Friday, October 24, 2014

Tips For Playing Evil Characters (Your DM Might Allow)

We've all been there. You're gaming along with your friends and the DM asks everyone if they'd like to add a new player to the group. You all say sure, no problem, the more the merrier. The new player shows up, and seems like a good enough sort, but as soon as you sit down to play suddenly there are dead babies in the gutters, the whole village is on fire, and summoned demons are playing "Rape and Pillage" right alongside a horde of undead.

Why? Because the DM let an evil member into the party.

Don't be judgmental guys; I'm sure he's just misunderstood.
For those who want to avoid these negative experiences (again, if you've had them before) you have two options. One is to never, ever allow evil characters into a game, period, no appeal, discussion over. The other is to make sure that players understand what evil characters are, and are not. This second one is harder, but Improved Initiative is here to give you a handy dandy guide to break it down.

No One Is Evil "Just Because"

Provided you are of a mortal race evil is not something you're born with; it's a lifestyle choice. There are characters for whom evil comes more naturally, or who were exposed to that culture early on, but no one is an evil bastard just sitting in a crib and sucking on his thumb.

Except Sir Troll Knight. He murdered the nursery and stole their binkies.
Like I said when I covered writing villains for fiction, being evil is just as complicated and varied an experience as being good. Some of the things to consider are:

- What culture was your character born into?
- What role models did this character have growing up?
- What formative experiences made the character go one way or another?
- What does this character want, and what will he or she do to achieve it?

Let's take a good example... the best example, one might say; the Paladin. Let's say that this noble paragon was born to a good family where he was valued and encouraged. He was schooled and trained young, and showed an aptitude for arts knightly and scholarly. Praised for his skills and abilities, he also had a mentor who tempered his pride and helped him see beyond himself so that one day he would be a good man, and a champion against evil.

At any point in this journey the character could have skewed the other way.

Screw it up out of the gate, and the character is born into a home where she isn't wanted, or is mistreated. Whether it's physical abuse that teaches violence is the answer to problems, or just an indifference leading the character to seek belonging and affection elsewhere, that's a bad start to things. Instead of being taught fairness and honor the character learns how to fight the hard way, with blood and spit, dirty tricks and knives in the back. Now an individual who is feared, the character uses that fear as a shield to keep herself safe emotionally and physically, but has to keep doing things to fit the persona of a terror in order to maintain the image. If the character has no one to reach out to, or worse a mentor that takes her by the hand and leads her down darker and darker paths, you'll end up with someone who may not even remember why she used to feel sick when peeling the skin off of her rivals before staking them out as a warning to others.

No one sees him or herself as a bad person; in fact, most people think they're pretty damn heroic (with the exception of lunatics and psychopaths). People do things based on what is reinforced, and what works to get them closer to their goals.

Speaking of which...

Evil Characters Should Have Plans

Have you ever noticed that villains always seem to have really specific goals in mind? Take over a government, dominate a world, summon an elder god, etc.? Bad guys are highly motivated, and often times a hell of a lot more motivated than heroes. That's why good guys need to lose family members more often than not before they decide it's time to act.

Also, they get toys like this. Seriously, go check it out now!
Yes we know your character is evil, and thanks to the previous section we may even know why your character is evil. But what does your character want? Evil is a description of the methods you're using, but you need to know the end goal before you start justifying things to your DM.

Villain goals and hero goals are drawn from the same pool (though villains do get some unique ones all to themselves). Let's keep it simple though. What does a vicious cutthroat want? Job security and gold perhaps? Maybe the chance to get a bounty taken off his head, or to win a position of authority and privilege? Those are some pretty basic goals. How do you get them? Well if there's a peaceful, idyllic setting then you could murder the lord's wife, blame it on someone else, and then play the hero to collect social currency and reward. On the other hand if there's a perfectly good war already on then all you have to do is sign yourself up with the highest paid position you can find, and rake in all the cash your sword arm can reach.

Evil characters can be simple or complicated, and the same is true of their goals. A commoner born in the gutter might do everything in his power to amass wealth and power regardless of its morality just to comfort himself and gain distance from those early, painful memories (even while running an orphanage so no one else ever has to experience what he did). A wizard who wants to unlock the secrets of great power might start off with mortal teachers, but quickly find that infernal ones are much more generous with their secrets. A girl who was born crippled or weak might give herself to a secret cabal body and soul, if only they'll make her strong.

Heavy stuff, am I right?

It's About More Than Eating Babies

I mentioned it a few sentences ago, but I'm going to say it again; evil can be complicated. Did you spy on your comrades for gold and prestige? Sure you did. Did you sell them out to their enemies in exchange for keeping a vow to your true masters? It looks like you did that too. Does that mean you can't love your children, treat your servants well, or have a good marriage with your partner?

No, as it turns out.

Though a lot of evil characters do need couples' counseling.
Just because someone's methods or goals are evil, that doesn't mean that character is one-sentence shallow. A vicious serial killer who preys on prostitutes may hold his wife in a very high regard, for instance. Does that make him a good person? No of course it doesn't; he's still a murderous monster, but he's complex, which is what gives a character a lot of drive and typically allows him or her to work in a group setting.

Evil Understands Consequences

Up until now a lot of experienced gamers have been nodding and scrolling; they know all this. They understand that murderous graveknights and lich lords were once someone's sons and daughters, and that a whole lifetime of events led up to them becoming what they are. Well this last principle cannot only make an evil character work in a non-evil party, but it can keep an evil party from coming apart at the seams.

No DM-ex-machina required.
Lots of players want to play evil characters because of the forbidden thrill. It's the same reason people in sandbox games go around beating up NPCs and car-jacking people even when they don't have to; it's the thrill of being a bad guy. There's nothing wrong with that, per se. That thrill lets you know you're having fun, after all. You just need to remember one very important thing.

Actions have consequences.

Why are heroes rewarded for their actions? Because they're doing good deeds (ostensibly). Will you get those same rewards even if you're evil? Yes, because we're awarding your actions and not your thoughts or feelings. Did the good character fight goblins to keep the town safe and to return that lost gold to those in need? Probably. So why is the evil character fighting alongside him? To steal the plunder perhaps? To win the hearts and minds of the townsfolk so he can sweep an election and rise to a governing position? Is it because the goblins are making a lot of noise and drawing attention, and the cult the evil character belongs to wants to assure the town that there is no danger so they stop asking so many questions? These are all possibilities.

Regardless of your motives, doing good deeds gets you rewards. Also regardless of your motives doing evil deeds gets you reviled.

By and large evil characters are aware that their method of doing things is not embraced by society as a whole. Assassins don't stand there dumbfounded when people try to arrest them for murder, servants of gods of pain and slaughter aren't surprised when the watch batters down their doors, and poisoners who get caught are not in the least bit shocked when they're thrown in prison. That's why evil characters tend to either operate in places where their evil is tolerated (such as in countries who worship dark gods where there are no laws against these actions), or to keep their actions secret.

That's why unless the evil character has come to trust a party implicitly it's unlikely that he's going to advocate killing helpless captives, maiming and torturing children, or doing any of a hundred other things. It's the same reason why, just because someone is evil, it doesn't mean she's a walking murder machine willing to lie, cheat, and steal every ten feet. If it doesn't serve an evil character's purposes (achieving a goal, personal pleasure, profit or gain) then it's unlikely she'll do it. If the action would serve but comes with too high a risk (summoning demons in public, raising the dead where witnesses might see, calling on fell powers to aid you in front of the party, killing helpless individuals even though they weren't presently a threat when others might see, killing the party rogue whom you expressly keep around to search for traps just before a dungeon crawl) then it's equally unlikely an evil character would take it.

The short version? People too often mistake "being an absolute asshole" with "just playing my alignment." That's true of almost any character though.

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1 comment:

  1. I once had an evil necromancer in a game. He was all about gaining personal power, overcoming mortality and founding his own nation to rule over as slaves. He was also more altruistic than the paladin. Everyone knew he was a necromancer, but he only raised evil folk and he ran several free medical clinics (where he quietly added a body or two and studied anatomy while performing surgery), orphanages and schools (where he trained a future generation to act as needed, whether as guards or puppet governments), and offered employment opportunities (to reinforce what would become his economy, to get professionals indebted to him and to control what services were available in the area). He was about as evil as could be, was welcomed as a local hero, was a better person than the rest of the good party and nobody ever thought of him as anything but a hero and saviour once they got past the dead folk.