A good character and an evil character walk into a bar. They both are offered a quest to save a damsel in distress. The Good character saves the damsel from a sense of Charity, willing to sacrifice himself for the good of others and asking nothing in return. The Evil character demands payment and saves the damsel from a sense of Greed, willing to risk his well-being for the eventual good of himself.
But before we get hung up on the specifics of what motivates an evil character or party, let’s consider defining what evil actually means. Evil generally is not hard and set in its meaning because it is an ethereal concept, like hope, courage, and the acting career of David Boreanaz. As a result, we tend to have an idea of evil which is reflective of our idea of good (makes sense). But what is good? I’m sorry, let’s get serious. What is Good with a capital “G?”
Well, in general, Good is defined by the cultural norms and morality established by the society in which the term is defined, much like manners, love, and comfort food. In the US and many western, Christian cultures, the Golden Rule is a pretty good starting point for how we would define being a Good person and, therefore, being Good. (Just in case: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”). A very selfless sounding principle, yes?
However, according to the Additive Inverse Property, (which is pretty much how True Neutral occurs, being 0 in this case), evil is inherently the opposite (which in the literal sense can get quite confusing). And since the original rule doesn’t necessarily work that well (considering masochists and the like), any corruption that inverts any property of the original rule works to create something inherently Evil with a capital “E.”
- Do unto others as they have done unto you.
- Do unto yourself as you would have others do unto you.
- Do unto others as they have done unto themselves.
The possibilities are pretty much endless and work regardless of the defining principle for Good. Notice, however, that the center of each of these is the verb “do,” because it is the actions that are important rather than the thoughts or feelings.
What does that mean? Well, it does NOT mean that Evil is stupid, naïve, or incompetent, (as many villains seem to turn out and as I will continue to reiterate). So, don’t treat your players like they are any of that nonsense. And players, don’t play your characters like that either. What it does mean is that our run-of-the-mill “Evil” is selfish. At least, insofar as Christian cultures assumes (sometime later we might play with other ethical considerations). Christianity imposes a moral compass regarding what people should do, say, or think, leaving as the opposite all things which are NOT Good.
Let’s start basic:
Yeah, Seven Deadlies. Real original, I know. But we need a place to start, and as far as Evil is concerned, this is pretty much where most of us would start. What does this mean? Well, if you are looking for character motivations, this list is the bee’s knees. Evil characters are motivated by selfishness in the same way that Good characters are motivated by selflessness, aka the Seven Heavenlies:
All of it. Not just the Good stuff, the Evil stuff too. It is predictable.
Back to the quest.
The Good guy (Sir Slambam) and the Evil guy (Mr. Macchiato) are both given the same quest. Both characters end up doing the same quest and, more often than not, the DM offers the same reward because, I mean, the DM can’t just offer the Good guy nothing, because then he wouldn’t have any gold to buy that sweet-ass sword he’s been eyeing. Who cares if he is a Paladin and it will cost 1000 gold that he could have given to his church. He is level 5, and the church isn’t going to, like, kick him out. Nope! Sir Slambam is a hero; give him a Tyr-damned break. Good-Privilege is what that is right there. Evil guy got the same reward as the Good guy, but he gets all the negative hype and judgmental bullshit along with it.
Right. So, back to it then.
Point is that traditional Good/Evil play is predictable because the motivations are predictable. Charity and Greed. How boring is that? But the motivations are not actually the problem. Motivations in and of themselves are always boring. Nobody is interested in discovering the motivations of anyone else and most of the time the motivations within our society are convoluted anyway.
No? Don’t you want a raise at work? You aren’t going to work for free as charity and live in a shoe-box to the benefit of the company you work for, even if you work for a hospital or a funeral home for puppies. You expect to get paid. You are Greedy and you are Evil.
Well, that is all the Evil guy wanted for saving the damsel. It is his job and how he makes his money. Never mind that he threated to kill her with a knife to her throat unless he was paid another 25 gold. How are you any better?
Anyway, the focus is not on you or me or real people, really, and the biblical rigmarole gets us all tied in knots about defining Virtues and Sins and circumcisions. Instead, the focus should be on the notion that motivations are not inherently Good or Evil. Any motivation taken to an extreme can be a motivation for an Evil character, especially if it results in the character trying to impose a perceived Virtue on others. So, what is my point?
First off, GMs, don’t make the motivations your problem. Make the motivations the problem of the character and the player. Don’t treat the character like a moron you must spoon-feed Greed to. Once the character has figured out their motivations, step in, pull it into your story and have some fun with it.
Players, don’t pretend that all Evil characters are murder-hobos. People—like, real people—who behave like murder-hobos get jailed or killed, so don’t act surprised when your GM puts you down when you act like a psychopath. Anyone who has played GTA knows that if you start mowing down pedestrians and shooting out your window with an Uzi, you end up in jail or dead, so don’t pretend that the rules in DND are any different. If you are playing an Evil character, it is your job to consider what actually motivates your character to behave in the way he does.
So, Sir Slambam finally got kicked out of the church for being Greedy, as he should have, the git. Maybe he is interested in having the finer things. He doesn’t see anything wrong with that—money isn’t Evil, it is a thing and things aren’t Evil. He doesn’t consciously recognize that he is Evil as if a switch went off in his head and he suddenly needs to murder the party rogue because she said something about the size of his holy symbol. He is still the same person. The difference? Maybe his motivation has changed and he wants to return to the church. He wants back in, but he isn’t really changing. Instead, he gives donations to the church on the reg, tries to regain his rep, but is actually stashing most of his cash away and lying to do so. He is in the right, after all. The church is Greedy. He did the work and deserves the gold he earns. He still is motivated by the Seven Heavenlies, like any pally, except for the gold he hides back.
But is he an Oathbreaker?
Doesn’t matter. Your class does not define your character or your personality. It is a set of skills, proficiencies, and abilities. Play the character, not the class. Only one of the Oaths preclude lying.
Is he Evil?
Well, maybe. It depends on the extremes to which he is going. Remember that alignment is descriptive, not prescriptive. It can be an excellent tool if you are trying to act in a certain way, but if you change your actions, don’t get bent out of shape if you alignment changes. Let your alignment describe the type of person your character is, not prescribe it.
Regardless, do you know what you have now? A tragic hero. Sir Slambam falls right in with Hercules, Achilles, and all those other Good heroes who were imperfect. You have found his tragic flaw and that is what makes him interesting. That is what makes his motivations interesting. Because now he has conflict. He wants to be a part of the church, but he also wants that gold and he has become complex. He walks into the bar and requests a donation to the church to save the damsel and then pockets 75% of the coin he receives. He will likely save the damsel regardless, because he still sees himself as Good. The locals don’t know, the church doesn’t know, and the player has engaged in roleplaying the motivations of his character in an interesting way.
Well, he is still boring. He is still solely motivated by Greed. The interesting thing about Good and Evil is that if you have a Good character who is flawed, he is inherently more interesting than an Evil character with weakness for kittens. If I told you that Mr. Macchiato was donating that 25 gold to a shelter for kittens, no one cares. The damsel certainly doesn’t care, she had a knife to her throat. Her father who had to pay the 25 gold doesn’t care, he hates kittens. In the end, starting with a Good character with flaws works out to be more interesting that an Evil character with good tendencies.
GMs, you can use the flaws of Good characters to build encounters, adventures, and entire campaigns in which Sir Slambam is faced with competing motivations regarding whether he goes for the gold or the church, where goody-two-shoes investigate him to try and find his stash, where he must decide whether he lets the investigator come out with his secrets or he goes to extremes to stop him. The player ends up focused on moral quandaries because he gave his character a motivation that is a flaw.
Sir Slambam may end up fully Evil, killing to keep his secret, lying to keep his secret, stealing to get more gold. He may be caught, and because his flaw is tragic, death could be the result. For me, personally, I would be happy to play a character that followed his motivations and died rather than being all-Good, being boring, or being a murder-hobo the DM either didn’t kill (as he should do) or took care of in the first session.
Motivating evil characters? It is in the player’s hands. Balance them out. Let their flaws play into the game so that it creates conflict. Everyone (you, me, and David Boreanaz) are all flawed. We have obsessions, compulsions, and little ticks that can be nurtured into full-on neurosis. Once you start playing your characters flaws, the DM can pick that up and run for memorable gameplay. Moreover, you don’t need to start out as an Evil character. Starting out Good and roleplaying through what eventually breaks your character to do things he never thought possible is going to be far more memorable that simple starting Evil and being after that gold.
Stagnant motivations are boring. Diversify.