Dungeons and Dragons is an amazing game where you get to completely immerse yourself in a fantasy world.
You get to slay monsters, save the world, and do just about anything you can imagine. There’s dice and character sheets and plenty of books full of optional rules to make your game that much more exciting.
Of course, when you strip D&D down to the basics, it’s just a few friends sitting around a table telling a story.
Today, we’re going to be looking into one of the most interesting archetypes that you can bring to life as you write your own story within the fantasy realms of 5e D&D – the morally grey character.
Most of this article is dedicated to giving you advice on how to build and play a character who walks the line between hero and villain, but we’ll also be diving into some character options that exist that set you up perfectly to do so.
What Is a Morally Grey Character?
In storytelling, whether the medium is literature, film, or RPGs, characters tend to fit into a binary; they are often either good or bad, righteous or evil.
Morally grey, or morally ambiguous, characters don’t fit into the black and white standard. Instead, these characters’ actions and motives walk the line, and their impact upon the world is often just a matter of perspective.
These characters can often be the ones that feel the most realistic to us, since most of us are not purely good or evil.
Just as we may have to make hard decisions or may cause pain to others against our will at times, these characters often struggle to make the “right” choice.
What Makes a Morally Ambiguous Character?
A grey character is often defined by some sort of inner conflict.
Some common examples of this conflict are evil characters who are trying to do good, heroic characters who have been corrupted, and characters who have a difficult time distinguishing right from wrong.
To start to give you a feel for this kind of character, let’s look at a relatable villain.
A relatable villain is a great example of a morally grey character because they often believe they’re doing good while making “necessary sacrifices” along the way.
A really great example of this is the character Thanos from the MCU.
Thanos is unquestionably the villain of an entire arc of movies that Marvel put out – one who actually achieved his goal.
This character set out to eliminate half the population of the entire universe, killing thousands of trillions of characters with the snap of his fingers.
This goal (unlike in the comics) was actually a benevolent quest. His intentions weren’t to harm people but rather to deal with the problems of overpopulation and not enough resources.
Thanos thought that his goals were admirable but sought no rewards. When he eventually achieved in collecting the infinity stones and making the snap he retired to a farm on a distant planet, content.
He finally accomplished what he set out to do when he saw his people tear them apart from war and famine.
Thanos has a motive and a driving force. He even experienced conflict.
The famous dialogue between him and the daughter he sacrificed, Gamora, even acknowledges that he sacrificed “everything” to do what he felt needed to be done.
Not every grey character is seen as a villain. Batman is a great example of a character with questionable morals who is almost always portrayed as the hero.
Still, he breaks laws constantly, causes harm to people, and makes hard decisions to do what he believes is right.
Many Batman storylines, including that of my favorite graphic novel Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, explore the Caped Crusader’s internal conflict and the fact that he is constantly sacrificing his humanity for what he thinks is the greater good.
Batman and Thanos are the same in a lot of ways. They are both people who experienced great pain and sought to become something greater than their past.
Both of these characters struggle with their actions but believe that at the end of the day what they’re doing is right. These characters make us question what the “right thing to do” really is.
It’s this conflict, whether internal or visible from the outside looking in, between what is right and what “must be done” that makes these characters so convincing.
Common Morally Grey Sub-Archetypes
Here are a few archetypes that your morally grey character might fall into.
Flawed Protagonist – Someone who aims to do the right thing but struggles to do it in the “right” way, either intentionally or accidentally.
Relatable Antagonist – A character who is doing the wrong thing, whether they know it or not, and who believes that what they are doing is necessary. “The ends justify the means.”
Switch Hitter / Chameleon – A more chaotic character whose actions change based on the situation. This can be due to their own selfish interest or based on a larger purpose.
Conflicted Mentor – A teacher archetype who intends to set a character on their way but who is flawed in their own perspective of the world. Daredevil’s Stick is a great example of this.
Order to a Fault – This is a character who follows an extremely strict code, regardless of what common morality would dictate.
The Monster – Much like Frankenstein’s Monster, this is a character who wants to do good but is so feared, hated, or otherwise ostracized that they act out in questionable ways.
How To Roleplay/Build a Morally Grey Character
One of the key components to this type of character is their backstory. In order to be doing whatever they’re doing now, that is so questionable, they typically need to experience some form of pain in their past.
Their troubled past should influence their motives and their decision-making, pointing them towards a route that can not so easily be defined as good or evil.
Probably the most common trope used in this kind of backstory is the “murdered family.” Batman, the Punisher, Daredevil, Spiderman, etc. all fight criminals because criminals killed someone in their family.
Even whatever Liam Neeson’s character’s name is in Taken kills criminals because of a simple threat on his daughter’s life.
Of course, you don’t have to stick to the classics. Pain does not have to be directly associated with loss, and the pain can even be more of a metaphorical pain.
A character could be trained from a young age to believe that some sort of holy crusade justifies the killing of innocents.
Such a character might truly believe that what they’re doing is right but begin to question their own motives as they learn more.
I certainly can’t highlight every backstory that leads to the development of a grey character, but here’s my basic outline:
“Something happened in my past. It shaped who I am today. Because of what happened, I must do whatever it takes to achieve my goal.”
The thing that happened can be known or unknown.
An orc character whose tribe was slaughtered by human colonizers and a wood-elf who was taught that all outsiders are agents of Asmodeus who must be killed both have something from their past influencing their actions.
The past can also be yesterday. It doesn’t have to be their formative years. This is how we end up with good characters turning to evil and evil characters turning to good.
Megamind is a hilarious example of a character who was clearly the villain and slowly tried to become good for a reason, even if his methods were still rough around the edges.
The choices you make as this character will decide how others view them, but it’s the motives behind their actions and their moral code that will blur the line.
Making a Morally Grey Character in 5e
Setting up the backstory and playing a character who makes questionable decisions is all good and well, but we still need to build a character.
The reality is that any character, even an Oath of Redemption Paladin or a Necromancer Wizard can be played as morally ambiguous. Still, there are a few builds that lend themselves more easily to this concept.
By its very nature, this subclass of paladin is a character who isn’t doing what their moral code asks of them.
A paladin becomes an oathbreaker when they don’t follow the tenets of their oath, whatever that was.
If you want to make this transition more convincing, have the character struggle to follow their oath due to something that has happened instead of just up and deciding to break their oath one day.
Immediately this creates a character with some form of internal conflict for us. What’s cool is that you can start in any oath.
You can take an oath of devotion, struggling to balance the tenets of duty and compassion, when you are told by your superiors to slaughter a family of innocents.
You could be an oath of conquest who no longer believes in victory by any means necessary.
Whatever oath you choose to take can be broken slowly as your internal conflict stops you from seeing the world in such black and white terms.
Necromancy Wizards / Death Cleric / Phantom Rogue / Etc.
Any subclass that deals with death can start to feel pretty evil. In fact, these kinds of subclasses are often the go-to when you want to make an evil adventuring party.
I’m here to say that evil actions don’t have to make an evil character; sometimes they just make compelling characters.
This is a really easy way to set your character up for that concept of having the ends justify the means.
Perhaps your necromancer is just trying to gain enough power over undead creatures to go toe to toe with the Lich King or maybe they have a different view of the harmony between life and death.
Whatever the case, your character will definitely turn heads when their goals and actions don’t quite seem to match up.
Pirate / Smuggler / Bounty Hunter / Other Similar Backgrounds
As one of the key components to our backstory, our background can give us a lot of grounds to set up a morally questionable character.
Backgrounds that provide more nefarious professions are great for a character who may have done what they needed to do to get by.
This will translate nicely into their career as an adventurer and should have some impact on the decisions they make.
Some would say that the archetype of a morally grey character is the only one that truly exists. No one can be without flaws, and all characters must struggle with some sort of internal conflict to be convincing.
Making your character exist outside of the binary definitions of good and evil will not only be an exciting time for you, but it will create a compelling story for everyone involved in the story with you.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this guide, and I hope it inspires you to think deeply about your next character.
As always, happy adventuring.