Your Morning Head: Role Playing Evil Characters

dr-evilThis week’s Fear the Boot podcast, episode 140, deals with playing the bad guys or evil characters.  Most games are focused on good guys – or at least not-evil guys –  with traditional western values.  The “evil” party of character presents a set of challenges all on its own.  It is a topic the guys have dealt with previously way back in episode 19. FtB had a whole ‘nother roster of hosts for that show back in September 2006, so it is appropriate to revisit the subject.

Allow me to preface my remarks by saying that episode 140s hosts – Dan, Chad, Pat, and Chris – all got it wrong.  God love ’em.

The guys particularly focused on those characters bent on world domination, or deeply disturbed characters focused on inflicting pain and torture.  Dan maintained in this episode that evil characters cannot – or at least are more challenging to – sustain in a lengthy campaign.  Shortly thereafter, the conversation derailed to player comfort levels around the manifestation of evil within the characters.

Boat.  Missed.

Stand back.  As a certified Evil Bastard, this is an area in which I have some degree of experience.

The most insidious form of evil is that which on the surface appears good, is likeable, even beautiful.

I am reminded of some dialogue from the brilliant Broadcast News in which Albert Brooks’ character, Aaron Altman, tries to convince Jane (Holly Hunter) that Tom (William Hurt) is evil:

broadcast-newsI know you care about him. I’ve never seen you like this about anyone, so please don’t take it wrong when I tell you that I believe that Tom, while a very nice guy, is the Devil… What do you think the Devil is going to look like if he’s around? Nobody is going to be taken in if he has a long, red, pointy tail. No. I’m semi-serious here. He will look attractive and he will be nice and helpful and he will get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation and he will never do an evil thing… he will just bit by little bit lower standards where they are important. Just coax along flash over substance… Just a tiny bit. And he will talk about all of us really being salesmen. And he’ll get all the great women.

If you’re gonna run an evil campaign, truly that’s the way to do it! The character’s success is not in the overt craft of deviltry, but in the slow erosion of cultural mores.  Maybe that’s not fun or sexy enough for your players, though?

In episode 140, the FtB hosts put forth that evil people cannot work together with any degree of success because at some point they all want the power.  Certainly Nazi Germany is example enough of how well evil people can work together for a common cause, hold loyalty to a leader, and believe they are in the right.  But that’s an extreme example.

michael_corleoneWhat about an organized crime family? This is something I’ve always wanted to do, run a mob game ala The Godfather or even The Sopranos?  That’d be a hoot and a half.  There are ranks within these organizations.  Lots of opportunities for character growth.  First level characters could play street level thugs working their way up through La Cosa Nostra.

The more I think about it, the more I think a mob game would be well-suited to The Burning Wheel with its use of life paths and duel-of-wits… hrmm.

In a lot of ways, mafia families are very much like noble houses.    Despite the terrible things they do and have done, there is a nobility to Michael Corleone and Tony Soprano.  And never forget, the two characters see themselves as heroes, protecting both their immediate families and their extended “families.”

These characters are evil.  These characters are playable.  Getting bogged down in the extreme examples of ultimate power and sadism is missing an otherwise golden role playing opportunity.

By the way, in episode 140 Chad mentions the evil superhero character setting for Savage Worlds, Necessary Evil.  Strangely enough, this week’s Games The Thing has a terrific interview with Clint Black concerning the brand new Necessary Evil: Explorer’s Edition.

7 comments on “Your Morning Head: Role Playing Evil CharactersAdd yours →

  1. I disagree, Runester.

    Always playing characters freed of moral obligations = bad roleplay. A person who can’t find enough motivation to gain a moral sense just hasn’t thought about the character much. There’s so much more to a character than killing and taking stuff.

    Unless that’s all that everyone wants from the game, in which case, why consider morality at all?

  2. Greed is the little league of evil. Any adventurer can kill something and take its stuff. That’s how adventurers make a living. Major league evil goes beyond the desire for simple monetary gain and rests in places where a character’s ethos lives. Hannibal swore a blood oath to his father that he would burn Rome to the ground. His army killed 70,000 Roman soldiers in 6 hours. He was warring for principle. That goes well beyond killing something and taking its stuff.

  3. To be honest, a lot of people talk about starting an ‘evil’ campaign, but they rarely make them work for more then a session or two. Further, the players are ‘excited’ because they see the opportunity to play characters freed of moral obligations. But, guess what? That describes my current groups PC’s, and they’re supposed to be the heroes!

    The biggest problem I have with morally ambivalent characters, whether you call them villains or dark heroes or whatever, is in finding something to motivate them other then self preservation and greed, and finding some reason for them to band together and not just split and pursue their disparate goals.

    “Evil” is just another word for the players to kill things and take their stuff … for values of ‘things’ that include towns folk, law enforcers, and each other.

  4. I’ll partially agree with you, but I think you misunderstood us on several things.

    While our conversation may have focused on more vicious forms of evil, we also mentioned organized, subtle evil. One specific example I remember was playing a platoon of Storm Troopers from Star Wars. This is a form of evil that isn’t eating babies and very well may work in perfect harmony indefinitely. In fact, I’d say it’s quite close to your example of playing a mob family. What they’re doing is evil, but they’re also doing it for the sake of “bringing law and order” to the galaxy.

    Our point was that in the broader context of evil — looking at the great variety of villains as a whole — you’re more likely to end up with characters in conflict than a random group of heroes. So care needs to be taken at the group level.

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