Some Villains Don't Deserve Sympathy


#1

Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/zmyzj5/some-villains-dont-deserve-sympathy

#2

Funny for this article to go up the morning after seeing Star Wars: The Last Jedi, where Kylo Ren is built-up as maybe being a sympathetic villain with valid, if very misguided reasons, for going down the path he chose. He even kills Snoke, who had been set up as the main antagonist of the new trilogy. Rey seems to think she has gotten through to him, but then she and the audience are treated to a cold slap in the face when he embraces nihilism, takes control of the First Order, and grows gradually more unhinged as the movie goes on.

It was a stark reminder that atonement is real, but isn’t instant, and requires intent and LOTS of hard work. And you can’t redeem someone who doesn’t think they did anything wrong to begin with.


#3

The frustrating thing for me about the source quotes for this article is that there actually is a fair amount to unpack about morals in DnD, like with regards to whole species being written off as usually evil (and that’s before you get into the deep stuff like the implications of evil being a quantifiable, detectable thing), but instead of addressing that we get the tired “hero of their own story” angle. Where exactly does that leave the hypothetical elder brain that rebukes traditional mind flayer society?

Oh, right, it doesn’t exist because they’re always evil.


#4

D&D is for cops.


#5

That’s where I thought this was going. The whole “monsters that might be the good guys” trope is usually set up with either a misunderstanding to show that they’re not as bad as you thought or a separate faction that stands against whatever horrible things the larger group does. Instead Kenreck sees tragedy in an empire always depicted as truly evil, both in their past as mind controlling slavers and the present where:

…each of them independently trying to invent the secret weapon that will allow them to bring their lost empire back.

Each one is the individual last outpost that’s trying to invent a plague, or some new psionic ability.

If you want your audience to understand where the antagonist is coming from then you need to build that nuance ahead of time. Otherwise it’s a real hard sell to make people feel bad when the villain gets their comeuppance.


#6

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#7

I really enjoyed this article. I recently ran into this exact issue in a Star Wars game I was running last year. Long story short, it was an Empire game that lost its luster when real actual populist fascism came back into prominence (and killed someone). Suddenly the metaphor became a bit too real and I had to stop it.


#8

yeah, i really feel like the moral absolutism throughout the core DnD mythology (and even its systems, as SomeFellow mentioned with the ‘detecting evil’ thing) makes kenreck’s take a difficult thing to sell. i think a lot of things about mind flayers are neat and i think taking the basic idea of them and reworking it into a more nuanced concept with more room for different types of mind flayer culture would be awesome for a campaign, but that just isn’t what’s happening here. just kinda feels like kenreck’s trying to have his cake and eat it too by trying to use the idea of turning an ‘evil’ species into something more sympathetic (which a lot of people do in their own campaigns by ignoring or altering the canon) without actually, like…changing any of the fiction.

it would be cool to see a canon reworking of traditionally ‘evil’ species to do away with the frustrating black & white ideology that permeates all DnD rulebooks, monster manuals, and premade campaigns, but this isn’t even close!

this is kind of why i ended up kind of being turned off on actually playing dnd and instead gravitated towards other systems. the mythology has a lot to offer but it’s really bogged down by all the alignment stuff. that, and all the numbers


#9

He deserved his fate.


#10

I would just like to state for the record, fuck nazis.


#11

In empathizing with someone, you don’t necessarily have to relate to their beliefs. Rather, you can relate to the universal emotions and experiences that drive those beliefs: fear, jealousy, disenfranchisement, anger, etc.

As you pointed out in your hyperlinked article about Baldur’s Gate’s villain, one of the reasons villains are written sympathetically is to humanize them. If you’re going to talk about real-life antagonists, such as your White Supremacists example, I mean, shouldn’t they absolutely be humanized because they are humans existing in our real world? Their belief systems may be awful, but these people are still products of our real world whose unfortunate beliefs are likely fueled by unfortunate circumstances, whether it’s a lousy upbringing, propaganda within their community or whatever. Again, empathizing with them does not mean agreeing with them or even entertaining their beliefs as correct; it can just mean acknowledging and relating to their experiences and emotions that fuel those beliefs.

In your Baldur’s Gate article, you describe the sympathetic villain trope as “traditional storytelling,” but my impression has always been the opposite. At least in pop culture, I always thought the sympathetic villain was a more recent creation meant to subvert the moustache-twirling caricatures of yesteryear. In reality, I’m sure different storytelling traditions from different cultures have different histories and lineages for the development of villain portrayals. However, regardless of which is more traditional than the other, I do think the sympathetic villain being so in vogue has produced a lot of contrived and overly sentimental attempts at humanizing villains.

With such an over-saturation of sympathetic villains, it totally is refreshing when you get a sensational, unambiguously evil antagonist, as you described in your Baldur’s Gate article. Sometimes you just want to really hate a bad guy. However, I don’t think one style is necessarily superior to the other. Which to use should depend on the world of the story and what the creator is trying to communicate.

When it comes to the Mindflayers, being an entire species, I’m sure I can relate to the institutional forces that have created their enslave-all-the-things, rule-all-the-places belief system. They’re not my beliefs, I’d never hold them as my own, but as a product of my own society, I understand how hard it can be to think outside established belief systems.

However, I also understand the allure of crafting an unambiguously evil Mindflayers, a sort of ancient and uncomplicated villain everyone can rally against.

I would just tell DMs to do whichever suits the story they want to tell, and not to worry that there’s something wrong about empathizing with the emotions and experiences of the bad guys.


#12

Shoutouts to that classic 2nd edition art for the top. I like pretty much every iteration of mindflayer art but I love the super-gross aliens appraising a brain like their checking a peach for bruises.


#13

Their diet necessitates eating the brains of sapient creatures. Even if they are to go against the Elder Brain, unless they have some alternative food source, they must kill thinking creatures in order to live.

Is the most damning thing about them that they utilize their livestock for labor before they consume the food? Are Mindflayers a commentary on feeding and agriculture practices?


#14

One of my favorite depictions on evil in fiction is when a villain’s primary motivation isn’t pure avarice or sadism or hubris but, rather, a desire for safety and peace of mind; in other words fear. And, as a wise man said, fear begets anger begets hate and all that.

For all their terrible power, Mind Flayers are ultimately cowards who did great evil and do great evil and deserve what’s coming to them. Just because Mind Flayers are on the back foot, that doesn’t grant them inherent virtue warranting sympathy.

I agree that Mike Mearls’ choice of words betrays a rather shallow appreciation of the implications of seeing the a fallen Mind Flayer empire as tragic. However, I do think is it a useful exercise for a DM to get inside the head of the villains to understand not only what they do, but why.

Ideally, a game of D&D isn’t about simply reciting lines written by the dungeon master in service of the story they want to tell (despite what some popular D&D podcasts would have you believe) but, rather, a chance for everyone to contribute to shaping a story with the help of the systems. Because of the element of chance in a table top role playing game, a DM might need to think quickly on their feet: did the players get a series of extremely lucky (or unlucky) rolls which resulted in an encounter playing out a lot differently than you’d anticipated? It’s useful to know what your villain ultimately wants to better improvise how that villain would react to the unexpected.