Skip Navigation

Roleplaying evil characters

So, I almost never play evil characters in most CRPGs - despite the potential fun to be had - and recently I've been thinking about why.

I mean, lawful good is the most boring alignment, evil NPCs can be an absolute hoot (exhibit A: Astarion), stealth murdering villagers for lulz can be entertaining, so why am I always such a freaking goody-two-shoes when it comes to actual plot decisions?

I think a lot of it comes down to lame and crudely-drawn motivations for the evil option in each case.

Your options in most games always seem to boil down to callous, greedy or spiteful: haha no / fuck you pay me / I just blinded your child lol.

And those just aren't satisfying. Especially when you're starting out and forming your character's persona and network, you're pretty much powerless, dumped in a situation where you're casting around for allies and can't afford to burn your bridges.

Running around just randomly being mean to folk like some poster child for Troubled Youth and the need to be Tough On Crime is just... stupid. There's some crude sadism there, and there's some crude avarice, it gets you minor short term benefits but no long-term ones, it gets you hated but not feared, without any real sense of control. Everyone dies or gets led off in chains with big sad eyes, and there's always the strong implication that you failed.

It just feels like a heavy-handed morality lesson where all the bad people are thugs, arseholes and/or developmentally challenged. Apart from being not much fun to play, it's kind of erasing the harm presented by smarter, more insidious kinds of evil.

Being a good guy gets you willing allies, is about personal validation, and feels like success. It gets you the generosity of the people you help, but that's a bonus on top the fundamental win of making the world a shinier better place.

By the same token, being an evil bastard should get you unwilling allies, it should be about power, and it should feel like winning. It gets you benefits you did not earn, but that should be a bonus on top of the fundamental win of tightening the screws on people. That's the actual payoff, but it seems to be the one they always miss.

I think evil playthroughs could be a lot more fun if you had better ways to be evil: blackmail, extortion, sneaky betrayal and brutal revenge. Not ODD, in other words, but NPD. Control, leverage, perfidy. Locking your victims down so they have no choice but to help you, or deceiving them into working against their own interests. Either keep a tight rein on your PR - or let them hate, so long as they also fear.

And another BG3 example: I think the nature of the shadow curse was a misstep, what with the all the grotesque madness and putrid corruption that surrounded it. I think it would have been far more effective as psychological horror, morally corrupt but reeking of purity, so shadowheart would have had believable reasons for wanting to join the gothstapo, and the player could plausibly be sold on it despite everything. But instead the lesson seemed to be that evil is yucky and broken and ew don't get it on you, and that just feels like a missed opportunity to me.

What say you?

Am I an outlier in this? Do the typical offerings feel satisfying to you? Are there games that do relatable, enjoyable evil especially well?

  • Being evil should feel like cheating and getting away with it. It should feel like the "right" way to play the game if you are playing it that way, your character should essentially "skip dialog", by cutting people off before they say anything heartfelt or by walking away when stuff starts to get too "sappy" for them. You should never hear what the other characters motivations are, they should all feel like one-sided npcs that just complain all the time.

    That is what life feels like to selfish people. They don't feel selfish. They feel like everyone else is just missing all these easy and obvious shortcuts and whine and complain too much about nothing.

    The npcs that we all get to know and care for, are pretty much impossible to be mean to. You have to actually see them the way an "evil" person would for it to make sense to be evil. They should seem like their plans are way too complicated and risky for no reason other than that they aren't as smart as you and can't see that rescuing the trapped goblin is not only a huge time cost but risky too. Not worth doing, the reward increase is pretty miniscule, and if any party members should die, or the rescue attempt goes wrong at all and just results in alerting the enemies and getting everyone killed... why risk all that for such little pay off? And of course cut them off or not care about their stupid whiny reasons like it's a sentient creature or whatever nonsense they are gonna spew. It's just a plain bad idea, and they aren't getting it. Maybe you should just try to sabotage it so it's not even an option anymore, then they'll come around.

  • The best approach in my opinion was in Mass Effect.

    Dragon Age a close second but there it's much more subtle and good/evil not really a part of it, it's more internal to you the why behind your characters actions. Stuff like using blood magic which is illegal but very powerful can be used from a perspective of "the greater good" or you could roleplay that decision as a lust for power. Which factions you side with for sure has morality attached but since all roads lead to saving the world its much more about your own reasons to judge if your character is evil or just focused on the grander scheme, utilitarian.

    But back to Mass Effect. It's the same thing with all roads leading to save the world but unlike Dragon Age there is a morality system in place that is not about just a dichotomy between self sacrifice and malicious indulgence. Instead it's about what is OK to do to save the world? What sacrifices are reasonable? What risks should you take for others? What approach do you take to solve conflict? Renegade (as the 'evil' approach is called) options allow you to pistol whip people that want you to follow rules and decorum while the Galaxy hangs in the balance. It allows you to order people to die for the greater good. It's about using the power you have to take the shortest and most direct route to ultimate salvation. To not pussy foot around trying to appease everyone.

    And really that's the only way to make morality work in a story driven game imo. If the same story is to be told with moral decisions left to the player than they need to be ultimately inconsequential to how the game and story plays out. At best they give slight variations to story beats but nothing really changes from a good playthrough to an evil one in the grand scheme. If it works and feels satisfying is largely down to the developers accepting this and instead focus on smaller nuances like Mass Effect or leaving it ambiguous and up to the player to craft their narrative for the why and motivations like Dragon Age.

    What I'd instead would like to see is a game where you play out an evil narrative. And I do know of one such RPG, Tyranny, but I haven't gotten around to play it yet.

    The best example perhaps of melding good and evil in the same game is Star Wars: The Old Republic (the MMORPG). Because you can play it from the evil side as a good character and the good side as an evil character. If you play it through multiple time you can really craft a world and narrative of incredible depth. And I can really recommend playing it as you would any other western RPG and just ignore the MMO side of things. Bear in mind that each individual playthrough suffers from the exact problem you raise in your post, but on the total, the bigger picture, becomes something very interesting and worthwhile.

  • Lex Luther is evil, but he doesn’t go around stealing candy from babies and punching grandmas. In fact he takes a lot of actions that people would think are good and altruistic. His motivations are what makes him evil. And when push comes to shove he would show how little he actually cares for all those babies and grandmas. This seems to allude many story tellers in many mediums. Infamous was a great game on the “good” story line, and terrible on the evil because you had to punch grandma with no real reason in order to stay evil. Bio shock was a bit better as you had motivation to kill those little girls to gain more power faster.

    Writers and storytellers need to think more motivation than actions when it comes to being evil.

  • I once tried to play Witcher 3 that way. Geralt was - in my version - a classic mercenary-style witcher. You pay him, he does it - no matter what. You don't pay afterwards? He takes it from you.

    Short story: It doesn't work at all.

  • You should check out Tyranny. It's one of my favourite CRPGs, and it gives you a solid motivation for making evil choices. It also doesn't really give you "good" options most of the time.

  • BG3 is a terrible example. One of my main gripes with that game is that the virtual DM actively hates evil characters and tries to sabotage your play through at every step. Not to mention that the writers provided only chaotic stupid dialogue variants for evil roleplay. It's usually [good], [good], [question], [attack the whole town], [goodbye]. And murderhoboing isn't even fun here because it's boring to fight whole cities at once. BG3 is a good tactics game with a brothel of a harem VN on the side, but it's a lousy RPG. Very reminiscent of Mass Effect in that way that was a TPS with a brothel, but a terrible RPG.

    Good examples would be KOTOR 2 and Fallout 1/2/NV.

  • Agree! I'm bored of always being chosen one, lawfully good saviour and choose neutral or evil playthroughs but it's like you said - always feel kind of shallow and punishing.

  • Evil is usually about power and influence and that's something players typically don't get to have in large quantities – otherwise the game quickly starts behaving much differently. Why go on adventure when you can just hire adventures to do it for you while you work to further your influence, after all?

    A TTRPG can try to mutate to accommodate this (probably using a pile of ad hoc house rules) but a CRPG world need to have all that programmed in. And the players might not like the genre shift.

    If you don't have power you can still be an effective hero but as a villain your only option is to try to backstab your way to the top – but if you can make any substantial progress there we end up with the aforementioned problems. If you can't make that progress you're basically stuck roleplaying Iznogoud and few people want a gameplay loop that deliberately leads nowhere.

    What can work is an evil character playing along with heroes for their own reasons. I once had a TTRPG character who was a SHODAN clone (inhabiting a human body via invasive cyberware). My SHODAN was perfectly aware of how vulnerable she was and how she needed allies. As a result she wasn't nice but fiercely loyal to the party, deferring to their judgement on most matters because that was most likely to keep her alive.

    She still ended up getting written out when she turned out too annoying to play. I hope she's happy with the space station I bought her.

  • I find cartoonish moustache-twirling "evil" boring. Playing as morally grey characters is most compelling. Whether my character is a hero or a villain depends on whom you ask and at which point in history. Damage one faction and help another, when it's ambiguous who the "good guys" and "bad guys" are. Steal, rob and assassinate for what you believe is a "good cause". Set up dictators to avert death and destruction, then betray and terminate the them with extreme prejudice when they have served their purpose and become a liability. And so on.

    Or just go full mercenary; everyone hates you, believes you have no principles and thinks they have the moral high ground, but at the end of the day everyone needs your specialist expertise. Every client is one missed payment away from becoming a target and every target is one bribe away from becoming a client—unless the target is eg slavers or pirates, because you actually do have principles.

    For example, in X3:TC I single-handedly brought peace and prosperity into the universe: fought off Khaak threat; contained Xenons and completely denied their incursions into human and alien space alike; set up industry that boosted the economy at large for everyone; hired a lot of people for very good salaries. But, I had the monopoly in most industries; a fleet of warships capable of steamrolling everyone else if I wished so; literally owned a whole sector; controlled trade routes via the Hub; set up alliances with the pirate factions letting them roam free, trading illegal goods with them, building infrastructure for them. In short, very much a shady dystopian megacorps🙃

  • Don't have anything to add, just appreciation for your post. A true evil playthrough would be interesting. Done well it'd uncomfortable and illuminating. But maybe too threatening for many? Maybe we stick to simplistic versions because they are safe?

    Dishonored 2 did something in the right direction, the way choices start to color the world around you.

  • Since you referenced BG3...

    The D&D series has always had 'evil' as in the alignment and then 'mindflayer evil' which was always kinda the next level melodramatic brand of evil.

    So BG3 kind of tackled that head on. It was rather successful I think in that it gave evil characters and NPCs a much better and less arbitrary framework, even if it revolved around the trope of everyone being power hungry. Although it all just kinda blurred and overlapped with a few exceptions.

    Like the exploding blood potion drow lady. She is evil. But she was well done. In her lane and it worked.

    But I could have given a shit less about the machinations of all the side evils. Like, Selune-Shar was always a cringey mess, so Shadowheart never had a chance unless we could've had the option of her ditching them both for like, Waukeen.

  • I love BG3, but I’m doing a durge run for the first time and have been really disappointed in the evil option. Like, it wants you to be a crazy, egotistical murder hobo. The dialogue options with your party are so over the top I never choose them, because my character is more of the DL serial killer than murder hobo. There’s zero subtlety if you go down the murder route.

  • I generally play the "good" roles because it's generally the harder path. I generally don't really get into the character or story of games. So it's just a matter of choosing the option which is more "elite". I know that's pretty stupid lol

  • I tend to fall into the same patterns of gameplay, but more because it feels good to see the effect it has on the ending. I love stories where your choices have knock on effects that become part of the denouement. Like in Fallout 2, you see how your story affected each area's outcomes.

    It feels more genuinely heroic to have satisfying evil options on the table regardless, because it does feel rather as if the baddies in BG3 are trying too hard to seem evil. The way Gortash is written is that he's a handsome charismatic psychopath on his way to return some video tapes, but the guy you meet is a salaciously grinning neckbeard wearing an entire Hot Topic. Orin is about as two dimensional as baddies come. It really feels like the only baddies with believable motives are the ones tied directly to the players' stories (like Mizora), and Ketheric.

    I'm trying to get through a Dark Urge run, and the way these games work leads me to play mainly with an eye to authorship rather than gaming per se. I'm less interested in optimizing than I am in telling the best story I can, and so the evil path from an already evil character who has a real chance at redemption feels like no story at all.

    I can't tell whether the most satisfying evil gameplay in modern gaming is in Disco Elysium or Among Us. But it's definitely a hard one to get right.

    • I don't even think the Dark Urge was intended to be played as evil. I picked it for my first and only playthrough but played it as redemption-seeking, and all the evil options (DUrge-specific or otherwise) seemed so uninteresting. Completely agreed about the games' villains, too. In fact, I have some general issues with the BG3 writing overall.

      I can't tell whether the most satisfying evil gameplay in modern gaming is in Disco Elysium or Among Us. But it's definitely a hard one to get right.

      I don't think even the fascist route in Disco is particularly evil, to be honest. It's mostly just sad. Very well written though. Caught me by surprise.

      Fully agree about Among Us though, I didn't think of it but you're spot on, that's a game that lets you be actually evil in a satisfying way.

      • BG3 writing bothers me slightly whenever I forget to think of it as an empty vessel for a million different possible authorial impulses of the player. If things get too far from my vision it's "cut! Cut..." and a quick redo.

        It began as a joke in my head but I realized, one of the few times in all of gaming (tabletop or digital) when I've fully embraced my inner monster was as an impostor.

        Even a well written "evil" playthrough of something like Katana Zero or Undertale's famed genocide run doesn't land the same because it's more clearly about the underlying technical challenge than any inner demons with which we might frolic. Darkest Dungeon deserves an honorable mention here, because dehumanizing one's hirelings seems to be the only way to beat the late game; a failure I've been quite satisfied to walk away from.

  • I think the ideal way to make moral choices compelling is to make good an actual sacrifice. Declining powerful things for yourself and putting yourself in danger to help others with no gameplay reward, only narrative reward. Make evil tempting, being selfish and pragmatic will make things easier on you. Let's say there's a survival sequence where you're in the wilderness with limited food and encounter someone starving. You can help them, for no inherent player power related reward, but you'll run the risk of running out of food yourself. Let them starve and you make the sequence much more comfortable.

  • I like the idea of evil playthroughs, but I agree that the execution of them is unsatisfying.

    For me it boils down to the bluntness of the evil options and the inability to be effectively deceptive. I want to play an evil character who betrays people after gaining their trust. Most games don’t make that a normal route, as good dialog choices usually give me good boy points.

    I envision a game with good/evil dialog options that doesn’t change my alignment based on most verbal choices but instead on my large scale actions. I want to be able to have a heart to heart conversation with an NPC who then opens up to me allowing me to betray them even harder. I want to play as Senator Palpatine, not be forced to act like Emperor Palpatine right away.

    While I don’t mind morally simple evil, the inability to play it properly means I tend to go to more morally complex games. Something like Wasteland 3 where the presented choices are rarely obvious in which is the truly morally ideal. The games runs more on conflicting faction reputations and only has a perfectly good (according to the writers) ending if you play an exact perfect combination of factions, which you probably won’t do without looking up a guide.

    The next best morality system example is something like Metro 2033 or Frostpunk where the game simply doesn’t mention that it has a morality system until the end, and that brings out the more honest reactions of first time players.

    • The Metro system was okay in the first game (especially since the bad ending is the intended canon ending), but I have to say the awareness of its existence is part of why I never finished Last Light. Making sure to sit through all the dialogues and do all the things to gain karma every time is such a pain in a game without manual saving.

      I'll try to get through it again some time though, I've heard Exodus is great.

  • I think one of the reasons "evil" plot lines get written into games is largely because players keep asking for them. I also think most developers set out to write a game with a heroic plot line. But, because players will keep whining about not having an "evil" option, they shoehorn one in and the end result is exactly the clumsy, "evil for evil's sake" type response which are so common in games. Imagine you have some sort of "threat to the whole world" type plot line going, but the main character decides to just fuck off and use the ensuing chaos to further their own power/glory/vanity/etc. While it could certainly make for an interesting experience for the player, it means the developers are basically making two games. It would require a large investment of time and resources into making something that isn't actually the game the developers set out to make. So, at minimum, the "evil" plot line needs to force the evil player to hit all the same story points, set pieces and the like which exist for the "heroic" plot. At best, it is going to feel forced and expose just how meaningless the player's choices are.

    Ultimately, what players what in an "evil" plot in a game is an entirely different game. But, that's never actually going to happen; so, we get the half-assed versions we see today.

  • I don't know how seriously to take this kind of discussion sometimes. I can rationalize that a person can do awful things to people in a fictional setting and it's not a commentary of who they are as a person. On the other hand I cannot escape the feeling that I am replying to a genuine sadistic monster, based on everything you just said in this post. Forget all of that. Unnecessary commentary when there's a point I want to make.

    There's a crucial difference in video games vs more free-form varieties like TTRPGs: You're on The Rails. Video game RPGs are almost always on the rails. There's no real sandbox game anywhere. Like there are good attempts, but at the end of the day, any game has programmed expectations for your inputs and what it can output. Video games can't possibly fathom how deeply evil you could actually get. It would be a developmental and technological nightmare to try programming in all of your awful choices and how they could spiral the narrative. They have to do their best within the limitations of how much could possibly fit in a game. And I'm assuming the game companies also have to take into account the ratings system, and PR. Even if you could play the game any way you want, good AND bad choices, you're going to get odd looks from people if they know the game allows you to sexually abuse NPCs, or enslave people through extortion. You know what I'm getting at? The real limitation isn't the technology, even though that's already a big one. Even in virtual, completely fictional settings, being allowed to play that shit out is wholly monstrous. And I can't imagine the toll it would take on designers who would be tasked to write it.

    So if you really want all of that and accept the risks, make your own CRPG where you can go all out on Evil. Being critical of developers and designers for not being willing to go as far as your twisted mind can go in a video game is a wild take. Go play in an evil TTRPG campaign if you want to get those kicks. It's way easier.

    • There are many kinds of evil, and also the morally gray. Evil doesn't have to be evil just for the sake of it.

      At the end of the day, these kinds of videogames tell stories, and a story full with nonsensical evil will only appeal to those freaks you talked about. In the other hand, if it is handled correctly, the story will appeal to a much broader audience. As an example, at the end of The Last Of Us (the show, idk about the game), the main character refuses to save the world because it would mean the death of the only family he had left, and massacres a lot of people in a mix of survival instinct and paternalistic rage. It is horrible from a moral perspective yet it is a good, engaging story.

      I feel like, in the same sense, a character with impenetrable morality and no conflict would not be very entertaining to read/watch/play.

      As for the workload, I'd rather they didn't give me the option to be evil if the story is going to be bad. The devs themselves choose to make different paths, so at least have them be equally fun. (I'm not getting into pressures from above for "branching narratives" or any other marketable terms. Replace devs with "studios" if you wish.)