D&D 5E: Why Evil Characters Don’t Work… Still

Evil is included in the D&D alignment graph to give a sense of completeness. It seems like a nice idea, and intriguing. But playing an evil character doesn’t actually work.

When an evil character does something evil, he invites a negative reaction from the forces of law in the world. Eventually, they will try to hunt him, imprison him, and possibly execute him.

“Not in my game”, your thinking.

Yes. in your game.

Eventually. And I’ll tell you why.

While he’s on the run, the rest of the party might assist him or become fugitives with him in order to keep the party together. No one wants to be the first to say, “You’re on your own, dumb-ass!” because making that choice appears nasty, and kind of an out-of-game nasty at that. The evil player was “just doing what [his] character would do”, right? But what’s your neutral or good character’s excuse for leaving him for the crows?

So more often than not, the evil character is causing the other characters to bend around him, along with the course of events and the overall adventure.

Now, there is a type of player who thrives on this effect; those who like a bit more lime-light than everyone else. And an evil character is one way to get just that. Such folk are more happy than most to split the party and go it alone. I’ll come back to splitting the party in a minute. First, lets look closer at evil characters as part of a group and why they are problematic.

There is a common mistake made about what D&D is all about. It’s not just a collective story-telling game. It’s about telling a story about a group.

Now that’s a particular kind of story… most stories feature a lone protagonist for the reader to relate to.

Look at how stories are written: when a character goes through various trials and learns or changes as a result (what writers call his ‘character arc’) then you have a story. If he does not change in time to avert impending disaster, then the story type is called a tragedy. For example, think of Hamlet, who -for all his good intentions- is guilty of prevarication throughout the play, fails to change enough to perform a decisive action of any sort, and consequently dies along with everybody else). Or consider Breaking Bad, where we track the course of a neutral man becoming evil, admittedly as a result of tough choices, finally ending in tragedy.

A story about an evil character traditionally ends in tragedy because they eventually get their comeuppance (what writers call the ‘payoff’ for the audience). There are few stories where we follow the escapades of an evil character who finally gets the girl and rides off into the sunset. Writers don’t write that very often because audiences don’t like it. It doesn’t sell. The flawed character who is rewarded for stubbornly repeating his evil ways does not undergo any change. There’s no arc. Audiences don’t like it because it’s not a story.

In stories about groups of characters, of course there are flawed characters (in fact all proper heroes have flaws by definition). Think of any of your favourite TV series which feature groups. Group members will wander off to make mistakes which are particular to their flaws. They may persist for ages in their misguided behaviour. But eventually they go through an epiphany (and the audience goes through it with them), and they change. The wisdom they have gained is often delivered back to the larger group, enriching them all. Next episode, the writers will focus on some new crack in their armour and challenge that.

It sounds cheesy when you say it like that, but, mostly, that’s how stories are generated. And audience members have been repeatedly wowed by the same trick for millennia. It may even be hardwired into our being, because all those stories stimulate our instinct for pattern recognition, a deeply ingrained survival mechanism.

In order for a D&D campaign to really rock, players need to get emotionally invested in their characters.

In order for a D&D campaign to really rock, players need to get emotionally invested in their characters. They need to start to care. To do this, the referee places challenges which the characters can just about overcome so the players can feel victorious. He also rewards characters with treasure, followers, friends, and even real estate. When those rewards become threatened, the player becomes galvanised. But most of all, those challenges stimulate change in the character over time: the player ad-libs the part in a growing range of situations and learns more about the character as they go. The character grows. It gains an arc.

If the character isn’t arcing at all, then the campaign will start to feel flat.

Now try refereeing for an evil character. You keep providing situations which challenge him, and he hones his evil ways. You challenge him some more, and he hones his evil ways some more.

If he doesn’t change at all, for how long are we going to keep generating situations in which the character continues on his bloody way? Imagine a movie that follows a killer, a movie which never ends. How long would you watch it for?

No.

If he changes, he has an arc. If he doesn’t, we’re just playing out a tragedy.

Might as well get it over quickly, rather than waste a lot of time dashing between rooms to cater to a split party.

The best way to deal with a split party is to:
- (politely) tell the ‘splitter’ “I’ll deal with you in a minute” and continue with the scene in hand
- to allocate little time to him (say, Total session time divided by number of players, divided by 2
- then double the amount of danger he encounters while out on a limb

D&D has always struggled with it’s alignment rules. At one time, that chart was at the centre of a battle with a large number of angry religious types who thought that group storytelling about mythical monsters was a gateway to satanic practices. As a result, the rules in the latest edition are pithy, to say the least. An afterthought, some would say, little more developed now than they were in the first edition.

There isn’t much guidance about changing alignment, or as we now all understand it, going through a character arc. And perhaps that’s another reason why evil characters tend towards tragedy, too.

It could work, but after 25 years in this game, I’m standing up and saying that -right now- it doesn’t. The issue needs work that’s just never been done.

Personally, when I start a new campaign I’m going to ask my players not to create evil characters. I’ll freely admit that, although I am a published writer, I find it difficult to come up with adventures that would sustain such characters, and even more difficult to generate good game content on the fly for them, which is my preferred way of refereeing.

I’m going to roll up an interesting and able NPC Guard Captain for every settlement. Each will have enough resources available to catch a criminal, and quite possibly the ability to put an arrow through an eye at 200 metres.