Since I started Dungeon Mastering D&D, a few people have asked me on separate occasions why I don’t permit evil-aligned characters in my games. Initially, it was out of reflexive distaste. When I first started playing D&D, whenever my fellow party members did something evil or evil-adjacent, it frankly made the game less fun for me. I made the game less fun for myself on occasion by making evil choices that were, in retrospect, outside of my character’s alignment.
Until I started DMing, I’d sort of assumed that most players, at worst, played fantasy world Jack Bauers. You know, people who did bad things, but who were basically committed to a kind of code that nudged them toward heroism. Later on, I discovered the legendary player archetype of the murderhobo—easily one of the most felicitous coinages in the English language. From my first session as a player, I knew I wanted to be a DM, but I also knew that I didn’t want to run a murderhobo campaign.
One time, when we were scouting out a goblin stronghold, I cast charm person on a goblin, and after we got the information out of him, another player and I simply beat the confused sod to death while making wisecracks. At the time, I thought it was hilarious, but in retrospect, I was really ashamed of myself. Partly, I was upset that I wasn’t true to my character—which is apt to happen when non-thespians engage in sustained improv sessions—but I was also a bit disgusted by the glee with which I’d made my character murder someone with no capacity to fight back. My wife and I also had a bad experience playing an evil one-shot at a con, which sort of cemented my prejudice against that kind of game. That prejudice has begun to crumble a bit, but it’s taken a while.
In the past few years, I’ve reflected quite a bit on why I don’t want to run that kind of campaign. My instinctive distaste for evil roleplay as I experienced it has underlay the justifications I’ve conjured, but the following reasons are the result of introspection and observation.
There are two pretty pragmatic reasons I don’t permit evil characters. Extrapolating from my own feelings as I participated in situations with evil RP, I figured that there must be other players who also would find their game to be less fun in a party with evil characters. While I think people who enjoy playing evil characters can have fun playing good or neutral characters, the reverse is not necessarily true: some players simply wouldn’t have fun playing evil characters. Therefore, I don’t feel like I’m boxing out the people who would enjoy evil characters. Good characters won’t ruin the game for someone running an evil character, but one evil character could bring the game down for other folks. For the sake of maximum fun for everyone at the table, it’s simply easier to proscribe evil characters.
The other practical reason is a corollary to that. Evil characters are more likely to drive internal tension in the party, especially if there’s a lawful or chaotic good character committed to high ideals. Players who aren’t thoughtful about their choices could very easily torpedo a campaign without attention to common goals and intra-party politics. And that’s just if their evil actions are outwardly-directed. Stories abound of evil characters murdering their own party members or getting their party killed, and that can be a social disaster for a lot of groups.
My other reasons for proscribing evil characters are a bit more abstract. The most kneejerk reason for not permitting evil characters makes me sound like a fusty old marm—“there’s enough evil in the real world, why recreate it in the game?!” I’ve repeated some variation of that numerous times, but even I don’t find it all that convincing, for reasons I’ll get to later. It took me a while of running Dungeons & Dragons to realize the major reason why I don’t want evil characters in my game, and it’s one that is unique to being a DM. Running a game is not about what you don’t permit at your table; it’s about your vision of what you want to create with other people. That is, I think a good DM isn’t there simply to place negative boundaries, but to use boundaries to give positive shape to a particular kind of storytelling experience.
I couldn’t articulate it at first, but the game I was interested in running was an epic heroic adventure. Whatever pretensions I have, at heart I’m a kid who grew up reading the Chronicles of Narnia and the Lord of the Rings and the Wheel of Time. To me, fantasy stories are about people who save the world because they succeed in the struggle to become better versions of themselves.
Great fantasy is about the forging of heroes, and great fantasy heroes like Bilbo Baggins or the Pevensie children inspire us because they show us how hard it is to be worthy in a world that too often fosters or celebrates unworthiness. And great fantasy storytellers understand that we need to see heroes fail as well as succeed, or else they are not convincing. Because we can relate to failure and human flaws, we can therefore also relate to our heroes when they overcome those failures and flaws to become superheroes. Overcoming obstacles does not just make fantasy heroes better people, it serves as a way of redeeming their worlds—and by virtue of their inspiration in readers’ lives, our own.
This is not the only kind of fantasy, nor is it the only way to write great fantasy. But it’s the conception of fantasy coded into my DNA. As a DM, I need to love my players’ characters. I need to root for them. They can and should fail sometimes; my players should absolutely roleplay their characters’ flaws. But I can root for inept, wayward, misguided, unlucky, or otherwise maladapted heroes. In fact, heroes like that are perhaps more endearing by virtue of their flaws—I’m even more invested in them succeeding. By contrast, an evil character’s chief flaw is also his ideal. If an evil character succeeds, then that’s the opposite of heroism. Then she hasn’t become a better version of herself—she’s only become more crafty, underhanded, or powerful.
I’ve said in the past that I’m not interested in running a Forgotten Realms variant of Natural Born Killers or Goodfellas. These happen to be films that I personally despise, despite the fact that they are made by master filmmakers working at the top of their game. I’m mature enough to concede that these are masterpieces, in the sense that they make maximal use of film form to tell truthful stories about indelible characters. They are also the kind of stories that I don’t think I could tell truthfully, nor would I want to. Telling these stories wouldn’t be true to who I am or to the kinds of stories I most deeply value.
Which is not to say that I don’t want to be capable of telling those stories some day. As I’ve grown more comfortable with the role of DM, I find that my ambitions grow accordingly. Recently, I’ve been watching High Rollers: Dead Reckoning, and it seems to me to be a classic model of how to run an antiheroic campaign.
From session zero through the campaign proper, Dead Reckoning shows a D&D group in total control of their characters, their setting, and tone. The characters are antiheroes, but the players find ways to give dimension to them, embracing what makes them disturbing without losing sight of what gives them humanity. It’s also a game where internal party tension is part of the point of the campaign, keeping with the tradition of Dirty Dozen-style suicide squad missions. Mark Hulmes, the DM, has a knack for balancing mordant humor with a pervasively dangerous situation that compels the group to work together to survive, even as the moral complications of that situation threaten to pull the group apart. It’s a campaign that thrives on roleplay, and for the experienced, imaginative players in the High Rollers cast, it certainly seems to be thrilling drama.
I’m not there yet. But my kneejerk aversion to evil characters in my stories contradicts one of the main reasons I love D&D in the first place: the immersion in the experience of an imaginary world where your choices define the story. Good stories need to be real, and some players might feel that me placing evil characters off-limits makes their agency less real.
Placing that kind of limit also implies that I don’t fully trust my players to play certain types of characters. As DM, I play evil characters all the time, and I don’t think anyone would argue that there isn’t a difference between a DM running evil characters and players doing so. But just as players enjoy tangling with a complicated evil NPC with morally-ambiguous goals, I think some players would enjoy that kind of dramatic tension within the party. RP-oriented players especially could generate productive drama from that kind of tension, and they would probably appreciate having the freedom to explore that.
I can’t imagine throwing an evil PC into a campaign without having a conversation ahead of time with everyone in the group about it. First, to make sure that every single player is on board with this—if anyone had any reservations at all about being in a party with an evil PC, that would be a no-go. Second, to make sure I understood what makes that character tick, and what the appeal would be in playing that character. Maybe a question as simple as, “What does playing an evil character add to this campaign?” would be sufficient. And if nobody found the answer persuasive enough, that would be that.
Joe Manganiello is a good example of a player who knows how to align his evil character’s goals with the party in a non-game-breaking way. In Critical Role and Force Grey: The Lost City of Omu, he plays Arkhan the Cruel, a paladin of Tiamat, the major villain of D&D Fifth Edition’s first major storyline—an evil dragon goddess. Besides just being great at calibrating his role-play presence to the groups he’s in, Manganiello makes a point of clarifying his character’s motives. I loved how, in Force Grey, when he’d use his paladin powers to restore other party members’ hit points, he’d say, “A gift from my queen.” It was creepy and funny—here’s this giant evil red dragonborn proselytizing with that classic apostle’s gambit, the healing miracle. It gave the party reason to trust him, and while Arkhan clearly saw most of them as useful pawns, it was still a comprehensible, recognizably human dynamic. And in a deadly campaign where everyone needed to rely on each other in order to survive each encounter, it at least established that Arkhan wasn’t the kind of character who would needlessly waste their lives. After all, if they proved really useful and felt a lasting bond with him, he could exploit that later.
Another way of approaching the problem would be to abandon alignment as part of character creation altogether. Satine Phoenix and Jason Charles Miller talked about this in GM Tips. Unlike Phoenix, I do think that good and evil are generally useful categories. But it might (might) be more useful to have players simply focus on nailing down their characters’ traits, goals, ideals, and flaws in more depth rather than leaning on alignment as a definitive category. During gameplay, players would be free to form their own judgments about each character’s morality, and the customs and other social pressures of the setting would also play a part.
The risk is that I’d end up running a misbegotten bastard variant of Blood Meridian. The potential reward is that players would have a bit more freedom to find their own redemptive arcs, and I’d have more freedom in emphasizing the complicated nature of justice in a fallen world. I have that freedom now, but my players might feel like they don’t. Maybe dispensing with labels can let us address certain ideas and situations with more clarity. One of my favorite moments in Dead Reckoning came after one of the party members straight-up murdered a NPC as a sort of misguided mercy killing, and another rebuked her in no uncertain terms: “That was wrong.” Instead of having the DM rule out that kind of behavior at the outset, it might (might) be more meaningful for players to face the truth squarely on their own terms: right and wrong are made tangible by when you can make your choices and act accordingly.
One of the things I never fully appreciated about D&D before I started running it is how risky a venture it is. Things can go off the rails pretty quickly, and a bad call as DM can destroy a player’s entire experience of the campaign. Then again, things can go off the rails in a good way. In the first campaign I ever ran (and it’s still going!), I presented the party with an artifact that would turn the bearer chaotic evil as long as it was on their person. I did this after we’d been playing for a year, and I felt like the group could handle it. I even had a shortlist of those I expected to be the one to pick it up. The player who picked it up rolled with the temporary alignment shift brilliantly. For the next four or five-ish sessions, the party was never far from the precipice of disaster, but there were tons of memorable scenes and creative role-play. It’s one of the high points of my short career so far as DM, and all I really did was present my player with a different set of choices and let her rip.
That kind of calculated risk is one I may run again at some point, but it will depend greatly on the player, the group, and the campaign itself. At the end of the day, as most GMs say, it’s all about whether the group has fun. If I ever get to the point where everyone at my table thinks it would be fun to party up with a villain, I guess we’ll see what happens. This is not a personal goal, but it is a possibility about which I’ve very slowly begun to shift my stance from resistant to ambivalent. ☕