Evil is unspectacular and always human, and shares our bed and eats at our own table[.]
Augustine fails in a world with explicitly evil gods.
My theodicy is weak. hella still hasn’t figured out the problem of evil. And still hasn’t figured out how to implement real evil in this game.
But my problem is prosaic. How do I depict evil, in play, that makes any sense?
The D&D I grew up with was the same bullshit high fantasy I saw in every one of those dozens1 of fantasy novels I read as a kid. It’s not even that good guys are good guys and bad guys are bad guys and there’s no moral ambiguity, nor much consideration of each actor as a mix of good and bad and generally self-minded and mostly morally indifferent and . . . complicated.
Rather, it’s that it never really feels like there’s anything at stake. Yeah, there’s the fight against titular evil, but it’s always evil-in-name-only. Like evil was a tag, an invisible attribute, applied to certain creatures but not others, will little rhyme or reason. Maybe you can tell the evil humanoids because they’re ugly. Maybe not.2
Of course, this is because lots of things do have an invisible tag: lawful evil, neutral evil, chaotic evil.
The point being, nothing evil would ever happen,3 or if it did, it was given in the most anodyne way possible. Either, the orcs are just there, wandering around in the world, and we know they’re evil—I mean, we just know, because they’re orcs, so it’s okay to kill them—or there are some orcs, and we’re told they’ve raided a village or they’re going to attack the city; they are barbaric, or brutish, or bandits; they’re savage or slovenly. (That last one is a lie. I’d love to see slovenly used in a description.)
But we don’t see them slowly feeding bound townsmen into campfires. We might hear of the village being massacred, but we never seen the thicket of stakes along the marketpath, each topped with a blackened lolltongued head. We never see the eight-score kidnapped women being led off into the jungle to forced “marriages,” and those the lucky(?) ones. We never see—and thereby feel—the visceral wrongness of evil, and without that, “evil” just becomes another reason to wander around a gameboard, knocking over pieces.
Like, I get it: people play this game for fun, and many do it for the escapism, escape from the unpleasantness of their daily lives. Many want to elide—fade to black—the explicitness of what evil actually is. I’m not one of them, but I understand it is a thing.
But—well, it just doesn’t work. Heroes’ hearts are stirred to action by the twisting of the guts that comes from the knowledge of true evil at work in the world. Evil visiting hearth and home. Not the abstract knowledge that someone, something, somewhere, is doing acts that should not be done, but the seeing of it, the bearing witness in person and always always too close. If the evil in your game is weak, or vague, the heroism in your game will be weak, and vague.
1 . . . and dozens . . . .
2 Ironic twist! Sometimes things are beautiful and wicked!
3 Eh. Mostly I just see bog-standard competition for resources.