This article was first broadcast in Episode Forty-Seven on 31st October 2018.
Killer DM: Ahh good, that was an annoying long wait.
Ostron: Have to wait a while for Ryu to fail her saves?
Killer DM: And there I was thinking you didn’t have a sense of humor… Oh, you’re serious? You think she still tries to make the saves? You dear thing.
Lennon: Um…right, so when we left off last week, you mentioned you had more to say about evil campaigns?
Killer DM: Oh my yes.
So last time we talked about the pre-campaign discussion where you make sure your players aren’t going to cop out on you and decide they don’t actually want to be evil, and what the campaign looks like when it’s in flight. But what about the setup?
Despite the fact that you *can* be evil, D&D’s basic rules and creatures aren’t designed that way, so you have to do a little bit of extra heavy lifting as a DM to make it work. Sometimes.
If you’re following our suggestion from last time where everyone in the campaign world is some level of evil, a lot of the DM’s problems aren’t an issue; you can grab the same monsters you would for any other campaign, it’s just now some of them are against the players and some of them are working with the players. However, the players might need a little bit of help.
Some people think only certain classes or archetypes are “allowed” to be evil, for example Conquest Paladins, Warlocks pledged to the fiend, or Rogues. But the reality is that in 5e any class and archetype can be evil. There are very few abilities that change or rely on a character’s alignment; most of the good or evil elements are story ones. Rhas Al’ Ghoul from the Batman Begins movie is a perfect example of an evil monk, and if you need an evil Bard you need look no further than the Pied piper, who if you remember walked away with an entire village worth of children.
“But what about healing?” Cry the powergamers. Fear not, Life Cleric is certainly still on the table. Let me paint a picture for you: you’re in an interrogation, with the Cleric asking questions. His barbarian friend beats the prisoner down to single digit hit points trying to get answers, and the prisoner is holding out because they know the player can’t kill them or the information they have will be lost, and beating him anymore will mean his death. Then the Cleric smiles and restores all of his hit points.
Racially, it might make a little bit more sense for the party to have more half-orcs, orcs, hobgoblins, and so on in its makeup, but there are just as many evil elves, dwarves, and humans as any other race, so that shouldn’t be a holdup either.
But if you’re running a campaign where the players are up against objectively good opponents, things might be a little bit tougher behind the screen. The very low CR ranges have a lot of generic NPCs and neutral type characters that can be used to represent the forces of good, but once you get into the high single and low double digit CRs, such creatures start to thin out.
There are basically two options here and both require a decent amount of research into the monster resources. Option one is to go through all of those lists and identify the generic opponents. While they certainly thin out as you get to the higher challenge ratings, they don’t disappear by any means: An “Assassin” is a CR 8 rogue-type creature, and CR 9 has an Evoker and a War Priest that don’t need any particular tweaking to account for alignment or race.
But what about when you need to throw bigger baddies at them? Up in the higher level CRs it’s all dragons and death tyrants and it doesn’t make a lot of sense for the glorious revolution of freedom to be led by a beholder, does it?
Now obviously the dragons are an easy solution here, because the metallic dragons are usually good. Having one of them lead the opposing side will rarely seem out of place, especially if you pay attention and make sure the group’s goals match up with how that dragon usually operates.
Lennon: You sure Ryu isn’t trying for those saves?
Killer DM: I told you before, she’s still sort of…around.
Anyway, if you don’t want to have a dragon at the top, you probably have to crack open that Dungeon Master’s guide and either create your own or start mucking around with numbers like my favorite kidney donor here.
The rules for creating your own monster from the Dungeon Master’s guide can also be used to modify existing creatures. After all, totally brand new creatures are risky unless playtested, and most DMs won’t have an opportunity to playtest a boss until the actual confrontation. Existing creatures have at least theoretically been tried out before, so as long as you don’t change them too much it’s not a big deal. The key is to remove or re-flavor abilities that obviously wouldn’t apply to the new creature.
Let’s take the Ultroloth as an example, which can be found on page 314 of the MM for those playing along at home. It’s a CR 13 creature, so a good high-level, magic using opponent, and an evil fiend too boot. Now, you could just take the Evil Ultroloth and try to convert it to the exact opposite, which in this case would be a celestial being of some sort, but that’s setting yourself up for a lot of work, and celestial beings are pretty rare as they are. Instead, let’s go simpler. The Ultroloth is, as we said, a high-level magic user, so what we kind of have is a fiendish version of Gandalf the Grey. A Gandalf-esque wizard would make an excellent good-aligned opponent for our evil PCs, and is also likely to come with a wizard’s tower or other lair as well. So let’s start with the the “fiend” part. The first step would be to make it a human, or at least not a creature from the nine hells.
To begin with, let’s examine the abilities that demonstrably make it a fiend. First of all, it has resistance to nearly every type of damage, and those its not resistant to it’s immune to. It’s also immune to being charmed, frightened, or poisoned. It’s main special ability is a Hypnotic Gaze that stuns opponents. It also has a 60 foot teleport, and, as the Ultroloth is a subset of the greater Yugoloth family, it also has the ability to summon other types of Yugoloth.
Most of this is easy to reskin. The Hypnotic Gaze can be re-flavored as an element of the wizard’s staff that simply does the same thing, so rather than the Ultroloth’s eyes sparkling with opalescent light, the wizard’s staff sparkles with opalescent light. Instead of summoning additional fiends, the wizard could simply call for reinforcements, and the resistances can be written off either as enchantments set up in the building or lair the wizard is in (assuming the players are confronting them there) or some other magical wards the wizard has placed on themselves for protection.
The Dungeon Master’s guide says that resistances and immunities can be re-translated into simply giving the creature more hit points, usually multiplying by 1.5. However, that’s the kind of math that only Ostron likes to do, so I usually just double it. That also helps to keep the creature at the CR I want because we’re going to have to either ditch or restrain the 60 foot teleport; I could make it another magic item but the problem is that if you start giving creatures a bunch of magical trinkets to explain abilities they should have, the players are going to want to grab them after they’ve killed the big… well I was going to say big bad, but I suppose it’s big good in this case.
Anyway, the ungrateful loot-hoarders will usually cavity search any corpse they even think has a magic item on it — and doubly so if they’re playing evil characters. Having the wizard’s personal staff melt down or fizzle out once they die is believable, but having all of their magic items blow up or disappear every time is risking player revolt and sort of gives away the sleight of hand you pulled with the creature. It may not matter, but if the players figure out you’re re-skinning existing creatures, some metagamer with a photographic memory is going to start over analyzing to figure out what the creature actually is.
But, metagaming players aside, you have yourself the first do-gooder to stock your dungeon with. A quick and dirty Gandalf-type is still a decent amount of work, but that sort of comes with the territory of being a DM and running a custom campaign. However, hopefully with a little bit of reading and only a tiny amount of Gnomish Workshop-style fiddling, you can fill out your campaign with the forces of good, ready to be crushed under the players’ boot-heels.
Killer DM: Well, it’s been so nice visiting with you all and sharing how a campaign is supposed to be run, but really, I have better things to be doing now, so I’m leaving. I trust I’ll see you all on Thanksgiving? I’ll even let you kill the turkey!
Lennon: Ok, one, I really hope you mean “carve” the turkey; two, I’m vegetarian; and three, it really depends on schedules and–
Killer DM: Trust. I’ll. See. You. On. Thanksgiving!?
Ostron & Lennon: Yes, right, of course, I’ll write that down!
Killer DM: Wonderful. I’ll just have a little chat with Ryu and then she’ll meet you over at that little water bowl you all have.