With Paizo starting their Hell’s Vengeance adventure path, it seems to me to be a good time to talk a bit about the idea of games where the players have characters that are – whether or not there’s an actual alignment or motivation system – what people would deem as evil. At first glance, this would sound like a terrible idea, and often it really is. Sometimes, though, it can be interesting and compelling.
Reasons to play evil
The first and foremost reason to play an evil game is the catharsis of it. You can, without guilt, let the part of your id that encourages antisocial and misanthropic behavior run a little wilder than you’d usually be comfortable with. Confronted with NPCs who remind you of people you deal with, you can let them feel your wrath; in situations where life forces you to grit your teeth and smile, you can instead lash out and drive off or destroy the cause of your frustration. That said, this is limited – more than one-shot or a mini-campaign of a few sessions and it gets past unrealistic into absurdity and boredom.
A more solid reason is to explore the questions that evil itself brings up. Can you still be a hero while being evil, or is the best you can aspire to going to be not destroying the world around you while you chase your own selfish ends? Can a group of the wicked join forces without tearing apart through back-biting and treachery? What, in the context of the game, does being evil actually mean? It’s a much more complex topic than the people who habitually try to play an ‘evil’ character want to admit.
In the simplest form, it boils down to trying to answer a question – can I portray someone who would be considered ‘evil’ without the character becoming a caricature? One like the puppy-kicking antipaladin usually brought up by That Guy as a character idea every time, or as an example of why Evil Games Are Bad by That Other Guy every time?
Reasons NOT to play evil
There was a group I very briefly played with who I can ‘win’ almost any discussion about The Worst Group by telling people about. They’re the perfect example of why some people – and some groups – shouldn’t be allowed to play evil characters. I won’t go into any details here, but suffice that they harassed the one woman who turned up to play a session by way of abusing her character, and the NPCs existed only for their amusement and pleasure. I stopped playing quickly.
Groups that aren’t reasonably mature should stay away from evil games; the option to take an evil character and run rampant will bring the game crashing down quickly, and a game that goes too far down this route can cause harm to actual friendships. Backstabbing and treachery are a part of evil games, but it can easily be taken too far, leaving people feeling bitter about being betrayed yet again. And, finally, if your group has people who see alignment as an excuse or an example of how to act out, don’t play an evil campaign.
This last, incidentally, is why I tend to ban Lawful Good, Chaotic Neutral, and Chaotic Evil alignments in my D20 games; all too often, these things are turned into caricatures that can ruin the game for everyone else. While there’s nothing wrong with playing caricatures if everyone is on board with it, it can get tedious – and caricatures of evil tend to be played nonsensically and cartoonishly.
Advice for Players
So you’re getting ready to play a character in a game themed around evil. That’s great! However, if your concept is the dark and moody loner, please ditch it. Right now. This character is bad enough in a heroic campaign, but in an evil campaign you will sink the entire game. This is not a joke or an understatement. Evil characters have to find better reasons to stick together in a group than generic-brand heroes do. You’re not driven by altruism to save the kingdom, and you won’t have the people looking to redeem your loner that you would in other games.
Get together with the other players and build a cohesive party; build connections and reasons your characters work together into them from the start. Make notes about why each character is willing to work with the others and give it to the GM. Build alliances – it’s okay if you have rivalries and don’t get along with another member of the party, as long as other members get along with both of you and you both have a reason to not ditch the mutual ally/friend to get away from the nemesis.
Establish clearly what your character considers acceptable and what they think is going too far. It’d be a bad thing to have a character who thinks beating someone to death for their money is fine but slavery is out of line, only to have your supposed close ally be someone who approves of slavery and keeps a retinue of branded and collared slaves on hand. Work with the other players to work out a common sense of ethics, even if your group is supposed to be morally bankrupt.
Additionally, work to make sure that each member of the group fills a role. A group of villainous intent where everyone has a place and a role will run much more smoothly than one just thrown together on the idea that it’ll get worked out. (This also applies to non-evil PC groups, but evil ones benefit from it incredibly.)
Advice foe GMs
Whether or not your players are taking the advice above, prepare as if they’re not. Expect each of them to bring an antisocial puppy-kicking monster of an anti-paladin to the table, each one ready to backstab and betray the rest to get ahead. Find reasons that will force them to work together, build the plot to encourage them to cooperate and make it clear that if they turn on one another, they will fail.
If they do actually turn up with soul-eating monsters for their PCs, give them a boss. Someone they can all aspire to usurp one day who can thump them senseless right now. A master who needs minions because going and doing things themself is beneath a being of such grand malevolence. Pull out every Horrible Boss trope you can think of, and attach them to this monster with reasons they can’t just run off and betray the Big Boss to the forces of good.
If they turn up with coherent characters who work well together, congratulations, but keep one part of your plot focused on reasons they need to stick together. Playing evil is, by the nature of the beast, divisive. Reward them for working together, let the instances where they deliberately backstab for personal gain come back to bite them. The logner they go between backstabbing, the milder the consequences when it happens and the less obvious the backlash should be.
Last, as the GM of an evil campaign, you need to be aggressively watching for instances of character rivalry bubbling over into real-life ill feelings. Watch for it, and be prepared to call a break when players start to get hostile out of character. Don’t let the game break friendships.
If you make it all the way through an evil campaign and no one has declared anyone else a personal enemy away from the table, go get yourself a victory cake. You’ll have earned it.