From Darth Vader and Immortan Joe to Doctor Doom and the Dark Judges, villainous, evil characters who adhere to a creed and truly believe that the ends justify the means are all expressions of the Lawful Evil alignment.
Today, we’re going to be taking a closer look at what it means to be Lawful Evil, some of the examples of Lawful Evil characters in fiction, and give you some advice on how to play a Lawful Evil character in your next campaign (or make a Lawful Evil NPC if you’re a dungeon master).
What Is the Lawful Evil Alignment?
Let’s break down the two component elements of a Lawful Evil character.
Lawful characters believe in a system of codes, laws, rituals, or other social structures.
They believe that whether something is right or wrong isn’t up to the individual to decide (or even isn’t relevant at all) but rather that if something is the law, it should be done, and that breaking laws should be punished.
A lawful character believes in…
- The System
- The Rule of Law
- Society Above the Individual
An evil character is one who will gladly do immoral things like lie, cheat, steal, kill, and maim — whether for their own enjoyment, to defeat an opposing ideology, or in the case of a Lawful Evil character, to perpetuate and serve an evil system.
Evil characters can be selfish and are not bound by a desire to do the right thing, or they can do evil things because they believe they’re part of a greater good or in service to an unassailable law.
An evil character believes in…
- The ends justifying the means
- Taking pleasure in the suffering of others
A Lawful Evil person combines these two traits into a character with a world view that means they believe in authority, order, security, and the rule of law but have absolutely no interest in whether those laws are morally good.
They specifically follow those laws because they impose suffering on others or to help them get what they want. Lawful Evil characters are tyrants, high priests, bureaucrats, and lawyers.
Lawful Evil Ideals
A Lawful Evil person…
- Will follow the letter of the law, even when it hurts people unjustly.
- Will use the law for their own selfish ends.
- Believes they (or someone like them) should be in charge.
- Believes resistance to the state should be punished harshly.
- Believes that justice, freedom, and equality are not necessary for (and may even hinder) a functional society.
- Will prioritize order, security, and stability in society above all else.
- Believes rules are made to be followed.
- Refuses to bend the rules to help those in need.
- Seeks power and control over others.
Anyone whose power and privilege is enshrined by the state or natural order at the expense of others and who does nothing to better the lot of those less fortunate or change the status quo can be considered lawful evil — as can the people who enforce and protect them.
Sometimes, a Lawful Evil character supports (and revels in) an evil society or system of laws, committing awful acts in support of those evil laws — which they’re often responsible for creating.
Other times, a Lawful Evil character may believe in using the laws of society (which may not be evil in and of itself) to accomplish evil or selfish things, manipulating the system to their own selfish ends.
And lastly, some Lawful Evil characters (at least outwardly) deny their evil nature by equating law with goodness or neutrality.
They do immoral, awful things (sometimes just by existing) in the name of and protected by a system of laws.
An example of a Lawful Evil character in Dungeons & Dragons may be a tyrannical king or queen, an Oathbreaker Paladin, or a cleric who worships an evil deity.
Some examples of Lawful Evil monsters include blue dragons, hobgoblins, duergar, aboleths, and devils.
All these monsters are either part of rigidly hierarchical evil societies or impose their own kind of evil law on the creatures that serve them.
Lawful Evil Characters in Pop Culture
Because alignment isn’t an especially robust or accurate way of categorizing morality and ethics, the idea of a Lawful Evil character actually leaves a lot of room for different interpretations of the Lawful-Evil balance.
To help break that down, I’ve grabbed four examples of lawful evil characters from fiction to help explore some of the nuance contained within this alignment.
Evil means for evil ends
The most obvious example of a Lawful Evil character and the most straightforward example of this alignment — Darth Vader does evil things in service to an evil law.
Of course, he sees the Galactic Empire as a force of order and stability, and while those things may not be inherently good, they are important to a greater good that Vader uses to justify his actions.
Vader holds little regard for human life and kills his subordinates for incompetence and his enemies for standing against them, but it’s not suggested at any point that he enjoys it.
His actions are always justified, at least by his own standards and by Imperial law. He exists as an expression of Imperial power and order and fights (all the way up until the end) to preserve that power.
Other examples of Lawful Evil characters that exist as the ultimate evil expression of an evil power structure (usually one of that they helped create) include Immortan Joe from Mad Max: Fury Road (who has created a whole religion/death cult in order to enshrine himself as a living god atop a pyramid of human misery) and Prince John from Robin Hood, who exists as a living embodiment of the unjust Normal rule over Saxon England.
Evil means for Lawful ends
A slightly more complex take on the Lawful Evil alignment is the Operative from Serenity. This is a man who does unambiguously evil things — a self-professed monster — but he does them in service of a lawful world.
Of course, there’s some debate over whether this makes him Lawful Neutral instead or a misguided Lawful Good aligned person even (See? This is why alignment is stupid).
However, it doesn’t change the fact that he ruthlessly hunts down and destroys anyone or anything that threatens the perfect utopia he hopes to build, even if it means slaughtering entire worlds or murdering children and even if it means that he has no place in that world.
A Lawful Evil character can be well aware that what they’re doing is wrong, but if it’s in service to a law that justifies it for them, it’s okay.
Lord Cutler Beckett
Lawful means for Evil ends
The opposite of the Operative is probably one of my favorite villains of all time: Lord Cutler Beckett.
Rather than doing evil things in service of a greater law, Beckett is someone who uses the law — his social class, assets, etc. — as a way to do evil things (aka accumulate power, kill pirates, etc.).
He’s lawful in that he wields things like letters of marque like bargaining chips, offers pardons, and presents official documents as the source of authority behind what he does, whereas a chaotic or neutral character would simply point to his hundreds of armed soldiers.
It is the law that is the source of his power, not something as simple as his strength.
However, the law itself isn’t necessarily bad, as lawful-good characters (like Governor Swan) and lawful-neutral characters (like Commodore Norrington) derive their authority from the same law.
The law is a tool that Beckett uses for evil.
The Dark Judges
While Judge Dredd himself might be the perfect expression of Lawful Neutral, the Dark Judges are an excellent example of Lawful Evil.
They’re a group of undead beings from an alternate timeline who figured out that because only the living commit crimes, they should just wipe out all life and end crime forever.
On the great scales of morality, complete genocide of all life is pretty much the most evil act you can go for, but it’s being done in service to (an admittedly twisted and perverse conception of) the law.
Violent, psychopathic, but honorable at her core, Lucy Liu’s character in Kill Bill: Volume I is in many ways a distillation of other mobster and organized crime boss tropes that all fall under the banner of Lawful Evil.
O-Ren Ishii is a killer in charge of a gang of killers, but her organization isn’t wild and lawless. She’s in control, and there are rules to be obeyed.
This idea of the ganger’s code — whether that’s the Yakuza and their version of Bushido or the Sicilian mob and Omerta — is a great expression of Lawful Evil.
It’s a code that gives structure to an organization of people who do bad things for bad reasons.
The Nation of Gilead
In Margaret Atwood’s terrifying science fiction novel, the fundamentalist Christian nation born out of the violent overthrow of the US government enshrines an awful lot of truly evil stuff into law.
The rules of Ankh Morpork in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is unquestionably a tyrant, a man whose desire for stability, order, and control goes so far as legalizing crime in order to oversee it more closely.
He’s Machiavellian in his scheming and control; someone who uses evil acts as a way to create his own version of a lawful world with himself at the top of it.
The Nine Hells: The Neutral Evil Plane
If you’re playing a game set in the Forgotten Realms (D&D 5e’s default setting) or something else that uses the great-wheel version of cosmology (the Prime Material Plane sits at the middle, and all the others revolve around it), then it’s worth pointing out that different planes are actually laid out in relation to an alignment chart.
I’m missing a few of the in-betweeners here, but the nine planes most closely associated with the nine alignments are…
|LAW||Mechanicus||Prime Material Plane||Limbo||CHAOS|
|The Nine Hells||Hades||The Abyss|
The Nine Hells — the plane most closely associated with Lawful Evil — is the home of the devils, including the various archdevils like Asmodeus, Moloch, and Zariel.
Devils are, in many ways, the ultimate expression of Lawful Evil in the D&D multiverse.
They delight in evil acts like murder and torture, but they are strictly hierarchical and exist in accordance with elaborate social rules and traditions.
How To Use Alignment in DnD 5e
Alignment is an interesting, potentially useful (usually misunderstood) descriptive tool applied to most creatures within the Dungeons & Dragons multiverse.
A creature’s alignment exists along two axes: Chaotic and Lawful, and Good and Evil, with Neutral sitting between the four extremes.
The result is nine possible alignments that a player character, monster, or NPC can fall into that broadly describes their values, beliefs, and personal code (if any).
These are usually expressed in the form of a three-by-three chart, sometimes talking about a particular franchise or genre.
I was going to include an example of an effective alignment chart here.
However, after about an hour of clicking through Google images, feeling my blood boil down into a spicy slurry inside my own skull, I can confirm: every single one of these alignment charts is either wrong or terminally stupid.
Okay, I take it back, this one’s perfect. But for the most part they’re about as useful as a Myers–Briggs Type Indicator or star signs.
The Problem With Alignment
Before we get deep into what it means to be Lawful Evil versus being Chaotic Good, for example, I think it’s important to highlight the fact that alignment is weird and reductive, and if you don’t think it’s a valuable way to conceptualize your character’s personality, ethics, and beliefs, you don’t have to use it.
At most tables, it’s a completely optional part of the game, and at plenty more it rarely — if ever — comes up after character creation.
Whatever your preference, it’s always important as a player to ask your DM how (if at all) they deal with alignment in their game world.
Some DMs (as well as official setting books and other games that aren’t D&D 5e) make alignment a large, explicit part of their world’s cosmology and meta narrative.
Dungeon Crawl Classics by Goodman Games (a great source from which to steal adventures that can then be run in 5e or the system of your choice with… some effort), for example, frames the forces of Law and Chaos as cosmic forces in constant tension, which informs a lot of the conflicts that occur in their world.
Other dungeon masters prefer a more “realistic” approach to morality in which there are no universal moral and metaphysical truths, and everyone is just sort of doing their best with the moral laws we all agree (or don’t agree) to follow in the real world.
Of course, if you’re a DM, you could easily have different characters have different beliefs about the idea of alignment or not be aware of the concept at all.
Also, if alignment isn’t an objective metaphysical fact of your game’s universe — or if it is and people just don’t know it — then things start to get a little sticky.
Are people fundamentally Chaotic Good or Lawful Evil? Do certain actions fall within an alignment rather than the individual?
In the real world, people act in ways contrary to their abiding nature (if such a thing exists) all the time based on context, external influences, and a bunch of other factors.
Is the nun who stole a single candy bar a bad person? What about the serial candy thief who goes to church in a fit of guilt?
How do you weigh moral and immoral actions against an alignment chart? What happens when people’s behavior changes?
I’m going to stop here because this is supposed to be a fun article about Dungeons & Dragons, and I’m pretty sure I’m not qualified to use it to try and solve the problem of evil.
This brings me to my biggest tip for using alignment, whether you’re playing the game or running it:
Alignment is descriptive, not prescriptive.
A character falls within a particular alignment because of what they believe, feel, and do. A character doesn’t believe, feel, and do things because they’re one alignment or another.
Justifying a particular action at the table (it always seems to be an action that pisses off everyone else at the table) and justifying it with “but by alignment is,” isn’t a good excuse.
At least, this is how I view alignment, and it’s a large part of why I believe that it’s functionally useless. However, I’ll admit there are a couple of reasons why you may want to use alignment or pay attention to it.
When Alignment Matters
First, if you’re a new player or you want to play a character whose own moral codes are a bit different from your own or from the kinds of characters you usually play, then alignment can be a useful philosophical razor to quickly figure out how your character might respond to certain ethical dilemmas.
It’s a useful tool to help figure out what your character thinks, believes, and values, but once you’ve figured out those things, it makes more sense to base your actions on specifics, rather than the abstract alignment.
As mentioned above, some DMs run campaigns where alignment is more than just a fancy opinion about morality; it has concrete, undeniable cosmic substance.
Law is a force in the universe — like time, light, and gravity — existing in opposition to Chaos and entropy. They are opposing sides in a cataclysmic war.
They have soldiers, spies, priests, and temples. Therefore, a character’s alignment is a much less abstract thing if it speaks to their loyalties in some kind of universal conflict.
Secondly, alignment sometimes matters mechanically.
This is much less frequent in 5e than in past editions of the game, but some monsters, lairs, magic items, planes of reality, and encounters affect player characters of different alignment differently.
Some examples include…
- The Book of Vile Darkness forces a non-Evil character who reads it to make a DC 17 Charisma saving throw or have their alignment change to Neutral Evil.
- The Rakshasa (evil tiger demon) is vulnerable to piercing damage from magic weapons wielded by good creatures.
- The spell Spirit Guardians deals radiant damage if cast by a neutral or good character and necrotic damage if cast by an evil one.
- The first time a non-evil creature enters a Demilich’s lair, it takes 3d10 necrotic damage.
- Unless a good-aligned creature under the effects of the bless spell kills a Lemure, the demon will return to life in 1d10 days.
- The Balance card from the Deck of Many Things reverses a creature’s alignment.
- When a Night Hag kills an evil creature, their soul is trapped in the hag’s sack.
- Different types of lycanthrope (werewolves, wererats, etc.) have different alignments, and contracting the relevant strain of lycanthropy chances a creature’s alignment to match.
- A Candle of Invocation grants a range of bonuses to creatures with the same alignment as the candle’s deity.
- The legendary artifact sword Blackrazor could only be attuned to by a non-Lawful creature.
- Non-evil humanoids that die as the result of a Shadow’s Strength drain ability rise again as Shadows in 1d4 days.
- The regional effects of a Unicorn maximize the healing and suppress the effects of curses affecting good-aligned creatures.
- If a creature becomes a Vampire, their alignment is changed to Lawful Evil.
How To Play a Lawful Evil Character in DnD 5e
A Lawful Evil character can be a really interesting roleplaying experience, and the most important part of figuring out how to do it is to settle on the character’s lawful aspect.
In a very meta sense, this lawful element of your alignment is probably what’s going to let your character (peacefully?) coexist alongside the other, non-evil members of your adventuring party.
Think about the sources of authority that your character might submit to. Maybe they’re directly in service to an evil society, or perhaps they use the laws of a good or neutral society to their own evil ends.
Maybe they serve an explicitly evil entity or higher power, and maybe they aspire to be that higher power.
Just remember that simply because you’re evil, it doesn’t mean your end goals have to be.
A ruthless, utterly merciless character who does what they do in service to a generally good set of rules (the ends justify the means) is a really interesting addition to an adventuring party of mostly neutral and chaotic good heroes.
Let’s look at how to tackle a quest to save a village full of largely defenseless peasants from an imminent bandit attack (What? Seven Samurai is a great litmus test adventure) from the perspective of a Lawful Evil character in a largely Good or Neutral adventuring party.
While the Good-aligned members of the party will likely want to protect the village because it’s “the right thing to do” to protect the weak from the strong or to prevent the killing of innocents, a Lawful Evil character could arrive at the same conclusion via a different route.
A Lawful Evil character may argue that:
- Letting the bandits attack the villagers with impunity shows that the society is weak and therefore that the character is weak.
- That the laws of the land forbid the theft of royal assets. As serfs, these peasants are the local lord’s property and the bandits should be punished to the fullest extent of the law.
- That the character’s god demands blood be spilled in her name, and the bandits are a convenient source of fresh, blood-soaked offerings.
Likewise, the way that a Lawful Evil character would go about “defending” the village might differ somewhat.
A Lawful Evil character might simply advocate for sneaking into the bandit camp at night and murdering every single one of them or setting the forest on fire.
The cost to nature, humanoid life, and any nearby animals is inconsequential if the only goal here is “stop the bandits.”
However, while friction between a player roleplaying an Evil character and an otherwise Good or Neutral party is interesting, it’s important that (even if “it’s what my character would do”) the party still has a shared goal.
Having different reasons for pursuing a goal, different opinions about exactly how to proceed, and even different ideas about what to do once the quest is complete (“Congratulations, villagers, I have saved your lives. You belong to me now by law, and my first decree is that you shall arm yourselves and conquer the next village”) is totally fine, but players who sabotage an adventure because they think the only way to play an even character is to ruin everyone else’s day aren’t doing it right.
If you’re planning on rolling up a Lawful Evil character, try out these options for choosing (or randomly determining) your character’s Personality Traits, Ideals, Flaws, and Bonds.
Personality Traits (D8)
- There’s always an obscure law I can quote to prove why I’m right.
- I idolize the deeds of blood-soaked conquerors who came before me. I wish to build statues and raise monuments in their names and drench them with blood.
- I hate those who would seek to revolt against authority. Criminals are nothing but scum.
- I know I’m a monster, but I do what I must to create a new world.
- Bribery and corruption are as effective weapons as swords and arrows.
- I use my position of privilege to my advantage every chance I get.
- I mistreat anyone I perceive as being of lower standing than I am.
- I blindly follow anyone in a position of authority.
- (Utility) The foulest acts done in service to the welfare of the greater state is justified and noble.
- (Hierarchy) The social order exists for a reason, and I belong at the top of it alongside people like me.
- (Obedience) Following authority isn’t something I do; it’s who I am.
- (Strength) I respect physical might above all else.
- (Brutality) If you wish to defeat an enemy, it is not enough to kill them. You must kill their friends, kill their family, burn their village to the ground, salt the earth, and purge their names from the history books.
- (Pride) I know my way is the best and only way, and anyone who doesn’t see things the same way is my enemy.
- My order is the mightiest and most worthy.
- I would rather die for my country than live while its rule is opposed.
- I have nothing but contempt for those who would undermine the rule of law.
- My god demands sacrifices in blood and flesh.
- I owe my position to another member of the establishment who will never let me forget it.
- Without my honor, I am nothing.
- I follow the letter of the law, even when it is arbitrary, nonsensical, or cruel.
- I never miss an opportunity to make someone feel small.
- The traditions of people other than my own are nothing but barbarous savagery.
- I will follow orders without a second thought if they come from a high enough authority.
- Show even a moment of weakness, and lose my respect forever.
- I give nothing without expecting something in return.
That’s it folks. Hopefully you have a deeper understanding of the Lawful Evil alignment, how to use (or not use) alignment in general, and how to roleplay a Lawful Evil character in your next campaign.
Until next time, happy adventuring.