I was involved in a discussion the other day about evil characters in RPGs. The original topic was another subject entirely but evolved into a debate over the merits of allowing evil player characters in a campaign. I think this is a complicated discussion, one that is largely subjective and a matter of taste. For some people, evil player-characters are a non-option, something that not only ruins the game but is the last thing they want to deal with in an RPG. For others it is a good way to spice things up, another flavor to give the campaign more depth. And for some, nothing beats an evil party of adversarial PCs bent on rising to power. My take is that evil characters can be lots of fun provided they fit the play style of the group and they are not used as an excuse to be a jerk to other players. So here are some observations based on my own experience with evil player characters.
All Evil Parties
I have run several evil campaigns as a GM. In most cases these were for systems like Crime Network, where the players are all supposed to be criminals. In a few these were standard fantasy campaigns and the players had agreed to all be evil prior to play. While this would appear to be a recipe for disaster, it actually works out pretty well. In the case of the Crime Network the characters were all members of the same mob crew, so there was a hierarchy in place and a common goal. For the most part this meant the group functioned like a team. But because it was the mafia there was a certain acceptable degree of conflict within the party itself. Picture a movie like Goodfellas or show like the Sopranos and that is basically how this party functioned. Most of the time everything was fine, but if somebody got too greedy or too paranoid, that could turn. What was interesting was how self-regulating the evil characters were. While it was a group of thieves and thugs, we didn't run into the classic problem of the guy who picks the pockets of other party members. Part of the reason for this was because these were all seasoned mobsters, justice within the group was swift for such transgressions. The other members of the crew simply wouldn't put up with it. This brings me to my next observation.
Evil Has Consequences
I think one of the key reasons people run into problems with evil PCs is a lack of consequences for evil actions. Whether it is betraying members of your own party or robbing every magic shop you come across, things can spiral out of control if there are not setting appropriate consequences for such actions. When a member of the party itself turns on his friends, they ought to react appropriately. Mainly this is a player issue, where the players have to be willing to draw a line in the sand. If a character is that disruptive to the party, why are they still traveling with him? On the other hand, sometimes the GM needs to make it clear that it is okay for the players to police themselves in that way.
When the evil is directed externally, then it falls on the GM to handle it. This isn't about preventing the player from doing what he wants to do. It also isn't about penalizing the player for playing an evil PC. It is more about encouraging smart play. There is evil, and then there is stupid evil. A strong evil PC is characterized by self interest and desire to put his own needs ahead of societal conventions or laws. He may even resort to cruelty and murder to get what he wants. But he isn't going to last long if he behaves with zero caution and discretion. If the character murders anyone who gets in his way, bullies his way into free inn rooms and items, then eventually consequences will occur. It is only a matter of time before a group of heroes come after such a person to dispense justice.
Evil Characters Still Have Friends and Loved Ones
This relates to the previous point but evil characters can still have strong connections to members of their party, their family, etc. They may be more volatile, require more careful handling, but they can still have loyalties and values. An evil PC may not respect property laws or laws against doing bodily harm to others, but he might adhere to a code of loyalty to those inside his circle. So he might steal a magic ring from some guy in the street but not from a person in his party.
Not all evil campaigns are adversarial, in fact in my experience most are not. However there is a style of "everyman for himself/Spy Versus Spy" evil party play. This can be a lot of fun if everyone is on board and works best in short term campaigns. It doesn't work though if people take things too personally. The GM also needs to make special effort to be impartial because so many of the calls are between player characters.
I have had both good and bad experiences with this approach. The worst experience was when I was younger, in a group where it slowly dawned on me that the gaming style was adversarial (and I had been approaching it as a normal game up to that point). Once I realized what was going on, I enjoyed myself more.
As a player in a campaign like this you have to strive to be a good sport. If you are a sore loser, an adversarial game is going to be difficult for you to enjoy (and behaving like a sore loser will actually make it harder for the GM to be impartial in your case, because may avoid making calls against you just to avoid issues).
On the other hand, adversarial play is competitive in nature. Getting a little frustrated when things don't go your way, or a little excited when you stomp the other players, is just part of the game.
When things become adversarial that may also change how you handle the mechanics and how you manage adventure. Finding the right system or the best premise for a campaign is a good idea. Paranoia sort of sets the standard here. In that game players often have secret missions or goals that put them at odds with the other characters. I have seen some adversarial adventures in some of our own games. My friend Steve has been running an adversarial campaign using Sertorius and it is interesting to see how this affects the utility of different spells. For example Obliterate Magic becomes much more useful in a game where the players are competing with one another than in a standard campaign (where cooperation is the norm). Our game Crime Network is friendly to adversarial play. In Crime Network each character has Personal Goals and as with the game Paranoia these can put characters into conflict with one another (including being instructed by the boss to "whack" a member of their crew). I contributed to a d20 game a while ago called Conflict PvP and while the focus is on skirmishes, it may be of some use to anyone seeking a more adversarial campaign using Pathfinder or d20.
Know Your Group
This advice applies to pretty much anything in RPGs, but doubly so when it comes to evil characters. An evil campaign that works wonderfully with group A might sink with group B. This is also an area in gaming where personal beliefs and values will be a factor. Assess what your player's feelings are on the subject before embarking on an evil adventure.
Evil in a Standard Campaign
Even in a regular campaign where most of the characters are good, you may have a player or two who want to be an assassin or necromancer. I find this works so long as the group treats it realistically. By that I mean if you have a character who is evil to the bone traveling with a party of paladins and Lawful Good clerics, there ought to be a darn good reason. If the characters are behaving as they would were the situation real, then they either wouldn't be traveling together or the evil character would not allow his nature to disrupt the party. Otherwise he would just be booted out or killed. A smart character might conceal his actions from the rest of the group, but if it is a d20 fantasy game, then things like Detect Evil might make hiding his nature impossible.
There could be a more complicated reason for the evil character traveling with the group. Perhaps the Paladin has been commanded by his god to redeem the evil PC. This is basically the plot of the film A Chinese Odyssey which some GMs may find helpful to watch. Except in that it isn't a paladin, but Longevity Monk (Xuanzang) trying to take Monkey King (Sun Wukong) on a redemptive quest to obtain sacred sutras in India. Monkey King is a real bastard but the compassionate Longevity Monk defends him, instructs him and stands by him.
I will finish these thoughts in another post. What are your thoughts on the subject?