The Asshole Rule is very simple and can be applied to a number of areas of interest. The Asshole Rule is this: There is always an asshole.
Not “sometimes.” Not “usually.” Not “under certain circumstances.”
There is always an asshole.
We have all seen people take advantage of a situation for their own personal gain or even merely for amusement at the expense of others. Often that gain will be petty. An asshole may be at the front of the line at soup kitchen even when they have a good paying job. A free meal is a free meal, am I right? Parked in the handicap spot. They’ll just be a minute. The guy in the office who has the 32 ounce mug, empties the coffee pot and doesn’t make a fresh one. Oh, I didn’t know you wanted any.
Assholes in the real world get ahead because they don’t care if you don’t like them. They figure you’re just a dope who isn’t as smart as them. You are beneath them and your opinion doesn’t matter. They are asserting that they have a higher status than you. Any time an asshole believes they are entitled to some benefit that a person who is “below” them is using, they will do just about anything to get what they think is rightfully theirs.
As a world building and adventure design principle, The Asshole Rule helps you create antagonists for your PC’s. Who doesn’t want to wrap their fingers around the throat of an asshole and strangle him? Put an asshole in the path of your players and sit back. They’ll push each other out of the way to get the first shot.
Here is how I deploy it. I ask myself, “If he knew the spell sleep, what would an asshole do with it?” or “If an asshole knows where some treasure is, and that he can’t kill the monster guarding it what will he do?” Take any magic spell, item or piece of knowledge and have an NPC use it in a way that the biggest douchebag you know would use it for purely selfish purposes. If you can arrange it so the PC’s lose something valuable to them or have their identity as heroes challenged as a result of the asshole’s actions, even better.
This will get on your player’s nerves and they will do entertaining things just to get back at the NPC for being a dick. They might not even kill them outright, just do something messed up and funny to make an example. You can use this at every character level.
At low levels, a wizard with a minor magic item or a spell that can’t be resisted by normal people. A lot of damage can be done with a sleep or charm person spell in a hamlet full of peasants.
At mid levels a guild thief with some boots of flying might do something like drop a bag of horse shit on a merchant just before an important meeting with the burgomaster.
Dictators, kings and emperors are often first class assholes. They’ll tear down the statues of their predecessors, take credit for others achievements, lure in enemies with promises of reconciliation and then murder them. History is a masterclass in how to be an elite asshole. If all your NPC rulers are benevolent, kind and wise, you are missing out on a lot of fun.
When you are making NPC’s for your setting or adventure just remember:
There is always an asshole.