Recently I picked up my game books again. The itch hit me to run a evil campaign using the RIFTS game world by Kevin Siembieda. This is where things get a wee bit tricky, but with some moderation, and gentle prodding... My group are happily running across the North American wasteland as champions of humanity! And proudly loyal members of the Prosek Empire, ready to burn down villages of innocent civilians without question.
And through this I can not help but to look at the character Stormfront in season 2 and shake my head at just how thinly veiled the villainess was portrayed. I get it from a production standpoint, the easy knee-jerk disgust when presented with a personage that held her skewed values towards the world and it's inhabitants. And she started off quite strong in the regard of being the kind of nasty soul you don't realize it attempting to twist and subvert your own values while cheerfully exchanging in witty banter.
I'll probably get cancelled for the preceding paragraph, but as a content creator for keeping my game table entertained and to keep my portfolio wide open with the tools to keep my game groups guessing. I myself take to the debate of morality with a wide paintbrush sopping wet with grey paint.
Looking back at many of the wars and conflicts through the ages of our real world, and through study of the motivations and means behind the minds, it could be easily said that Xerxes was just as much the good guy in the conflict as Leonidas. It could also be just as easily viewed that both sides of the conflict were guilty of war crimes. War is a bit of a fuzzy topic in many... many cases.
So when I sit and think about evil in my game worlds, I apply such philosophical mental meanderings to the world building. And in my RIFTS game, with a squad of locked and loaded Coalition soldiers... the worm has whispered in their ears and taken root...
So like any of my advice, treat it like a salad bar. Take what you want for your plate and carry on to have a most delightful meal. And leave what doesn't look appetizing.
A Coalition "Deadboy" in action.
So the first thing to take note of, is that both "good" and "evil" on the morality compass are convinced they are in the right concerning their viewpoint. Indeed, I myself have fallen prey to both sides as a young idealistic goblin. Among the most effective tools, is finding and preying on insecurities and offering a cure or at the very least a salve.
My group began as transients from another earth, to a very scary place with demons and flesh eating monsters. A few horrible close calls and some implied doom and gloom towards my motley crew of transdimensional travelers... and when given the chance to sign on with the Coalition who offered a helping hand... they didn't just walk, they ran to the capitol city to apply for citizenship.
Why? Because RIFTS is a post apocalyptic setting. Food is scarce, clean water is worth more than gold, and safety is a luxury. When my players met coalition troopers for the first time, they were not treated as less than people... but as fellow humans just trying to get by and survive. My NPCs while obviously indoctrinated by the Coalition programming, were utterly convinced in their resolution to be champions for humanity, and protectors of lost souls against the tide of supernatural darkness.
As you can tell, I preyed on the feelings of isolation my group was having with the "good guys" simply reaching out with a helping hand and teaching and/or unintentionally brainwashing the group on their first encounter. As in the conflicts in real life, individuals tend to gravitate towards those who seem sincere and stand for values we can agree with.
Then I moved onto the next step for making my group the bad guys... err, the good guys. And that was bringing in a sense of kinship. The group had already had encounters with the denizens of the wasteland, and when they got to Coalition territory... I did the one thing that turns a evil bad guy into something other than a faceless bullet catcher. I humanized the enemy. While my group, obviously does not agree 100% with the Coalitions stance on many political and social stances... presenting the community, as people, both got the characters and players on board for stepping up from being citizenship hopefuls to soldiers.
The key here was kinship and a sense of belonging. One character was presented with the peace through unconventional methods aspect while at the Lone Star facility... after all whats worse... uncontrollable insect demons (the Xictix hives) Or lab grown monsters designed to keep the people safe? While another went on a search and rescue mission and because of his actions has a shy girl timidly vying for his attention... And he comes from a big family which he was the big brother protector to his kid sister, so already in his mind that white knight nerve has been feeling a need to cozy up and get closer. The characters have slowly been warming up to a number of formerly faceless NPCs who are "evil" but have hopes, dreams, and lives of their own.
Hook, line, and sinker... I presented North Americas original big bad evil guys in a way that makes them attractive, by providing the players with their basic needs of food, water, and shelter. Added on top a humanization of the populace from the lowest citizen, to rank and file soldiers enlisting for relatable reasons, to officers who have the capacity to know when to remind the players that their methods are not the best, but how much worse the alternative could be without getting their hands dirty.
The last part I added was opportunity. Their is a clear and defined path, for rising through the ranks within the Coalition. The group took the bait for being soldiers, but even if they did not. They still have access within the system to do things in character they find to be meaningful, whether they decided to start up a private security firm as mercs, or join a local black market ring, or move to more humanitarian causes providing aid to those in need. Hell, they could have even turned my setting into a farming simulator if they so chose.
But that brings me to the last point. And one of the few defining aspects that typically sets the morality of good and evil apart in many cases. Evil is often the easy path. Take this package and deliver it to shady people and make a couple hundred dollars no questions asked, or work for a week with little time for your own interests and get taxed 14.9% off the top for the same amount. The choice of wrong doing is often a quick snare followed by slow corruption...
And that is pretty much how in a handful of game sessions, I led my group down the rabbit hole of playing the bad guys, who defend humanity through vile dirty means. They have a place in the world, companionship, friends, medical supplies when needed, reinforced perspective (via indoctrination), and the ability to call in help through the system they are a part of... and the Coalition simply just offered a helping hand.
And walking through the door was made easy as simply going to the local military recruiting station and asking about what the Emperor and the Coalition stand for. (Naturally the C/S has their own agenda behind the scenes as to why they would let non-native humans into the ranks of the Coalition military, but that is for the intelligence division to keep files on that subject, not for me to spill the beans to the players.)
I mentioned Stormfront at the beginning, and early on she hit all the beats of an excellent villain. And from my point of view, all the villains are greatly written.
Just as I wrote above, evil should be alluring or have some sort of draw to reel in their prey.
In comparison, Homelander is the exact opposite. Who is an absolute asshat from day one. But has been expanded on in such a way that he has been humanized, especially in regards to attempt to connect with his son. From at first pushing the poor kiddo off a roof, to actively opening up on an emotional level and protecting his offspring. Homelander is a diabolical fucktard but the audience can connect with him on a visceral level seeing the moments of what made him emotionally broken.
Hell, I even like Queen Maeve now. As she is presented as not just another marketable depiction of gay pride, but is somewhere under all that loathing, sarcasm and ennui a broken soul too. Kudos to the writing for bringing out the vulnerable person under the nigh-indestructable mask. And to the actress for her mastery over making the right subtle facial expressions to convey the conflicting emotional war inside the characters head.
Even The Deep, who is pure gold when he is on screen, is a complex personality... and the only one who seems to be willing to see a therapist in season 1 to cope with his insecurities. But we as viewer can still relate to him in our own way of that longing to be accepted and finding some facet of our own bodies we are secretly disgusted by.
I could go on and on... But Stormfront... as far as evil goes... A great start that swiftly unmasks herself from credible threat to cartoon villainess. She waltzes in and gives zero fucks about what others think... And who hasn't wanted to give their boss a middle finger? She tells Starlight straight up not to be someones sausage gobbler and to bite it off. Right out of the gate Stormfront resonates, with relatable sayings and an agreeable attitude. The whole be strong and be yourself message is all over the place, So I could see that as being a good lure... and a good villain can sometimes incite a momentary pause in their prey to make them question their own compass.
Then she goes totally ballistic and wipes out half a tenement building tossing around slurs and killing anyone a shade darker than eggshell white and goes Palpatine light. She stops being a subtle worm slowly leaving infection in her path and quietly compromising her targets to full-
on Hitler Barbie on ice. I rolled my eyes realizing she was the one shot wonder of the season, and would eventually wind up playing the role of trashcan receiving a beat down just to give the audience the warm fuzzies. So yeah, lack of shock there. Perhaps the only eyebrow raiser I had left were her final on-screen words which was a memory of the first time her daughter tasted apples.
I suppose my final thoughts here, is when scripting a villain. Is consistency. Both in media and at the game table. It is a sure fire bet that any villain or evil group I present to my audience needs to stay the course and rapidly altering them from a quiet manipulator to an outright parody would shock my audience into no longer caring about how much of a threat is presented. Unfortunately Stormfront does just that, at the speeds even Usain Bolt would find impressive.
When game mastering and writing your world. Design a baddie you love to hate, but make them in such a way your group will hate to love... And you've told a memorable tale.
With that. Thank you for plowing through this wall of text. I must get back to scripting out the next leg of an adventure and spread more grey paint around for a rag-tag group of Coalition soldiers to figure out where they stand.