The Evil They Do

Good guy and bad guy Non Player Characters in role playing games

As a game master I am always looking for techniques that help me build rich experiences that provide opportunities and meaningful choices for my players. The most prominent of these are the ones that let me develop a full cast of non-player characters that are not just “encounters” statically waiting to happen.

In this article I want to discuss two important NPC types, Bad Guys and Good Guys, and a simple technique that both accentuates the Bad/Good flavour of the character and helps populate the world with a larger collection of related NPCs.

Black Hats and White Hats

There is an old joke that in western movies you can tell the goodies from the baddies by whether they are wearing a white hat or a black hat. In other words their actual behaviour is about the same so some external signifier is needed to know “what side they are on”.

It can be like that in some games as well. For example the board game Talisman has characters with good, evil or neutral alignment. These alignment have no effect on how you play the character, only on the magical devices you can pick up or the effects of a couple of encounter cards and locations such as The Chapel (helps good characters) or The Graveyard (helps evil characters).

I don’t know about you, but that is not a very interesting distinction.

Race / Species Clumping

This is a form of artificial bigotry in various RPGs (and traditional tales for that matter). Orcs are bad, fairies are good. Like black and white hat labels this is generally not very satisfying unless the creatures involved actually behave like they are bad or good. Being “bad” is also different to simply being “dangerous”. Running around in front of a healthy and hungry lion will result in the lion trying to eat you, but the lion isn’t being a bad guy.

Political Belonging

This is similar to species and race clumping in that rival factions may see one another and their members as good guys or bad guys, but it doesn’t really cover the idea of intrinsically good or bad NPCs.

Harming Victims or Helping Beneficiaries

Now a real life situation will have people that you may consider good or bad but who are complex and often behave one way or another. Some RPGs allow for this more than others. However what I’m talking about in this article is identifying to the players the NPCs that are really “Bad Guys” and “Good Guys” when the dial is turned more toward the “No Moral Ambiguity” end of the spectrum.

This is where we get to something a bit more clear and a bit more visceral for the players. Bad guys do nasty things to victims and good guys go out of their way to help beneficiaries. This is mentioned indirectly in a great post about RPG Villainy at The Alexandrian.

My technique for this is to use a variation of The Three Clue Rule : (for every conclusion you wish the players to reach you need to provide at least three clues that lead them to it). My variation is to make the clues, about the nature of the Bad Guy or the Good Guy, be actual people who have been victimised or helped. These NPCs need fleshing out a bit so that the players care about how they are treated (past through to future) and there may be related NPCs that are secondary victims or beneficiaries.

Oh, those poor people…

The 3 victim rule for bad guys.

For a villain to be a bad guy they need to have at least 3 victims of their perfidy, that the players can encounter or find out about and hopefully feel outrage for. The victims don’t have to be good guys but should be strongly sympathetic. The victims may have been dealt with badly by the villain in the past or the present or may soon become victims after the players have met them. The best bad dealings are ones were the bad guy has gone out of her way to cause harm for trivial benefit to herself.

A Call of Cthulhu example

A wizard in 1920s London who sacrifices street people to Yig in return for increasing her personal wealth

Victim NPCs

1 Two children left orphaned on the streets who’s dad disappeared, sacrificed to Yig. The children will need help to survive and may be later targeted by the wizard if left on the streets to fend for themselves.

2 The wizard’s landlady who lives in fear, abused and intimidated. The wizard has slowly conditioned her to be obedient and intends eventually to take over her ownership of the building the wizard lives in. She will have her landlady become more reclusive and isolated. Eventually she will sacrifice her landlady to Yig, when no one is likely to notice her disappearance.

3 There is a policeman who, despite being discouraged from wasting his time by his superiors, is gaining some clues to the nature of the disappearances on the streets in the neighbourhood. The policeman may be a “good guy” with some beneficiaries on the street as clues to what a good guy he is. The wizard will eventually notice him and need to have him done away with and any evidence he has collected suppressed. She will not be able to use a simple summoning of some horror as she needs to have the matter dealt with stealthily and intelligently. The operation could be uncovered by the players as it is built up.

A Dungeons and Dragons example

An evil elf in the West Woods who is obsessed with gems

Victim NPCs

1 The elf’s wife who goes hungry and is cut off from outside because she is not trusted. She can be encountered in the woods at or near their home looking dishevelled and unhealthy and terrified of strangers.

2 A halfling in a nearby village who was swindled out of his gems by the elf in return for phony potions that turn out to have a slow poisoning effect.

3 A cat burglar in the regional city who is forced to work for the elf because her son is held prisoner. The elf wants her to kill the victims so there is no one to follow up on the thefts but she has so far resisted this instruction.

In these two examples you will notice there are quite a few foreshadowing of future events and intentions. As a GM be careful not to lock these things in. Allow for the players to intervene in the course of events in meaningful ways, or you risk running a railroad on them.

He Saved Us!

The 3 beneficiary rule for good guys

Major good guy NPCs are hard to handle well in an RPG and deserve an article of their own. As a GM you don’t want them usurping the player’s role or acting as Deus ex Machina all the time. Putting that aside good guys are known by the selfless beneficence to others.

A Traveller example

Defender of the primitives. A member of the scout service has taken a non-space faring species as a group he must protect on a planet that the Imperium have set up with a small star port.

Beneficiary NPCs

1 Local chief whose tribe was moved to make way for the star port has been given full legal title to new land, arranged by our hero.

2 A scam artist who was conning the locals gets exposed by the hero when he threatens a farmer. The hero pushes through lawful sanctions against the scam artist and restitution to the farmer.

3 The hero learns of a plot by a mining consortium to arrange to have the local villagers framed for some unpleasantness, giving the consortium an excuse to snap up the locals mining rights in a metals rich area. The hero may solicit help by the players to thwart the plans and promote the rights of the locals.

A Metamorphosis Alpha example

An AI node, known as Carla195, has helped a tribe to reacquire civilisation but has succumbed to a berserk AI and needs rescuing from back up.

Beneficiary NPCs

1 A primitive human who’s daughter was ill and was saved by Carla195 driving a med-bot to assist.

2 A mutant human who had been exiled by the nearby tribe guided to sanctuary by an environment bot under Carla195’s control.

3 A group of adventurers in a malfunctioning grav sled who were rescued when Carla195 connected to the on board nav system and guided it to a safe landing. Unfortunately Carla195 had to leave a firewall open for a few seconds to long which allowed the berserk AI to infiltrate Carla195s primary system. Carla195 left an autonomous message module in the grav sled that explains its predicament via audio. The players may end up with a quest to free Carla195’s back up and eradicate the berserker AI.

Mixing it up

Once you start creating at least 3 NPCs each as clues to the nature of good guys and bad guys you can then easily complicate things by having bad guys who can be redeemed instead of simply defeated, having good guys becoming victims themselves or being corrupted to become bad guys. The good guy to bad guy transition is an excuse for 3 beneficiary NPCs and 3 victim NPCs demonstrating the transition.

Player Agency

An important part of all of this is the opportunities it provides for your player characters. It allows them to act in order to rescue victims, take retribution against the bad guys or to neutralise them in some way, to correct situations and make the world a better place, or form alliances, helping out and leading fervent followers to victory. All of this can be distinctly memorable and meaningful for the players as they get to know and interact with all the NPCs, keeping them immersed in the game.

To round out the use of this technique I recommend reading Getting Players to Care.

This article represents a tightly focused part of making memorable goodies, baddies and other NPCs that become meaningful to the players in your games. I haven’t really touched on evil organisations or factions. Perhaps in another article.


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