On Playing Evil

Tobold brought up a question from his last Sunday open thread session. Namely, to quote from his post, “Can nice people role play villains in a hardcore game like EVE or Darkfall where villains really do upset their victims or do you need to be a b*stard in real life to be a b*stard in game?”. Tobold brought up an ancient post by Edward Castronova on Terra Nova where he made the assertion that playing a nominally evil character – a WoW Horde character for example – was not a nice thing to do. I think that Castranova’s argument has a point, IF the player is not roleplaying. Tobold does not strike me as a role player, but he does clearly make the distinction between a player griefing another player and a character.

This is a subject that often comes up for discussion on the forums of roleplaying worlds. There is currently a discussion on Amia’s forums on precisely this subject and it is a common theme here and there and everywhere else.

But it takes a certain set of design decisions and a certain player culture to cultivate a separation of OOC and IC evil.

In the context of in-character roleplay, not only is it possible to play an evil character without being evil yourself, but it is a rite of passage for a roleplayer; separating the men from the boys so to speak. When you take up the mantle of playing a villain you are – if playing the role well- increasing the enjoyment of other players by creating IC conflict and allowing the heroes to be heroes. In fact, villains are critical for the functioning of a roleplay environment because they provide the narrative conflict that would otherwise be absent or largely absent.

Well played villains are harder to play than heroes. I mean really hard. On the scale of difficulty things start at the easy end with the anti-hero, getting progressively harder with the straight laced hero and ending at the villain. The trick is to ruffle the feathers of a character while not ruffling the feathers of the player of that character. It has to be clear, usually through backchannels such as OOC text chat channels (the backchannel could also be voice, but most RP’ers find the man playing the female elf immersion breaking and text only keeps that out of the picture), that the characters actions are separate from the player. It is especially important for the player of a villain to keep things light and friendly in OOC chat, even while his character is kicking the dog. If this backchannel is not in place, some players – especially less experienced roleplayers and players who don’t know you yet – may come to the conclusion that the character is being a vector for the player.

The lack of OOC backchannels is also the Achilles heel of RPI MUDs; at least as RPI is defined by the purists. MUDs such as Harshlands and Armageddon, which fit the strict definition, lack an OOC backchannel of any kind and don’t have a safety valve to prevent IC villainy from being taken in an OOC context. Less restrictive definitions of RPI allow for an OOC backchannel, as long as it is physically separate from the IC channel (such as keeping it in a different wondow).

Also important – even if the character is a complete monster – is to refrain from inflicting real loss on the player of the victim if the game is not a competitive one and to use the backchannel for reaffirmation of it is a competitive one (thereby decreasing the competitive nature of the game of course). And now we’ve crossed the divide. A highly competitive player culture and roleplyed villains don’t mix; at least if you want to keep your player base. Keep Dance’s article on testosterone in (male) players of competitive games; especially when it is strangers in contact. In a highly competitive environment like Darkfall, the backchannel is not used as it would between friends, or to neutralize any OOC feelings that might arise from an IC interaction. It becomes a vehicle for douchbaggery in its own right. Playing an “evil” character in such an environment is probably as Dr. Castronova speculated.

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About Dave

I’m a 38 year old American who has lived the past 9 years in Germany and India.
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9 Responses to On Playing Evil

  1. PT says:

    One trend that I have noticed across multiple NWN2 servers and MUD/GMUDs has been this:

    -Player A finds circle of friends with OOC bonding
    -Player A now plays a villain and targets Player B’s (not in OOC circle) character
    -Player A receives reinforcing encouragement for their good RP from their friends, meanwhile Player B resents the unwanted attention
    -Player B speaks up, and is ridiculed privately by Player A’s circle. While Player B is unaware of this treatment, it greatly motivates Player A to continue targeting Player B
    -Possibly unbeknown to Player B, the remaining community is influenced by Player A’s circle, simply by right of there being more voices against them
    -Player B finds themselves ostracized for not wanting to be victimized; they express their feelings publicly, finally ending in leaving the community
    -Player A, et al, find their negative beliefs about Player B reinforced, creating a further source of bonding and entertainment (“Hey, remember that idiot. . .” “Yeah, remember what we did to them?”)

    So this is an example of where the OOC back channel both reinforces bonds of friendship, AND creates community disharmony. No one should expect everyone to get along, but if a player in an RPG is going to deliberately target another player, there should be some shared community expectation that it is THEIR responsibility to ensure there are no hard feelings, not the victim’s. To do otherwise is to give the aggressor license to get what they want IC, and demean the player OOC by forcing THEM to congratulate the other on the screw-over well done.

    There’s also a subset of villain players who defend douchebaggery by saying what they do is the only effective way of doing it. To engage other players OOC risks exposing their super-duper-secret plot, and opens them up to failure. But without that engagement, there’s no way of knowing whether that super-duper-secret plot will enhance the game experience, or irreparably damage it for the victims. Most who are in this group, though, meet this with the “It’s just a game, its up to them to build a bridge and get over it,” rejoinder. It’s a community destroying double whammy.

    There’s also the VERY fantasy-centric idea that opposing evil by any means is inherently good. Literature and film are bloated with examples of tragic heroes that opposed what they saw as evil only to become worse than what they fought. But in any game with hordes of NPCs, you can slaughter millions and all the blood does is spit-shine that nifty halo. Good deeds, kindness, compassion, sympathy, are typically met with scorn by “Good” characters whose players prefer to simply kill the other side. Malicious, or callous acts are met with “its just a game” despite the hurt it causes IC *and* OOC. When taken in combination, this (to me) shows a fundamental lack of understanding of good vs evil.

    When these things are reinforced by game design (the ONLY form of conflict resolution between factions in WOW, for example, is to kill the other side), it’s no wonder a corrosive, griefer-centric community develops around points of contact. In smaller scale communities, it’s even more important to make the game mechanics support community growing competition, rather than community destroying competition.

    Far too many who play villains have little regard for, or actively disregard the feelings of others.

    • Dave says:

      You have some excellent points and I’ve also seen that in action as well. The OOC backchannel can be used for both good and ill. In addition, playing a villain can give cover to the player being a villain (i.e. greifing) It’s never just a game! Hey, that was once the title of a post about griefing. It is possible for a world to successfully incorporate player villains and it is possible for a world to have its community torn asunder by the players of such characters. Conversely, it is also possible for this to be perpetrated by the players of “good” characters.

      For it to work, there are two words that need to be in use: transparency and courtesy.

      Players need to practice courtesy towards other players. The world needs a culture of respecting other players, engaging them and a zero tolerance policy for objectifying them. Players always need to be able to answer yes to the question, “can I be certain that the other player will enjoy this interaction as least as much as I do”. This also means that if a player does not want attention, then they should have the right to be left alone. It also means that nonsense such as sending a tell “go away, we’re hunting here” is not tolerated. That is common on Planeshift and undermines the community.

      Transparency means a couple of things. Firstly, there should be no Player-vs-Player; only Character-vs-Character. This is a subtle nomenclature difference, but it means everything. You are essentially saying that this is a “carebear”, non-competitive environment. Also, CvC must be consensual and the GM team must always be aware of CvC.

      Transparency is especially important for the so called wolf in sheep’s clothing characters. When you play such a character, you walk a fine line OOCly. Giving out too much information to other players and you’ll invite metagaming. If you go this route, you’ll need to work closely with the GM team; especially to ensure that the rights of other players are not tramples. Also, OOC secrets and direct action don’t mix. If you want to pick a character’s pocket (a clear CvC action), then you’ll need the player’s permission and cooperation; at the cost of your OOC secrecy.

      It can be done. Mythos ( http://www.isleofsanctum.org/inexile/index.php ) did it very well, as well as worlds built by its alumni, such as Etilica and Markshire ( http://markshire.com/ ). Other worlds, such as Taliv, handled it less well. Tellingly, Mythos and Markshire have a “no PvP, only CvC” rule and disabled pick pocketing (picking pockets is done via trade). On Taliv, it was called PvP and it had a “one pick pocket per day rule” using standard mechanics. The latter had occasional rules lawyering pickpocketing greifers.

  2. PT says:

    I’ve also noticed regional/cultural differences in players with regards to justified violence. To some, insulting someone can be cause enough for mortal dueling. The firewall of the computer network, plus the limitations on mechanics means that fights don’t end after the pair shove one another and someone throws a punch before being separated by friends on either side. Several things conspire to make this so: D&D’s hit point system goes healthy-healthy-healthy-dead; 1 hit point might be all it takes for you to get that final swing off and win the fight, and the most grievous injury is mended by a quick rest. I’m not advocating hyper-realism of crippling injuries and permanent damage, but what it does is lower the bar on how far someone is willing to go to win an impromptu fist fight. So:
    1) Violence is easier to provoke
    2) Violence is more likely to be deadly

    So, the backlash becomes “no combat without consent” as a hard and fast rule for conduct. Suddenly you have an impenetrable screen to protect against all forms of douchebaggery, since, unless there’s a GM/DM online, PCs have no recourse.

    When you set the meter somewhere in the middle, where some sort of justification is needed, and consent is needed for lethal combat, with optional subdual modes, or something to that effect, people who have all kinds of emotional RP Baggage from previous bad experiences start demanding one of the two extremes, even when the system is working just fine (in this case, I define “working” as: results in few, if any, incidents that require GM/DM intervention or punishment for misconduct).

    Let’s say someone makes the classic drunken, surly dwarf with the intent of being rowdy and rude. The PCs team up, and toss the drunk out into the street. The dwarf promptly returns to the scene, now angry for being thrown out. The cycle continues until someone decides its time to just kill the dwarf.

    It’s almost impossible to convince players to just ignore the problem if the other PC is behaving in a blatantly metagame fashion (the mechanics allow them to re-enter the bar without consequence, and so they abuse that), even when ignoring the problem and paging a DM/GM is the ideal way to handle it. Better yet, how many are willing to take a few moments OOC and calmly “coach” the new player on matters rather than jumping straight to “Kill it!” The long-term health of the community would be better served by a brief moment OOC than by an equally OOC killing of the other PC. (I say equally OOC because it is motivated by a limitation of the game mechanics rather than some justifiable cause IC)

    So, despite this being a very rare occurrence, it motivates many admins to allow full-out pvp.

    Combine any of that with permadeath, and say hello to your niche audience, because eventually, everyone will piss off someone just enough that they’d be targeted for death for something a real person would grumble about and shrug off.

  3. PT says:

    Seems I forgot to address the regional/cultural statement I made. The threshold for violence in RP settings seems much lower among European and Midwestern US gamers, while the threshold for violence in non-RP settings seems much higher among East and West coast US gamers.

    One of our players pointed it out as the Call of Cthulhu vs Lord of the Rings effect. Fans of CoC prefer dark, gritty, violent RP CvC, while fans of LotR prefer fast, casual, PvE violence.

  4. Morrighu says:

    This doesn’t just sit on the shoulders of the players you know. The game designers have a slice of that pie too. Unfortunately, I’ve actually been banned from a rather popular game because we played villains too well. When Star Wars went MMORPG, we signed in and quickly saw that there was lack of villains. Everyone was trying to be a Jedi Knight. Since that was on a lottery system and the odds were slim that you’d get a force sensitive character, we developed a rather nifty group of Tarkan raiders. Keep in mind that before we did this, we asked if we could play as Tarkan raiders. We were repeatedly told yes. We explained that we were planning to RP these appropriately and were assured that this was fine.

    We played as Tarkan raiders too – meaning that we would roll up on you, kick your butt if we were able, and make off with your stuff. We were careful not to pick on any one community too much and to keep moving around. We hit swiftly, there wasn’t a lot if any mouthy-ness, and we left as swiftly as we came. We were actually probably LE in alignment. We had rules. Rules about when to attack, who to attack, how to choose a target, what to take, what to leave, etc. You don’t want to wipe out the community because you want to be able to come back at some point in the future and loot them again. You didn’t want to attack too small of a community because then it wouldn’t grow into something that was actually worth attacking. You didn’t want to attack too a really big community because they might overpower you. You didn’t want to take or destroy anything that was too critical to the community so that it would continue to function and could be looted again at a later date.

    We still made everyone mad because we just happened to be carrying all your goodies when we disappeared back into the wilderness. Apparently, though, we were supposed to be kinder gentler Tarkan raiders :/ They banned us for raiding the other player’s settlements. DUH!!!! What do you think Tarkan raiders do????? Make mince pies and play patty-cake???

    Why allow a user to create a character of a race that cannot be played appropriately? If you don’t want that in your game, don’t offer it. I do some DM’ing now and then and I absolutely will NOT allow a CE character. NE or LE is fine. CE will get you tossed out of one of my games every time. Why? Because a truly CE character is nothing but a disruption for the other players. A truly CE character will stab everyone in the party right before a fight. A true CE character is nothing more than a walking maelstrom of wanton destruction with no real self-regard. If he did, he’d at least wait until after the fight with the epic dragon. In short, it’s not the kind of person anyone who has either a shred of sanity or a shred of intelligence would ever go take on a trip to the corner market much less traipsing around on an adventure.

    A properly played CE character means that 1 person has a LOT of fun and everyone else, including the DM, is miserable from trying to cope with them. And that is where you get the “Kill the dwarf” effect that another poster mentioned. While those things might make for good fiction, they don’t make for a good gaming session. So, if you don’t want it in your game, and I’m postulating that you don’t, why allow character builds to progress in that fashion?

    In real life, most such people end up demised under some set of unsavory circumstances. I’m going to propose another solution. Ostracism. Not the modern meaning of it, but the ancient one. The one where the community comes together and votes to oust some one for a period of time. I think that banishing the douchebag would be far more effective. Put their character into suspension for a week or two. Every time you try to log in you get a nice smiley face and a gentle reminder that you have X days, X hours, X minutes, etc. to go before you can mingle with the public again.

  5. mule says:

    I can relate some tips about playing evil characters. I play Pyrahnnus on Mythos, a notorious liar and member of the forge crew and I played Neughak on Markshire, a troll of some ill reputation. With both characters my RP was very evil. Pyra even helped nail a PC to a statue, and Ghak was hated by just about everyone. However, I as a player maintained a friendly demeanor and tried to stay away from any sort of competitive speech.

    That is very important as it was brought up earlier. If you are going to play evil I think as a player you need to be friendly with the other players. I always asked permission before doing some major RP evil to someone’s character. I tried to stick with the more experienced good guy players too. Of course for some there was running consent to do what you like. For instance Ghak and Monty had a well known hatred for each other and I would attack Monty on sight with no warning (mostly because mage boy would own me if he knew it was coming) and Robert (Monty’s player) had no problem with this. Likewise, I had no problem with being jumped by most anyone. I knew going in I was playing evil and that’s a very lonely alignment to play. I think that’s one of the things that makes being a Villain the hardest in fact. Most of the server is against you, at least in character. Another thing I tried to do was give plenty of IC indication that violence will occur if a player continues down the path they were going. This can be expressed in speech and emotes very easily. Ghak would often build up to anger in his speech or start salivating (he loved the taste of elf) both these were clear indicators to the other party that they were about to get whacked. If at that point a player didn’t want this then they could simply send a tell and the situation could progress differently.

    One of the things I tried avoiding was exactly the situation mentioned above where you start ostracizing the newbie. I was usually quite friendly through tells and in the forums. Some players were in fact astonished when they found out i’m the player of Ghak for instance. Are some people going to be griefers while playing evil? Inevitably, it is important for the community to establish what is the right way and what is the wrong way to play evil. I don’t think this should be a matter of game design but a matter of community standards and education. Maybe a stickied forum thread titled, “So you want to play evil?” and then have the first post describing the best methods and reasons for these methods. Sure it sounds silly but if you have a community that believes in these standards they will weed out the bad eggs for you and the problem never arises.

    Markshire also had a fairly painless CvC set up as well. There was no experience loss, no going to hel to respawn, not penalty really. You just went unconscious and then after a point would stand back up. This did lead to some adverse situations though because there was no real killing good guys could stand back up and start fighting again withing a relatively short period which was pretty poor RP but some did it anyway.

    Another important key to keep friction between the good playing and evil playing communities is to offer balanced facilities for both. Mythos and Markshire both had these. Though some might argue that Mythos’ facilities were balanced more for the good at least they were present. If the bad guys feel like they have a home to go to just like the good guys then I think they’re more like to play friendly. However, this can lead to a bit of the US Vs Them mentality as the two communities don’t associate on a normal basis in game. But with forums then they can as players.

    Overall I enjoy playing evil characters. I do play my fair share of good guys too but I find evil more challenging. Perhaps that’s because it does stray away from my normal self and perhaps because it is a lot less community/team orientated. Playing evil well can be a challenge. Some players never really do understand how to do it. For instance i’ve noticed sometimes people will play evil like they do good except that it’s “For the greater evil, muhahahaha” instead of “for the greater good!” … Those characters are well cartoonish and not very good villains in my opinion. The ones that have motivations, wants, and even villainous plots make for a better story and are far more compelling.

    Even Ghak had a pretty good set of motivations. Being an unusual troll who discovered that using tools, armor, and weapons could make him more powerful was his basic drive. This lead to him being ostracized from his tribe and thus a loner. It was also the main reason he was greedy to a fault. He would do anything for the next biggest magic item or for gold, which he knew could buy him better items. Combine that with his general disregard for the life of others and you get a simplistic but solid villain.

    Alright, I think i’ve bored you with my anecdotal stories about playing evil. I think it can be done but it takes someone who is willing to put in extra effort to do it right. All the evil they do must be justified with solid motivations and done without malice (perceived or real) from the player of the character.

  6. mule says:

    erm “played” pyra … haven’t been on Mythos in a long while.

  7. Pingback: Is it possible to not be evil? « Dancing Elephants

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