Growing up, we played D&D and worried about the evil characters casually stabbing us in the back. In our young minds, fantasy evil meant psychopathic villains willing to maim and kill out of sheer pleasure (or malice). We imagined the deranged, not necessarily the evil, although our understanding became more nuanced as we matured under the guidance of society and the rulebook.
But many systems eschew alignment completely, figuring that the character will fall into whatever they happen to be, and that this will inevitably be human. And we agree, except in a world where good and evil are palpable forces to be reckoned with that bestow actual power within a cosmic order.
However, even in these games, some recognition of what evil represents may be helpful, especially when developing compelling villains and/or understanding how the worst scoundrel can be a contributing member of an adventuring party. Now going forward, we aren't talking about COSMIC EVIL, which is utterly detached from human psychology and anything we might possibly value.
No, we're talking about the HUMAN variety...
UNDERSTANDING HUMAN EVIL
First, understand that most everyone is concerned with their personal well-being. There are exceptions, of course, and plenty of debate as to what that word even means. But as a general rule, everyone tries to procure food and shelter enough to survive without being thought selfish, because we simply HAVE to.
But any behavior we might call "good" is predicated on the assumption that the lives and well-being of others are at least as important as our own and that we restrict our own behaviors in deference to this. Which is why good/heroic/principled types don't kill innocents and/or steal from them.
Evil individuals put their own well-being first, with all others accorded lesser priority. But this isn't necessarily the dividing line, since everyone has to see to their own needs first to some extent as a matter of efficiency. However, evil types, lacking any philosophical commitment towards others beyond themselves, cannot help but see others as a means to a selfish end...
They cooperate out of self-interest and even obey laws to avoid punishment, but also because said laws benefit THEM. They can also have friends and enjoy the pleasure thereof. At least until the relationship loses its luster and/or the "friend" no longer pleases them (or betrayal offers more). This is the insidious aspect of wickedness: its ability to adopt solidly GOOD trappings.
Now, the rank-and file evil character is selfish and hedonistic, although everyone knows this already. But they'll gladly fight the extra-dimensional demon lord because they LIKE the world as it is and don't want to see it turned into something icky where they can't find good beer and might end up a sacrifice!
Understanding this reveals enemies (and evil characters) not as mustache-twirling villains, but as fully realized PEOPLE with their own lives and experiences that OVERLAP with the full range of conventional "good" behaviors and make them alternately more real and more tragic, especially if they were CORRUPTED...
WHAT ABOUT LAW AND CHAOS?
Many systems, including our own Pits & Perils RPG, adopt LAW as synonymous with good and CHAOS as evil. Now of course, some object to this as too simplistic. But consider this. Good characters accept personal LIMITATIONS (or laws) on their behavior, while evil individuals accept NONE except out of convenience, meaning their actions are best defined as being CHAOTIC (without laws)...
Note also that this allows for the nuance we'll be talking about later in this post. So read on and decide...
CRAFTING THE CORRUPTED VILLAIN
Enter Darth Vader. How does an essentially good person fall to corruption, and what does this say about how they see themselves in the grand scheme of things? And what if they think they have a moral imperative to do what they must? Are they merely misguided individuals or selfish personalities with a cause?
I got a glimpse of this last week when I engaged a person who objected to an earlier post. In truth, we mostly agreed on things, and differed only on what terms we found useful until our talk stumbled into the following disagreement:
This person felt they could ATTACK whoever they WISHED because they had a MORAL IMPERATIVE and were completely justified.
Now, was this person evil? No. We all know the internet does things to people, and I was a bit off-base myself. But it's a good case study on how good people (with a good cause) might abandon basic humanity for their personal crusade until THE CAUSE becomes paramount and everything else secondary. Including the very people it purports to help. The fight becomes an end unto itself.
Ego takes over and the REASON for the cause falls away like stages of a rocket, leaving only THE FIGHT. And the ENEMY.
This variety of evil is more nuanced still, and it makes for interesting villains, although players are certainly free to adopt such characters for themselves! Obviously, these figures have a capacity for redemption, which is something else that players might try on for size if the GM (and campaign) allow.
Evil is so deceptively close to good, with so much overlap and frightening proximity, that we should all tremble at the thought of it and where it might be hiding. This is heady stuff and good fodder for role-playing, being the stuff of heroes AND villains...