Why is evil?

Our game is fighting evil, righting wrongs and making a world full of kittens, happy ever-afters, and dead, treasure-bereft orcs. We’re the heroes. You turned up with a demon possessed, drow elf vampire character.

Most who fancy ourselves game masters have been here at one point or other. You set up a game in which the player characters can be the heroes. Or they occupy the middle ground, doing their thing and getting by in a world of magic and intrigue. Maybe it’s black against white, or black and white ganging up on green. Maybe the characters are outlaw heroes, trying to make a better tomorrow. While the player characters need not be heroes, they are protagonists.

And then Bob turns up with a pre-rolled character who just happened to be a member of a species that’s established as being evil in game canon. Oh, and he’s a vampire. He’ll stab you in the back because the demonic voices in his head tells him to. It’s called role-playing, dude, you should try it.

Why the dark elf?

Some characters have gone down in fantasy role-playing as archetypes. There are more Drizzt Do’Urden rip-offs out there than there are drow in the Forgotten Realms game setting from which the character originates. Some characters are just so inherently cool or awesome that players wish to emulate them. Unfortunately, a lot of them gain their cool cred from being lone wolves, or worse, villains. Loners and villains may not quite work in a group.

Drizzt Do’Urden is not an evil character, but he put the spotlight on his people—who certainly are. Before the novels of R. A. Salvatore, drow elves were just an entry in an obscure 1st ed. AD&D sourcebook (Fiend Folio, to be precise). Suddenly, popularity. Dark elves are powerful, sneaky, and the embodiment of self interest. A canonical drow is ambitious, driven, and utterly indifferent to to the suffering of others. They are beautiful, lithe, magically apt, and ooze style.

Selfish, arrogant characters make poor team mates. The setting that drow originate from canonically establishes the vast majority as vicious, chaotic back stabbers whom no one in their right mind would trust. Non-evil drow are rare and few in between but they exist. The question to ask Bob here is, “Do you want to play a dark elf because you want to be an outcast looking for acceptance in a world that hates you? Or do you want to be a selfish, manipulative, stylish jerk who gives not a single toss for the rest of the group?”

If the answer to the second question is affirmative, consider handing Bob’s character over to the next group of guards the party meets. Given the reputation of dark elves in most settings, all the party needs to do is not intervene when the guards arrest him on a charge of breathing while drow.

Why the vampire?

A similar quandary applies to a vampire character. Dark, sexy, brooding and motivated by pure self interest, the living dead are not the obvious choice for a new team mate. Most heroes aren’t all that eager to team up with someone who needs reminded every so often that you’re his brother in arms, not his lunch pack.

Depending on game and setting, vampires may not be evil. In modern storytelling they are often a subspecies of humanity, or retain the personalities they had in life, opening the door to the concept of a friendly neighbourhood vampire who can actively contribute to a group. This door is closed again instantly when the player reveals a desire to basically play Dracula, Castlevania style. Cue evil laugh and much face desking on behalf of the rest of the group.

The other players are not going to put up for long with constant reminders that their characters ought to be scared or intimidated, particularly not if the vampire player isn’t managing to convey these things in character. Players don’t like to be told how their characters should respond. Try to intimidate the party fighter with an evil muahaha and a flash of fangs, and you’re prone to find your coffin full of garlic and holy water.

Time to ask Bob. “Do you want to play a vampire because you think one will contribute to the story, or is this a power grab?”

Convincing a player that a vampire character is not a good addition to a group is easy. In most settings, vampires and other undead come with heavy restrictions—many of them which make the character impractical in every day game play. Can the vampire tolerate sunlight? Do they eat human food? Can they cross running water? Do animals flip their lids when catching their scent, causing dogs to howl and horses to bolt wherever they go? Must they compulsively count any number of spilled seeds or grains? Play the vampire archetypes to the letter and the rest of the party will stake the bloodsucker before the week is up.

Why the demon?

Mental illness and demonic possession are often depicted alike (and wrongly) in pop culture; the victim hears voices, directing them to commit acts that are at best bizarre, at worst murderous. This is a poor understanding of how mental illness works (and, if you believe in it, demonic possession). More likely, it’s a cop-out, the player trying to establish that their character can do whatever they want because the voices made them do it, and thus they are not responsible.

Get right to the point. If Bob wants to role-play mental illness, make him do his research. How does it affect them? What are the consequences? How did they function in society until now? Turns out most players don’t really enjoy their characters being locked away in whatever passes for a mental ward in the game setting; as they’re out and about at the beginning of play, they either have a coping strategy or the voices aren’t ordering them to randomly murder people and burn houses after all.

This one’s easy to shove up against a wall and bully into submission in most fantasy settings. If there are literal demons, there are literal rituals and methods that work against demons. If not, there’s law enforcement and the terror that is medieval healthcare.

Dark elf, vampire, or directed by demonic voices, it all comes down to the same thing. Evil can work in a game group where the characters all have the same agenda, because evil furthers its own interests and is capable of faking lawfulness and teamwork in order to get there. Jerk characters are just jerks. They’ll not learn to fit in, and they won’t stop making trouble.

Why the setting?

The game setting is key to solving most issues that arise from players trying to put their characters in a position to act as they please without consideration for the consequences of their actions. Any society has mechanisms to deal with disruptive elements. City guards, the Spanish Inquisition, powerful guilds, orcompeting adventuring parties and bounty hunters—they will come. The more heat your players generate, the more the world will respond to their actions. There’s always a bigger fish (except, possibly, on Tattooine).

Use these mechanisms against the player characters when warranted. If the law pays the heroes a bounty when they bring in a wanted thief or murderer, the law also pays their competitors for doing the same when the heroes are the thieves or murderers. If mercenary bounty hunting is a thing, bounty hunters will come for player characters who cause someone to put a price on their heads.

Whatever the heroes do, non-player characters can do. And in case of government or law enforcement (and definitely in case of the ministry of taxes), they’re often better at it.

Why Bob?

Players sometimes opt for powerful, evil characters who don’t need to worry about consequences because they want a power trip. They want to boss others around, take control of where the story is going, and get away with acting out power fantasies and being a dick to everyone else. That kind of behaviour should be reigned in before it ruins the game for everyone else, and sometimes, reigning it in may even mean booting that person from the game group.

If Bob has been in your game group for a while, however, and this is the first time he has turned up with a power grabbing jerk character, he may be trying to tell you something.

His new character may a response to the game master’s choices. Is the player feeling that his characters are at risk of being powerless and helpless in a game setting where manure just keeps hitting fans without the heroes being able to affect things much either way? Do the heroes have reason to feel hounded and helpless? Have you been completely fair lately, letting player characters have their hard-earned wins? Is it possible that Bob is making a last ditch attempt to create a character with free agency in a restrictive game world?

If the answer is yes, the problem isn’t Bob, it’s you.

Players enjoy roleplaying games because it gives them free agency in a made-up world. They enjoy the power to act and make their own choices, instead of reading a novel which probably has better immersive text but no influence on the choices of the characters. They enjoy making decisions and dealing with the outcome. If  player agency isn’t quite as free as it ought to be in your campaign, then jerk characters may be your players trying to tell you that they feel railroaded and unfairly treated.

Fixing Bob (or you)

Jerk characters created out of inexperience or out of infatuation with a dark and cool archetype can be made to work. Sit the player down and work through why this character isn’t actually a jerk. Get a feel for what the player wants. There are good vampires or dark elves. Characters struggling with demonic possession or mental illness may be contributing members of a game group even if they appear a tad eccentric. If the player is willing to put in the effort out of love for their chosen trope, they will design the character so that it fits into the party without being a major disruption. The vampire cannot walk in sunlight but they contribute enough to the group in other ways that the other characters prove ready to accept this rather major restriction.

If the problem is on the other side of the game master screen, take a good, hard look at how your bias works. Consider using more die rolls to determine the outcome of seemingly random situations. Allow the heroes their victories, even when it means defeat of a non-player character that you love and put a lot of work into. Make certain that you are fair. Actions have consequences for characters and non-player characters alike. Staying fair is a lot harder than it sounds like, and even highly experienced game masters get it wrong on occasion.

In case of a player selfishly screwing with the rest of the game group and the game world for their own amusement, the solution is simple: Kick them out. There’s plenty people looking for a good game, and no need to cater to jerks.

7 Replies to “Why is evil?”

  1. Thanks for mentioning that demonic possession in fiction stigmatises people with mental illnesses.

    I had a player once who wanted to take mental illness as a drawback. I reminded him that I have an education as an occupational therapist and know how the various mental illnesses actually work and that I expected him to align his character’s mental illness with that.

    He lost all desire to have mental illness as a drawback after that :p

    1. I have two psychiatric diagnosises myself and frankly, the amount of times I’ve groaned at hearing somebody using ‘borderliner’ as an insult… I will not tolerate this kind of ignorance in my game groups. I am all happy with people who want to do the research and roleplay it out, but I will make them do that research. Otherwise, it’s just a cop-out.

      1. That’s stigmatisation. You’re a person who’s diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder.

        Saying that you’re a borderliner would be the same as calling someone with a broken leg a broken legger.

        1. Yup. Unfortunately, words like ‘borderliner’, ‘schizo’, ‘autist’ and similar slurs are entirely too common, particularly on the net. It’s not something I can fix, but it is definitely something I can decide whether I will allow at my table and in my house. I am happy to say that I have never met a player, not even at game conventions, who really wanted to defend the bad take. I have met some who had a decent idea of what a given disorder might involve, and made a reasonable attempt at playing it out.

          1. Its also common in rl. Any group that people are unable to emphasise with is called by a trait instead of seen as a person who does or have something.

            A common one is “so you’re a roleplayer.?” instead of “so you’re a person who does roleplay?”

            It’s the reason I never say that “I’m an occupational therapist,” instead I say “I have an education as an occupational therapist.” I’m a person first and I insist on being seen as a person first as identifying me by a trait would influence how people interpret my actions. In your case, if someone saw you as “a borderliner,” you would be happy because you’re borderline, you would be feel sad because you’re borderline, etc. There is no “you” in that interpretation. You can never feel happiness because someone made you feel happy, you can never feel sad because someone did something that made you feel sad, etc. You become your trait and everything you say, do, or feel is said, done, or felt because of your identifying trait.

          2. Could not agree more. Of course, being called a roleplayer is something I consider to be a badge of honour, but that is a conscious choice. I certainly recall how dodgy it used to be, back in the 80s when the Americans were still trying to convince the world that we were satanists. Ah well. Now I’m getting six shades of nostalgic.

  2. Characters being non-functional due to mental illness is the reason I force them to at most take a version of it that would allow them to work in the greater society in a hindered version.

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