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The Play's the Thing

What Evils Lurk in the Hearts of Men

by David Goodner
Aug 19,2003


What Evils Lurk in the Hearts of Men

By David Goodner

Welcome back. Last time, I gave an overview of Evil roleplaying. For the next few columns, we'll delve into the depths of the evil psyche, staring into the abyss until the abyss blinks.
Well, maybe not.

But what we will do is look at some ways of portraying evil characters in RPGs. This is a bit of a departure for me, since playing evil characters isn't something I do very often. Rather than practical examples, I'm going to have to rely on theory. Right at this moment, I'm planning on two more columns on this subject. The one you're reading now will cover some fairly exaggerated archetypes. Next time, I'll tackle some more "realistic" ones.

Before we begin, let's go over a few generalities. Most of the characters I'm about to describe wouldn't think of themselves as "evil." Some would consider the concepts of good and evil to be superfluous. Some would actually think of themselves as "good." The ultimate difference between a "good" hero of faith and an "evil" terrorist may come down to who's life he's willing to sacrifice in the name of his god.

I think most of these characters work best in a group of similarly minded PCs. The idea of one ruthless, evil person in a group of high-minded idealists is interesting, but the dynamics of a typical RPG player group make it hard to pull off. The line between friend and foe gets blurry. The need for secrecy causes logistical problems. And, ultimately, there's a lot of chance for hard feelings.

Only you can decide what's right for you and your group, of course. My friend Chris has played the "token evil guy." He loves to tell the story about how his necromancer convinced the party's paladin that he needed to kill the party's priest. That would have been something to see.

So, now that all the disclaimer stuff is out of the way, on with the show:

The Rat-Bastard

Let's start with a fun one. The Rat-Bastard is a nice, simple, stereotypical evil character. He's ruthless, immoral, and only out for himself. He's willing to lie, cheat, steal, and even kill if he can do so with no risk to himself. In fact, he considers these to be his first choices in dealing with people.

And yet, he has a strict code of honor, mandating terrible punishment for treachery and dishonorable behavior. This code, unfortunately, only applies to other people. While the Rat-Bastard won't think twice about stealing a widow's last two mites, he'll plot bloody vengeance against anyone who slights him.

The defining characteristic of the Rat-Bastard is usually some form of weakness. If he were big and strong, he wouldn't need to sneak around. If he were really smart, his plots would both work better, and be more grandiose. He's more likely to be a sneaky-type than a straight-out warrior or wraith-of-god spellslinger.

The Rat-Bastard is not a very good team player. He'll ally with stronger characters for protection, but screw them later if he sees a chance for gain. He might try to bully weaker characters, but he's not going to be a very good leader.

The classic Rat-Bastard is pretty shortsighted. He's looking for the next score, rather than planning out a long campaign. His goals tend to be simple: survive, make some money, live in comfort. It's like Maslow's hierarchy of needs, just with booze and strippers at the top. And he tends to have very myopic hindsight, too. Nothing is ever his fault. His history is a trail of betrayals and outrageous misfortunes. When he left his partner to die, that was just logic. No sense in both of them dying, right? But when his new partner pulled the same stunt, that was totally unfair, an unforgivable perversion of trust and brotherhood. If people weren't always doing that, the Rat-Bastard would be better than he is, or so he thinks.

And yet, he probably has a certain internal charm. In fact, he'd pretty much have to. There has to be some little shred of charisma (or something) that keeps people from just killing him out of hand. Maybe he's got a knack for knowing just what buttons to push. Maybe he's lucky enough to just barely escape with his skin. Maybe he's got sad puppydog eyes, and looks so pathetic that even though you know better, you let him live.

So what drove the Rat-Bastard to a life of Rat-Bastardhood? If you asked him, he'd tell you none of it was his fault. And, indeed, there are certain backgrounds that seem to lead one down that path. He was probably always the underdog, and he probably always felt weak, and deprived. Someone who always felt like he was on the top of the world and always got what he wanted usually turns into a completely different type of rat-bastard. No one path creates Rat-Bastards, and it's far from inevitable. The Rat-Bastard reacted to a world of injustice by becoming every bet as unjust. He could have just as easily decided to rise above it instead, but he didn't. The Rat-Bastard's path is something of a downward spiral, because down is easier than up.

The Rat-Bastard works OK in a typical game, so long as the other PCs aren't particularly morally upright folks. He's not a great PC to just pull on a group with no warning, though. If the rest of the players are up for the challenge, he can be fun to have around. If they're not, then you just have to accept that if you were just playing in character when your Chaotic Evil Halfling Thief stole the Half-Ork Barbarian's magic dagger, then he was just playing in character when he gutted your character with it.

To play the Rat-Bastard in a typical game, you need to make some compromises. You should probably make him smart enough to refrain from stealing from other PCs when he has to hang out with them all the time. You should also work with the GM so that his little treacheries benefit the game, rather than just causing chaos.

In an all-evil game, the Rat-Bastard is in more trouble than in a mostly-good one. Evil characters won't feel bad about killing him the way good ones will. In that case, he should probably attach himself to a more powerful character. Then he should betray that character when a stronger one comes along. Then he should sell that one down the river when his original master comes back, saying he planned to do so all along. Then... Well, you get the idea. It's a little like spinning plates, only instead of plates, they're landmines.

The Monster

The Monster is just scary. He enjoys causing pain, invoking fear, and spilling blood. After that, he probably enjoys a few beers, and maybe spilling some more blood. In fact, he's pretty much most of the characters I played in Jr. High and part of High School.

He reacts to any threat or slight with as much violence as is available. Someone backtalks him? Kill them. Someone has something he wants? Kill them and take it. Someone threatens him? Kill them, and then kill some other people just to make sure. The only reason not to resort to violence is when doing so will obviously get him killed. Then the Monster waits and resorts to violence later.

I sleep better at night thinking there aren't really people like this. People might temporarily become Monsters in the midst of a war, or a riot. Or possibly they act that way because of severe mental problems, but that's something we'll cover later in the article.

The Monster really doesn't make much of a character at all. He's completely focused on destruction, so he doesn't have a lot to do unless there's fighting. And if your game is always about fighting, you're probably not too worried about his personality.

The Monster is generally a hand-to-hand fighter. The further he gets from the violence, the less personal it is, and he really likes the personal touch. For him, the violence is the end, rather than the means, though he might be fighting under the auspices of one cause or another. In fact, he could be very zealous in pursuit of his cause, but ultimately that's because it gives him the chance to hurt people.

There are some variants on the Monster that I'll lump in here. The Stone Cold Killer (generally a mafia assassin in a black leather overcoat) is similar enough, but with better manners. The Savage Hunter type (think "Wolverine") can be played as either good or evil. The evil ones tend to for a scary cat & mouse routine instead of straight-up violence. If getting on your character's bad side is more dangerous than living in the same town as Jessica Fletcher but not getting your name in the credits, then there's a good chance your character is a Monster. Especially if he doesn't have a good side.

In a typical group made up of PCs with the most remote shred of conscience, the Monster doesn't make a very good PC. However, having an otherwise normal PC with Monster-ish tendencies can be kind of cool. A classic Werewolf is a pretty good example. The character struggles against himself. It's particularly cool if the game is set up in such a way that the Monster side of the PC's personality has access to something that the "civilized" side needs.

In an evil group, the Monster could ally himself with other PCs who offer him more chances for violence. The Dark Necromancer needs his chief enforcer, after all. And as long as the body count keeps rising, the Monster will probably remain loyal. If he starts to have goals besides "maim, kill, destroy," he's turning into another sort of villain.

The Prince

Ah, the Prince, who may not be a member of the nobility at all, mind you. This is the cold, ruthless manipulator who will do anything necessary for power. Power may be a means to an end, or an end in itself. Usually, it's an end in itself. The Prince may have started out as a noble idealist, devoted to a cause and willing to sacrifice anything for it. But somewhere along the way, he gets caught up in the rush of power. Eventually, his cause is nothing more than a facade, an excuse to continue his rise in power, and a tool to manipulate fanatics.

The Prince is rather like the Rat-Bastard, but with better press. And more vision. The Prince is all about vision. He's a man with a plan. And a contingency plan. And his plan actually factors in someone messing with it, so just when you think you've foiled him; you're really helping him out.

And that's just if you've somehow actually figured out that he's the bad guy. If the Prince is really on the ball, you'll think he's on your side.

He's the master manipulator. He knows all the buttons to push to get exactly the effect he wants. He has servants who are functionally loyal. They may all hate him, and probably all hate each other, but he's so deft at playing them against each other that they get the job done anyway. His servants' main job is to bring him information. He's like a spider sitting at the center of a web. When you touch it, he knows about you, and then you're trapped.

So how does a man become a Prince? (Or a woman, for that matter? Foolish is the man who doesn't realize that women can be sneaky, too.) In a way, the Prince is like the Rat-Bastard. He sees himself in a hostile world. But unlike the Rat-Bastard, he thinks he has the power to change it, or at least to rise to the top of it.

The Prince probably comes from a privileged background, one that makes him accustomed to seeing people as tools. Or perhaps he was one of the tools, forced to live in a world that tries to make him unworthy. But whatever the case, he needs the chance to see real power at work. He also needs education. The Prince is a smart guy, both clever and, in some ways, wise. As I said before, he needs vision. He needs to see a much wider world than others see.

The Prince is one of the easiest evil characters to integrate into an otherwise mostly good party. Whether he's really even "evil" can be hard to determine. If he plays his cards right, the rest of the group may never see just how far astray he's led them. And he's going to be the leader, or better still the leader's trusted advisor, the one who really makes all the decisions.

Putting a Prince into the game is not a decision to make lightly, though. Aside from the purely practical concerns like whether you're personally smart enough to pull it off, there's the fact that if you do succeed, you're going to really change the tone of the game. Somewhere down the line, either the group is going to shift from idealistic and noble to ruthless and arrogant, or there's going to be a huge intraparty conflict. Either can be fun, but at the least it would be nice to give the GM a heads up.

The Prince works beautifully in an all-evil game. He can provide leadership for a party of less visionary characters, welding the ragtag band into a force of true and magnificent power. Or, if everybody's up for it, it can be fun to pit a bunch of scary, manipulative Prince types against each other, with the GM barely doing more than being the referee. Amber Diceless games, and lots of Vampire LARPs are essentially just that.

The Evil Genius

The Evil Genius is, perhaps, a shading of the Prince. He's smart, ruthless, and charismatic enough to have a large group of fanatically loyal followers. He probably quotes Machiavelli and Sun Tzu, unless he's so egotistical that he thinks both of them were morons. And he lives in a world of morons. That may be the reason he feels the need to take over the place: to provide some decent management.

The Evil Genius is a man with a plan. It's a very unlikely plan, involving a lot of difficult to control factors, and yet it hangs together with a sort of awful certainty. Somehow, the Evil Genius can really pull it off.

Or at least he could if he didn't always spill the whole thing to his arch-nemesis, then leave that nemesis alive.

But the plan remains. The Evil Genius is a driven man. He has a goal (to rule the world, or sometimes to destroy it and build a new one out of the ashes). With his intellectual superiority to everyone on earth, he's obviously within his rights to pursue this plan. It might even be that he believes he's doing a good thing, and that if all the lesser mortals could only understand, they'd support him. (The ones who survived the plagues, anyway) His goal can only be achieved with some sort of grandiose scheme, and he's the one to pull it off. So he gathers his secret minions, consolidates his power, establishes a huge conspiracy, and starts putting his plan into motion. But three people can only keep a secret if two of them are dead, and in some fantasy games, not even then. So sooner or later, someone finds out.

This someone is a Hero. He is, in some ways, the Evil Genius' reason to live. The Hero is clever (if not quite so clever as the Genius), capable (much more so than all the incompetent henchmen the Genius has), and cursedly lucky. It's that luck that always seems to turn the tide, snatching away the Genius's certain victory.

Obviously, the Evil Genius has a few blind spots. He's not as practical as the Prince. He's something of a romantic, really. An idealist. He often has a strict code of honor. Of course, equally often, it's similar to the Rat Bastard's code of honor, in that it only seems to apply to other people. But sometimes the Evil Genius does really seem to follow some sort of rules of engagement. He sees his struggle with the Hero as an epic duel of wits, and even provides hints and clues to help the Hero keep up.

The path leading someone to the role of Evil Genius is marked by arrogance. The Genius might have legitimate grievances with the world. Some of them are environmental crusaders, or champions of the rights of the downtrodden. Others are just megalomanicial sociopaths. In either case, the Evil Genius came to believe that he was better, smarter, and wiser than anyone else, and that what he wants is sufficiently important that the death of untold hundreds of innocents is an acceptable loss.

Most Evil Geniuses start off in the privileged class. There's a hefty education requirement, and secret underground bases don't come cheep. Some of them start off as clever, but underprivileged lads and manage to attain their wealth later on, but you never really get a poor Evil Genius. The underprivileged ones are often just a bit sympathetic. Sometimes, their diabolical plans are attempts to avenge a true injustice, or solve a real problem. It's just that the attempts are wildly out of proportion to the problems.

They study a lot. Most Evil Geniuses really are geniuses. They tend to be brilliant strategists, tacticians, and organizers. No few are masters of Science and technology, too. In the right venue, an Evil Genius might supplement or replace science with magic.

The Evil Genius is a difficult character to play in a typical game. Usually, the PCs are supposed to stop the Evil Genius. Even if they're not, the activities of a typical party of adventurers are not conducive to an Evil Genius' typical plans. PCs tend to wander around on missions, having adventures and solving mysteries. All that takes time the Evil Genius needs to design his death ray and recruit followers.

In an all-evil group, the Evil Genius is a humorous alternative to the Prince. He makes the perfect leader, except for his habits of casually killing underlings and telling his plans to the enemy he doesn't kill immediately afterwards. Of course, he doesn't have to be played for laughs. James Bond movies have a sense of humor, but are essentially serious. The villains are presented as really being able to do what they set out to do. In the right campaign world, the only difference between an Evil Genius and a Prince is that the Prince tends to be a little more low-key.

All right, I think that's enough for this time. Next time, we'll continue the series with some less cartoonish characters.

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What do you think?

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