COGs in the Machine: Shallow Bad Guys

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Why do ‘bad guy’ encounters often feel repetitive, derivative, or shallow, especially in rpgs and CRPGs, but also in much genre fiction? I have a theory about that, and also about ways to stop handling antagonists and foils in such shallow ways.  It all has to do with COG, which I’ll explain shortly.

In the beginning there was….Fritz Leiber

In the original D&D, thieves and assassins were lumped together into one roguish thief class. It was assumed characters would become members of a thieves’ guild in order to pursue their shady profession.  They could aspire to become head of that guild, and learned Thieves’ Cant, the secret language shared by guild members.  The Thieves’ Guild as an organization was not well fleshed out in the original game books, but was established as a frequent ‘prop’ or background organization in myriad subsequent modules and adventures throughout the industry.  In the mid-’80s, there even existed an rpg publisher called Thieves’ Guild, which produced rules expansions and specialized adventures soley for players of this class, an indicator of how strong a grip on the imagination “thieves in a guild” had.

This element of early gaming established the presence of an organized criminal faction lurking in the shadows of fantasy medieval gameworlds.  It was derived from fantasy fiction, in particular Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser books (which was credited for this reason as inspirational reading in the 1st edition Dungeon Master’s Guide). In fact, there is little evidence that crime and criminals were affiliated with formal organizations in the middle ages; however, complex networks of association, even kinship, undoubtedly existed at certain levels of society.  (One example of this are beggars, whom contemporaries remarked upon as working certain streets in an orderly sharing of space and territory, and having their own pecking order, giving rise to rumor of the existence of ‘the king of the beggars’ who orchestrated their activities.)

The COG model of Evil

Of course, D&D is hardly an historical representation of how things truly were. But this supposition, that unsavory activities have laws against them, and persons criminalized in this way usually work in an organized body: I say, this supposition has pervaded much fantasy writing, rpg-style games inspired by it, and the CRPGs inspired by those.  So, to the third derivative generation and beyond, our fiction and games today tend to represent “bad guys” who are either (infrequently) solo mavericks, or (usually) criminals who are part of a criminal organization.

The result of this (and other over-simplified tropes) is that we have defaulted to a consistent but shallow code in games and fiction. It is a stylized symbology through which we represent ‘evil’, and/or the plot device such evil characters and groups turn out to be.  It is what I call COG:  the “crime + organized group” model of “evil”[1].

Gangs by any other name…

Street gangs are typical of this style of representing evil; they are the bottom-feeders of the organized crime world, and ubiquitous in certain settings. You can meet them – and trash them ad infinitum – in City of Heroes or Villains, or bang heads with them routinely in Grand Theft Auto.  The upper echelons are encountered in large criminal organizations like the Mafia (as in the game of the same name); although that particular organization represents a real-world known thing, it finds a comfortable home in the COG model, which requires well-organized evil as a foe or at least a setting for an anti-hero.  The assassin in Hitman (the player’s pov character) is part of a large, faceless organization that dispatches him on his murderous missions.  It seems nearly every non-bestial boss in a lair has not only minions but a organization (criminal, secret, or both) that they all belong to.

No wonder encountering “bad guys” has come to feel stale, predictable, routine.   Ah, someone opposes me in this quest. Wait; let me guess.  He’s….a criminal! And – can you believe it?  He’s backed by a criminal organization too!

Who’da thunk.

Granted, this is not the only model for representing evil and/or dramatic foil in fiction and games, but it is a very common one.  Now, the question arises: what to do about it.

Rethink “criminal”

Certainly we need something to oppose our heroes. Perhaps that thing or person is overtly evil – but I for one find it refreshing when a foe’s motivations are less clearly painted. Maybe by his lights he’s doing right, and if I were in his shoes I might make the same decision to oppose me with deadly force. Hm. Suddenly there are shades of gray in play, and evil is no longer a 1-dimensional ‘bad guy’.

So: that’s one solution to mix it up:  take the antagonist out of his blackhearted “evil” mindset. Make him a multidimensional person with real motivations for his action – even more to the point, motivations that the hero or PC becomes exposed to and can actually sympathize with.  Now we get into the rich ground of moral dilemmas and choices that are not so black and white. Challenging.

Next, let’s try taking the criminal label off our bad guy.  Yeah, maybe he’s a jerk hunting you down the street with a shot gun, but does that mean he must be a member of the hundred-zillionth gang you’ve encountered in the city this week?  Maybe not. Maybe he’s a homeowner who’s pissed at all the gang members trooping across his lawn, and you were just the final straw; now he and the neighborhood watch are after your rude ass.

Or to take a page from a closer (and more sobering) reality, maybe he’s like the neighbors in a district of New Orleans who intended to protect their neighborhood from suspected looters, but ended up shooting innocent victims of Hurricane Katrina who were trying to walk to refuge.

That’s not only a change of pace;  it challenges assumptions about what’s criminal and why.  And suddenly we’re breaking out of this lockstep mold of COG.

As to the Collective…

The last thing to consider are the organizations we situate our fictional criminals in.  It is true that people group together, either informally or formally, to accomplish their mutual (“evil”) goals. That may result in gangs, mafia, Illuminati, the Republican National Convention, whathaveyou.  I think some other paradigms might serve, though, and take us outside the COG model as well.   I’ll talk about that in Part II of this post, to follow in about a week.

To be continued in Part II.


1. I’m applying the term ‘evil’ only loosely to the D&D thief class, since one could simply be “non-good” and still be a thief. Yet to the extent it was “not good”, even the original D&D thief was symbolic of crime and criminal activities and hence falls within this blanket category.

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There’s a wonderful Firefly fanfic by Steven Brust that I read where an agent of the Alliance government (the bad guys) comes to a planet on a mission to investigate a local businessman who has been trafficking in humans. The agent himself is a fundamentally good man who knows that he’s working for a flawed government but believes that he can contribute to the general good by making the universe a better place and using his power for good. Much good storytelling ensues.

(Yes, I gave you the link so you can download it and read it. Trust me, you want to.)

You terrible man, you. I’m a huge Firefly fan.

I actually came across that last week (I adore Brust’s writing and follow his work online), and thought no! not til after book’s gone!

If my book is late to the publisher It’s All Your Fault!!!!

I’m going to do the odd thing of commenting on my own post. Regarding this bit:

Or to take a page from a closer (and more sobering) reality, maybe he’s like the neighbors in a district of New Orleans who intended to protect their neighborhood from suspected looters, but ended up shooting innocent victims of Hurricane Katrina who were trying to walk to refuge.

– I want to point out that these terrible incidents I linked to here are real, they were murderous, and they were racially motivated. Whites fearing the advent of black looters in their neighborhood applied vigilante pre-emptive “justice” in a manner unthinkable in an ordinary state of law and order.

I don’t get into those details or even the racial aspect of it in this post, because here my objective is to illustrate simply how lines can blur between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, and encourage writers to think in deeper layers about their moral dilemmas.

This is obviously a blog oriented towards creative issues, not social justice and other contemporary hot buttons. Nevertheless I wanted to register my continuing personal outrage about those events in New Orleans (well, a whole hellova lot of events there, and not just the ones I linked to). Perhaps when I rennovate another site of mine where I do get into rights and social movement/justice issues, I will update this comment with a pointer to my more proper soapbox for such issues.

If you would like to do something more proactive than simply nod in agreement with my sentiments, I hope you will consider donating to the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund, which is responsible for the Defenders Online website (see above link). It features outstanding investigative journalism, not only about those shootings but about many other topics for anyone supportive of civil rights, social justice, and equality.


I really don’t know from games, but from what I’ve seen, most people who play them don’t really want a literary–or social–experience. They want the every-thirty-seconds orgasm of killing something or getting something. If they have to stop and learn story, they’ll go look elsewhere. If they start to like, or empathize with, an evil character, they’ll go where the killing feels better to them.

“No matter how cynical I get, I just can’t seem to keep up.” -Lily Tomlin

Heya, Lynn,
I know the type you describe. There are an awful lot of them playing “hack and slash” type games (and I’ve avoided them like the plague ever since I started gaming in 1979).

But I’ve also met a large number of the story-oriented as well. They don’t always run in the same circles, or cohabit the same space happily. So if you’ve been around settings where you do see a lot of the short-fuse oh-goody-let’s-kill-it behaviors, you are unlikely to encounter the other type at the same time, I think.

Or, maybe you hang with the wrong crowd. 😉


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