Saturday, May 9, 2020

A Government by the Evil, for the Evil

What are some of your favorite portrayals of "evil" fantasy societies in gaming?  As I've been thinking about how I want to portray humanoids in the game world it's gotten me thinking about the role of societal alignment, government, and power.  Maybe this topic has been covered in a Dragon or one of the Dungeon Master Guides, and an astute reader can point out a reference?

For instance, I've always thought of "Lawful Evil" societies as tyrannical police states, heavily militarized, with a side of casual cruelty.  Would Imperial Rome be Lawful Evil?  How about Sparta?  How about the old Soviet Union or totalitarian states from the mid-20th century (like the Axis powers?).

What would a realm be like where the prevailing alignment of the populace is Neutral Evil or Chaotic Evil?  In real world terms, I think of Chaotic Evil "states" as zones with warlords and armed bands, with complete disregard for traditional morality or norms.  Examples include regions controlled by drug cartels or notorious warlords who ravage entire regions, a populace living in fear.  A Chaotic Evil society is one where life is cheap and guns make the rules.  How about cultures where rampage was a way of life?  If you transport real world cultures to a game universe where alignments represent eternal and absolute truths, would the Huns and Mongol societies be Evil in D&D terms?  How about the raiders during the Viking era?  "Good", as the 1st Edition DMG defines it, represents "a belief that any creature is entitled to life, relative freedom, and the prospect of happiness".  By definition then, any society modeled after a historical counterpart that countenanced slavery would seem to be evil.  There goes antiquity.

I usually like to return to OG Gary's materials to clarify this kind of stuff, but while the Greyhawk Folios identify many kingdoms where the societal alignments point towards evil, there's not a lot of color on how the societies function or what a day in the life is like for the citizenry.  Examples would include The Horned Society, Bandit Kingdoms, Iuz, or the Great Kingdom.  We get encyclopedia facts - ruler, population, and a bit of recent history, but not the texture of how the societies run.

My favorite example of an evil place is Erelhei-Cinlu, the great Drow city in the Vault of the Drow.  Module D3 depicts armed houses of competing Drow nobles jockeying for position among the families with murder, assassination, and politics all part of the repertoire.  The city of Erelhei-Cinlu itself is a dangerous place where powerful non-Drow visitors - demons, undead, archmages, and the like - mingle in the streets and markets.  There's not so much "law and order" but rather a recognition that everyone there is a predator that can handle themselves, and if you can't defend yourself, victimization is to be expected - very much the strong survive.  It's my favorite depiction of a playable Chaotic Evil city (the Forgotten Realms knock off, Menzober-I-can't-spell-it, is targeted at compelling Drizz't fiction rather than something easy to use at the table).  The Drow may be the largest example of a Chaotic Evil society... for humans it tends to be smaller groups, and transitory - the equivalent of biker gangs, pirate ships, the aforementioned warlords or cartels, but not anything at scale or which persisted.

Here's another odd factoid I learned while considering evil societies.  Orc alignment shifted through the years!  TSR D&D had Orcs as Lawful Evil, but when WOTC took over with 3rd Edition, Orcs were recast as Chaotic Evil and this has persisted into 5th Edition.  We recently re-watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy of movies, and I can see how the depiction of Orcs there could be considered Chaotic Evil... it's fear of their powerful supernatural leaders that keep the armies together, and left to their own devices, Orcs fall to in-fighting and scrabbling with each other (such as the in-fighting at Cirith Ungol or out on the plains of Rohan by the eaves of Fangorn Forest).

Anyway, this post is not meant to be a deep-dive on Orcs, per se, I'm still mulling.  I'm sure other media has done Orcs well - maybe Warhammer or World of Warcraft - perhaps as masters of warfare and the military arts, basically "evil Klingons" - time for more research.  On the main topic though, I would love to hear how readers would characterize notorious historical regimes in terms of societal alignments.  Similarly let me know if you've got examples of game settings or fictional states that presented compelling examples of interesting evil societies.  Thanks!


  1. almost all states are evil societies. the United States of America today is a Neutral Evil state, strongly trending Lawful. the closest thing to a non-Evil government present today is probably North Korea, but even they probably don't make the cut.

  2. > I'm sure other media has done Orcs well - maybe Warhammer or World of Warcraft - perhaps as masters of warfare and the military arts, basically "evil Klingons" - time for more research.

    Elder Scrolls orcs might also be worth investigating, they definitely seem more on the Lawful side of things post Dragon-Break.

  3. Orcs have actually shifted Alignment multiple times in D&D.
    LBB had them as Neutral or Chaotic; they, minotaurs, and ogres were the only "humanoids" classified that way.
    Holmes and Moldvay turned them Chaotic.
    1e turned them Chaotic Evil.
    2e turned them Lawful Evil, possibly to emphasize their antipathy to Elves.
    Then WOTC turned them Chaotic Evil again.

  4. Here is a point of confusion that a lot of folks have. In nine-point alignment, monsters can be lawful evil; but in three point alignment, monsters are not going to be Lawful (with outstanding individuals excepted) even if the race is quite regimented and orderly.

    In a nine point alignment, both Rome and a unit of Hobgoblins will be Lawful Evil. But in three point, Rome is Lawful and the hobgoblins (who have not changed a bit) are now Chaotic.

  5. I think we have to go back a bit to get understanding evil on societal terms. So thinking a society that practiced slavery could not be good would mean few if any societies in history were ever good. I fear some today have arrived at that conclusion. Ideas of alignment assume that societies can be good, even if not perfect. Even if they do some of what the evil societies do. Faramir's appraisal of Gondor's many failings is a good example. For all its problems, Gondor is still understood as 'good'. Meanwhile Mordor is bad, even if you could argue both indulged in some of the same practices.

    1. I agree, it's important to decide if alignment is something cosmic or absolute, or relative to the society? In a D&D game with divine figures and outer planes, the nature of "good" is absolute (external to earthly societies) and most societies would be neutral or evil if they have far-reaching practices that don't measure up to the absolute values.

      Maybe for societies it's easier sticking to lawful, neutral, chaotic since most societies are evil when viewed from an external definition of good.

  6. Check out the warhammer fantasy roleplay (2E) book Barony of the Damned, which gives you an outline for an adventure and potential campaign set in Mousillon. It's a lawless and horrible place - but the actual people living there aren't actually Evil, but it is FULL of Evil. The closest thing the region has to government is varying shades of Evil.

  7. Might be a bit late to the party for this post, but I wrote a little something about this with examples: