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It’s Not Easy Being Evil

An evil campaign is one of those things that get talked a lot about in gaming circles. A game where all the characters are evil, amoral, power hungry, and dangerous. There’s always been a certain kind of appeal to a game like that, where you can just let loose and run wild. A guard sasses you? Cut them down with a sneer. Someone annoys you? Steal all their stuff. Don’t let things like law, order, decency, or anything else stand in your way. It should be cathartic, thrilling, and a great change of pace from the usual sorts of games where you’re expected to be good, or at least neutral. What usually ends up happening though is a total mess, with dead PCs and possibly upset players. So what gives?

No, I haven’t read the Evil Overlord list, why?
Part of the problem I think is that when people make evil characters, they immediately lose all traces of common sense, subtlety, or intelligence.  People are just so excited to be playing a bad guy that they don’t care anymore. Most evil characters go around kicking puppies for fun in full view of the populace. They blatantly lie, cheat, steal, and murder without any thought to who might be seeing them do it. They act against their fellow party members just because they can. All of it because, well, that’s what evil characters do, right? And if the GM is running a game entirely revolving around evil players, it’s even worse. All the problems are turned up to 11 because now everybody is acting like a sadistic cartoon villain. You hear a lot of stories about games like this which end up with multiple dead characters in the first few sessions or, at the very least, characters splitting off because they have no real reason to group up and work together.

No. Just No.
So, how can you have a meaningful game with evil characters? You can’t, not without a good group and some effort. If you have players or a GM who can’t act with intelligence and maturity, don’t allow evil characters, don’t run an evil campaign. Period. I’m sure that some of you are reading this and immediately leaping to disagree on the basis that people should be able to play whatever they want in a game. Which is true, to a certain extent. That being said, it’s a game that everybody is trying to enjoy and if someone can’t play an evil character in a manner which isn’t distracting, annoying, or frustrating then they shouldn’t be permitted to do so. Needless to say, if you’re wanting to play an evil player just so you can be a jerk, you probably don’t make for a very fun partner at the gaming table. If the GM can’t ride herd on evil characters and keep them pointed roughly in the same direction without constant fighting and backstabbing, they shouldn’t be running such a campaign. It’s very easy for evil characters to lead to a frustrating or unsatisfying game for everybody and unless you’re all sure you can deal with that, it’s better to err on the side of caution.

So now that I’ve told you not to run an evil campaign or let characters play bad guys, let me throw some ideas and information your way on how you can taste the Dark Side without it degenerating into blood and chaos.

You’re Supposed To Be An Evil Genius. Act Like One
If f you really want to be evil and not be a distraction or a pain in the ass to the GM and the other players remember that obvious and stupid evil actions are a good way to have a dead character or a ticked off gaming group. If you stab a guard in broad daylight and in plain view of everybody on the street, you’ve earned all the trouble you’re about to get. Both in game and out of game. If you repeatedly steal from your fellow party members, they’re likely going to get sick of you really quickly. If you’re lucky, they’ll just leave your character behind. If you aren’t lucky, they’ll just leave your character to die. If you’re very unlucky, they’ll boot you (the player) from the game group for not fitting in.

Instead, use some common sense. Even an evil character needs allies, so don’t piss off your fellow PCs more than you have to. If a guard is harassing your PC, wait until they’re alone and vulnerable before taking them down instead of feeding them your blade in the middle of the street. Think before you act. Success in being a bad guy relies on being unnoticed and uncaught until you’re too powerful or wealthy to be easily dealt with. Even with that in mind, remember that there’s probably someone better, stronger, or wealthier, especially in a tabletop game and if you revert back to puppy kicking you might pay the price.

Remember to use subtlety. Instead of doing those dirty deeds directly, manipulate or hire someone to do it for you. You know those other party members of yours? Aren’t they the perfect tools to use for your schemes? If you need to assassinate a target, what better way to do so than to convince the rest of your group that killing them is the right thing to do? If you want to conquer that town or village, convince people that you’re liberating them from an oppressive tyrant and they’ll line up to help you. Your character doesn’t have to be a rat-faced and sneaky little slime to manipulate people. Even a big burly fighter can get what they want with cunning and careful words.

Subtlety with evil isn’t just about manipulating people though. It’s also about being smart and achieving your goals through unconventional or unexpected methods. If you want to remove a political rival, getting them arrested or disgraced is probably just as effective a tactic as just killing them in a dark alley. Provoke an enemy into attacking first while there are witnesses around you so that you can kill them while claiming self defense. Trick a horde of goblins into attacking a town so that you can “save” the villagers and be showered with glory and rewards. Before you take an action, think about how you can achieve your goal without exposing your true intentions. Consider how you can use laws, societal customs, and human nature to get what you want without anybody being the wiser.

Despite what I’m saying here, don’t afraid to let your evil character actually ~be~ evil. If it fits your character go right ahead with that plan to backstab another PC, rob an old lady blind, or poison an entire orphanage. Just think about what you’re doing ahead of time and be smarter about how you do it. Other players and the GM are more likely to be accepting of your horrible ways if you’re not running around like the some twisted combination of Gargamel and Hitler.

Now You Will Know The True Power Of The Dark Side
Okay, so now the players aren’t going around murdering one another willy-nilly in between bouts of kicking puppies and stealing candy from babies, what is the GM to do with evil characters or, gods forbid, an evil campaign? The first thing is actually to decide if you’re just going to allow evil characters or if you’re going to run the game around being bad. An evil character or two in an otherwise normal campaign is probably easier to keep control of than a game where everybody is bad and is probably the way to go for most people. It’s also easier to run more like a regular campaign.

Control is really the important thing when dealing with evil characters as a GM. You have to keep a much closer eye on evil characters than you do others because they’re more likely to completely derail your plans or blow up the entire game. The first key to control is to give a evil characters a very firm reason to be working with the rest of the group. Give them direct connections to one or more other characters and make sure they’re strong enough to keep the evil character from carrying out a bloodbath, a con, or a robbery spree on a whim.

The second key is to give everybody a common goal. This is important with a regular game, very important in a game with evil characters, and absolutely critical in a game largely comprised of bad guys. If players don’t want to accomplish roughly the same goal, which should incidentally not be a competition, then at some point there’s going to be some friction, group splintering, or character deaths. It keeps everybody facing roughly the same direction when they move forward.

On a similar note, try make sure that there’s a shared enemy or threat. Someone to be feared or hated and always against the players regardless of if they’re good or bad. If a player knows that their evil character will be dog meat on their own, it adds incentive to stay with the group and try not to make a lot of waves until the threat is diminished or gone. Maybe that threat can even be the person or group that they’re working for.

However, the last and best way to keep a situation from going critical with one or more evil characters is communication between you and the players. Tell players up front what you expect out of the game, tell them what you won’t put up with even from bad guys. Tell them when they’re getting out of line. Don’t be afraid to pull a player aside to talk to them one-on-one about what they’re doing with their character if it makes you frustrated, annoyed, or upset. Invite them to tell you when they have problems or concerns with how you’re dealing with PCs as bad guys. And ultimately if you don’t think the game or character is working out the way you want, don’t hesitate to tell the players so. It’s better to reboot a game that isn’t fun and start over with different characters or assumptions about evil characters than to grind along until people just quit.

Such A Tragic Ending
I admit, I don’t entirely understand the appeal of playing a bad guy in a game. I can’t even be a jerk in most video games, let alone want to pretend to be one while sitting around a table with friends. Maybe it’s because I’ve run into too many games where people wanted to be evil (because evil is supposedly awesome and cool) and the game ended up being a gods awful mess. Maybe that’s why I want to see people who love playing bad guys play them with a little more style, intelligence, and common sense. It can be done. Just because your character is evil doesn’t mean that they have to be a giant pain in the ass for the GM or the other players. Let it be a catharsis, let it be a fun change from the norm, but don’t let it be all about you and your fun at the expense of the others at the table.

About

WolfSamurai (a.k.a. Aaron) has been a long time roleplaying geek, starting back with 2e Shadowrun almost 18 years ago. Through the years he’s played everything from D&D to Call of Cthulhu to Werewolf to Kult to Big Eyes, Small Mouth, and many other games. Recently he's branched into more indie fare with Technoir, Bulldogs!, Wu Xing, Dungeon World, and Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple. Aaron hopes to eventually be writing his own game products as well as fiction.

3 Responses to “It’s Not Easy Being Evil”

  • “Control is really the important thing when dealing with evil characters as a GM. You have to keep a much closer eye on evil characters than you do others because they’re more likely to completely derail your plans or blow up the entire game.”

    I think I disagree with the tone of this post, if not the content, and it really comes down to the above as why: I generally disagree with the notion that the GM should be ‘controlling’ the game (never mind the players) anymore than a referee at a football game controls (or directs) what happens. The GM provides the field to play in, arbitrates rules, and resolves disputes. In my experience, evil characters or not, things break down when the DM tries to keep the players “on-task,” for his own definition of what on-task means.

    I think you make great points about how to portray evil characters without having them come off as 2-dimentional caricatures, but it’s not particularly different than discussing good ways to portray children, the opposite sex, or elves.

    Obviously, if a player is ruining the fun for the group that should be dealt with (and by “dealt with,” I mean, “eject the problem player from the group”) but I would contend that he’s ruining the fun because he’s a bad player (or just an out-right jerk) and not because he chose a problematic character trait. Perhaps he’d do better with a different kind of character (some people play children really poorly), but again that’s more about the Player than the Character.

    In short, I don’t think that playing an evil character is particularly more difficult or problematic than playing any other character that lends themselves towards stereotypes, and that if you’re concerned about controlling your players that is more likely to be the source of group friction. Also, don’t play with jerks.

  • I’ve been in too many games where a hands-off approach to dealing with people playing evil characters has lead to problems, in-game and out, to ever want to deal with it again. In a normal game where evil characters aren’t involved, I don’t necessarily want the GM to have a firm hand, but if the possibility that one character can cause problems is there I want the GM to do more than go stand by and watch it happen. The GM is there to resolve disputes and sometimes that means heading them off before they happen.

    I absolutely disagree that playing an evil character isn’t more problematic than other types of characters. Playing an evil character is inherently an issue in the vast majority of games because in that majority of games characters are expected to at least loosely be good guys or, at the very least, not actively bad guys. To have an evil character fit in without being excessively disruptive, IMO a GM will likely need to exercise more caution and control.

  • I think we simply disagree on the nature of the game; all things being equal, I don’t expect my players to be anything except to portray their role. This is a deliberate reaction to years of frustration in trying to run plot-based games. The exception comes when the group has agreed to play a certain style or tone of game — if we’re going to play a published scenario with certain assumptions, those assumptions have to hold. But I consider that an exception, and the rest (“lead to problems, in-game and out,” “To have an … character fit in without being excessively disruptive”) is mostly a matter of playing with people you can trust.