Before you can create a character for an evil campaign, it is important to know what will drive him or her to action. The simple explanation of a character being evil for the sake of being evil just does not cut it anymore. Therefore, to begin this conversation, I have arranged a list of eight popular bad guys in movies, games, literature, etc. to understand what pushes someone to engage in what we would consider heinous acts.
Joneleth Irenicus, the BBEG from Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn has a voice that could soothe butter off a biscuit. In terms of villains, he has it all: malicious plans, insurmountable power, cringe-worthy arrogance, and, of course, the voice of a British actor (David Warner). Irenicus has no compunctions about the ends he must go to in order to achieve power, torturing, killing, and manipulating anyone who stands in his path leaving him firmly set up as Neutral Evil. The loss of his love, Queen Ellesime, along with his failure to usurp his way into the elven pantheon (a la Raistlin Majere) left him broken: cursed with a lack of emotion and a desire to regain that lost piece of himself.
Irenicus requires a delicate balance on the part of the player to allow him to participate in any group. Although he is not above working with others (as shown in his willingness to work with his sister, Bodhi and the Drow), he must see something of value in the exchange because his curse leaves him broken inside, much in the same way a sociopath lacks the ability to feel remorse or concern for others. As such, in a group of equals, he is most likely to bargain, tit-for-tat to gain what he needs to return feeling to himself and, ultimately, godhood. So long as he has a need for those he travels with, and they are willing to play ball, he will work alongside them—but he would not bother to risk anything himself for their wellbeing.
Maleficent, introduced in Sleeping Beauty in 1959, was a ruthless, sinister, and devious fairy, who claimed to be “the mistress of all evil.” While the newest Maleficent movie may provide some back story to welcome debate to her true nature, I would claim Maleficent is Neutral Evil. Many critics would argue her motivations to bring harm to others are rather weak, especially in Sleeping Beauty (e.g. cursing Aurora for not being invited to the christening), suggesting she may simply enjoy being evil. Though, I would argue that while she presents herself as being proper and elegant most of the time, her real malevolence is triggered by bouts of emotional instability. We see this in how she treats those loyal to her, the Prince, etc.; or how she frequently unleashes her full wrath with a smile.
Although an outcast, I believe Maleficent would find her place within an adventuring party with relative ease. Her primary struggle would be relinquishing superiority over others. She is used to being in command, which could cause some rifts, especially if she did not think the best choice was being made. Yet she is clever enough to see the ends to the means. As a character, she would have a clear understanding of what she wants to happen and then aspire for a perfect execution. For example, in Sleeping Beauty, she wanted King Stefan to hurt. She could have killed Aurora at any time—even as a baby, immediately extracting her twisted justice—but she wanted to prolong the King’s suffering. She was willing to wait, knowing hiccups would arise over sixteen years. While she may scream, curse, and kick in the moment, logic would soon reclaim her mind and she would form a new plan, likely attempting to use the other party members as her pawns.
Anakin Skywalker (also known as Darth Vader) hardly needs an introduction. The bad guy in Star Wars, who seized three prequels to highlight his cruel childhood and the trauma experienced, journeyed from Jedi Knight to a master of the dark side. We could write a full paper on this complex character; in fact, you will discover forum posts dedicated to debating the intricacies of Anakin. For the sake of brevity, I am going to label him as Lawful Evil and move forward. We know he first followed the order of the Jedi before being directed by the Sith, both of whom respect the Force, which in turn obeys a set of laws. Anakin’s evil acts are incited by his circumstance and fears (e.g. separated from his loving mother, no peer group with the Jedi, Padme’s pregnancy, etc.). When Chancellor Palpatine nurtures these fears, he can mold Anakin into Darth Vader, pushing him to fall victim to his own indulgence. The greatest example is Anakin knows he cannot be husband to Padme or father to their child, and be a Jedi warrior, under the current ruling; in his mind, the righteous institutions—the Jedi Order—has offset the moral compass of humanity with their governance. Thus, Anakin works with Palpatine to kill the Jedi and restore stability.
While characters like Anakin are complex, he would be a great addition to in an adventuring party. Where some evil characters may be driven by the accumulation of power, riches, revenge, etc., Anakin is motivated by interpersonal relationships. He works with those who stroke his ego, making him feel good about himself and his decisions. The dilemma in placing a character like Anakin in larger groups is that he does not play well with anyone who questions his authority. Good party members would see him as being emotionally abusive, arrogant, quarrelsome, and neurotic, but he primarily sees himself as being a protective, nurturing man, ever loyal to those who show him loyalty. Of course, questioning this character too loudly may lead you to be choked to death.
The Wicked Witch of the West is one of the more iconic depictions of evil in modern society, her visage being one of the first seen in color in modern cinema (1939). While plenty of recent renditions have gone more deeply into the character of the Wicked Witch (Oz the Great and Powerful, Wicked, and Oz), our focus will be on the original rendition. There is little debate that the Wicked Witch is Evil, and given that she is master of her own domain (effectively making her the law), we are going to call her Lawful Evil. In addition, remember how she wants her dead sister’s shoes? We are calling that inheritance, and going to chalk that up as more lawful behavior. She is not afraid to get her hands dirty, but has her minions to do her work for her if need be, confronting Dorothy several times on her own, but also using her flying monkeys to extend her reach when needed. Finally, her primary motivations seem to be vengeance and power, angered at the death of her sister and demanding recompense as well as desiring her sister’s slippers to finally conquer Oz.
With a strong sense of entitlement and a wicked temper, the Wicked Witch would be a trying member of any adventuring party. Since she takes even accidental slights personally, she would struggle to let bygones be bygones without receiving some form of recompense. In addition, her desire for power and her familiarity with ruling her minions would make her less than likely to cooperated with equals of any kind. However, she has a strong sense of her limitations, as evidenced by not confronting the Good Witch of the North directly, nor Dorothy (instead, attempting to instill fear in her), and even desiring the slippers to confront Oz. As such, in a situation with multiple companions of equal power, though he might desire to oust them, she ultimately would avoid direct confrontation because self-preservation is more important to her than risk. And no underwater campaigns either.
Benjamin Barker, better known as Sweeney Todd, is the perfect example of a chaotic evil character. “The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is a darkly, cynical man obsessed with a vengeance after his wife is kidnapped and raped. If you remember, he escapes prison after being wrongly convicted and then takes on a new identity to seek revenge on Judge Turpin, which leads him to bake dead bodies into meat pies with Mrs. Lovett. His evil deeds are driven by his need to diminish his anxiety, his nonconformist attitude toward the world, and his overall lack of empathy and compassion. However, the real indicator of his alignment comes from his opinion that the world is evil and people are bad, himself included.
Sweeney would be tons of fun to play in an adventuring party. Although he might be quite depressed in everyday interactions, suppressing his real feelings, he would be willing to work alongside those who have not hurt him. We all know he worked quite well with Mrs. Lovett until he learned that she betrayed him too. Now, his pessimism toward the ordinance of society and the real motives of others would drive his adventuring interests believing that killing people would be a charity to the world. However, he would not be difficult to convince to come along to smash a couple of heads together, no matter whether the enemy be good or otherwise.
Iago possesses a level of manipulative Evil which none of the others in this fine list can hope to match, firmly placing him in the role of Neutral Evil, though his use of the Law to manipulate his schemes gives some modicum of leeway. A Machiavellian sociopath, if ever there was one, he is universally seen as good by his compatriots until his Evil is finally revealed. Adding to Iago’s singularity is the debate surrounding his motivations, varying from vengeance at being passed over to a Joker-like desire to see the world burn (Chaotic). One thing can be said of Iago that is absolutely true, however, and that is his belief that he is Right. Though he may be seen as Evil by the world around him (once they see through his façade), Iago sees his own actions as being justified and feels no guilt or concern for those he manipulates.
Playing Shakespeare’s most successful villain is a challenge that must be rewarding to all those who might make the attempt. Iago would be one of the most likely to get along well within a group (at least initially), because his starting demeanor is that of a people pleaser. He is polite, well-spoken, and ultimately comes across as a Good person intent on receiving recognition for his skill and prowess and likely would work better in a party of Good companions than a part of Evil. If ever he butts heads with a companion, it will most likely be due to having been overlooked for his role and value. However, his method of revenge is not direct, requiring the bulk of any game for him to set in motion a devious plot filled with lies and manipulation to destroy what those persons love best rather than, necessarily, the people themselves.
Dolores Umbridge is one of the most famous teachers in the Hogwarts world, known for her strict adherence to protocol, her sadistic nature, and her claim that the government does not make mistakes. Although she was not considered a Death Eater nor an immediate ally to Voldemort, I think any reader would perceive Umbridge as being wicked. For me, she easily falls under the categorization of Lawful Evil based on the many educational decrees she passed at Hogwarts and her swift action to punish anyone muggle-born once it was deemed legal.
To say the least, Dolores would be an interesting addition to any adventuring party. Having a long history of working alone and in cahoots with large organizations, she knows how to speak her mind and bite her tongue. Her mentality keeps her from acting out, even against her own party members, unless she has the support of some governing principle or person—or she has zero chance of being found out. While a character like Dolores would find absolute joy in seeing others squirm or wither in pain, she would always reference the rules before acting. If the governance did not allow a certain behavior, she would work to convince those in power to rewrite the script so she could act in accordance with her own desires.
Monseigneur Claude Frollo, one of the most complex characters in fiction, representing a spectrum of Good and Evil that makes him difficult to pin down and likely more difficult to play. For those not up on their Hugo, Frollo does not begin, necessarily, as an evil character, possessing a desire to do right by God as an Archdeacon. As opposed to the horrendous Disney adaptation of this tale, Frollo actually saves Quasimodo and raises him as a son (so sweet). His flaw, a desperate lust and fear of women, is what ultimately leads to his downfall. Battling between his devotion to God and the Church and his lust for Esmeralda, he captures the range of alignments between Lawful Good and Chaotic Evil, (probably settling somewhere around Chaotic Neutral). Despite the good he does, he manipulates Quasimodo, stabs Phoebus, himself, attempts to rape Esmeralda, and eventually sees that she is hung for rejecting him.
Okay. So playing this madman requires a deft hand and an even defter sense of party mechanics. Frollo sees himself as a man of God who does what is right, meaning that he would align himself with other Good individuals. However, his actions are at odds with his beliefs. His lust and desire make him behave in ways that any righteous group with balk at while his beliefs make him incapable of tolerating the same actions from any iniquitous group. Of all the characters in our list, he is best played solo in a game that would delve into the character in an unremitting manner. In a group, he would meld well with those willing to overlook his madness or those who would feed it (such as Iago). He would want to surround himself with holy men, but would ultimately become obsessed with any female party members in a way that likely would not mesh well in group mechanics. Play Frollo with caution and respect for your fellow players.
I hope you enjoyed this list and the many angles each of these characters could bring to the game. Think about your own evil character. Will they have similar motives to one of these eight or something more entirely?