D&D General Fanatics & Zealots: How to Use Extremism in Antagonists and Villains in Your Campaigns (+)

AcererakTriple6

Autistic DM (he/him)
Recently, there have been many discussions amongst the D&D community over which creatures, races, and characters are more "correct" or "proper" to be used as villains or antagonists in any given D&D setting or campaign. Many have argued that using whole races of sentient "people" is problematic (especially when coded similarly to stereotypes of real world cultures and ethnicities) and others have argued that it's okay to use whole races as always evil villains so long as you justify it by having them be created by an evil god or entity (Gruumsh, Lolth, Yeenoghu, Baphomet, etc). Although this thread is not the place to debate these . . . heated disagreements, the controversial nature of this subject has dominated many discussions on online D&D forums such as this one over the past couple of years, and has led to many proposed solutions and in-depth discussions over what makes a villain, an antagonist, and the overall morality of many of the actions that many adventuring parties commit along their quests.

Now, this thread is not the place to reiterate the recent controversial debates on which enemies it is okay to kill on sight, whether or not it's okay for the PCs to kill their enemies at all, or similar topics, but is instead an example of how to utilize a diverse character trait (Extremism/Zealotry) to fuel conflict in your worlds, stories, and campaigns. Extremism, by its nature, is going to end up creating conflict with others, and is a great example of how to create villains and antagonists that can be enemies that your adventuring parties can encounter/butt-heads with.

Let's get started!

(Note: I'm coming back and writing this after finishing over half of the post. When I started writing this, I was intending it to be an article similar to this recent one of mine, but that changed during the process of writing this. Instead, this is more of a tool to identify, build, and brainstorm villainous and antagonistic characters and factions for a D&D campaign or world, giving examples from pop culture and breaking down extremists and extremism into different types, but most of the post can also apply to writing/worldbuilding in non-D&D/TTRPG mediums. I just used D&D as the primary example as it is the medium I am most familiar with and can give the most advice for.)

What is Extremism?​

Extremism, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is defined as "advocacy of extreme measures or views", with "extreme" being defined as "going to great or exaggerated lengths". In other words, Extremism is supporting or having views that say that certain problems are only solvable by going to great, or even exaggerated, solutions. Extremists are people that subscribe to one of the many different types of extremism, and have major aspects of their character in the stories they're found in revolve around this facet of their personality (we will cover them later on in the post). There are many different types of extremism that we could cover, but I'm going to focus on three major types and how to use them in your campaigns/worlds. These three types are:
  1. Political Extremism. While this form of extremism is often tied to a religious or philosophical ideology, it doesn't have to be. Monarchies are politically extreme, even if the current sitting monarch is benevolent and doing good for their people.
    Examples:
    1. There's lots of examples from Eberron (the Unity of Riedra, the Heirs of Dhakaan, the Kingdom of Galifar with its Last War, etc)
    2. Thay from the Forgotten Realms
    3. The Last Empire from Mistborn: the Original Trilogy
    4. Alethkar from the Stormlight Archive
    5. Lyrian from the Beyonders
    6. The Empire/First Order from Star Wars
  2. Religious Extremism. This is pretty self-explanatory, and there's plenty of real world and fantastical examples of it to list off. Religious extremism often results in trying to force a religion or its tenets on people that are not a member of the religion, which is a major source of conflict that can come from using this type of extremism in a story/campaign.
    Examples:
    1. Present in basically all Cosmere books (Shu-Dereth from Elantris, Vorinism from the Stormlight Archive, Austrism from Warbreaker, The Steel Ministry and Trellism from Mistborn, etc)
    2. There's also a lot of examples from Eberron, with a lot of overlap with political extremism (Thrane with the Church of the Silver Flame, Karrnath with the Blood of Vol, the Riedran Path of Inspiration, the elven nations and their religions, the Cults of the Dragon Below, etc)
    3. The Stormcloaks from Skyrim (with some overlap from political extremism)
  3. Philosophical Extremism. This type of extremism is a bit less common than religious or political extremism, but is still fairly common and is just as easily a source of conflict in stories and campaigns.
    Examples:
    1. Almost all of the various Factions of Planescape all qualify.
    2. Most of the Ravnica Guilds apply as well, with a few exceptions (Orzhov and Boros are the main exceptions)
    3. Ecoterrorism (including a few Druidic Sects from Eberron and Gruul Clan from Ravnica)
    4. Pathianism from Mistborn: Era 2
    5. Extreme adherence to a specific type of moral philosophy (Machiavellianism, Deontology, Hedonism, etc)
These three main types of extremism are particularly useful when crafting characters for stories and D&D campaigns, as they can help make them feel realistic, define their core personality traits, and grant a way for the protagonists to end up coming into conflict with them.

Extremism In Worldbuilding​

If you want to build a story or campaign around specific types of conflict and ideas, it can often be helpful to keep the different categories of extremism in mind when building the setting that the story takes place in. This can help you iron-out the concepts that you want to be prevalent in the setting or story that you're designing in advance, and make it more immersive for those that are experiencing the world. Conflict is an important part of all stories and TTRPG campaigns, and having different types extremism be major sources of conflict in the setting/world that the story/campaign takes place in can be a realistic and relatable way to get readers/players engaged with the story.

The previous section of this post listed many examples of different extremist groups and organizations from fantasy/sci-fi pop culture, this section will give 3 separate examples from my homebrew world (Tor-eal) to demonstrate how to create and use the three main types of extremism in a fictional setting to build tension, immersion, and realism.

Political Extremism Example: The Kingdom of Klörvak​

First is the example of Political Extremism from my fantasy world; the Kingdom of Klörvak, a politically-extreme nation of Giants that rose to power due to their involvement in the centuries-long Dragon-Giant War. Long story short, but the Dragons and Giants were tricked by the Aboleths into going to war shortly after both of their pantheons were completely wiped out in a cataclysmic event that changed much of the world. Both groups of sentient creatures were struggling to keep a cohesive identity with one another after the deaths of their gods, so a new war that could help unite the Giants and Dragons against one another was like a dream came true to the Giants, as the loss of the Ordning and a patron god to tell them what to do was almost too much for them to take. After a bit of manipulation by the Aboleths, a full-on war broke out between the Giants and Dragons, and, incedentally, ended up forging a new united group of Giants, whose new identity revolved around their newfound hatred of the Dragons and their new war whose purpose was to wipe them off the face of the planet.

The Giants founded the new nation of Klörvak in the territories of the world that they conquered, and made a new way to determine any Giant's hierarchy in their newly made society; by killing Dragons. Their Kingdom was a feudalistic society broken down into many counties, duchies, baronies, and earldoms, but the central government of the kingdom was ruled over by The Giant King, who could be any of the 6 "True" Giants, so long as they had killed more Dragons than any other Giant in all of the kingdom, with the title changing any and every time one Giant was able to kill more Dragons than the Giant King had. This made their society extremely militaristic and it's a pretty extreme form of government (it would completely collapse if the Dragon-Giant War even had a temporary truce), and also ended up encouraging certain . . . extreme and horrendous ways to advance in their society. Their hatred of Dragons was so fanatic that they even used Dragon Scales as their currency, with the age of the dragon they were taken from determining their worth (Wyrmling scales were basically Copper Pieces, Young-Dragon Scales were basically Silver Pieces, and so on), making armor and weapons out of Dragon Bones (creating lots of Dragon-Slayer axes and swords with them), and even using Dragons that they blinded, muzzled, and ripped the wings from as mounts in battle (which they often get from hatching and "training" Dragon Wyrmlings that they get from raiding Dragon Nests).

This nation is one of the most politically extreme nations from any of my homebrew/fictional worlds; completely revolving around two related ideologies (being a feudalistic-hierarchical stratocracy) and having a chaotic form of government that completely revolves around the genocide of entire sentient species. The Draconic Empire in the same world is also pretty extreme (being a Republic ruled over by a Great Wyrm Dragon-Emperor that represents not only all of Dragonkind but also Dragonborn, Lizardfolk, and Kobolds), but is guilty of far less war crimes and injustices to the people of the world. The Kingdom of Klörvak is very extreme, and created a lot of destruction and grief throughout its existence in my world.

Religious Extremism Example: The Goblinoids of the Yikkan Contingent​

The second example is a bit unique, and definitely strange compared to most versions of Goblinoids in fantasy settings: the Yikkan Contingent. There's also a ton of backstory that I won't get into here, but, basically, the Yikkan Contingent is an world-spanning faction of religious-extremist goblinoids that worship Magic (not the god of magic, but the concept of magic itself). It's not like a nation, as they don't conquer territory or try to manipulate the politics of the main nations of the world, but is more like a confederation of Goblinoid settlements that spans the world and keep in contact with one another through the use of magic (Sending, Teleportation spells and portals, and abjuration spells to protect their settlements) and are united in one culture/religion. The three different types of Goblinoids (Bugbears, Goblins, and Hobgoblins) all generally practice one of the 3 main types of magic (Primal, Divine, and Arcane in their respective order), and their society is formed around worshipping Magic (which they call the "Yikare" in their language, which basically means "The Source" or "The Font"). They worship "Yikare", and have named their religious organization after their "god", being known as "the Yikkan Contingent", as they're people of the same creed united in purpose and religion that are scattered across the realms.

Yikkan Goblinoids are an ethnic group of goblinoids from the same cultural and religious background that live in Goblinoid settlements in the many countries of the world. They're pretty exclusionary to others, rejecting anyone that isn't a Goblinoid or Magic-User, and they actively work to prevent the existence of any sort of psionic abilities, going as far as to try and commit genocide against all aberrations and people that are born with psionic/telepathic abilities (Felshen, Gem Dragonborn, Aberrant Mind Sorcerers, and even Verdan, when they're technically Goblinoids). (They also technically count any non-Psionic mage as already having converted to their religion, even if they don't follow its other tenets or practices.)

They have very strict religious dogma, are extreme in their ideologies, and have many radical members of their religion that push everything from genocide to forced conversion from others (and since they count mages as automatically being members of their society, some leaders of their religion have even advocated for actions as extreme as trying to force others to become Sorcerers by exposing them to deadly magical energy, which will either kill them or "convert them" to their religion, in their eyes).

Philosophical Extremism Example: The Sheiohn Foulen​

The third example from my homebrew world is related to the Yikkan Contingent, being another faction of similar peoples that are scattered across the world, but united in culture: the Sheiohn Foulen (in Common this means "The One-Mind Foundation"). They're similar to the Yikkan Contingent in the sense that they're a world-wide faction of settlements connected through supernatural means and united in culture, but different in many ways. Mainly, they're not a religious group like the Yikkan Contingent is, and are instead just a collection of different towns, villages, and cities that are home to various different types of psionic creatures and peoples (excluding the openly malevolent ones, like most Aberrations). The main population of these settlements are a race of telepathic peoples known as the Felshen (a name that the actually were given by the Yikkan Contingent, which basically means "Falselings" or "Fake Ones", as they believe that the Felshen don't actually have souls and are basically just demons in humanoid bodies), who are roughly human in proportions and appearance, but have colorful, non-human skin tones (magenta, cyan, and lime-green are the most common, but there's also hot-pink, cream-orange, obsidian-black, marble-white, and similar tones that are possible), slightly pointed ears, and were genetically created to have innate telepathic powers.

The Felshen and the rest of the Sheiohn Foulen have a long history of being persecuted and discriminated against by the Goblinoids of the Yikkan Contingent, who believe that the mere existence of psionic powers in the universe is enough to begin to unravel the fabric of reality and prevent them from achieving their religion's version of "heaven" (which basically boils down to the perfection of everything in existence and the merging of all peoples into one). Due to this history of being persecuted, the Sheiohn Foulen has taken in many peoples and creatures from across the realms, from the Verdan, to Gem Dragons (and Gem Dragonborn), Flumphs, Ghostwise Halflings, Gith refugees, and other psionic peoples, having a united identity of their psychic powers and a history of being persecuted. The founders of the Sheiohn Foulen outlined a political system that their settlements should follow, as well as some philosophical dogma (how being connected and open with one another is something to be admired, that telepathy is a purer form of communication than speaking or writing, that if two or more minds speak with one another for long enough they'll eventually "act as one mind", and so on). They have a strong core identity of embracing mental capabilities and enhancing them, as well as a unified hatred of the Yikkan Goblinoids, and although they're not a religion (and their philosophy even professes that they shouldn't worship any gods), they do have some similarities in behavior and dogma to many other religions.

They've even gone to war with the Yikkan Goblinoids several times in the past few centuries, both side having major grudges and prejudices against one another, as well as diametrically opposed ideologies. They currently have a peace treaty with one another, but tensions are so high that fighting could start again at any moment and start another major world-spanning war between the Psionic Sheiohn Foulen and the Magical Yikkan Contingent.

To summarize this section, these examples of worldbuilding extremist factions, nations, and religions in a fictional world can easily provide many different sources of conflict with the protagonists and other factions of the world, depending on how you use them. Whether it's a whole nation of xenophobic Giants that want to slaughter all Dragons on the planet, a world-wide religion of Goblinoids that want to spread magic across the face of the world at any cost, or a group of telepathic creatures united behind a history of being persecuted and victimized by other peoples, different types and flavors of extremism can be an important part of making a complex and immersive world that can give rise to many different stories in that setting.

The Roles of Extremists in Fiction​

(Note: To avoid any future confusion, I'm going to point out that the previous section is about broad categories of extremism. This section is more about the individuals and methods that different fictional extremists use in the stories they're found in.)

TVTropes divides the broad category of being an extremist into two major groups: Well-Intentioned Extremists and Not-So-Well-Intentioned Extremists. Both groups have self-explanatory names, with Well-Intentioned Extremists being extremists that believe that they're doing/advocating for "the right thing" (being "For the Greater Good"-types), and Not-So-Well-Intentioned Extremists being those that fuel their extreme viewpoints using selfish or otherwise malicious intentions (starting a war to make money, burning down a rainforest to drill oil, and so on). This is an important distinction, as it almost always divides Villainous Extremists (the "Not-So-Well-Intentioned) ones) from Non-Villainous Extremists (the "Well-Intentioned" ones, that are still often used as Antagonists in a story). Not only can extremists be divided into these two main groups, but they can also be further divided into smaller subgroups that affect how they can be used in the story/campaign.

For a Well-Intentioned Extremist, the way that they affect a story typically revolves around what is a problem with their ideology or actions. The four types of Well-Intentioned Extremists that can become problems in a story (and thus are possible to be used in a D&D campaign as an antagonist) are as follows:
  1. The Problem is the Means. For these Extremists, they often become antagonists in a story/campaign due to how they are trying to accomplish their goal, not what the goal is. More often than not, their goal is a good one (world peace, ending starvation, creating a utopia), but what they're doing in order to accomplish it is the thing that makes the protagonists come in conflict with them (they're conquering the world to stop wars from happening in the future, practicing cannibalism to make sure there's enough food around, or killing their enemies to try and create a perfect world). This type of Extremist Antagonist can be quite fun, and also possibly redeemable, so long as the characters can convince them that their actions are bad (unless they subscribe to the Machiavellian idea that "the ends justify the means", or that it's "for the greater good").
    Examples:
    1. Silco from Arcane (who also has some overlap with Type 2)
    2. Jet from Avatar: the Last Airbender
    3. The Equalists from The Legend of Korra
    4. The Lord Ruler from Mistborn: the Original Trilogy
    5. Taravangian from The Stormlight Archive
    6. Thanos from Avengers: Infinity War (he also overlaps with Type 3)
    7. High Cardinal Krozen from Eberron
  2. The Problem is the Consequences. This type, like Type 1 Well-Intentioned Extremists, have the best of intentions and genuinely want what's best for the world/humanity, and are using morally-ethical means to try and accomplish their goal . . . but, one way or another, the unintended consequences of their actions are causing problems. Maybe they want to eliminate poverty and became a Robin Hood-esque figure, but their actions ended up making the rich that they stole from treat the poor even worse than they were before. Or they're 100% doing good things, but their actions or public view end up radicalizing their opponents to undo all of the good things that they achieved and more.
    Examples:
    1. Vander from Arcane
    2. Tony Stark/Iron Man from Avengers: Age of Ultron
    3. Kelsier and Vin from Mistborn: the Original Trilogy
  3. The Problem is the Goal. While this type of Extremist is still "well-intentioned" (from their mindset, at least), whatever goal they're aiming for is completely unrealistic, improbable, or unfavorable for most people that they would apply it to. They only count as being "well-intentioned" because they believe that their goals are for the good of humanity, when in reality what goal they're striving for is actually really bad (perhaps they believe in survival of the fittest and end up advocating for eugenics, or they want to form a cohesive identity with their community but become nationalistic bigots due to this ideology).
    Examples:
    1. Most settings that have nationalistic cultures (Eberron, as the main example)
    2. The Opposers from Planescape
    3. The Gruul Clan from Ravnica
  4. The Problem that they're advocating against is Nonexistent. Like Type 3 Well-Intentioned Extremists, these type of extremists literally only count as being "well-intentioned" because they alone believe that they're doing/advocating for good things. However, this group is even more extreme and deluded than Type 3's, causing whatever problem they're trying to "fix" to actually not be a problem at all, which itself is causing major problems. This type of Well-Intentioned Extremists are often the most harmful and unhinged, commonly being uninformed conspiracy theorists that do far more harm than good.
    Examples:
    1. The Thalmor from The Elder Scrolls video game series probably fit into this.
    2. Possibly the Stormcloaks from Skyrim (at least for the "we're not allowed to worship Talos anymore" complaint that is at the heart of their movement, due to the fact that this rule wasn't really enforced before the Civil War started).
    3. Most conspiracy theories at least start with this.
Similar to the Well-Intentioned Extremist and its subdivisions, a Not-So-Well-Intentioned Extremist's subgroups also revolve around how they are/can be used in a story/campaign, which all affect their personality types, character arcs, and what measures need to be used against them by the protagonists in order to stop them. Their three main types are as follows:
  1. The Pretend Well-Intentioned Extremist. This extremist is actually malicious, but claims to be well-intentioned, making them a huge problem. This is very common, especially when the writer wants to reveal that the supposed Well-Intentioned Extremist from earlier in the story was actually super evil the whole time. This can have the problem of undermining any moral nuance that might have been introduced earlier in the story (cough, The Legend of Korra, cough), but can also be executed well (mainly when it's not overused).
    Examples:
    1. Almost every villain from The Legend of Korra (Amon, Tarrlok, Kuvira, Unalaq)
    2. Most Batman villains from the Dark Knight Trilogy (Bane, the Joker)
    3. Killmonger from Black Panther
    4. Dracula from the Castlevania TV Show
    5. Gaston from Beauty and the Beast
    6. Frollo from the Hunchback of Notre Dame
  2. The Do-Gooder Extremist with an Ulterior Motive. This extremist, although they aren't "well-intentioned", are actually doing good things, but all for the wrong reasons. They might be feeding the poor, but only because they want to become more popular in the public eye. Or they're trying to stop pollution, but only because they want to be elected to a public office. Perhaps they're fighting against the true villains of the story, but only because of some personal grudge against them. They're very much a "bad person that is doing good things", and can be the source of a lot of conflict and debates about ethics in the story/campaign.
    Examples:
    1. Many characters from superhero comics/movies/shows can fulfill this role (the Punisher, Batman, and Magneto can all fill this role)
    2. Many main characters from RPGs can qualify as this (especially when you do a quest solely for the in-game reward, and not to help the people of the game world)
  3. The Former Well-Intentioned Extremist. This villain used to have good intentions for their actions, but eventually (for some reason) stopped having good intentions. This heavily depends on what specific type of Well-Intentioned Extremist they used to be, but it can be anywhere between them learning that their actions are bad and sticking to them to gaining selfish reasons to keep doing their extreme actions even if they're no longer doing them for selfless reasons (people that gave up their extremist beliefs/actions entirely also qualify).
    Examples:
    1. Redcloak from The Order of the Stick
    2. Thanos from Avengers: Endgame

Extremist Characters and How to Make Them​

Do you want to create an interesting antagonist/villain that is an extremist? Well, using the tools provided above, here's a system that you could use to quickly and easily detail them and make a memorable antagonist for your story:
  1. Decide whether you want them to be a villain (generally a Not-So-Well-Intentioned Extremist) or a morally-complex antagonist (almost always a Well-Intentioned Extremist).
  2. Choose which type of Extremist they are (Political, Religious, Philosophical) and what in-setting groups they're associated with (a certain nation, religion, or faction). This often involves deciding what race/species, sexuality, culture, and background the character comes from in the setting.
  3. Determine their end-goal and what steps and actions they're going to perform to try and achieve it. This is what can create a problem if/when the protagonists encounter the Extremist, or is what can force them into the story in the first place.
  4. Decide the minutia about character's physical attributes (gender/sex, age, physical attributes, clothing style, appearance, etc), name, and abilities (class, curses/blessings, etc).
  5. Establish what resources they have available to them and what weaknesses/nuances the character in the setting (including the PCs/protagonists) can use to influence/foil the Extremist.
  6. Create a hook for them to enter the campaign/story. Maybe they're related to/friends with one of the main characters, or the characters will need something from the Extremist to accomplish a larger goal, or the Extremist's past actions shaped the backstory of one of the main characters.
To demonstrate this system, let's build an Extremist character together.

For Step 1, we'll choose to make a Villain, as they're easier to execute in a story than more morally-gray characters are. We'll also choose them to be a Pretend-Well-Intentioned Extremist, because these are a pretty common trope and are a pretty tricky villain.

For Step 2, we'll choose to make them a Religious Extremist (again, a common trope, and pretty easy to execute and to make understandable for the audience). Let's choose to make them a Female High Elf from a base D&D world (using the "generic" lore printed in the core rulebooks, and the Volo's/Mordenkainen books). They'll be a High Elf that follows the dominant Seldarine-centric culture, where both genders are treated equally, they believe that they're cast-off children of Corellon that need to redeem themselves to be accepted back to Elf-Heaven, and despise the "unfavorable" children of the Seldarine (mainly focusing on Drow and Shadar-Kai, but this can also be expanded to any subrace of elf that they feel is "inferior" to them in some way).

For Step 3, now that we know the basics of the character's identity, we need to determine what specific goal they want. This is related to both previous steps. We know that she's pretending to be a Well-Intentioned Extremist, and that she's a devout and extreme follower of the Seldarine, and that she looks down on many other Elven subraces. This sets up a few different possibilities, but we'll choose the most obvious one; she's a xenophobic Elf-Supremacist that looks down on other Elf subraces with disdain and hates non-Elven races even more. She wants to get rid of the "fallen subraces" (Drow and Shadar-Kai), and "put the inferior races [dwarves, humans, orcs, lizardfolk, gnomes, etc] in their place". To do this, she has become something of a prophet to her people, claiming to be a Chosen of Corellon that wants to herald in a new age of Elven prosperity, will slowly radicalize other High Elves to get them to support her agenda, and eventually commit genocide against multiple races/subraces. Her being an Elven flavor of Hitler is what will cause other factions, religions, and characters in the setting to come into conflict with her and her followers.

For Step 4, we'll decide the specifics of who this character is. For name, let's go with "Aladriel Xi'faelie the Sunborn", a suitably Elven name for our Female-Elf-Hitler character. She's a tall Sun Elf with bronze skin, golden hair, long-pointed ears, and white-gold clothing that incorporates arcane sigils and symbols of the Elven Gods that she worships. She's a Divination Wizard that claims to use her powers to communicate with the Seldarine, and carries around a staff to use to channel her arcane powers.

For Step 5, we'll put together what we already know about her powers and resources, and go more in-depth. Aladriel the Sunborn is the leader of a major Temple of the Seldarine in [insertelvencityhere], as well as a powerful mage. This grants her major influence amongst people in her setting, as well as great power to monitor others through Divination magic, as well as other arcane spells that she could use in battle or to help her people. Her weaknesses could be the potential of her being exposed as a fraud, the possibility of losing/damaging her spellbooks or staff, or the fact that she can run out of spells every day.

For Step 6, let's plan a way for her to be introduced into a campaign/story. Aladriel, being the genocidal maniac that she is, has recently sent a team of her devout followers to exterminate a town of Drow in the Underdark. The protagonists somehow end up encountering the remains of this town, or some refugees that escaped destruction, and they learn of the atrocities that occurred there (torture, mass executions, murdering children and defenseless drow, etc) and the identity of the person that caused this wanton destruction and murder. Now, the protagonists know that Drow tend to be the bad guys, but also know that this is a step too far. If one of the protagonists/PCs happens to be a non-High Elf, this can add even more tension to their encounters with Aladriel, and make them more likely to come into conflict.

To conclude, Extremism is a helpful tool to build conflict and realism in a fictional world that a D&D campaign or fantasy/sci-fi story takes place in. The tools discussed and provided in this post are meant to aid people in creating interesting and compelling villains, antagonists, and characters that can be placed in these mediums, and used in a variety of ways.

The rest of the thread can be discussing other examples in popular media of Extremist factions and characters and how they can be classified according to this system, as well as corrections, critiques, or expansions upon this tool if you wish to give any. So long as it's positive or constructive, feel free to discuss whatever you like on this topic in the thread below.
 

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Lyxen

Great Old One
As very often, a great article, with tons of examples (particularly appreciate the Arcane - which I've just watched - and Sanderson examples). I would just advocate that your second example in WI.2 is actually not really an extremist, she is mostly swept along, whereas the first one absolutely is, to an extreme degree. :)

I would just add another thing which I think is in filigree in your post but which is very important to me. I loathe extremism in the real world, I think it's one of the greatest sources of human pain and unhappiness, can't abide it. However, in Fantasy games and TTRPG (or LARPs, actually, used this many many times), it's indeed one of the great tools to make a situation, villain or adventure absolutely memorable. You just have to be careful of two things (mainly, there might be others, you'll tell me):
  • Make sure that your extremism does not touch personally one of your players (characters are however absolutely fine and even recommended here). This goes with the Tasha's section about session zero and table limits.
  • Make sure that your extremist is actually an antagonist, and can't be the real hero, so as not to paint a positive picture of extremism (this is really important with the well-intentioned extremist). In the Sanderson example above, he does it very cleverly with the first character (who is definitely not the hero), and when combined with his capability to paint complex characters who evolve during the story, he manages to avoid this pretty well.
Anyway, thanks again for the article !
 

Ixal

Adventurer
I am not really impressed with those examples. All of them are rather over the top.

The first one is a racial war and not necessary political, even though there is a real world example of this. But actual political extremists are, as the name says, political. People who want to depose monarchs in favour of a republic/other system of government. Or even pretenders to the throne can all be called political extremists.
It doesn't help that most peoples understanding of political extremists are geared towards modern politics and not the political systems in the past which are more often used as inspiration to fantasy settings.
Sadly the article fails to translate this understanding of political extremism into a fantasy setting. I also disagree with many examples given like Thanos.

The other categories are equally faulty in my eyes, completely ignoring the actual religious or philosophical underpinnings and how they would translate into a fantasy setting, and instead are just variants of "genocidal maniacs who call upon a god" and "genocidal maniacs who deny that a god told them to do it".

This of course would also mean that you need a more nuanced look at extremism instead of painting it as always evil. The underground organization freeing slaves and trying to overthrow the slavery system of a country with, among other things, violent means, would be political extremists, but not villains for example unless you do a grimdark "slippery slope" scenario.

All your examples also unnecessarily draw upon racial lines which muddles the, already not well defined extremism in this article, even further.
 
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Lyxen

Great Old One
The first one is a racial war and not necessary political, even though there is a real world example of this. But actual political extremists are, as the name says, political. People who want to depose monarchs in favour of a republic/other system of government. Or even pretenders to the throne can all be called political extremists.

And I thought that this was just an example for @AcererakTriple6's campaign, however you have good examples of actual political extremists for example in Mistborn, in the WIE and NSWIE sections.

It doesn't help that most peoples understanding of political extremists are geared towards modern politics and not the political systems in the past which are more often used as inspiration to fantasy settings.
Sadly the article fails to translate this understanding of political extremism into a fantasy setting.

For me, it does, in the examples although I agree that the main example at the top is less political than racial in the end.

I also disagree with many examples given like Thanos.

Well, why don't you propose some or explain why Thanos is wrong (and which of the Thanos you are speaking about, I think it might matter) ?

The other categories are equally faulty in my eyes, completely ignoring the actual religious or philosophical underpinnings and how they would translate into a fantasy setting, and instead are just variants of "genocidal maniacs who call upon a god" and "genocidal maniacs who deny that a god told them to do it".

Why I admit that they are not purely religious/philosophical examples since they mix in other concepts, I personally find them interesting, and the mixture is actually fairly realistic since in the real world, there are usually many factors contributing to extremism, for example religion + ethnicity. What I think might be missing, though, is what is probably the most critical element in the real world, which motivates a lot of extremism even though it's rarely brought to the surface by its partisans, is the economic aspect.

This of course would also mean that you need a more nuanced look at extremism instead of painting it as always evil.

And there, I don't agree. Not only is extremism, in itself, bad, but the OP has taken care to show that the organisations and people can be more nuanced anyway.

The underground organization freeing slaves and trying to overthrow the slavery system of a country with, among other things, violent means, would be political extremists, but not villains for example unless you do a grimdark "slippery slope" scenario.

There would be a difference between just being rebels and being extremists, and if the latter, they shouldn't be pure heroes. They don't have to be villains, but as extremists, their means might be more than questionable.
 

There's a lovely article from the 4e era of Dragon magazine about how to have theoretically "good" religious extremists as antagonists, using Bahamut's faithful as an example. They even touch on how it can sound like Bahamut's doctrine is simple and resists extremism, but can still quite easily be twisted into something monstrous with the right (wrong?) approach. Specifically, in 4e, Bahamut's doctrine is summarized like this:
  • Uphold the highest ideals of honor and justice.
  • Be constantly vigilant against evil and oppose it on all fronts.
  • Protect the weak, liberate the oppressed, and defend just order.
As stated, these seem like pretty reasonable things, difficult to twist--but each one has a potential dark shadow it can cast. What does it mean to "uphold the highest ideals of honor and justice"? Is it enough to be just and honorable yourself, or do you need to pursue them for others, too? Do you need to ensure that others behave justly and honorably? That starts to sound like a "thoughtcrime" kind of situation, or perhaps forcing everyone, no matter their circumstances or beliefs, to join the army or the like, because it's dishonorable to be a dirty pacifist. Etc. This actually dovetails quite well (poorly?) with the second point, vigilance against evil. Perhaps Bahamut is advocating a police state, run by an absolute autocrat who ensures that everyone living there has goodrightthoughts and leads an absolutely squeaky-clean life with no deviation, no disobedience, etc.

The third actually invites the most problems, again despite sounding like a really basic "be a hero" instruction. Perhaps you're supposed to hunt down the strong so they can never be a threat to the weak. Perhaps the people are "oppressed" by a variant religious sect that doesn't share Bahamut's ideals. Perhaps the cruel, sadistic duchess is legally the ruler of the land and thus any opposition to her must be defended against. Etc. Even with these seemingly no-nonsense, straightforward ideas, it's possible to distort them into something very different and very unpleasant.

When used carefully, this sort of thing can really spice up a situation, because it can lead to serious questions from all parties involved. If a PC is part of the faith in question, then they may either be sympathetic to the extremists, or find them dangerous--or be afraid that they really are the "true believers" and that the thing they thought they believed in isn't what it seemed to be. (This is implied with an example villain in the aforementioned Bahamut article; there's an extremist fire-and-brimstone official from Bahamut's church, who has been around for a while and hasn't had any kind of obvious divine intervention to suggest that his violent, extremist views are unacceptable. Whether he is right is, of course, a matter of debate.) Alternatively, perhaps the PCs are just laypeople affiliated with the religion, at which point you get an outsider-vs-insider issue, which can be very juicy. Or maybe they're antagonistic to this particular church, and are happy to have another reason to try to take it down. Etc. And you can end up with actual "good vs good" conflicts if there are still some non-extremist good guys affiliated with the extremist ones, whether because they don't know the truth or some other reason.

There's a lot you can do with extremism of this kind, assuming the players are on board for such behavior. It opens a lot of interesting stakes, things that can't be easily revoked, commitment or abandonment of causes, that sort of thing.
 

Ixal

Adventurer
Not quoting all the small snippets.

The problem with those examples is that they often mostly or completely ignore the type of extremism they want to represent. The example of political extremists are not political at all. Likewise the goals of the religious and philosophical extremists are not really religious or philosophical either. All of them come down to genocidal race war.
That they come from an established campaign setting does not make them better examples.

And in my opinion the entire article is not helpful much because the large disconnect between our understanding of extremism, which is a modern term, and the pseudo historic state of most RPG settings, especially D&D.
What the article fails to do is to explain how political extremism looks like in a setting where politics mean absolute or feudal monarchs and similar systems of government.
Political extremist, as I wrote in my last post, would not only be those who want to abolish nobility, but also those nobles who try to change the established order, by installing a pretender to the crown, etc. Certainly not the type of person most people today associate with political extremists.

Translating religious extremism is even more complicated because of the weird way of how religion is handled in D&D with there being a near global polytheistic pantheon but each church operating more like it is monotheistic. Sure, there is room for extremism when two pantheons meet, but what about extremism within the pantheon? How would that even work?
Additionally in D&D every cleric gets direct feedback from his chosen deity when he strayed too much, so how would this work with religious extremists?

Painting extremists as always evil and the enemy is also problematic especially as the term is often used to discredit everyone who wants something different than you. As I said above, the abolitionist would be a political extremist.
Saying that extremism is always evil would require you to create a default system of government, religious practices, etc. which is normal and everything outside it is extremist. And good luck managing that. Are monarchies the default or republics? And which monarchies, feudal, absolute, elective? And which elective system is normal and which extremist? Is it generally evil to seek change, which is what extremists want?

So in my opinion this article fails to show how extremism would work within the constrains of a D&D like setting which also giving ill fitting examples which are not the kind of extremism it claims them to be and instead always goes back to genocidal race war.
 
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Lyxen

Great Old One
Not quoting all the small snippets.

The problem with those examples is that they often mostly or completely ignore the type of extremism they want to represent. The example of political extremists are not political at all. Likewise the goals of the religious and philosophical extremists are not really religious or philosophical either. All of them come down to genocidal race war.
That they come from an established campaign setting does not make them better examples.

Have you read all the examples after the first 3 ones ?

And in my opinion the entire article is not helpful much because the large disconnect between our understanding of extremism, which is a modern term, and the pseudo historic state of most RPG settings, especially D&D.
What the article fails to do is to explain how political extremism looks like in a setting where politics mean absolute or feudal monarchs and similar systems of government.

And again, have you read the examples below ? The Lord Ruler in Sabderson and Kelsier his adversaries are not only totally on that topic, but in a fantasy setting with exactly the kind of elements that you describe, plus additional twists, for example. Or the Arcane example.

Political extremist, as I wrote in my last post, would not only be those who want to abolish nobility, but also those nobles who try to change the established order, by installing a pretender to the crown, etc. Certainly not the type of person most people today associate with political extremists.

Once more, see The Final Empire examples.

Translating religious extremism is even more complicated because of the weird way of how religion is handled in D&D with there being a near global polytheistic pantheon but each church operating more like it is monotheistic.

This really depends on your setting. And there are conflicts within pantheons anyway, right ?

Sure, there is room for extremism when two pantheons meet, but what about extremism within the pantheon? How would that even work?
Additionally in D&D every cleric gets direct feedback from his chosen deity when he strayed too much, so how would this work with religious extremists?

There are many ways forward here, and note that the level of feedback again depends on your setting and what you put in play. But first it might simply be that the deity itself wants revenge or whatever and pushes her clergy to extremism, this is a common enough case.

Painting extremists as always evil and the enemy is also problematic especially as the term is often used to discredit everyone who wants something different than you.

Please don't confuse things here between reality and propaganda. Both can be useful tools in a TTRPG when used properly and in moderation, but in the real world, they are both things that are to be rejected, and using one to say the other is "less bad" is not the right way to look at things. Just don't use either of them.

As I said above, the abolitionist would be a political extremist.

And how would this make him better ? In the cases where it succeeded, abolitionism did not succeed by being extremist anyway.

Saying that extremism is always evil would require you to create a default system of government, religious practices, etc. which is normal and everything outside it is extremist.

Not at all. Extremism is bad in itself, and I'm not sure it even solved anything anyway.

And good luck managing that. Are monarchies the default or republics? And which monarchies, feudal, absolute, elective? And which elective system is normal and which extremist? Is it generally evil to seek change, which is what extremists want?

It is generally evil to seek change by extremism.

So in my opinion this article fails to show how extremism would work within the constrains of a D&D like setting which also giving ill fitting examples which are not the kind of extremism it claims them to be and instead always goes back to genocidal race war.

Again, these are just examples from the OP's own campaign, and again I find them interesting because for me, it's never a pure religious cause at work, in many cases it drifts into racism and in almost every case into economics.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
There's a lovely article from the 4e era of Dragon magazine about how to have theoretically "good" religious extremists as antagonists, using Bahamut's faithful as an example. They even touch on how it can sound like Bahamut's doctrine is simple and resists extremism, but can still quite easily be twisted into something monstrous with the right (wrong?) approach. Specifically, in 4e, Bahamut's doctrine is summarized like this:
  • Uphold the highest ideals of honor and justice.
  • Be constantly vigilant against evil and oppose it on all fronts.
  • Protect the weak, liberate the oppressed, and defend just order.
As stated, these seem like pretty reasonable things, difficult to twist--but each one has a potential dark shadow it can cast. What does it mean to "uphold the highest ideals of honor and justice"? Is it enough to be just and honorable yourself, or do you need to pursue them for others, too? Do you need to ensure that others behave justly and honorably? That starts to sound like a "thoughtcrime" kind of situation, or perhaps forcing everyone, no matter their circumstances or beliefs, to join the army or the like, because it's dishonorable to be a dirty pacifist. Etc. This actually dovetails quite well (poorly?) with the second point, vigilance against evil. Perhaps Bahamut is advocating a police state, run by an absolute autocrat who ensures that everyone living there has goodrightthoughts and leads an absolutely squeaky-clean life with no deviation, no disobedience, etc.

I agree, and I would add that it's at the core one of the difficulties of the LG alignment and the possible conflict between law and good, each casting a shadow over the other.

When used carefully, this sort of thing can really spice up a situation, because it can lead to serious questions from all parties involved. If a PC is part of the faith in question, then they may either be sympathetic to the extremists, or find them dangerous--or be afraid that they really are the "true believers" and that the thing they thought they believed in isn't what it seemed to be. (This is implied with an example villain in the aforementioned Bahamut article; there's an extremist fire-and-brimstone official from Bahamut's church, who has been around for a while and hasn't had any kind of obvious divine intervention to suggest that his violent, extremist views are unacceptable. Whether he is right is, of course, a matter of debate.) Alternatively, perhaps the PCs are just laypeople affiliated with the religion, at which point you get an outsider-vs-insider issue, which can be very juicy. Or maybe they're antagonistic to this particular church, and are happy to have another reason to try to take it down. Etc. And you can end up with actual "good vs good" conflicts if there are still some non-extremist good guys affiliated with the extremist ones, whether because they don't know the truth or some other reason.

There's a lot you can do with extremism of this kind, assuming the players are on board for such behavior. It opens a lot of interesting stakes, things that can't be easily revoked, commitment or abandonment of causes, that sort of thing.

I remember a LARP in which I was playing a priest of a religion which was not in itself particularly evil or good, it was just extremely precise and harsh, as we were a desert people and desert is unforgiving. Simply by being a fanatic and wanting to follow even simple rules extremely strictly, and always wondering why other people were violating these rules, if they had some hidden motive and were, perhaps, on purpose, not respecting the goddess, etc. it created a very strong ambiance around the party and we came up as very fantastical and extremists, which was an interesting take in a setting where almost everything is about religious confrontation between various people. We just had to be a bit careful to keep the distance between the player and the character, as it can get really intense very quickly with strong roleplaying.
 

AcererakTriple6

Autistic DM (he/him)
I am not really impressed with those examples. All of them are rather over the top.
(Edited out the rest of the post because there was simply too much to respond to, but this is the crux of your criticism.)

If you go back and reread the OP, you'll see that I very specifically focus on how to use Extremism in ways that allow for a DM to create Antagonists and Villains in their story/campaign. Additionally, I went out of my way to avoid examples from the real world, just to keep the divisiveness and controversy around the topic down. I am aware that not all extremism in the real world is as extreme as the examples and characters listed in the OP, and I'm aware that there are very different flavors of extremism that I did not cover. I didn't cover them because the post was already over 5,000 words, had taken me several days to write and revise, and the topic of the post was about creating conflict in a story/campaign based off of different types of extremism that can be placed in the narrative.

Going over the top was kind of the point. It's extremism. It's meant to be, you know, extreme. Not all types from fiction or the real world are as extreme as the examples listed, but the examples listed serve a purpose in the tools provided, and there are examples from the real world as extreme as the ones listed.

And for the fact that a lot of the Giant nation wasn't true political extremism is a valid criticism, but I was more trying to lean into the fact that the Giant nation's whole hierarchal structure is an extreme pseudo-feudalistic empire that was created around one extreme basis.

And please keep in mind that this is a (+) thread. I'm open to criticism, but would prefer if it was more constructive and listed other examples that you feel would better fit the labels in the OP.
 

Extremism is always a touchy subject and in the current climate of anything that may be seen as slightly offensive (not discounting those that are very offensive) makes this a mine field that many are going to just completely steer clear of...

Which is a shame, because it's a trope of literature that just isn't going to go away, because humans are humans.

Without focusing on the 'what' the how of why extremism happens in our own society is due to many reasons, charismatic leadership, idealism, nationalism, religious ideals, anti-religious ideals, etc... Star Trek tried to envision a future where all humans held hands and were all friends amd when they ran out of story ideas, extremist organizations started to rise. (Maquee, Earther only, Col Green, etc.) Humans as a rule are pack oriented animals. Red vs Blue, Men vs Women, my flag vs your flag, etc... and that's just scraping the surface.

I think instead of throwing mud, it's better to gauge your audience and run your table in the way that you and your players are comfortable with. Are extremists a thing? Of course. Are they useful as story elements? Sure. Are they absolutely neccessary to tell a story? Maybe. Should they be the heroes of the story? No (although it may appear that way at a pivotal moment in the story. While I hate the prequels of Star Wars the moment where the Senate votes emergency powers to Palpatine is a great example of how to do this correctly.)

What I caution to all of us is saying that 'shaming' a trope is a good thing. When we erase history or the examples they teach us in the name of decency, we are failing to learn the lessons they taught us. Be observant for this behaviour and avoid it. Racism is bad. Using an example of racism to teach that racism is bad is not, or at least 'should' be.
 

Extremist group are often full of internal conflict, search for power or be the one true leader,
there should be obvious flaws to exploit when dealing against them.
 

JThursby

Adventurer
Very comprehensive and well written. I would just like to add that anyone interested in this topic should read the original Dune novels if they want to read fiction that is primarily concerned with extremism and the people/circumstances that cause it.
 

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