This article was first broadcast in Episode Forty-Six on 24th October 2018.
Lennon: Really? Again?
Ostron: We’re talking about running evil campaigns, who’s at the top of *YOUR* subject matter expert list for that?
Lennon: Whatever, they’re your kidneys
Killer DM: It’s so nice that you all invite me around for the holidays. It almost makes me forget that you didn’t do that last Halloween.
Lennon: In our defense, we hadn’t actually started broadcasting yet.
Killer DM: I just hear excuses but I suppose I might let it pass if we’re talking about something fun.
Ostron: Running an evil campaign
Killer DM: Oh Ostron! I knew there was hope for you. Now, let’s talk about unfair encounters and completely invisible traps.
Lennon: No, no, not quite. We’re not talking about running a campaign and being evil to the players, we’re talking about the players being evil and going through a campaign like that.
Killer DM: Hmmm. Obviously not quite as fun but I can still get behind it.
Now, many people treat evil campaigns like some sort of fetish experiment; even if they prefer playing good characters and never create a character that moves off of the “good” alignment row, most players harbor a deep, secret desire to, at some point, go “you know what? The gnolls can have this town. I don’t like the mayor, their Inn gets one star at best, and the markup on their healing potions was ridiculous — who’s got the marshmallows, let’s watch this baby burn!”
That sort of thing is fine and even encouraged at my table, but if you’re going to do an evil campaign the players have to consider: can I make a career out of this?
As we touched on when we talked about playing an evil character, there’s a difference between not wanting to stick your neck out every time a little orphan asks a favor and actively being evil.
Before you start designing your campaign, it’s worth figuring out what the players want out of it. If they just want a change of pace from being traditional good guys going up against a large evil on behalf of the local populace like in the official D&D adventures, it might be better to do something that puts them in more of a gray area, like smuggling questionable merchandise or working on behalf of a thieves guild.
Remember, when DMing your purpose is to make sure the players are having fun with what they’re doing-
Killer DM: Booor-ring
Well if you force the players to trudge their way through a campaign and they aren’t enjoying it, you’re very quickly going to lose those players and then you won’t have any campaign to DM at all. So if your players start talking about playing an evil campaign, it’s worth digging down and figuring out exactly what they think “evil campaign” means and what they expect to get out of it.
But let’s assume you’ve gone through the coddling therapy session and determined that, yes, the players actually do want to play an evil campaign. There are a few different themes you can run with depending on what level of evil the characters want to sign up for. We’ll of course start with the easier one, or what I call the “fake evil” campaign.
This would be a campaign themed in the vein of movies like Minority Report or Equilibrium. Basically the characters are working for an evil organization but they may not be happy about it and they may not want to keep doing that. The key thing with this campaign is to define what the evil organization is doing and who or what is opposing them. The opposition in this case should be morally better than the evil side.
This campaign style offers a lot of choice for the players. If they’re fully on board with the evil role, they can just play through as servants of the dark forces. Or, if they’re fine with the organization’s goals but don’t like their boss, they can try for a coup.
Where this gets fake is if they decide partway through that they’re not actually comfortable with evil and want off the train. At that point the campaign acquires a redemption arc for the player characters and they eventually rebel and overthrow their former master for the good of the people, rather than because they just want to take over.
This type of campaign is a good setup if you don’t think your players are actually committed to evil; if or when they need an out, they can go join the rebels or the kingdom of holy purity or whatever. Sellouts.
A more fully evil path that might not upset the players as much would be the Game of Thrones or Sons of Anarchy approach. The players are not good people, but if you take a census of everyone else around there isn’t a saint to be found among them either. In D&D terms, this might be a campaign set IN the nine hells or involving the war between the devils and demons. The point is, if the players start waterboarding prisoners for information before feeding them to rabid dogs, there really aren’t going to be complaints because their victims were objectively guilty and there’s no one around to argue for humane treatment.
This is another one where the players might end up being “fake evil” as the KDM put it, although in this case they do it by accident. Since there isn’t anyone on the straight and narrow for them to oppose, they’re sort of objectively doing good regardless, because whoever’s life or plan they interfere with stops evil. If they’re working for or with one of the factions in the game, the only difference is going to be that the reason for stopping the evil plan is so their boss’ evil plan can go forward instead. Again, if the players decide they want off, they can just go independent and start working against everyone, at which point they probably become the lightning rod that starts the revolution or revolt.
More sellouts. Now, let’s say you found players that are really committed. I mean if you’re sure they aren’t going to wimp out part way through. In that case set up what I call a “reverse hook” campaign. Start them off at the end of a movie; the young king and queen are happily ensconced on the throne. The king’s best friend is captain of the guard, the queen’s best friend is her chief handmaiden slash bodyguard, and the determined and proud widowed queen mother looks on.
Then you give the players the means to tear it all down. The guard captain is going to start asking for help, making it clear he maybe isn’t the best person for the job. There will be sooo many ways to undermine him, and so many drugs and cursed items to “help” him get back on his feet after the screw-ups. The queen’s handmaiden? Well, she secretly likes the redder districts in town but she needs someone to show her where those are and how to get along with the proprietors there. Meanwhile, let’s try to figure out how many Dissonant Whispers and Major Illusions it will take to convince the Queen Mother she’s talking to her dead husband, who has a few…ideas she should really share with her son. Oh and if the party has a female member or two in it? Guess who’s going to meet the king at night while he’s drunk, she’s fertile, and his queen’s away on a diplomatic tour?
So all of that is objectively horrible but that’s sort of the point; in that scenario the players are Jafar and Iago from Aladdin or the Lannisters from Game of Thrones. Their intentions are entirely self-serving and involve no morality or conscience at all. If the players start balking at the opportunities presented to them, it’s probably worth having the discussion of what an “evil campaign” means again, and perhaps dial it back to one of the other themes we mentioned where their motives aren’t so objectively hideous.
Killer DM: Okay, now lets talk about what to put in these campaigns.
Lennon: Unfortunately we don’t have time for that.
Killer DM: Seriously? You’re going to give up hearing from me just so you can go see all of your listeners praising your supposed wisdom and wit?
Ostron: Well, that and I’ve got to finish off this device I’m working on in the Gnomish Workshop that’ll help remove obfuscation. We’ll have you back on soon to talk about what you need to put in that campaign.
Killer DM: See that you do. Your internal organs are on the line. Very well, head on over to your wading pool or whatever.