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The Evil Campaign

Time to dip into the Suggestion Pot [1] to see what’s cooking….

BladeMaster0182 writes “I was wondering if you guys had any advice on running an evil campaign. They’re a different monster than good ones (since evil characters are likely to kill each other.) What is a good way to keep it going? Some ideas I had were have them be apart of the same race or order.”

Good suggestion, and one that pops up every now and then in my gaming circles. Properly run, an evil campaign can be a fun change of pace. Improperly run, an evil campaign can quickly degenerate into disaster. Here are a few things that you need to consider:

The Nature of Evil
Before designing an evil campaign, you need to establish what is meant by “evil.” Not all evil characters are mustache-twirling maniacs that will stab anyone that turns his back. Some may have codes of honor, a twisted but altruistic purpose (“I wish to end the possibility of war by creating and demonstrating the ultimate weapon. Unfortunately, 20,000 people must be sacrificed for this greater good”), or battling inner demons.

Some possibilities include:

* Members in good standing of a Sith-run Empire

* Fortune-seeking supervillains

* A Machiavellian group of vampires doing what is necessary to survive

* A wartime military unit of criminals offered an opportunity to wipe their records clean

* A secret society dedicated to manipulating world politics to achieve a true utopia

It’s important to note that most characters that would be classified as “evil” by an objective observer wouldn’t consider themselves evil except in the most black and white campaigns. At worst, they may consider themselves selfish and some may even believe themselves to be “good” based on their own criteria.

Set Clear Boundaries
Make sure that your players understand how far you’re willing to allow “evil” actions or backgrounds. There are likely subjects that you or a player may consider taboo. Nothing will grind your game to an awkward halt when you or one of your players suddenly takes the game to an uncomfortable place.

Evil characters need strong reasons to work together. While a good motivation is desireable in any campaign, it really is the glue that ties an evil party together. The motivation must be strong enough for each of the evil characters to temporarily set aside their own ambitions.

Some motivations include:

* Self-preservation – A powerful lich leads an undead army into the southern kingdoms, threatening to turn everyone, including the evil PCs, into mindless undead servants. Only the combined might of the evil PCs have a chance of stopping them.

* A Threat to Order – Sure it was fun robbing banks and making superheroes look foolish. Then the aliens came, and they didn’t care whose side the people in tights were on (see Necessary Evil, a Savage Worlds supplement, for more information on this theme).

* By Your Command – The evil PCs may answer to a higher authority, be it a god, a superior evil NPC, or even a good NPC (building on the criminal military unit theme). This higher authority sends them on the quest.

* Reward – The evil PCs have taken on a mission due to the promise of a great reward. This filters into some of the other motivations, but can also stand on its own (perhaps a Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven homage where the evil PCs are hired to stop another threat that couldn’t be bought.

* Revenge – The campaign Big Bad hurt the evil PC in some way and she wants payback (this works well in conjunction with other motivations).

* Redemption – Yes, Virginia, there are evil PCs that are looking to redeem themselves and the current situation might be just the ticket. Like Revenge, this one lends itself well to including a PC that may not be swayed by the main motivation.

Strong Story Arc
Evil PCs often need a compelling reason to stick together or the group will quickly fall apart. Strong story arcs focus the motivation and keep the evil PCs feeling that its better to stay together than to split up. A string of unrelated or only loosely related adventures will often not be enough to accomplish this.

Occasionally remind the evil PCs of why they’re working together. Perhaps an evil NPC refuses to join them (or strikes out on her own) only to die horribly at the hands of the enemy or picked off in the dark of night.

Expect PC Conflicts
There’s an underlying assumption in an evil campaign that the PCs aren’t simply good guys wearing black. They are flawed creatures whose flaws tend to flare up at the wrong times. While a strong motivation may keep this in check, it won’t (and shouldn’t) work 100% of the time. Expect the occasional betrayal and party in-fighting.

As a result, you should also expect a regular rotation of PCs. Trust among evil PCs is flimsy at best, and one wrong move could get a PC banned from the group (assuming that he wasn’t killed outright). So while you need a strong story arc, you should also ensure that your arc allows for regular replacement of PCs.

Final Thoughts
Evil campaigns work well as one-shots or short campaigns. It’s harder to keep an evil group together for long before the conflicts begin. As I said above, an evil campaign can be a fun change of pace; just be prepared to do a bit more work to keep it together.

How about you? Have you considered or run evil campaigns? What advice or questions do you have?

14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "The Evil Campaign"

#1 Comment By Knight of Roses On April 29, 2009 @ 7:27 am

Good advice. The important thing is that evil characters should be as interesting as any other PC, with a background, goals and a personality. Sure, they will stab each other in the back but not until they have “won”, you have to beat the other side first and then you can turn on each other.

#2 Comment By John Arcadian On April 29, 2009 @ 9:25 am

“Evil” campaigns are always hard to figure out. It gets into the big question of what, exactly, is evil. There are cruel and harsh things done in the name of survival, people who aren’t willfully wishing the destruction of others but who will pursue it in the face of a supposedly superior ideal and people who just don’t care about the consequences of their actions. I remember one of the most awesome representations of this was in the Wing Commander video games. The Kilrathi, the race you fight against throughout the first 3 games had a prophecy that when they fell as a warrior race, something universe ending would come to pass. In light of this they proceeded to pillage and enslave their way across the universe, in the name of preventing this horrible tragedy from happening. Horrible consequences, evil? Not sure.

#3 Comment By John Arcadian On April 29, 2009 @ 9:27 am

That last line should read: Horrible consequences, yes. Evil? Not sure.

#4 Comment By BladeMaster0182 On April 29, 2009 @ 9:28 am

Thanks for the advice. I’m definitely going to take this stuff into consideration. I eventually decided to create an order dedicated to a god with some rules on killing other members, so it is more of a “Don’t get caught” kind of thing.

#5 Comment By Scott Martin On April 29, 2009 @ 9:39 am

The strong story arc hints at it, but I’d go a little further. The best longer term evil games I’ve played have all had a healthy dose of commanding and railroading. In many cases, this reduced being evil to a collection of indulged vices– so I suppose you might consider that more of an anti-hero campaign, instead of truly evil.

#6 Comment By blackcoat On April 29, 2009 @ 11:26 am

The star wars game that I was most recently in was set in Old Republic era. The party consisted of two neutrals, a Sith apprentice (me) and a Jedi Apprentice.

After a bit of discussion regarding how ‘evil’ the GM would allow the characters to be, I ran it off with this great set of opening lines
Me: It’ll be easy. Go in, kill anyone in my way, get the thing, come back.
Jedi: You can’t just go around killing innocent people.
Me: Sure you can. It’s easy, watch. *lightsaber noise, and the screams of the innocent*

Naumer was fun, because he was so UTTERLY BATSHIT.

Also, the Jedi and I spent the whole game trying to tempt the other to their side, which was a nice undertone. 🙂

#7 Comment By Rafe On April 29, 2009 @ 11:41 am

Great advice!

The one thing I’d say is to choose a system that allows, supports and possibly even encourages “evil.” Star Wars is definitely one, if run way after the movies, or way before them. Vampire or Werewolf could fit, though vampires and werewolves in those systems aren’t necessarily seen (by the players) as evil. Even Shadowrun would work.

Burning Wheel is a great one, where you can play Orcs, Great Wolves (Wargs), Trolls and even Great Spiders (all with fun and diverse lifepaths)! I ran a one-off with a buddy where he played an Orc (a goblin Whisperer of the Dark, a ritualist sorcerer) and we had a lot of fun. He even had his own brawny, dumb-as-a-post Destroyer (Orc warrior type) bodyguard.

A great example of an evil campaign (BW) can be [2].

#8 Comment By LesInk On April 29, 2009 @ 3:48 pm

Good article. Definitely need that bond to keep the players to stay together. When that bond is gone (like what happened in my evil campaign), everything goes into chaos and the campaign basically ends.

In our evil campaign, I set up the players up under an evil god (By Your Command) but also setup a couple of the other players to be also more powerful than the other characters (double By Your Command). By ensuring there were 1 or 2 power players taking lead of the party, it kept the group together.

But, as I said, once the party levels evened out and their god disappeared (long story), the bond was gone and the party essentially broke off into 3 different directions ending the campaign (well, we agreed to stop there and possibly continue again in the future with one of the factioned party member groups).

#9 Comment By Bercilac On May 2, 2009 @ 10:28 am

I actually don’t see a lot of good characters in the campaigns I play/DM. Generally, I’ve found the best way to run an evil campaign is to set it in an evil society. PCs will deal in slaves, torture, murder, etc as part of making a living. In a way, this seems more honest than the contorted logic of “good” characters breaking into a dungeon, killing everyone they find, and stealing all of their stuff. (Though sometimes PCs actually do good things as well, I admit, they have a pretty anti-social way of going about it).

That said, of course evil PCs fight each other a lot. Much of this is small: don’t expect an evil party to equally divide up treasure. Everyone will want the biggest share possible, and if they get a chance to lie (“The chest was empty. My pockets? Full of… acorns.”) or even bully each other. They don’t have a great sense of comradeship, so if the situation gets dire they’re much more likely to abandon party members who are trapped or in danger (this happened to me… the DM ended up railroading the entire party into a torture chamber). As Walt suggest, motivation is key. Evil PCs can justify co-operation on the basis that the rest of the party is useful to their short or long-term goals. And in a dark, grisly world (and what evil party adventures in candyland? That would be a bit grotesque) no one wants to travel alone.

#10 Comment By Bercilac On May 2, 2009 @ 10:32 am


If you wished to resuscitate that campaign, here is my suggestion.

Award each player another level or two. Ask them what their character accomplished solo over the next few months, how they established themselves. Then design some mutual threat that would force them to seek allies, and think back to their old comrades… Such powerful individuals have power or money to find each other. If any player says “My character becomes a mercenary/thief,” then have another PC hire them.

#11 Comment By remoray On May 4, 2009 @ 4:23 am

Re: motivation
What about plain old world domination?

It is the standard motivation for any number of board games.


#12 Comment By Swordgleam On May 4, 2009 @ 7:39 pm

I’ve run a couple evil campaigns, and Self-Preservation has always worked for me. “At this point, there is no reason for me not to kill him. He pisses me off.” “Yeah, but he also heals you.” “Uh.. good point. I guess I’ll let trying to sacrifice me to his dark god pass. For now.”

#13 Comment By GiacomoArt On May 7, 2009 @ 11:53 am

The best tip I can give for running an “evil” campaign is to run an “anti-hero” campaign instead.

“Evil” is always something the other guy does. It’s what happens when you give up trying to understand how someone could have brought himself to do an awful thing. You just shrug your shoulders and say, “Well, he’s evil.” Once you’ve done that for a character, the character ceases to drive the story and simply hams his way through the motions of fulfilling his role of evil-ness.

Even D&D has finally acknowledged (in the 4E PHB) that “alignment” is more of a team jersey than it is an actual aid to role-play.

#14 Comment By Geppetto On November 11, 2009 @ 10:24 pm

I’m currently running an evil campaign on 3.5e and I’ve found some tricks to making it work. In my opinion, the golden rule to making evil campaigns work is: leave it as open ended as possible. At any time a PC might decide he/she’s feeling exceptionally devilish (or impatient)and bring a grizzly end to your beloved NPC.

I had the PCs as powerful members of a mafia organization; they were the four best guns for the Boss. When sent to shut down an enemy mob, they find the key to a secret weapon of ultimate power (clichéd maybe, but for this campaign it’s not about a deep pre-fabricated plot). The Boss knew about this item, without revealing his knowledge to the PCs, and sent a loyal agent to aid them. When the PCs considered hiding the “stone shard” (key) and forging a fake one, the agent ratted them out to the Boss. I left the left blank, anticipating either the PCs to give in and hand over the stone and continue loyalty to the boss, or betray him.

In the end the PCs killed the Boss in cold blood, along with his aide and the agent. However, when questioned by the other members of the mob, they said that the agent killed the Boss. They in turn took the throne and seek to pursue both the super-weapon and expand their power.

Anyhow, I think it helps to keep a comic side to the whole thing. They’re not deeply evil, they’re more like caricatures of evil, and that’s okay. Its fun, and that’s what matters. Though they’re after the weapon, they have their own motives: the psion seeks world domination, the barbarian wants to make things dead, the cleric wants to expand his deity’s influence, and the spellthief wants to grow in power, by taking it from others.

Also, the way to an evil man’s heart is through his pride. My next plan to motivate the PCs is to have them outdone in fiendishness by another team of evil-doers. Comical yes, but a strong bait to get the PCs to follow a similar goal, since the players may kill the local baron sooner than accepting their quest.