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The Play's the Thing

In Nature, there is no Evil...

by David Goodner
Sep 17,2003


In Nature, there is no Evil...

By David Goodner

Welcome back to my little wretched hive of scum and villainy. This will probably be the last installment in my Evil series, and this month's topic is a bit more serious than last month's. Last month we covered melodramatic, over-the-top evil. This month, we're going to delve into much more realistic evil. The label "evil" gets very hazy here. There's a very thin line separating a religious fanatic from a simply faithful person. If you'd asked either side fighting the Crusades, the other side was the bad guys.

So, to provide a common basis of comparison, I'm defining "evil" for the purposes of this column, to mean "profoundly antisocial, or tending to act in a harmful way toward others." It becomes more a matter of degree and focus than kind, since even the "good guys" can be pretty harmful. For our purposes, "evil" is a label that's going to be imposed from the outside, and largely by popular opinion.

If you want to argue comparative morality, you'll have to find another columnist.

The Fanatic

The Fanatic is a man with a mission. Fundamentalist Islamic terrorists are a very topical example. Indeed, religion has inspired Fanatics throughout history. But religion isn't alone. Patriotism, and even simple loyalty to a single person has also served as the focus of many fanatics' zeal.

A Fanatic is, in his own mind, a paragon of virtue. He is so dedicated to his cause that he'd lay down his life for it. This, in itself, is laudable except that he is also all too willing to lay down the lives of others. A fanatic is frequently a warrior of some kind. Those who become destructive hold an unshakable belief that their cause requires bloodshed. Perhaps the Fanatic is a crusader who sees his faith as under attack from all sides, and he's moved to acts of destruction to preserve it. Or possibly he's an inquisitor who sees corruption within, and is willing to do anything to root it out. After all, while removing a cancer is painful, leaving it is much worse. And besides, those who have fallen to corruption must be saved from themselves. So much better to save the soul, even at the cost of the body.

Political fanatics are basically the same. The ideology might be different, but the methods are similar.

What marks the Fanatic, and qualifies him for inclusion in my list of evil character types, is a blinding lack of perspective. He takes what might otherwise be admirable qualities (faith, loyalty) and warps them to the point of destructiveness. Along the way, the ideals of his belief system may be warped as well. A righteous Crusader striking down the infidel has likely forgotten that his Savior preached forgiveness, and may well forget that he stood against murder and rapine as well. A loyal, patriotic counterinsurgent charged with rooting out the Communist Threat can be blinded to the fact that his greater charge is to defend the liberties of Americans. As he hunts for Commies, he becomes a fascist, which is every bit as damaging to the spirit of America.

Playing the Fanatic is a bit of a thorny problem. If everyone in the group is a Fanatic dedicated to the same cause, then there's no contrast. The group is, as far as any member knows, the "good guys." I have seen many arguments that say this is exactly the case in a "brave humans vs. the Ork Hoards" game.

Playing a Fanatic in a group of non-fanatics holds more possibilities. I find it makes a better starting place than a permanent state of affairs, though. In an otherwise "good guy" group, a die-hard zealot who will never change is just going to be a constant disruption. But a character who gradually learns that he's been wrong and comes to terms with that could be really fun.

The closest I've come to that was when playing a D&D Ranger who had Goblins as his favored enemy. Goblins were a constant threat. The local lord paid a bounty for goblin ears. There were seasonal goblin raids that could destroy communities if not checked. In general, goblins were a scourge on the land. And Snow thought they were barely a step up from animals.

Until he got to know one, and went on a journey through goblin lands. That game came to an early end because we didn't like the way D&D was working at higher levels. We're thinking about switching it to a GURPS game one of these days, if we can get the right players back together. I kinda hope we manage it, because Snow coming to terms with his racism was a lot of fun. It was even better since he was a half-elf, and had been a victim of racism his whole life.

To portray a Fanatic, first, pick your fanaticism. That should be pretty easy. I'd be best if you picked one that didn't immediately put your character at another PC's throat. A destructive Fanatic is going to have a world-view that leads him to acts of destruction. His version of his religion, political affiliation, or whatever will be a harsh and unforgiving one. It may even be skewed from the "truth." For instance, all those Crusaders probably missed the bits about "blessed are the peacemakers," and the part about not storing up treasures on earth.

As you play him, the Fanatic interprets almost everything in light of his obsession. He sees the world in harsh black and white, them and us. And he holds everyone to the same standard. Allies can become enemies simply by not being as obsessed. Enemies have a hard time becoming allies, though. Fanatics don't tend to be very big on forgiveness.

A Fanatic's views probably don't stand up to much scrutiny. He'll tend to react to people poking holes in his arguments violently. His obsessive beliefs shield him from the guilt he'd otherwise feel, so he defends them viciously.

This isn't to say he has to be stupid, though. A fanatic warrior infiltrating the enemy stronghold to kill the "prince of darkness" isn't going to start preaching on street corners along the way. He can be clever, sneaky, and outwardly perfectly normal if it fits his goals. In the long run, though, the truth will be revealed. The Fanatic's beliefs drive almost every aspect of his behavior, and he'll have a hard time suppressing that for very long.

The Sociopath

The term "sociopath" has moved out of vogue these days. I think "destructive narcissist" is the current replacement. (On an aside, I wonder why people keep coming up with longer words for things. Didn't they read Romeo & Juliet in high school? A sociopath by any other name is still a scary person.) I hesitate to boil down a complex psychological condition to a single sentence, but in essence a sociopath lacks a conscience. Sociopathy emerges through a combination of heredity and early childhood trauma and other factors.

The result is a person who doesn't feel guilt. That makes him a good liar, and potentially a very dangerous person. He's by no means a raving mad man. Indeed, he could be quite charming. But he lacks the empathy that stops most of us from hurting other people. The only thing he cares about is himself, and the only thing that might keep him in check is fear. Generally, a sociopathy is also marked by a sense of superiority. Sociopaths think other people are "weak" or "sheeplike."

The nature of the disorder means that most sociopaths in modern society will eventually become criminals. Without conscience, there's not much reason for the sociopath to refrain from doing whatever he wants. Without empathy, there's nothing to stop him from hurting someone, just because he wants to. With his superior attitude, he likely thinks he can get away with it.

Literary examples of sociopathy fill the landscape of the psychological thriller genre. Those examples are probably more useful to gamers than any amount of dry psychological description. Hanibal Lector, of [I]Silence of the Lambs[/I], is perhaps the most prominent. His combination of charm, charisma, devastating intellect, and vicious cunning made him far scarier than any number of horror movie revenants.

Playing a sociopath in a game is a challenge I have so far been unwilling to undertake. I think doing so would take my mind down paths best avoided. From what I understand, sociopathy is pretty much untreatable, so there's no real chance that a sociopath would ever be "redeemed." Generally, when I play darker characters, I want to play through the path to redemption.

I've given it some thought, though. A sociopath could have breaks on his behavior. In a science fiction game, he could have mental conditioning, or just a cortex bomb that someone with authority over the sociopath will set off if he steps out of line. In a fantasy game, the same sort of thing could be accomplished with spells. Even without resorting to magic, someone might find a way to turn the screws on a sociopath by getting control over something he wants or needs.

With the right breaks, a sociopath might be fun to play. He could be more or less on the "good" side, but it would be an uneasy alliance at best. The sociopath would constantly test whatever limits had been placed on him. He might share goals with the rest of the group, or at least be following those goals for reasons of his own, but how he'd pursue them would be a constant source of friction. And with his intelligence and charisma, he'd constantly challenge the "weak" party members' methods. "It only makes sense to kill every guard you come across. Which member of the team are you willing to sacrifice if one wakes up?" "Of course I'm going to torture him. He knows what we need to know. Aren't you the one who's doing this to save one million people's lives? What's one life, an enemy's life, compared to that?"

What might make him most disturbing is the sense of genuine curiosity that would come with those questions, and the utter inability to comprehend the answers.

Portraying a Sociopath could be frighteningly easy. Essentially, if you can completely divorce yourself from the social aspects of the game, you're most of the way there. Don't think about any character but your own as "real." The rest are just playing pieces. They're either resources or obstacles, to be used or destroyed as necessary. There is no good or evil, only consequences.

Pay attention to the consequences, though. Going to jail is no fun, so if you decide to kill someone, do it in a way you won't get caught. Or better yet, trick someone else into killing them for you. Then kill the patsy "for justice." That way he can't talk. Physical consequences are pretty clear. Social consequences are also important. Emotioinal consequences don't bother the Sociopath much, though. If someone is so weak that their heart is torn out when you use and discard them, they deserve the pain. If they get over it, great. If they become a liability, well, sometimes people just die.

The Relativist

Of my three "realistic" evil characters, I can't decide if the Relativist is the least evil, or the most. Like the fanatic, he's very dedicated to a cause and willing to do almost anything in its service. But his drive is different, less made of wild-eyed faith and more of cold calculation. He differs also in that he realizes what he's doing is bad, and doesn't expect anyone else to join him. In fact, he sees himself as the one who does the dirty jobs so someone else won't have to.

Many Relativists can be found in the pages of spy thriller novels. In fact, the tired, old Cold Warrior is my inspiration for this archetype. He may have started off as an idealist, a good guy. His goal was to make the world a better place, to serve a greater cause. But something got in the way. The cause he undertook ran counter to the ideals that led him to undertake it. And little by little, his idealism was worn away until all that was left was the job, and there was nothing to stop him from doing whatever he had to do to complete it.

The Relativist may still think he's a good guy, or he may realize that he's not really worthy of the ideals he defends. His moral compass may be twisted beyond recognition, to the point that he thinks his pragmatism is laudable, that it's good for him to take the steps others hesitate to take. Unlike either the fanatic or the sociopath, he does have a sense of right and wrong that's relatively in line with that of modern society. He's just decided to go beyond it, perhaps in pursuit of a "greater good."

That makes the Relativist really interesting to me. Somewhere, buried inside, is the good person he used to be. In a group of hardcore types like himself, he fits in, but can play through a gradual, creeping disgust with what the group is doing. In a group of good guys, he's the darker voice they sometimes need, and he can be inspired by their example of "a better way."

To portray the Relativist, you have to come up with some accomidation with the fact that what he's going to do isn't very nice, and he knows it. He could be grim and careworn, or he could wear a mask of total unconcern. If you go with the latter, find a way to play out the pain he sublimates. Maybe he drinks too much, or has a lot of torrid relationships. Somehow, he probably punishes himself subconsciously for what he pretends doesn't bother him.

When it's time to act, he acts. He does what needs to be done, no matter how much it turns his stomach. Only afterwards does he feel any pain. And he probably worries if he doesn't feel the pain. But when it's time to act again, he does what needs to be done. Again.


So anyway, that's it for this time. I think I'm done with the topic of evil for a while. I had a hard time writing this column, and I'm not totally happy with it. To do a really good job, I would have needed to do a lot more reading than I had time for. I'm looking forward to the forum discussions on this one.

There wasn't as much advice about what roles these characters would fill, because they can really fill almost any. They're not literary niches, but psychological ones. The roles they'd be drawn to are more a matter of personal history and campaign background, so you're kind of on your own there.

Since my evil archetypes were well received, maybe next time out I'll do some heroic archetypes.

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What do you think?

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