RPG’s and the Dark Side (Part II): Musing on the Nature of Evil

photo credit: Neil. Moralee via photopin cc
photo credit: Neil. Moralee via photopin cc

Only what you take with you

I was known as the seeker. El buscador. Le chercheur.

Across six continents, over seventy years, I was renown for my search. My expedition. My obsession. I was not a hunter, unless one considers the pursuit of knowledge a hunt. My investigation was bookish rather than bloody. Dusty rather than deadly. I read, I interviewed, I explored, and most of all I wrote.

My papers have been published in many journals, in many fields. Archaeology and philosophy. Anthropology and criminology. Biology and Theology. My research, my exploration touched on every aspect of life, and tried to cast its light across the veil of death.

Evil. I was a seeker of evil.

To identify, to document, to understand. To study. To find the answers, and perhaps more importantly, to find the right questions. Who, where, why, when, what… these fundamentals I asked, I tracked, and I recorded.

I spoke to murderers, I conversed with psychopaths. I recorded the rites to keep down a vampire, I watched a witch burning. I followed a young man’s descent into violent madness, and an old man’s journey towards redemption fall short. I photographed the concentration camps, I videoed the confession of an SS officer in hiding. I burnt incense at a human sacrifice, I chanted on a boat to a sunken isle and a deathless alien god.

As trite as it sounds,  I feared no evil. In all things I was its witness. With dispassion, I brought its message to the world. In articles and programs evil was brought into the light, exposed, and in exposure made… mundane. Uninteresting. Normal.

But now, on my soon-to-be deathbed, now I fear. Whilst the veil of death remains an obscure barrier, I fear what is beyond it. I fear an afterlife, I fear continuance.

Oh, what deep irony! Look now how this old atheist prays! I pray for simple oblivion, a cessation of existence at the point of death.

I fear oblivion will be denied.

It is a simple truism, of material and physical wealth, that you cannot take it with you when you die. But knowledge? Learning? If there is a metaphysical existence post-death, an afterlife, then surely the sum of your experience is your entire being, your entire universe.

I fear an eternity with my knowledge as my universe.

I fear the limitless evils I have sought, that I have seen, tasted, and felt, will be all I am left with.

I fear what I will take with me when I go*.

(Part I on creating a Horror atmosphere is available here)

On Evil…

Big topic. Huge topic…. Hm. I’ll admit I wasn’t going to his this one so early in my RPG analysis, but after reading Stephen King’s Rolling Stone comments in an interview recently, I figured it was a sign from below. Here is King’s (current) view on evil:

How about evil? Do you believe there is such a thing?

I believe in evil, but all my life I’ve gone back and forth about whether or not there’s an outside evil, whether or not there’s a force in the world that really wants to destroy us, from the inside out, individually and collectively. Or whether it all comes from inside and that it’s all part of genetics and environment. When you find somebody like, let’s say, Ted Bundy, who tortured and killed all those women and sometimes went back and had sex with the dead bodies, I don’t think when you look at his upbringing you can say, “Oh, that’s because Mommy put a clothespin on his dick when he was four.” That behaviour was hard-wired. Evil is inside us. The older I get, the less I think there’s some sort of outside devilish influence; it comes from people. And unless we’re able to address that issue, sooner or later, we’ll fucking kill ourselves.

So, what do I mean by evil?

A question on which I could base a career in philosophy on. Given the deep profundities of this concept are beyond the objectives of this simple blog and simpler wordslinger, I shall simply head to the dictionary:


What is Evil in horror?

From The Book of Vile Darkness  (3.5 edition D&D):

“Evil” is a word that is probably overused. In the context of the game, and certainly of this book, the word should be reserved for the dark force of destruction and death that tempts souls to wrongdoing and perverts wholesomeness and purity at every turn. Evil is vile, corrupt, and irredeemably dark. It is not naughty, ill-tempered, or misunderstood. It is black-hearted, selfish, cruel, bloodthirsty and malevolent.

All fiction requires conflict. The protagonists must be challenged, must overcome something in order for a story to be interesting. Evil often fills this role in horror, it becomes the challenge, it is the reason for conflict. The conflict is always in opposition to the characters, but in a horror, evil is frequently conflict of the darkest and most foul sort, a hurdle to be not merely overcome, but destroyed, banished, cast back.

(I should say here that not every horror story necessarily needs to deal with evil, or even an evil character, but many do. Evil is absent in some classics, for example in Jaws (movie or novel by Peter Benchley), the shark is terrifying, horrifying, but hardly evil. In the movie Alien and Aliens, the creatures are not evil, they are surviving, they are following their natural instincts. Then again, maybe in Jaws, the Mayor who wants to keep the beaches open despite the danger is our evil, and in the Aliens movies, the evil is the wholly human Wayland-Yutani Corporation…)

So what do these RPGs teach us about the nature of evil in horror fiction?

If you are writing a horror story, or running a horror RPG, it is important to consider the type of malevolence you will be sending against your characters. Will they face foes of a wholly natural origin – a single deranged killer looking to drown a city in blood? A powerful, immoral and corrupt, corporation recklessly releasing its waste and experimental products on an unsuspecting populace? Or evil of a supernatural type – sinister cultists looking for their next corpse to animate? Fiendish and hungry spectres reaching beyond the grave? An degenerate and vile elder being threatening their sanity and the very existence of our universe?

As in part one I have restricted my analysis to two games, mostly to keep the size of this post manageable. I chose ‘standard’ D&D and Ravenloft, as a contrast between a broad or ‘generic’ approach to evil, and one that is very specific, and nuanced.

D&D – Simple, or objective evil

Simple evil, or objective evil as you might call it, is a straight forward approach to incorporating evil in fiction, in RPG games, and in numerous religions. Objective evil is a known thing – it is defined. In standard D&D games, evil can be used as a mechanic – a wizard can cast detect evil, and things, people, creatures, who are ‘evil’ glow. In fiction, the villain is driven to achieve an end that is evil, or perhaps is simply doing evil acts for the sake it. In religion, evil acts are frequently specifically outlined, sometimes conveniently numbered.

Betrayal, greed, lies, cheating, murder, hate, vengeance… all diabolical acts and incentives. All sins. All fodder for a horror story.

The objective approach to evil works extremely well in action games like D&D, where roleplaying tends to be about acting out heroism and exciting adventure. It can be easier to tell a tale where the evil is simple and uncomplicated. It works well in darker fantasy novels as well, although it may be an extremely simplistic approach the simple evil remains an effective opposition, and allow the fantasy hero’s to shine brighter in contrast. It avoids the complex ethical debates, and allows the story to focus elsewhere. As the Book of Vile Darkness says:

If you run an adventure about fighting gnolls, you don’t normally want the entire session consumed by philosophical discussion about whether killing gnolls is a good thing or a bad thing.

Think about Sauron in Lord of the Rings, or Lord Foul** in the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Satan. All examples of simple evil. There are as many horror examples – Pennywise in IT, Cthulhu and Dagon in Lovecraft (an indifferent ancient evil), the Deadites in the Evil Dead movies. Fighting orcs, killing demons, destroying zombies or stomping a child-murdering clown into oblivion… these things involve hardship for the characters, tests of strength and of will, but not grey moral choices. Using a simple evil approach gives a writer freedom to focus on action; moral choices are clear, heroes can be real heroes. It is easy to root for a protagonist facing simple evil, and making a protagonist sympathetic is a key part of engaging the reader in the story.

That said, the grey areas that exist in subjective evil – that is, evil dependent on the point of view of the observer – can really enrich a story, and facing these moral challenges shouldn’t be shied away from if it makes your story better.

Remember, werewolf hunting is an exciting sport, and reasonably guilt free – until the dead creature’s body returns to its human form in the morning…

Ravenloft – Seductive and tragic evil

Evil is frequently seductive in gothic horror. Villains are not simply murderers, they are corrupted – enticed –  into their life of depravity. There is also an element of tragedy in a gothic horror – the evil antagonist is empowered by their actions, their choices, but doomed at the same time. Dr Jekyll took the Hyde potion and whored about, engaged in violence… not because he was suddenly made evil, but rather his Hyde persona allowed Jekyll the freedom to act out the dark thoughts he always had. But Jekyll’s actions attracted attention, he realised he was losing the ability to control Hyde, and as such he eventually killed himself. The traditional gothic werewolf is frequently horrified at their nocturnal actions… at first. Soon enough though, the human enjoys his or her werewolf time, enjoys the hunt, the kill, and acts to protect themselves from discovery. All the time, the townsfolk gather in larger hunting packs, to kill the beast at the next full moon. Or worse, the beast kills a person important to them, a lover, a wife, a son. Doomed.

Ravenloft is a unique setting in this regard, in that the entire plane of existence of the setting responds favourably to the presence of evil. Ravenloft is separated into small but connected ‘lands’ populated by your classic gothic horror tropes (simple torch and pitchfork wielding peasants, mysterious and slightly sinister gypsies, suspicious and untrusting villagers who bolt their doors at sunset), and lead by powerful cliché evil individuals – the Lords and Ladies. Each of these Lords or Ladies was ‘granted’ their land by Ravenloft itself – any sufficiently evil person who wanders into the Ravenloft mists will be gifted create a whole new domain, gifted great boons of power, gifted almost absolute power whilst in this domain.

Of course, this being gothic horror, this was not without a tragic drawback.  Each Lord or Lady was cursed by Ravenloft, they can never leave their lands, and they are tormented by something that means they can never, ever, be happy. Strahd Von Zarovich, the Dracula clone in Ravenloft is a great example – as a mortal he killed his brother because they loved the same woman Tatyana. Tatyana threw herself off the battlements of the castle, and Strahd was attacked by his guards for his misdeeds – too late, because Ravenloft had gifted him powers, a large domain, and made him an immortal vampire. But every generation there is a woman born who looks like the reincarnation of Tatyana, and he is doomed to continue to pursue this woman – and doomed to be rejected again and again for eternity.

The seduction and tragedy of the villain is well used in classic horrors, and still in modern storytelling. Macbeth – a noble warrior, until he murdered Duncan for the throne, setting him down an increasingly bloody path, culminating in his own death., Aniken Skywalker was seduced to the Dark Side to save his wife – but she still died, and he had sold his soul for nothing. Saruman was seduced by power, aligning himself with Sauron, and was cast down by a returned Gandalf – ultimately falling into a pathetic state that even the hobbits pity.

Using the ‘Ravenloft’ approach – a seductive, tragic evil – can result in some great stories, and can feature the weak nature of humanity, but be careful that you don’t make your villain too sympathetic, lest they become your hero… unless that’s the point of course.

Other evils?

Of course, the range of approaches to evil is as broad as the variety of evil acts that you can imagine. The evil in the game Wraith is called Oblivion, a metaphysical black hole representing the end of all things, a cessation of existence that erodes the souls of ghosts after they have died until they lose their passions, their connections to the living and simply… let go of being. So whilst I hope this post gave you a bit of a taste of two types, one cannot hope to fully categorise the breadth and depth of evil in horror (indeed thinking about the enormity of such a task was the prompt for the fiction at the start).

Whew – finally finished. this took AGES!!! Anyway, thanks for reading – this was a difficult one to do, and I canned three different prior versions. I was keen to wrap this up before I hit 2500 words… so apologies if you found the end a little abrupt.

Was this interesting? Useful? Or did I miss the point (I do that sometimes)? Any specific bits you liked or did not like?  Let me know in the comments.



*For those wondering, the title of this story is actually a quote from Return of the Jedi, when Yoda sends Luke into the Dark Side Cave:

“That place… is strong with the dark side of the Force. A domain of evil it is. In you must go.”
“What’s in there?”
“Only what you take with you.”

 **How Donaldson got away with calling his bad guy  ‘Lord Foul‘ I have no idea. It’s almost cartoonish – Skeletor has more subtlety. Love the books though – due a re-read.

Published by: wildbilbo

My name is Kristian Thoroughgood, alternately known as KT to my friends, or @WildBilbo on twitter. As of August 2015, I am forty years old. Australian. My blog is intended to be both a place for me to polish my creative writing muscles (not a double entendre) and for others to read and comment on my musings. Expect short stories, articles, essays and other brain dumps. My opinions are my own, and whilst I take care to be at least moderately informed about any topic I speak or write about, these opinions are subject to rapid change in the face of passionate arguments and greater evidence. Please note - on my blog, Evidence beats Passion.

Categories Horror, RPG, Toolbox, Writing, WritingTags, , , , , , , , , , Leave a comment

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