Everyone loves a bad boy. Boots made from the skin of slain enemies, black leather and spikes everywhere, oversized abyssal axe slung over one shoulder, occasionally emitting the death wails of those it’s vanquished. Of course, today’s adventures are all about helping an orphanage by organizing a puppy parade fundraiser for your employers (I may be editorializing a bit hyperbolically). But you might see the problem here. Throw in the fact that the D&D multiverse is filled with lawful good clerics, incorruptible paladins, hippy druids, and… well…. you get the idea.
Today we’re going to discuss the often overlooked pitfalls in wanting to play the dark hero in a fantasy adventure. For the sake of argument, let’s assume you’re not playing in the RPGA where “as long as it’s rules legal, it’s fine at the table”. In a normal game of Dungeons & Dragons, you’re going to have to navigate the delicate minefield of explaining how it’s just fine to send shards of your enemies’ souls to your Infernal Patron or why you decided to dressed up as Skeletor (Skeletal Armor, Adventurer’s Vault p.52—check out the picture) to visit the High Temple of Pelor.
You see, a lot of players and Dungeon Masters gloss over some of the “almost evil/that’s really messed up” aspects of certain characters. However, it’s time to turn on the lights and see how many horned assassins dressed all in icy darkness have been sitting in your game this entire time. Remember, knowing is half the battle. Don’t worry, antiheroes, I’ll give you the tools you need to cope… just keep your Batman voice at hand and be ready for some intense roleplaying.
Let’s start with the biggest offender of the Almost Evil by asking a question:
“How do you trust someone who’s sold their soul and is regularly sacrificing their victims to their Dark Patron before your very eyes?”
Yep, it’s time to throw down with Warlocks.
First Up: Warlocks
Upside: There’s nothing cooler than blasting/slashing away your opponent’s soul.
Downside: Other people might be watching you blast away a guy’s soul.
Where to begin. Seriously. We’ve got a class here whose defining characteristic is how you’ve sold your soul to another being. Unless you’re a small number of superheroes, that’s pretty dark. According to Arcane Power, infernal warlocks are explicitly going to Hell when they die. Fine. I get it—you’re a “I’ve got nothing to lose” bad boy (or girl). Every time a warlock’s pact triggers (with the death of an enemy, usually) a shard of the victim’s soul goes off to the Patron Devil/Aberration/Tyrant Mage/Archfey/Dead God whatever. Harsh. Not to mention that some warlock patrons are dangerously specific. In Dark Sun, for example, warlocks swear loyalty to evil life-defiling tyrants. So if your party includes, say, a Hexblade of the Lady of the White Well, it’s good to know that they want to marry an imprisoned archfey that’s the bastard child of the goddess of trickery. That actually sounds pretty cool (thus the allure of the antihero) but remember, that patron is still eating soul shards. Soul-devouring is an attribute that’s hard to gloss over. But… let’s try doing just that.
Gritty Antiheroes, never fear! There are two ways to recover from this. First off, this could all be secret information. Maybe the bartender doesn’t read his Player’s Handbook very closely, or maybe the nature of your powers isn’t obvious to everyone. In this case, their not knowing is half the battle. Maybe you can re-imagine your warlock’s pact—each soul shard you collect might pay back your debt to your patron… if it’s a finite number it might seem less evil? Maybe?
Then again, if the truth does come out, this is where you’ve got to pull out the tragic backstory. You might’ve sold your soul in order to save your three younger sisters, and you’re trying to do good before the Abyss comes for you. Maybe you should cash in on the Essentials warlock’s trick. While the fey hexblade is still feeding soul chunks to his patron, Essentials has cleverly tweaked the details of the Infernal Pact so that—thanks to a loophole in “Infernal Law” (insert lawyer joke here)—you’ve stolen power from devils and they’re out to get you, rather than the old Infernal Warlock who just gets to go to Hell.
Honestly this is one of my favorite things from the Essentials line. In Manual of the Planes, fey warlocks in the Feywild could roll to determine who their patron was and meet “the big plant/force of nature/elf” in the flesh. The book, however, carefully avoided letting infernal warlocks do the very same thing and shake hands with the devil who’s been helping them.
Warlocks are a difficult antihero in a morally squeaky clean party, so just keep your eyes open. And maybe you don’t take that daily power that turns you into a demon before teleporting the nearest enemy into Hell. Just a thought.
Next up: Necromancers
Upside: You’re a freaking necromancer, which rules. You look great in funeral black.
Downside: Villagers are strangely upset about their loved ones summoned into combat.
This one’s a little more obvious at first glance. While warlocks didn’t get too dark until you looked at the specifics, necromancers are just generally wrong in a, well, general way. Specifically it’s the whole “You animate corpses” nitpick. Even the description of the necromancy school should raise a few flags: Villagers hate you and accuse you of being a grave robber. While they’re kind of right (as the book says, most necromancers need a ready supply of dead bodies—just ask Johannes Cabal), I’m not sure anyone should be throwing the “grave robber” insult around in the world of Dungeons & Dragons. I mean, how many undead tombs have you personally raided? Respect for the dead is one thing, but from my experience, most crypts and tombs are filled with zombies and a lich/cultist in the final room. If this logic applies to real life, it explains why everyone puts on their "stealth black" clothes whenever they go to a funeral.
Heroes of Shadow does provide a counterpoint. Necromancy is just magic, no more or less evil than any other school of magic. The downside to this argument (which is why I don’t recommend it) is that a villager may hear it and assume you mean they should burn all wizards, not just the one juggling skulls. So what’s a dark brooding mage of decay and corpses to do?
Well, first off, become an adventurer. It’s pretty easy to do in D&D as there are very few campaigns based on doing your laundry and organizing your ritual components. As long as you only animate enemies and gain “necromantic components” while “in the field” you’ll do just fine. If pressed, it’s really no more “evil” than that barbarian who collected trophies from fallen enemies. As a ritual caster, you might be tempted to pick up Undead Servitor, a ritual that allows you to create a zombie butler to carry all your stuff forever. Just say no. If you’re already in a morally shaky situation, a constant reminder that you reanimated the corpse of the guard you killed three towns ago can’t help. Like, at all.
Finally, a necromancer’s worst obstacle in a party is going to the divine straights. Typically lawful good, a divine straight has the ethical flexibility of rock and is just as easy to talk to once they have, via the transitive property, decided that because undead are evil and necromancy creates undead, you must be evil. The solution?
Thank you so much for your interest in stabbing me while I’m searching for treasure. It’s reassuring to know you’re keeping a watchful eye out for nefarious persons and have found the good in murdering me. Before you proceed, might I ask how that divine method of ridding the world of undead abominations is going? I mean, all the gods out there seem to believe it’s vital that 100% of their followers can rebuke/turn/nuke the unliving. With that percentage of armament, it’s surprising that any undead are still around.
Have you thought about what those lowly mortals without contact to a holy being are doing to deal with the undead problem? While “not dying” has been tried to cut the undead off from their supply lane, mastering the ability to control and master the undead has proven much more successful. That ability is called necromancy. Now stop stabbing me.
Gloombangle Scrunchkull, Esq.
As a side note, the above logic can also work for warlocks, with a little roleplaying twist. Instead of undead, insert aberration/devil/sorcerer king/etc., and simply say that you “needed to get close to the enemy and they obviously trust you by giving you magical powers”. See, it’s almost neat and tidy how that comes together.
Last Up: Assassin/Thief
Upside: You’re a classic. A Cadillac of Dungeons & Dragons, if you will. Be it bar fight, dark alley, or unholy death trap, you look good.
Downside: For the love Kord, do not introduce your character class by name.
Sometimes, a name is everything. While introducing yourself as an assassin might be appropriate, the next question a player might ask you is “but what’s your class?” The same applies to thieves, weirdly. Adventures often involve the killing or removal of a specific target and adventurers will kill many, many folks (less if you don’t think of non-human races as folks) before calling an extended rest. Likewise, they’ll steal anything that’s not bolted down to the dungeon floor. The problem with these classes comes up when you start thinking about why they’re in the party.
Rogues have it easy because—even if you’re a known criminal—the most straight-laced priest will fudge his morals a tad when you save the entire party from a mechanical death trap. But no one should introduce themselves as a “thief” in a party; it’d be the equivalent of saying you’re an internet pirate, or maybe even a Somali pirate, when you join a new study group.
As for assassins… the immediate question is why are you joining the party? Is business bad? Is this all part of your master plan and you’re not allowed to tell us who you’re here to murder? And remember, saying you’re an assassin means you admit to killing people. (Essentials assassin: executioner dodges this because it sounds like it’s a state-appointed position. You know, like parking lot attendant or maker-of-the-keys.) Admitting to killing is a deal breaker for most groups, and I’ve had games implode because not everyone followed the 4th Edition rule of “you can choose to leave your opponent unconscious instead of killing him.” Introducing yourself as an assassin is basically saying “I will most likely murder the boss in the last room”.
Lie. Assassin or thief, you’re good at that. There’s no reason not to introduce yourself as a fighter, a warrior, a collector, a merchant, a tourist, an adventurer (I’m not joking), a traveling sharp object and deadly poison salesman… you get the idea. No one can question what you are because your character class is just a name. That kind of bleeds into the “coward’s way” with this issue.
If your class is morally weird by your gaming table’s standards, you can change it to fit. Maybe warlocks don’t sell their souls and necromancers summon fairies from Candy Mountain. This way, however, is flawed—because you’ve clipped the wings of your gritty antihero, and he’s just not what he used to be. If dark and morbid isn’t the way you want to go, change what you need. Otherwise, don’t avoid the roleplaying conflict, that’s where the fun is.
Almost Evil Paragon Paths (3 Select Examples)
Upside: You’ve played 10 levels with your character, building friendships and trust. They won’t easily turn on you.
Downside: I said “easily”. Give it time.
We’ll address three paragon path choices in order of ascending horror.
First, we have the ardent paragon path: siphon (Psionic Power p.27). Specifically, at level 11 you become a “psychic vampire” or “insidious mental parasite”. No joke. All the siphon’s powers involve sinking your psychic fangs into your opponents and feeding off the psychic energy of the dead. Because it’s “psychic” it’s not as bad as swallowing their soul, right? That reminds me…
Next we have, from Heroes of Shadow (p.150), the shadowthief with an endless hunger for the shadows (close to souls) of others. Unlike the siphon, the shadowthief is cursed and apparently gets possessed by his hunger. There’s nothing saying that you need to eat so many shadows a month (you get shadows by killing people), but even that raises a weird question. If you choose to not kill an enemy by reducing them to 0 hit points, but you still eat their shadow… would that mean you’re creating more shadowthieves? You, after all, are a living creature that had his shadow stolen and now has to steal shadows to live. Shadowthief is a new paragon path, and an interesting one. Do you feed your endless hunger for shadows by killing your victims so they don’t become like you? Or does the paladin put you out of your misery?
For shadowthief and siphon players, I recommend playing up the tragic “why must I be a beautiful monster” angle, since while you, “as a player,” did choose your paragon path, your character did not. And no matter how hard you quest, there’s no cure for paragon paths (beyond retraining). Just remember not to cackle madly while guzzling souls.
Finally, the most “Almost Evil” paragon path I could find: the psion thrallherd (Psionic Power p.104). If you recognize the name, you may already agree with me. What’s worse? Swallowing the soul of an enemy… or lobotomizing and forcing him to get attacked (dimly) by monsters? We’re talking about an adventurer (let’s call you Psion Ratched) who walks up to someone and pretty much re-enacts the horror of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Here’s the thing: All of the previous horrors simply involve murder or oblivion for the victim. In this case, they’re very much alive being tortured regularly as the psion’s flesh puppet. Oh my. That’s…. a hard sell, even in vaguely shady groups. It’s so hardcore that it almost trumps the necromancer (at least necromancers only play with bones and dead meat). Do you think the thrallherd’s victim cries slow tears during short rests? Psionic Power gives some roleplaying tips for thrallherds, including “Help other players understand that you’re going to take over the world” and (I paraphrase this only slightly) “Maniacally cackle at the other players and roleplay that they’re already under your control”. As in, “Maybe I’ll lobotomize you next”. Wow.
Heroes of Shadow introduces the vampire class. While it is a class, please look to the Playing Evil Races article for more specific advice. The vampire is quite a bit darker than any race out there… as one of your class features (Blood is Life) forces you to actually convince your fellow adventurers to give you their blood to drink. But, like the necromancer, it's really an obvious "Almost Evil" or "Wasn't That an Enemy We Used to Kill?"class that other players see coming.
As much as Heroes of Shadow suggests that you embrace your dark and vile blood-drinking ways (which are admittedly awesome), you might want to tone it down if you’re going to play well with others. Even if you feel remorseful every time you use your blood drinker power, that’s only half the battle. The cleric can hit you with their turn undead and won’t hesitate if you choose to dress like Dracula. The chalice of blood is probably another accessory to avoid, now that I think about it.
The thrallherd is possibly the ultimate challenge here. It’s too cool for many folks not to want to play it, but if you step back, it’s so horrific that it takes some kid gloves. Options: Despite the art and recommendations, make your thrall an animal/beast of some sort (some people don’t care as much about beast companions). Next, lie. If you’re good enough at Bluff, do your best to pass off your thrall as “Sven, my dim-witted brother who will be joining us”. Beyond that... there’s the desperate pandering gambit. Is there an NPC that everyone in the game remembers and, preferably hates? Suddenly CheapNose the goblin merchant from a few levels back returns as your mindless slave! Sure, it’s just as horrible, but if it’s hilarious, you can get away with it. Which is pretty much my code.
Let’s be clear: You don’t have to play one of the above to be a dark antihero. The ones mentioned in this article are ones that are inherently in the “danger zone,” and you’ve got to make a decision on how you roll with it—or, if you’re a Dungeon Master, how you deal with a soul-swallowing assassin in your generally straight edge game. The ideas here can just as easily apply to the dwarven fighter who murders everyone he sees. It could apply to the cleric who doesn’t mind torturing in the name of religion. Characters don’t exist in a bubble, and since Dungeons & Dragons is a roleplaying game, you’re missing out if you’re just saying “everyone agrees” with a hand wave. I’m not saying player in-fighting is a good thing. What I’m saying is, if you’re going to be the gritty badass you want to be, you need to figure out how to make it playable. The best advice I can give? Talk to the people at your table. I’m sure not every party cares about the souls of enemy soldiers. But some do.
Fun fact: Batman may be the darkest character in the entire DC Universe. But you know what? He never had those gritty violent adventures when he was surrounded by superheroes in bright capes and neon-colored costumes. Let your adventuring party be your Justice League. You can send grim messages in blood to enemy cultists when the rest of the party’s not around.
Man, I’m tired of both attacking and defending the screwed-up stuff that I love. In the end, just know that if you must be the jerk who curb-stomps people and then eats their brains, at least come up with a good reason. I’d recommend a doctor’s note. Either that or make it trendy. If your table sits back a few sessions later and has a hearty laugh at the old days when they didn’t all devour craniums for hit points, you’re doing it right. Or wrong. Very, very wrong. And that’s a good thing.