There is oh, so much talk floating around about evil characters and good characters in tabletop RPGs and how you should or shouldn’t mix them in parties. Every time you get people together talking about Dungeons & Dragons, this is something that’s going to come up. It’s an inevitability. Dungeon Masters ban evil alignments from their tables over stuff like this.
And you know what? I kind of see the sense in that. Some players just can’t be trusted to play an evil character. I’m willing to bet you know somebody who would be totally irresponsible. I’ll make another bet – you know more players that could do it well than would break it. There’s a lot of material out there that will tell you about how “good” does not automatically translate to “pushover.” Let’s talk about how “evil” does not automatically translate to “murder hobo.”
Evil characters are selfish. They want what they want and will not restrain themselves from doing things that good characters would find abhorrent. They kill, yes. They steal, yes. That doesn’t mean they’re going to do it out in the open where everyone can see them. Not even a chaotic character has to be so overt.
Here are some things to keep in mind.
Even an evil character should still have people they care about
(And some of those people should probably be the party.)
Raise your hand if you watch Once Upon a Time. It’s got one of the best examples of an evil character who doesn’t totally wreck the party. If you watch it, you probably already know who I’m talking about. If you don’t, please skip to the next section, spoilers are no fun for anyone.
Just the OUAT-ers left? Okay good, let’s proceed. Regina. The Evil Queen. In the first season she was pretty much a full time antagonist and made everybody miserable constantly. As with most stories, the good guys win, she gets what she deserves, and nobody actually lives happily ever after because if they did it wouldn’t be possible to milk the program for more money next season.
Come season two, though, she’s still around and more or less behaving herself. Most of the nasty stuff she did in season one, she was doing for her adopted son. And she continues to care about him the most more than anything throughout the series. She is unapologetically, undeniably wicked, and even behaving herself for the sake of her child doesn’t change that. As a matter of fact, there’s one scene where some magical shenanigans are happening that feeds on regrets and has all the heroes immobile from it. But Regina, that glorious witch, she goes on a litany of all of the horrible things she’s done to people, openly declares she regrets none of it, and then drives the point home by ripping the heart out of the guy who put her there.
So yes, she’s evil. There can be no question about that at all. But she’s also working with the party. She’s got common goals. She cares about somebody enough that she’s willing to play nice for a while so she doesn’t lose him or hurt him.
The lesson to be learned from this: Your evil character doesn’t have to be an emotionless jerk all the time. It’s okay for them to care about things. In fact, caring about things can spawn some of the most horrendous acts imaginable, but it also gives you a built-in reason not to be a distracting destructive jerkwad.
Evil isn’t always open about its agenda, it does know the meaning of subtle
It’s time to play “have you seen it” again, but this time I’m talking Highlander. The TV series, not the movies. Not even that one. Especially not that one. As such, all spoiler warnings apply.
Methos, though. The oldest immortal, professional smart ass, loyal to his friends and ruthless to his enemies. At one point, he cuts down an immortal woman that Duncan refuses to kill (she deserved it) citing that he was born long before the concept of chivalry. And apparently, once upon a time, he killed a bunch of random civilians too. That’s right, our boy Methos was one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.
Duncan, being the good person that he is, asks Methos if he really did it. Methos says he did, and Duncan is pretty cold to him for it, and then Methos comes back with this gem:
“No, it is not enough. I killed, but I didn’t just kill fifty, I didn’t just kill a hundred. I killed thousand. I killed ten thousand. And I was good at it. And it wasn’t for vengeance. It wasn’t for greed. It was because I liked it. Cassandra was nothing, her village was nothing. Do you know who I was? Death! Death. Death on horse! When mothers warned their children that the monster would get them, that monster was me. I was the nightmare that kept them awake at night. Is that was you want to hear? Then the answer is yes. Oh, yes.”
He doesn’t sound remorseful. He doesn’t sound like he’s trying to excuse it. As a matter of fact he even seems a little bit pleased with himself towards the end there. Mind you, at no point is he ever a frothing murderer during the series. He does what needs to be done, he’s willing to be shady for the greater good or even just for his own benefit. He helps the heroes, even is one more than a couple of times. He does good things, but it is abundantly clear that he is capable of great evil as well.
The lesson to be learned from this: Just because you’re playing evil doesn’t mean you have to wave your big evil flag everywhere. It is totally okay to play a character that enjoys killing and takes pleasure in the idea that other people fear them. But you know what? I bet you enjoy baths, or eating cake, or playing video games. I bet you’ve also at one point passed that thing that you enjoy up because it wasn’t an appropriate time for it.
It is totally possible to be unpleasant without being disruptive
Guess where we’re going next.
Did you guess Harry Potter? Because if you did, you’d be right. Severus Snape is our next stop. Remember what I keep saying about spoilers.
He is cocky, he is rude, and he is genuinely nasty to a good portion of his students. He is harsh, and even unfair at times. He’s killed people. Oh yeah, absolutely, that’s what death eaters do. He was basically a wizard supremacist and he is still a likable character.
And when he’s on the page you can’t look away from him. He’s intelligent and full of smarm, and always saying things that would totally make you snicker if one of your friends said it about somebody, don’t even lie to me. The best part is, you don’t even know until the very end whose side he’s actually on.
He’s always calm, always thinking a step ahead, and while there is no question he can be antagonistic towards his students, he’s got the backs of his fellow staff. He didn’t like Lupin, but he still brewed the potion to help him anyway. That doesn’t make him a good person, it makes him a good party member.
You don’t have to be a good person. You do have to be a good party member.
The lesson to be learned from this: See, conflict is the life blood of roleplay. Instigating PVP and being a general turd is not going to help you in any way, but occasionally sniping at each other in dialogue can actually be really fun and enhance your play experience. Give the other PCs something to rail a little against, be careful not to push it too far, and suddenly you’re an asset instead of an annoyance.
Be a horrible person. Be the scum of the earth. But care about your party. At the very least, be loyal to them. You’ve come to the game to play the game, there’s no reason to make it harder than it needs to be on everybody else.
Think about it. Think about the villains that you love. Those magnificent bastards. Did Moriarty ever just walk into a room and kill somebody just because? Even Voldemort didn’t do that.
Kill to make a point. Kill because letting the person go would make you vulnerable. If you have to go back and kill someone because they were rude to you, at the very least don’t make a big spectacle of it, and if it’s going to bother the other players at the table, just don’t. You made this character, it’s absolutely your decision whether or not they are going to be divisive.
And guess what? If something your character does hurts the party out of character, then you’ve done something too divisive out of character. There’s a separation of player and character, yes, but it only goes so far. You actually are obligated to consider how your actions affect the other players at the table, including the DM.
In other words, play evil but remember you are still one of the protagonists. Intentionally inciting or attacking the other PCs isn’t evil, it’s just stupid. Randomly attacking villagers for no reason isn’t evil, it’s just stupid. Cutting the throats of your allies in their sleep isn’t evil, it’s just stupid. Yes. It is. You guys trusted each other enough to come out here in the first place. If the whole party is going to be evil, then hash that out in the session zero and make it so you’ve known one another for years or came around to being evil at the same time.
Point your swords in the right direction. Be a good party member. Be willing to do dark things when the situation calls for it, but be aware of when and where that is. People will love you for it.
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Speculative fiction writer and part-time Dungeon Master Megan R. Miller lives in southern Ohio where she keeps mostly nocturnal hours and enjoys life’s quiet moments. She has a deep love for occult things, antiques, herbalism, big floppy hats and the wonders of the small world (such as insects and arachnids), and she is happy to be owned by the beloved ghost of a black cat. Her fiction, such as The Chronicles of Drasule and the Nimbus Mysteries, can be found on Amazon.