Monday, February 10, 2014

The Case for an Evil Campaign

This week I want to explore the issue of running campaigns with “evil” characters. I have run a handful of these in the past but I know many DMs who won’t touch it with a ten (or eleven) foot pole. Even some players seem to be a bit wary of them. “What would be the point?” I was asked once upon a time. What follows is my response to that question and a few others:

What is an “evil” campaign?
 “Evil”, for the purposes of D&D campaigns, should not be purely Chaotic Evil. This would make every character a psychopath and the majority of the PCs and NPCs would be dead by the third session. Instead, ask your players to take either Lawful Evil or Neutral Evil alignment and think of themselves as greedy, opportunists who are willing to work with the other PCs as long as it benefits them. In essence, they are playing a similar character with similar goals as they would in a “good” campaign but are willing to do things and say things that a good character would not do, morally speaking. In many ways, I find it freeing for the players to explore and play out their darker side. If you want some examples on what this should look like, I draw inspiration from places like “The Sopranos”, “The Godfather”, “Young Guns”, the works of Shakespeare, and a few comic book/anime anti-heroes. Many of these stories have “evil” main characters who are willing to work with partners/groups and willing to do anything to get ahead. Those are the kinds of characters I want to see. 

How do you keep an “evil” group together?
The easy answer is to put them in a situation where they all need each other to survive. A few options are to make them all part of the same family, guild, secret society, or other organization that makes harming each other very detrimental to their own cause. Despite how you set it up, the DM should make it plain from the beginning that major backstabbing of any kind will be just as harsh on the perpetrator as it is on the victim. This being said, a few backhanded deeds and making other PCs look bad for the good of another is actually encouraged, albeit in moderation. The unifying factor however, should be the need to accomplish something that requires the skills of everyone. Here are two examples of what I have done in the past:

1) The PCs were recruited into a thieves’ guild bent on gaining complete covert control over a minor city. This was done via assassinations, bribes, theft, intimidation, and countless skirmishes with the other underworld organizations in the city including a rival thieves’ guild run by Wererats.

2) A Menzoberranzan setting where all of the PCs were nobles in a low-level house. The goal here was to work together, with some minor backstabbing here and there, to improve the standing of the house and eventually make it to the “top five”. This became one of the most intricate and complex campaigns I ever ran and, despite the headaches, I enjoyed it immensely.    

What is the point?
Some folks would say that an evil campaign has no real point because it is impossible to have an uplifting heroic ending. Well sorry to burst your bubble but not every story has a happy ending and neither should every campaign. Sometimes a disturbing or horrific ending is in order. Other times, I challenge myself to end on a cliffhanger or on the edge of something too huge for the PCs to continue. While this may not be as satisfying as a traditional ending, it will certainly be memorable and keep your players talking about the “what ifs” for weeks. Another option that I like is a linked ending. What’s that you ask? A linked ending is where the ending of one campaign kicks off the next. So, in this context, you finish off the evil campaign with the “evil” PCs in complete control over their surroundings and immediately jump into the next campaign with the players as “the heroes” that must bring their previous characters down. It may seem like a huge set-up but the pay-off will be well worth it.

Isn't this style of play more difficult?
The short answer is, yes. I do not recommend that an inexperienced DM attempt this type of campaign. I also do not feel that this type of campaign is suitable for inexperienced players. More so than usual, this type of setting can go sideways quickly. Plans can go wrong, PCs can blame each other for failures, and without the safety net of character morals the long knives can come out easily and frequently. And while the killing of a PC by other PCs is not the end of the world, it can lead to big trouble. The last thing you want is the campaign to become a bloodbath and evil turning in on itself is such a cliché! An experienced DM will be able to blunt the worst of these issues and experienced players will realize that they are stronger with more allies around than enemies (most of the time). 

Doesn't this type of play strain player relations?  
While it’s true that player co-operation is one of the backbones of D&D, if everyone realizes what they are about to delve into and are upfront that “this is just a game”, I think it is possible to avoid major heartache. On the contrary, I think putting PCs in a more confrontational setting will up their game and could bring to the surface some new found respect for players who can outwit them. In the rare event that another player takes a loss or even a death personally, an experienced DM will find a way to satisfy that player’s need for revenge, preferably without another casualty. After all, there are many fates far worse than death. (maniacal laugh)

In retrospect, the few “evil” campaigns I have waded into were simultaneously challenging and rewarding and I intend to run more in the future. But, if you are considering a journey to the dark side with your group, just be aware that they are very high maintenance and require a firm hand to keep from degenerating into a Kill Bill version of Survivor. Treat them well and they will open up a whole new aspect to the game.

Have you ever experienced an “evil” campaign? What happened? Leave a comment.        

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