A bibliophile and attempted scholar, I have written and published several roleplaying books and designed the Dice & Glory system.
Dark Lords occupy the realms of fantasy as representative of an evil driving force, if not the sole embodiment of pure evil for a fantasy RPG campaign. These creatures, for that is what they are regardless of what they began life as, are a force to be reckoned with. Their evil may endure for generations after their supposed destruction. These creatures can carry on into modern and even sci-fi games as an ancient evil that was not truly defeated in the past but only left imprisoned or weakened after their “death.” That is if death has any solid meaning regarding the Dark Lord character after their transformation. In this latter scenario, the players can experience chills as they research the backstory and discover the possible consequences of the Dark Lord’s victory or seeming defeat.
Dark Lords should represent a subversion of the Player Characters’ values and be a genuine threat to their well-being and that of the institutions and people (mostly NPCs) that they rely on. Essentially the Dark Lord is not just an enemy threatening Player Character (PC) mortality but threatens their whole foundation in the game world.
A properly constructed Dark Lord will foster battles that the PCs hunger for, and that carry with them personal stakes for the characters. Dark Lords serve as the driving force for a ttRPG campaign and due to their Archetypal status, are easy to find resources for. They also allow a Game-Master (GM) to start a game as a sandbox or in a loose story-mode where the PCs can discover their characters, also allowing the Game Master to know the PCs just as intimately. This allows the GM to use this wealth of PC information to better evolve the Dark Lord of their campaign. Dark Lords tend to lend a certain loose structure to an overall campaign allowing a GM to approach the game with foreknowledge of where it will end (in a final fight versus the big bad) and with a definite starting point.
[T]he character that will eventually become the ultimate enemy needs to first endear themselves to the players.
A Campaign is a long-term ongoing RPG game that has at least one arc that takes it from the beginning to the end. Basically, each game session builds on the next not just in terms of character experience but also in the accumulation and generation of story threads where at least some of which helps to lead to the conclusion of the campaign. This long-form allows the GM to gradually build the in-game world as well as allowing the players to evolve their characters and make a mark on the game world, possibly even influencing its course as well as the course of the campaign itself. Character evolution also applies to the GM’s Non-Player Characters (NPCs).
Evolving a character is letting the character grow through experience and allowing incidents in the campaign to alter their characteristics, not just power level, in the course of a campaign. This also includes the accruement of storylines and how they tie to the character. This also allows the importance of individual plot-threads to gain precedence naturally based on their personal importance to the character and vice versa. In order to be able to evolve the character of a Dark Lord however, the character that will eventually become the ultimate enemy needs to first endear themselves to the players.
The players have to like them not only for the initial emotional connection but so that the character can survive long enough to become a challenge down the road. Of course, the GM needs to be flexible enough to go with the NPC that the players naturally gravitate to or that has already ingratiated themselves with the PCs. As this is key to begin to create a Dark Lord, the GM has to be able to go with the character that has achieved this first. Or the GM can go with the second as the first can serve as a potent target for the Dark Lord later on.
The Archetypal King of Shadow
All Dark Lords have certain defining character traits most of which fit the shape of a well-established Archetype. The classic Archetype of a Dark Lord is portrayed as dour, contemplative, and often mean or angry because they have lost something in their tireless pursuit of a single goal. Archetypical Dark Lords maintain a fortress, ALWAYS “impenetrable,” have countless minions at their disposal, and always have a negative effect on the surrounding world, especially evident in their immediate surroundings such as the territory around their castles. Just their evil presence is enough to make their territory a dangerous wasteland as twisted as their own black soul, or what’s left of it anyway.
If a Dark Lord becomes powerful enough or wreaks enough havoc, even the mere mention of their name may become taboo out of the fear that they may be summoned forth (similar to a demon/satan), or that their name carries with it bad luck maybe even a curse. Perfect material for an RPG adventuring party hence its popularity in fantasy roleplaying games despite the cliché.
At their core, all Dark Lords have an unquenchable ambition that drives them on in their evil endeavors. This drive is so strong that they have little to no ability to stop it once it’s started and gained even a little momentum. It is necessary to define this ambition keeping in mind that the character is willing to do anything and give anything in order to realize it. It is this desire, coupled with defined goals that drive the Dark Lord character to push the campaign storyline (or the main arc) along. It is what causes them to begin setting things in motion. Incidents that gradually escalate in severity and frequency that comprise the core of a campaign rise from this ambition and desire. A Dark Lord’s evil ambition drives events ranging from low-level encounters up to the movement of entire armies over the course of a campaign. Low level encounters being those involving pickpockets and minor thugs, to street skirmishes. Comparatively High-level encounters include battles with outlaw bands, assassination attempts, ranging up to “mini-boss” fights.
Dark Lords are the ultimate enemy in that the PCs not only HATE them but also fear them and ... cannot wait to engage them on the personal battlefield.
A Dark Lord has an all-consuming need for power that is so virulent that it rots away anything internally that would get in the way of them achieving their goal of total domination and achievement of raw power. The only thing holding a Dark Lord at bay is its own character elements, however this will not last long as we’ll discuss later. The tactics that they will use to achieve their own ends will fall into the attack the weak points, scorch the earth, mind control, and politicking of/against any enemy they deem strong enough to spoil their plans.
They will attack and destroy those most vulnerable in the PCs’ lives, the aforesaid weak points. Especially those elements that are associated with the PCs and their good fortune the closest. A Dark Lord when going for a weak point (an associated NPC) they will often go through a process of assessment and identification of the target, what benefits does the target grant the PC(s), and what importance does the PC put on them? The final stage can be a direct hit, a kidnapping and ransom, or blackmail the PC for the NPCs welfare. This is often the first tactic but may be used more than once as the Dark Lord gets better acquainted with the PC's network of NPCs and resources throughout the game world.
The second most favored tactic of Dark Lords is that of Scorched Earth. This tactic serves a meta-narrative purpose as well as an in-game strategy of total destruction. It demonstrates not just their capacity for evil and destruction but helps to demonstrate what the world can expect from their rule as well as helping to increase the Dark Lord’s threat index to the players. This is where the Dark Lord NPC has ultimately crossed the line into the irredeemable.
The third tactic is, of course, Mind Control. A true classic, mind control whether perpetrated by the Overlord themselves or via the talents of a minion. Dark Lords use mind control often as a weapon wielded against their most dire enemies or weak-minded victims (the latter for fun as well as to perpetrate terror). They especially love using it to set an NPC that is closely associated with the PCs if not a family member who is completely innocent as an assailant against the PCs or frame them and spur the PCs into action in order to rescue them or try to prove their innocence. Typically, this means the PCs must take an action to break the law, trying to rescue the innocent, or trying to incapacitate them if they have been turned into an assailant or assassin. This does figure into the Attack the Weak Points strategy but also can help the Dark Lord remain completely anonymous by sending mind-controlled innocents to do their dirty work increasing their evil by magnitudes, especially if the PCs unknowingly kill said NPCs in the process only to learn the truth shortly thereafter.
The fourth tactic does fall under the Mind Control category as a sort of subcategory, this being the Manchurian Candidate tactic. The Dark Lord (or a minion) will bewitch a background character, one that has had previous contact with the PCs, and direct them to carry out a mission in benefit to the evil overlord. This is often a second-degree display of the Dark Lord and his forces to have that ability, essentially a story wise set-up to an NPC with a special relationship or emotional connection to the PCs falling under this power.
Second-degree meaning that this is the second time the power comes into play and that this time, the players cannot ignore it because they or theirs are the target. That is to say, the first time this happens it can be in the background, such as a local farmer who did something that benefitted the Dark Lord is about to be hanged as the PCs pass by but all the while is proclaiming his innocence; this would be the first degree. Players can ignore the first degree, or they can choose to learn more, but in any case, it is of little concern to them other than their enemy may gain some sort of advantage yet unknown to them. The second-degree crops up shortly after being directed at something the PCs cannot ignore but which may not ignite a full-on response to the true enemy with the common targets of this degree being themselves or second-string NPCs, etc. However, the third degree is when a close NPC falls under the Dark Lord’s power and may either be framed and taken by a local authority or forced to face off against the PCs. This third degree is the emotional punch below the belt that makes them want to pursue the Dark Lord if for nothing else for revenge.
Politicking is a higher-level tactic that often happens in the background, particularly if the PC group is typical adventurer types and lacks any political sense. Politicking involves the use of bribes, Diplomacy (mostly lies though), and sheer intimidation. A Dark Lord will attempt to gain allies as well as diminish those of their enemies and main opponents. Of course, a LORD OF EVIL will use politicking as a build-up to as well as a follow-up to one of their attacks, the incident being used as a proof of something that benefits them or their politics especially if the real perpetrator’s identity is not known or entirely mistaken for another. Of course, the latter may be an attempt on the part of the Dark Lord to set their enemies on each other, especially if the target of the wrongfully identified party is the PCs.
Dark Lords are the ultimate enemy in that the PCs not only HATE them but also fear them and/or their power but cannot wait to engage them on the personal battlefield. Effective Dark Lords relate in some way directly to the PCs and may give them reasons to shudder as if glaring into a dark mirror of the self. Especially when what they were before their dark transformation will be evident in those that knew them prior and the places that touched them before they fell into darkness.
Their appearance, at least in their final form, should reflect the horror of what they have become as opposed to what they were, an utter inhuman monstrosity with a near mindless drive as opposed to a character with all too understandable drives and ambitions. Even typical villains are more relatable in that they possess motivations and ambitions on the human scale. A Dark Lord’s singular passion is ultimately unfathomable in the mortal scope.
Three techniques can be best used to define and create a Dark Lord within any campaign. These techniques are giving them a Backstory, their Degradation of Character (using character evolution to illustrate the descent of an NPC into a Dark Lord), and Distancing.
Backstory is a story that lies in the background of a character which occurred before the game, in the character’s past, which helps to define who they are and why they are in their current guise and perhaps even provide clues as to where they may ultimately end up. Dark Lords often start out already a fully realized power for evil with a backstory that only serves to explain their ultimate goal sometimes with some lip service to their motivations, if not just for evil’s sake. This helps to quickly portray a villain and can get the campaign off and running, but the emotional power of the enemy to affect the Players is subdued. A Dark Lord should start out as an NPC associated with the PCs possessing a backstory that adds to who they are at that moment and maybe has an unsavory element that foretells their ultimate doom.
A backstory and the evolvement of an NPC into a Dark Lord progressing them from friend or ally into enemy packs a lot more punch than a backstory alone. A Dark Lord may have a backstory, even a tragic one that can garner sympathy, serving to not only explain why they’ve taken such a dark path but which can also serve to humanize them. However, eventually a Dark Lord is entirely consumed by his or her own inner darkness (sometimes literally), perhaps even becoming an evil shadow or wraith. They turn, by virtue of their own evil, into something more than and at the same time less than human; something close to but not yet a demon or evil spirit.
The Dark Lord’s evil causes a Degradation of Character, that is the character begins to change in such a way as to convert it from a relatable character with understandable goals and a definitive personality into a what is essentially a monster that can only function as an enemy where any of the other functional parts of the character have been painfully excised or pitifully rotted away.
The players may have limited or extended contact with the Dark Lord character before their apotheosis into an evil shadow. However, the more contact before the fall into darkness, the better. Here a GM may embellish, demonstrate, and sculpt a fully realized character or at least get that gist across to the players. As the character, undoubtedly they will become a villain if they don’t already start that way, turns to the dark side their character traits, those eccentricities, habits, and quirks that define them may begin to noticeably degrade until they are all completely gone or transformed into those that fit the new creature. These quirks that served to originally endear them to the PCs may pervert into completely negative extremes as well. This transformation can take the form of outright insanity before the character has been entirely blasted away by evil into more of a force of nature embodying pure evil rather than the typical villain character. The players will get to see this character decay into a monster.
NOTE: That a dark lord character can have a set of rules or laws that they follow such as a code of honor prior to becoming a dark lord which mitigates their character-defining ambition which is then either blown away or taken away by a tragic event which can help to earn some sympathy from players as well as deepening the character of the villain especially if they’ve shared in it. It can help to illustrate that not even the “Big Bad” can escape fate.
As a Dark Lord decays into their antagonistic guise, they also become increasingly distant from the PCs. Essentially a Dark Lord as they transform become increasingly distant as their overwhelming ambition drives them ever further, especially as their goal path begins to cross or go against that of the PCs.
The GM’s use of Distance is most effective after the villain has fully decayed into a full-fledged Dark Lord. This technique helps to build dread in players, especially when minions and sub-bosses become increasingly competent and powerful. The more the Dark Lord comes closer to his/her (its) apotheosis as a lord of evil and darkness they begin to drop out of the story and storylines as a personal entity or embodied character, they begin to become a mere presence though often a corrupting and supernaturally dreadful one. They become more and more immaterial; that is, they physically begin to leave the story, but their twisted personality seems to remain which can be illustrated in name drops, minions, hired help, heraldry, rumor, dreams, and choreographed incidents possibly revealing their plans if not their primary strategy.
There must be well-defined and known consequences for the failure of the PCs. This doesn’t mean a world-ending cataclysm brought on by the domination of the Dark Lord, the end of the world is always too big to conceive of concretely, but the utter impoverishment of a land and its people as well as essentially cursing it for ages.
This can take many forms, a semi-permanent pestilence, the supernatural oppression of the people and their spirits, or the ruination of all of the socioeconomic and infrastructure in the land. What is immediate is the permanent loss of hope for any kind of meaningful achievement within the demesne of the Dark Lord that can lead to any kind of fulfillment or happiness even if it relies on simple greed, indulgence seeking, or the need to be a hero.
What is certain on the victory of the Dark Lord is the permanent loss of hope and happiness in all of the surviving NPCs, possibly reducing them and their land into wraiths and wastes. All that the PCs have come to know and may want or be planning for will be no more even if they run, they will leave behind something that will continue to thirst and spread like a disease.
[A]s the Dark Lord's evil consumes and transforms them the Dark Lord themselves grow distant in body but always creep ever nearer in demonic spirit.
A Driving Force
A Dark Lord’s power, their force of will, and their sheer ambition forge together to become a driving force, hopefully the primary driving force, of a campaign. That is, they are the reason things begin happening and continue to happen either indirectly or directly to the PCs.
They may even cause chain reactions with side incidents (and quests) to spring up some even unintentionally, leaving the PCs to clean up the mess. It is the fact that the Dark Lord will never stop and even in their wake, they are creating monsters and strife. Their sheer momentum is stirring up chaos and side events like an evil echo throughout the world.
They inspire, perform, incite, or perpetrate the incidents that keep the PCs on their toes and following the trail. They should be behind most, if not all, of the major set pieces or battles in the campaign. Essentially this is the active part of their contamination, the result of their unnatural drive for power and the preview of what the world will face after they achieve their goals. These incidents should grow in scope and intensity as the campaign progresses, and as the Dark Lords evil consumes and transforms them with the Dark Lord themselves growing distant in body but always creeping ever nearer in demonic spirit. Until, of course, the final standoff where the PCs at last confront this horror face-to-face.
The Dark Pinnacle
Dark Lords as they climb the ranks of power can muster and mobilize the forces of “evil and darkness” as well as rely on the loyalty of certain “evil races” (if such a thing exists in your campaign world; another subject for another time). However, the forces of “good and light” will notice and thus mobilize in response, probably in equal force, pretty much limiting the decisive factor of any two-sided battle of the balance to the PCs. Such black versus white battles are a staple of fantasy roleplaying games.
The black & white world/universe where good faces off with evil and this balance of forces type setup can still be fulfilling given that PCs are involved and the emotional stakes are on the table, but this also diminishes the greater danger represented by the Dark Lord character. In a world of grays, the Dark Lord, who is a single shade of black, represents an unrelenting gaze into the abyss of homogeny. All will be black in their kingdom.
One solution, one that is becoming more common with simulative games, is not partitioning the world among lines of black and white/good or evil. That is, the world is instead multiple shades of gray. Nothing in it is truly good or evil though some characters and even some cultures and maybe races tend to lean more one-way than another. A single brush does not quite suffice to color any single character component in these games. This introduces a complexity that can hold any number of advantages and disadvantages for a Dark Lord character and their opposition, allowing politics to become a primary force in the struggle. Yes, a Dark Lord can rise and exist in a non-monochromatic world where their presence becomes even more unnatural and can even deepen the moral questions of the campaign world. Characters that become Dark Lords can begin as the truest of the good, but they always proceed towards the blackest evil. With each successful step towards their ultimate goal, they also move ever closer and perhaps even beyond darkness.
Evil to the Bone
Dark Lords are creatures of pure evil and essentially become an elemental force within the game, pushing the story along to the climax. The characters that begin the journey into the darkness that will ultimately subsume them are at their core pure objectivists. Their objective becomes their reason for existing, and as they allow their selfishness to rule them, it annihilates their character leaving behind only the elemental shadow. This leftover evil elemental being is the archetype of the Dark Lord.
A Dark Lord in their final incarnation is pure drive, only the objective of the previous form remains, and they become only the embodiment of an archetype. What evil is in the terms of a Dark Lord is the disregarding or willing ignorance of the pain and destruction visited unto others as a matter of course to the satisfaction of their own goals, especially unto the innocent. Innocents being those removed from any responsibility or decision that could influence the consequences that they suffer, essentially the utterly powerless.
It’s this disregard for the innocent combined with their supernatural drive and the stripping away of their identity, which defines the character and their evil. This allowing the archetype not only to dominate but to almost wholly define the character aside from their goal which is more often than not cliché itself. The Dark Lord in the end is a monster to defeat with little or no consideration as to the morality of their destruction. Of course, this begs the question of if a Dark Lord is so inhumanly evil then how can they continue to be a threat when so much is working against them by their very nature. What a Dark Lord should have at their disposal to be able to slash through these mitigating factors is a story device known as an ‘edge.’
The Poisoned Blade
The edge that a Dark Lord in any universe (be it monochromatic or vivid Technicolor) requires is something that gives them the slight advantage over their opponents including the PCs. They already can have reasons behind their need to seek out and achieve dark power and the factors that drive their ambitions, which are already prime factors that can give them a leg up on those lethargic and apathetic powers of the world but their real edge is having a point. They need to have at least and really only need one, a good point as to why others should help them achieve their goals even if it may be a false or temporary one.
This Point is mainly put to use in the gathering power stage before the Dark Lord has fully decayed into their thoroughly corrupted form where their minions may be too terrified to desert them. This point serves to convince characters possibly including the PCs to join forces or at the very least assist the forces of the Dark Lord to achieve their goals. At a minimum it should at least throw a wrench into the PC’s group dynamic if it serves to convince only part of the group or even one individual that maybe the Dark Lord ‘ain’t all bad’. A prime example of this ‘Point’ would be the Dark Lord seeking power and allies to rescue their people from oppression, especially people of a race or culture viewed by the majority as evil, and having good and recent examples as to why, how, and who is the oppressive force that keeps them down. Their people have just been forced to behave evilly as a matter of survival.
Those who would rally to a Dark Lord’s ‘Point’ would be those who can stand to profit should they assist, those whose welfare seems attached to it, and those who the ‘Point’ can convince of its veracity. Those who would profit after often only convinced by their benefits and use the ‘Point’ more as an excuse or as cover if they should also profit from victory they will be inseparable allies up until they are convinced otherwise. Of course, those whose welfare seems attached to the assistance or victory of the Dark Lord will be reliable allies and will be much harder to convince if this is possible or the Dark Lord’s mal-intent.
Those convinced of the ‘Point’ on a more intellectual level are philosophically convinced by arguments based on or around this Point and may be converted at least in part by successful counter argument and even example. The latter can be also considered those who either fail or refuse to act as they believe the Dark Lord and its motives do not seem to be “all bad” or can’t be seen to “negatively impact” them in the near future. All of these groups would lend an advantage to a Dark Lord’s ambitions and to the aims of their forces.
Dark Lords are a roleplaying and fantasy archetype for a reason. They are easy to set up and use as the main villain for a campaign, but their character must be built up and become familiar to the players keeping in mind that the players may in the course of the game have increasing levels of contact with underlings. This contact can if the Dark Lord’s personality and drive (essentially Ego) is not felt to permeate everything undermine the importance of the Dark Lord character in the minds of the players causing them to target and want to confront the underlings more than facing off against the actual Dark Lord. A well-constructed (and especially play-evolved) Dark Lord will focus the players and their character's attentions on defeating them not just because it’s the ultimate goal of the campaign but because they desperately and personally want to wipe out the over-reaching darkness and grind its face into the dirt!
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© 2017 Robert A Neri Jr