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Shades of Gray: Four Things I Learned About Evil From “The Black Company”

There are no self-proclaimed villains, only regiments of self-proclaimed saints.  Victorious historians rule where good and evil lies.” ~ Croaker (Glen Cook, The Black Company)

I recently mention I had picked up and re-read Glen Cook’s The Black Company Trilogy.  The main reason I did this was due to the fact that I found out that there are a lot more books in the series!

I had read the first three books back in high school, and the third book ended with such a final momentous chain of events, I had assumed the Author was done with his characters.  But while meandering through the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section of my favorite bookstore, I found TOR had re-released the series in a special anthology called the Chronicles of the Black Company, consisting of three books – The Black Company, Shadows Linger, and The White Rose.  But there was a problem: there were two more anthologies on the shelf!  The Books of the South and A Cruel Wind kept the story going through another six books in the world Cook created for The Black company

So what could I do but scoop up the anthologies, and scurry to the counter, and jump back into the story of the mercenary band of brothers called The Black Company, the last of the free companies of Khatovar.  And as I completed my refresher on the tales of the meanest, toughest, nastiest, and yet most honorable bunch of soldiers you would ever want to meet, I had some realizations about the nature of Evil, at least where it applies to sword & sorcery novels.

And some of those concepts have really interesting results when applied to a fantasy role-playing game like D&D 4E.

Number 1: “Evil sometimes wears a pretty face.”

In The Black Company series, a group of infamous mercenaries signs on in the service of the Lady, a sorcerer-queen of great beauty and power, who is fighting a series of wars to carve out an empire for herself.  Despite being an evil despot, capable of acts of torture and cruelty, she was portrayed as a very beautiful woman, also capable of leaving any man speechless with awe just to look at her.

I know this is not necessarily a new concept, but it is a good idea to remember when crafting villains.  Evil entities are not always ugly, nor are they required to wear black armor bristling with blood covered spikes.  Evil people can be beautiful, charming, urbane – just the kind of folks you want at your next party!  They occupy and maintain important positions of power in the kingdom, through their charm and grace, yet are completely rotten to the core.

It can be an awful lot of fun to put Player-Characters in a position where they must interact with such black-hearted villains, at a king’s court or other well-guarded festivity.  Have them learn of the whereabouts of a major villain in the campaign, and watch what happens when they find themselves confronting a handsome nobleman or a winsome lady in white, popular at court and having favor with the highest nobility.  Who would believe a bunch of rag-tag heroes, covered in road dust and smelling of horses, when they burst in to denounce some dashing and popular courtier of being a monster?

Number 2: “Evil wants to be understood.

The aforementioned Lady in The Black Company series met frequently with the annalist of the mercenaries, the physician-soldier named Croaker.  It was he that kept a chronicle of all the battles and skirmishes the Black Company fought in and set it down in the annals – a written history of the Company which had been passed down for several hundred years.  Even though the Lady knew that Croaker was noting her every decision, and her every action as evil empress, she still let him live and keep his journal.

Does every evil entity know it is evil?  Certainly demons and devils know they are evil and revel in their horrific acts, but not every villain is a demon or devil.  As Dungeon Masters, we have a choice to portray our bad guys as ravening monsters, bristling with claws and malice, or we can create villains which don’t even realize they are evil.  Perhaps they see themselves as serving a higher cause when they do something despicable, such as burn down a village.  Or perhaps they feel the only way to maintain order in a barbarous society is through fear and intimidation, so long as it brings about harmony.

At one point in the series, the Lady boasts that a pregnant woman could walk from one town to the next in her empire, carrying a bag of gold, and arrive there safe and unharmed.  Such is the power of a great evil to strike fear into the hearts of those who might be considered lesser evil, creating law and order, but at a terrible price.

Number 3: “Evil is the new good.

There were many times over the course of The Black Company series when some fairly ruthless acts were committed in order to promote the greater good.  They say that the ends do not justify the means, but it is sometimes hard to argue with results.  Croaker, who acted as the conscience of the Black Company, as well as a voice for Cook’s own musings on the nature of good and evil, wrestled frequently with the fact that the Rebel forces fighting against the Lady were sometimes more ruthless than the empire-building sorcerer-queen.

The Rebels killed townsfolk, stole food and horses, employed their own set of vicious wizards, and left behind impoverished masses of people who actually welcomed the encroaching empire for the order it promised to maintain.  So putting down the Rebel was often a good thing, preventing them from harming the local population they were ostensibly protecting from the evil forces of the Lady.

Putting Player-Characters in a situation where they are forced to decide between a lesser of two evils can create some great role-playing moments.  Good and evil are often portrayed as clearly distinctive and white and black, but every action has consequences, and even committing to a course that appears to be completely benign may have ramifications.  These situations should not be put on the Player-Characters too often, as having to make dreadful decisions session after session will start to wear on them after a while.  But used judiciously, the no-win scenario, where the lesser-of-two-evils decision is entirely on the Characters backs, can be the most memorable part of a long-term campaign.

Number 4: “Evil does not often play well with others.

The Lady in The Black Company series had wizardly minions called The Ten Who Were Taken.  Once powerful magicians, they were broken by the most horrific soul-shattering torments until they swore to serve the sorcerer-empress.  But they did not get along well with each other, nor with the troops that served the Lady, like the Black Company.

Evil should really never be considered a single monolithic force arrayed against the Player-Characters.  Villains have enemies amongst their own kind, sometimes within their own ranks, and are often just as threatened by them as they are the PCs.  Evil NPCs are not going to universally drop all their grudges just because the PCs show up on the scene.

So having a new villain wipe out an old villain that the Player-Characters have been hunting can be a great way to change the course of a plotline.  Or a villain might appear as a good patron, and use the Characters as cats-paws to wipe out an enemy, which might end up making the villain-patron even more powerful!

And you can set up a very interesting encounter based upon two encounter groups going at each other with the Player-Characters caught in the middle.  It is a bit tricky to pull off, but the fight can be a very exciting and memorable event.

Three-way Free-for-All:

Create two groups of evil monsters – such as a group of diabolists Asmodeus worshippers and a pack of Demogorgon cultists – and make each group an encounter level equal to the adventurers.

Start the encounter with the Characters engaging one of these groups.

After one to two rounds, have the second group show up and engage both the adventurers and the first group of villains.  To be fair, have about half the attacks from each NPC group target the Player-Characters, while the other half of each group attack their “mortal enemies”!  Award the Characters XP equal to one group, plus a minor quest bonus.  This is also a good way to introduce a large number of treasure parcels, since there are two groups entering the melee.


While it is enjoyable to play in a fantasy world portrayed like Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, where good and evil are almost always clear cut and easy to identify as black and white, it can be considerably more rewarding for Player-Characters to have to face evil that is more of a shade of gray.  Some groups may it frustrating to face an evil that is atypical: an evil with a pretty face or with a (self-)righteous cause.  But dealing with those “big picture” issues can often lead to the most memorable campaigns, with fond and bitter-sweet memories for the Players thinking back on the decisions their Characters made, and which shade of gray they chose to serve or destroy.

Have you ever been in or run a campaign where your Character was forced to make a decision between the lesser of two evils?  Have you ever had to role-play in a campaign where your Character had to side with evil to destroy a greater evil?  If so, post your experiences below – I’m interested to hear about your own “shades of gray” roleplaying.

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!

About The Author

Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.


4 Responses to “Shades of Gray: Four Things I Learned About Evil From “The Black Company”

  1. Wrathamon says:

    Demon Queen’s Enclave from Wotc explores this concept. I think you could probable go through most of the adventure just using Diplomatic methods

    one of the first major encounters is just what you described.

    But, most players just want to kill everything

  2. I’ll have to check that one out.

    It’s true that not every D&D group is going to want to explore good and evil as the “shades of gray” concept. Some DMs and Players like things to be more Tolkien-esque, with good and evil readily identifiable and dealt with. It’s definitely a style choice, and one that both DMs and their Players need to decide to make part of their campaign.

  3. darjr says:

    man I envy you. to read those afresh.
    you should look for green ronins black compny setting book

  4. wickedmurph says:

    If you like the Black Company, I’d strongly recommend Steven Erikson’s “Malazan Book of the Fallen” series. It’s like Black Company on acid… and steroids. Actually, it’s pretty much what you’d get if you played 4e Black-Company style.
    .-= wickedmurph´s last blog ..4e Sandboxing =-.

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