In our new D&D 5e campaign I have been playing a character named Hamilcar the Unintended, a Warlock. Now, it wasn’t really necessary for me to choose to be evil – one could always choose to be tied to a Fey creature, or one could postulate that, while you have an unbreakable bond with a creature of evil, you do not share its aims – however, in our circumstance, we thought it would be interesting to choose evil as an alignment.
Thus begins our discussion of the nature of evil in D&D. In many games you will find that there is a stark duality put forward in traditional high fantasy. Those who are good are all good, swanning around sacrificing for the wellbeing of others, wearing the figurative White Hat of Goodness (+2), those who are evil go around kicking puppies and burning down villages of innocent farmers for no reason other than they are “evil.” Certainly there is a point to this style of narrative. After all, some of our favourite films, for example, might fit this paradigm. Star Wars, anyone? Willow?
Yet I think our group craves a little more subtlety. We always have, as far as I can follow. To be honest, we have mostly honoured the “alignment” thing by its absence in our fantasy games. When pressed, I would usually say my alignment was “neutral medieval” – trying to play a character that moralised in a similar manner to what I perceive to be the social norms and customs of the medieval age.
This time is slightly, but not totally, different. We have decided “evil” as an alignment for our party; our overall image of the group being the founding members of a cult focussed on the entity Hamilcar made his bargain with. But we have decided to also follow the path of subtlety in this case. It may be noted, in the modern world, that only very few people out in the world actually do evil things for no apparent purpose. These are your serial killers and other random criminals – even though many of these also have justifications for their actions. In almost all circumstances people do not believe they are evil, they are merely following a personal creed, or are taking actions in agreement with their personal ideologies. We have therefore decided to ensure that our flavour of “evil” should be based on a creed that, at least at first glance, seems reasonable enough.
In our circumstance we have decided that we represent the downtrodden, the disadvantaged. The structures of society as it currently is have victimised us, and we will do all that we can to topple the current system and overturn it, allowing us to take our rightful place of privilege, balancing out the many years of destitution we have so far suffered. In other words, our group concept is “radical revolutionaries.” With a side order of otherworldly “assistance.” This gives our characters a rationalisation for the unpleasant acts they are going to choose to make and ensures that our game does not devolve into inane and purposeless cruelty. In short, it ensures the evil alignment is not made to be a gimmick, but instead allows us to explore some interesting ethical topics while we game. It provides a theme, some depth to the experience. Hopefully.
Personally, I find that “evil” characters in roleplaying games are much more interesting when they have justifications for their actions. It provides numerous benefits. I shall briefly just mention two. First of all the characters will be much more believable, as they will be closer to what people encounter every day in real life. Secondly, for the GM, your evil character will have some driving force behind their actions, which allows them to select the appropriate actions the character would take in response to the PC’s actions.