There’s a certain trend in many games to have an absolutely bombastic and over the top villain in charge of the adversaries in quite a few RPGs, and it’s honestly understandable. Having an outrageously evil person behind all the trouble the group faces makes the task of fighting them something everyone can get behind; it removes troublesome shades of grey and moral quandaries that most people don’t want to have to deal with when they just want to escape reality for a few hours during the session.
There’s nothing wrong with such an outrageously evil mastermind, either, but ‘evil for the sake of evil’ gets kind of silly if you take any time to step back. Even the most vile mustache-twirling caricature of villainy is going to have some greater motivation than “I will be evil to be evil!” It might be something as simple as having been raised in a particularly ugly, brutal, and malignant faith that taught them that devotion to their god comes before all else and that acts of xenophobic hate please that god, leading them to raise armies of similar believers and unthinking horrors to march on others as an act of devotion. Or they might be convinced that the secret to immortality requires an immense sacrifice of living creatures, and perhaps they figure they can atone later once they’ve got eternity to do so.
Or perhaps they’re more nuanced than that. Every day in the real world there are news stories of people who are convinced they’re doing the right thing for the right reasons when everyone else is horrified by their acts; a man bombs a medical clinic that offers abortion services, and despite now being a murderer, arsonist, and terrorist he believes he’s a hero. A priest chokes a young woman to death on a mix of water and salt in an attempt to drive out demons. A man whose racist beliefs lead him to go on a killing spree is convinced that he’s defending his way of life from corruption. All these are acts of evil, with only the excuse that the perpetrator sincerely believes that they are doing the good and righteous thing to defend them.
They’re still evil. They’re still monsters. But you can see what motivates them and that turns them from a two-dimensional cardboard cutout with a looped recording of diabolical laughter into a realized character with motivations and drives. You can still set the players up to fight them with no regrets, but now those motivations drive what they’re doing. A villain who marches on enemy nations and their own civilization with an army, intent on genocide in the name of racial purity, sees themself as a hero, even as the behave like a horrible and merciless monster. They’re unalloyed evil, but their motivation makes them more complex. They may unexpectedly spare some groups or individuals, leading the players to question what’s going on.
Then there’s the impersonal evil – things put in place by people who just don’t understand or care about the damage they’re causing. The lord of a city who passes laws into effect that make life hell for people is a good villain for low-power campaigns. You can’t just barge into their home, behead them, and saunter off with your job done in a case like that; such a campaign may end in an attempt to hunt the lord down to face a trial, but only after establishing things to make the aftermath better. A king might need to be deposed by a cadet branch of the royal line, more amenable to the plight of the common folk for having grown up closer to them. A priest, raised by the temple, might declare horrific edicts and need to be kidnapped and taken to live among the people their decrees hurt simply because they don’t know any better.
All of these people are evil by accident, attempting to do what their job is and harming others horribly by simple fact of ignorance; given that they’ve never learned any different. Players can fight this kind of evil in numerous ways, all the way from organizing a rebellion down to orchestrating a kidnapping and forcing them to see the harm done by their actions, giving them a chance to correct their own actions without going straight to homicide.
While a far cry from the kind of hack-and-slash superheroic style of fighting an overpowering epic evil who is evil because evil, it allows for more complex and potentially satisfying campaigns, when, rather than simply putting down a rabid beast, players have the chance to see themselves triumph over an ultimately human kind of evil, one that they may recognize and be frustrated by in the real world – and really, that alone may provide more satisfaction and elation than any number of victories over cosmic forces of darkness.
I don’t recommend it for brand-new groups with brand-new players, but it’s definitely something for more experienced groups to consider for the next campaign.