Something Wicked This Way Comes: When Players Decide to Go Bad
by Roger Hannah
October is suddenly here and I find myself in the process of prepping to run Chris Perkins' brand-spanking new horrific romp across the icy tundra, Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frost Maiden. After reading through the first 3 chapters, it is, without doubt, going to end up being my favorite 5th edition book that Wizards of the Coast has published to this point. Since I'm going to be delving deeply into this epic adventure for the next couple of months, it seems a good opportunity, as All Hallows Eve approaches, to look at a few darker topics to match the mood of the story.
Alignment can be one of the biggest challenges in learning how to role-play in character. A player's character will, most likely, be very different in personality and POV than the player themselves. Some choose to do an accent or take on a verbal or physical tick to distinguish the character from the player. Internally, you have to evaluate every potential game decision the party encounters, ensuring that you don't lose focus on the character by thinking strategically about the game rather than acting as your character would most likely act. It is tough enough when the party make up hovers somewhere between Lawful Good and True Neutral, leaving the "evil" alignments more to the creatures and villains the party will face. What happens if you have a player who wants to truly go the dark side in your adventure or campaign?
I'll be honest, up front. The way I see Dungeons and Dragons, as a game, the players are supposed to be "heroes" in a world that is collectively created between the players and the DM. Heroes can be as flawed and imperfect as they come but, at the end of the day, they want to see the evil creatures defeated and the general way of life in their world preserved. Given that view, I'm not a fan of the "evil" aligned character. I struggle to find adequate and believable motivation behind why a truly evil individual would be involved with a group of generally "good" individuals (or why the "good guys" would be hanging with an individual whose motives may be close to the big bad they are fighting). The basic goals of the party, quite often, are likely to be directly in opposition to the goals of the evil character and vice versa. Yes, there are circumstances where someone of a nefarious bent would potentially ally with such dissimilar individuals based on mutual advantage but is that really a strong enough tie to last the length of a campaign?
Part of my reason for feeling this way goes back to sour memories of an older gaming group. When I started college in the late 80s, I had not played the game in several years after my middle/high school gaming group drifted away, moving on with their lives. Happily, I soon found another group in which to play and continued to do so through most of the four years there. It was just wonderful to be playing again. All good things, it seems, come to an end and this situation was no different. Toward the end of this period, myself and 2 other players traded off being DM. One of the other two refused to play characters of any alignment other than those on the evil side of the spectrum. His playing style, looking back, would overwhelmingly be termed "murder hobo" by today's standards, carrying with it the morally ambiguous habit of explaining away any character action with the phrase "it's just what my character would do" or "I'm just playing to my character's alignment. Though occasionally frustrating to the other players, it did not seem much of a problem in the beginning. At least until some of his actions in the game began coming into conflict with the party's goals and aims. Those in-game differences very quickly began bleeding into real life, with two of the DMs seemingly competing to slay each other's characters in their campaigns. Eventually, this killed the game entirely and it was about a decade before some of us came back to an RPG table. The crux of the whole issue was that the evil characters, if portrayed true to their alignment, ended up being at odds with the other party members more often than not, wrecking the fun of the game for everyone.
That said, I'm not blind to the reasons why some players might gravitate toward this atypical approach to the game. Some may be attracted to really stretching their comfort zone by taking on the role of someone completely removed from their normal outlook. Perhaps they see the potential conflicts that might arise as fuel for role-play and appropriate tension and conflict within the narrative structure of the campaign. Some may even experience some sort of stress relief or catharsis by acting out an evil scenario. Whatever the reason, if you decide to explore allowing evil characters in your games, there are some basic structures you might wish to put in place beforehand.
*Ask yourself if your game is able to manage an evil character. Running an evil character is demanding of the party but it is also demanding for the DM. Are you comfortable running a game where you will need to juggle that type of story? Are you able to handle confronting a player, outside of game, if that individual crosses a line with you or the other players? If you are unsure on any of these points, consider nudging the player toward an alignment that is a better fit with the game you run or simply toward being unaligned.
*Make sure all players in your group are amenable to having an evil PC. Some groups may have no issues with such a divergence from their own character's moral compass and point-of-view. Others may not feel so comfortable with it. If anyone is going to lose out on the fun because of an evil-aligned character's presence, it may not be a good fit for your table. Similarly, if the player proves to be abrasive in the game (or out of game), for whatever reason, do not tolerate it or accede to the "I'm just playing my character to their alignment" explanations that the player may offer you.
*Set firm boundaries from the outset Help the player understand that running such a character cannot be explained away as "I'm evil for the sake of being evil" or "I'm evil so I can do whatever I want". Have them ponder seriously why their character would have that point-of-view or outlook. Did something drive them to that path? If they chose it, what encouraged them to choose it? Make sure the player appreciates that such an individual would be as complicated and three-dimensional as you would make a good character. Even the worst person may have something in their personality that is likable or even admirable. It will make the game much more interesting to add a few twists like that into the evil PCs make up. Consider having the player choose at least one "redeeming quality" to flesh out their character's personality, much like a "good" aligned character might choose a flaw or weakness, as part of the character creation process.
*Keep the player honest. Make sure they understand the full implications of their choice and that you will hold them to that as the arbiter of rules. If you are going to be lawful evil, you can't shift to chaotic good at a certain point as part of your personal gaming strategy. Just as with good characters, evil PCs do not have the player's knowledge and making decisions on the character's actions need to be driven by their imagined personality, not meta-gaming. Further, evil characters tend to be survivors and, consequently, invest time in learning and exercising restraint. It is that restraint that might be a big reason for the good party members tolerating the presence of an evil character. If the neutral evil rogue is going to rough up an innocent while in the presence of his lawful good paladin companion, the rogue will suffer the consequences and should expect nothing less from the DM or the other players.
*Create plausible motivation for all members of the party. Since we are talking about a cooperative role-playing game, the rules require that the party be able to work together toward whatever goal is before them. As such, the evil character needs a plausible motivation for why they would be traveling and adventuring with the good characters. Likewise, the other players would need believable reasons as to why their "good" characters are willing to adventure with an evil character that may, at some point, be diametrically opposed to their goals behind the adventure. As stated earlier, you should push the player running the evil PC to have a developed reason for why their character would be with this group. It will also help to include the other players in the mix so that their characters have a fully formed reason for allowing such a person in their midst. If the other players are not involved or the evil PC just plays the "evil for the sake of being evil" card, you have a greater likelihood that some or all the players will get frustrated with each other.
I do not expect to allow evil PCs anytime soon in my own campaigns and one-shots. That just goes to show why the choice to allow evil PCs should be well informed. Those years playing with that group were wonderful until they suddenly weren't wonderful. I would not have waited almost a decade later to start playing again had that situation been structured and handled appropriately. If you do choose to allow them, following some of these basic principles from the beginning will give you a better chance of having an enjoyable experience with a party of mixed alignment.