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A follow-up question to How to deal with a PC trying to kill another?

As I understand the answer to that question, PCs killing one another is generally not the intended outcome of campaigns, and the GM simply does not allow PCs to kill one another. In fact if one PC decides to slit the throats of everyone else while they are sleeping, it's a good time to have a talk about how to have fun as a group.

But if that's the case, then how does one play a chaotic evil character without disrupting the game? Chaotic evil characters are unpredictably violent, and sooner or later they are going to turn on other party members with murderous intent. In fact, this description on easydamus.com - which cites adnd1e and 2e sources, Ninjas and Superspies, and various Dragon magazines - makes it sound like chaotic evil characters have to be forced to work in a party, and even then they are always scheming about how to topple the current leader (e.g. by killing other players while they're sleeping). That sounds like a recipe for becoming a problem player and getting ejected from the game, unless one acts out of character, in which case one ceases to be chaotic evil.

How do chaotic evil player characters work? Do players simply not play chaotic evil characters?

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    – linksassin
    Nov 24 at 0:56

14 Answers 14

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Don’t play chaotic evil characters like that

It seems somewhat obvious so I was hesitant even typing this answer, but this isn’t the first time I’ve seen questions of this sort crop up so I might as well.

Chaotic evil characters are unpredictably violent, and sooner or later they are going to turn on other party members with murderous intent.

Well, no. Don’t do that. Certainly such a character is chaotic evil according to most descriptions, but chaotic evil does not necessarily imply “unpredictable mass murderer with zero social functioning”, the same way “lawful good” does not necessarily imply that the person is completely incapable of tolerating infractions to “the law” or will never do anything that anyone might consider evil.

A chaotic evil character doesn’t even necessarily have to be a murderer at all. It’s entirely possible, and in fact likely that such a character would draw the line somewhere. Even if a character is a murderer, that doesn’t mean they’re indiscriminate. Normally people do something with some goal in mind. A chaotic evil murderer doesn’t necessarily enjoy killing, they might just see it as a viable way to get what they want - whatever that might be. In line with that, a chaotic evil character may well like the other party members. They might be the only people they’ve ever met who’ll put up with their antics, and they may well appreciate that.

Put some restraint on the character, some sort of consistent characterisation that makes them function in a party – not really that different from playing characters from other alignments in that regard – and it’ll work out much better.

TL;DR

The problems you’re describing come from playing an evil character like they’re an unhinged indiscriminate murder hobo. Not everyone who can accurately be described as “evil” is an unhinged indiscriminate murder hobo, even on the chaotic end.

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    \$\begingroup\$ A good first question when designing a Chaotic Evil character is asking yourself "Why DO my teammates tolerate my antics?", because the other characters aren't stupid either and apparently believe it is more useful to travel with the CE guy than it is to just dump them at the next opportunity. \$\endgroup\$
    – Erik
    Nov 22 at 10:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Mołot I think that’s kind of a waste of time. As I said, the answer is basically “just don’t be completely socially dysfunctional”. There’s plenty of both real life and fictional examples for this, this answer is directed at humans IRL who presumably have some prior exposure to other humans. Anything too concrete is liable to get into fruitless discussions about what alignments mean in detail. \$\endgroup\$
    – Cubic
    Nov 22 at 11:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Allure The CE character can always choose not to do that. \$\endgroup\$
    – Caleth
    Nov 22 at 12:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Allure you’re describing crazy sociopathic behaviour. \$\endgroup\$
    – Cubic
    Nov 22 at 13:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ @allure What if a chaotic evil character understood consequences and made darn sure not to suffer them? See, your definition is too narrow, and misses huge swaths of the chaotic evil universe. Think about someone like David Xanatos who is not only aware of consequences, but actively games them. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 23 at 1:42
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What is Chaotic Evil?

Chaotic evil characters are unpredictably violent, and sooner or later they are going to turn on other party members with murderous intent. - OP

This isn't what a CE character is! Chaotic is not unpredictable, Evil is not inherently violent.

The first question you need to ask yourself is: what is CE? CE is not always a psychopathic mass murderer. Let's quote Wikipedia, which incidentally brings it to a point:

A chaotic evil character tends to have no respect for rules [chaotic], other people's lives, or anything but their own desires, which are typically selfish and cruel. They set a high value on personal freedom, but do not have much regard for the lives or freedom of other people.

Which are the crucial points here? A Chaotic Evil character is not a Psychopath, they are egomaniacs. Their own goals and aims are above each other persons. To further their own goals, they would do anything. That includes working with others, as long as it serves their own long-term goals.

A classic example of a well-written character that was given a CE alignment is the Emperor from Star Wars (at least in d20): to further his goal of Sith domination, he worked with the Jedi Order, his mortal enemy, as well as the republic, in his eyes an anathema. In the end, he managed to corrupt and destroy both from within - he had no respect for the rules, but he used them against the system itself and carve new rules to his liking. However, most fans of the series would put him into True Evil instead.

Shades of the bottom-right corner

But Chaotic Evil actually isn't always the same: it comes in different shades, as Tvtropes helpfully points out. To say it with comic characters:

  • The Joker is mainly an Insane Chaotic Omnicidal Maniac, but even he has standards and in a crossover with Marvel he killed Red Skull because nazis are, even to him, evil - and he is pretty much predictable in his insanity: he'll kill and murder, but he'll turn on his temporary allies because only he may kill batman. This is what most people see in CE, but there are other shades!
  • Bullseye just loves to kill. That makes him Evil by design. He doesn't care who pays him to kill, or who he shall kill, in fact, he has no standards like other mercs. What makes him Chaotic? He doesn't just kill his marks, he also kills on a whim or to prove a point. But he is also one of the most reliable mercenaries one can hire for a job: he'll get it done.
  • Ras-al-Ghul wants to exterminate humanity because he is an ecoterrorist assassin order boss. Most certainly evil, but he wants to do so because he dreams of a better world without humans - and he also leads a very organized group that just happens to work on a Klingon-promotion basis: you kill your boss to get up in ranks, and if you fail, you go through the Lazarus Pit. In part, he's also a corruptor.
  • Red Skull. He's A Nazi that wants to kill everybody but he goes to great lengths to establish and uphold a complex, far stretched terrorist organization (HYDRA) to undermine every other government and blow them apart. He is very very strict on the Organized Evil part - and long-term plans spanning decades.
  • Lobo. Yes. Lobo is most often seen as an Antihero. But he is by design CE. He has no moral compass and does everything because it's fun. He doesn't make plans.

Seek motivation beyond mass murder and treason

So, why would a CE character join a party? He might be of an archetype that just does such things - most likely by setting goals into the future.

He could be the Corruptor like the Emperor, aiming to drag the others down and make the paladin and cleric fall. Possibly he's a Jaded Mercenary that just is in it for the thrill of killing. Or he has a far future goal for which he needs something that he thinks can be acquired by helping the others. Maybe he just thinks it is FUN™ to follow them around and slay stuff with them.

Or the CE character could ally with the rest of the gang. Maybe the evil they fight is worse than him and he has standards, or if that evil wins he can't win. Yes, that alliance is temporary, but it will last long enough.


Further Reading

I said above, that Wikipedia brings it to a point. Why? because the actual books were quite wordy in trying to invent alignment, and that little quote boils down the essence of these guidelines:

AD&D 1e

Chaotic Evil, DMG and PHB, points germane to the question:

AD&D 1e DMG p 24.

CHAOTIC EVIL: The chaotic evil creature holds that individual freedom and choice is important, and that other individuals and their freedoms are unimportant if they cannot be held by the individuals through their own strength and merit.

AD&D 1e PHB page 33

Chaotic Evil: The major precepts of this alignment are freedom, randomness, and woe. Laws and order, kindness, and good deeds are disdained. Life has no value. By promoting chaos and evil, those of this alignment hope to bring themselves to positions of power, glory, and prestige in a system ruled by individual caprice and their own whims.

AD&D 2e

Chaotic Evil, DMG and PHB, points germane to the question:

From DMG Chapter 4: Alignment.

For all things that alignment is, there are some very important things that it is not. It is not a hammer to pound over the heads of player characters who misbehave. It is not a code of behavior carved in stone. It is not absolute, but it can vary from place to place. Never should alignment be confused with personality.

{NPC alignment example}.

Thus a chaotic evil gnoll tends to react with threats and a show of might. It considers someone who appeals to its compassion as a weakling, and it automatically suspects the motives of anyone who tries to be friendly. According to the gnoll's view of society, fear and bullying are keys to success, mercy and kindness are for the weak, and friends are good only for the things they can provide - money, protection, shelter.

PHB Chapter 4, Alignment {excerpted}.

Always consider alignment as a tool, not a straitjacket that restricts the character. Although alignment defines general attitudes, it certainly doesn't prevent a character from changing his beliefs, acting irrationally, or behaving out of character.

{Other alignments skipped}

Chaotic evil characters are motivated by the desire for personal gain and pleasure. They see absolutely nothing wrong with taking whatever they want by whatever means possible. Laws and governments are the tools of weaklings unable to fend for themselves. The strong have the right to take what they want, and the weak are there to be exploited. When chaotic evil characters band together, they are not motivated by a desire to cooperate, but rather to oppose powerful enemies.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Here's another possible explanation even if you do want to play a homicidal character. "CE character recognizes that just randomly murdering people gets you dead in a big hurry (law, adventurers, etc). But they have figured out a trick: if you play nice with this group of other competent combatants, then people will pay you to kill things and then celebrate your acts of violence. You get to stab stuff, set creatures on fire, and otherwise do very anti-social things. And as long as you let That Guy (the party leader) pick your targets, people are happy that you do this and pay you for it. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 22 at 16:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ @guildsbounty Bullseye, I got a job for you! Those goblins. And orcs. And if you are at it, the gravedigger threw a leery eye at the mayor's daughter. \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Nov 22 at 16:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ ra's al ghul and emperor palpatine seem pretty clearly lawful evil, at least by modern standards (my limited reading suggests that these terms were not so well-defined in ad&d) \$\endgroup\$
    – Esther
    Nov 23 at 8:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ the emperor as canonically ce in swd20 is very interesting. im tempted to reply "well that's a different setting with different standards for alignment, and clearly doesnt square with the 5e description of chaotic" -- but obviously 5e isn't the same system as what the question's asking about either. \$\endgroup\$
    – Esther
    Nov 23 at 11:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think part of this might be classification issues. I would never have thought that a character who followed a code or who requires Evil to be organized would be classified as "Chaotic Evil." For example , I would would have thought of Red Skull and especially Ra's Al Ghul as more Lawful, even just going by the descriptions above. \$\endgroup\$
    – trlkly
    Nov 24 at 9:51
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There are some excellent answers here, but to add to them:

Evil can be a team player.

One of the most likeable characters I've played in games was a Chaotic Evil kobold who was utterly without human morality, but utterly cowardly. His party is his clan, and he follows their lead. They are his friends, whom he protects and depends on. He'd back them in bloody conquest or lofty heroics. He'd shrug his shoulders at things they considered dirty work, and happily take care of problems for the party behind the scenes.

A player who routinely does things that make the party uncomfortable, contradicts party goals, and generally makes the game less fun for people around them isn't looking to play an evil character IMO. They are looking for an excuse to troll, and they could just as easily do that with a character of any alignment.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Nov 23 at 0:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ Your second paragraph is spot on. +Many. 😊 \$\endgroup\$ Nov 23 at 13:45
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Being unpredictable and violent are not defining characteristics for the chaotic evil alignment. Characters with those traits will tend to be chaotic evil, but there are a lot of ways to play the alignment. What is defining for the alignment is that are incredibly self-centered and don't care much about rules they don't like. They are simply in it for themselves, first and foremost.

Characters with different alignments, even diametrically opposed ones like lawful good to chaotic evil, can have the same goals and join a functional party to achieve those goals just fine. They will just have different motivations for doing so.

The lawful good paladin wants to venture into the dungeon and confront the demon at the bottom in his quest to smite evil and bring harmony to the land. He knows he needs companions to help him or he will fail, and as distasteful as the rogue is, he's really good at disabling traps and sneak attacking monsters that get in the way.

The chaotic evil rogue wants to clean out the dungeon because there's GOLD! down there. He'll come out as rich as the king. He knows he'd get killed if he tried going in himself, and as annoying as the paladin is, he's really handy with that sword and big on protecting everyone. It's so useful.

As selfish as he is, the chaotic evil character's #1 goal is self-preservation. He isn't going to scheme to betray and murder everyone, because that would likely end up with him on the wrong end of the paladin's blade. He's not stupid. And getting kicked out of the group would mean the adventuring gravy train ends. He doesn't want to do that either.

The chaotic evil character needs the party because it suits their own interests. And as long as he contributes useful skills to the party, they want him around too. There's no reason they can't all work together.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. (I see you've been a member for years, but it seems this was your first post on RPG.SE :) ) \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Nov 23 at 0:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ This only works until they kill the demon at the bottom right? After that the CE Rogue doesn't need the party anymore, and in fact is incentivized to kill them so he can get all the loot for himself. \$\endgroup\$
    – Allure
    Nov 23 at 2:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Allure, if that's the end of the campaign. I'm sure the players and DM can come up with more ideas for further adventures. The game only has to end when you want it to. And CE Rogue is still going to know better than to tangle with the rest of the party. He wants to live. \$\endgroup\$
    – Seth R
    Nov 23 at 3:43
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Depends.

It is tricky to do this and it depends on group dynamic and how would GM handle that. I have some experience with running for evil PCs and campaigns and here is my advice:

  • Explain what you have in mind for evil PCs; make sure everybody is fine with that and set boundaries all agree with
  • Prep all before starting and during session zero about evil PCs.
  • Make connections within the party as reason to stay together (paladin trying to redeem brother that has gone to dark path is an example from me). Ask "Why would party stick with the evil PC?"
  • Evil character should have goals that align with campaign/party goals so he/she would not go against them and need to collaborate
  • Be ready for this evil PC to be lost - whether PC splits from party when goal is achieved or does something party can't handle, becomes not evil or dies as consequence of his/her actions. They usually don't last long
  • REMEMBER: you are all there to have fun and no player is their PC

It can be fun to have that evil guy but make sure not to be a jerk as player because evil PC.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I really like this Answer because of the emphasis on discussing limits with your fellow players (including the GM). The other Answers are great for detailing what other options may be used in this talk, but the most important part is making sure everyone is on the same page and okay with your character. And, in fact, you may want to design your character around the limits given. \$\endgroup\$
    – trlkly
    Nov 24 at 9:57
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Chaotic is not inherently unpredictable.

The law versus chaos dichotomy within the alignment mechanics is arguably a composite measure of two more easily understood things from real life:

  • Centralization of authority (for law) versus decentralization of authority (for chaos).
  • Collaboration (for law) versus independence (for chaos).

So, in a more concrete sense, a chaotic character is one who favors independence and preferentially avoids centralized authority. Such characters can be less predictable than their lawful counterparts, but generally do have reasons they do things even if sometimes it’s just ‘because I felt like it’.

Evil is not inherently violent.

The good versus evil dichotomy is a bit more complicated. It’s supposed to be a matter of morality based on a rough estimation of the moral compass of (most) of real world society, but it kind of leaves out some differentiations that are actually important for character building.

Getting into that in detail would make this answer far too long, so I’ll just keep it short by pointing out that:

  • Evil in the alignment system is not the opposite of good, it’s the absence of good. In other words, evil characters are those who are unfettered by the moral obligations of being good and are willing to do whatever it takes (possibly within their own moral code) to get what they want.
  • Characters may be evil for any number of reasons, such as:
    • They simply do not care what means they use to achieve their goals (my friends and I call this ‘apathetic evil’).
    • They actively wish to cause suffering in others (actively evil, or evil for evil’s sake).
    • They may completely lack empathy (essentially, a sociopath).
    • They may have a completely different concept of morality (it is worth noting that most blue/orange morality characters in published adventure modules are categorized as evil, not neutral like they arguably should be, which reinforces my first point above).
  • Why a character is evil has a very big impact on what they may do.
  • Even evil characters may abhor violence (in fact, this is not all that uncommon among lawful evil characters in real life popular media).

Given this, a chaotic evil character is not inherently an indiscriminate killer.

Actual chaotic evil characters I’ve seen include (pulling both from popular culture and from actual character builds I’ve seen):

  • The guy who is a standoffish jerk to everyone and would rather see the world burn than save it, but doesn’t really want to go out of his way to make that happen either.
  • The friendly rogue who is secretly trying to cause the party’s cleric to fall from grace just because it’s fun.
  • The gnomish pastry chef who is merilly explaining exactly how he will kill you for threatening his girlfriend as he bakes you a pie.
  • The mad anarchist wanted for regicide in twelve kingdoms, who is trying to systematically disassemble every government in existence.
  • The crazy mage who seeks to take over the universe by systematically destroying every other living thing in the universe (or every planet, or every star, etc, this one is kind of popular).
  • The stereotypical pirate captain who rules his crew through fear.
  • The unhinged emperor who starts a war with the god of the sea over a perceived personal affront (among other things, sometimes reality is stranger than fiction).
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  • \$\begingroup\$ Please provide a link to the blue orange morality axis, I think it will help anyone understand the point you are making. (I think TVTropes has a nice picture and article covering it). \$\endgroup\$ Nov 23 at 13:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast Did you really just wish TVTropes on anyone who happens to innocently wander through this question? You monster! \$\endgroup\$ Nov 23 at 14:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ That Crazy Mage sounds familiar. My own efforts at a Chaotic Evil character weren't far off that, with a Chaotic Evil Pyromaniac Sorcerer. He was entirely willing to kill and indeed inflict cold-blooded torture in the pursuit of his and the parties goals (while other characters held to quite strict moral codes) and preferentially used fire-magic to do it. He was also very enthusiastic about the dramatic speeches of the antagonists. But ultimately when pushed he stuck with his friends in the party. His loyalty was entirely to himself and those he counted as his friends. Everyone else can burn. \$\endgroup\$
    – Rowan
    Nov 24 at 15:50
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With Great Difficulty, But....

But: That Article Is Extreme

Unfortunately for my pithy header, the "but" clause has to come first. I (and evidently many others) take exception with Easydamus' description of chaotic evil. It's not wrong, per se-- the mindset it describes does qualify as chaotic evil, but it's an extreme and cartoonish example of it that just will not work as part of a D&D group, because it's a murderous snotball of hate and violence.

Since you've tagged this with 1e and 2e D&D, it's worth going back and looking at what those systems have to say. I'll content myself with 1e, since I don't have access to a 2e DMG. It's also worth pointing out that in these systems, although it's often unspoken, alignment operates at three only hazily defined levels.

  • It operates at a cosmic level, with all of the outer planes conforming to it-- this is where we get pure chaotic-neutral monsters of weirdness like Slaad, inflexible lawful-good angels, rigid hierarchical lawful evil devils who won't/can't break a contract, etc. This isn't what we're talking about here, but that article could almost be describing the mentality of a chaotic-evil demon or demon cultist rather than a real person who is a functioning member of society.

  • It operates at a societal/social level, concerning itself with the amount of a law necessary to have a functioning society in some given environment, and the necessary protections one person (or group) has against others before things fall apart or bloodbaths start happening. This is kinda what we're talking about, as the PC interacts with the micro-society of his or her adventuring companions, or the larger society in which they are embedded.

  • It operates at a personal/psychological level, concerning the way the character's mind works, what he or she wants, and what they're willing to do to get it. This is exactly what we're talking about.

That said! The 1e DMG describes both the law-chaos and good-evil dichotomy as (in my opinion) different takes on the others-self dichotomy. Good and evil is about the use of power; power (almost definitionally) accumulates in the hands of the powerful. Good uses that power to safeguard the weak; evil does not care and by direct implication focuses on self-gratification or perhaps the gratification of a master they are not strong enough to overthrow. This is not my personal take on good and evil, but what I believe is a direct but useful paraphrase of the DMG itself:

Basically stated, the tenets of good are... creature rights. Each creature is entitled to life, relative freedom, and the prospect of happiness. Cruelty and suffering are undesirable. Evil... does not concern itself with rights or happiness; purpose is the determinant.

Law and chaos is about social (for the the purposes of this discussion) cohesion-- law wants more of it, chaos wants less of it. Lawful good and evil may want to leverage the power of a society to more effectively safeguard the vulnerable, or to extract personal utility from them, respectively; chaotic good and evil will lean the other way and believe that individuality and going it alone (or going rogue) will better achieve their moral desires.

Finally, another direct quote from the 1e DMG on chaotic-evil:

The chaotic evil creature holds that individual freedom and choice is important, and that other individuals and their freedoms are unimportant if they cannot be held by the individuals through their own strength and merit. Thus law and order tends to promote not individuals but groups, and groups suppress individual volition and success.

That's a bit philosophical for my taste, but the core of chaotic-evil is there: CE doesn't care about the rights, thoughts, or feelings of other individuals unless they are strong enough to make the CE individual care; and groups and societies are always making up and trying to enforce stupid rules, so why bother? If they lead groups, those groups won't tend to be real, functioning societies, but direct extensions of the strong leader's will-- cults of (evil) personality, brigand bands where everyone is afraid to step out of line, etc.

But what is strikingly absent in that description is a lot of the stuff that Easydamus talks about-- they're not required to go forth and kill, or steal everything that isn't nailed down, or corrupt the innocent, or kidnap all the farmers' daughters, or lie pathologically, or punch ever city watch member in the face. None of that psychopathy is even mentioned.

And even the Easydamus article admits this. If you take one thing away from it, take this:

A chaotic evil being is not expected to go about insanely slaughtering and torturing everyone he meets, for he isn't usually stupid. He will realize the consequences of such activities....

and ignore even the end of that sentence:

...and will participate in such pleasurable distractions only when safe from discovery.

Because even that isn't true.

With Great Difficulty

So with all that in mind, playing a chaotic evil character in a group is still hard, and I'll generally disallow it in anything resembling a conventional D&D game. Because let's face it: The 1e chaotic evil PC is not necessarily a snarling, barely-leashed murderbot just waiting for the party to turn their backs before dropping another mutilated body at the village they're leaving.... but they are probably Class One Thousand Jerkwads. Argumentative, always looking for maximum personal advantage at minimal personal risk, never inclined to take one for the team, definite tendency to be obnoxious to important NPCs as well as PCs.

And God help the party if the chaotic-evil guy is the rogue or a spellcaster, because the opportunities for petty crime, and therefore getting caught, will be endless.

What the player has to do, really, is successfully walk a very very fine line where the character is a jerk, without being so much of a jerk that the player becomes a jerk because the character is ruining everyone else's fun. Implicit in that statement is that the player of the chaotic-evil character has to care about the other players having fun. In my experience, I rarely see the players of chaotic-evil characters bring that to the table.

Goals and Consequences and Arcs

After all that, some concrete advice for how to make this work. But I'll be up front and blunt about this: While this is the best advice I have after decades of gaming, I don't think it's very effective advice. I just don't think chaotic-evil PCs work very well-- I won't allow them in my games without a very good reason, and as a player I'll probably walk if I know someone insists on being chaotic-evil. Life is too short.

  • Goals: Even chaotic evil characters have goals, and hopefully it's not "Build a pyramid of human, elven, and dwarven skulls." If the chaotic-evil character has a goal (revenge against the bigger badder evil is evergreen, here) and realizes that being in this party is the best way to achieve it, that can sometimes provide enough cohesion to keep things together. But it usually has to be a goal that isn't objectively evil, and it can constrain the way you put the game together. (I.e., if your group starts out as, for some reason, the chosen group to go deal with the Big Bad that needs revenging, fine. But if your characters randomly meet in a bar, that probably won't work. It's a spectrum.)

  • Consequences: Sort of the opposite. Sometimes it can work if there are consequences to not being a Team Player-- staving off the destruction of the world, preventing the demon apocalypse. Sometimes it's as simple as the presence of someone stronger threatening to knock the character's head off if they don't keep in line. It's very awkward if that person is a member of the group, but maybe the chaotic-evil character's boss gave them a job, and by God they're going to do it.

  • Arcs: This is a weasel way out of it, but maybe the character is interested in playing a redemption or an awakening arc, where they start out chaotic evil and then (relatively early in the game) something happens that shocks their conscience into change, with much of the rest of the game (for that character) being about that. I've seen this happen with lesser versions-- chaotic- or lawful-neutral to good, and I'm actually trying to pull it off right now. But especially in a full evil transition, it's something the GM would probably have to be in on, and it might need to be something the players are aware of so they don't just say, "This is distasteful-- I'm out."

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'll get you the 2d edition CE treatment if you like, I have that tome to hand. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 23 at 13:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ Even "obnoxious to important [N]PCs" isn't required -- think more along the lines of a glib sociopath who (figuratively) woo's people as a means of controlling them. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dave
    Nov 23 at 15:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think a TL;DR for the last section is something along the lines of "it requires coordination between the DM and the players to ensure that the campaign has the requisite structure so that the CE character is motivated to work with the party in spite of their alignment" \$\endgroup\$
    – Dave
    Nov 23 at 15:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast I'm not sure how you'd transfer it to me, but if it is convenient for you to do so, I'll take it. \$\endgroup\$
    – Novak
    Nov 23 at 17:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Novak NP -- I appreciate that this answer actually addresses "how to [try to] make it work for the table" over and above noting that CE does not mean uncontrollably violent or irrational. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dave
    Nov 23 at 17:25
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Be a Darwinistic villain with good PR.

Simply put, a person who believes in survival of the fittest, that strength triumphs over all other considerations, and that if they want to survive and prosper, they need to take what they want and need from those weaker from themselves, is a classic description of Chaotic Evil.

It's also a fairly common heroic archetype in certain types of fantasy fiction, that can feature more "protagonist-centric morality" along with a fairly Darwinistic world with significant gaps in personal magic power between the haves and have-nots that encourage these sorts of worldviews.

However, such a character wouldn't be a danger to the group, since they're all working together to take stuff from their enemies and grow stronger. Maybe they'd be more inclined to wipe out every trace of their enemies, even the little orc children, but to them, mercy to your enemies is cruelty to yourself. They'd be more inclined to dishonorable tactics, but then, victory needs no explanations, and defeat allows none.

That the strong prosper and the weak perish is simply the will of the Heavens, after all.

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There's two sets of questions I think you need to answer:

First - as players, how does everyone want this to work?

Maybe your table is totally fine with your sudden but inevitable betrayal, and the DM works it into the plot. (Boromir running off with the Ring as an example). Or perhaps they're OK with you going off the rails to cause drama, but aren't really into the PVP. What the character sheet says is far less important than making sure that you're not going to make the game Un-Fun, and that means making sure everyone is on-board with the themes of the game. Think of it as the reverse of the classic Paladin problem: almost every table figures out some hand-wave so the Paladin isn't smiting the rogue for picking a lock.

Second - what's the justification for the characters?

This is definitely secondary, but still important - you and your friends have figured out what's fun, now you explain it in terms of character.

Personally, the "chaotic" is almost a non-issue - lots of CG characters in the world, after all. That just means you don't buy into that law/authority nonsense.

The "evil" may need a bit more hand-wave, but D&D in particular tends to treat it as "group" vs "self", and that's totally doable.

To throw a simple generic possibility out there. Just read "I'm in it for myself" as "I'm in it for me and mine", and the rest of the party is included in "yours". Mafia bosses still love their family, after all. It's not contradictory to burn the world down to save your people, and not give a damn about anything outside that circle. Then you just need an explanation for why they're your people. Maybe they're childhood friends. Maybe you owe them (or they owe you). Maybe you share a common "what" of "get rich", but aren't bothered that you have different "whys". The key is that for whatever reason, your party is included under that very small umbrella of things you actually care about, and the orphanage is not under that umbrella.

The flip side is "why does the rest of those goodie-two-shoe Good-aligned people put up with you?". Some of the above answers work both ways - there's a debt owed, or you have some sort of past that means you stick together no matter what. Maybe the paladin/cleric is one of those super-forgiving evangelist types, and you get some good drama trying to convince each other to save/ignore that orphanage. It may even be a practical thing - yeah, you're just in it for the money, but you're very good at it and the party is good at phrasing things not in "we must help the Lord protect the village" but "that Lord is rich and is paying us good cash to go be violent".

Summary - any answer that works for your table is a good answer

And yes, this is just the first point again, but it's the important point - if everyone is having fun, whether it's "oh, there's Joe pocketing the alms again. That's classic Joe!", or "Joe, no - no touchies", or Joe just robbing the rest of the party and blaming some orcs... as long as no one at the table is going "welp, that just ruined my night" you are doing it right.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Note that organized crime is generally LE, not CE. Complex codes of conduct, strict hierarchies, etc. all go into the "lawful" aspect of LE. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 25 at 1:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ @RobertColumbia True, but kinda point-adjacent, since I was discussing the evil part, not the chaotic. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 25 at 2:24
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Chaotic-evil characters don't have to be stupid and reckless (well, except if you roll a low INT/WIS score, then they do!).

Compare with real life extremes: there have been even some kind of serial killers that had perfectly normal behavior when living in their usual social circles. They were also viewed as nice and helpful persons. They were able to control themself in public for years.

Moreover, "chaotic" doesn't mean "is unable to follow rules" (they actually can, if it's useful for them at the moment). And "evil" doesn't mean "is unable to show mercy, save lives or show empathy" (they can, if it's serves them well).

Moreover, who says an evil character cannot fall in love, for example? Evil characters do have feelings and can grow fond of things or some people too. They can do good things for their friends or family and still staying in character. They just don't give a rat's ass about all the other people at large!

Chaotic-evil characters are not necessarily oblivious to social norms or behaviors, and if they have enough intelligence and knowledge they will use (and bend) them to their best interests (and that's a trait which is perfectly in character for someone CE).

In other words, a CE character is not necessarily a crazy psycho-/socio-path. The Lawful vs. Chaotic and Good vs. Evil characterizations are there to describe which kind of moral compass a character has. This by no means determines their actions unequivocally. There are many more aspects to factor in.

The distinctive trait is not the actions they do, but the drive behind those actions.

For example, acting as a good Samaritan could be a perfect behavior for a CE character playing a killer trying to blend-in in a community. Or a CE character could go a long way to protect their lover(s) (ever seen some horror film where the master vampire protects his wives fiercely and acts affectionate toward them?!?).

Of course there's a gameplay catch: if you play a CE character without sometimes showing some chaotic and/or evil behavior the DM may think you are playing it out of character and penalize you.

However this doesn't mean your evil/chaotic acts must put the team at risk. A well-played CE character could be a real boon even for a team of incurable do-gooders: they won't like what he might do, but the team could benefit from his "amoral" decisions. E.g. killing an untrusty NPC that gets in the way; threatening a non-hostile but uncollaborative NPC with violence to avoid him stopping the team; torturing an orc to get some information, etc.

Those evil things don't even need to be performed in front of the other party members (to prevent them from stopping the chaotic evil behavior).

For example, imagine that the orc was left behind, tied to a tree, after he surrendered and the team went on. The CE guy (let's call him Bob -- a perfect name to hide he's CE :-) could say after some time: "Wait! I think I left my spare dagger where we tied that orc. You go ahead, I'll go get it and come back in a minute, don't wait for me."

Then he goes back, uses his spare knife to carve the skull of the orc until he tells the info. When getting back to the party Bob could say "Hey, you know that orc, when he saw me with my spare dagger in my hand he just thought I had come back to kill him and he just spat out (*grin*) that their lair's entrance is on the west side of the mountain. Go figure! I'm a really lucky bastard today! (*wider grin*)"

His party companions (and perhaps their players) could even remain unaware of his true alignment. That's a great way to play a CE character: a cunning SOB who is a great help to the party and also great at parties (pun intended)!

"Hey! Bob's a really nice fellow! He knows the best jokes and he always has a pint to spare!"

Even if the party knows/discovers some of his CE deeds, he could play the "I did it for the greater good" card. If his charisma score is high enough even the paladin in the team could end up thinking that he is not a deviant bastard that deserve to rot in hell, but just a misguided guy that just needs to stay with the party to witness acts of good to redeem himself!

Somewhat along these lines is Belkar, the halfling of OOTS. A perfect example of an exceptionally well-played CE character who blends well with his team of non-evil/mostly good companions.

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As others have mentioned better than I can, chaotic evil does not mean you necessarily have to murder everyone you come in contact with. But the page you link to specifically says 'when conventient' for many items, such as: 'You shall harm the innocent whenever convenient.'

CE characters defining characteristics are that they '... are motivated by the desire for personal gain and pleasure.'. So why would a CE character join a party? For the same general reason a paladin might, to accomplish lofty goals that they cannot accomplish on their own. While a paladin might want to adventure to help out other people though, a CE character might want treasure or power. Both might join a group of adventurers temporarily to accomplish their goals.

A CE character might disdain the goody-two-shoes cleric in the party, but their healing spells sure help when trying to defeat the powerful evil sorcerer. The cleric might be doing it to help out the people the sorcerer is oppressing. The CE character is more likely to be doing it with an eye to replacing the evil sorcerer, or acquiring some powerful item the sorcerer posesses.

makes it sound like chaotic evil characters have to be forced to work in a party, and even then they are always scheming about how to topple the current leader (e.g. by killing other players while they're sleeping).

Does your party have a leader? If so, then you probably would be scheming about how to take their place. You probably wouldn't slit their throat in the night because of the risk. Maybe they wake up, or another adventurer sees you or finds out about it (hmmm... Why was the leader the only one killed in their sleep? Why did it happen while CE character was on watch? Why didn't CE see anything? Why does CE character wants to be the new leader?) It would be better to undermine them by criticizing every poor decision that they make and talking to other characters behind their back. In fights you probably would ignore enemies that are attacking the leader, hoping that he will be overwhelmed. If you see they are walking into a trap you might just forget to mention it.

Now if your party doesn't have a leader, you may be scheming to make yourself the de-facto leader. Try to get other party members to follow your 'suggestions' as much as possible. Praise them when they follow your 'suggestions' and do well, or even not that well. Is your party ready to make camp? Try tasking one or two of them with chores, and do one yourself. (I'm going to pitch the tent. Randalph, why don't you get the fire started...) Hopefully you can get to the point when others are looking to you for leadership.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ These points are true, but this answer does not address how to successfully incorporate this kind of character into a game that is fun for all. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dave
    Nov 23 at 17:22
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guildsbounty makes an excellent comment:

CE character recognizes that just randomly murdering people gets you dead in a big hurry (law, adventurers, etc). But they have figured out a trick: if you play nice with this group of other competent combatants, then people will pay you to kill things and then celebrate your acts of violence. You get to stab stuff,...

This isn't remotely new. In the 1808 poem Marmion by Walter Scott, Canto 2, XXIV, a Roman Catholic monastery has accepted some rather amoral monks into their ranks:

These executioners were chose,
As men who were with mankind foes,
And with despite and envy fired,
Into the cloister had retired;
...
For, as the vassals of her will,
Such men the Church selected still,
As either joyed in doing ill,
...

These monks are executioners. Their job is literally to kill those that the monastic authorities has condemned to death.

So these are definitely some sort of Evil characters, portrayed as something approaching a modern-day archetype of someone with Anti-Social Personality Disorder (ASPD). They don't like to respect others, but they know where they can fit in to society and even profit.

Your adventurer is not a "good person", but they know well enough, like these executioner monks, that the way to survive is to have a good career and a reason for the authorities to not want to hunt them down, not burn every orphanage in the realm and murder random people.

Your adventurer is a sociopath, through and through. They scheme, steal, murder, scheme some more, and think little of whether they are doing the right thing or what that even is. Your adventurer is not stupid - they are not going to go on some crime spree that they know will only get them thrown in prison or hung from a tree.

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You Can Have Your PC Do The Right Thing For The Wrong Reasons

Just because you have to play a character who is utterly selfish does not inherently rule out cooperation and even trust.

It is very easy to think of selfish and evil reasons to not "slit the throats of everyone else while they are sleeping" other than benevolence. There is the simple fact that they gain nothing from this but risk everything.

The challenge is to think beyond the extreme short term goals, if a party of 4 barely survives combat if one player murders the other 3 then they'll have to fight alone and they won't survive.

A Chaotic Evil character may rush to save a fallen ally not out of care for his allies life but that he is needed later.

DM Cooperation Is Needed

The DM must not put an evil PC in a position where there they have absolutely no reason to cooperate, the DM must help maintain some Machiavellian reason for them to stay together.

This could be how the evil PC needs to return the allies safe and alive to a certain reward or they will lose something if they betray their allies.

The PC Is Evil. The Player Is Not (hopefully).

The player controlling the evil character must remain generous, congenial and nice to be around as is expected as part of the sportsmanship of playing a game. Their character may have a certain motivation but they are only playing a character and has to - out of character - often explicitly state their conflicting motivations.

A player will find ways to show their character is evil without offending the sensibilities of the players around the table and would not play an evil character if the other players weren't fine with that. This is going to be part of going over what are off-limit-subjects in session zero.

For example, cannibalism is an obviously evil act yet is just so detached from our world it's very unlikely to bring back bad memories of cannibalism other players at the table have been victim of. Think of far fetched evil acts like stealing people's souls, summoning evil monsters or the evil PC transforming himself or herself into a monster.

Also, players don't feel pain or hunger so an evil character can be extremely cruel to a PC in those ways while the player never comes to any harm.

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We tend to think as alignment as neat, tidy boxes:

enter image description here

This creates the illusion that all characters with the same alignment are more or less the same. But they aren't like that, no. Chaos/Law and Good/Evil are axis, and we should treat them as so.

enter image description here

Your example is like the guy on (A). Instead, play the dude on (B). The dude on (B) has morals, won't kill their own friends, and will in general have less of a stone for a heart, and can actually work well on a group.

Don't be an (A).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ All your graphics are flipped - the Chaos is the right side for some reason. \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Nov 26 at 23:06

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