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DIGITAL DEBATE WEDNESDAYS: How Do You Play Evil?

Every Wednesday, the staff of The Ace of Geeks will get our keyboards ready for a good, old fashioned nerd argument, and you get to hang out with us! Feel free to email us any ideas you might have for future debates, or let us know in the comments! Until then, here’s this weeks topic:

Games like KOTOR have long gotten criticism for making their evil choices incredibly obvious, like “Do you kill this puppy?” And RPG and Tabletop players have long ran evil campaigns that blurred the line beyond traditional mustache twirling. So what constitutes evil, and how do you portray it?

Seth Oakley: In DnD, there is elemental evil, which is the destruction of others and the environment, and focus on the self to the detriment of others. There are also moral absolutes in that game, which make it easy to understand what is evil and what is not. Summoning devils is defined as evil. Animating the dead is defined as evil. Those are easy. You play this by making choices that hurt other people around your character (PCs and NPCs, not players) and help you. You should not last long, since most other people are going to play good characters, and will stop you. In an evil campaign, where everyone is evil, you just focus on self improvement to the detriment of others as your goal.

Lauren Harrington: You can play evil in a more subversive way–putting on a front of mildly good deeds (save the cat in the tree), with ulterior motives (raise the cat to be your evil sidekick). Evil doesn’t have to be obvious, but it’s certainly harder to portray evil as a player character in video games, where everything is pre-programmed

MalKontent Blizzard: The closest I get to playing Evil is Sabbat. I’m not sure simply being inhumane qualifies

Tyler Dent Hayes: When I’m playing evil, I tend to play it in one of three ways:
1. Fundamentally selfish, to the point of toxic solipsism: My own gain and benefit are literally my only concerns, and if achieving those ends hurts some people or breaks some laws, meh, that’s fine, as long as I don’t get hurt. This is my favorite “player character” form of evil, because it is possible for this form of evil to cooperate with a group — they can be made to see the benefit of cooperation, especially in the kinds of exceptional circumstances that tend to occur in tabletop RPGs.
2. So committed to an end that the means literally do not matter — they might prefer a world where they can save kittens from trees and hug it out all the time, but their goal is too lofty or the price of failure too high for this kind of “soft” approach to be an option. This is a form I like to use for antagonists, as it’s a nice way to portray a villain who sees themselves as the hero (and also deconstruct the Wolverines and Punishers of the world).
3. The ultimate cynic, so convinced of how terrible other people are that they believe everyone else is as evil as they are and they’re just being honest: your Dark Knight!Joker, your Kefka, your Martin Shkreli. I like this form for written villains and the occasional antagonist but it’s a hard note to hit properly, so I tend to be reserved about it.

  • Seth Oakley: Wait, that was Martin Shkreli’s philosophy? People are dicks, so what if you charge 10 times more for medical, they deserve it? Huh….
  • Tyler Dent Hayes: I was mostly being facetious about what a worthless undeserving douche Shkreli is.
  • Seth Oakley: Oh, nvm then.

Scott Woodbury: I am with Tyler, I tend to play evil like his number 2 example.

Mark Foo: I don’t typically play evil in games, mind you, unless you consider Renegade / Dark Side in BioWare games evil. I’ve never really played evil in a social game.
I would say that I play “realistic” evil: I make a character that is devoted to some ideal or philosophy and then focuses on that to the point where they disregard the consequences to others. The variety comes from what their focus is.
The one time I played “evil” in a group RPG, nobody actually knew because my goal was power and the group kept doing things that would accumulate power for the character.
That’s real evil, folks.

  • Rowan Hanson: This is the only kind of evil character I’ve ever played as well.

Raven Knighte: Sadly, I’m not skilled enough to play evil. I start out by trying not to care about the townsfolk or team but then end up totally disregarding character alignment. If “not-too-bright-but-tries-really-hard” was an alignment, that would be my character.

Chris Brecheen: I’m on the other side of the table a LOT, so let me talk mostly about running games. In that case depends a lot on what I’m running. Star Wars is not meant to be a chin stroking game of moral ambiguity, so evil blows up cities for no reason other than to do so and runs around suppressing freedom and talking about “the dark side.” Grab a blaster; this isn’t the philosophy hour. Even the mercs end up being Boba Fett or Han Solo. In D&D there are definitely moral absolutes and evil is a real force of malevolence. It’s not just relativistic ethics. But if I’m running something like Vampire, you bet your ass I’m going to blur that line as blurry as it can blurify. I’m going to put the PC’s in situations where they have to do bad things and have them discover the humanity of even elders with dangerous psychopathy. If I’m running Star Trek, “evil” is meaningless; conflict comes from vastly different cultural values that can be understood (though not ALWAYS negotiated out of). Often in the old Palladium games (which I sometimes dust off and run just for shits and giggles) evil comes in the form of someone who believes an end justifies any means. And of course in any setting with literal or allegorical roots in modern day capitalism, there’s a pretty good chance evil means greedy to the point of not caring about faceless, nameless people who get hurt in the name of profit.

Jarys Maragopoulos: For me, evil is two intertwined ideas: dehumamization AKA treating others or yourself as things, and selfish choices. I honestly, do not enjoy playing these, perhaps because I am motivated by guilt and shame, but perhaps because moral victories and altruistic solutions activate something in me that the opposite does not.
Obvious dichotomies (give the orphan a coin vs burn down the Orphanage) get the most knee-jerk reaction out of me…but they are also the least fulfilling, the least fun. Complex, murky, or highly subjective moral choices engage me the most, much like a puzzle, I feel these challenges require me to do somw internal work. The problem is that gamifying these moral cboices requires objective moral truths, against which the choices are weighted in determining appropriate results. To get around this, I enjoy games in which the results of your choices have complicated and subjective results, so that objective moral measurements are not needed. This can allow a player trying to be “good” and one trying to act in taboo-worthy self interest to make the same choice for different reasons and read what is meaningful to them out of the results.
But, evil, though is a subjective thing, that may look differently to different perspectives, which is why I think so many creators use taboo to signal evil. A tome being bound in human leather for instance, sets off a lot of alarms in our culture, because we simply do not accept human remains as an acceptable resource. The situation could be complicated, a devoted occult academic willing their body to be converted into a handy dust jacket for their favorite book…but the taboo itself is enough to hit our disgust. And making audiences disgusted (Pyramid head as antagonist, Prey’s biotech, Palaptine’s face) can be enough to signal the presence of evil.
But I think the best evil is familiar; a human or sympathetic figure doing questionable things for noble reasons, requiring the protagonist to draw their own lines through thr questionable behavior and make a stand on that moral discernment. I believe all the Bethesda Fallouts, Deus Ex, and Mass Effect to be effective at portraying these situation’s.

Rowan Hanson: For me, the easiest way to discriminate between a fundamentally good or evil character is how they would behave if they had absolute power.
I think I’ve seen some iteration of all of these already, but my primary “evil” bad guys tend to be:
The Destroyer
The Corrupter
The Zealot
and the blank-check sociopath.
If you want ambiguity, you’ve got
-Person who had good intensions and access to amazing resources who kept making bad decisions that ended up hurting everyone
-Thee person who honestly doesn’t think they have any other viable options
-The person who thinks they’re doing the right thing but is being used by The Corrupter

Korbl Klimecki: My take on evil in gaming is very much informed by my status in the real world as an outsider to the dominant culture, being overweight, non-binary queer, non-christian (and specifically satanic), and overall just “other” in a lot of my views and habits. Very few heroes in pop culture look anything like me beyond skin color, and a lot of villains look a lot like me in one or more ways. So when I accepted the label of satanist, I also accepted that to a lot of society, I am “evil.”
Alignments in D&D, and by extension, a lot of games, are nigh-incomprehensible, typically with diametric opposites lacking any real mutual exclusivity. When a lot of games feature “heroes” killing people who generally just look different, or pray to a different god, or, if they’re really “evil,” engage in behaviours that range between an uncommon kink and perfectly normal Iron Age cultural behavior that was common in the cultures the good guys are based on too, it gets even more ridiculous. And this is to barely touch on how much “good” guys in pop culture are just euro-christian pastiches.
So when I’m playing a tabletop game, either side of the screen, I see evil and good in much more of difference of who they prioritize. Good individuals put others before themselves, and will seek the end which benefits the greatest number of others through the means which is detrimental to the least number of others. Evil individuals put themselves and their interests first, and in all things will put more weight on what benefits themselves over what benefits others. The key thing here is that Evil is not, precisely, selfish, as everyone is benefited by having other people that like them. I have a concept in my personal philosophic/religious ideas that I call “Concentric Rings of Self” where by the self is not just the individual, but every group that the individual sees themselves as a part of. So the “Selfish” Evil character will put the interests of the party above the interests of people outside the party, and the interests of their hometown above the interests of people who are not part of said town, all the way up to the interests of their planet or plane or reality above those who threaten it from outside.

Korbl Klimecki
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Korbl Klimecki, professional warlock, is also a writer, baker, slacking artist and inveterate games tinker who occasionally actually plays the games they tinker with. When not lurking in gaming forums or throwing together their latest ill-advised D&D class, they may be found rampaging through the streets of Steelport, or the wilderness of Skyrim. Or possibly pursuing yet another major as if they were trading cards.

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