Role Playing Evil

I’m not fond of GMing for an all evil party, and the reason stems from the fact that I find very few people actually know how to play an evil character. They play them as mentally deranged, and with a pathological need to harm those around them, especially the other player characters. I cannot blame them for the misunderstanding though, because we tend to think we have few reference points for what makes an evil person. Fact is, we have so many reference points that we have come to think evil acts are actually normal, so the only way to represent evil is to go to extremes.

What Isn’t Evil

Let’s start by creating a baseline of what isn’t evil. In one of my more successful Rolemaster campaigns the village head shaman died and the only one to take her place was a young sullen boy. That boy was a necromancer who had the power to wield great curses and who could poison blood and shatter bone with a word and a gesture. While the party at first thought he would be the doom of the tribe, over time they were able to accept that he only used his powers to benefit the tribe. He was at times cruel, but only to the tribal enemies and only as cruel as he had to be. He might have been a necromancer, but he most defiantly wasn’t evil, just pragmatic.

Let’s also drop this stupid notion that the use of poison is inherently evil. Going back centuries, poison has been used as a vital tool for hunting. Some tribes would break off and bruise branches of a particular tree then swish this through water until fish floated to the surface dead. Curare was used by many tribes to hunt monkeys and other small game. Curare was used in medicine for a very long time (and maybe still is). Poison isn’t evil, the use of poison isn’t evil and these tribes are not evil. The only evil stems from why poison might be used.

For hypothetical let’s say a group of adventurers invade the lair of a red dragon. They manage to sneak in and steal her eggs which they hope to sell. Upon finding her eggs gone the dragon flies to the nearest village and burns it to ash. The dragon had always left the village alone because the villagers didn’t complain much when she stole a cow or two, but her vengeance needed a target. In this case the adventurers are motivated by greed and malice, while the dragon is motivated by vengeance. Or do you think the evil alignment tag on the red dragon mean it’s automatically in the wrong?

What is Evil

During a short lived campaign the party assaulted a goblin village. The goblins hadn’t actually been doing anything wrong, they were just between the PCs and the dungeon they aimed to loot. The paladin (from the days when all Paladins were Lawful Good) was foremost among those who slaughtered the goblin warriors. Once all the warriors were dead he slaughtered the women and children to “Prevent trouble in the future”. Genocide just because “goblins are evil so I’m right”. Sadly the DM sided with the paladin.

From our example above involving the red dragon; has the party been the source of evil here? They knew the worth of the eggs, both in monetary terms as well as emotional bond to the mother. They didn’t rescue the eggs because they have slain the mother, instead they stole them in full knowledge the mother would feel wronged. In truth, the adventures may as well have set fire to the village themselves, not to mention the years of mistrust and hatred the mother will now carry towards humans. I can guarantee the majority alignment of the looting party was not evil, and they probably justified their actions as good. The destruction of evil does not make you good, it just widens the gap in the moral duality.

Having Goals

Evil is less about what actions you take, and more about why you are taking those actions. You have to be able to evaluate the consequences of your actions and have some idea what the flow on effects will be. I would argue that an evil character is one who has firm goals, but for whom the consequences of those actions either don’t matter, or are seen as a price worth paying. It’s knowing what’s right and wrong, and doing the wrong thing anyway.

Committing antisocial acts on pure whim or urge isn’t really evil, it’s insane. I don’t want to cite historical examples because that can be very triggering for some people, but if you look objectively at many ‘evil’ people throughout history, the one thing they all had in common was a strong driving goal, and the evils they overlooked were committed in order to reach that goal.

The Value of Allies

No matter the power you wield, unless you are insane, then you understand the value of other people. They might be loyal toadies or fear motivated armed forces. Whatever it is you are after, it much better if you don’t do it alone. The exception of course are the insane, such as serial killers and the like who probably lack the ability to value others anyway. I would in fact argue that the mentally deranged are not evil at all, because you have to know that what you are doing is wrong, before you can take a moral stance on the issue.

For gaming parties this is where I cannot understand why evil characters must harm or hinder their peers. Do you think the Drow empire managed to thrive without a little cooperation? Sure, most of that cooperation was done under a whip, but the Drow leaders learned to work together. Could Orc or Goblin villages exist if everyone sought to hurt each other? Sure, we can imagine numerous fights and struggling for power, but they are not going to murder each other in their sleep without fair cause. They all become brothers in arms on the field of battle or when the tribe is threatened.

Being Discreet

One other main flaw I see in many evil actions is a complete failure to keep things discreet. You know you’re doing something the majority of civilised races sees as wrong, so you don’t advertise that you are actively being a bad guy. In my opinion a lot of this comes from a party thinking they are more powerful then anyone else so they are thus free from reprisal. If you have a party like this, remember that other adventures can be paid a bounty to bring down the aberrant. It is after all what most adventurers do.

Even the majority of insane serial killers have the presence of mind to hide their deeds. It doesn’t make you more evil to display you crimes, it just makes you more stupid. Go back to the step on having a goal and ask yourself if revealing your crimes is consistent with that goal. Real evil people bribe, threaten and kill to cover their deeds. That’s how they become real evil geniuses.

Putting it All Together

If you are going to play an all evil party then it makes common sense that you would view your partners in malevolence as valued assets you want preserved. I’ve spent a decent amount of my life around people who might be labelled evil by society, and trust me when I say that the more socially aberrant a group is, the tighter the bonds within that group. They understand that if just one person turns, then things could be over for everyone. If anything, an evil party should be more tight knit that a normal party.

One thing I do welcome in my groups is for party members to have a mix of alignments. It makes for some great role play. However I know that it only works with players who can see past the alignment tags to see a broader image of party interaction. It’s actually possible for an evil wizard and a good paladin to coexist in the same party, providing they can align goals. Sure, they’ll bicker here and there, but neither should seek the death of the other unless a serious line is crossed.

Don’t try to pour a world full of moral ambiguity into a two word alignment, it won’t work. Communicate with players so they know what lines can and cannot be crossed in your world. Negotiate with players, so even if it might stray out of alignment it doesn’t cause the breakdown of the party. If all else fails, make up something that works. Above all, the role play should be fun, and not an exercise in trying to trigger people with how vulgar you can be.