Evil Characters

It is said amongst gamers that you should never allow evil characters in the party. There is a good reason for this. As a Dragonlance fan, I’m reminded of the Law of the Dark Queen, which states that evil feeds on itself.  This is a truth that surpasses the Dragonlance setting. When you have an evil character in the party, they often cause untold havoc.  They don’t work as part of the team, as their motives are self-serving. In other words, they don’t play well with others.

I experienced this phenomenon a couple of times myself. I will say upfront that I, as (a much younger) game master, was as much at fault as anyone else, if not more so. I knew that evil campaigns ended badly, but I didn’t heed the warnings. 

In one case, I ran a Realms game where the player characters were determined to kill, rape, and plunder everyone in sight – often in that order.  It didn’t last more than two game sessions. By the time it was all done, I was left with a bad taste in my mouth.  A gamer should never leave a game with that sensation.

In another case, I thought that a couple of bounty hunters in a Star Wars game could still work within the mold of a heroic game.  As it turns out, heroism doesn’t pay well.  The players abandoned the whole premise of the campaign in one fell swoop.  Before I knew it, the party was somewhere else in the galaxy other than where my game was, and I sat there staring.  I was a game master defeated.

Mercenary games, in general, are not to my liking.  I like some of the concepts of games like Shadowrun, but the idea that all you’re doing is adventuring to get more money so you can buy more stuff is just not something that interests me personally.  Plus, mercenaries can be jerks at times.  I like heroic games, where you fight for some greater cause and some better purpose.

Yet can’t evil fight for a greater cause?  Many evil organizations do just that.  Look at the Empire in Star Wars, or the Knights of Takhisis in Dragonlance.  Both entities seek to bring order to their respective settings.  It’s when evil puts aside its own ambitions for something greater than itself, whether misguided or not, that it becomes palatable to play.

If you are dead-set on playing an evil character, then my recommendation would be to assign characteristics to the player character that makes him more than some murderer.  If you want him to gel with the party, give him a reason to.  Maybe he’s working under orders, or has a code of honor he cannot break.  In these cases, I would recommend using a character with a Lawful Evil alignment.  They seem to be more likely to work well with others, whereas Chaotic Evil would just kill and maim everything indiscriminately. 

Maybe the character has something he cares about more than being evil.  If his wife has come down with the plague and the party is questing to get the antidote, he might decide to play nice.  Or, maybe the character was once good, but was misled, and so now he lives a life of evil.  I would recommend placing some chances at redemption if you go this route.

While I still do not recommend evil characters, I think they can work so long as the players are experienced and willing to put aside any issues that would disrupt game play.  Use the group template, and talk to the other players and GM about how you can make this work.

Comments (17)

RallekOctober 8th, 2009 at 4:20 am

I think that when it comes to the matter of having one or two evil PCs in a party otherwise made up of good PCs, I think you’re dead on about it being a bad idea. I do think, however, that a party composed entirely of evil characters can work out a whole lot better.

I’ve run several campaigns with “evil” parties, and in my experience one of the keys to making an evil campaign work is to make the characters really need each other in order to survive and/or advance their agenda.

As always a mature group that plays well together tends to make the need for guidelines of this type moot.

anonymouserOctober 8th, 2009 at 9:21 am

My newest character is unaligned, but subject to a very dark influence. Without intervention from the party, this character will indeed become evil. I didn’t plan it this way, it just seemed like the logical conclusion of my premise. This is my first character even to have potential for evil. Any suggestions, comments or dire warnings?

Sorry for the anonymous login — I don’t want to tip my hand to my group.

Griffin GramOctober 8th, 2009 at 10:53 am

I wholeheartedly and emphatically disagree about the problem with chaotic evil characters. The aligmnent you described is something I generally call Chaotic Stupid. There’s absolutely no need to be a psychotic kill-crazy baby-rapist as a chaotic evil character. Take, for instance, one of my old favorites, a chaotic evil bard from good ol’ DnD:

He had absolutely zero compunctions about murder, rape, or any other form of violence against anybody, young or old, male or female, good or evil. Thieving, deceiving, flouting any law that came his way, were all perfectly kosher by him. He had a massive hate-on for governments as a whole, and law enforcement in particular. On various occasions he had: Murdered innocent children, raped a handful of people, tortured several, and incited riots and one full-blown rebellion against a perfectly decent king. Evil? Check. Chaotic? Check.

Big difference? He wasn’t an idiot about it. He wasn’t driven by some insane compulsion to bring pain and suffereing to everybody around him, and in fact was a rather beloved public figure by the time all was said and done. The dead children were mostly collateral damage, witnesses that needed to be disposed of (and one failed human shield. Sucker!) quietly and thoroughly. Rape? Well, with one exception, that just fell in with torture, and that was always well concealed as well (protip: bards can get healing spells in 3.5, and who trusts enemy prisoners?), and a brief stint in prison. Riots and rebellions were started with protest songs, convincing lies, and minor mind control, for a purpose that everybody believed was good. Except the time he really wanted an overpriced hat (It was jaunty!).

All of these were slipped quietly in the cracks of a much more public life of saving the weak, smiting the wicked, and putting on badass concerts. His (all good-to-neutral) allies trusted him as one of their own, and until the very last game, nobody ever thought he was worse than neutral (in our group, side-plots that involve just one or two people are generally dealth one one-on-one with the GM rather than slowing the game down, so the worst of his bad behavior stayed between the two of us).

Chaotic evil doesn’t need to be psychopathically insane. Any reasonably intelligent character can be evil and chaotic so long as their player actually plays their character as intelligent.

Side note: He also became probably the group’s favorite lead villain. … After ending the last game by killing the entire party in a one-on-five battle after they’d taken down the big bad. Next campaign got handed off to me to run, and I’ve never seen a group more invested in tracking down a villain.

Moral: Never trust a bard. They’re tricky, and much more dangerous than you give them credit for.

Oh, and don’t treat evil like it means stupid.

BreetaiOctober 8th, 2009 at 11:07 am

I love dragonlance too, it got me into D&D but it’s a great example of chaotic stupid more so than evil. I’ve got an evil character in my weekend game. It’s a fun spin on things playing a hobgoblin. He’s got that gangsta’ style f’d up sense of honor that he follows to a Tee. Won’t kill women and children, but doesn’t have an issue owning one kinda feels weird. But we do have some players who insist that Undead aren’t evil. That gets annoying. Corrupting someones immortal soul just so you can have a minion is not an ambiguous issue, I don’t understand why people don’t get that.

Alii_SilverwingOctober 8th, 2009 at 12:32 pm

I definitely agree an evil character shouldn’t be included unless there’s a reason to have them in the party.

The closest I get is a chaotic evil character (though in 4e there’s no such thing, so he’s just neutral). He is deliberately chaotic stupid as an archetype. However, to make him work, he was tied inextricably to a moral, purposeful character who acts as the leash for his idiocy. He’s important to the party, can offer his skewed view of everything, and sympathizes with evil. Pre-game planning neutralized his threat to the campaign and his blatant attitudes and alignment make for rp opportunities.

I think that giving the evil character a solid not-to-be-violated purpose to stick with the party and illustrate loyalty (however under duress) is nearly required if the campaign is to work out.

EvernevermoreOctober 8th, 2009 at 9:11 pm

My favorite D&D character ever was an evil character, but he was the opposite of Chaotic Stupid. He was a Lawful Evil Kobold, who fit into the part of good characters due to a mutual hatred of Nation/God in the campaign. I was the ruthless planner of the party, aiming the Barbarian and Barbarous Cleric at the right targets.

Even though his alignment was diametrically opposed alignment wise to most of the party it still worked because he was an honorable, ruthless, and driven little scaly guy who was dedicated to gaining his personal revenge, and willing to use any tool that came into his claws. Incidentally he was last man standing when the campaign petered out, he didnt give into the compulsion to charge the wyverns un armored that seemed to strike the rest of the players.

Another quasi evil character I have is a Bounty Hunter Droid in a Star Wars game that stick in limbo – Im currently debating turning him into a tortured artist type as he struggles to create instead of destroy, or play off the droid in Knights of the Old Republic 2 and just play a gleeful psycho robot. The options…

FreemageOctober 9th, 2009 at 1:04 pm

Alignment discussions, of course, are the third rail of RPG convo’s. That said…

One thing to keep in mind is the distinction between personal evil, societal evil and Cosmic Evil. Personal evil can be broad, but it can also be fairly narrow in scope. Just because a character is evil does NOT mean he’ll do every deed that could possibly be committed under the rubric of “evil”. Rather, it means that when seeking to accomplish his goals, he’s willing to use whatever methods he feels suitable. An evil assassin-for-hire, for instance, might be perfectly willing to kill a newborn infant if someone meets his price; however, he might be a perfect gentleman when it comes to affairs of the heart, courting and wooing without ever thinking once of taking liberties (let alone committing rape). Such an individual might even have a powerful ethos of, “Never break the contract,” granting him a reptuation for absolute loyalty once he’s been paid (and thus, never going back on a deal). On the flipside, a serial rapist might only kill if he feels it’s necessary to remain at liberty–lethal violence in general is no part of his crimes. Picking a sufficiently narrow field of evil to operate in is one way to let such a character into a campaign without wrecking it (Evernevermore’s Lawful Evil ruthless planner, described above, is actually a pretty good example of this).

Societal evil is a different beast. Individuals within the society are simply conditioned to accept horrific actions as a matter of course. Outwardly, other races (and maybe even other societies of the same race) will be treated as expendable slaves, obstacles to be eliminated, or even a food-source. Some such societies will actually be quite pleasant in their internal affairs–members of the same tribe/clan/nation might be fanatically loyal, compassionate and caring towards one another. Alternately, they might resemble the societies portrayed in various dystopic fictions–1984, Brave New World, Brazil. The aliens from Battlefield: Earth could also be viewed this way, in their constant seeking of “leverage” over one another. In the Arcanis setting, the S’seth have this sort of society–clutches of new hatchlings are even permitted to cannibalize one another in order to weed out the unfit. Regardless, however, they will likely NOT treat one another with the same callous abuse with which they treat outsiders.

If you’re looking to include societal evil as part of your PC base, either the evil character should be utterly isolated from his home nation (and thus, unable to actually act freely on his feelings about those who now surround him), or the entire party should be part of the evil society. If the latter sounds unpleasant, it can be–though Paranoia had years of success on exactly that premise. Sure, it was a dark comic setting, but you could remove the laughs, and just play up the brutal, backstabbing side of it, and still have a damn good game.

Finally, of course, we’ve got Cosmic Evil. This is that evil which is dedicated to the ascension of the dark gods, opening the gates of Hell upon the Earth, or waking the Great Old Ones. Individuals serving a Cosmic Evil purpose can, of course, be all sorts of wicked–or they might be astoundingly scrupulous in their day-to-day activities. It might actually be that the cult, for instance, frowns on ‘petty evils’ as a distraction from the Great Work. Such a character can be included in the party, but may have a limited shelf-life, especially if the opportunity to advance the Great Work arises in-game, at which point they’re going to be expected to betray the party.

Oooh, here’s a concept for an evil PC of the last sort:

A Lawful Evil Monk in the service of a cult dedicated to the awakening of the Great Old Ones (or some other similar apocalyptic force within the setting). His specific task (and, indeed, that of his entire monastic order) is to live a life of aescetic purity, virtue and valor, before willingly submitting to a ritual sacrifice at a set age (say, 10-20 years in the future). The cult believes that these sacrifices “steal” the good energies from the world, thereby tipping the cosmic scales towards their dark masters’ favor. They believe that either after enough sacrifices, or after a single “Perfect Sacrifice” (which would require a sacrificial subject of undilluted virtue), they can achieve the End of All Things.

Griffin GramOctober 9th, 2009 at 4:02 pm

Ooooh, I like that monk concept. I’m going to shamelessly rip it off the first chance I get! Thanks a jillion!

The MuffonOctober 11th, 2009 at 5:30 pm

The only problem with evil characters is that people have a tendancy to portray them as cartoon villains. As soon as you flesh out the character beyoned “He’s really evil and likes to do evil things” you’ve pretty much eliminated the problem. I’ve played in several games with “chaotic evil” characters that were both believable and didn’t cause any problems for the game.

As far evil characters being hard to motivate, that’s really just a issue of tailoring the campaign to the characters (or vice versa). I personally dislike the grand heroic type campaigns, they’re too impersonal for my taste – I like it better when the plot is on a level closer to my character.

I find that groups consisting entierly of good characters quickly becomes to homogenous, I’m of the opinion that every party should have one character that’s atleast a little bit “evil”.

Triggerhappy938October 12th, 2009 at 2:53 am

I think the big importance is that any character, regardless of alignment, has to function. If you make an evil character, he must function in the game’s setting and parameters. If he doesn’t, he’s no better than the pain-in-the-rear Paladin who gets smite happy on jay-walkers.

Griffin GramOctober 12th, 2009 at 6:55 am

I’ve never understood the idea some people have of evil characters being difficult to motivate. I’ve always perceived it as just the opposite: Good characters are harder to motivate than evil ones. Evil characters generally WANT something, and aren’t afraid to go after it. Good characters are more likely to have nebulous desires like ‘justice’ or ‘defending the downtrodden.’ Evil characters usually want some kind of power, influence, or personal gratification. Riches, revenge, status (this is the most fun to play with), an evil carrot can be much easier to find than a good one.

Not to say good characters can’t want any of those things either, but they also tend to be more wishy-washy about going after them. No matter how much they may want to rise to the top of the blacksmith’s guild, as long as the guild master is a good man doing a good job, in perfectly fine health, they won’t be ousting him any time soon. Watching an evil character (or group of them) plot and scheme to take that position, be it by intrigue, assassination, or other, can be a load of fun.

C’mon, join us on the dark side. It’s a blast over here.

sbonnerOctober 12th, 2009 at 9:50 pm

I think a mighty fine inspiration/example for an evil campaign is the Black Company series by Glen Cook. Though the 1st-person protagonist of the early books (Croaker) is trying to find some kind of moral center, he is surrounded by evil men, mercenaries who do very wicked things, and he is a voice of authority for them. But, they do their job and do it well, are respected and feared across the world, and in the end come up on the right side, by simple fact that a greater, older evil comes calling to whack their evil employer.

For an excellent tale of personal corruption, and kinda almost redemption, the second book, Shadows Linger, tells the story of Marron Shed – liar, weasel, sociopath, gleeful pedophile, and murderer. He’s the protagonist. It goes downhill from there.

What I love about the Black Company series is that, even though it is full of evil men doing evil things, the books still revolve around meaningful morality, and finding a moral center in an immoral world. Practical morality, as a concept, becomes a major unnamed player in the stories. Not necessarily a redemptive moral center, but some kind of morality.

So, if you aren’t going to address those morality issues, does playing an evil campaign turn into just some twisted form of fantasy fulfillment?

– Scott

FreemageOctober 13th, 2009 at 10:43 am

Griffin: The key problem is that you have to make sure the evil character never gets into a position where the Big Bad of the campaign can just buy him off. That’s the problem with the motivations of many evil characters–they’re too easy to arrange if you’re the GM, as a temptation to turn on the rest of the group.

Griffin GramOctober 13th, 2009 at 2:57 pm

This is true. And the only decent solution I know of to that is to have a sit-down with your evil players from the get-go and hash out a gentlemen’s agreement, that they won’t set up a character that will immediately jump at the first bit of shiny that will lead them against the party.

A secondary solution is making sure they have plenty of reason of their own to be working against the big bad. Unless they’re cartoonish monsters, there’s usually something out there they genuinely care about, and establishing the villain as a threat to this person/place/thing/concept/whatever is a good motivation … it might even lend itself to being a step toward the always fun to observer redemption scenario, if that’s where the player wants to go.

I would caution against having the villain successfully kill/destroy/etc. whatever this is, though (barring multiple failures to protect it). Most evil characters I’ve played and run for will jump through flaming hoops to protect their beloved little sister, for example, than to swear etermal vengeance over her grave. Once it’s lost, they tend to be fairly callous about it.

And since I and my group are perfect, this must be the only way it is done. Any experiences from elsewhere that run counter to this are clearly wrong.

FreemageOctober 14th, 2009 at 11:15 am

Griffin: And that’s kind of my point about why Evil characters can be tough to motivate. Good PCs will oppose the bad guy on general principles; Evil PCs usually need to have a personal stake in things. If your campaign isn’t focused on one singular antagonistic force, your Evil PC will have no stake in matters not pertaining to his actual motivation.

So, sure, you got him into the campaign to fight the Goblins because they’re cannibalistic bastards and he cares about his family and doesn’t want them to get eaten. But a dragon terrorizing the countryside three provinces over isn’t really his concern; if anything, the dragon could probably buy him off if the PCs manage to threaten it.

Griffin GramOctober 15th, 2009 at 3:49 am

Most problems along those lines can be solved pretty easily, really. Everything’s connected. Unless Evil Bastard’s family is stinking rich, the dragon generall has something that can benefit them. It’s rare indeed to find a setting without dragons sitting on piles of treasure. Think what that could do for his family’s quality of life! And improved equipment leaves him better prepared to take care of them, blah blah blah blah… my point there is made.

Moving off the stone shape to the forest: This can be done to just about anything. It’s easy to tie things together with just one or two degrees of separation. So it’s not a dragon, it’s a usurper two kingdoms over. There’s a whole other powerful nation between the EPC’s valuable to keep it safe. Where’s the involvement? All around. The nation in the middle will be responding in various ways, most likely turning its attention away from the safe nation to better secyre its border with the usurped one. Bandits become an issue. The ‘safe’ kingdom could start plotting war … all of these begin to threaten the valuable of the EPC, and don’t take much effort to work out.

And if all else fails, never forget: It’s also on the player to be motivateable. And adaptable when the situation doesn’t present easy motivations. Adventurers are usually fairly powerful people getting even more powerful. If they want you to do something you have no interest in … bargain. “Fine, I’ll help you with lprd baby-eater, but while we’re passing through this place, there’s someone I need to have a ‘chat’ with, regarding (insert bad thing that’s likely to be causing trouble for him in their area). Back me up.”

One good idea when having trouble with evil characters is to spend less time with monsters and more time with people. Or make the monsters more people-y. A dragon causing trouble because people have invaded its territory is a lot easier to blow off if your outside its territory than a crime lord, who is almost certainly trying to expand his territory. Or a dragon who’s got a grudge against someone for nicking a chunk of his treasure while he was out hunting, and man, is it just me or does the black market seemed to be a little flooded with valuables these- oh shitfuck. Cannibalistic baby-eating goblins? Eh… militaristic, expasionistic hobgoblins are so much easier to get everyone involved with.

Hmm… I think I just opened up babble…

geminigreyOctober 15th, 2009 at 8:08 pm

As far as evil characters go, you just have to look at RPGs that aren’t fantasy oriented for examples of how they can work well. Pretty much any of the World of Darkness lines call for the majority of the characters not being ‘good’. Vampires, werewolves, and ghosts, oh my!

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