Evil: A Do-It-Yourself Guide

Thanks to flickr user elycefeliz! CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A few days ago a friend mentioned that, in the campaign he’s planning on running this upcoming summer, he was thinking of encouraging the players to take the reins of evil characters (D&D 3.5). Wheeee! Having played a few campaigns with evil parties, I was immediately called back to those old days of 2nd editi0n sword and sorcery, where my high-school friends and I barely made it through a few sessions without devolving into a free-for-all murder-fest. Our evil campaigns never lasted long.

As we grew up, and the group evolved, the idea of an evil campaign soon came calling again, this time in college. We were more mature, valued the fun of working together to solve common goals, so we did not ruthlessly murder each-other, but instead work together to murder hundreds of others.

One of the other players in this upcoming game expressed her reservations about playing an evil character. Primarily, she said that she might have a difficult time doing the things required of an evil character: the oppression and killing of innocents and children, heinous acts of savagery, taking advantage of the weak, the poor, the indigent, and the helpless.

In light of my recent post on alignment, I thought I would revisit the concept of evil: how to define it, how to understand and manipulate it, and ultimately, how to be it, or how to confront it. I’ll try not to get too philosophical; after all, I don’t think you came here to discover the answer to the questions of the universe, nor am I really able to answer them.

I will say that having a campaign that features evil PCs, evil deeds, and evil plots is certainly possible. Playing an evil character doesn’t mean that you are personally evil, though I do admit that often our characters are reflections of ourselves. I feel like I’m dancing on some Chickian line here, but I feel confident saying playing an evil character doesn’t make you evil no more than playing a good character makes you good. It’s the opportunity to explore something different, which is what role-playing games are all about.

Let’s get started!

Evil in Dungeons and Dragons

If you’re evil in D&D, the deck is stacked against you from the very beginning. The “bad guys” of Dungeons and Dragons have always been the utterly evil monsters: the dragons, the beholders, the mind-flayers, the aboleths, the demons and the devils, and so on. There are several classes which require you to be good, but very few which require you to be evil (though you can always buy the right supplement for that).  In most campaign worlds, Good has the upper hand, either through sheer numbers, conviction, or simply just having a foothold. How many campaigns have you done where you need to stop the evil vizier from mind-controlling the King, or hold off the evil horde of hobgoblins, or defeat the evil dragon who kidnapped the princess? Lots, of course. Playing good vs. NPC evil is the default set-up for D&D.

And why not? That’s the default set-up for fantasy. That’s the default set-up for mythology as well (who’s evil? Beowulf or Grendel? Sir Gawain or the Green Knight? Thor or Loki?) You could certainly argue that these myths are a lot deeper than I make them out to be, and I won’t disagree. But these myths are essentially good vs. evil tales, or at least, “you should do this” vs. “you shouldn’t do this” tales. All the positive stuff is associated with good: wisdom, beauty, health, strength. All the negative stuff is associated with evil: ugliness, sickness, greed, gluttony, deformity.

In the story of Sigfried/Sigurd and the Dragon, I think more players want to be Sigfried. Obviously, as the perception of these tales changes and the understanding of the nuance in these stories and characters grows, our perception changes from good vs. evil to something else entirely.

That being said, the odds are still not in the favor of evil. There are evil variants of almost everything good out there (Blackguard/Paladin, Blasphemy/Holy Word, Turn/Rebuke), so you’re not going to be totally in the dark. Just come to understand that the world is out to get you, and you’ll be fine.

Evil Doesn’t Mean Kill on Sight

One of the most formative moments in my gaming evolution was talking to a former GM about a pivotal NPC duke. We had surreptitiously divined his alignment and discovered that he was uppercase E, Evil. But what, exactly, did that mean? You can’t just kill someone for being evil, can you? Doesn’t that make you evil? I won’t go into the argument of “does an evil act make you Evil alignment”?

Obviously, morality and good and evil are very murky in Dungeons and Dragons, not to mention life itself. But you hasve to consider that there are going to be a fair number of people out there who are just plain evil. Who knows why they are that way? If I had to put a number on it, I’d get away from a 33% even split and say that 20% of a campaign world would be Good, 60% Neutral, and 20% Evil. Of course, it’s a bell-curve distribution, with extremely Good and extremely Evil occupying, well, the extremes of that curve, with greater populations falling within the bell. Depending on the morality of the world, you could adjust where that bell falls on the graph; maybe 30% are Good, 60% Neutral, and 10% Evil in a world like Greyhawk, and with those numbers reversed, say, in Ravenloft or Dark Sun.

If you accept that general concept, you also have to accept that you’re going to come across some folks, maybe peasants or farmers or merchants, who are evil. Now, that evil doesn’t necessarily manifest in the course of the campaign, but it’s still there. We could say that someone is neither Good nor Evil til given the opportunity to do one or the other. The farmer’s evil doesn’t manifest far outside his household and his neighbors. The King’s evil affects the whole kingdom.  The other thing to keep in mind is that just because someone is evil, or selfish, or greedy, doesn’t mean that the Good or the Neutral have the right, legally or morally, to stop them from being that way. At some point, it’s a difference of opinion, and that doesn’t even get into whether something is good or evil in an absolute sense. Of course, there are no absolutes, but D&D doesn’t care about that.

The Whys Have It

A cardinal mistake when creating your evil character, whether it’s a PC or NPC, is making him shallowly evil. By this I mean, making him evil for no reason other than simply being evil. Are there people out there like this? Yes, sure, I guess. But most of the people who are evil do it for a reason, or simply don’t mind doing things that are evil to accomplish their goals. For example, my current character’s life-goal is to design a kind of armor that is so cheap, accessible, and tough, that people stop fighting wars because no one can kill each other on the battlefield any more. War killed his parents, and he doesn’t want that to happen to anyone else. He’s a Good character, but I play him in such a way that he’s not willing to take shortcuts to accomplish his goal, he won’t kill helpless or surrendered enemies, won’t steal or cheat to get to the top. I could easily play him as an Evil character by simply taking away that restriction: do anything it takes to get what you want, even if that means stepping on everyone along the way.

The important thing here is to have a detailed and rich reason for doing your evil. It doesn’t have to be justifiable, though it could be.

The Little List of Reasons for Doing Evil

Convenience: “That peasant was in my way.” Sometimes its easier to do what others see as evil. It’s easier to just kill the guard than to bribe him or fast-talk him. The Good are tempted by easy paths to power and riches. The Evil take them.

Selfishness: “That peasant was in my way.” You can’t even conceive of the importance of other people. Your own goals are all that really matter. Maybe the laws of the land or of nature don’t apply to you.

Psychosis: “Obviously, I killed the elf. Elves killed my father, so they don’t deserve to live.” Another way to think of this one is the “faulty conclusion.” Because of X, I do Y. Except that Y doesn’t usually solve the problem, or Y is such a disproportionate response as to be incredibly unreasonable.

Animalism/Impulse: “It’s one of man’s primal urges to kill others, this is why we fight wars.” Giving in to temptation, impulse, vice, urges, and what-have-you.Among these impulses are what the particular moral code defines as evil, such as revenge, lust, greed, wrath, etc.

Means-to-an-End: “I’m sorry I must sacrifice you, my dear, but this is the only way.” This is the catch-all category. You could say it’s part of Evil of Convenience, but this is probably the most common and believable. “Normal” people are driven to evil in order to get what they want (such as resurrecting a long-dead lover, or everlasting life).

The villain who does evil to “take over the world” is boring and cliche. The villain who wants to take over the world in order to satisfy his megalomaniacal need to be worshipped is far more interesting, if still a bit cliche.

Evil should never be the end, only the means.




9 thoughts on “Evil: A Do-It-Yourself Guide

Add yours

  1. I wrote a series of articles on my blog about DMing for Darker Parties, and about darker enemies in general. You can read them here.

    Evil is deeper than actions. It’s in the motivations, and the significance of immoral acts. Killing someone is a terrible thing. Killing a pregnant woman is even worse. Neither of these acts, however, make the murderer evil. If you try, you can imagine a situation where a good character might commit these acts.

    Consider, however, murdering your brother’s pregnant spouse so in his depression he will turn back to the drugs that she helped him break his addiction to. Imagine that you are his dealer, and it becomes signifigantly more difficult to imagine a good person committing this act. That’s because the crime was both a terrible act AND had selfish motivations that simultaneously abused the trust of a loved one, as well as his own well being. These actions were not only committed with full knowledge of their consequences, but as anticipated results.


  2. Evil can be difficult to define is real life, in games in can be much easier.

    My one sentence definition of evil is “to desire the ends is to desire the means.” You are willing to do whatever is needed to accomplish your goals. I wrote about playing evil here.


    1. I like it, but I think it’s also not necessarily true. There are many examples of characters we would consider objectively evil, but still had their own “code”, things they would not do – many comic villains for example (Magneto?). This is the “evil wizard who never kills children” motif.

      In fact, I think it’s a plot point in a lot of stories where the hero(es) find that weakness of the villain, the one thing they won’t overlook, the one thing they won’t give up for their goals, and apply pressure there.


  3. I think it’s worth looking at this from the other perspective. If your players say “evil” but they actually mean “unprovoked bloodbath with no heed for the consequences”, then it’s probably the bloodbath they’re after. It could be that they’re looking to cut loose from a railroady environment, or just want to have fun making a mess. Playing a nuanced, realistic evil might not scratch the itch!


  4. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive, but I get what you’re saying and I’m totally for it. The whole appeal of playing an evil character is that so many of the “rules” of society don’t necessarily apply. Want to kill the quest giver? Go ahead. Want to rob that magic item shop owner who wouldn’t cut you a deal? More power to you. Ultimately you should be having fun, and if that fun is wanton destruction, I won’t stop you. But my NPCs might try. 🙂


  5. It also helps to define what makes somebody evil. In the Eberron world, they had several of the world leaders as evil. They weren’t Sauron rampaging over the countryside, but they were willing to do ruthless things to serve their nation. They didn’t neccesarily like it, but they would do it when neccesary.

    In one game, our evil/neutral characters worked for a crime family. The game was based on a heroic adventure path, and we fought the bad guys because we wanted control over the region. We played the heroes, which had the poplace trusting us. A lot of it was the same as a good campaign. But we ended up taking over some of the enemies and using them to extend our reach.

    The criminal organization camapign works well for “evil lite”. You are intimidating, stealing and murdering – but you aren’t sacrificing babies to Baphomet. The organization will keep the campaign in control while the characters are low level, and then at high level the characters will often try to take over the group. Stephen Brust’s Jhereg series is a great inspiration, and there’s a lot of crime movies and books that you can mine for ideas.


  6. “Thor or Loki?”

    Neither. Nor are they antagonists. Marvel’s Loki and Thor bear only the vaguest resemblance to the actual myth.

    In the myths, Thor & Loki are best buds as well as half-brothers, with Loki being a Chaotic Neutral guy and Thor being a dumb, easily lead guy who keeps getting tricked into entertainingly humiliating situations by Loki and then being such a badass that he comes out looking good anyway. Pretty much none of the modern renditions of the two remember that, which is a shame, because Loki in the original myths is a lot more interesting than these modern knock-offs of Loki.


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