Behind the Screens – (L)awfully Evil, Part 1

Let’s talk E-Vil, baby. Let’s talk about you and me. Let’s talk about all the good things and the bad things. Let’s talk Eeeee-vil!

Early 90’s references aside, evil – villainy specifically – is a narrative topic I love to talk about. With Hell’s August in full swing I’ve got the perfect opportunity to wax poetic about my favorite types of ne’er-do-wells. Given the theme of the month, we’ll be approaching this from the Devlishly Lawfully and Evil perspectives. We’re talking about Vader, Magneto, or Lex Luthor. About Jadis the White Witch, Cersei Lannister, or Dolores Umbridge.

Who are they? And what kind of role do they have in your game? The answer, dear reader, to both questions is the same. Awesome.

Generally speaking, Evil is Evil. No matter where you fall on the Law-Chaos axis, if you’re Evil, you’re accomplishing your objectives at the expense of others. Or, at the very least, you’ve decided that your goals are more important than anyone else’s feelings, livelihood, or well-being. This is the broadest definition of Evil I can come up with. Evil is essentially selfishness.

The Lawful bit falls into two categories. In terms of alignment, Lawfulness can be defined as Control. In this case, control of one’s self or control of others. Self-control is mostly a matter of having a code of conduct or standard to rule one’s self by. Control of others deals with the manipulation of a system hierarchy. It’s the difference between Boba Fett and Grand Moff Tarkin. These two types of Lawful aren’t mutually exclusive by necessity, but it serves as a handy way to talk about how the various parts of Lawful Evil are different.

Whew, didn’t mean to dive into a deep alignment discussion. Anyways, assuming the above premises are generally true, we can continue on to talking about how useful this sort of meta-thinking is in game. So why do Lawful Evil NPCs work so well in RPGs?

1) Motivation, Characterization, and Believably-ness

Lawful Evil NPCs have a one up on their Neutral and Chaotic counterparts in that it’s so easy to come up with their motivations. Figuring out what drives an NPC, especially a villain is the key to bringing that character to life. It’s the first step in separating a flat, two-dimensional NPC from a detailed and nuanced character. With LE, it’s easy. The answer is Control. They’re either establishing order or following orders. Darths Sidious and Vader are a classic example of Lawful Evil. The former created the Galactic Empire an incredibly well organized governing body that spanned countless worlds. The latter, followed his master’s commands. Exterminate the Jedi, crush the Rebellion, and so forth. They each know what they’re about. And they know what they want. Their conviction drives them. And when NPC villains have such clear direction it’s easy to put PCs in the path of that.

2) They’re Organized

Lawful Evil NPCs tend to feature as primary antagonists in my home games because it’s easy to put them at the head of a well-structured organization of mooks and henchmen. Hmm, players having to fight through scores of weaker minions in order to get to the big bad boss of this particular area. Where have I seen that trope before? The beauty of it is that Lawful Evil characters tend to attract these types of followings. Because they want structure. They want order.

3) They’re Cunning

The best laws are those that work for you. This is especially true of the diabolic fiends in both D&D and Pathfinder. Hellish society is built around a strict hierarchy where the rules have rules and it’s more important to serve the letter of the law than the spirit. In order to get ahead an ambitious devil will circumvent the rules with loopholes and exceptions. Lawful Evil NPCs tend to be the ones with a plan. And they’re the villains most capable of carrying them out. Asmodeus, the Arch-Fiend himself, is often described as having plans within plans, wheels within wheels. The idea being that his true goal won’t become apparent until it’s too late to stop.
Lawful Evil villains have been some of the most rewarding NPCs in my games. Hopefully I’ve given you enough food for thought as to why I think Lawful is the best of the Evil alignments. Next article, we’ll try building a Lawful Evil NPC from scratch. We’ll go over my process for the essential parts of lawful villainy.


What did I miss? Is there a crucial component to the Lawful Evil alignment I didn’t mention? Have a favorite Lawful Evil character from literature or pop culture? Let us know in the comments section below!


Anthony Li

Anthony Li has been pretending to be someone or something else for about as long as he can remember, which some people might consider a problem. He cut his teeth on 2nd Edition AD&D when he was 14 years old and his only regret is that he didn’t start rolling dice sooner. Due to an unhealthy addiction to Magic: the Gathering he missed the entire cultural phenomenon that was the 3.X era of D&D. After a brief stint with 4E, he was dragged kicking and screaming into the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game where he has since acclimated, adapted, and thrived. Most of his roleplaying experience has been behind in the GM screen where he has trained his dice to confirm crits on command. He always roots for the bad guys.

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