Monday, July 3, 2017

If Your Character is Evil, Own It!

"So your character is a thief, a liar, a murderer-for-hire, a slaver, a trafficker in demonic powers, and he just threw a baby off the cliff because it was annoying him. Goddammit, Chet, I told you not to bring an evil PC to my game!"

"Dude, he's not evil! He's chaotic neutral... I'm just playing his alignment."

You keep using this term. I do not think it means what you think it means.
How many times have you had to listen to (or have) this conversation at your table? Well, if you're like me, the answer is probably along the lines of, "more times than I can recall." As such, I thought I'd take a moment today to put out a public service message for all the players, and DMs, out there.

Do not waffle about your character's wickedness. Do not hedge about their heinousness. And lastly, do not equivocate about your evil. If you're bad, then be bad.

If You Want To Play An Evil PC, Then Own It

Let's not beat around the bush here; if you have an alignment system in place, then there are a lot of areas that are cut-and-dry about what constitutes an evil act. Murder for hire is evil, and that's why the assassin prestige class requires an evil alignment. Slavery, as an institution, is evil. While it might be legal in certain parts of the world, that doesn't change the nature of owning sentient creatures. Using spells with the evil descriptor inherently corrupt one's spirit, forcing them into an evil alignment if the magic is used too frequently. Dealing with evil creatures like devils and demons for personal gain, while it might seem harmless at first, is an act of small evil that can quickly get out of hand. And if there is ever a question about whether something is or isn't evil in the cosmic sense, your DM can (and should) rule on it. Especially if it's integral to your character's alignment, and beliefs.

No, of course there's no risk. Just sign here, here, and initial here...
We can split hairs all we want about certain issues. For instance, is summoning evil creatures like demons to fight other evil creatures still an act of evil? Is assassinating someone because it will prevent greater suffering still evil? What if you just use soul rend once a month, and then you say some prayers to the god of rainbows and kittens as a form of atonement?

Evil is like pornography; we know it when we see it. And you know something? It's fine if you want to play an evil PC! Nowhere in the core rules of the game does it say that you cannot have a character with an evil alignment. In fact, there are entire campaigns dedicated purely to playing evil characters. Know something else? Evil characters can perform ostensibly good acts! No one is evil just for the sake of being evil. Just like no one is good just for the sake of being good. You perform acts (good or evil) because they're what you believe is necessary, because that's how you've been socialized, or because they will get you closer to your goals. Additionally, just because your alignment box has an E in it, that doesn't mean the character thinks of themselves as evil. They might, on the contrary, protest they're a good person. They're just doing what they have to do to get by. Sometimes that means another person has to bleed, or die, for them to reach their goals.

Here's an example. A chaotic evil character tracks down a bunch of bandits, kills them, and rescues the hostages they took to claim the bounty from the local lord. Why does he do that? After all, that seems out of character for someone who's evil. Well, he likes killing people, he likes money, and this job is a way for him to legally do something he'd be hung for if he did it to anyone else. Sure he's more violent, more reckless, and less interested in the safety of the hostages than a heroic character might be, but he gets the job done. And when the job is over? Well, he'll go on his merry way in search of more work that's to his liking. Is he a bad guy? Undoubtedly. To some, though, he's a hero. Doesn't change the alignment marker in his box, however.

Make A Character For The Game You're Actually In

This is where we get to the part most players don't like. Because, as Simon Peter Munoz said over at the CRB, you need to make a character for the game you're actually playing. Because no matter how into your drow assassin, undead lord, or half-demon cult leader you are, if your DM made it clear there are no evil-aligned PCs allowed in his game, then those concepts should go up on the shelf for another day. Don't just throw a chaotic neutral skin over them, and try to sneak them into the campaign anyway. Your DM is going to get annoyed that you're trying to skirt the rules he set up in the beginning, and you're going to be disappointed every time someone stops you from doing things in your character's preferred manner (whether that's summoning an army of the living dead to do your bidding, torturing captives for information, etc., etc.).

Also, flip the script. Would you argue that you should be allowed to play a paladin in an evil campaign? And if your DM did give you the go-ahead, would you pitch a fit if (or more likely, when) you lost your powers from the sheer amount of evil acts you'd been complicit in? Even though you knew what you were getting into when you signed up?

Now, with all of that said, if you really want to make a case for your PC, don't water down their alignment and claim it's something it isn't. Pitch them to your DM during Session 0 (and if you don't have one of those, you really should; more on that in The Importance of Session 0 in Your Tabletop Games). If you can make a compelling argument about why your evil character should be allowed into the game, then it's possible your DM will allow you to give it a spin. It's also possible your DM might work with you to put together a compromise, allowing you to play some of the aspects you're interested in, but without other aspects that would be a headache for this particular campaign. If you're a bad guy in a setting where bad guys tend to get punished swiftly and harshly, though, don't act surprised when the hammer falls.

Those are my thoughts for this Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully more of us can just stop beating around the bush when it comes to playing evil characters, and that if that's what your players want, then more DMs will hear that, and respond appropriately. If you want to keep up-to-date on my latest posts, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, then consider heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. For as little as $1 a month you can help me keep my bills paid, and get a load of sweet gaming swag while you're at it!


  1. Exactly, my problem is not with evil characters as such, it is with player who use evil characters to violate the social contract with the group.

    I discussed playing evil here:

  2. I do disagree with the idea that assassins need to be chaotic evil or even chaotic. Assassins absolutely can have a code of principles they follow, nor is assassination ALWAYS evil.

    In fact, you could even have a LG Paladin Assassin multiclass. I once made a concept for such a character-they had a code of ethics along these lines:
    Smite the most evil with the fewest actual kills. They view the grunts and foot soldiers of evil organizations as only symptoms of a problem. They want to go straight for the leaders of these organizations to save the most lives possible.