December 23, 2011

Hierarchy of Evil

by Malcolm E. Hays


Many GMs have a tough time working out some of the details in a campaign. To be honest, designing a campaign can be a lot of work, especially when you have other things that also occupy your time like school and work. GMs like to put as much detail into their campaigns as they can because they feel it really spices it up.

Players, on the other hand, like to have a free hand in the direction a campaign takes. A rigidly scripted campaign might be fun for the Game Master, but the players will soon tire of it and try to take the campaign in an unexpected direction.

Since this is often the case, I present to you an alternative and easy method of generating a really fun and exciting campaign. This method is designed for the Quest type of campaign, where the players strive to achieve some well-defined goal. It is a simple method of 11 steps, each of which requires a little work, but not as much as many GMs are used to putting into a campaign.

There are two main parts to the 11-step process: designing the Hierarchy of Evil, and Character Generation. The first part is GM intensive, while the second part is player intensive.

Hierarchy of Evil

Step 1: Decide on a Goal for the Villains

Villains in a fantasy campaign always have a goal they are trying to accomplish. Generally, it is a goal that involves acquiring more power and influence over the affairs in the region, country, or world. The scale of the campaign influences what sort of Arch Villain is most likely to be in charge. A global-spanning campaign might involve deities and powerful kings.

On the other hand, a locally based campaign in a small village or town might only involve the Sheriff or local noble. The nature of the Arch Villain is left up to the GM. Many great villains begin in goodness, but are corrupted by an increase in power.

Some of the worst evildoers are the ones who do not realize their actions are causing harm. For example, a witch hunt led by the local clergy, who burn and persecute those accused of witches in the name of goodness. The clergy are trying to do good works, but they are actually severing ties between neighbors and turning villagers against each other, leaving only suspicion and paranoia.

Step 2: Choose an Arch Villain

Once the goal of the villains has been decided, you must choose the grand architect of the evil scheme. He is the major mover and shaker of the campaign, though he will not always be known to the Player Characters (PCs). In fact, for real excitement, the PCs should be completely in the dark as to who the real villain in the campaign is.

At the start of the campaign, the Arch Villain should be many times more powerful than the most powerful of the PCs. There are a good number of reasons for this. For one thing, the Arch Villain is trying to alter the shape of the region, kingdom, or world. That requires a fair amount of resources and power.

Also, the more powerful the Arch Villain, the more the PCs have to work together to defeat his schemes. No single PC should ever be able to defeat an Arch Villain by himself. This really emphasizes the use of cooperation in solving a difficult task and leads to a more balanced party.

On the other hand, there are reasons for choosing an Arch Villain who could be weaker than the PCs, but will acquire vast amounts of power by the end of the campaign and need to be destroyed.

Sometimes it is just a matter of the wrong device falling into the wrong hands at the wrong time. The bumbling wizard Akar Kessel in R. A. Salvatore’s The Crystal Shard is an example of this type.

In order to represent the Hierarchy that develops from the Arch Villain, it is useful to create a tree diagram of the Hierarchy. The Arch Villain is at the top, and the lower levels branch out from his (or its) evil influence.

Step 3: Choose the Arch Villain’s Chief Lieutenants

No Arch Villain ever acts alone. He (or she) always has cohorts, underlings, flunkies, and a host of assorted cannon fodder. These are usually controlled directly by the Chief Lieutenants who answer only to the Arch Villain.

These might include a local Lord who has made a Pact with a Demon for more control over his serfs, a General serving his King by leading a conquering army across the sea, a lesser Mage serving a greater Mage for more power and riches and fame.

All Chief Lieutenants are motivated by personal gain, though some might also be motivated by duty or loyalty. They almost always know what is going on and can be even more difficult to deal with than the Arch Villain. They are the last line of defense for the Arch Villain and should be almost as powerful as the Arch Villain, though never equal to him.

The main reason they serve the Arch Villain is because he, she, or it can offer them something that they believe will make them greater (though this is often just a self-delusion; demons are notoriously untrustworthy).

Sometimes the Chief Lieutenants have no choice in the matter, though. They could be enslaved or blackmailed by the Arch Villain into serving him. These are important considerations because this then becomes a weakness that can be exploited by a clever group of adventurers.

Step 4: Decide on the Cannon Fodder

Cannon Fodder is the term for anyone below the rank of Chief Lieutenant in the Hierarchy of Evil. The Chief Lieutenants are the only ones who are indispensable to the Arch Villain.

Cannon Fodder serves as the eyes, ears, hands, and mouth of the Chief Lieutenants. They include soldiers, apprentice magi, beggars in the street, merchants, assassins, and anyone else who serves the needs of the Chief Lieutenants but will not be missed if they suddenly turn up dead.

At the top of the Cannon Fodder food chain are the Lieutenants. These are the direct underlings to the Chief Lieutenants and directly control most of the actions of the Cannon Fodder. They are extremely useful to the Chief Lieutenants but can always be replaced if the PCs get a lucky shot in and take out a Lieutenant.

Cannon Fodder is useful to the PCs because they provide the necessary clues that will lead them to the Chief Lieutenants and subsequently to the Arch Villain. However, they can also be used to lead PCs astray by providing false or misleading information.

They are also good for ambushes, especially when the PCs start getting too close to the Chief Lieutenant. Cannon Fodder seldom knows who the real Arch Villain is, and sometimes not even the Chief Lieutenant. They are often contracted by other Cannon Fodder to do the dirty work for the Chief Lieutenant who then has “plausible deniability”.

Step 5: Relationships Within the Hierarchy of Evil

One major consideration in our Hierarchy of Evil that is often overlooked is the infighting that goes on between members. Cannon Fodder’s main goal in life is to become the next Chief Lieutenant.

With that in mind, they are quite willing to sell out their fellow Cannon Fodder for a chance of advancement. This can often be beneficial to PCs who know the value of a well-placed bribe. The Chief Lieutenants have to watch out for daggers from the shadows and the Arch Villain has to keep his Chief Lieutenants from becoming powerful enough to become a threat to their own schemes. It is very, very dangerous to be in the Hierarchy of Evil and the road to the top is paved with daggers.

Character Generation

Character Generation is at least as important as the Hierarchy of Evil and, depending on the course of the campaign, can become an integral part of the Hierarchy itself (e.g. by infiltrating an organization).

The players are an integral part of the campaign as much as the Villains. The GM and players work together to create the story of the campaign and thus the GM must take an active hand in Character Generation.

The GM represents the world and the player represents a character living in that world. The player should interact extensively with the GM when creating his character. This is an excellent time for the GM to start introducing campaign “hooks” to intrigue the player and get his character more involved in the world. A player should not present a completed character concept to the GM.

Rather; he should present it at various stages and ask the GM for advice, suggestions, and ideas. In that way, both the player and GM share more of the responsibility in designing a unique and memorable campaign.

Step 6: Attributes

Most role-playing games have various methods of generating attributes. Many players generate them without thinking about why their PC has the attributes they do. Why does their Mage have a high Intelligence? Why does a fighter have incredible Strength?

These are generally a function of upbringing and natural inclination. Magic-using types generally come from a moderately wealthy background and are naturally studious. Fighters can come from any walk of life and are athletic, energetic, and highly physical people. There should always be some reason why the attributes turned one person into a Fighter, while another person became a Thief.

This leads us to our next phase of Character Generation:

Step 7: Skills

Not all games have skills, but most do in some form or another. These are very important to the PCs and the GM because they determine the balance of the party. A party that has few combat skills is not going to be running around in the middle of a battle.

The GM needs to pay attention to which skills the PCs have, so he can tailor his campaign to the general inclination of the PCs. Likewise, a combat oriented group is probably not interested in political intrigue and would much rather be dungeon-crawling.

Skills are a good way to gauge the flavor of the party and the direction the campaign is likely to go. As with Attributes, Skills should have a reason for being. They should fit the PCs personality and desires. A Mage who studies swordplay makes little sense unless the background of the PC allows for a Combat Mage. The wise party of adventurers will seek a balance of social, magical, and physical skills so that every potential situation is covered.

Step 8: Other Abilities

In some games, PCs have certain extra abilities, such as Advantages & Disadvantages in GURPS, Benefices & Afflictions in Fading Suns, and Quirks & Counter quirks in Dangerous Journeys.

Each extra ability should have some logical reason for existing and being part of the PC. Ghost, a PC from GURPS, has the Advantage of Shapeshifter (Weresnake). This is a result from his training by an evil mage to be sorcerous assassin. He eventually broke free of the evil mage’s control, but he still retains the ability to become a python on nights of the full moon.

This also gives him a snakelike appearance and adds to his reputation (another advantage) of being a ruthless killer. At the same time, a major Disadvantage is his fear of open spaces, a result of living the first 10 years of his life inside a tower.

Step 9: Special Connections

Special Connections are the PC’s contacts. They supply miscellaneous information throughout the course of the campaign when the PC is looking for vital clues. These can be predetermined or developed over the course of the campaign. Most Connections will have an “effective” skill level that determines their general usefulness.

They will also have a certain trustworthiness based on their relationship to the PC. A close friend is much less likely to betray the PC than the leader of the local Thieves Guild. Even though the leader of a Thieves Guild can provide great quantities of information, it is of a dubious nature at best. A university professor who is specialized in a topic of interest to the PC’s, such as History or a branch of Magic, is going to be extremely knowledgeable on his topic and is therefore a highly reliable source of information.

Most Connections should be chosen based on the PC’s interests, social standing, and personal life. A Thief from the gutters is not going to be on friendly terms with the local Duke, unless there is a really good reason. However, he will be quite familiar with the local tavern owners in his area and other assorted thugs, cutthroats, prostitutes, etc.

Step 10: Background

Every Player Character has to come from somewhere. They all were born, grew up, and became adventurers for one reason or another. Each player should determine a comprehensive history for his PC. This history should include where he was born, his family, some significant events from childhood, some more events from adolescence, and some more details from his recent adult life. Probably the most important consideration in creating the history is determining where his Skills, Attributes, and Other Abilities all come from.

There are also many personality traits associated with one’s upbringing that will emerge through game play. Illand the Sage was always intensely curious about everything as a child, so when he grew up, his natural inclination was to become a scholar.

This curiosity often gets him into trouble, but he always learns something new (usually what button NOT to press!). Clever Game Masters will incorporate background histories into the campaign. Players like this because then their characters become more personally involved with the campaign.

For example, Zander the Bard has been chased by mysterious figures who are trying to kidnap him. He later finds out that it all has to do with his ancestry. A powerful force for evil needs to use him in a dark ritual to free itself from its prison. His family history has hidden this secret for generations and now it has come back to haunt them.

Step 11: Tie It All Together

Now we have decided on a plot, created a Hierarchy of Evil, and created PCs. What happens next? The PCs must somehow be integrated into the story. Their backgrounds should all tie into the storyline somehow, though not necessarily directly.

The Hierarchy of Evil should at times act independently of the PCs as the plots are furthered and the Hierarchy changes. The involvement of the PCs should seem accidental at first, but then they start realizing what is going on as more information is revealed through the actions of the Hierarchy.

Gradually, the PCs will begin thwarting more and more schemes of the Arch Villain, who will not be happy at all. The Arch Villain should become more and more involved with the PCs as the campaign continues, eventually resulting in a show-down between Arch Villain and PC. However, Arch Villains are very difficult to kill and even more difficult to capture. They should always have a way out so they can return in the sequel.


Designing a campaign really only takes a few sheets of paper: one page of notes on the general goals of the Arch Villain and how he is going to accomplish them; one page of notes for the Hierarchy of Evil, including the relationships between various members; one page of notes on the PCs strengths and weaknesses.

However, this is not so the GM can exploit them, but so he can get a feel for how the PCs will react in certain situations. Most of the work should actually go to the players in designing their backgrounds for their PCs. This is the real meat of the campaign. The GM provides the guidelines for the campaign and the players flesh it out. Above all, the goal of GM and players alike is to create a memorable and enjoyable campaign, one that will be talked about for years to come.



Perfect timing for this article. My players are just past the intro story into the world and seeing the greater plot device which means it’s time for me to really flesh out the bigger villain.

Thank you!


Great work here. I recently went through on this post, and used it as a workshop on my blog running through your steps minus getting the player characters involved.

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