Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Evil Characters

There seems to be a stigma out there against running "evil" characters or parties.

Why is this, exactly?

Looking at the roots of the hobby, it seems like running an "evil" character was not uncommon. Flipping through the AD&D Rogues Gallery, which details many of the "house" characters of the folks involved with TSR, a good portion of them are evil, and as many neutral. Storied characters like Robilar (Rob Kuntz), Erac's Cousin (Ernie Gygax), and Lanolin (Lawrence Schick), were all evil.

Changing the "goal" of the game might be one reason. As the game metamorphosed from "treaure hunt" to "fulfill epic quest", it quite possibly became easier for a good-aligned party to cooperate toward a more charitable end. Evil and neutral aligned parties (or, more likely, a healthy mix of alignments) was probably actually more effective with the treasure hunt scenario, such as plumbing the depths of Castle Greyhawk. There would be plenty of situations where someone of low scruples could be an advantage to such pursuits, as well as a variety of "aligned" situations to take advantage of, such as shrines or magic swords.

Another reason might be a trend I saw in the 90's, which was bringing in an evil character to essentially "screw" the party. The player's character would steal, backstab, and otherwise work against the other players, all under the aegis of "playing my alignment", when really it was just kind of dickish. Or maybe just odd concept of player competition?

If you consider the overall main goals of fantasy RPGs to be character development, imaginative immersion, problem solving, and even cooperative storytelling, there doesn't seem to be any need for an evil character to be so disruptive. After all, even a character with intentions of taking over the world someday, founding a dark empire, or whatever, is going to recognize that the quickest path to accumulating wealth and power is through cooperation, not just being a sociopath and getting immediately killed by the rest of the party (as I've seen happen time and again to evil characters).

What are your experiences with evil characters and/or parties?


  1. I ran an 'evil' campaign where the PCs where agents of Iuz, sent to gather artefacts to use in their fight against Good. It was fun, but short-lived due to life getting in the way.

    I think the trick with evil campaigns is to give them a focus, otherwise players seem to just go around killing everyone, which just generates into pointless chaos.

  2. Evil (or CN "evil light") characters have been a staple in our campaigns since day one. The trick is to acknowledge the difference between evil and psychotic, self-destructive, soul-draining evil. An antihero can be good to play with. Boba Fett would work in an adventuring party. Patrick Bateman wouldn't.

  3. IME, most players assume a default goal of "good" characters is to fight evil, right wrongs, help the weak, etc. Most campaigns provide ways to do these things.

    The default goal of "evil" characters--for players who assume "evil = whatever I want"--is to be a belligerent ass. 'Cause, hey, I'm evil! Most campaigns don't reward dickishness, so evil PCs who "play their alignment" end up preying on other party members and ruining chances for intelligent play. Who wants to deal with that?

    I'll put this out: In D&D context, being evil means taking advantage of opportunities without questioning the morals. Played that way, an evil character can do just fine, even in a mixed-alignment party.

  4. Early D&D is so black and white, there's really no grey area--causing a few evil characters to be killed pretty quick in a largely good or neutral party, though let's not pretend, what D&D adventures do is murder and steal for the most part, so it did work if the slant of the party was that way. It's just key that they don't do it to each other, regardless of alignment (or you may as well be playing VTM instead). Fighting to the death over a vorpal sword can be fun once-- but that gets real old. When we got to WFRP, the natural progression from D&D crossing the late 80's to early 90's, every character is in the grey area, even servants of the 'good' WFRP deities were often doing horrible things, let alone the acts a character with the baliff/torturer starting careers. With the setting so bleak and filled with such treacherous NPC folk, it follows that there were a lot of "we have to kill all the farmers just to make sure we aren't backstabbed later" discussions. That lead to parties getting a quest, then hiding out and killing off all those that gave them the quest first, then going on the quest itself. What's more, the setting and system was codified to handle characters that really went off the rails as they would descend into the grip of the chaos gods, start getting mutations and eventually never be accepted in any society other than a chaos warband (which the entire party could become) who's sole purpose is to cause mayhem. Since every WFRP campaign ends in entire party death, even the invincible and buck naked dwarves, this was just another path to that eventual demise.

  5. You're assuming roleplayers are mature and able to deal with being "evil" without killing the rest of the party. In my experience, this is not the case at all.

  6. my neighbor ran an awesome campaign for evil characters back in, oh, 1980 or so. The party members were all evil, and we did general D&D things until we got screwed by, IIRC, giant weasels and kobolds, and needed favors. The local evil priests helped us at the expense of a geas which sent into a completely absorbing and life-threatening assault (over many, many months of teenaged game play) on a massive dwarven fortress. It was the best rpg experience I had back in the early days. What did it mean to be evil? Being slightly dickish in town/taverns, abusing Johnny Law when we could get away with it, and best of all, killing and taking the stuff of all the goody-goodies we usually fought *for*. Good times! (my PC ended up being reincarnated about half-way through as an Ogre Magi, which of course helped me have favorable opinions of the whole business.)

  7. As someone with a house rule against "truly evil" PCs in my typical campaigns, I can say that I do still support players playing evil characters--the limit is just that they do so in a way that doesn't totally blow the party to smithereens in a few sessions of play (at least not before higher-level play).

    At higher levels, where the various PCs all have access to resources of their own rather than relying on one another for survival, I would be fine with the party exploding due to the actions of some evil seeds, especially if they had some really cool goals in mind that would lead to fun adventures.

    Ultimately, though, most players who want to play evil characters mostly just want to do petty, fun-destroying stuff and be able to blame it on their alignment and on having to roleplay their characters, so I make my stand firm: "If your evilness is actively working to destroy the party without being supportive of the group's goals, then you will become an NPC antagonist and probably meet a bloody end."

    That being said, I have a couple of evil characters in my current group who get along just fine (with a few kinks) and still create some exciting adventures together while pursuing their diabolical goals (which will make for even more fun adventures down the road when they turn super-villain on everyone).

  8. I played a chatacter in an evil campaign where the characters were all servents of a slumbering, near-dead God. The campaign began with the characters (as individuals) corssing a barren wasteland to an audience the tiny demon-god, reduced to an embryonic (but genius-intelligence) state while imprisoned beneath an ancient stone pyramid.

    Commanded to revive it's worship, the entire party decamped to a nearby mecantile Island Kingdom where my character (the high priest) set himself up as a merchant in order to corrupt the society from within. Other characters included a Fallen Paladin, a vile Warlock, a Sorceror, a half-orc Barbarian Horse-Khan (the eventual general of the cults warriors, a trhill seeking noble and a vile assassin.

    The campaign was full of intrigue, terror (for the innocent) and remarkably civlised one-upmanship as the various characters competed for the favour of their God. My character eventually drowned when the ship he was travelling on was boarded by the ragged remnants of a Holy Order of Paladins. He fell overboard and was drowned in his armour. The Blackguard character thereafter took control of the cult. After that, our activities became far less insidious and much more open (and bloody).

    It was a great campaign because everyone in the party had reason to work together and a patron with a great big metaphysical club that could bang heads together when the in-fighting threatened to spin out of control. Good fun was had by all. We all found that the old gag is true: the actor playing the bad guys does have more fun.

  9. The "stigma" against evil characters/parties is based on the fact that they're EVIL.

    I've never been able to fathom why someone would *want* to play an evil (as opposed to just law-breaking) character. I see no fun in it, and I would not enjoy anything the character accomplished.

    It wouldn't be like portraying an evil character in a play or film, where you are acting out a script and SOMEONE needs to be the bad guy, or writing a story from the point of view of an evil character.

    No evil PCs allowed in my campaigns. Any PC whose alignment switches to evil instantly becomes an NPC, though I could see working something out with the player about a quest or something to redeem the character. Sort of like a fallen Paladin thing.

    Obviously, others have different opinions.

    1. When it comes to plays, I actually prefer to play the villain. I think there's a lot more fun (and hamminess) to be had with a villainous role.
      There's a CE fighter in my group's party, along with a NE thief, a LG cleric and a CG wizard. They're demon-hunting, and sooner or later, they're going to come across the demon that the fighter is bound to - and there's going to be a lot of roleplaying opportunities there. Until then, all the fighter player wants to do is kill things, and he thinks it's easier to kill what the party points him at (18 STR, +1 two-handed), so there's no real problem there.

  10. I think you're missing out on something there Kilgore. One of the most enjoyable experiences I ever had was playing a Lawful Evil fighter who worshipped Hexor in an otherwise Lawful and Neutral Good party. He risked his life for the other characters and depended on them because they were colleagues. He was evil, but he was trusthworthy. He always simply tried to choose the easy (or selfish) option.

    In that respect he acted as something of a foil for the other characters. His suggestions and advice often (in fact, damn near always) made a seductive kind of sense. "Innocent lives are at stake you fools, just torture the damn orc and find out where the hostages are already. Do you want their deaths on your conscious? Time is running out" etc.

    If anything, his seductive suggestions simply made the rest of the parties heroics all the more tangible. They could've tortured the orc, but they didn't, and they saved the prisoners anyway. They could have taken the villains innocent daughter captive and held her for ransom, but they didn't. Despite everything, despite how easy and sensible he made the "lesser evil" seem, the rest of the party always chose good. Not the "greater good".

    In fact, on the few rare occasions that one of the other party members suggested a course of action that might seem somewhat grey (leaning towards the dark end of the spectrum), my characters very enthusiasm for the idea would often be enough to snap the other PC's out of it.

    It made for a very memorable campaign.

  11. We've played a couple short campaigns where everyone was evil. We are usually given a goal by a higher power, forcing us to work together. The last session always degrades into a massive pvp fight but everyone looks forward to it and jockeys for position in the earlier sessions. We all enjoy getting our evil on every once in a while.

  12. what D&D adventures do is murder and steal for the most part... It's just key that they don't do it to each other

    That I think is the fundamental problem. First, most parties are pretty much gangs of bandits (despite TSR's attempts to turn them into the A Team). They use violence to achieve personal gain, and, like any such gang, they have to have a clear boundary between the outer world, on which they can use violence, and their own group, on which they cannot (cf. pirate ships, nation states, military forces, mafias). So violence directed outward is normal, and not "evil" in terms of the game.

    Second, evil is not well defined in the rules. If you appeal to moral standards common in society, outside a specific religious context, evil basically means "destructive to society." Pair that with a dichotomy between being law-abiding and Chaotic, and you've set up one of the alignment choices as "destructive to society AND hostile to rules," ie sociopathic.

    Given that violence directed outward is a basic part of the game, the only society with any meaning for the players in many D&D games is that of their own group. So it's hard to demonstrate your evilness - to differentiate yourself from good or neutral characters - without being destructive to that society. So evil winds up being "dickish." Which, in fact, it is.

    I know we didn't put it in these terms when we were 14, back in the early 80s, but that was what was happening, when one guy would always play the chaotic evil fighter and backstab the rest of the party.

  13. I've been toying with the idea of offering my players the option of being a weak band of Chaotic, 1st-level outlaws on the run from local authorities. Their survival depends upon finding a refuge where they can establish a base of operations and discover resources to repel the superior forces of Law.

    A megadungeon might become their new home. Rather than kill everything in sight and retreat to the safety of town when needed, they would have to be clever at finding allies, setting traps to defend themselves, find lost treasures that could be traded or used against Bounty Hunters of the Law that are sent into the underworld to bring them to justice. It's inverting the heroic scenario on it's head.

  14. >>He was evil, but he was trusthworthy. He always simply tried to choose the easy (or selfish) option.

    That sounds a lot more neutral than evil to me.

    Reading the responses here and from what I've read in the past, it's clear that my view of "evil" is a lot different than a lot of people's.

    I don't see evil as just "not good." I see evil as "actively bad and immoral." Almost every time I hear about these fun characters with evil alignments, I think the characters sound a lot like like neutral characters in my view.

    Good characters go out of their way to do good and right things, choosing the moral right even if it costs them. Neutral characters don't go out of their way. Evil characters go out of their way to do bad and wrong things, choosing the moral wrong because they believe it's the best way to do things.

    Because of this view, I prefer the law-chaos 3-alignment system over those that incorporate the good-evil axis. But we're using the 9-alignment AD&D system currently.

  15. "Evil characters go out of their way to do bad and wrong things, choosing the moral wrong because they believe it's the best way to do things."

    Yup, that pretty much sums that character up.

    " Why go out and try to defeat the horrible campaign villain to save the city when you can take his innocent daughter hostage? Why spare the lives of female orc and their brats, their only gonna back and kill you later? Why pay for that weapon you need when you can just steal it? Why not just swap sides, the bad guys gonna win anyway, then we can loot the town? Why not kill the LG priest who hired us to find the evil artifact, then we can just keep it for ourselves? Why destroy that thing, I'll use it. Give it here. "

    Sure neutral characters might do those things too, but evil characters do them consistently.

    But your right about how "evil" means different things to different people. To me not every "evil" character is a murderer or a rapist. In my book, evil includes ruthless warriors, conquerors, swindlers, professional thieves etc. Little evils in comparison to a mass-murderer or a lyche mind you, but evils nonetheless. Not everyone would agree with me though

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  17. @rob Merino: I love how Ars Magica sets you up for that - your gang of quirky not-yet-archmages have to build a stronghold together right at rhe start of the game. One that'll keep the superstitious peasants out and let them do their research.

  18. I would have to agree that a loto f it comes down to people's inability to play evil characters without being disruptive to the game or reducing it down to being just plain brutal or vulgar.


  19. My experience with evil characters is that players decide that evil must mean openly and totally hostile to the rest of the party, working harder to screw them over than to overcome any of the campaign's actual antagonists/obstacles.



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