Players with evil characters have been giving their Dungeon Masters headaches for as long as people have been playing tabletop roleplaying games. But I know I’ve often wondered what it would be like to play an evil group, or an evil campaign, or even if it’s possible to have an evil character in an otherwise good party without devolving into infighting and out-of-character arguments. Here are some thoughts on how to run a fun game when there’s evil in the air, and a preview of some of the useful tools you’ll find in Tyrants & Hellions to make that easier for you.
First and foremost, evil characters need specific motivations. A good character can simply want to help people, or want to do the right thing, and they’ll bite most adventure hooks you put in front of them. Evil characters with similarly vague motivations, such as “become powerful” or “get rich” are harder to please, largely because these benefits are already built into the game as rewards. When the party goes on a quest, gains experience, and recovers some loot, everyone gets more powerful and becomes wealthier. The evil character doesn’t get more of these things, because doing so would unbalance the game. As the Dungeon Master you can give them more powerful items (perhaps with a drawback to balance it out), but it requires special care and consideration in a way good characters usually don’t.
So what are some good, specific motivations for an evil character? Revenge is a great one, and fuels many of the antiheroes in popular culture. Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride is well known for his famous line “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” I don’t think Inigo Montoya is evil, but you could easily imagine a villainous character uttering a similar line. Another good motivation for an evil character is to acquire a specific item, ability, or resource. Wanting power is hard to work with, wanting a Vorpal Sword, or immortality, or to become emperor, however - these all provide great inspiration for a Dungeon Master to work into their story.
The next big question for evil characters is why do they stay with the rest of the party? Whether the rest of the team is good or evil, every scoundrel needs an answer to this question. Often the most common answer is that they can’t achieve their goals alone; they need help. Perhaps they owe someone a favor - whether it’s another character in the group or an NPC - and that’s why they’re tagging along. It might even be as simple as friendship; evil characters aren’t necessarily asocial murderers, they can still have friends and people they love.
The third and final question we’ll cover here is figuring out what the player’s goals are for their character. Do they want to be like Han Solo, a character who begins the story totally selfish but by the end is willing to put his life on the line to help out the good guys? Maybe they want a tragic character, whose lust for power leads to their downfall. Or they might want to play out a redemption arc, where a fallen paladin atones for mistakes in their past.
It’s helpful to ask any player these questions during character creation, but it’s especially important when they’re making an evil character. You want to find opportunities and avenues for the player to express their character’s evil side, because if you don’t, you’re going to end up with some of the common defaults that disrupt play: killing NPCs, stealing from the party, and generally interrupting the flow of the game “because I’m chaotic evil.” You can even be very candid with the players, saying “Evil characters can be pretty disruptive, I want to work with you to find a way to integrate your character into the story we’re telling so everyone has a good time.” Consider also asking your players as a group how much backstabbing and betrayal they are comfortable with. Some veteran groups might enjoy the surprise and shock of an unexpected twist, but other groups will absolutely hate it. The only “right” way to play is the way that makes your group the happiest.
Lastly, sometimes evil characters just don’t fit with the group. That’s okay, and you have a few options for how to deal with it. My personal favorite, and what I’ll recommend, is to retire them as an NPC and have their player make a new character. They might betray the group at a crucial moment and then flee, becoming a villain that the Dungeon Master controls. You can even have the character’s original player act as them during confrontations with the party, allowing them to keep enjoying the story of the villain they created. Once again, I recommend being very candid and open if you take this route. You should talk to the player of the character one on one, so they don’t feel attacked or ganged up on, and then bring it up with the group once you two have reached a decision.
That’s a bit of an overview on how I handle evil characters at my game table. Your approach may differ. Hopefully this advice is helpful to players and Dungeon Masters alike and leads to a more interesting dynamic in the party! Before I leave you, I want to talk about some of the new content in Tyrants & Hellions related to evil characters.
The book will include a set of brand new villainous archetypes for all twelve of the player classes. These archetypes, similar to the Death domain Cleric and Oathbreaker Paladin, are intended to give evil characters some evil toys to play with, and can be used to make villainous NPCs based on player classes, or for evil characters who want their characters to have truly evil abilities along with their nefarious personalities.
Next week we’ll start getting into serious detail about how to introduce and establish villains in your game!
Steven Gordon - 2CGaming Team