Monday, April 18, 2011

Nigromancy

I didn't make my N post Saturday as I was hungover from the night before. Sunday wasn't much better...this one will be short as N is an unpopular letter with me, for reasons best left alone for now.

Nigromancy is a cool word, mostly because it's a prime example of how English forms new words by stringing together shorter words from two different languages. I already wrote up a Sorcerer character class and a Necromancer (and a witch), so I think that pretty much covers my ideas about black magic within the context of D&D. I do, however, wonder at the motivation for these types of people. What drives an individual to knowingly put their life and soul in jeopardy to essentially be the pawn of a dark force? It's a classic trope in literature: someone was wronged, perhaps unintentionally, and they strive to gain power through any means necessary to lash out at the world. Lex Luthor, depending on the source, becomes one of the most feared criminal masterminds in the universe simply because Superman pissed him off when he was a kid. Lex could easily cure cancer, create unlimited free energy for the world, solve hunger problems, whatever. He's literally that intelligent. Yet, he resorts to criminal pursuits, in much the same way that sorcerers in Conan stories kill a bunch of people for no reason other than to please a demon who can give them just a little bit more wealth.

Wealth to sorcerers and most supervillains isn't an end in itself, but merely a means to fulfill their goals. Henchmen require money, opulent clothing and ostentatious furnishings require money. Revenge cannot be bought, however; money is essentially meaningless to the most vile of villains. The best villains gloat over their victims, simply because they want the acknowledgement that they "won". What fun is there in creating elaborate death traps, complex machinations to entrap a hero, if you don't tell him about it, about how smart you were to devise the plan. Of course, some villains are just generally interested in creating havoc, and these are the irredeemable ones. Killing for killing's sake, not because they want to best their grade school rival.

In the latter case, that's the classic D&D definition of evil, someone who knows they are doing wrong and enjoys it. Murder and mayhem are a way of life. But is Lex Luthor really evil at his core? What about Darth Vader? These types of villains commit evil acts, and sometimes enjoy doing them, but their true motivation has nothing to do with being evil in the absolute sense. Killing another man makes one a murderer, but that doesn't necessarily make the offender evil, does it?

For rpg purposes, orcs should be evil in the absolute way. They can be killed indiscriminately with no remorse as they have zero qualities worth preserving. And the same can be said for most of the other humanoid monsters. The DM's job isn't justifying the bedlam they create. The DM should, however, decide on the motivations for the sorcerer commanding those orcs to burn down villages. It's a much more satisfying experience in-game for the main antagonist to be somewhat complex instead of a propped up cardboard caricature. The sorcerer himself could simply be absolutely evil, just like the orcs. Sure. But who is pulling his strings? A demon lord? You don't get to be insanely powerful without also being somewhat diplomatic, even if they diplomacy is nothing more than a ruse. You may not be able to bargain with the sorcerer, but you can surely bargain with his boss Orcus. This by no means is me saying Orcus is just a misunderstood bad guy, but he's certainly much more complex than faceless orcs. Lex Luthor is evil, but he still did some really good things, even if it was only to stroke his own ego. Orcus might actually do good if it would in fact further his goals for spreading evil. Good is uncompromising, but evil frequently makes concessions if necessary.

Anyway, for low-levels of play, these sorts of things are irrelevant as the characters will simply be splitting orc skulls. As they gain in power, so too must the adversaries become stronger. As already stated, increases in power should result in an increase of complexity in the major villains. How boring would Hamlet have been if King Claudius was simply a cold-blooded murderer? He's actually a pretty good king, somewhat regretful, but wholly corrupted. A true antagonist in the play, not a mere orc for Hamlet to dispatch. Hamlet himself cannot make up his mind whether to kill the king (justified) or let him serve as monarch and maintain the status quo. Hamlet, in fact, acts a lot like a D&D PC. D&D certainly isn't a high form of performance art, but having villains with deep rooted motivations beyond simple "evil" can only make the gaming experience better.

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