Advice on Running an Evil Campaign


Siphon Insight by Dopaprime

"Siphon Insight" by Dopaprime (resized) is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0


I. Going to the Dark Side

If you play D&D for a significant amount of time, you will start to hear about evil campaigns and if my experience is any indication, you'll hear about how most of them go badly wrong. You'll hear about player characters running rampant over the game, since they equate being evil with having no consequences and nothing to fear. You'll hear about player characters killing and stealing from each other willy nilly, and continual out of character arguments. Why would any DM want to dive into that kind of mess?  Well, because evil campaigns don't have to work out that way, and the evil side of the coin can be a fun change of pace. I have been waiting several years to do a purely evil campaign - evil from the ground up, with an all-evil party - and since the time has finally come, I'd like to share the experience with other DMs and players.

II. Who's With Me?

The first step, as far as I can tell, is to be sure everyone wants to get on the ride. Have you ever been in a game in which one player is very uncomfortable with the material, but won't say anything?  I have, and let me tell you, it's not pleasant. Everyone should have fun, even in an evil campaign, so it helps to know how far you can go with your players. If they're not interested at all, it will be best to wait until you can find a group that is. You should also ask your players if there's any crime they don't want to deal with in their gaming. Since evil campaigns can put things in the spotlight that are usually implied and off-camera, you could end up pushing people's buttons in a bad way. Evil comes in many varieties, and not all of them are the baby-killing or child-raping kind; there could be some places that your group really does not want to go, and it will help your game run more smoothly if you respect those boundaries.  I feel pretty lucky in that regard; I am running my evil campaign for a group I've played with for over seven years. I have a very good idea of which doors I can  throw wide, which I can open a crack, and which I should leave alone.

III. Which Way To Go?

The next step involves deciding what kind of focus your evil campaign will have. Is it going to be a raging orc horde kind of campaign, in which the characters overrun small villages?  Is it going to be an evil dragon campaign, in which the characters try by any means necessary to increase their hoards?  Or is it going to be a tale of magical manipulation and arcane evil, from inside the ranks of the secretive brotherhood?  A short evil campaign is likely to be very focused on one such theme, while a longer campaign will probably involve many different scenarios. But it will help with design and coherence if, at least at first, you maintain a central theme. Even if the DM makes this decision alone, it should appeal to the players and take into account what they want out of the game.

On the heels of that decision comes choices about location, organizations, and the bigger setup. Where will it all begin?  In the midst of a great and good city, in which the characters are spies?  Or will it start at sea, on a pirate ship?  Will one particular city be of importance, or will the game be a traveling campaign, with only temporary stops?  Most worlds will have locations and races that are known for evil, so you'll have to decide if you want to use a pre-established source or if you'll want to add your own. The player characters could be aiming to form their own organization, after all.

IV. Fleshing It Out

As the DM, it will be your job to flesh things out so that your evil setting will be as vital and alive as any other. I find this awareness to be very important, and not always prevalent in D&D products (but that digression will take another page). Evil places are not just dungeons where ill-tempered people wait to be discovered by the heroes. Some evil places can be like that, but most have to function in the wider world. Evil people need things like food and shelter and if you're using a larger country, then you'll have to think about how those things are provided on a larger scale. This needn't be as daunting or boring as it sounds, if only because evil folks will do things to get what they need that good folks won't. Slave labor starts to make sense if, for a few coppers a day, slaves are doing the back-breaking labor that every society eventually requires.

In the end, what's good for the goose is good for the gander. Whatever you do to prepare good cities, do the same for evil ones. Map them out to the same extent, give them loving details and interesting NPCs with varied motivations. Go ahead, create evil societies that work logically and evil characters with plans that make sense. Play with the stereotypes of good and evil. Remember that evil people have things that they want, and that not everything they want is horrible. There are as many evil people in vaunted castles as good; evil folks can also appreciate beautiful gardens, fine sculpture, and delicate jewelry. I know this sounds elementary, but I have been routinely disappointed by the same one-dimensional approach to evil in many of the gaming materials I've read. Villains can be villanous without being Chaotic Stupid, and an evil campaign will have better chances for long-term success if you work consistently to provide a solid foundation.

V. A Land Without Pity

Chances are, if you're used to running good campaigns you're going to need some practice running for an evil party. It's been my experience that it's easy to appeal to a good party's sense of pity. They'll feel bad for the villagers overrun by the dark lord's army and want to do something about it, if only to help ease suffering; thoughts of reward and glorification come later. They won't ignore story hooks involving slaves that could be freed or children that could be saved. While you can't appeal to pathos too often, you can be reasonably sure that when you do, the party will be interested.

For an average evil party, however, selfless pity will be in short supply. You'll need to consider how things relate to the PCs and how their self-interest might be invoked:

  • Appeal to the seven deadly sins - the party's desires for things like wealth, pleasure, power, and revenge. Dangle not only the carrot of gold and loot but also the carrot of influence, slaves, sexual conquest, and so on. Do not leave out servants, land, homes and businesses.

  • Don't forget to allow the characters to wallow in their sins for a while; this can be part of the reward for playing evil characters. Give center stage to things that are shunned in good games. Put high action into running down the villagers. Emphasize the weight of the gold the characters are paid for each head they sell into slavery. Let them revel in drugs and drink for days after a hard victory. If the players want it, give some description to the torture they inflict to get information.

  • Encourage the players to have goals for their characters. Ask them what their characters want. Be sure to let them know when a course of action will further their greater goal(s).

  • Let evil characters own a stake in the world so that they have a sense of what's theirs. Once the line is drawn in the sand, they'll be loath to let others cross it, and they'll care about what's going on if only because they will want to keep what's theirs.

  • Be sure to keep track of people the PCs hate because sometimes they'll be willing to take on tasks that will hurt and humiliate their enemies.

  • Don't forget the consequences at work in the world. Good and netural characters still exist and will work against evil plots. (Remember all those evil doings that were foiled in your good campaigns?  Yeah, evil PCs have to deal with those meddling bastards.)  Evil characters are just as likely to work against evil PCs. When it comes down to it, tweaking someone's nose and wrecking someone's life will earn ire and future retribution. Laws and local customs are still in place, as well, even if the characters ignore them, and such rules have their own defenders.

  • Don't forget the monstrous forces at work in the world that don't care about alignment. Goblin hordes, migrations of huge creatures, and tribes of giants on the move will wipe out evil bystanders as quickly as good.

  • And when all else fails, remember that evil characters get stuck in situations that they have to deal with. In D&D, that can mean mundane things like natural disasters and being overrun by creatures, but it can also mean unnatural disasters like magical experiments gone wrong.

VI. People Without Pity

Just when you think you know your players and how far they'll go, you run an evil campaign - and they say or do something not just wicked, but a bit disturbing. Even the most mild-mannered person can get carried away when they feel they finally have the freedom to go hog wild, and why not? It's a game of make-believe, and none of it is real. The helpless villagers and beautiful farmers' daughters and fluffy bunnies are figments of the imagination, just waiting to be taken advantage of - and often without the stats to defend themselves. So be somewhat prepared for the unexpected, as ridiculous as that sounds. Remember that what's done in a fantasy stays in the fantasy, but that your game, as a group activity, should remain fun for everyone.

Keep an eye out for taboos that the players are now willing to break. I thought that I would add coherence to my evil campaign by making the characters close relatives who'd been raised together - and then incest reared its ugly head all over the family tree, and then in a character's conduct. I felt like I'd been blindsided, but I realized that my assumption was the one at fault. If you live in a land where you can own and kill slaves without much fear of retribution, what's to stop you from trying to have sex with that oh so beautiful cousin? It's good to remember that evil societies still have taboos and rules, and to reinforce them. But when that's not enough and other folks are getting offended, you might have to talk to the player out of character about backing off.

Be aware that when the balance of power is shifted heavily in one character's favor, they might go farther with it than good characters. Do not offer one character a position far above the others in the group, or you risk having out of character spats. Even if the privileged character doesn't become a prick, the others might feel automatically disadvantaged and silenced. I didn't realize how offering a prestige class I'd worked to improve would upset things, until one character met the prerequisites and we realized that his character was then a member of the premier power in Thay. Another player instantly rebelled, feeling like his character would be punished or killed for batting an eye the wrong way. And, given the environment, that could have happened.

And when all else fails, be prepared for the ugly moments. When the lone female player character in our group passed out from a potent poison, I did not expect one of the PCs to say to the other: "Well, it looks like she's really out. I get her first." Silence fell so thick over the room that I wasn't sure how to break it. The elements quickly tallied up in our heads: incest and multiple rape, all before the character would be able to defend herself. It's not like I planned for the scenario when I put the poison in the dungeon. If Gary Gygax himself had wandered into the room and smacked me upside the head, I could not have been more surprised. The other PC swiftly brushed the option aside, reminding his companion that they were in a dungeon with who knew how many enemies, and she was their healer. But I definitely had to talk with everyone after that session came to a close.

In the end, if your players are willing to meet you half way, all of the work will be worth it, even in an evil campaign.


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