Game Theory – Moral Dilemmas: Playing Evil

21 October, 2009

The RPG Blog Carnival for October 2009 is Morality: In-Game and Real Life.  I have taken the easy way out, discussing playing evil characters.

First, my (simple) definition of evil: To desire the ends is to desire the means.

In other words, evil is a willingness to do whatever is needed to achieve your goals.  Remembering the maxim that everyone is the hero in their own story, evil character may have noble goals but the costs they are willing to pay will make them be viewed by most as anything but a hero.

This is what makes an evil character interesting, what gives them depth, it is not that they are crazy but that they actually have a vision of a better world, once they rule it.   This is where much of the evil characters you hear about being played go wrong, they are not evil so much as bloodthirsty and crazy, willing to kill anyone at any time for any reason.  That is not evil that is just bad: bad characterization, bad roleplaying and often just bad for the game.  Evil characters need to have goals, gain friends and allies and play well with others . . . at least until they achieve their final objective.

These evil characters work in a campaign because they are working toward an end, an end that they will need help to achieve.  I keep hearing stories of how evil character betrayed their fellow adventurers and for what?  You have just killed a group of people that were willing to help you with your vision.  Sure, you may have gained some loot, but you have lost trust (probably both in and out of game) and potential allies and you may very well be hunted by friends or relatives of the people you just killed.  How is that a net gain in obtaining your final victory?  Work with the other characters, build friendships, you will need these people’s skills, you may even be able to bring them around to supporting your vision given time.   And if they cannot be converted, maybe they can be convinced to at least be neutral and sit things out, killing them should be the last resort.

An important point of contrast between good and evil (and a reason to make friends and allies, especially non-evil ones) is that while good people are willing to sacrifice themselves for the cause, the evil ones will sacrifice others to achieve their goal.

Enough on how to play evil and ask why play evil?  Well, many reasons, it is something different, a chance to see what it is like on the dark side.   If you are in tune with the campaign, it might be a chance to set up a future villain for the game.   Or it might just be an interesting character concept that you want to try out.

But remember, roleplaying is a social game and some player might not be comfortable playing with an evil character in the group, even a reasonable evil character, so make sure that it is good with the group before you play your demon-summoning sorcerer who wants to save the world from itself.

Related material:

Over at Evil Machinations, Jade looks at the inner life of playing evil.

Edit: Added compare and contrast over sacrifice.


  1. Isn’t Game Theory a mathematical science impartial to Morals?

    • In this case, it is theory about the way we play games.

      • Well… I actually think that an evil character using game theory to justify his actions would be just the type of villain I’d like to play.

  2. Over the years my group has often suggested starting an “all evil” group campaign. They tell me “It’ll be fun and different.” Every time the subject comes up I chuckle and casually let it drop. You see, I played in an all evil group once, many years ago. It was pretty short-lived.
    The problem with “evil” characters is that they tend to not work together well. Always plotting and scheming, trying to get the upper hand on everyone else. Eventually, an evil group will implode, collapsing in on itself. As a DM, if I’m going to put lots of time and energy into a campaign, and I do, I don’t want to have it blow-up in our faces a few levels into it. So, until I find reason to think otherwise, I’ll keep on chuckling and moving the conversation on to other things.

    • An ‘all evil’ game should ultimately implode for exactly those reasons. Though it can be counterbalanced, at least in theory, by giving the characters the right set of controls: a boss they fear more than each other, enemies they must work together against, and such like. But even then, as long as the evil character win, the knives should come out in the end. Nothing wrong with not wanting to DM that.

      Though the article above is more about one or two evil characters in a ‘standard’ sort of campaign. Which I feel is entirely possible without destroying group dynamics and I have seen successfully done.

  3. […] Over at the Sea of Stars, I found a well-thought-out view of evil and why evil characters work in a campaign. It’s along the lines of my own idea that there really is no good or evil, but an individual working toward a goal. If you think it’s ok to chop off a few heads along the way, you might be evil. Game Theory: Moral Dilemmas – Playing Evil […]

  4. […] Sea of Stars takes on the meaning and use of evil in a campaign, in Game Theory – Moral Dilemmas: Playing Evil. […]

  5. […] is it possible to run a campaign with a mixture of good and evil characters in the same party? The answer is definitely “Yes!” There are – as you might expect – some amazing games based around this idea. but a […]

  6. […] on game theory and gaming advice. For some solid advice on playing evil characters, check out Moral Dilemmas: Playing Evil (and I’m not just recommending it because he links it back to this blog ). Genre Resources […]

  7. […] on game theory and gaming advice. For some solid advice on playing evil characters, check out Moral Dilemmas: Playing Evil (and I’m not just recommending it because he links it back to this blog ). Genre Resources […]

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