There Is No Such Thing as a Problem Character, Only Problem Players (or ‘How To Run an Evil Campaign’)

This is an older write-up of mine that was based on the experiences of the campaign I was running at the time. The party included a lot of morally grey characters (and some who were outright evil) who often engaged in the sorts of behaviours that are normally considered ‘problem behaviours’, like stealing from party members, eavesdropping on private conversations between other party members, and so forth. It was all genuinely justifiable in character, and we took great care to make this something that could actually happen in our game without causing player frustration so that we could immersively play these unsavoury types of characters. Anyway, without any further ado here’s the piece:

Problem Characters

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the notion of ‘red flags’ DMs glean from seeing the character sheets of new players. There is absolutely some correlation between ‘Chaotic Neutral Rogue Who Was Orphaned’ and ‘Asshole Player Who Will Murder NPCs For Fun’, but even then it should be noted that the rogue is not an asshole, the player is. The rogue is just an orphan.

This is something relevant to all DMs starting a campaign. We often talk about ‘session 0’ and all that, but I believe there is a step adjacent to that for a DM, and that is being involved in character creation in a way that prepares both the player and the DM for the sorts of situations they are going to need to handle during play pertaining to that character.

A Case Study

For my current campaign [Author’s Note: at the original time of writing] I have a party of 7, all of whom have ‘red flags’ in their character make-ups. I have a Tiefling who accidentally murdered her parents, a Fallen Aasimar who was taken as a baby into a cult in service of an evil god (said Aasimar has a LE alignment), I have a ‘not like other Goblins’ Goblin Wizard who on paper ticks all the ‘Drizzt boxes’, I have a druid with a dark past as a mercenary before she exiled herself into nature, the list goes on. They have thus far stolen from important NPCs, used invisibility spells to spy on each other, and can’t discuss a single plan without genuinely suggesting something along the lines of murder or arson.

But none of them has caused an in-game problem. None of them has disrupted play. The reason, in my opinion, is that I sat down with each of them during character creation and arduously discussed their morals, their willingness to cooperate, how they would handle people with different moral codes, etc etc etc. I also made it very clear to everyone at my table that Evil does not mean Asshole. All of my players have agreed with this notion. For the few that needed convincing, I use the simple analogy of a bank heist. Everyone involved in a heist is a criminal. They are ‘evil’ by DnD alignment standards. But they do not backstab each other, they do not kill each other, they do not lie to each other. Why? Because each one of them understands that in order to achieve their ‘evil’ goal of robbing a bank they must cooperate and work as a team.

For all their flaws, faults, moral deficiencies and straight-up selfishness, every single one of my player’s characters wants to get paid. They can’t well kill 4 werewolves on their own, but if all 7 of them work together they can, and then everyone gets paid. In order to get what they want, they have to work together. The means might be morally dubious, but the ends aren’t and the players don’t backstab each other. It’s simple game theory: everyone cooperating always creates the most reliably positive outcome. They may be evil, but they aren’t stupid.

What That Looks Like During Play

All of my players are encouraged to play their characters. I know that sounds really obvious, but you’d be surprised how often it gets forgotten. Let’s take an example from our most recent session. The goblin wizard used invisibility to sneak into the Tiefling’s room so he could eavesdrop on a conversation between her and the Aasimar. He had to roll stealth checks, contested by the Tiefling and Aasimar making perception checks, to see if he moved quietly enough to go undetected. If he had been detected, the three would have had to play out the scene. The Tiefling and Aasimar would have to react in character to discovering the goblin was about to spy on them.

Often, it seems, players react out of character the moment another player says ‘I’m going to turn invisible and spy on them’, and suddenly play breaks down. Instead, if we let things play out naturally and deal with potential consequences in-character, we create not only tension and drama (which are both part of what makes DnD enjoyable) but also set the stage for deepening the connection between characters. If players all subscribe to the notion of ‘the party is assumed to want to cooperate’ (which would be discussed in session 0) then their first reaction to discovering they were being spied on would be to admonish the goblin and tell him ‘we need to be able to trust each other or we can’t work together (and hence can’t get paid)’ rather than the knee-jerk (and game-stopping) reaction of saying ‘you spied on us, leave the party’. By applying the former, the players have taken a ‘negative’ thing (and a classic ‘red flag’ behaviour) and turned it into both a lesson for the goblin character, who can now grow and develop their character, and also an interpersonal development between characters than can help deepen their trust rather than destroy it.

The only thing that can prevent this all from happening is if the player, not the character, fails to buy in to each of these premises.

Reviewing The Above

So to recap. In order to successfully have so called ‘evil’ or ‘problem’ characters at the table, the players must:

  • Agree that out-of-character they must decide on actions that keep the party together rather than split it apart.
  • Agree that in-character evil characters must cooperate with a group in order to get what they individually want.
  • Play out interpersonal situations to their conclusion, with the intention being to develop ‘history’ between characters that will one day be reflected upon as characters grow and change.
  • Not object out-of-character to morally problematic or classical ‘red flag’ behaviours such as stealing from party members, withholding loot, lying to each other and spying on each other, and instead play out the consequences in-character.

With all this established, you set the stage for extremely rich characters with deep and satisfying connections between each other as the party grows over time.

Limitations

Assholes are assholes. Kick them out of your groups. This approach is never going to turn an asshole into a good player, it’s going to make sure people who are good players (or want to be good players) are able to engage in these character behaviours without accidentally being an asshole.

This framework also makes it easy to identify assholes. When it comes to characters engaging in problematic behaviours, someone who is willing to agree to the guidelines laid out above is a good player, someone who is not willing to agree to them is an asshole.

A Satisfying Conclusion

So next time your player says ‘I want to play a Drow ranger who is a loner and tries, often unsuccessfully, to defy the stereotypes of their kind’, sit them down and ask them questions about their character like:

  • How do they usually hide their identity in big cities? (at my table my Goblin Wizard is constantly expending spell slots on disguise self. Not optimal, but extremely flavourful, and the exact kind of drawback that should be associated with playing such a race)
  • What would it take for them to trust someone and maybe even eventually befriend them?
  • How does their anger/jealousy/what-have-you-negative-emotion tend to exhibit?

And so on. Before they even get to your table, have them thinking about how the character might grow over time. If they know what it would take for them to start trusting someone else (‘If they saved my life’) then the first time the cleric brings them back from 0HP they know that their character would start trusting that cleric. Hey presto, your edgelord ranger just made a genuine connection to another party member.

The various official WoTC books for 5e have all sorts of fantastic player options for less-than-savoury characters. Let’s all as DMs allow our players to actually play them once in a while.

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