Friday, April 1, 2011

A is for Abomination

[over the course of the month of April, I shall be posting a topic for each letter of the alphabet, sequentially, for every day of the week except Sunday. Our topic this month? Things necessary to take your D&D campaign from “eh, fantasy” to “kick ass.” And who doesn’t want that?]

A is for Abomination.

I’m not talking about the D20 sense of the term (i.e. monsters with D8 sided hit dice…like mind flayers and otyughs). I’m talking about true abomination, as in the dictionary sense of the term:

“Something that elicits great dislike or abhorrence; loathing.”

Oh, certainly a sprinkling of abominable creatures in the Lovecraftian style is desirable…those help give the game world its otherworldly quality that says “this ain’t just medieval fantasy; this is D&D…a stranger animal altogether.” However, loathsome monsters are not enough…hell, the players aren’t going to treat ‘em any different from an ork or goblin (i.e. stick a sword through ‘em and take their loot).

No, to kick your game up a notch, you need true loathsomeness…events, characters, and deeds that turns one’s stomach and elicits cries of “ew!” from your players.

Why? For contrast.

Old school D&D adventurers are not bright and shiny heroes…certainly, the legends that follow them (even the ones we tell each other, outside the game) may blow them up to heroic or mythic proportions, but such is not generally the case IN PLAY. Player characters tend to be mean and petty individuals…counting arrows, hoarding torches and rations, angling for better treasure and magic items. And all that’s by design. Dungeon delving is a JOB for the characters…and a dirty one at that. Exiting a dungeon, characters should be covered in blood and guts and dirt and cobwebs and smelling like lantern oil and torch smoke and un-washed body. Can you imagine traipsing around in a dark cavern for a day or two, kitted out in armor and carrying a heavy pack, sometimes running for your life and sweating up a storm…that’s STINK, boys and girls. By the time the party “gets back to town” it’s a wonder the gate guard will even let them in!

And even looking past the filth and stink of these wandering wretches, what kind of people are they? Mercenaries. Killers. Grave robbers and tomb raiders of the kind that would make modern day archaeologists curse for days. Of the nine possible alignments for AD&D adventurers, only three are categorized as “good.” The other two-thirds of adventurers range from selfishly self-centered to egotistical and honor-bound to outright EVIL. That’s right, we’re talking about a bunch of sociopaths for the most part. Even the “good guys:” it’s not like they’re spending their free time feeding the poor and sheltering the homeless. No, they’re sharpening their swords (and spells) for the next score…um, “quest”…that comes their way.

And yet, in a role-playing game, the player characters are the protagonists and central characters of the “story being told.” And as such, we’d like them to be somewhat sympathetic...heck, they are the heroes of the adventure even if they’re not Heroes. And how to make them into such when so often they are going to be engaged in un-heroic acts (petty squabbling, paranoid trembling, backstabbing murder and larceny)?

How? By making sure the opposition are the basest of the base and vilest of the vile.

Monsters…human and unhuman…engaged in the evilest of crimes. Wholesale rapine and murder. Wanton destruction and enslavement. Cannibals. Killers and abusers of children and innocents. Debauched and sadistic rapists. Followers of dark cults practicing the blackest magic and visiting unspeakable suffering upon the civilized populace. Acts of torture and mutilation and maiming all for the sheer joy of it. Ugly, naked cruelty. Violations of both the living and the dead.

Abominations in other words.

Now, as with the Lovecraftian horrors, one doesn’t want to over-do this kind of thing…not every foe need be a revolting scourge begging to be expunged from the campaign world for the good of humanity. But a little contrast goes a long way towards making a campaign more “heroic.” Even when the PC’s actions are less than “shiny role-model material,” they can still feel good about meting justice on the horrors found in the fantasy world, stamping out TRUE EVIL.

Make sure you include some.
: )


  1. Super evil is fun. I love the nihilism of Tharizdun, for example.

    But I think the appeal of nihilism and gratuitous sadism would be about as limited in a fantasy milieu as it is in our own world. For the sake of variety and verisimilitude, I like villains motivated by simple greed, selfishness, vanity, etc. Just like in the real world, people who think of themselves as nice and normal perpetrate horrific deeds for relatively petty reasons. And that is chilling in its own way. (And satisfying in D&D, because PCs can make themselves agents of karma and bring justice down upon those deluded villains.)

    I also enjoy good vs. good rivalries/conflicts. In the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, the party sets out after news breaks regarding a rumored possible location of Iggwilv's trove. Every nearby country dispatches a force to seek the treasure (and keep it out of their rivals' hands). Of course, when the party encountered delegations from evil countries like Iuz, they killed them without a thought. But the strategy and roleplaying became really interesting when the party (led by a paladin) encountered good-aligned rivals (elves from the Vesve Forest, men from Perrenland, etc.).

    That business redeemed what was otherwise a fairly routine wilderness adventure/dungeon crawl. (Though the module's final encounter and treasure were pretty incredible.)

  2. @ Brian: Oh, that stuff is all good. But sometimes you need a shot of Pure-D Evil. IMO, of course.

    ; )

  3. I agree with you JB, evil should be Evil a lot of the time, especially in D&D. Sure, the nuanced villain makes things interesting, but the rank and file monsters? Evil!

  4. I think the d20 term you were referring to is "Aberration". Knowing is half the battle! GI JOE!