Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Helping PC's create characters for an Evil game.


As a special note I want to preface this article by stating that I am assuming that the GM is confident in running this kind of game. The intent of the article is to give the GM tools that will help him/her guide players in creating characters with non-heroic motivations convincingly.

Ra's Al Ghul
Most commonly, fiction revolves around protagonists who are motivated by a set of characteristics like courage, sacrifice, virtue and integrity. Although some “Evil” characters might share some of these values, their interpretation of said values is often quite skewed and should cause them to react differently than the more traditional protagonists.

There is a common misconception that a protagonist is a good guy. That, by definition isn’t always the case. The protagonist is “the most important character in a novel, play, story, or other literary work” and is not necessarily a Hero or “somebody who commits an act of remarkable bravery or who has shown an admirable quality such as great courage or strength of character”. In an “Evil Campaign” the protagonists are not Heroes, but their dark motivations are at the center of the plot and drive the story.

Since these motivations will inevitably create the tension and conflict in the story, it is imperative that characters are able to follow through on these motivations convincingly or the story itself will lack any and all substance. This sometimes causes a conflict or disconnect with players who are used to “doing the right thing.” To quote Han from Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon,“Very few people can be totally ruthless. It isn't easy; it takes more strength than you might believe.”

Playing a character that is bereft of conscious, sadistic or outright cruel can be very difficult for most players. We have spent our whole lives in polite society, respecting the limitations that make said society function. It can be difficult and downright scary to work outside boundaries that we consider to be simply humane. The problem that I have come across is that of getting the players to wrap themselves around the right motivations thematically, instead of just running around doing bad things for no better reason than they are bad. True Evil has purpose and finding that purpose should be central to these characters. Discovering these motivations can sometimes be difficult without going into more cartoonish caricatures of Evil.

These types of games ask players to tap into their dark side. Personally, I enjoy the challenge of exploring parts of my personality that I generally do not get to express. Playing a “bad guy” can be quite cathartic at times, since the character is not generally bound by the same rules as “civilized” or “good” people. Getting over the fear factor of cutting loose on the dark side can be challenging and rewarding, but may require some guidance.

There are many truly complex characters that can be considered at some times sympathetic, yet amoral. The classic Anti-hero usually fits this bill. Sam Spade from the Maltese Falcon is the quintessential example of this kind of character. Although Anti –heroes are not motivated by morality, they are portrayed as survivors and scoundrels who live by their wits and do whatever it takes to come out on top. These characters lack a focal element or ambition that would cause them to be truly villainous. Anti-heroes cannot be truly labeled villains because their agenda is not necessarily antisocial, just self-serving.

What makes someone bad? It’s a big question that I am certainly not qualified to answer completely, but for the purposes of this article I am going to go with one of the more straight forward and obvious answers. Trauma. Most well developed villains can trace their motivations back to some traumatic event in their lives. This forms the nucleus of their dramatic intent and drives their motivation. Identifying their trauma is the first step towards creating a convincingly evil character.

The second step is visualizing how that trauma has shaped their lives and goals. What conclusions did these sinister forces in the character’s background cause him/her to make? Does the world have to burn? Does he/she have to find a way to make sure that never happens again by exerting total control? Does the villain need to exact revenge at all costs? The source of the trauma can lead you directly towards this reaction or it might take some thought, but it must lead the character to act out in an antisocial way. Adversity can lead someone towards positive or negative ends, but we are creating villains here, not Batman.

Lastly, it is important to keep in mind that a basic element that binds evil characters together is a disregard for how the consequences of their actions affect the large majority of others. For the most part, although passionate, the tendency for some form of emotional detachment is necessary for villainous concepts. This is the basic essence of a sociopath. The attainment of their goals must be achieved at all costs and they cannot be restrained by things like sympathy. After all you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs right? Sometimes they understand that there must be a sacrifice and solemnly accept it. Others have a total disregard for those who are made to suffer. Some particularly disturbed individuals fail to even recognize that what they are doing may be harming another. For a villain, the ends always justify the means.

These games, if incorporated in a broader campaign can also be beneficial for the GM. Looking at things from the flip side can not only challenge a players RP chops, but can expose them to parts of your Metaplot that would otherwise not be visible to characters from another point of view. It can serve to shed light on the other side’s motivations or give them more clarity as to the ultimate goal of whatever person, persons or organizations they usually struggle against. It also provides the GM with the unique opportunity to play the characters that would more traditionally be the protagonists. A myriad of other story opportunities might arise, like tales of redemption or of star crossed romance.

Below, is a list of common evil motivations, along with examples of pop culture characters that fit these archetypes. This is by no extent a comprehensive list, but should serve as a decent springboard to explore the dark side.


Primary motivation: To acquire as much wealth as possible

Possible Trauma: Growing up poor. Having a life of luxury only to have it stripped from you. Having lived as a servant to the rich, all the while knowing you are smarter or in some way superior to the entitled fools.

Example: Kingpin (Marvel Comics), Beni (The Mummy)

Kingpin – “Crime is on the rise -- and therefore so are our profits.”

Rick: “So what's the scam, Beni? You take them out into the middle of the desert and then you leave 'em to rot?”
Beni: “Unfortunately, no. These Americans are smart. They pay me only half now, half when I get them back to Cairo, so this time I must go all the way.”
Rick: “Them's the breaks, huh?”

Villains who seek wealth for its own sake are in actuality seeking to comfort some sense of inadequacy, seek to acquire the rewards they always deserved due to their superiority and see wealth as a way to proclaim their own superiority. The character is obsessed with acquiring wealth by any means. Whether it be legitimate, like for example Lex Luthor’s corporate empire or more shady means like the Kingpin’s criminal underground. The welfare of the machine that generates the characters vast wealth must be cultivated and protected at all costs. Anyone threatening their wealth or the acquisition thereof must be dealt with decisively and sometimes even violently. This character is beyond simply wanting to be rich; he wants to be the richest and will use anyone or anything to achieve that goal.

Of course this search for wealth does not have to take such an epic scope. Maybe characters are still actively seeking to build their financial empire. The same rules still apply. Characters motivated by greed will sell out their friends and family, poison their communities and even outright murder people to become rich. Mercenaries, thieves, muggers, burglars and drug dealers commonly have this as a motivation. (Please excuse my over use of Batman villains. I can't help it they are so good.)

Lust for Power

Primary motivation: To make others kneel

Possible Trauma: Raised as an outcast with while harboring a superior intelligence or power. Somehow convinced that they are born to rule by birthright or some other inborn superiority.

Example: Victor VonDoom (Marvel Comics), Khan Noonien Singh (Star Trek)

Zebediah Killgrave: “I should own the world, Doom! The true power belongs to me! You’re just a manipulator! You use electronic trickery to wield forces you’re too weak to control without gimmicks! You don’t deserve to rule!”
Dr. Doom: “No? Leave me!” (The obedient technos comply; the room is quickly emptied.) “I am removing my mask, Kilgrave. Within it is the circuitry that shields me from your power. I am totally vulnerable.”
Zebediah Killgrave: Then release me! I-I said release me! Stand on your head! T-take a flying leap! Impossible! N-not this close! No one has a will that strong! No one.
Dr. Doom: Now Zebediah Kilgrave….. who deserves to rule?

Capt. Kirk: You fled. Why? Were you afraid?
Khan Noonien Singh: I've never been afraid.
Capt. Kirk: But you left at the very time mankind needed courage.
Khan Noonien Singh: [angrily] We offered the world ORDER!

One of the most common “villainous” motivations, the lust for power can take many forms. This motivation is one of the easiest to take towards the cartoonish, because many people mistake the goal for the motivation. Not to be mistaken for the Greed motivated character since wealth is only a means to an end for those who seek only exert their wills on others.

Does the character, much like Dr. Doom seek to take power because he is ultimately confident that he is superior and therefore entitled to the throne? These megalomaniacal motivations have to have some sort of source to be convincing. What qualities does the character have that makes him feel superior? Heritage, advanced intelligence or simple madness can be the root cause of such entitlement, but usually the character has to have some form of powerbase to reasonably achieve this goal. Dr. Doom is the ruler of Latveria, a genius mad scientist and a sorcerer. Khan was the leader of a genetically enhanced group of supermen, bred by misguided scientists to rule. Without something to justify the characters overblown ego, he or she simply looks impotent and foolish.

Often these characters hold on to some misguided sense of altruism. They offer the world order and reason which would accompany their rule. Of course at the cost of personal freedom and liberty, but that’s a small price to pay.

Kink for Chaos

Primary motivation: To disrupt order and/or civilization and prove that order is a joke and chaos is the natural state of the universe.

Trauma: Any event that is so drastic and random as to convince someone that there is absolutely no reason or order to the universe. Betrayal by those who are supposed to enforce order or being the victim of random causality. Events that cause such a deep and overwhelming despair that it causes the character to rationalize it by completely embracing nihilism. Being in a state of total and complete repression to the point where they are ultimately resentful of order.

Example: The Joker (DC Comics), Tyler Durden (Fight Club)

Joker: "Ladies and Gentlemen! You've read about it in the papers! Now witness, before your very eyes, that most rare and tragic of nature's mistakes! I give you: the average man. Physically unremarkable, it instead possesses a deformed set of values. Notice the hideously bloated sense of humanity's importance. Also note the club-footed social conscience and the withered optimism. It's certainly not for the squeamish, is it? Most repulsive of all, are its frail and useless notions of order and sanity. If too much weight is placed upon them... they snap. How does it live, I hear you ask? How does this poor pathetic specimen survive in today's harsh and irrational environment? I'm afraid the sad answer is, "Not very well." Faced with the inescapable fact that human existence is mad, random, and pointless, one in eight of them crack up and go stark slavering buggo! Who can blame them? In a world as psychotic as this... any other response would be crazy!"

Tyler Durden “You are not special. You're not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You're the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We're all part of the same compost heap. We're all singing, all dancing crap of the world.”

As Alfred said, “Some men just want to watch the world burn. This is perhaps the maddest of all of these motivations. Justice is a lie and trying to find meaning in joy or suffering is fruitless. To someone like this the concept of karma is the most ridiculous of fantasies, because the world is by nature, random, cruel and unfeeling. Nothing is special, unique and immune to the mercilessness of random fate. He/she is a trickster god a force of nature an embodiment of Loki and Coyote remorseless as the cosmos and as implacable as fate. He/she has been entrusted to teach the ultimate lesson and it must be taught to everyone, usually by creating a chaos that makes people question all of society’s false moral and ethical moorings. They actively seek to bring down any person, group, organization or system that tries to impose any form of order on the world other than the order of pure nature.

Minion of Evil

Primary motivation: To do the dark one’s bidding

Trauma: Usually from a background where they are powerless and marginalized. Resentful of a culture that abandoned them. They are lifted from the lowest of stations by a mentor who leads him/her towards a path of evil.

Example: Darth Maul (Star Wars), Harley Quinn (DC Comics)

Darth Sideous: Move against the Jedi first. You will then have no difficulty in taking the Queen back to Naboo to sign the treaty.
Darth Maul: At last we will reveal ourselves to the Jedi. At last we will have revenge.
Darth Sideous: You have been well trained my young apprentice.  They will be no match for you.

Harley Quinn: Well, now you're working for Mr. J, you chowderhead.  You'll do what he says, and take what he gives, and hope it is not - A BULLET!

This character is a henchman.  A well trained and powerful henchman, but a servant nonetheless. They are fanatical zealots who are totally devoted to their master and their cause.  The great thing about this motivation is that the character can be focused and directed easily, but the downside is the character lacks a certain amount of autonomy. 

Vengeance Seeker

Primary motivation: To destroy all who wronged them

Trauma: You love something? Have someone take it away from you and see how you feel about it.  You want payback.

Example: The Hulk (World War Hulk), Atrocitus (DC Comics)

Hulk: "I didn't come for a whisper.  I came to hear you SCREAM!"

Atrocitus: "With blood and rage of crimson red,
Ripped from a corpse so freshly dead,
Together with our hellish hate,
We'll burn you all-- That is your fate!"
This is probably the simplest motivation here and the most sympathetic.  This is a motivation of love gone mad.  In seeking retribution, this character's pain spreads like a plague. Mad thrashes of rage. Unrelenting and blinded to anything but their own hurt these characters, these characters are tragic, but ultimately destructive.

The Destroyer

Primary motivation: To bring forth the destruction of the world

Trauma: This is usually the aftereffect of a disillusioned idealist. Disappointed by a people or society to such a great extent that he/she believes that everything needs to be obliterated so that something better can take its place.

Example: (Ra's Al Ghul), Ozymandias (The Watchmen)

Ra's Al Ghul: "In the new world, all peoples will be united, every race, every faith, every creed will find common purpose... our world is not for everyone. Only those who prove their worth will enter it. The rest will be purged... and if nine hundred and ninety-nine must perish for everyone who lives... so be it!"

Ozymandias: "It doesn't take a genius to see that the world has problems."

There are many many more villainous motivations available. Look at your favorite villains and there is always a story to be told about how they came to be.  The final element I want to leave with you is this. The farther away from your nature a character is, the more imagination it takes to play. Finding the characters motivations will allow you to get into the head of the monster and you may find something about yourself.  You will find what it is that you think is the most heinous kind of person someone can be. 

1 comment:

  1. In Fleming's 'Spy Who Loved Me', which hit the screen as another remake of 'Thunderball', Mr. Fleming stepped in at the end under the guise of a fatherly highway patrolman to make a statement to the female lead of the story that there are men and women who are capable of violence without a second thought on both sides of any conflict and while which one is evil is subjective to point of view neither should be trifled with.

    That said the coolest non-California RP experience that I have had with RP players in an ensemble was a cross-over between my after hours game of hand picked players in my 'evil' Feng Shui game versus my 'cattle-call' game of Feng Shui on Saturday afternoons back when the shop was open.

    The hand picked guys were staff or very experienced customers. The public game was a group of novices to both the game and role play.

    After getting players in the public game to get their feet wet for a few sessions I started bringing in one player from the after hours game to be the heavy for the public game.

    The closed game players would set a plan at the end of their session to challenge the public game players and would send one of their members to sit with us on Saturdays to execute it.

    It touched with an evil campaign, the subject of this article, and collaborative story from the last article. As the game runner all I needed to do was adjudicate conflict. The story, on both sides, was the pure creation of the players from both teams.