Behind the Mask: It feels so good to be bad

Patrick Mackey
P. Mackey|09.30.10

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Behind the Mask: It feels so good to be bad
Playing bad guys in an MMO is one of those features mostly unique to the superhero genre. In other games, there are factions and these factions are vaguely good or bad, but it's kind of rare to see players clamor about playing an evil faction as much as they do in superhero games.

One of the reasons behind the lack of true villain factions in most games is that the hero factions in other MMOs are a touch more grey than the good guy factions in a superhero game. In World of Warcraft, both the Alliance and the Horde have their faults; the Alliance are stuck-up bigots and the Horde are ruthless and somewhat bloodthirsty. In Aion, the light and dark factions tread equally on the thin blue line that separates good and evil (although it's somewhat less obvious as an Elyos).

One of my biggest grievances with getting into Champions Online was the lack of playable villain content at launch. I was unwilling to test drive City of Heroes at all until villains were playable, and over half of the characters I've made in Champions are bad guys. Even my non-villains aren't heroes (at least not in character).

I have a certain infatuation with being a bad guy.
I realize that it's impossible to actually make a villain in CO. I'm one of the biggest proponents for getting villain content, for sure. However, sometimes we just have to make do with what we have. One of my friends claims that it's immersion breaking to play an overtly villainous character in CO. Lots of people claim that Champions is a superhero game, and that villains aren't allowed.

Personally, I think that thinking villains shouldn't exist in CO is like thinking roleplaying shouldn't exist in CO because there are no gameplay mechanics explicitly designed for it.

Villains -- and by that I mean people who intentionally do bad things -- roughly come in three types: Chaotic, honorable, and monster. They roughly correspond to the "bottom" of the old Dungeons and Dragons alignment wheel. Although villains can become reformed, engage our sympathies, or otherwise move towards the top of the alignment wheel, I'm not going to really talk about those. Those alignments are more like normal people, while villains are not. It takes a certain type of derangement to be evil.

Yes, stupid is an alignment

One thing I've always disdained is the right side of the alignment wheel. The entire right side, better known as the "chaotic" alignments, is full of people who do things "just because." I can sympathize with altruism. I can even get behind helping people or a good cause. I can't even comprehend the chaotic alignments. Chaotic alignments tend to do things without thinking about consequences.

When the chaotic person is a good guy, he has his heart in the right place. A chaotic good character has an anchor telling him how to act. Sometimes he feels like his ethics are wrong, but in the end, he often refrains from acting like a moron because his morals tell him that it's a bad thing to do.

Chaotic neutral and evil characters are a different story, however. These people are not rooted at all in any rules or discipline, and the result is anarchy. For a real-life example of this kind of person, take a look at EVE Online. I'm not talking about pirates, who attack people for money. I'm talking about griefers -- the people who randomly screw people over just because they feel like it, simply because they are able to. Not all griefers are chaotic; many subscribe to moral codes. For instance, an EVE griefer might believe in the harshness of New Eden and that he is an executor to those who would treat EVE like a themepark.

Personally, it is frightening to me how many people flock to EVE simply because they embody this mindset. This is not a good type of character to roleplay. A lot of people play chaotic villains simply because that is what they visualize a villain as being. However, chaotic villains are shallow and lack the depth of their evil brethren.

Honor isn't something thieves talk about

I don't really understand lawful evil very well either. A lawful evil character is a character with ethics. Ethics give us a standard of conduct and show us what we should and shouldn't do. Ethics are what make good guys good, right?

Lawful evil characters are defined by the morals of good characters. A drug dealer who sells his drugs only to adults and would never steal or harm anyone is a good example. He is defined by how we view drug dealers: as bad guys. He might be a sympathetic or even heroic character, but because he makes a living selling illegal narcotics, we view him as a bad guy.

I'm not sure that was the best example. Another example is the EVE player I mentioned above. He does bad things (destroy other players' ships), but he does so because his ethics obligate him to. A careful player who understands the dangers of New Eden might not even get so much as a passing glance from him.

Other lawful evil characters include generally good people who are loyal to bad guys. An imperialist nation that invades other countries for their resources is generally evil, but the nation's officers might not be quite so bad. They may be loyal to their country, but they treat prisoners fairly and behave respectfully to their opponents.

A lot of the most interesting villains are lawful evil, simply because their ethics make them more complex than a villain who simply does bad things at random. A lawful evil villain follows a set of rules, and these rules usually end up endearing her to us. We may not agree with her, but we can respect her.

Two rights can make a wrong, but you'll never know

There is no question about the most fearsome type of villain. Chaotic villains are uncontrollable, but they can be depended on to do bad things and expose themselves. Lawful villains are predictable about their agendas. Neutral evil characters are none of these things.

In order to describe how scary neutral evil really is, we should take a look at exactly what evil is: an absence of morals. Morals are twofold; they're the standards by which we live and the internal feelings we get when we do something bad. Good guys are good because their moral fiber is strong. They won't betray people. If someone is in need, our hero has the conviction to go and save the day. In everyday life, most people help each other out because it's the right thing to do, even if there's no real reward.

A neutral evil person understands these things. Her motivations may be selfish, vengeful, or awful. However, what separates the neutral evil villain from the other villains is her willingness to do whatever it takes to further her agenda. "Whatever it takes" may be normally altruistic acts; my neutral evil villains regularly do good things without asking for any sort of reward. The reasoning is not so obvious: having you owe me a favor is the reward.

Down the line my character may use the "friendship" that he so carefully built with you to exact a few choice favors; these things are often not a big deal to your character, but he wouldn't do them for just anyone. Because I'm your close friend, it's a no-brainer for you. Of course you'll help me out. It's the right thing to do. Unfortunately, letting me check out your science lab also lets me steal any number of designs, which I can then use for my own nefarious schemes.

Neutral evil characters are not bound by any rules or ethics, and this makes them frightening. When a neutral evil villain is presented with the option to do good, it is usually the best choice of action. If a character can be perceived as a good person, that can be an incredibly valuable tool in the future.

I have to confess that part of the reason I wrote this article was in response to last week's Storyboard, which claimed that playing a sociopath is a bad idea. Sociopaths are terrible people, but they make for incredibly devious villains.

If you choose to play a neutral evil villain, be careful whom you roleplay with. Many people will be offended that your character was so two-faced and will start OOC drama. Others will metagame and act like they know you're a bad guy. It's hard to find people who will accept the fact that you're playing a villain and also roleplay their characters responsibly. You may have to make your plots slightly more low-key just so people don't hate you. A villain will always betray people eventually, and a lot of people can't draw the line between IC and OOC very well. Keep that in mind.

In closing, neutral and lawful evil villains are some of the most interesting and memorable characters in roleplaying. It's not hard to create an interesting, respectful, and dangerous bad guy. Most people aren't well-suited to playing bad guys, even if they identify with "darker" characters.

The only advice I'll give for those of you walking the path of the bad guy: tone it down. Bad guys don't have morals, but that doesn't mean they can't fake that they do.

When he's not touring the streets of Millennium City or rolling mooks in Vibora Bay, Patrick Mackey goes Behind the Mask to bring you the nitty-gritty of the superhero world every Thursday. Whether it's expert analysis of Champions Online's game mechanics or his chronicled hatred of roleplaying vampires, Patrick holds nothing back.
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