Sauron and Evil

I've recently been thinking about creating a fantasy setting for a board game or RPG campaign. One of the problems I always run into when I try to design game settings is envisioning the adversary that the heroes are fighting against. The dark lord who wants to destroy or rule everything is, of course, a cliché, so in the past I've steered clear of that trope. It's just too easy to say that the enemy is a necromancer with an army of undead, or an evil sorcerer, or even a greedy capitalist. Those things aren't motivations. They don't actually provide an in-world reason for the character to exist, so the resulting story feels flat.

While I've envisioned a few dark-lord-free settings, I couldn't help but feel that they lacked the epic heft and piercing clarity of my favorite fantasy classic, The Lord of the Rings, which of course does use the dark lord trope. Which made me wonder: why is Sauron effective, narratively speaking? What is it about Sauron that the clichéd dark lords of pulp RPGs lack?

Sauron Wants Power

The thinnest possible motive for an antagonist to have is destroy the world. One criticism I've heard of LotR is that Sauron falls into this category; that he doesn't really have a motivation besides be evil and ruin everything. However, I think this view is inaccurate. Sauron does not want to destroy everything. His best-case scenario is that everyone lives, but is subordinate to him. This is why he always offers people a bargain rather than just slaughtering them. It's why the elves called him Annatar, the gift-giver. His power is extremely limited unless other people do things for him.

Sauron is thus paradoxically both extremely strong and extremely weak. He commands armies, but is himself vulnerable. His strategy is thus divide and conquer. He profits by turning the good guys against each other.

Sauron Does Not Want Things to Be Bad

The Orcs are ugly and brutish, but not because Sauron wants them to be. In his dealings with the Elves (getting them to make the three rings and all), Sauron shows himself to have a refined (if perhaps cynical) aesthetic sense. Rather, I think Tolkien wants to show that the Orcs' corruption is the inevitable result of buying into the power structures that Sauron wants to put in place. I think this is one reason the Scouring of the Shire chapter near the end of RotK exists: it shows what results when Sauron's preferred power structures are superimposed on Hobbit society.

Sauron Lives in the Heroes' Hearts

The thing that makes Sauron both scary and true-seeming is that he never takes physical form in The Lord of the Rings. Sauron doesn't actually directly kill anyone. However, it's clear that he can corrupt at a distance, via the Ring, and the good characters are divided from the morally grey characters precisely by who can resist the Ring's influence. Tolkien leaves almost zero ambiguity here: those who willingly reject the Ring are heroes who survive to the end of the story; those who succumb meet an early demise, after committing some notable misdeed.

The message, to phrase it sappily, is that the real evil lives in all of us. Sauron's potential to do bad things is precisely commensurate to other characters' willingness to do bad things to accomplish their own goals.

Sauron Is Pure Evil

The overall effect of the points outlined in the above sections is that Sauron is a pure embodiment of evil. Going out on a limb, I'd say that Tolkien's Catholicism is the ultimate inspiration for this: Melkor, at least, is a pretty clear Lucifer/Satan analog, and Sauron got his start as Melkor's lieutenant.

This pure evil is distinct from psychopathic, mustache-twirling, doomsday-device evil. To reiterate, the thing that makes Sauron's evil scary and plausible is that it actually has something to recommend it. Ultimately, this is what makes the conflict of The Lord of the Rings believable: if Sauron were just a maniac bent on destroying everything, almost no one would do his bidding, and he would be quickly crushed.

Sauron Is Not a Political Statement

Sauron wants to be an autocrat. But Middle-earth is already (mostly) ruled by autocrats.

Tolkien made it clear that the Lord of the Rings was not arguing against autocracy specifically. He himself was essentially a monarchist.

If I had to draw a distinction between the good and bad autocrats in LotR, I'd say that the difference is in the attitude of their subjects. Are they motivated by love for their ruler, as Merry is motivated to go to war by love for Théoden? Or are they motivated by dependency—for lack of a better phrase, by their addiction to the power structure and the rewards it brings?

Tolkien takes an idealistic view of monarchies, and I don't agree with his dim view of democracy. However, I think Tolkien and modern progressives would likely agree that codependent, nepotistic patriarchy is bad.

Lessons for Game Designers

Evil should have something to offer. Joining the dark side should seem like an attractive option.

However, evil should not be without consequences. The Dark Lord's minions should often be seen to meet sticky ends.

The minions themselves don't need to have particularly complex motivations. They're just doing normal human stuff: pursuing subsistence, status, and wealth. The Dark Lord happens to be in a position to give them what they want in exchange for servitude and the occasional murderization.

The bad guys shouldn't do things just because they're evil. Moral grey is actually scarier, because people have reasons for supporting the bad guys. E.g. it's pretty trite to have an army of orcs chop down an ancient Elven forest because they hate Elves; a more plausible scenario is that they're using the wood to build a city, and the forest just happens to be there.

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