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The Play's the Thing

The Evils Men Do

by David Goodner
Jul 22,2003


The Evils Men Do

Welcome back. Today's foray into the secret arts of roleplaying concerns evil. While it's not my thing, some people really enjoy playing evil characters. I'm going to explore the topic a little to try to nail down how I think about it. I'll try to cover the various ways players can portray evil characters and offer some advice here and there.

So, without further ado, let's get to it.

Original Sin

When the first protogamers, arising from the primordial ooze with their copies of Dungeons & Dragons, decided that Jack Chick didn't have enough to rant about already, they chose to play evil characters. The heirs to their tradition are still doing so today, in a manner largely unchanged from those ancient beginnings. (And, as an aside, I find it vaguely disturbing to refer to things that happened when I was about ten years old as "ancient.")

I suspect that the vast majority of gamers who want to play evil characters fall into this model. I would be really surprised if many of them read my column, so I feel free to be just a touch judgmental. The stereotypical Evil group is made up of a bunch of Chaotic Evil D&D characters or Diabolical Rifts characters who run around the countryside killing, maiming, stealing, and robbing tombs. Really, there's not a lot of difference between what they do and what nominally Good groups do except that the good guys probably tone down the rapine and don't kill uppity NPCs out of hand.

This is essentially juvenile wish fulfillment. It's irresponsible, selfish, and antisocial. And I would rather have people work it out of their systems with dice and miniatures than in real life. I personally don't find it very appealing, but I can see why some people would. It's hack & slash gaming turned up to 11. Take what you want by main force and destroy all who oppose you.

In my limited experience, the gamers who like to play this way don't really dwell on the psychology, or even morality, of evil. They take the "EVIL" label as a way to just do whatever they want specifically without having to think about it. "Why did you kill the guard?" "I'm Chaotic Evil." "Why did you steal your buddy's magic sword and sell it to buy booze?" "I'm Chaotic Evil."

See, it's easy.

So, since they don't really need my advice and probably aren't reading my column anyway, let's leave those guys alone and move on to the next set. Just to save myself a little grief, though, let me be clear: I don't believe that everyone who plays evil characters in D&D or Rifts does so just so they can be irresponsible. I personally know people who play interesting, well-rendered evil D&D characters. I could probably find people who play the snootiest games in existence in exactly the way I just described, too. D&D and Rifts just happen to be easy examples.

I Am Become Death

Vampire: the Masquerade opened up entire new vistas in the realm of evil roleplaying. It was right there on the faux marble back cover, "A beast I am, lest a beast I become." People had played monsters before, but Vampire made it mainstream. Right there on your character sheet was an ablative chart of your morality. That nasty Blood Pool meter was going to make you do stuff that violated that all-to-fragile Humanity scale, and no matter how hard you tried to avoid it, your character was going to end up as a hideous monster some day. Even before that, he had to do things almost nightly that most humans would consider evil.

Of course, some people didn't try at all, and essentially played Vampire the way they had been playing D&D. Kill the Ventrue, take his treasure. Works for me.

Besides his internal Beast, a Vampire also had to live in a society that would make A Borgia nervous. There was this entire secret society waging a very subtle war. The stakes were life and death. Just to survive, you were probably going to have to do things you didn't want to do.

That's some evil I can sink my teeth into (no pun intended). Vampire ushered in a bunch of other games with similar themes, and some expansions for existing games. Of course, there had been some before. The first edition of Cyberpunk predates Vampire, unless I'm mistaken, and edgerunners could be pretty evil people.

Playing an "evil" character in the Vampire style is an exploration of morality. Is it possible to be a vampire and not be evil? How far will you go to protect your immortal existence? Can anything you do be good when it's done by someone who is a multi-murderer? Does human morality even still apply to you?

How it plays out is up to you. In a lot of ways, your character will act like any other. Presumably something more is going on in the game than your character sitting and brooding about his lot in life and drinking blood. What changes is the focus. All your character's immediate goals play off of his inner struggle. A rival gang is trespassing on his territory. What does he do? Fighting them means giving in to his rage. Bargaining with them means reaching an accord with evil. Blackmailing them means committing treachery? And he can't even really fall back on the justification that he's the good guy here, can he? That would be hypocrisy.

Vampire was the first game I encountered that was really set up to deal with these sorts of questions. Other games were certainly capable of it, though. Somewhere in the middle of my really long Shadow Run game, I started thinking about just how violent Shadowrunners were, and how it was a little odd for someone who thought of himself as a "hero of the people" to casually blow away security guards while he was breaking into someone's office.

Which is a nice segue for my next point...

Whatever You Have to Do

Taking a step back, it's likely that the vast majority of player characters are relatively cutthroat mercenaries. Their alignment boxes might be filled out "Lawful Good," but they probably seldom scruple to cut down hordes of orks or rob tombs. Most gamers don't really care. A lot of the ones who do start playing their characters differently. But there's some potential for good roleplaying in these amoral characters.

I've already mentioned Cyberpunk and Shadow Run, which are both games where the average character is an outlaw with, at best, a morally dubious occupation. It's not a big stretch to say these characters are evil. In fact, the average person living in the worlds they inhabit probably thinks they are. -- Runners are criminals who kill, cheat, and steal. They live beyond the carefully regulated, safe, arms of the corporations and sow anarchy and terror wherever they go.

So why do they do it? Almost every Runner ever would be better off in a safe, corporate job. Why risk your life night after night? Why be a criminal? There are lots of answers, and they all lead in interesting directions.

Here's a few of mine over the years:

My Runner types tend to be fairly good folks, other than all the breaking and entering and shooting people. In fact, most of them have thought of themselves as "the good guys" to one degree or another. Characters I've played with have been a lot different. There are some really cool outlooks, and it's neat to see how they interact. In Johnny's group, there were a couple of runners who were just totally amoral. They didn't think about right and wrong at all, just about strong and weak, smart and stupid. Johnny's tendency to want to leave guards alive when possible bugged them to no end. There was one guy who pretty much believed he was a total bastard, but kept it in check by following a strict code of honor.

The gritty mercenary style of gaming isn't outright evil, necessarily. Just like good ole' hack & slash, it can ignore the issue completely. Or the moral issues can be played up. In a dystopian cyberpunk future, it can be hard to find anything that's definitively good, and there are a lot of evils with no clear source.

Staring into the Abyss

The next style I'm going to touch on bears a superficial resemblance to the first. It is possible to play deep, well rendered characters who are utterly morally despicable. It's a style of play that has no real appeal for me. I play pretty immersively, and depravity isn't something I really want to immerse myself in.

Sabbat packs in Vampire: The Masquerade are the most obvious example that leaps to my mind. I believe Werewolf also had a sourcebook that made provisions for playing Formori, who tend to be pretty evil since they've been dipped in a seething pit of corruption and then flash fried.

The only time I really get into playing utterly evil characters is when I'm the GM. I find it to be one of my major challenges, so it's one I've given a little thought to. Really evil people have a world view that's radically skewed from "normal." There's something that funnels all their actions in a harmful direction. The classic sociopath has no compassion, which allows him to commit atrocities in the pursuit of his desires because he never feels any guilt. The fanatic is so dedicated to a goal that the goal distorts his perceptions of the world. The psychopath, due to mental illness, really can't perceive the world correctly.

Interestingly, none of these characters would call themselves "evil." The sociopath would laugh at the concept. The fanatic might think you were evil for asking. Of course, some fanatics aren't evil. A fanatic pacifist probably isn't going to hurt anybody. The psychopath might consult with the voices in his head or something. Pretty much by nature, "Evil" is a label that has to be applied from outside, and in some cases each side of a conflict is applying it to the other.

So that leaves you, the player, to see what it looks like from the inside. What is it about your character that makes him think it's acceptable, or even desirable, to hurt or kill people in pursuit of his goals? Or to lie, cheat, and steal, which can be plenty harmful by itself.

In a melodramatic game, or a highly symbolic one, the answers can be pretty easy. In Middle Earth, Orcs are evil because they were made to be so by Sauron. In Star Wars, nobody really worries too much about why the Stormtroopers shot up a whole crawler full of Jawas. (They were receiving stolen Imperial military secrets. It was treason. Honest.)

In a more realistic game, the question gets a lot more fuzzy. Some people would argue that there is no "evil" in the real world. That's a debate I have no intention of starting right now. While there may be no true Good and Evil in the real world, there are accepted standards and social mores. Most people follow them, and react badly to people who don't. If you're playing a character who rejects all that, there should be a reason. That reason might make for some interesting roleplaying choices.

A character could be very noble and honorable, and also believe that serfs belong to their lord, and whatever he wants to do to them is fine. He could be empathic and charismatic, and also an anarchist who doesn't bat an eye at a mailbox bomb because he thinks it's the only way to fight an oppressive government. He could be a veteran soldier or inner city policeman who's just so desensitized to violence that he doesn't realize how much of a monster he'd seem like to a normal person.

Playing really socially maladjusted characters isn't something I really recommend as a standard practice, but there are some cool ways to do it. I'd love to play the veteran who's trying to put his past behind him, or the arrogant nobleman who's starting to learn about the inherent worth of humanity.

And, as always, if you really want to play irredeemably evil characters and revel in their cruelty and depravity, fine. I'll make no effort whatsoever to stop you. Please don't LARP, though. The LARPers don't really need your help. Also, I don't particularly want to game with you. That's fine. I have a group I'm very happy with now, even though my Buffy game is on Hiatus because the GM thinks it's more important to find a house for his family than to run my game.

Evil Shall Always Triumph For Good Is Dumb

The last way I can really think of to run evil characters is for laughs. I haven't played many humorous games, so I don't have a lot of advice here.

Playing evil as funny often involves turning genre conventions on their heads. I've heard of games with teams of incompetent supervillians who end up doing more good than harm, or dungeon monsters negotiating labor contracts and scheduling so someone will be ready to meet the next party of adventurers.

In a humorous game, you're probably not going to be exploring the depths of the human psyche. "Evil" is just another humorous shtick. In a sadly defunct game I used to play with some regulars, my character was Fiona Gentry. She was a half-faerie, and her father was an Unseelie Lord. Children inherit all kinds of traits from their parents, like eye color, shape of the nose, a tendency toward being overweight... Fiona inherited her father's evil. She was actually a pretty nice person, under all the typical teenage defensiveness, but she was evil. Palpably, tangibly evil. She had to wear Goth style clothes. If she bought un-gothy clothes, they'd turn gothy in her closet while she wasn't looking. She had a scary voice that, if the game was a comic book, would have been written in gothic script with white letters on a black background. When she was angry or distracted, she had a habit of accidentally cursing people to the depths of the abyss.

But at least she had nice hair and a flawless complexion. Congenital evil AND zits would be just too much to bear.

So, that's about enough for this installment. I might decide (particularly if there's any demand for it) to extend my ramblings to cover how to play an evil character amongst other PCs. (Hint: If you're a thief out in the wilderness with three other people, one of whom can cast spells, and the other two of whom get better combat rolls and more hit points than you DON'T STEAL FROM THEM! It's better to wait until you get to town and there are more suspects.)

Bye till then.

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What do you think?

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    TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg