I am a huge “Breaking Bad” fan. For those of you who haven’t heard of the show, it follows Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who contracts cancer. In order to try to take care of his family and his own medical bills, Walter turns to cooking crystal meth. The show intimately follows his decent from humble family man to a drug kingpin. And, do you know what? I’ve been rooting for him the entire time. Even though Walter has become a pretty bad guy by this point in the story, I still want him to “win.” Why would that be?
The same thing happened with my parents when “The Sopranos” was on the air. Tony Soprano was always an incredibly evil character, but we still loved him. I think that at some level people understand evil a little bit more than we understand good. We can understand why people fall. We can empathize with guilt more than we can selflessness. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that people can’t be good or whatever, but I just think that in literary terms, the concept of the villain is very powerful and compelling. So, why is it then that we don’t see more evil player character games? Probably because players find it uncomfortable, or they don’t want to be in a game where everyone is just playing a ridiculous “I set it on fire” all the time character. However, I personally believe that a good evil character can be more fulfilling and fun than many would suspect.
My first year in college marked the first campaign I had played in that went beyond a few sessions. It was fun, and forever influenced the way I viewed and played RPGs. It was also an evil player character campaign. It wasn’t meant to be like that from the beginning, it simply evolved into that. The player characters themselves were simply despicable people, but they were compelling despicable people.
My character was named Zachariah, and he worshiped a god named Jolem (who was a god of the hunt). Jolem’s religion had exactly one tenant, “kill whomever and whatever you wish, but kill only for sustenance.” In short, Zachariah was a cannibal – he would hunt animals and people, kill them, and then eat them. In fact, whenever he killed anyone, he would have to spend a round eating part of their body. Now, Zachariah may sound cartoonishly evil and grim, but let me assure you that he wasn’t. Zachariah was an incredibly optimistic and upbeat character. He was just so fun to play. He had charisma and a unique outlook on life. That alone made him closer to a real person than any other character I had ever played until then. I still find it difficult to call him evil, even though he did horrible things. He simply believed in a strange religion. His religion gave him hope and helped him make sense of his world. Without it, who knows what would’ve happened to him. It was his faith in a greater power, an easily understandable motivation, that compelled him to do evil things.
That’s really the key about evil characters; proper motivation. Yes they do evil things, but why do they do evil things? Sure, the evil wizard wants to make bizarre owlbears and beholders, but why? If you can come up with a good motivation that makes sense, your character can really come alive. Again, lets talk about “Breaking Bad”. Walter justifies his evil deeds with the fact that he is trying to support his family. Tony Soprano has similar justifications. Zachariah does evil things for his god. What’s your justification?