall to defeat it. Along the way they slay minions, solve (or fall into) traps and find treasure until they reach the heart of the complex, where the Big Bad Evil awaits. After a suitably epic battle, the PCs loot the place and tally up XP. Rinse and repeat.
Let’s look at what evils have been committed, and let the scales of justice fall where they will.
First, the heroes
- Breaking and entering
- Destruction of property
- Murder and countless acts of violence
- That thing they did to that lone kobold we promised never to speak of again
Now the bad guy
- Ummm.. sitting on a chair in a big room
- Pissing off the vindictive barman at the local tavern that one time
Yes, the PC’s alignment on their character sheets might say they are some variety of Good or (at most), edgily goth Neutral but their actions speak louder.
“Ah, but what about motive?!” I pretend to hear you ask, and quite rightly so. Motive matters, so it’s worth looking at why the PCs do these dastardly deeds. Perhaps they act out of altruistic good, or are motivated by a desire to improve the well-being of the common folk. I’m sure that’s a part of it (for some PCs more than others) alongside the quest for more shiny magic items, fame, fortune and XP. There’s nothing wrong with any of that of course. I’m all for a bit of fame and fortune thanks very much, and wanting it doesn’t necessarily make your PC evil. Not at first, anyway…
But what of the villain’s motivation? That’s overlooked far too frequently other than saying “He’s evil. Go kill!”. When a villainous NPC’s backstory is presented, it’s often a tale of lost love, tragedy, heartbreak or the untimely death of a husband, wife or pet kitty. In other words, the villain’s motivation is understandable, sympathetic and human. They might truly be evil incarnate, but at least that evil came from a good place. Can your PC say the same?
Finally, we could ask why the BBEG is hiding in a hole in the ground surrounded by traps and hordes of minions but I think we already know the answer to that one, don’t we?
coughs, looks directly at camera