RPG Design Journal #4: Heroes, Villains, and the Morally Ambiguous

I don’t actually talk about this character in this post, but I think it looks cool and I haven’t drawn any of the others, so I’m including it anyway.

Now that we have a very basic history sketched up for our setting, lets add a few inhabitants that the players can learn about and interact with. As I’ve mentioned before – the strength of a setting’s lore is in its interaction. NPCs are useful because they can both impart lore onto players passively (through gossip, providing quests, bequeathing important items, etc.) and by being part of the lore themselves. Effectively used NPCs help orient the players in the world. A no-nonsense sheriff with a secret soft spot for orphans paints a very different picture of the law in a city than an easily bribed magistrate who imprisons anybody who slights them. Is the villain a well-respected businessman who controls a criminal network behind the scenes? A mad scientist dabbling in hideous eldritch acts? What about a mother driven by a desperate attempt to save her children by killing on the orders of an anonymous kidnapper? Each one of these villains has a different tone and a different place in this world, and each one can be connected to the setting in different ways.

I’m going to describe three NPCs below, each is intended to represent something about the setting to help orient the players.

[[I’d like to remind readers that this is a setting that I’ve been working on for some time. Some of these NPCs draw upon established lore that I haven’t expanded upon yet in these posts; some of them are from scratch, some of them I already created in advance.]]

A HERO: It’s good to have other characters in the setting that aren’t the players that represent goodness and virtue. The goals and actions of these characters can help the players understand what is perceived as “good” in this world. It should be noted that the “heroic” NPC’s views don’t necessarily have to align with the conventional understanding of “good.” Perhaps a hero is corrupt and has good PR, or maybe the people they represent have a culture so far removed from the player’s that their perception of morality is fundamentally different. (A good rule of thumb: A culture will usually develop its morality based around the necessities of survival. This is, of course, an absurdly simplified formula, but it works well when developing fantastic civilizations). So, in this setting we have strong Imperial government that looks upon a colony from afar. These colonies are constantly under threat by the environment around them, and the people are superstitious. We want a hero that helps represent this world.

There are two options that really stand out to me here: a hero that represents the will of the Empire, or a folk-hero that represents the survival and independence of the colonies. I’m going to go with the second. I think the Empire might have greater opportunities for our third type of character. One idea that I’ve been playing with is changing the nature of the nature of the Ranger class in this setting. Rangers are usually represented as loners that live outside of society. I’m interested in the idea of Rangers being like marshals in the old west. In this world, Rangers are part of an organized paramilitary organization that help protect people out on the frontier from the monster migrations. We can make a hero that represents this organization and its goals. Below is a description for Sarah Carroth. A high-level Ranger of Neutral Good alignment.

Sarah Carroth will be the leader of the Rangers. She is a character of legendary exploits – at least out on the frontier near the Forest. Every village has a story about how Sarah saved them single-handed from an onslaught of undead, or rooted out a cabal of werewolves, or destroyed a cult of Elf-worshippers. Most of these stories are exaggerated, if not made-up, but Sarah uses her reputation to seed hope in the dark frontier, and has inspired more than one adventurer to sign up with the Rangers through her tales.

The real flesh-and-blood Sarah is a woman with strong ideals, but an even stronger sense of practicality. While she resents the tight hold the Empire attempts to hold on the colonies, she is more concerned with protecting its residents from the onslaught of monsters. She encourages Rangers to work independently – roaming the countryside to assist towns and travelers. Unfortunately, this makes it difficult to rally Rangers to fight as a united force, and the growing numbers of monsters makes Sarah fear that her Rangers might not be enough. Some Rangers have suggested that they might need to call upon the Imperial military for assistance. Sarah is reluctant to concede, but she also knows that she is running out of options.

A VILLAIN: On the other side of the spectrum, we have villains. Villains show the forces that the players need to face. Sure, players know that they have to kill zombies, or marauding goblins, or whatever goons you throw at them, but true villains represent the greater threat of these standard enemies. This setting is supposed to be bleak and dark – there’s a sense that the forces of evil are always about to get the upper hand. We need a villain that helps represent this sense of dread and doom. This is Ilras the White, a Chaotic Evil anti-paladin (perhaps a Blackguard) to serve as a potential boss villain.

Ilras the White was  one of the greatest Paladins known to the world. His compassion, dedication, and sense of Justice made him beloved by all – from the anonymous commoner to the King himself. Ilras’s piety and honor blessed him with unnatural strength and longevity. While the Spirian Church which he served hailed his immortality as a miracle and a blessing, it soon became his curse. After the discovery of the New Lands, Ilras embarked upon a pilgrimage to the new mysterious continent, where he believed his true duty lay. Ilras entered the Eternal Forest on a mission to purge the source of evil himself, he did not return until the next Migration – fighting alongside the Elves.

Nobody knows transpired in the Forest that corrupted the Empire’s greatest Knight. Some say that the Elves captured and tortured him – his immortality preventing his death, he was driven to madness. Others say that in the Forest he saw the darkness that lays in all beings, and descended into despair with the realization that, even in his deathless state, he would never be able to end the tide of evil. No matter what the cause, every Migration the forces of the Coalition fear to see Ilras the White – impaled with numerous spears and arrows,  his once pristine armor smeared with the blood of many generations – emerge from the Forest on his never-ending crusade against the people he once sought to protect. 

A THIRD OPTION: Alongside our champions of good and evil are the third parties. These are the antiheroes, the neutrals, and those who just see things differently. These characters can help provide information on more specific or esoteric parts of your world, they can help shake-up player perceptions by offering a “third path” in an otherwise black-and-white world, or sometimes they just add a refreshing taste of something different. This world is definitely one that attracts eccentrics as well as fanatics – it takes a special kind of person to want to risk life and limb in a continent that wants to kill you. With this character I’d like to expand on the moral ambiguity of the Imperial Government. This is Zacharia Quinn, a Lawful-Neutral Inquisitor that can serve as a random encounter, a potential ally, or an enemy.

Zacharia Quinn doesn’t much care for the New Lands. As far as they’re concerned, the whole place is awash with sinners attempting to escape the Empire and, even worse, unholy monstrosities that must be destroyed. Quinn is an Inquisitor of the Church. Their job is to root out the “sleeper agents” of the Elves – the Changelings, lycanthropes, and Undead that hide among the unknowing townsfolk. However, not even the will and dedication of a holy agent can be untainted in the New Lands, and Quinn has been experiencing disturbing dreams.

Inspired by these nightmarish visions, Zacharia seeks to discover an object called the Gospel of Turos  – a document written heretical prophet who once worshiped the Elves. This quest weighs heavily on Zacharia, who has begun to doubt their own faithfulness. Though they tell themselves that they seek the Gospel of Turos in order to better destroy the forces they hunt, they fear that they may be falling into the arms of some unholy menace. In their desperation, Zacharia has become increasingly neurotic – they flagellate themselves, mutter holy scripture of dubious origin, and perform “unorthodox” protective rituals. They are suspicious of all strangers, but will gladly assist anybody who can aid them in their quest.

I haven’t included specific stats for these characters for a few reasons. One reason is that I’m lazy, the second reason (and the one that I like better) is that I don’t think the stats are really the important thing here. I can quickly determine if there are some specific spells, abilities, or items that these characters can use to make them interesting for an encounter or that fit their purpose, but it’s a bit early to be thinking about that anyway. This is a big world, and I’ve got dozens of  characters to add to it. These are merely three potential characters for players to learn about, but since this is a setting and not a campaign or adventure, we need to keep in mind that there’s always potential for one more character that can provide motivation for the players. Good settings don’t have one good guy and one major villain. If you create a setting where the only major villain is a brutish warlord, then it might be a bit difficult to make a good game with a party of players who want to try their hand in political scheming, or just want to loot some dungeons.

Variety is the spice of life, even made-up enacted lives.

Next time we’ll hone in on one specific city in the setting to sprinkle in some plot hooks.






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