HOW ARE WE STILL FRIENDS?: Evil Characters and the Group Dynamic

-This article contains spoilers for Knights of the Old Republic and Dark Matter

One of my chief hobbies outside of reading and watching TV is role-playing games. In particular, I enjoy running them for other people. One discussion that recently came up in my regular group regarded the nature of evil characters, and why I do not allow them in my games. Naturally, this got me thinking.

Role-playing games operate around a group dynamic, like a lot of TV shows, and it’s a delicate art to make sure that every character has their moment in the sun, but also has something to do at all times. Key to striking this balance is maintaining party cohesion, and that’s where the issue of evil comes into play.

For those unfamiliar with the world of role-playing, most gaming systems have a way of tracking one’s moral inclination, generally referred to as ‘alignment’. This can take take many forms, but essentially boils down to a spectrum from ‘Good’ to ‘neutral’ to ‘Evil’. Good characters go out their way to help others. Neutral characters are generally ambivalent, perhaps even selfish. And Evil characters cause harm to others for their own benefit. Star Wars is an excellent example of this, with an ongoing battle between the Lights and the Dark Side of the Force. Most games assume that the players will be Good. After all, they are the heroes of their story, but the system allows for Evil characters to accommodate the inevitable player who wishes to play a dark and mysterious loner.

It’s these characters who so often cause problems for Games Masters, and indeed the party as a whole. Let us take, as an example, a group of four characters. Three of them are of Good morality, the fourth is Evil. The task these characters have been set by their Games Master is to rescue some hostages from an enemy encampment. They concoct a plan to sneak in after dark and rescue the hostages. The three Good characters enact this plan, leaving their Evil friend to stand watch, and soon free the prisoners. But then, in a shocking twist, they are surrounded by enemy soldiers. To their horror, they discover that their Evil accomplice has sold them out. The original prisoners can now go free, but the Good characters are now prisoners themselves. This is, technically, a win for the party. After all, they have rescued the prisoners. However, as you can imagine, there is no way that they are ever going to trust that Evil character again.

Obviously this is an extreme example. But even if the act is less Evil – what if he deliberately sacrificed one of the prisoners to save the others? – the result is similar: the party no longer trusts that character, and so they must leave the campaign. This is no fun for anyone involved, not the players and not the Games Master. The standard defence is ‘I just did what my character would do’, but this approach forgets that the character was problematic to start with. The fact remains, an Evil character will very rarely work well with a Good-aligned party. It’s simply not worth the ninety-nine failures to reach the one time it could potentially work.

The computer-based rpg Knights of the Old Republic has an excellent example of this. Near the end of the game, you are faced with a choice between Light and Dark. To join the Jedi or the Sith.The player’s decisions determines which character as they are able to take into the final confrontation with the game’s antagonist. Now, the party is generally Good in nature. If you choose the Light Side then wahey! Group hug, and let’s go fight Darth Malak. But if you choose to be Evil, to take the Dark Side path, things turn sour very quickly. You will have to kill multiple former friends as they try and stop your fall from grace. (As an aside, this is the only time I’ve ever felt truly guilty in a game) These are relationships you’ve been fostering for a long time, from the start of the game. But being Evil breaks that friendship instantly.

Star Wars takes a very binary look at alignment, so let’s look at something more morally grey.

The tragically short-lived SF TV show Dark Matter featured a group of criminals who have their memories erased and, by and large, decide to redeem themselves. As time goes on, they start to see themselves as a family rather than a crew. Trouble arises when one member of their family, Four, decides to regain his memories. Following the procedure, he becomes – essentially – Evil, murdering dozens of innocents as he looks to reclaim what he views as his. The rest of the crew do not try to stop him, but they do turn their backs on him. Through Evil actions, he has broken their ties with him. And even though he offers to continue helping them, they want no part in his life. He may not see himself as having done anything wrong, but the more morally good characters disagree. Quite simply, there is no reason for them to trust or consort with him anymore.

Is there a point to all this? Well, maybe. Maybe I am just justifying a personal dislike of dark and edgy lone wolves who lurk at the fringes of role-playing. (Trust me players, every Games Master has seen this, and we are not impressed by it). But it’s quite obvious to me that there is a real issue with integrating an Evil character into a group dynamic. It doesn’t matter what form that Evil takes, whether it’s butchering innocents or just spitting on the waiter, there comes a time when characters have to ask themselves: ‘How are we still friends?’ and then walk away.

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