Joining the Dark Side

The shadows just got a little darker. Evan “Diamondback” Hogan is a Shadowrunner in the Bangkok of the future. He’s what they call a Street Samurai in the Shadowrun RPG, a cyborg that makes their living as hired muscle and enforcers for Shadowruns. They usually have a lot of cool upgrades, such as cybernetic limbs, smartguns and other techno-wizardry. Evan is not a nice person; he is cold-blooded, experienced and thoroughly without remorse or much of a conscience. He’ll do whatever it takes to get the job done. And he’s my new Shadowrun PC.

And that’s what this article is about – being the Bad Guy in an RPG. From the outset, I’m not extolling the virtues of a life of crime or violence. Let’s be clear on that.

For years, alignment has been a  tool in games such as D&D. More often than not, it is also used a blunt instrument. Unfortunately for some GMs, there’s also a high incidence of munchkin players who think being evil means killing everything, including other party members. In 4th edition D&D the alignments concepts are largely revamped from earlier editions, making them less of a strait-jacket.

It’s very difficult to apply alignments to populations or countries: a cruel and unforgiving nature god may still be worshipped by good communities for example. A lawful good society may have oppressive rules and regulations, along with a harsh regime for crime and punishment.

Here’s some suggestions for evil characters, be they PCs or NPCs.

It pays better

Sometimes people are in it for the money: they’re paid hirelings, or otherwise employed in the service of evil. They look upon it as a source of income, be they a hitman or spy. They can turn good for a price, and are likely to swayed by cash incentives – they are more likely to be mercenaries than zealots.

These characters often treat others as assets or obstacles. They may kill out of hand, but to them it is just a business, and rarely let their emotions colour their perceptions to this  extent.

Evil has the best tailors

Sometimes, evil is just fashionable. Maybe its the uniform, or the fact that everyone else is doing it. Maybe the character’s friends have all joined a cult, one that proves popular. They may have been brainwashed or willingly complicit, and may or may not be aware of their actions. They may not be morally bankrupt, but they’re quite willing to further their own ends.

Some characters with this aspect may be living their lives in fear of discovery – others may openly flout the fact that they’re evil. Everybody loves a villain.

Society’s fault

“I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way” – Jessica Rabbit, Who Framed Roger Rabbit

As we know, sometimes society has its underdogs. It may be a vocation, caste, or class, or even a community – but for some reason these underdogs are despised, or persecuted. Naturally, this makes them want to hit back – and the underdogs may see themselves as justified in their actions – they are only defending themselves after all. Half-orcs, for example, are often the subject of race hatred by both humans and Orcs; but they are quite capable of hitting back!

These characters may see themselves as freedom fighters or liberators, or blame a corrupt or unfair society – they may be pacifists, demagogues, or ruthless terrorists.

Whatever it takes

Sometimes the end justifies the means. These characters are convinced that no matter what happens they serve a greater good. The Imperial Inquisition of wh40k (Warhammer 40,000) is a very good example of this: they wipe out whole worlds to prevent them falling into enemy hands (such as the Tyranids or forces of Chaos), and ruthlessly hunt down psykers (beings with psychic powers) – those they catch are then turned into Astropaths, recruited, or drained of their life energy to fuel the Astronomican. However, if they did not do this the Imperium would have fallen to Chaos and all warp travel would cease.

Twisted by technology

“He’s more machine than man now, twisted and evil.” – Obi-Wan Kenobi, The Empire Strikes Back

In Shadowrun , the more body parts your replace the larger the Essence cost. Magic users need high Essence scores to use magic. With more machine parts it seems likely that some of your humanity would be lost, including the ability to feel emotions or to relate to other beings. Maybe the character is/was a brain in a jar and something got lost in the transition, or the technology amplifies certain emotion like hunger or hate.

Note that by technology we don’t just mean cyborg enhancements: magic weapons (such as Stormbringer), or even the atomic bomb can make people act in ways contrary to their nature, or intensify certain elements (like the Go’auld sarcophagus in Stargate). Certain characters may welcome their changes; others may regret it every single day.

Power corrupts

“You don’t know the power of the Dark Side.” – Darth Vader, Return of the Jedi.

Sometimes, the path to evil is taken in tiny steps. You turn a blind eye here, justify a decision there. When the character is in  a position of responsibility, there may be that temptation to use that power to serve themselves, or enforce their will upon others. After a time, it may become second nature to use their power, never quite noticing the stains on their character.

For instance: the planetary governor who chooses to allow a Chaos cult to flourish in return for an extended lifespan in wh40k? The D&D liche whose quest is to triumph over death? The monster hunter who becomes a worse monster than those he hunts?

Because it is FUN!

“Because he thought it was good sport. Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”  – Alfred Pennyworth, The Dark Knight

Chaotics or anarchists, this is the sort of character that fills most GMs with worry when a player says they want to play an evil PC 🙂 – they do everything at a whim or follow some grand scheme of their own making. They may be completely unaware that their actions have consequences or know exactly what they are doing. Either way, they are unpredictable and may have their own twisted code of honour, morals or quirk (Batman villains, I’m looking at you!).

This type of character is far more difficult to play in a structured game, and may quickly wear out the patience of GMs and players. Unfortunately many new players tend to drift into this chaotic-evil PC archetype as it gives them a chance to kill other PCs and then justify it: games were PCs are killing other PCs quickly lose their attraction for players and GMs. If you want to do that, go play Mortal Kombat or WoW.

Doing the right thing

For whatever reason, the character believes that they are doing the right thing – they may be under a some form of compulsion, have been deceived, or simply believe that they are right. Unfortunately at some point they lost their way: their cause became all-consuming.

For instance, in the wh40k universe, the Primarch of the Thousand Sons Chapter, Magnus the Red, believes his sorcery has expunged the genetic taint from his Space Marine Chapter. Although warned against using sorcery by the Emperor himself, Magnus becomes aware of the imminent treachery of Horus and the Horus Heresy. While attempting to warn the Emperor, Magnus accidentally destroys the Webway that the Imperium would use to take the fight to the Eldar. The Emperor fails to heed the warning of Magnus, but the Primarch’s use of sorcery and the Warp leads to the destruction of Prospero and the fall of the Thousand Sons.

Published by Bill Heron

Wannabe game designer and would-be author. I've been playing RPGs for over 25 years and have recently started creating my own RPG called Mandragora: Ashes of Freedom. I also run a number of RPGs: Cthulhutech, Call of Cthulhu, WFRP, and D&D. I'm active in the Edinburgh RPG community at and regularly play RPGs.