On Playing Black Hats

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(This article was written for those playing on a MUSH server. Though Underlight is a MMORPG, the principles given here are extremely applicable.)


While writing the article on playing heroes, I couldn’t help but think about the other side of the equation, so this month I’m going to take a look at playing villains. Like heroes, villains have a place in the story regardless of genre. They are the driving force of conflict. Though in many stories, the villain ultimately fails, there is a certain appeal to well-played bad guys. They’re those characters we love to hate, and maybe we see some of our own failings brought to life in them – in the darkest part of our souls, they’re who we might be if we were just a little less afraid of getting caught.

However it’s no picnic playing a villain in a MUSH setting, and it’s a job not many of us want to take on. There are many hassles and very little pay-off. In the hearts and minds of the do-gooders, the bad guy is expected to fall. Wear the black hat and you’re doomed to failure, so why bother? Yet the element of conflict is a necessary thing. Take away the villain, and the hero is just a guy with good intentions and nothing to do. The catch is this: generally speaking, in order for someone to win, someone else has to lose.

In a novel or movie, this isn’t a problem – the author is playing both sides of the equation, and while a few authors develop a certain infatuation for their villains, they have no qualms about toppling them in the end. However, in a game setting, the villain is portrayed by a singular player with his or her own goals and a desire for fun and an creative outlet. Not many players are interested in playing a character whose sole purpose is for some guy in a white hat to stomp them into a thin paste before strutting off into the sunset. This begs the question: how can a player in the role of a villain have a fulfilling RP experience without compromising the overall story?

Setting and Theme

These are two concepts I am fond of, and I will come back to them again and again, because I think that at the heart of every issue in the medium, these two elements are the key – what is the setting and theme of the game? The answer to that question defines the role of every character and of every player’s contribution to the game. In terms of villainy, the setting is the world the character antagonizes, and the theme defines why he or she is, essentially, evil.

It isn’t enough to simply make a character who does bad things for the sake of doing bad things. Villains need reasons for what they do or they aren’t compelling characters. The villain is often the hero of his or her own story, and even if the player can see that the character is wrong, the character must feel that what he or she is doing is right. What makes a villain is that, in terms of setting and theme, what the character thinks is right goes contrary to what the world at large (determined by setting) considers right (determined by theme) – and that is where the story’s conflict comes into the picture.

So the first step in making the portrayal of a villain a fulfilling role is for the player to get inside the mind of the character and figure out who he or she is. It starts with the player understanding the setting and theme of the game, and how his or her character fits into it. Taking the Dragonlance example from last month’s article, it’s a fantasy setting whose two major themes are ‘good will prevail because ultimately evil turns upon itself ‘and ‘nothing done in love can come to evil.’ Say you want to make a villain in this setting. First of all, since it’s a fantasy setting, the villain is going to have to fit the genre – think evil overlord, not secret corporate master. Next, consider the themes. From the get-go, you know that your character will ultimately fail because he or she is going to turn upon colleagues, superiors, subordinates and/or self. Also, you know that, because nothing done in love can come to evil, greed and hatred are going to be a major motivating forces for your character, because while he or she may know love, by definition his or her actions are not motivated by it, regardless of what he or she may think.

There is the framework for a villain. The player’s next task is to fill in the blanks and bring the baddy alive. In most cases, villains aren’t born, they’re made, so consider what forces conspired against an innocent child to raise him or her up into such a menacing presence. Was the character abused as a child? Betrayed by the one single thing or person he or she trusted? Did his or her aspirations fail and turn all his or her best intentions into bitterness and a thirst for revenge? Did poverty and hardship create a desire never to suffer again? What drives the character to do what he or she does? Usually, in the mind of the character, what he or she does is justified, but why does he or she think so? These are decisions left to the player creating the character, but it is essential to use the game’s setting and theme as guidelines for making a character that fits the role.

The Line Between IC and OOC

After going through the process of bringing a villain alive, the player is faced with challenges on an OOC level that the players of white hats rarely face. People often make the mistake of assuming the values of a character are shared by the player, and when a villain says or does something offensive, it is the player who is vilified. There are things a player can do to prevent this. On one game where I play, the player of a homophobic character has specifically stated in his OOC information that he does not share his character’s views. This makes things more comfortable for me personally, because while I don’t mind being victimized IC, I don’t want it followed up with OOC bile, and I certainly don’t want to spend my time feeding into someone’s RL hatred.

I think it also helped the player because, having attempted such a role myself, I know that the moment your character says or does something controversial, you can expect a barrage of OOC complaints from people who think you’re some kind of sicko. While there are players out there who do take OOC satisfaction out of acting out their RL bigotry and/or perversions in a game setting, that doesn’t mean everyone taking on a villainous (or even controversial) role is out to ruin everyone else’s fun. While there are steps the baddie’s player can take to let his or her fellow players know this, I think it is also the responsibility of the other players to understand, and to support the people who are playing their adversaries. Villains get a bad rap, but they are the source of conflict that drives the game, so be nice. Don’t assume, just because their characters are out to get yours, that they’re out to get you.

Communicate. Get to know the player of your adversary before you decide whether they’re some sicko who’s out to ruin your good time. Some of my favorite players are the ones portraying my nemeses. We’ve taken steps to draw a distinct line between IC and OOC, and while we’re thwarting each other at every turn IC, on an OOC level we’re laughing and having a good time. There is a certain level of sportsmanship involved in being able to say ‘well done’ to a player who just screwed your character over through a series of well played actions. When that mentality works both ways, playing conflict isn’t stressful. It’s fun, and ultimately that’s the goal, regardless of the color of your hat.

Sometimes OOC conflicts do arise despite the best efforts of communication and compromise. When this happens, it’s important not to assume that it’s the job of the villain’s player to back off. You have to ask yourself what the role of conflict is in the game. If it’s a conflict-driven game, you might just have to suck it up and play it out. If this is a problem, consider playing on games where the PCs are protagonists and the only antagonists are NPCs. I say this because in a game where PCs are expected to clash, they’re going to, and when they do, each player has just as much of a right to see their IC actions through as the next. That means you might have to deal with a villainous PC who has the brains and resources to thwart you, and donning the white hat doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to win. Even if the theme dictates a villain is doomed to be defeated, that doesn’t necessarily mean your hero is going to be the one to do it.

Other Hassles

There are other hassles involved in playing villains. For example, most sane PCs aren’t going to hang around someone who is doing bad things to them, and that can make finding RP difficult. Players need to find IC reasons to interact, and sometimes setting up a situation where it’s inevitable is the best way to accomplish this, particularly when the PCs wouldn’t voluntarily do so. The problem is there are only so many ways to do this before it becomes contrived.

This also ties into keeping up the momentum of a story. Conflict is necessary, but conflict begs resolution. Once it’s resolved, what more is there to tell? The key is to have characters and situations constantly evolving so that when one conflict is resolved, another arises in such a way as to present new opportunities rather than a sense of an endless cycle. Sounds great, but how do we do that? Good question, and it’s a topic for a whole other article.

Another problem villains run into, in the area of IC-OOC lines getting blurred, is the player who desperately wants to be a victim. Personally, I’m little leery of players who page me begging to be victimized. If I’m playing a villain, chances are I don’t necessarily enjoy what he or she does on a personal level, and I certainly don’t want to play it out in grisly detail again and again for a player who enjoys being repeatedly victimized. All I can say to this is that there are games out there specifically designed to fulfill this particular desire. Find them. Play on them instead. Please.


It is for the player of the villain to realize that this unique role requires a lot of heart, and a great deal of understanding the motivations of a bad guy. In turn, it is for the other players to realize that the character is not the player, and that the player of your adversary has a story to tell, too. The medium isn’t like a novel, and the villain doesn’t exist solely to be defeated. Mutual respect for both roles, white hat and black, can go a long way in creating a fulfilling RP experience for all involved.

The thing is, we need our villains. Without them, games go stale and players are left with nothing to do. Unless the game is designed for everyone to play a protagonist while RP staff takes up the antagonist role in the form of NPCs, the job of being a baddie falls on our fellow players. Be kind to them. A well-played villain with a good and conscientious player is worth its weight in gold.


Original article by Karrin Dailey.