Evil PCs and NPCs have been on my mind as of late. For villains most DMs seem to go with the typical kick-a-puppy type. You’ve got a baddie and they are mean. Occasionally you’ll dabble in the Mr. Freeze type, a villain that thinks they have moral justification for their evil actions. But for the most part you’ve got villains running around doing really bad things to good people.
Thugs, bandits, warlords, necromancers, you can pretty easily sketch out what drives that type of evil. But if you broaden your definition of evil some. You start to see how easily it can be a label placed on many NPCs, organizations, and even for the players.
What I define as evil in much of my campaigns is a lack of empathy and selfishness. You’ve got a merchant that scraped their little store together from nothing. They’ve been ruthless against competition and unyielding with their prices and policies. Want to get something on credit? Sure, but you pay hefty interest. They’re the kind running a company store for mining claims. They are evil.
Think of a wealthy merchant that built trade empire on white lies and uncaring adherence to the law. They never busted heads or threatened anyone with violence, but they sure got signatures for contracts through pure browbeating and other underhanded tactics (cutting off water rights, undervalued offers for land, etc.) that would make a fictional character like There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview seem mild.
If anything Lawful Evil would be a fairly common description of most the evil NPCs in my game. While they might not outright break laws, they certainly bend them and find loopholes. Even more so they’ll also unerringly seek to enforce laws that play to their advantage. The most important characteristic they share would be lack of empathy and being selfish. They are a literal embodiment of ‘F&*K you. Got mine.’
It’s their family, loved ones, and kin that might get an expression of kindness or caring. Everyone else might get a furrowed brow of concern at the most. After all, they can’t give away all they have to help everyone in the world. And this logic is used to cloak themselves from shame when turning their backs on strangers in need. When you adopt that type of mentality for evil NPCS, you begin to see these types of people can be found everywhere in your game.
Alignment isn’t an absolute. Those good villagers might be distrustful of strangers, and circle more around those that they know. But they can be goaded into doing the right thing. However for my evil NPCs I see them doing good deeds as a way to adhere to quid pro quo. Yes, that evil noble will donate to an orphanage but it isn’t an act of charity or compassion. They know they are getting something from it. They know it helps seat them in power and sway the peasants to his banner. He is using that act of charity to further his own selfish goals.
This is easily something that can be adopted for your players. The evil PC is going to get theirs, no matter what. Tasked with clearing out a warren of goblins? Okay. But the village is going to pay. The PC will get a reward AND keep a share of treasure found, no matter what. It’s literally a mercenary way of thinking. And when this type of motivation is expanded some, ensuring a PC gets compensated sufficiently for every ‘good’ deed that is done, your game opens up to playing evil aligned characters.
I would argue it’s the Neutral characters that are the most difficult to play. I see these types more akin to zen-like monks that see the value in letting the universe just be, and not align with any particular moral force. These types seem to hardest to properly stoke motivation in navigating through potential story lines and adventures.
In the past I’ve put my foot down on having players helm evil characters. More from my laziness in not wanting to wrestle with thinking up the right type of adventure hooks and lures to get the group going in a particular campaign direction. But lately I’ve reconsidered acceptable motivations for PCs that swerve into more selfish territory. Once you allow the notion of evil being acceptable for PCs, you’ll also start seeing it a more common NPC personality trait too. It can add more complexity and depth to the type of interactions your group has with denizens in your campaign, and something worth exploring around the table.