Horror Month, Week Two: Confessions of a Part-Time Bad Guy
Welcome back to the Four Horsemen Blog! For Horror Month, we're looking at darker spookier themes for your fantasy role-playing game. Next week we're going to address the ideas of agency and consent in horror games, but today we're going to talk about playing evil PCs.
Most gaming groups have that guy (full disclosure, 'round these parts that's me). That guy (or gal) who wants to walk a little edgier path to be different from fellow characters. Sometimes the goal is to use some abilities most characters never get around to, like playing an antipaladin or having the option to cast the very best necromancy spells. Sometimes you want to play an evil race or start your game damned and work for redemption. I once based an entire concept for an evil character because I randomly came up with a really unique name that sounded positively wicked. As long as you're not playing a bad guy expressly to disrupt a game and ruin everyone else's fun, there's no wrong reason to wear a black hat for a while. It's just a game. Based on my experience with several evil PCs (in both wholly evil and mixed parties), I recommend the following advice.
Alignment is Descriptive
I think it is very important to remember that alignment is a descriptive term, not a proscriptive one. One should never tell me "you can't save orphans, you're chaotic evil". As a sage designer and developer once reminded me, good people can commit evil acts. They just become evil if they accept it and do it more and more often. The very idea of some villains is predicated on their former goodness. Villains can rise, heroes can fall. So alignment describes who we are most of the time, and not how a character has to behave. Sometimes, the fun of a villainous character is the fall, lowering your standards as a response of the challenges the character faces until she can no longer tell right from wrong.
Evil is also a subtype in a game that defines good and evil as objective quantities. While players and GMs are free to be flexible on what kind of behavior actually constitutes evil, a creature with the evil subtype is defined as evil. Its nature is hostility and wickedness, and exceptions (like a good lich or redeemed succubus) should be very rare. Evil player characters are vulnerable to abilities that target them, and playing an evil character responsibly means
Evil Can Be Normal
Characters that commit evil acts or have an evil agenda can appear perfectly normal for a variety of reasons. It can be surprising when a character with a prevailing dark side commits a truly selfless act, but it happens for reasons as varied as any other character. Perhaps Dr. Jekyll's alter ego is an expression of the wickedness inside him. Rick Grimes might wonder how many of the living he has to kill so he can teach the rest how to survive. The soul of Clint Eastwood's William Munny in ”Unforgiven" is thoroughly careless and evil, but he checks his violent nature for the sake of a virtuous woman, then embraces it again out of a need to provide for his family or avenge his friend.
One of the best things about Marvel's Luke Cage is the portrayal of Mariah Dillard by Alfre Woodard. Without spoiling much, we are treated to a couple of characters who begin the show as true villains, while getting to watch Dillard's character slowly embrace her own ambitions as circumstances push her toward evil. Woodard is great at showing strength and vulnerability in the same scene, and Dillard offers lots of both. She's the more interesting villain because she isn't maniacally violent or consistently criminal. Her transition is transfixing. She is fascinating because she is repulsed by some of her decision, and even when she embraces darkness, you can tell she wishes she hadn't turned out this way.
This week we launch a new product (Four Horsemen Present: Hybrid Class: Possessed) that illustrates this principle. A possessed is a hybrid witch-medium that can surrender control to her mysterious patron, who is always more disturbing and sinister. The class offers players a chance to play a complicated story where the character could be benevolent or meek, but has this force inside her that grants power and takes over when its vessel is at risk. The character may commit evil acts, and may even become evil on her own over time, her will eroded by the dark presence sharing space in her soul.
It's Not (Usually) a Social Club
A recurring evil character in some of my games is a lich necromancer with a strong sense of mercantilism and a deep sense of pride in his home country. The first time I played him was as a PC in a game full of evil PCs. The first principle out GM laid down when the campaign started was that we are not "Team Evil". Evil doesn't bind characters the way goodness does. In that game we pursued common and individual goals, and I once used a fellow character as bait to invisibly ambush a group of cave giants with a barrage of spells after they charged him. We played our evil characters, but were mindful of the fact that the point of this campaign was to be bad guys, not an average party with a list of feats and spells. It was very clear from the beginning that while good guys might appeal to the altruism of good NPCs, we weren't getting much out of evil NPCs unless we could advance their agenda.
To be sure, evil characters can love truly and have devoted friendships, but they don't get along intrinsically because they all share the bond of wickedness. In fact, perhaps the most fertile ground for in-character roleplay is in whatever commonality allows evil PCs to work together. Having a common enemy or goal, a sense of patriotism, sharing a faith, or other dynamics can create the opportunity to work together like any good party (until you catch one of them stealing from you and you have to turn him into a zombie porter).
Okay...for sure DO NOT steal from the 3rd edition necromancer who drops haste and improved invisibility, then fly and a DC 30 finger of death on your enemies. You'll end up as a zombie porter. Trust me on this. But do pursue your character's agenda. An evil character who has the same goals and behavior as his party is boring. Pretty much any time I play, the world is my sandbox. Your evil character should want to build temples to dark gods or prove there's no paladin he can't kill. Maybe he is predictably greedy an unable to keep a promise if there's gold involved. Maybe he's a ghoul rogue who starved to death in prison and wants to build a powerful guild. Whatever defines your character, make sure she has a list of things to do and walks the left-hand path while doing it.
Be sure to encourage your fellow players to follow their own stories, too. Sometimes a party of mixed alignments turns into a disruptive evil player (shame on you) or a party of folk trying to catch the evil player being evil (shame on them). Meanwhile there's an actual antagonist being ignored, and your GM is getting away with not having to plan encounters because the PCs are on a collision course or spending all their time arguing over acceptable PC behavior. Make sure you have your plan, encourage them to have theirs, and everyone cooperate to make the plans intersect so the story moves forward.
Play to the Party
I mentioned before that we'll talk next week about agency and consent. When playing an evil character in a mostly nonevil party, it's important to remember you aren't the main character. Other players deserve their stage time and they may object to your character's methods and intentions. That dynamic makes for really great roleplay if everyone's having fun. But don't turn it up to eleven when your friends aren't interested in seeing it. There are two ways I follow this principle. The first is to avoid certain acts and moods altogether. Some ideas just don't have merit and don't have a place at a gaming table. Some tables will have a longer list of complete taboos than others, so make sure the sorts of sins your evil PC wants to explore are okay for your audience, friends, and fellow players. The other way is to know when to fade to black. By this I mean alluding to an evil act or awful behavior juuuust enough so that people get the idea, and then ending the scene without having to offer much detail.
I believe allusion to evil behavior is your friend and the details of evil acts is your enemy. I have very little interest in gratuitous evil acts, much preferring to be telling a big story and moving a plot forward. Offering the details of torturing a prisoner or seducing a princess just gives you a new low to reach for to keep things interesting. Instead, I focus my scenes on accomplishing things on my agenda rather than trying to shock myself or my friends.
It's also important to remember that we're talking about a game, which by definition requires oversimplifications. Trapped on an actual battlefield with ogre thugs and giants throwing huge rocks, most of us would fold up like lawn chairs. We'd leave our ball and go home. As a result of our relatively comfortable life free from rakshasas and winter wights, we have little idea how much violence we'd tolerate in self-defense, much less actual evil and wickedness as a matter of our character. There are tables out there where fully half of the action taken is actually evil. You were caught masquerading as the town guard after curfew? You might have had good intentions, but murdering actual city guards when you're busted is evil. Wanna play a smiling vagabond who steals gold from folk shopping at the bazaar? How edgy and rakish of you. Also stealing is evil. The game can be less fun when we micromanage the definition of evil until we're all playing accountants and insurance salesmen driving the speed limit and never actually touching a sword. Remember that your fellow players want to tell their story their way.
During horror month, we hope you'll enjoy our two products designed with spooky player characters in mind. Use them to play evil characters in dark games and enjoy the thrill of edgy storytelling. Just don't upset your friends or yourself in the process. Join us next week when we talk more about horror roleplaying. In the mean time, tell your GMs I said you're all zombie porters now.