Gaming Tonic

Evil Is As Evil Does: Can Evil Characters Carry a Game

Playing evil characters has never really appealed to me.  Most of the campaigns that I have seen try this have quickly crashed and burned.  I find that when I am running a game and allow characters of more insidious nature players usually do their best to have their character just a bit closer to evil than the character completed before them.  It could just be my imagination to some degree.  That's not to say that I don’t think you can play a game where the goals, motivations, and alignments of the characters are evil. I am just saying I think it is difficult.

Then I came up with the idea for my new Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game, and I decided to challenge myself while running the game and allow the players to do something a little unusual.  They could play characters of an evil nature, with a few limits imposed.  The background for the game is the PCs are being held for various reasons on a prison on the moon when every superhuman on Earth except one are destroyed in a battle with an extra-dimensional entity.  The surviving hero is tasked with organizing a new team of defenders from among the convicts of the lunar prison.

So you have the one hero picking a group from among a group of superhuman convicts.  The players are allowed to make their characters with a much darker approach, but any character who is a homicidal maniac that enjoys random and often spree killings would never be selected.  With that in mind the players can have at it during character creation.  The player who is playing super cop to the convicts is a big Superman fan and a comic fan so I know he will keep the group of villains in line.

This is about as close as I have come to being able to comfortably run a game with a party of evil characters.  I have ran games before where a character was quite evil but the rest of the group was either unaware or needed an ability or object that the evil character possessed.  A few times a character has done something incredibly evil and the party handed down a swift sentence against another party member but evil has always been the exception in games I run.  The parameters for my campaign keep the characters from being too dark and evil to function in a group.  If we remove these guidelines what sort of characters would the average GM get in his campaign?  How attractive is the dark, edgy, or flat out villainous PC to the average player?

Most published adventures assume that the players will play characters that have a little bit of good in them at a minimum.  A neutral character might also fit into a published adventure, but an evil character probably will not find a home.  Designers are obviously not thinking that playing evil PCs is something that many players would want to do.  I read a lot of blogs, message board, and forum posts that seem to point to the exact opposite.  The younger the player the more they seem to like the idea of playing a truly wicked PC.  I recognize that not every gamer wants to play a paladin or Captain America, but how many would rather play Artemis then Drizzt?

I enjoy campaigns that have a bit of longevity.  I have to questions how much longevity a campaign centered on an evil party can have.  Evil by its very nature does not work well together or get along to accomplish long-term goals.  It is the classic downfall of everything from The Empire to The Masters of Evil.  Selfishness, greed, and cruelty are difficult traits to role play and still be a sympathetic and reliable companion.  This inability to work together for a common goal is what allows heroes to defeat villains against overwhelming odds a lot of the time.  The couple of times I have tried to run a game in the past with characters that had no moral compass the game came apart quickly.  I am hoping the few guidelines I have handed out for upcoming Marvel Heroic game will help the campaign have a little staying power.

I would really be interested in hearing your thoughts on playing evil games.  I am sure there are some of you out there who have done this and been successful and I would like to know what was the reason for the success.  Did the party all fit under one evil banner like the church of Bane or did each player have their own individual agenda and the players manage their characters in a such a way that allowed them to act like a unit?  Until next time, Roll Hard!

Comments (8) Trackbacks (1)
  1. Idea. Stolen.
    I often play evil characters, sometimes without telling the other players. Heck, I’ve played evil PCs in LFR (which is strictly against the rules). But it never ruins the game; evil can often tell a great story, and accomplish tremendous good. Remember than The Operative is an Evil character, but fought (and would die) for Good.

  2. I, too, tend to force my players to play the good guys – and it’s harder than you might think. Even the ones that put a good alignment on their character sheet (back when I ran D&D 4E) were morally ambiguous, and more interested in loot than in doing the right thing. And it’s not just the young ones – these guys were in their 40’s and the general tenor of the thing was “let’s do the least work with the least danger for the most gold in pocket.”

    That said, I think the real challenge wouldn’t be coming up with a way to run an evil campaign, but instead to keep your world entirely in shades of murky ambiguity. Forget about assigning alignments and instead have them play employees of the local king who is a despot and while he manages to keep law and order in place for the sake of the town, is not a nice guy or even all that good in the long run. But since he’s the local government, he’s the de facto “lesser of evils.” Or, as many PCs lean towards Chaotic Good anyway, have them be part of a rebel group that is rebelling against a perfectly reasonable, but centralized and a little ham-fisted, government.

  3. Times I’ve seen his work: Once, playing Necessary Evil, where working together – even as the evil characters you are – is written into the game world. Also, it’s kinda of good fun. I have also played an evil character in a DND game where the rest of the group were mostly nice and pulled it off. Amazing what you can away with by doing it in the name of God.

    Times it’s not worked: Trying to play a WFRP game as pure evil chaos worshipers. Too many character deaths in too short a time, and the novelty of being able to do whatever cruel things you wanted wore thin very quickly. And it really does get quite uncomfortable describing what horrors your character enacts very quickly.

  4. I do not understand where this idea that evil characters cannot work together comes from. While there is more chance that if they turn on each other it will become bloody, but many adventuring groups hardly get along on a personal level but work together because they share goals. I wrote about this on my journal some time ago:

  5. It all boils down to the players themselves. If they immediatly set about pursuing personal power and fighting with fellow PC’s it’s gunna fall apart.

  6. I have always leaned toward chaotic neutral because of the freedom to do what has to be done in any situation. Chaotic evil should not be allowed. I did that once and killed a game.

  7. I ran a game where my PC’s were captured as slaves from all walks of life and forced to fight. One player in particular was a anything-to-survive type. His selfishness and defiance was so well timed and complete that even though he was a despicable piss-pot he was accepted and used in the slave revolt. The slave angle was a great way to take a group of characters that didn’t particularly like each other and bond them together quickly.

  8. I have been running an Evil campaign for almost two years now. It is very doable to run an evil campaign, you just have to have buy in from the players.

    I literally let them do whatever they want evil wise in the campaign. You just have to meld the story and character story’s such that they don’t want to kill each other really.

    I have been documenting the whole experience in a weekly podcast called “Evil is as Evil Does” which can be found at

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