To me, too many games have stereotypical villains. A knight in black armor decorated with skull motives. A black robed wizard with a staff with a human skull on it. YAWN. The typical villain sacrifices babies and tortures/mutilates the innocent and is a nice basic BBEG (Big Bad Evil Guy/Girl) and the game can run fine but I prefer more detailed villain.
One thing I don't like found in a lot of adventures is evil's fascination with the undead. Zombies smell. Would you want them in your castle while you dream of power and glory? No, and neither should the majority of villains in your game. To me undeath represents a final line that the most evil of aligned beings don't cross. Would you really want to be an animated corpse even if you get to keep your sentience? I see no reason why most rational beings would go there when other more mundane options are available.
There's also a reason why half fiends should be rare. Mating with a succubus isn't much stretch of the imagination. However if you have any minis from the D&D line, compare the size of a human size mini to a Glabrezu. Mating with an elephant sized dog faced beast from the stuff of nightmares shouldn't be something even evil doers would consider. True, a good villain can be insane but the ol' "I'm CE and insane" villain gets repetitive quite fast.
In 2nd ed one of my players had a priest that more or less had to follow the Paladin's code and worshiped a LG sun god. On one of his forays around town he came across an attractive noblewomen. One conversation and a detect evil spell later with her she admitted to following a CE god opposed to his own god. He was ready to unleash holy wrath right there and then on her but she refused to fight! The player even tracked down where she lived and went and visited her occasionally. The priestess invited him in and made him feel welcome and supplied food and drink (after a detect poison spell). The rogue snuck in and couldn't find any hidden alters or murals of demons eating human that usually adorn most fantasy villains lairs. Yes, she was CE, impulsive and selfish but she knew she couldn't defeat the LG cleric in a fair fight and had no incentive to look for trouble with him. She was sane and didn't sacrifice sentients to her god. She was much more effective as an infiltrator for her religion. If I recall they eventually had a battle when he found her in a temple but at that point they couldn't quite bring themselves to kill each other--by then they were familiar with each other and almost friends. Almost
Remember evil beings have feelings too and there's no reason why they can't have interests besides destroying the world or can't do good deeds. The concept of an anti hero is an old one and one of my favourites is Elric of Melinbone. This tragic figure of fantasy destroyed his kingdom, killed the women he loved, and more or less destroyed the world. Why would an evil aligned being do good deeds though? Because if they're not one-dimensional they have feelings, interests and loved ones. If a CE sorcerer came home and found out that orcs had killed his children odds are he won't be too happy with them even though they're both CE. Or goblins for a LE character. Perhaps they want to save the world so they can dominate it or because their homeland is under attack. Yes, evil can be patriotic as well. Love can motivate an evil character as can racism.
While most people believe love is reserved more good and neutral alignments there's no reason why evil can't love as well. Dragons, in particular, protect their young and while not true love several evil races defend their young. Racial pride and reproducing the species should motivate some beings, if nothing else. Even evil people often have friends and family they can care about. An evil family is probably more trustworthy than an evil stranger. Another aspect of fantasy literature involves an evil character falling in love with a good aligned being. Why mix fire and water? Using an assassin who falls in love with a Paladin for example could be interesting. The assassin might think the Paladin is a bit foolish but at least the Paladin is trustworthy. Of course the Paladin may or may not feel the same way in return. Evil/good beings may just plain old be attracted to each other.
I'll end my ramble here but evil is an interesting alignment. Give a villain a weakness or a virtue. Make them have a soft spot for children or have them donate money to a charity or something. Heck once a villain is defeated perhaps the heroes can deal with his distraught but innocent family or find their now orphaned children out back.
Reducing a character to a list of dice rolls and modifiers is not role playing*
I completely agree about stereotypical villains. I have always gone out of my way to use interesting villains and even interesting evil characters. There is no reason a CE character and an LG character can't function well in a group.
A few examples of "villains" I've used:
A paladin, a slayer of lycanthropes, hunts the party after they become infected (I ran a lycanthropy-rich world for a while.) The paladin was LAWFUL/good, meaning that his holy mission was to exterminate the were-beasts and he didn't care what they had to say. He was an extremist, to be sure, but he maintained his LG status by adhering to his code. He was fun because one of the infected party members wa a paladin as well.
A mage, obsessed with the relationship between time and space, undertakes dangerous experiments to unravel the secrets of the universe. She was sloppy and obsessed and her experiments spilled out into the countryside and caused mass chaos. She used orcs and bound devils, not because she was evil but because they could be paid to keep her secure and they could be reliably commanded. Eventually she needed to be taken down and naturally she fought for her own life, but she was never specifically evil (I don't think I ever determined her true alignment.)
A pair of half-elven twins, acrobats by day and thieves/murderers by night. They loved and trusted each other fully from growing up on the street. They would never betray one another and would die for the other without hesitation, but together they would wreak havok, kill, steal, light fires for fun, etc. Chaotic Evil, but allied for ever.
My main bad guy - starts as a noble with plans to overthrow the king politically (though assassination and other nasty things were his favorite tools.) Primarily a fighter, he was a manipulator and planner, smart and well mannered. The PC's encountered him or his minions several times and thwarted his plans, eventually exposing him completely. His wealth lost, his cover blown, he ran for his life. He tried to retire with a woman, one of his assassins he had kept as a lover for some years, but tragedy struck and she was afflicted with lycanthropy. eventually he had to put her down and that broke what little shell of civility he had left. He sought a demonic sire and became a Blackgaurd, a snarling bag of hate who thought of nothing but mayhem and destruction.
A PC, my favorite of all time, Tycho Vellifex the elven blademaster. He was dedicated to his craft, arrogant and domineering, but absolutely true to his word. He adventured for experience, wealth, and to prove himself superior in battle. He respected anyone who could best him or teach him something new. He put himself at risk to save his companions because he had pledged himself in service to the task and because he understood the value of teamwork. He though the paladin was a brainless boy scout but knew better than to cross him without reason. He would not backstab, nor fight without honor. He would, however, steal or kill for profit, often taking out contracts while staying in town. He was LE and I think I maintained his alignment even through many game-years of adventuring with mostly good characters.
One aspect of alignment we should keep in mind is the prevalence of the action(s) dictated by the alignment. We all understand that an evil person is a thief and murderer and is motivated solely for personal gain, right? What about a serial killer? He spends most of his time being an average citizen, following the rules and likely building a "normal" life for himself and perhaps a family. 99% of the time he "acts" LG. But on those rare occasions when the circumstances are right, he sneaks out of the house and does despicable things, fulfilling his need for bloodlust and mayhem. Clearly Evil, right?
An evil character need not consider evil in every aspect of his/her life. There need not be a constant thought of "how can I make today especially evil?"
Most of us act fairly alike, though our motivations might be a little different. I like to think that our true nature shows up in the extremes. When your compatriot is about to be pulled into the maw of some horrid beast and it's time to decide whether to risk your life to save his or just let him go - that's where alignment kicks in. When nobody is looking at the jewels and it would be so easy to pocket a few - that's when alignment comes in. When you catch a criminal in a back alley and nobody is there to see you take street justice - that's when alignment takes effect.
I once had a heated disagreement with a friend about paladins being "lawful stupid." He maintained that all paladins would make the same choices in every situation and that they were mindless beings with no opportunity for personality or role playing. I disagreed mightily and proceeded to give him a dozen or so different paladin types who might find themselves in opposition to each other. I've always had a thing for paladins.....
A paladin and a CE character could coexist in a party as long as the CE character was "reserved," not outwardly evil in action. The paladin would probably never trust the CE and would be watchful for treachery/evil, but if it were a latent or low-level CE then it could last for a while. The paladin might KNOW you are evil, but he doesn't necessarily KNOW what evil things you have done.
I always treated alignment as having a volume knob. A paladin is LG, LOUDLY, while your average every day Joe is probably LG quietly. Same thing with evil - the Blackgaurd is CE LOUDLY, while the serial killer is CE very very quietly.
My personal outlook on this matter is rather direct.
Evil doesn't view itself as evil.
No one will ever call himself "Evil". Villains through out history have all believed what they were doing was the right thing. Evil will most often refer to itself as the pinnacle of goodness, and everyone else is corrupt and must be swept away.
Doth the Hierophant. This BBEG was once a cleric of a good deity. He began doing evil acts, based on an interpretation of a sacred text. Then when he stopped getting spells he was outraged. His deity was a traitor to his holy cause! He was manipulated into worshiping a dark deity, and stood to the last wearing his white holy vestments, cursing the wrongdoers, damning them for their sins. (I had to mess with some spell effects, but it was well worth it).
Order of the Black Rose. These paladins unearthed the skull of an Elder God. They took to worshiping it, and it granted them power. It let them Smite Evil on anyone, and rewarped the CoC. These Paladins then took to genocide, to exterminate all humans on the continent to revive their god. To the last, they were CERTAIN they were the paragons of goodness, and everyone else was a blasphemer.
Evil doesn't call itself evil. It's a matter of outlook. Yes, there is the Insane Evil, but the Smart Evil usually thinks it's good.
The most fascinating villains can be the corrupted heroes, so blinded by their own self righteousness that they themselves become what they hate.
Sometimes the "villain" isn't evil at all, but misguided, and to the end is good aligned, even when his last actions are reprehensible.
For those of you who play World of Warcraft I can name an example, known as the Scarlet Crusade. It was an organization whose sole purpose was the elimination of the undead who plagued their lands. At first they were good, but by the end, they are a malicious group who attacks the innocent seeing them as impure, killing in the name of God . . . I mean "The light". In the end, you not only find out they are corrupted, but they are being manipulated by undead (which didn't cause, but ADDED to the corruption).
It's true what he said, Evil often doesn't see itself as evil, but the greatest evil hides behind false righteousness. Not only that, but often enough evil can be so alluring because the villain can sometimes have admirable qualities. Having recently read a synopsis of Paradise Lost, I read the speech that Lucifer gives, and he expresses admirable traits! He says he will not be ruled by force, showing a rebellious sense of justice. However, he is in the end, wrong. He was given free will by god and thusly given the freedom to fall if he made the wrong decisions, which he did.
Often enough, Evil can be a form of retribution against those who the villain believes has wronged him. Just as Lucifer hated God for making him this way, he dedicated his life to bringing vengeance upon him. In D&D you can apply the same type of villain, A cleric who lost his family and feels that his Pelor should have protected them might turn to another deity for power to seek vengeance for the deity who they feel wronged them. True depraved insanity is a sure bet for a good villain, and feel free to use them sometimes. Also those who desire great power will turn to dark means to get it.
Evil comes in more flavors than Kool Aid. Campaigns should have a variety of villains, and the heroes/adventurers should deal with them in an even greater variety of ways. Can you talk them out of it? Will you have to kill him? Will jail suffice? Can he be redeemed?
Vengeance. Self Righteousness. Insanity. Power Lust. Greed.
Here's a fun example of evil characters doing good deeds.
I'm playing a NE rogue, about to take on the assassin prestige class (I'm currently in training). I'm traveling with the following. A CG cleric with a hard-on for smiting evil (he's pretty much playing LG) A CN 1/2 bronze 1/2 red dragon (who is probably the only party member playing alignment correctly) A CN fighter whose selfless moral decisions would make a boy scout appear to be a pit fiend. A LN monk who values honor above all other concerns.
Why am I traveling with this roving band of boy scouts? We share a common purpose. The basic plot is that some evil wizard of great power is trying to bond all the planes into one uber-plane under his rule. Yeah, it's a fairly stereotypical villain, but oh well. Anyway, I may not have much concern for human value or life, but I do have a great deal of concern for my own, and this guy definitely threatens my life. Additionally, in typical human format, I project my own morality onto others. I don't trust in people's goodness because I know I'm not worthy of trust. As such, as far as my character is concerned, she is the only one who will step up to do this task, and if she doesn't...rocks fall, everyone dies, but more importantly she dies.
Her evil comes in with her methods. She may be doing a good deed, but she is still amoral. She thinks nothing of torturing prisoners for information. In fact, I've actually managed to bring the cleric down a tad through roleplaying. We killed a wizard bandit, working for a powerful baron, and I suggested we remove his hands to prevent him casting much at us and "raise dead" him so we could interrogate him before killing him again. The cleric went for it. It's small things like these that can allow you to still roleplay an evil character, while serving the greater good.
It's funny that we talk about smart evil, and how it thinks it's good. That may be intelligent evil, but not wise evil. It's plain naive, in fact. Unfortunately, intelligence doesn't help someone contemplate moral issues. Math problems, yes. Right and wrong, no.
A character with a high Wisdom score will know the truth about good and evil, and that good is right and evil is wrong. I've personally house ruled that evil clerics function on Charisma. Evil requires no skill or talent, but sure does require a large love of self.
A comment was made about an evil character giving to charities. I could see this, as long as the evil character gave from his surplus and not his treasure. But basically, charity is the greatest form of love one can possess, and since the root of evil is selfishness, an evil character should only give money to those who he believes can benefit him at a later time.
But above that, evil can still be very complex. In fact, one of my players and I were having a talk about a character that did good things, but was CE because he constantly gave in to his compulsion to beat and torture small, cute animals to death.
Since good (one interpretation anyway) comes from overcoming morally deviant behaviors in oneself or others, the above character would be evil because, although he went out of his way to help others and do good things, whenever he got the urge, he'd steal a puppy and flense it to death, laughing manically and cursing any deity who opposes his actions.
The trouble with the alignment system is that it is very general. You might be a somewhat greedy CG ranger who acts like Robin Hood, but always takes a tiny cut. Or a Paladin like Lancelot. He would be LG, but he still had an affair. Lots of people in history might be good but fight for an evil cause (or the other way around.) Was Robert E. Lee a Virginian patriot, traitor to the U.S, or simply misguided? Or all three?
Simply, there is no black and white. Its all shades of grey, and it is very difficult to see where an alignment crosses over. Owen Glendower may have been a heroic Welsh freedom fighter, but he also massacred defenseless English peasants. Of course, that may not have been seen as evil back then (it was common practice for anyone who didn't immediately surrender).
I'm not sure I agree with the views that evil characters think they're morally good, or that they are naive. Some people/characters simply value self-interest above being morally good for the purpose of their own lives -- they have a concept of what's good and what's evil, but they decide their life priorities do not include trying to be good.
Defining good and evil, and lawful and chaotic, have become some major sticking points with one of the groups I play with. If you look through history, at the people considered "villains", or "evil", (ie. Hitler, Genghis Khan, Stalin, etc.). These people looked at what they were doing as the right or just thing. I personally try not to take much note of alignment in the games I run. The more I play the more of a hindrance that I find the alignment system to be. In my adventures I try to take the strategy that Anthony Hopkins took for playing Hannibal Lecter, play the opposite of what is expected. A horribly corrupted cleric who leads the services of a good deity, but lays down undertones of evil. A paladin who's a sexist. I try to keep my players off balance.