This article will explain everything you should need to know in order to understand and play the Lawful Evil alignment. Here’s an overview of what I’ll discuss:
- What the Lawful Evil alignment is
- How to play a Lawful Evil aligned character
- Lawful Evil examples & background ideas
- And more!
With that said, let’s start with some definitions first.
What is Lawful Evil?
Lawful Evil characters tend to be best represented by those villains whose actions are planned, deliberate, and directed. They don’t cause trouble for the sake of it; they’re motivated by wealth, power, or some other need, and commit crimes to achieve that end.
Lawful alignments are all about order. They enjoy structure, procedure, and laws. They will often support clear hierarchies and form social norms. Lawful characters defer to authority and follow tradition. They prefer stability over change, especially rapid, uncontrolled change.
Lawful creatures were originally described as creatures of habit—their reactions in any given situation can be more or less predicted. Lawful creatures may not necessarily uphold the law or even respect it; Devils are lawful because of their preference for hierarchy, punishment, and organization.
Evil characters have no respect for others and are willing to cause or inflict hardship, up to and including death, when it suits them. Some take pleasure in harming others, and do it for the sake of exerting their power, while others simply have no qualms about collateral damage in search of their goals.
Evil characters do not adhere to notions of the greater good and justice for all. Instead, they typically pursue personal wealth and power, at great cost to others and little cost to themselves. They aren’t willing to make sacrifices unless there is a high return.
Lawful Evil Definition
Lawful Evil characters may break the law, but they also respect it as a system they can use to their advantage. They are self-motivated and determined to succeed, and they know the system well enough to exploit it — be it the law of the land or a social hierarchy in a given community. These characters consider themselves superior to all others and enjoy enforcing class systems they benefit from.
Lawful Evil Character Examples
Lawful Evil characters are some of the most interesting villains to DM, but difficult to represent as a player. Whether or not you’re doing an “Evil party,” D&D is traditionally designed for the players to be the heroes in the story. However, that doesn’t mean half of all alignments are off-limits.
Here are some examples of good Lawful Evil characters, along with their quotes.
Lawful Evil Quotes
“If you must break the law, do it to seize power. In all other cases, observe it.”Julius Caesar
“Clever tyrants are never punished.”Voltaire
“Teach the people of this world — and later, those of other worlds — that Thanos is a kind shepherd to those who obey him. While for his enemies, life will become a burden they can neither endure — nor escape.”Thanos (Marvel)
“The people are happy and content. As I have commanded they be…”Doctor Doom
“It’s the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power, for identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.”Loki (Marvel)
“Fear will keep the local systems in line. Fear of this battle station.”Grand Moff Tarkin (Star Wars)
Lawful Evil Character Background Ideas
The Lawful Evil mentality is rooted in a respect for structure and order, as well as the self-serving willingness to exploit it for one’s gain. These main aspects of the alignment are not compelling unless they’re firmly developed from a character’s background.
Perhaps your character grew up poor and, having had a taste of wealth, is terrified of losing it. Maybe they suffered a great injustice early in life and are determined to ensure they’re never wronged again. Perhaps, due to a meager upbringing, they strive to crush the unfortunate as a way to internalize self-hatred.
While you don’t need to psychoanalyze your character to play D&D, deciding on an origin for your evil character’s motivations can help make them a meaningful experience in the game rather than a flat, generic “Bad guy”. Here are three sample backgrounds to spark your inspiration.
You inherited the family’s business and / or wealth. You were trusted not only with safeguarding it, but with expanding your empire. Through whatever means, your chief objective is to multiply your assets and influence.
Just as you were taught, you do so by following the conventional social rules and norms of upper-class society: you dress well, you speak well, you eat well. You honor your word and make good on your promises, but that doesn’t mean you’re benevolent; each deal you make weighs heavily in your favor. If you have to bankrupt the whole nation for them to recognize you, you’ll do it — and more.
You spent the better part of your life suffering. You were abused, mistreated, and unvalued. Whether you were a servant, the child to cruel parents, or a grunt worker in a factory, you were nothing. Now you seek power, strength, and status. During that pursuit, you crush those beneath you wherever you can, especially if it benefits you to do so. After all, that’s the way of the world — if they don’t like it, they should just fight back, like you did.
You’ve been branded a criminal, but you don’t deserve to be. You were at the wrong place at the wrong time, or you were framed. Perhaps you did commit the crime, but it was so small, and it was justified. Whatever the case, the law came down on you, hard. But it wasn’t fair.
Now that you’ve served your sentence, you’ve decided to reform. You follow the law. Very, very carefully. You’ve studied it so closely, in fact, that you know each and every loophole. You know how to use the system to win, and to make others lose. Furthermore, you navigate rules and society very carefully in order to put others down and bring yourself up. And nobody can really complain because, after all, you are following the law.
If you want more ideas for your characters, you might consider getting a Player’s Handbook from Amazon, if you don’t already have one. It’s an essential reference guide for every D&D player.
Lawful Evil Traits
While Evil characters are often very different in where their evil came from as well as how they portray it, Lawful Evil characters tend to share a variety of traits. These traits help define them, setting them apart from your store-brand villain, and help to make them an interesting and complex part of your games. Below are a variety of these traits that might help inspire you in personifying your Lawful Evil character.
Like most Evil characters, this alignment is well-known for its selfishness. These characters are in it only for themselves, and will seek to benefit themselves at every possible opportunity. While this makes them unreliable allies at the best of times, it also makes them predictable. For example, someone devoted only to attaining wealth will almost always fall on the side of the highest bidder. Lawful Evil characters have no problem putting others down if it helps themselves.
Lawful Evil characters are often hard to spot because most of the time, they do follow the rules. They spend much of their time planning and scheming to remain undetected while exploiting the system and those around them. Often priding themselves in their craftiness, they believe they deserve whatever they take because they’ve outsmarted their opponents.
Lawful Evil characters may even appear benevolent, like a philanthropist who secretly defrauds more than they donate, to stay under the radar.
Lawful Evil characters usually know the value of waiting. They are used to playing the long con, and are typically willing to accept short-term sacrifices in the service of a long-term goal. They are the ideal investors: throwing their money and resources into a void after carefully planning and calculating a (likely) positive outcome.
Because of their intimate knowledge of the systems they engage with, they are usually able to manipulate the odds in their favor, whether that be an economic market or their friendships with nobles.
Lawful Evil characters are the conspiracy masters. They construct elaborate plans and schemes directed at obtaining the highest profit or benefit possible, and any consequences that arise are just collateral damage. They clearly resemble, and often are, sociopathic in the planning and execution of their schemes, detached from the harsh reality of their actions. While they may possess complex personal feelings and even compassion and empathy, once a plan of theirs is set in motion, it will be carried out to completion.
While they are adept at exploiting it and sometimes outright violating them, society, the law, and other rules and structure are what give Lawful Evil characters their power. They need them as much as a Lawful Good character does, and will fight to protect them. A tyrant, for example, is nothing without the system of oppression that grants them their power and position. Lawful Evil characters are firm about the execution of their rules — and often of those who break them.
Confidence is key to many Lawful Evil characters’ functioning. They’re often so confident in themselves and their plans that they’re inflexible to change — which can be powerful in remaining steadfast, but harmful when their plans begin to fall apart. Unexpected change is not good in a long-term plan, and these characters often find it difficult to adapt, unless the change is one they’ve anticipated from previous meditations.
How to Play Lawful Evil Characters
Evil characters are difficult to play in D&D. They often devolve into “murder-hobos,” where instead of role-playing a complex, meaningful character, they take the “easy” approach of killing everyone with wanton like a video game. While this should be discouraged by DMs — these actions should have escalating consequences, after all — this behavior can cause conflict within the party.
Even when the party consists only of evil characters, D&D is a game, and it can quickly lose the plot when characters’ objectives are only to kill and make money. Below are a series of dos and don’ts for playing Lawful Evil characters and playing them well.
What to Do?
- Be more than your evil. It may sound counterintuitive, considering your alignment, but most people have an internal idea of what “evil” means. It’s easy for this to bleed into your character and strip it of whatever substance you’ve assigned it. Remember to use alignment as a lens through which to portray your backstory, not as your backstory.
- Find a way to work with your party. Evil characters are, by definition, selfish. But D&D is still a cooperative game. Reflect your lawful side and ask yourself: What benefit does my party provide? What do I bring to the party? Why would they keep me around? If you can’t answer these questions, work with your group to find ways to incorporate your character.
- Define some meaningful and attainable goals. “Get money” may be your overarching motivation, but without intermediate goals, the extent of your characters’ role-playing often amounts to intimidating quest-givers for more payment. What does your character want right now? Perhaps they wish to acquire a business, or the deed to an estate. Small, creative goals also give the DM a way to help incorporate you into the story.
What Not to Do?
- Don’t be “stupid evil.” Don’t just do things for the sake of being evil. Ask yourself why your character would do something. What do they stand to gain? Are the consequences worth the benefits? Remember that Lawful Evil characters are crafty planners; does killing a shopkeep for a 10 gold discount benefit them in the long run?
- Don’t just be mean. Being rude to every NPC you meet is a very boring way to play—it’s predictable, and it’s frustrating for the DM, too. They have to react in the same way: either cower in fear, or fight back, argue, and call the guards. It saps interesting interactions from each encounter and halts story progression. Plus, roleplay-wise, it’s ineffective: getting tossed in jail doesn’t help anyone. Lawful Evil characters may be selfish, but that doesn’t mean they can’t make friends. Allies and partnerships can be a very useful way to gain power and influence.
- Don’t let go of your evil tendencies. Most of this advice seems at first glance angled to make your character less evil. But what’s even the point of playing an evil character then? You are responsible for building a character that works well in the group environment of D&D, but the Evil alignments do exist for a reason. Be respectful of your players and the DM, but that doesn’t mean you can’t build a dark antihero.
Lawful Evil VS Other Alignments
It’s often in Lawful Evil characters’ best interests to work with others. In order to play the long con and exploit those around you, you need allies: lone wolves don’t benefit as much from the same system as those who know how to play it. The following sections describe Lawful Evil characters’ perspectives on other alignments.
Lawful Evil VS Lawful Good
Lawful Evil characters are relatively ambivalent towards Lawful Good ones. The latter tend to enjoy the same systems, rules, and structure as the former. Lawful Evil characters often disguise themselves as Good, which means they often look similar on the outside.
However, if they learn of a deception, Lawful Good characters often commit themselves bringing their Evil counterparts to justice. In these scenarios it can become a difficult battle of who can navigate the laws and social groups more effectively, and more doggedly.
For example, Omni-Man and Invincible in the Invincible show perfectly represent the Lawful Evil / Lawful Good relationship. They both respect and need the structure and order of society in order to fulfill their goals, but their ultimate aims are as disparate as possible, and neither is able to back down in the face of the other.
Lawful Evil VS Neutral Good
Lawful Evil characters tend to be cautious around Neutral Good characters, and vice versa. If they stay in their own lanes, they can comfortably ignore one another and get on with their lives. If the Lawful Evil character gets on the radar of a Neutral Good one, however, things begin to fall apart.
Neutral Good characters have little respect for the carefully constructed system Lawful Evil characters depend so fully on, and their damage-control strategies fall short. Neutral Good characters, however, rarely get the support they need in such conflicts because Lawful Evil characters are adept at appearing “right”.
Batman (Neutral Good) is the perfect foil to Carmine Falcone (Lawful Evil). He disrespects Penguin and his hierarchy and organization, and uses whatever means necessary to bring him down. However, on the other side, Falcone is skilled in corrupting city and police officials, and uses his influence and goons to keep himself out of jail, and make it difficult for Batman to bring him to legitimate justice.
Lawful Evil VS Chaotic Good
Chaotic Good characters are perhaps the most feared by Lawful Evil ones. The former seek to tear down everything the latter has built, whether that’s a secret identity or an army of loyalists, and they are ready to employ radical means to do so.
Lawful Evil characters often rely on the system of society to back them up and act as a buffer, protecting them from potential foils, but Chaotic Good characters tend to bypass those avenues anyway. They are dangerous because they are unpredictable, and Lawful Evil characters like to have contingency plans for potential complications.
At the height of his Jedi career, Anakin Skywalker was the perfect Chaotic Good enemy to the Lawful Evil droid army and other villains. His unconventional tactics made him impossible to predict, and he was able to defeat their overwhelming numbers by relying on the resulting predictability of their extensive planning.
Lawful Evil VS Lawful Neutral
Lawful Neutral characters share a lot of characteristics with Lawful Evil ones. While they’re often on different sides of the moral compass, they both tend to share a personal code, and believe in structure and order.
Morality often comes second to both of these characters, so when viewed from the lens of their dogma and doctrine, they are quite similar. They would have no problem working together when their goals align and moving on when they don’t. They don’t share any innate animosity but can become quickly and firmly at odds when their ethics and ideals clash.
Self-serving mercenaries such as Gamora and Nebula represent Lawful Neutral characters in their relationship with the Lawful Evil Thanos. Thanos is a powerful ally to have when he’s on your side, and for a time it served them to do so. However, eventually their motivations failed to line up, and they became dedicated enemies.
Lawful Evil VS True Neutral
Lawful Evil characters don’t particularly like True Neutral ones because they’re hard to predict, control, and manipulate, but they’re also prepared to ignore them if they don’t get in the way.
The same goes for True Neutral characters of Lawful Evil ones. They don’t feel any particular need to interfere in their affairs unless they become a significant problem for them personally, or for their ideals.
A neutral, individualistic nation observing a conflict might represent a True Neutral entity in observing a Lawful Evil nation growing through imperialism and conquest. They might keep to themselves and allow them to proceed unhindered. They would only intervene when the Lawful Evil nation begins to cause harm to them, or else when their actions are firmly against their own beliefs, like the United States intervening only part way through WWII.
Lawful Evil VS Chaotic Neutral
Lawful Evil characters dislike Chaotic Neutral characters because they can’t control them, and they have the potential to upset their operations. Chaotic Neutral characters find Lawful Evil characters stifling and controlling, but don’t particularly care one way or the other for them unless they’re being directly affected by them. Similarly, Lawful Evil characters are willing to live and let live so long as each stay in their own lanes.
Catwoman is an example of a Chaotic Neutral character who generally ignores the Lawful Evil crime lords and so on in the DC universe. However, when they begin to infringe upon her freedoms and individuality, or when they do things that she disagrees with, she can be a venerable force and cause serious harm to their organizations.
Lawful Evil VS Lawful Evil
Lawful Evil characters can sometimes work together when they share goals and methods. However, as they’re usually very individualistic, they come into conflict when their greed and selfishness take precedent over their alliance.
They value each other’s usefulness in getting ahead, but don’t trust each other, and are ready to betray one another as soon as it’s convenient; however, both is ready to play the long game and engage in a long-term partnership, knowing the other will betray them some day.
For example, politicians who seek only power might work together to manipulate the public, gain influence and favor, but when faced with a position or victory only one of them can achieve, they’ll sacrifice the other in a heartbeat.
Lawful Evil VS Neutral Evil
Lawful Evil characters can form alliances with Neutral Evil characters easily. While Lawful Evil individuals often have to appear outwardly good, and remain within the system as the source of their power, sometimes things can only be done by someone with fewer scruples.
Neutral Evil characters enjoy protection and resources from Lawful Evil ones, and can easily move in and out of the partnership as they please. When Lawful Evil characters try to control them or clean up loose ends, conflict arises. Usually the Neutral Evil party has enough knowledge of the Lawful Evil one’s activities to do harm them personally or indirectly, such as through their reputation.
A callous corporate executive might represent a Lawful Evil character in their lust for power and wealth. In order to remain above-board, or at least to appear so, they might hire thugs to intimidate competitors and even partners into compliance.
Lawful Evil VS Chaotic Evil
Lawful Evil characters despise Chaotic Evil ones because of their penchant for causing chaos. They build their careers on order and careful planning, and Chaotic Evil ones not only eschew those structures completely, but often actively seek to tear them down.
Sometimes Chaotic Evil characters can be effective tools for Lawful Evil ones, as distractions or as weapons. (For example, pointing them in the direction of an obstacle and pulling the trigger.) However, they often get in the way and make it difficult for them to enact their carefully laid out plans.
DC’s Penguin is a Lawful Evil villain who seeks to control the criminal underworld through a clear hierarchy and structure. The Joker, however, thrives on anarchy and chaos, and doesn’t care if he tears down the police department or a criminal organization. He’s just as dangerous to other criminals as he is to law-abiding citizens, though he doesn’t care about either: he just wants chaos.
The Lawful Evil archetype is a great one for villains, because they don’t just cause senseless violence. They have a lot of supporters, and as a result it can often be difficult to get to defeat them. As player characters, they can help tell deeply vexing stories, as they are powerful allies but can turn into enemies on the flip of a dime, or at least complicate already difficult situations by their selfish motivations.
So long as you pursue your character’s story with the health of the game in mind, Lawful Evil is an interesting, if difficult, alignment to play.
For an overview of the other alignments, check our D&D Alignment Guide. Furthermore, if you’re looking to buy some D&D items, you might want to check our D&D Buyer’s Guide or D&D Gift Guide.