This week I got to do something I haven’t done in years: I made an evil character. There’s a lot of reason why playing evil characters generally gets frowned upon: the novelty wears off quickly and d&d is really set up to be a heroes game. On top of that, in my experience, evil games devolve into the characters randomly attacking everyone in town, and before long the characters are attacking each other. And if the game spectacularly fails, the players will be at each others’ throats.
This game, DM’d by (blogger gamefiend), was different than the stereotypical evil campaign. Firstly, only half of the characters were evil (and half good). It was set up very well so that the two “sides” did not start fighting. The good versus evil mechanic manifested itself as a series of skill challenges to save or corrupt an impressionable and ultra-powerful archon. The campaign still has yet to play out, and I hope Quinn writes about it with advice to DMs that might try to emulate. The game was sucessful because party’s goal wasn’t to commit an unspeakable act, but rather to retrieve a mysterious and ambiguously-aligned macguffin.
This experience got me thinking about what makes a successful evil character. Some measures of success could be number or quality of evil cats committed, infamy, or if playing a character at odds with the rest of the party, how memorable a character you made. In this case, I’m defining success as the character is fun to play and fun for the rest of the group to play in a party with that character.
First off I want to address the issue of alignment. In terms of (<=3.5 D&D) there is a big difference between Lawful Evil, Chaotic Evil, and Chaotic Neutral, but it’s easy to get confused. A character who goes around doing things completely randomly without thought to consequence or outcome (including random acts of violence) is probably Chaotic Neutral (CN). I’m sure there are people that can play role-play a CN character without being a sociopathic jerk, but I have yet to see it. A big difference between neutral and evil is motivation. Neutral characters might actively try to strike a balance or are emotionally detached from the world; whereas an evil character’s motivations will place his own concerns above the well-being of others (usually to their detriment). Law and Chaos are no longer a big deal in 4e, but for completeness: a Chaotic Evil character has no problem breaking rules, lying, cheating, killing, etc, but does so for some personal gain or to further a cause he might believe in. A Lawful Evil character, on the other hand, believes in law and order, although it might be okay for those rules to be cruel or unjust, but we expect to see a certain consistency in his behavior or an adherence to a code of conduct.
Beyond the matter of alignment, a playable evil character needs to be able to work together with other people. D&D is after all a group game, and it doesn’t stop just because your character is a bad guy. If you want to play a sociopath, it’s best that the character is able to suppress it for the majority of the game, otherwise your fun will be at everyone else’s expense.
Another important aspect when creating an evil character is getting the motivation and background right. The most interesting characters and best suited for gaming are ones whose evil comes a misguided belief in their own righteousness. Take Dongalore from Krod Mandoon, he just wants to be loved and respected, and doesn’t care how many people he has to kill to achieve greatness. Doctor Horrible had a hard time being evil until motivated by jealousy. My own character is motivated by the desire to bring order to the chaos and corruption he sees in the cities around him, he just happens to think the best way for that to happen is if he ran everything (like Ra’s al Ghul). When making your own character keep in mind that it’s only a few hops from “his parents were murdered by orcs” to “he hates orcs and want to kill them all” to “that neutral-ish dwarf tribe traded with the orcs, enabling them to buy weapons, so they need to be killed too” to “dwarves are as evil as the orcs and need to be slain.” I think that type of journey is an awesome canvas to paint a PC backstory. The “events” backgrounds (pivot event, early life, etc) in the PHB2/DDI are a good framework for that, just make it so your character chose a dark path during an important event: revenge instead of forgiveness, jealousy instead of acceptance, fear instead of understanding.
More than with good character, the player of an evil character should keep motivations in mind when role-playing. An evil character can get along with other characters and legitimate organizations, show mercy, or perform heroic acts if it furthers his own goals. In fact an evil character may be able to do more short term good (than a good character) if he doesn’t care about the motivations of those he’s working with, or if the consequences of his actions harms a third party or allies later. In fact, a great way to be evil is to help out someone (or let them think you’re helping) and earn their trust first; that’s how confidence men work. In fact “con man” might make a good build for a leader or controller.
Keep these things in mind, and you’ll be able to play an evil character and at the same time have fun, and accomplish something in a game session, and still be able to play with the same people next week. Evil luck!