GM Advice: How To Run An Evil Game
Tales of heroism and selfless deeds have always captured the imaginations of mankind. We love stories of the shining hero, facing insurmountable odds to infiltrate the nefarious villain's evil sanctum to rescue the the bound damsel, overcoming darkness so that light might prevail and act as a shining beacon of hope across the land. It's pretty inspiring stuff.
We're not talking about any of that today.
No, we're going to get our hands dirty, give a big o'le middle finger to the light, put on our best black hats and capes on, and take a walk on the dark side. This isn't going to be about happy endings of do-gooder nonsense. This won't touch on moral conflicts of conscience, because we discarded those weaknesses long ago.
We're going to run us an evil game, and we're going to to do it right.
To do this topic any justice, you should first understand that there is a definitive right and wrong way to run an evil game, and not surprisingly, a lot of people get it wrong. Now, I am all for the concept of "The GM should run any game they want to run", but if your player characters have murdered each other before you got out of Session 1, then I say to you "What game?"
The Wrong Way
A lot of people see evil as a perpetual cycle of backstabbing and betrayal. When that is transferred into a game, you can kiss party harmony good bye and say 'hello' to a ton of infighting, stat comparisons, and players plotting on how to screw the person sitting next to them over in epic fashion. In short, it starts looking more like a game of Paranoia than anything else.
"Not that there is anything wrong with that. Friend Computer is wise."
Honestly, I blame the Sith. Yeah, I called out Darth Vader's fraternal order of asshats. For decades we've been given stories about how this evil order of evil operates. Masters train students, who kill them to become masters, who train their students to kill them, so that those students can become masters to get killed by the students they trained to kill them to become masters. Suffice to say, it is a flawed system. Let's not forget, kids, the Sith wiped themselves out with the perpetual infighting. They were, for lack of a better term, the lemmings of the evil world, forever throwing themselves off of ledges to their doom.
"I regret nothing!"
When you get a bunch of player characters together to do evil for the sake of evil, it can go one of two ways;
1. They want to kill each other, becuase.... you know, evil, or...
2. they want to kill everyone else, because... you know, evil.
Not that there is anything wrong with doing evil things because they are evil, but without the correct amount of guidance, the game can quickly descend into a series of back-stabs and one upsmanship. While for some, that can be a helluva good time. But, unless you are running Rappan Athuk or The Slumbering Tsar, your players probably won't delight in dying in a series of brutal and unexpected ways (Seriously though, if you haven't played either of those than what are you still doing here. Go play them!)
The Sauron Principle
The Dark Lord of Mordor, and the master of the Ring of Power had a pretty good thing going. Sure, he was a disembodied spirit for the majority of his 'life', but he still had power, still had loyal servants willing to go to great lengths to fulfill his dark agenda, and most importantly; he had brains. Those brains translated to foresight, and later execution.
"Also, looking like a total badass. He has that going for him too."
You see, Sauron is a great example of how you want the villains in your game to behave. Methodical, intelligent, and secretive. The Dark Lord had many enemies, a whole world of enemies, which if you took a look at my guide to playing an evil character, you would know that you are woefully outnumbered. It's true. In most settings, good rules the world, and bad guys get the crappy piece of real estate with the volcano and and no dental plan.
"Hang in there buddy. The union is gonna pull through on that dental plan."
When you run your game, make sure that the players go into it knowing that all things are out to kill them, even other villains. Their path is a hopeless one, with such a minuscule chance of success that they can't possibly hope to all survive what is to come. It would be completely bleak, if being evil wasn't so much damn fun.
Wicked Ways Are The Ones That Pay
The fundamental key to crating an evil campaign is to create a reason why the characters band together, and stay together. In a way, this is exactly how you would create a normal campaign, except instead of trying to appeal to the nobler aspects of the characters, you are aiming for the darker, more selfish aspects, like revenge, power, and furthering their agendas.
The best way I have seen this done is in Fire Mountain Games' Way of The Wicked. The characters begin as prisoners. Each has been captured, tried, and sentenced to death by the goody-goody kingdom that rules the land. They now await their executions in a prison that no one has ever escaped. A mysterious stranger visits them, and offers them a chance of revenge against the kingdom that discarded them, but only if they can survive the first test; escape the inescapable prison and find a house in the middle of a swamp. If they refuse or fail, they die by the headsman's axe at dawn.
Already, off the bat, the characters have a common goal (escape the prison with their lives), a reason to stick together (mutual survival), and a long term goal (get sweet, sweet revenge). Escaping the prison requires a great deal of teamwork, so in a way, the very first thing they do is see how well they work together, and how much more powerful they are as a collective then they are on their own. When they eventually get to the house in the swamp, they meet their patron, who offers them power and prestige, and most of all vengeance. He outfits them, gives them their first mission, and sends them on their way.
This is how an evil campaign should work.
For your own game, you really only need to follow a few steps to be successful. These steps, while only suggestions, will strengthen your game and make it memorable.
1. Bringing The Characters Together: Gathering everyone is a tricky bit of business. A lot of times player characters have differing personalities or methods that rub the others the wring way. Moreso, unlike good characters, villains lack the common courtesy to not to murder each other. Game Master, this is where you shine. Introduce a situation where the player characters harming each other makes their situation worse, or doesn't help it at all. If they are prisoners, killing another prisoner could equal a longer sentence, an expedited situation, or even some degree of torture depending on the prison. If the characters are slaves, the taskmasters could dish out serious punishments for the loss of a resource (one that didn't die by their hands), including harder labor, loss of food and water, or even death. Find a unique situation where the player characters keeping each other alive is beneficial in aiding them. The easiest way to introduce this comradely is by glaceing the characters in grave danger. Self interest is the most powerful motivation an evil character has, and death is pretty detrimental to just about everyone.
"Don't listen to Blue Oyster Cult. Fear the Reaper."
2. Goals: These are what will motivate the player characters. These can be as simple and short terms as "Escape prison", "Kill your slave masters before they kill you", or "Avoid being discovered by the authorities". Much of the game will consist of short term goals. Call them quests, or missions, but they are the tie that will bind your players together. Be sure that these goals are impossible to achieve on their own. This may sound like railroading, but in truth it is something far worse. You are stacking the deck against the players, more than you would good characters. Remember, the characters are horribly outnumbered, and unlike good characters, who can retreat to a nearby town and recoup before they venture on and try again, evil characters work for evil patrons, who do not suffer failure. It is likely that if they cock up whatever their objective is, they will not only have to deal with an overwhelming force coming after them, but they may have no safe harbor in which to return, and in a worst case scenario, their boss may be out for their blood as well. Failure is not an option of the evil character, and knowing that means your players will think long and hard, and make very complicated plans.
Be sure to introduce the notion of a long term goal. This is the ultimate payoff for the player characters' actions through the course of the game.
Whereas good characters might not find out what the final goal is until near the end of a campaign, villains should know near the beginning. Evil characters are, by nature, more motivated and driven than heroes. Good guys drift from place to place doing good because that is the right thing to do. Villains travel from town to town performing tasks to further their objective. Every action they take is to get a little closer to that end goal. The long term goal should be something massive, like destroying a kingdom, ruling a kingdom, taking over a powerful organization, or slaying a God. The final goal gives you, the Game Master, all manner of hooks to use, and all sorts of stories to tell about how the characters move ever toward that goal.
"I'd like to thank all the people I crushed to help make this possible. Your sacrifice was not in vain."
3. Flip Everything You Know About Running Games: Most RPGs are set in a world where the characters are and do good things. The enemies are often evil, and not to be reasoned with. The allies are powerful and good. Dark Gods are to be feared, and good gods are praised. For an evil campaign, all of this is turned on its head. Those good gods are now the enemies of your players, and they are big time movers and shakers with full fledged organized religions that operate out in the open and can make the lives of the player characters a living hell. Demons and devils are potential allies that accept payments in the form of souls and sacrifices. Evil Gods are in your corner, and there are all manner of secret cults that may lend a hand... for a price. Towns are no longer safe havens, but rather enemy territory that the players should either avoid, or work in secret in. Angels and Archons are now the scary outsiders you players should fear, and unlike killing a demon, killing an angel does not get a party thrown for the players.
Creating enemies in this fashion is a bizarre and disorienting prospect. The clerics that players are used to going to for healing want them in the ground, an paladins are quite possible some of the scariest badasses walking.
4. Play Up The Villainy: Part of the charm of running an evil game is the chance to be evil. Give your players plenty of opportunity to engage in wanton destruction and terrible acts so vile they might make demons quake in disgust. Furthermore, don't be afraid of introducing clichés. While the players in a good campaign may roll their eyes as a villain monologues them to death as they are lowered to their doom in an acid pit below, a character as the villain delivering the monologue is a sinful amount of fun. What used to be groan-worthy aspects of villainy are now a nuanced bucket list to complete before the campaign ends. Before you know it they will want to be riding dragons and absconding with princesses to their secret volcano lair.
And there really is nothing like the first time you watch your players burn their first orphanage.
I have had the pleasure of running two evil campaigns. Way of the Wicked being one, and and a homebrew being the second. Both were fun, memorable experiences full of some of the best role playing and planning I have seen out of any group. Both games made me feel like I needed a shower after. About the time the group convinces the paladin mayor's son to fall and become a blackguard, killing his father in the process, you find that the world is a dirty place.
"So very dirty."
But there was an unexpected benefit to running these games that I had not considered when I had started. One that has aided me to this day, and the major reason I suggest running an evil game at least once in your Game Mastering carreer; running for evil characters gives you an unparelleled look iinto how villains think, act, and feel.
As GMs, we are a pretty creative bunch. Not to toot our own horns or anything, but imagination is pretty much our bread and butter. It is the currency in which we operate. But there is a difference between imagining something, and witnessing something. To see it before your own eyes is a tangible experience. Watching how villains painstakingly plan something, accounting for every detail, and manipulating events to follow that plan is an inspiring thing, and has aided me endlessly when creating more believable and insidious villains for many campaigns to come.
But, that is just this GMs humble opinion. Do any of you run evil games? Has anyone ever played in one? If you have tales from your experience, don't be shy. Leave your stories in the comments below.
Fully knowing the power of the dark side,