Yesterday I talked about playing evil as an overall topic; today, I’ll be touching more in-depth on the players’ side of things, as this is often where things go wrong. For familiarity for the larger sum of players, I’ll be using the D20 alignment grid to explain things, and I’ll touch on things where it was phrased a bit poorly and has never been fixed up.
No one is the villain of their own story.
This is exactly what it says. Even when you’re playing a character with a big CE stamped in a box labeled ‘alignment’, remember that no one ever sees themselves as the villain, bad writing aside. Everyone has reasons for the things they do, everyone has justifications for why what they do is acceptable. ‘Good’ characters have a stricter set of guidelines that they follow, and feel a need to look after others. Evil characters are much more likely to look after Number One first – but they see it as justified and the right thing to do. They’re not Snidely Whiplash or some cackling anime supervillain.
So ask yourself about your character’s motivation. They’re evil, but they’re not going to see themselves as such. Why are they approaching life this way, and how do they justify the steps they take that would be horrific from another person’s point of view? Flesh them out so they’ve got three dimensionality, and so that you can make decisions as them without it simply being “What sounds the most EVIL!?”
Law versus chaos? Or Control versus freedom?
This is the thing that bothers me the absolute most with the D20 alignment chart; calling one side Law and the other Chaos doesn’t have the same vibe as good against evil, and it leads to some of the most inane arguments among grognards. It’s better to think of Lawful alignments as those which favor control and organization, and Chaotic alignments as those that are biased toward personal freedom (and, if they’re inclined toward Good, personal responsibility).
Making this shift in thinking makes the alignments make a great deal more sense. The lawful alignments are about stabilizing things, and making sure that things work properly. A lawful good paladin is all about the greater good, but they’re not going to scrape and bow and observe every rule. A lawful evil inquisitor isn’t going to casually murder someone for defying them; that would open the way for anarchic despotism, which is not only distasteful, it’s wrong. A Chaotic Good adventurer isn’t going to look to the courts for justice; they’re going to hunt down the ringleader of the bandits personally and scatter the rest, while a Chaotic Evil thief isn’t going to take well to a rival gang of thieves moving in on their turf.
The D20 axis of evil
With these thoughts in mind, let’s take a look at the D20 axis of evil, and how these seeming caricatures of human personality can be brought to life without becoming a joke or a disruption to the game.
Lawful Evil: the alignment of the rules lawyer
At the core of it, the Lawful Evil alignment reads like it should be the alignment of a red-handed tyrant, ruling over everyone with fear and violence. This could be the case – although I’d argue that would be a Chaotic Evil behavior, as we’ll see – but the banal evil of rules and regulations suits this alignment much better. They believe in rules, order, and organization; these are the things that keep civilized life from sliding into barbarism and anarchy.
A lawful evil character is perfectly willing to bend the rules to the point that they’re almost impossible to recognize without forensic aid, but they don’t generally go and break the rules. Misinterpret them to their benefit, yes. Quietly try to find loopholes and annulments for the inconvenient ones, yes. Argue as to the intent and meaning each word in the rules, certainly. But not actually break them. That would be too far.
The soldier who advocates for razing enemy cities, the priest who sacrifices living victims for their own power, and the inquisitor who keeps a roster of ‘witnesses’ to condemn those who stand in their way are all examples of this alignment.
Neutral Evil: the alignment of the selfish
Selfishness is the purest distillation of the neutral evil alignment. This is the person who happily follows the rules until they can get away with breaking them to their personal benefit. Catch them at it, and they’ll overflow with apologies and excuses about how they just didn’t know and it was an accident and it’ll never happen again – until, of course, the next time an opportunity presents itself. Neutral evil characters generally don’t care whether or not anything can be justified, as long as it works in their favor.
The assassin in it for the pay, the mercenary with no scruples, and the necromancer who thinks that social mores about the dead are tiresome are all examples of this group. They’re fine with society and civilization as long as the benefits of it outweigh the detriments, and they’re happy to work in a group that offers them a way forward.
Chaotic Evil: the unrepentant justifier
Chaotic evil, the malign nightmare in the bottom of the bucket for GMs. Often referred to as ‘chaotic stupid’ and other names that are even less friendly, it has a well-earned reputation as being the alignment for puppy-eating monsters. For most relatively new GMs, the easiest way to justify an enemy as an enemy for the PCs is to make them a bloodthirsty Chaotic Evil killer.
And yet it can be quite a bit more. Unrepentant in their ways and uninterested in what others have to say, this is the alignment of the egocentric – the person who is firmly convinced that their way is the right way, no matter what. They happily justify any misdeed on their part by turning the victim into a villain, so the victim clearly deserved what happened to them. If anyone questions it, that person is part of the problem. They have no problems with existing in society and working with others, as long as no one crosses them; if they are crossed, the response depends on how powerful the offending person is. A weak ally becomes a new victim; a powerful one is still obeyed, but grudgingly and with an eye toward undermining them.
The murderer who hunts elves because ‘those long-eared freaks can’t be trusted, always going around like they know better than common folks’, the city watchman whose prisoners from a distant land always seem to make a break for it and force him to kill them, the red-handed tyrant who kills anyone who speaks against them, and the thief who goes out of their way to rob and murder nobles because they ‘deserve it for what they’ve done’ are all examples of this mindset.
Working it together
Hopefully by this point we can see that each alignment has a wide range of possible motivations and justifications for their actions, and that produces a grey area where they can work together without backstabbing. A trio of thieves, one of each alignment, can cooperate – the lawful one takes care with the job and attends to any rules that might exist, such as the bylaws of a thieves’ guild; the neutral one happily pilfers unattended valuables that otherwise would be ignored; and the chaotic one takes the time to specifically vandalize the wardrobe of the lord and lady of the house and destroy their priceless artwork before following the other two out.
It could easily go wrong; the lawful one could flip out at the pilfering or vandalism, leading to a fight in the middle of the manor or a poisoned drink back at the hideout; the neutral one could decide that betraying the others and fleeing is more profitable; the chaotic one might decide that murdering the staff is a better idea than avoiding or drugging them. The trick – and trial – for players is to avoid these back-stabbing moments without losing sight of your character’s personal goals. Each of these thieves is the hero of the story, in their own head; as long as they adhere to that instead of looking for chances to twirl a mustache and cackle, the game will go fine.