So today I’m going to expand on my mini-rant about the Vralkans of the Numenera setting, and why they – and every other Evil Culture – bother me so much. This is something that I blame the drow of D&D for, as they’re the essential caricature of this whole thing.
The main problem is that these cultures are caricatures. They’re generally lazy ways to have a big bad nasty villain group large enough that you can run multiple campaigns and not have to worry about running out of them as generic baddies. Some are better than others; the Vralkans at least had some thought put into them, with laborers treated as well as the warrior leaders of their culture so that everyone stays strong enough to do their jobs. Drow, on the other hand, are generally total nonsense – a backstabbing culture of murderers and poisoners who use underfed and abused slaves, casually sacrifice their own people to their gods for even the slightest bit of benefit, and by all rights should deplete their population to unsustainably small levels in short order.
Even with the best-case scenarios, this just doesn’t work out. While the idea of a fierce warrior culture from a harsh land is well-ingrained, and the trope of barbarian invaders pillaging for supplies has some historical merit, even those cultures weren’t as ridiculous as the ones we have in games. Vikings had farms. The Mongols weren’t constantly rampaging. Even more, no culture has ever been in a state where openly backstabbing, murdering, and sacrificing your own citizens has been a generations-long way of life.
Trying to paint these cultures in such a way renders them two-dimensional at best; they’re designed so that it’s easy to just set aside what few details give them any hint of nuance and treat them as a collective of mustache-twirling jack-booted villains who commit travesties for laughs and worship evil for the sake of evil. It’s fine if your goal is to have a generic evil that your cardboard cutout heroes can valiantly be valiant against, the way so many movies have unimpressively generic villains for their heroic action heroes to be heroic against. If you want to have a story worth the trouble of telling, though – be it a written story, tabletop game, or similar longer-form storytelling methods – you can’t afford to be that lazy in creating these things.
Everyone has a reason for what they do. This is just as true at a cultural level as it is at the individual level. So the drow worship demons; great. Why do they worship them? Was it demon lords who gave them shelter when they were driven into the darkness? What did the drow actually promise in exchange for that shelter? It’s not ‘rivers of blood in the street at all times’, I promise you. It might be the second-born of each family, with the understanding that there will be a second-born if at all possible. The demon lords give the drow food that will grow in the dark, warmth in the chill caverns, the ability to see in the darkness, and in exchange they get carefully prepared sacrifices on a regular basis. They’re not going to blindly murder one another – you want your family to survive long enough to have those second-born children, after all!
Something similar with the Vralkans: they’re supposedly gearing up to march on the Steadfast. Except… Between their harsh volcanic wasteland of a homeland where they somehow provide enough food and drink to keep everyone healthy and in condition to prepare for war in their savage meritocracy and the Steadfast is a lot of uninhabited land that’s a lot better than their harsh homes. There’s literally no reason they can’t just collectively pack up and move someplace better, particularly if they’re a culture that really favors heroism and bravery as much as they seem to. Moving in on those ancient ruins and clearing them out to be inhabited by their people seems a lot more sensible than gearing up to march past all those places to attack a bunch of kingdoms that much farther away. The culture itself isn’t that outlandish; their goals and methods are. They exist to be the big bad threat looming over the steadfast while they’re distracted with the Gaians, not as a culture to be explored in their own right.
So please, whether you’re a game designer, writer, or GM – when you go to make the Big Bad group, give some serious thought to their motives, reasons, and methods. Your world will be much better without caricatures occupying such important positions, I promise.