This article was first broadcast in Episode Fifteen on 14th March 2018.
Lennon: Really? You just GAVE her the hat?
Ostron: Look, it’s not like The Killer DM causes chaos or anything. She’s Lawful Evil, that’s manageable.
Killer DM: Do I hear the sounds of overconfidence?
Lennon: Not from me
Ostron: We were just saying you’re a good source of information for players that want to play evil characters
Killer DM: Oh my goodness yes. There are soooo many posers out there that think they’re SO evil and still go to puddles when there are a bunch of kittens around. Pull up a chair, people.
At some point in many a D&D player’s mind, they say “I think I want to be evil.” The thought could have come from a number of places; maybe there was a really charismatic villain in a book or show you want to emulate. Maybe you’ve been the upright Paladin of virtue in 3 out of your last 4 games and game 4 you were playing the benevolent nature druid who doesn’t kill anything, so it’s time for a change. Or maybe you just really want to play a Conquest Paladin.
Before you go running off to find a black wardrobe and a weapon that glows a particularly sickly shade of chartreuse, there are a few things you need to consider. Declaring that you want to play an evil character can make DMs and your fellow players nervous, particularly if the campaign isn’t structured around the entire party being evil. I myself would see you as a rival, obviously, but only if you’re actually being evil. Successfully playing an evil character in a D&D campaign usually requires answers to 3 questions:
- Are you evil?
- Why are you evil?
- What is your evil plan?
First, are you actually evil? Good and evil are subjective concepts to a lot of people, but D&D tries to codify the ideas. Wizards of the Coast has tried to alter it a few times, but for most players the good/evil chaotic/lawful matrix is a staple of character design. It’s worth reviewing the basic idea behind what is considered evil in that matrix; it may turn out that you don’t want to be fully evil, but would be better suited to something on the Chaotic or Neutral tracks.
If you knock every sapient attacker unconscious you end up with a hoard of prisoners after every battle. If you’d rather just kill them all, that may not be evil. That may not even push you off the “good” row as long as they attacked first, you just have to kill them in the middle of combat; you can’t execute them all after you’ve taken them prisoner. Similarly, handing villagers a bunch of swords and giving them a good rousing speech rather than crawling through the goblin dungeon yourself is a viable alternative, if a bit more on the neutral end of things. Still not evil. If you find out the goblins are attacking because they want the village for themselves and then solve the problem by burning the village to the ground, now you need to start adding a skull motif to your wardrobe.
So on to point two: why are you evil, anyway? A lot of people think playing an evil character in a campaign is impossible unless the whole party is evil. I mean, if someone in the party is doing good, the evil character will automatically stop them, right? Except that isn’t how evil works.
Evil in D&D means you’re always out for yourself – every action should increase your personal power, influence, or wealth. Other people’s feelings, motivations, and lives really don’t matter, unless they are directly helping you. If something is in the way of you achieving your heart’s desire, you eliminate it as quickly as possible. Note that may not always mean killing them, but often it is.
The key with evil in D&D is method and motivation, and for evil characters that’s pretty simple: You don’t care what the method is, as long as it serves your purpose. It’s very possible that an evil and a good character can want the exact same thing, but they’re going to have very different reasons for wanting it and their methods for achieving that goal are unlikely to be similar. For example, if a Lawful Good and Lawful Evil character catch a hungry child stealing food, both are going to arrest the child. But while the Lawful Good character might use it as a learning opportunity for the child and possibly investigate why the family is starving, the Lawful Evil character won’t give it a second thought unless the child is useful somehow.
Because of that difference of approach, it’s very easy to cause conflict with other players, particularly if not everyone is on board with evilness either as their character or as a player. But this is worth noting: the Lawful Evil character involved didn’t STOP the Lawful Good character from helping the orphan, they just didn’t HELP. Remember; in D&D the evil characters only care about their personal goals; they don’t waste time stopping people from doing good just because they’re doing good. If you’re with a party of non-evil adventurers and you don’t want every session to devolve into a shouting match (either on the table or in real life) you need to remember that distinction.
You might ask; how is that different from a Neutral character? Sometimes it isn’t. There aren’t always situations where there are three distinct paths a good, neutral and evil character would take. That’s why it’s actually possible to play an evil character in a party of other non-evil characters.
Now to discuss the final point; what is your evil plan? If the DM is going to support your evilness you have to meet them halfway by having a purpose. Unlike with good characters, evil characters don’t usually require a lot of backstory to make them solid and playable. What they do need is a goal and a method. Look at the Joker, a character constantly held up as the personification of chaotic evil. In many versions of his story, he has no history at all. He ended up being evil because his methods and goals were usually extremely skewed and contrary to what normal humans would do.
If your purpose is consistent and interesting and doesn’t actively make the DM’s life miserable, they’ll probably support you. But using “I’m evil” as an excuse to constantly sabotage everything the other players or the DM is doing is only being an evil player, it’s not playing an evil character.
Killer DM: Points for roleplaying maybe, but you probably won’t last more than one session at my tables.
Villains that people admire tend to be clever and interesting. Back to the Joker example, in the Dark Knight movie, he didn’t prevent sick people from being evacuated from a hospital just because it was an objectively good thing to do; he had other priorities that were more obscure and convoluted. Villains that run forward blindly and are obvious about their intentions don’t impress anyone unless they’re insanely powerful.
For example, back to our Lawful Evil character, they always work within the established laws of society. Lawful evil characters are not going to have bouts of wild violence or randomly execute a large number of civilians. A lot of people like to hold up Darth Vader as an example of Lawful Evil, but he’s not the best choice because of his random killings. The Emperor, Vader’s boss, is far more apropos because he worked within the legal system and manipulated, threatened, and only occasionally murdered in secret to get where he was. In general that’s how Lawful Evil characters are going to operate; manipulation and taking advantage of existing rules. As mentioned above, that may not put them in conflict with the party in terms of recognizing problems, but the solution and implementation the Lawful Evil character comes up with may raise eyebrows.
Killer DM: Side note: a lot of powergamers are great examples of Lawful Evil when they design characters. I do so admire them even as I set them on fire.
Lennon: Set the character sheets on fire, you mean?
Killer DM: …sure
Neutral Evil characters are probably the easiest to work into a group of non-evil adventurers because they focus on what they want, but the only reason they’re evil is because they have no qualms about how to achieve their goals. As long as their goal isn’t literally killing one of the other players, they can probably work within the group. The rest of the players may just need to accept that their companion is going to keep some of the gold for themselves if left to their own devices, or when infiltrating the keep the guards in their way are going to be dead rather than unconscious or trapped in a closet.
Another clarifying note to sniff out posers: a socially unacceptable quirk does not make someone evil. A kleptomaniac is not definitively evil, they’re just definitively annoying. Unless the quirk is stabbing random people. Now we’re back to evil. Specifically chaotic evil, which we’ll get to in a second.
Also, a quick “true neutral vs neutral evil” primer: true neutral scout sneaking into a keep is going to take a longer route to avoid guards if they can because it’s not worth it for them to physically or emotionally deal with killing a guard that’s just doing his job. Neutral evil is going to say “I need to get through this keep. This guard is guarding the fastest way in. This guard needs to be removed.” If the easiest way to remove the guard is to kill them, I’ll give you one guess what the evil character’s going to do.
Chaotic evil characters are tricky to play. The Player’s Handbook description doesn’t do a lot to differentiate them from Neutral Evil characters; it only says that they are driven by their desires to destroy, or greed, or something similar. Usually this is interpreted as sociopathy; the character has no morals, doesn’t recognize acceptable human behavior or conscience, and they’re obsessed with a particular goal that’s probably not within the limits of “normal”. It is possible to play one of these characters and still work with a group, but you definitely have to have a clear idea what the character’s very skewed motivations are and work with your DM in detail about how those will manifest.
Here’s a quick example. Say you’re playing an evil character who believes all humans over the age of 40 should be killed because they’re no longer useful to society. The DM might support that, but will need details. First of all, if there are any other humans in your party over 40, you need to figure out why you haven’t killed them. From then on, during the adventure, you should be thinking of ways to carry out your evil plan. Simply running up and stabbing every human over 40 may be fun for you, and may provide some morbid amusement if it surprises your party, but not if you do it immediately every time. If it’s annoying the other players, they’ll either find some way to kill you or actively restrain you. If it’s annoying the DM, your adventure will suddenly involve a lot of non-humans.
On the other hand, sneaking off during long rests while the party is unaware is a viable strategy and can lead to interesting stories. If the party ignores your escapades or decides that all of that practice you get should be used for something, you become the group’s assassin. If you keep your antics hidden, it could be a mystery for the rest of the group. A budding rivalry could develop with a more lawful character who starts finding evidence of your nocturnal jaunts.
Keep all this in mind and your dreams of following in Saruman’s footsteps could come true.
Killer DM: See now that wasn’t so bad. I behaved didn’t I?
Lennon: Yes, I suppose
KDM: Excellent. Now I have a few things I want to… take care of. My group’s about to face Strahd, and I need to prove to them that not all vampires sparkle…
Lennon: Right, give me that hat. Ryu–RYU! Come back here and give me that hat. No, don’t touch that– Ryuuuu! Don’t you dare go near that scrying pool… Ryu?! RYU!!!