Playing Evil Characters in D&D

dragon 89In September 1984, a controversy broke out in the Reader’s Forum of Dragon magazine (issue #89). Katherine Kerr wrote a letter condemning D&D gamers who play evil characters. In her strongly stated opinion, such players are unhealthy and reinforce their baser nature in the scenarios they fantasize about. As an example, she decried the following group of acquaintances:

“This group I knew played for several months, with the ante getting higher and higher. Soon they were stealing from the starving poor, burning temples and forcing the priests to stay inside to burn with them, and torturing prisoners in more and more inventive ways. Finally, some of the players insisted on having their characters gang-rape and murder a princess.”

I was reminded of this controversy in light of a recent commenter (Tam Lin) on this blog, who, like Kerr, objects to strong elements of torture, sadism, and depravity in role-playing games. Even a rebuttal commenter (Emirikol), while defending both me and D&D’s transgressive roots of the ’70s, believes that rape goes too far. I will address both Tam Lin and Emirikol directly in a second post, but first I want to set some groundwork by revisiting the Dragon controversy. 1983-84 was around the time D&D was taking a dramatic turn: the Reagan years had brought out Christian fundies and hollow secular psychologists who wanted to censor music, film, television, and role-playing games to “protect” America’s youth. Katherine Kerr’s objections fit squarely within this trend.

Basically, there were two concerns emerging from Kerr’s grievance, and to which other readers of Dragon responded in later issues. The first is what exactly constitutes “evil” role-playing, and the second is why players enjoy evil fantasies.

(1) Evil morality in D&D

The first question was answered head-on by Scott Hicks in Dragon #91 (Nov ’84). Hicks rightly pointed out that mindless campaigns like the one described by Kerr, in which players go on mass-killing and/or raping rampages are usually not realistic and certainly don’t represent the vast bulk of evil characters played by most gamers — whether lawful evil, neutral evil, or chaotic evil. (See here for how the nine moral alignments are defined in D&D.) Hicks wrote:

“Evil isn’t stupid, nor is it sick. No reasonably sane party of characters would take the course of action taken by the party Ms. Kerr writes about. If these actions follow the precepts of any alignment, it is chaos, and chaos and evil are far from interchangeable, as any lawful evil character would tell you. However, insanity seems to be a better choice to explain the actions of those characters (see the Dungeon Master’s Guide p. 84, specifically homicidal mania).”

That’s right. The moral alignments of D&D reflect general leanings, not absolutes. Even a saint-like paladin isn’t lawful-good 24/7. That paladin could snap in a situation like war and start murdering innocent villagers. Good characters can just as easily succumb to bad temptations while not under any kind of psychological duress. On the flip side, the most vile chaotic-evil person is capable of goodness. No one is so one-dimensional or unrealistic that their moral alignment rules their behavior in a cartoonish fashion. This is how Hicks, for example, role-played his lawful evil character:

“I have played the D&D game since its first publication in 1974, and my longest-lived and most powerful character is a wizard of lawful evil alignment, as are his wife (a thief), their adventuring companions, and their henchmen. In nine years of regular campaigning we have never reached the level of depravity described in Ms. Kerr’s campaign, nor has any other group of evil PCs with which I am acquainted. We have robbed princes and merchants, tortured prisoners for vital information, poisoned a pesky paladin, and helped a goblin army destroy an elven out-post. We have also rescued a very good princess, stopped a demon invasion, and broke the local assassins’ guild. The actions of an evil party? Certainly. And no PC has ever stolen from the poor, destroyed, killed, or tortured without cause. Why? Because they are acting like proper evil characters!”

The idea that evil campaigns, as a rule, escalate (or deteriorate) to mindless scenarios of carnage, torment, and unrealistic mayhem — as in the example of Kerr’s acquaintances — is absurd. That’s stupid behavior (though obviously evil too), and ultimately doesn’t result in a very rewarding game. Evil PCs do engage in murder, rape, or torture when situation and context demands. If they engage in these behaviors for their own sake as a constant priority, they’re not role-playing very well.

(2) The “unhealthiness” of evil fantasies

But let’s focus on the second issue, which was Kerr’s major concern. Why do people enjoy enacting evil scenarios — whether realistic or off-the-scales  — to begin with? Kerr wrote:

“The ‘it’s just a game’ defense begs one very important question: Just why do the players of evil PCs enjoy the sufferings of those who in no way deserve pain and death? Role-playing involves what the name implies — acting out roles, giving life to our deepest fantasies. Whether they like it or not, evil-style players are revealing that they enjoy fantasies of inflicting suffering upon the innocent and that they fantasize about wanting power so much that they don’t care how they get it.”

The answer to this is simple, but you couldn’t get away with saying it so easily back in the ’80s. People enjoy evil fantasies because they are perfectly normal. Human beings have natural homicidal and sadistic urges. To only scratch the surface, 91% of men and 84% of women have homicidal fantasies, and 31-57% of women enjoy rape fantasies (with themselves as the victim, let alone the rapist). This is “why” people enjoy such fantasies. Evil inclinations are hard-wired in our genes.

Kerr acknowledged these human impulses but didn’t understand them. She could only condemn fantasies:

“Although everyone has evil impulses at times, few of us give these impulses a lovingly detailed expression in our games, nor do we spend long hours dwelling upon and cultivating this side of our personality as do the players in evil campaigns. I maintain that spending all that time pretending to be evil is dangerous to the players themselves… If you think poison, torture, murder, and rape are fun, then you’ve got a big problem, even if you confine that problem to fantasies.”

That isn’t necessarily true. People should indeed cultivate their dark side and work with it artistically. Otherwise that evil may come out in ways that truly damage others. It’s probably no accident that an actor like Michael Landon was so destructive in his personal life (he beat his wife among other things), even though he played morally upright roles on TV: the wise father in Little House on the Prairie, and the angelic figure of Highway to Heaven. Meanwhile, actors like Robert De Niro and Anthony Hopkins have immersed themselves in some exceedingly depraved roles, have enjoyed playing them, and are (by all indications) none the worse for it. Whether it’s actors who spend long amounts time reinventing themselves to play a cannibal, rapist, or pedophile; or novelists who spend years inside the heads of thoroughly depraved characters; or D&D role-players… repressing our bad impulses is the problem. D&D is like film and novels, allowing us the harmless release of our natural inclinations.

Scott Hicks addressed that point in another way, responding to Kerr’s accusation that players engaging in evil fantasies are “weak”:

“As to Ms. Kerr’s assumption that those who play evil PCs are ‘weak,’ I must ask: Who is weaker — he who resists temptation or he who walls himself in so as to face no temptation? Any player of a good character who had that character murder an innocent, helpless victim could, and should, suddenly find himself at a lower experience level due to alignment shift, or even, as in the case of paladins and good clerics, stripped of all his power. The ‘thrill’ of committing such an act is hardly worth the cost, so this is no temptation. But what of the evil thief who, in the course of robbing a manor, chooses not to kill the sleeping guard, knowing that he could do so easily and with no repercussions? Which player has shown greater strength of character?”

Even as a snot-nosed teenager, I could see the wisdom in this.

I realize that it’s probably unfair to judge someone by what she wrote in the ’80s on this subject. Katherine Kerr’s position may have changed by now. But then again, maybe not: her past self still speaks for many, and in the next post I will look at some recent comments on my blog that evoke the same concerns. In particular, rape seems a sensitive subject, even for those who advocate the transgressive spirit of the old-school.

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2 thoughts on “Playing Evil Characters in D&D

  1. Yes, but they were playing *with her*. She wasn’t complaining about what other people were doing in the privacy of their own games. You really think that’s appropriate? If so then it would be appropriate in a game with you, not with Katherine Kerr or the vast majority of women who want to play D&D. Creepy weirdos.

  2. No they were not playing with her. Katherine Kerr was not part of the campaign she described. She heard the details described from an acquaintance. It goes without saying that no one should role-play scenarios they’re not comfortable with. That’s not the issue here at all.

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