D&D villain concept: the ‘good’ heretic

Joseph Priestley, the "honest heretic." Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

While doing some historical research for an unrelated project, I happened across this interesting quote from U.S. statesman Benjamin Franklin, excerpted from a letter to Benjamin Vaughan dated Oct. 24, 1788:

Remember me affectionately to good Dr. Price and to the honest heretic Dr. Priestly. I do not call him honest by way of distinction; for I think all the heretics I have known have been virtuous men. They have the virtue of fortitude or they would not venture to own their heresy; and they cannot afford to be deficient in any of the other virtues, as that would give advantage to their many enemies; and they have not like orthodox sinners, such a number of friends to excuse or justify them. Do not, however mistake me. It is not to my good friend’s heresy that I impute his honesty. On the contrary, ’tis his honesty that has brought upon him the character of heretic.

Franklin was referencing Dr. Joseph Priestley, Enlightenment era theologian, scholar and chemist, who is perhaps best known for his work researching the properties of gases and electricity.

Discussing where theology and science intersect in our real world is well beyond the scope of this post; Franklin’s reference to his friend, however – especially the closing line about honesty bringing the character of heretic upon Priestley – stirred my mind toward adapting that concept to the development of a villain in a Dungeons & Dragons game.

Since D&D is a game of heroic fantasy, it logically follows that dungeon masters would create villains whose evil is as great as the heroes’ goodness. That formula has worked admirably well these three decades, and I wouldn’t suggest any long-term changes to this method of villain generation. I will suggest that occasionally deviating from this method can result in some of the most memorable villains of a campaign, and this concept of “good heresy” is a clear path for doing so.

Consider a campaign in which one or more characters are connected with a specific religion, church or temple: a circumstance that applies to virtually every adventuring party, unless a party includes no clerics, paladins or heroes who may need to have spells or rituals cast  for them at some point in their careers. Consider also that, if we use real history as a guide, that fantasy religious institutions can be as political as they are spiritual. Moving from these assumptions, imagine that a lowly monk begins preaching on some aspect of the faith that could affect the religion’s heretofore fundamental tenets or power structure; while we’re at it, let’s assume that the monk is basing his arguments on a new, more accurate translation of exisiting canon, or that he has come into the possession of a holy relic that adds credibility to his words, and that he is rapidly gaining a following.

Clearly, those officials currently running the church will be threatened by goings on; in such circumstances, the best case scenario is division among the faithful. Worst case scenarios include members of the flock leaving upon learning that all they’ve accepted as true may no longer be true; weakening the religion from within, allowing opposing faiths to gain power at the religion’s expense; or even breaking of the religion into separate faiths. And these outcomes represent only the religious objections the officials may have; it is entirely possible that selfish motives, such as the loss of personal power or recognition, may also come into play.

It is a foregone conclusion that the monk will be declared a heretic. At the very least, officials will demand his arrest, demand that he recant his position and possibly imprison him anyway. At the worst, he will be labeled a traitor in the service of some rival religion, resulting in a manhunt culminating in his execution.

In either case, one place the officials may turn is a group of heroes to help resolve the matter. In the case of a player character cleric, avenger or paladin, this request may take the form of a formal edict that he or she must obey, leading to an adventure – against a good-aligned villain.

This type of adventure can lead to unique role-playing opportunities. Obviously, the monk shouldn’t be treated as an evil villain – he’s done nothing evil. His followers haven’t done anything evil, either, except follow what religious officials deem heretical teaching. Sending an expedition against these folks – especially if the heretical teachings are in alignment with what the heroes (or the players) believe, such as promoting the idea that all people are equal – lands the heroes in a gray area. Players may take an unswerving position, deciding that whoever the officials call a heretic is a heretic, and let the swords fall where they may. They may be more mercenary, intending to capture the monk, bring him back alive and let the people in fancy robes mince words over the issue. Or they may even agree with the monk’s teachings, earning the title of heretic for themselves.

Regardless of the outcome, periodically using a “good heretic” as a villain is sure to create a memorable adventure.

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