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It’s So Good To Be Bad!

Written by Nicholas - Published on January 7, 2009

Nicholas is the columnist in charge of Nerd Watching and part-time Expy wrangler. He also works as the community manager, so keep an eye out for him on RPG blogs and forums.

Many times we are told that Dungeons & Dragons is a game of heroes. Characters are expected to be good or at least morally neutral, even if some stretch the bounds of what that really means. Even the loose moralled characters tend to good overall, just with a bit of an attitude and some collateral damage along the way. Why is it that we never give being evil a chance?

The Opposition to Evil

There’s a lot of standard arguments against playing evil character:

  • It causes inter-party fighting
  • it can make it impossible to tell a decent story
  • players don’t want to be evil
  • burning down random villages just gets boring after a very short time. 

All these things are technically true, but at the same time misleading. These arguments assume a very narrow view of evil, a chaotic figure who is evil only for the sake of evil. While that type of character can be entertaining as a villain, the latest movie incarnation of the Joker springs to mind, it is not a sort of evil suitable to build a campaign around. If you want to run a successful evil campaign it take a bit more work and I want to help. Here are some tips to keep your players entertained in an evil campaign beyond burning down the first village:

Perspective: Contrary to what nearly every edition of D&D has told you, evil is not a moral absolute. Drow, hobgoblins, kobolds are all intelligent races that we think about as evil because we traditionally play on the other side of a zero sum resources grab. From their perspective they are defending their homes and trying to create a better life for themselves and their families while the more privileged races cut them down (you can find this concept used very well in the D&D webcomic Order of the Stick). A fun way to do an “evil” game is to have you players as monstrous races, who from their point of view are hunted to near extinction and must fight back against a better organized, better equipped foe so their people can survive just a little longer.

Little Fish: One of the problems of running villainous characters is that once they achieve success they tend to rest on their laurels. On the other hand, a hero’s work is never done, they just react to larger and larger threats. Therefore if you want a villain game to have some longevity they need to start off small fish in a big pond. If victory comes too quickly they will just sit around in their giant skull castle all day, waiting for heroes to attack. Ideally they will have competition from their more noble, heroic counterparts and from other evil interests in the world. It is possible a higher power villain game but it will likely be shorter and you will have to focus hard on the next tip.

Goal Oriented: When dealing with a group of heroes it is fairly easy to lead them around with no clear purpose, perhaps eventually grabbing them with some long term story hooks. With villains this is a much harder way of going about things, their hooks tend to be more difficult. During character creation you should establish what is going to interest the villainous characters and if they have any plans they already have cooking. You don’t want you villains to be indulging in evil for the sake of it because that gets old fast and you don’t want them to be put in a situation where they become reactionary. A good villain should always have his eye on some new prize.

Works Well With Others: Another important thing to establish during character creation is why your party is working together. You want to avoid the cliché backstabbing that can accompany an evil campaign. You back story can be something which is a bit complex, such as being fanatics of the same radical ideology or as simple is it is mutual beneficial to work together, just make sure that alliance has at least a little loyalty in it. If your party does not trust each other to stand watch in the night or there is bloodshed over magic item discoveries, you are in trouble.

Do you know the joys of being bad? Have you fallen victim to the dangers? I want to hear your comments!

Powered By DT Author Box

Written by Nicholas

Nick DiPetrillo is the original author behind the games Arete and Zombie Murder Mystery available at http://games.dungeonmastering.com

Nick is no longer active with DungeonMastering.com, however he is an accomplished writer and published his first game in 2009.

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Nicholas is the columnist in charge of Nerd Watching and part-time Expy wrangler. He also works as the community manager, so keep an eye out for him on RPG blogs and forums.

 

 Comments

28 Responses to “It’s So Good To Be Bad!”
  1. AlgaeHydra says:

    The incredible thing about this article is that I was unsuccessfully browsing the archives for something exactly like this earlier last week. I’m starting a new campaign, and my players all independantly expressed an interest in playing evil characters. Helpful tips. Thanks.

  2. We played an ‘evil’ campaign about a year ago and I can honestly say it was one of the most successful ones we’ve ever had. It was a little more free-form as we often dictated which direction we wanted to go and the game master accommidated us.

    The points on Little Fish, Goal Oriented, and Works Well With Others are all very accurate. There was always someone bigger than us we wanted to topple. We all generally had the same goals. And, we worked well together because we knew we were just cut-throat against other people, not each other.

  3. Janna says:

    Great article! Boy, do I know the joys of being bad. :) I prefer evil campaigns, actually – probably because I spent so many years playing Vampire: the Requiem, where plotting, scheming, and backstabbing are the rule.

    That said, the plotting and scheming in a D&D game should never be carried out between party members. One successful ‘evil’ formula is having an external influence plotting against the PCs. One of my favorite D&D games was an Underdark campaign where a small band of drow had to stick together to fight their way out of their city and avoid the furious Lolth-worshippers (and their agents and mercenaries) along the way. Were the PCs good-aligned? No. Did they have a reason to look out for each other? Yeah – safety in numbers. Later, since they trusted each other more than they trusted any other drow, they stuck together to amass power and fortune. Pretty cool.

    For hesitant DMs, remember that evil games don’t have to be affairs of random fireball-hurling. It’s all a matter of knowing what motivates the evil PCs – greed, megalomania, religious zealotry, etc.

  4. Im running an evil campaign at the moment ant its not that difficult. The party members are all affiliated with a dark cult that wishes to bring back a shadowy god that will basically mess the whole world up; this shared motivation is enough to keep the party together and keeps the campaign moving forwards. I invert a lot of the enemies from the standard (e.g. goblin) to good variations (e.g. dwarf) and instead of fighting demons they are up against an angelic lot from the other side of the alignment pond.

  5. Nik says:

    Good article for playing evil campaigns, but I had a couple of comments on your first point, Perspective.

    “Contrary to what nearly every edition of D&D has told you, evil is not a moral absolute.”

    When it comes to D&D, this is not accurate. While moral relativism in the real world (i.e. evaluating other cultures in their own contexts) dictates that we look at perspective because we cannot know motives, D&D alignment is based on the objective, external look that we as players and GMs apply to the game. Evil is based in motive, which we as players objectively always know about our characters, and likewise GMs regarding NPCs.

    “Drow, hobgoblins, kobolds are all intelligent races that we think about as evil because we traditionally play on the other side of a zero sum resources grab.”

    Not at all. Drow, hobgoblins, kobolds are all intelligent races that we think about as evil because they are cruel and destructive, and even if they have the upper hand, they tend to subjugate others and kill those whose property they want. Sure, they don’t think of themselves as evil, but that’s because they think it’s a good idea to subjugate others and kill those whose property they want, and they likely think altruism is a sign of weakness.

  6. Nicholas says:

    @Nik: I disagree. You say those races are evil because “even if they have the upper hand, they tend to subjugate others and kill those whose property they want.” That quote describes adventurers to the letter. They are going into their filthy caves and killing these creatures with superior force, then taking their stuff. We justify it by saying they are “evil”, but what do you think the goblins say about the adventurers?

  7. I don’t think the dungeon denizens like adventurers very much, because all of their best stuff are stolen by them, most of them are dead after encountering them – and whatever alignment they are, adventurers very rarely capture and release them. Nope, the adventurers walk into their homes, thoroughly wreck them and kill their relatives off one by one and its all justified by demonising the denizens of the dungeon.

  8. Neil says:

    I ran an evil campaign several years ago. One evening the party got into a bar fight and the bar ended up being burnt down. The party bard made a diplomay check and rolled a natural 20. He was able to convince the townsfolk that the party were the hero’s and that the town guard was responsible for the fire. He subsequently made a perform check and created a ballad about the event. A very memorable night.

    Evil campaigns can be fun, but there needs to be a larger purpose than random destruction.

  9. Frostmge says:

    I played in an evil campaign several years ago and I must say that it was great fun. The DM had set it up so that our characters all came from a hobgoblin/orc nation. There was a set cain of command and we were all working towards conquering and taking land from the human teritories. I played a goblin who was basically the servant of our commander. It was great fun because I could be completely ruthless with my enemies but very subserviant to my masters. Great fun. :)

  10. Heaher says:

    I am currently running a successful evil campaign; although not in D&D.
    It is in the Rifts universe. And yes, the system sucks, but the universe itself is ripe with opportunities. Also, my players like it, so I struggle through.

    The Rifts setting lends itself better to an evil campaign than DnD I think. There are already numerous gray areas. The Coalition can be thought of as evil if you are a non-human, magic user or not a member. However, if you live in the Coalition territory and have been protected from nasty critters, or your family killed by an out of control magic user you might think them the best thing, your heroes!

    So my players are outside (sometimes) Coalition territory and are trying to set up money making scams. Basically they are trying to get their own empire of gun running and smuggling going. They have no need to go protect anyone or fight for anyone’s freedom, unless it benefits their “empire.” They took a warehouse away from a nasty interdimesional creature because it was a good location to set up shop, not to free the locals from it’s evil ways. They sold slaves (humans none the less) to this one arm’s dealer to get him to use their services for his shipments. And they try to screw over the Coalition at every opportunity but at the same time they need them for all the black market goods they smuggle into Chi Town (Chicago for the non-Rift folks.)

    One thing I think is important to do in an evil campaign is to have consequences. I think it is important that the players have fun; nevertheless they do not get a free pass to go into a town, slaughter the men, kidnap the women for slaves and then have no repercussion for those deeds. Coalition forces (police/military) come after them; mercenaries are hired by other black market groups to put them out of business, or a lone survivor of the town sets up revenge, etc. I think without repercussion and consequences it cheapens the experience.

    And getting the group to stay together is easy: money baby! Actually it isn’t hard to keep the characters working together. At least these characters, especially since we all did character creation at the same time. I asked the players set up their characters to have hooks and needs to the other characters. So if one fails, it adversely affects at least one of the other characters. Otherwise it might be chaos.

    Also, the evil campaign is not our primary campaign. We have a regular DnD session. We do the Rift’s campaign on nights when we are down a few players or someone mentions they want to play again.
    It has been a lot of fun, both for them and for me.

  11. Freyja3120 says:

    I have also recently run an evil campaign. I found that several things helped. As said above, be sure that the players are aware that there are consequences to their actions. The same is true when you are good, but they are generally favorable consequences. Not so if you are killing and stealing. I explained this largely by telling them that they could be any evil alignment except for “stupid evil”. Let’s face it, if you are an evil character in a world filled with good (which mine were) then the minute you get famous, annoying groups of adventurers just like your good characters will come after you. This led to a lot of lying and misdirection, which added a lot of fun and plotting to the campaign.

    Also, it’s important to look at why your players want to be evil. Did they just learn torture rules? Make sure there’s someone to torture. Do all of their feats target good creatures? Make sure they’re being stalked by angels. Give them tastes of what they want. You can usually tell from their character sheets what they want to be able to do.

    Really, all of the elements of a good adventure/campaign run with good characters applies to one run with evil ones. Have a good party mix, a well done plot, interesting npcs, know your players, and be flexible, and you’ll be fine. Also, establish ahead of time what is okay with everyone’s comfort level. Are they fine with torture, but squeamish about hurting children? That’s fine, decide up front and together, and if one person isn’t cool with it, don’t do it.

  12. Darran Sims says:

    My ‘normal’ campaign ended up with every town, village and fort being burnt down by the player characters.
    You could follow their progress across the map by all the burnt out ruins.

    I would hate to think what would happen with an ‘Evil’ campaign – probably deep character exploration and heroic [anti-heroic?] deeds.

  13. Nik says:

    @Nicholas: You said, “That quote describes adventurers to the letter. They are going into their filthy caves and killing these creatures with superior force, then taking their stuff. We justify it by saying they are “evil”, but what do you think the goblins say about the adventurers?”

    If this is the entirety of the adventurers’ motivations, then the goblins *rightly* say that the adventurers are evil. Because they are. Many people have an objection to writing “evil” on a character sheet, even when their character shows every indication of BEING evil.

    That said, if the adventurers go into a goblin’s filthy cave and kill the creatures with superior force and take their stuff, not because they CAN, but because the goblins have been murdering and pillaging, putting the entire countryside at risk, and the adventurers have been begged to do so by the local populace? That’s a completely different situation, because everything is about motive.

  14. Joshua says:

    There are certain kinds of romanticized and stylized evil that can be fun to play, but I expect that if you pitched a campaign where the PCs were Spaniards raiding the African coast for slaves for the plantations on the New World your players would rediscover their moral compasses quickly enough.

  15. Nicholas says:

    @Nik: Why do you think goblins do it? fun? Goblins need to eat like everyone else. Goblins pillage for the rewards, to feed and shelter their goblin wives and adorable goblin children. Tribes of monsters are much the same as adventurers. Neither side actually produces anything, they just kill and claim the spoils of the producers. Either first hand like goblins do, robbing farmers and towns directly, or second hand like adventurers who take the goblin’s ill-gotten spoils.

    As I said in the article, I think Order of the Stick does a great job at presenting some of the other side. Goblins really are pushed to the worst lands. If a group of settlers finds goblins on a piece of farmable land they will just hire a group of adventurers to drive them off (it’s okay, they’re evil!). So when you’re stuck living on useless land and without the force to wage an effective counter attack, you are left with two choices. You can plunder from the weak or you and your whole family can starve to death. I would call that a motive.

  16. This has been a fascinating read, especially the comments box. Clearly most D&D players do not scrutinize their own behaviour in the game that closely. You can pretty much equate with evil with selfishness (benefiting oneself at the expense of others) and good with altruism (benefiting others at the expense of the self). Viewed this way, the character’s actions are not good at all in D&D even with lawful good characters; there is much looting (even of the dead) which benefits the characters and no one else. I wonder if lawful good characters should be forced to donate their gold to charity. That would be fun hehe ;-)

  17. barasawa says:

    A perfect example of an ‘evil viewpoint’ is that of Goblins.
    A webcomic at http://www.goblinscomic.com/

    Start from the beginning, you’ll be hooked. It’s a D&D universe seen from the viewpoint of a group of goblins that get sick and tired of being thrashed by so-called heroes. The decide they need to be more powerful to protect their people, so they become adventurers.

    Simple premise, but things get complicated from there.

    Another interesting example is that of Richard from Looking For Group.
    http://www.lfgcomic.com/

    He’s an evil warlock helping (mostly) a group of good guys while having a lot of fun. I guess that I should also mention the Richard is either insane, or his mind is stuck in another reality. Actually, with his proclivity for musicals, I think the other reality thing is probably right.

    As a side note, I’ve played in a couple of ‘evil’ campaigns, and have ran evil characters. Most people just don’t understand that the concept of evil isn’t the same as wanton destruction. Most of those campaigns ended with the GM getting sick of entire villages getting slaughtered because someone spilled a drink, or coughed, or whatever.
    One campaign was interesting that it had two groups in it. One evil, the other good. Strangely enough, the evil group was helping people and being hailed as heroes, while the ‘good’ group was screwing things up and hunted by everyone. (I think it’s because the ‘evil’ group was trying to gather resources, allies, and make alliances. While the ‘good’ group was actually a bunch of backstabbing avarice filled egomaniacs, including their characters.)

  18. barasawa says:

    Oh yes, if you would like to read a book with flip-flopped roles, try “Villains By Necessity”.

  19. PurpleLemur says:

    @Heaher
    The first time I played Rifts, I brought in a sick, evil, horribly powerful ape guy (you know Rifts…I’m not going to get into how crazy the character was concept/statwise). To introduce him to the already established campaign, he was sitting in a bar, minding his own business, waiting for that “PC glow” to kick in.

    Next thing I know, one of the other characters, who was some kind of holy bounty hunter or something, starts killing all the evil guys in the bar…indescriminately and rapidly. Me, being insanely evil, jumped up into the rafters to observe. Seeing that he was obviously targeting evil guys, my characters reaction was to jump down from the rafters, tap him on the shoulder, and punch my fist through his chest when he turned around. Yeah. Great way to bring in a new character.

    It all turned out okay in the end. Dude got put in a cyborg body and became an arms dealer. Everyone else in the party was cool with my actions…well…until I eventually betrayed one of them. Hey! He was about to become a rather good god, fer heaven’s sake! (Yeah, Rifts is insane.)

    Anyway, my point is, it really is up to the players and how they handle the whole evil concept. However, it is equally important for the DM to give the players motivations that make sense and actually motivate the evil little twits they’ve allowed in their game. And having some good experience as a DM is vital. Evil campaigns are always more involved on the role-playing side and can easily get out of hand. It takes a good DM to run an evil campaign. :)

    I have one last thing to say…Ptolus is an excellent setting to run an evil campaign in. Plenty of good guys to fight against. Plenty of evil guys to ally with, run up against, manipulate or be manipulated by. And LOADS of motivation for evil players to go running around in the Dungeon beneath the city. What I like best about it is that the setting is mostly about flavor and background…so you don’t have a whole lot of converting to do to port it over to 4e from the 3.5e rules in the book. I’m actually really bummed that our evil campaign just disolved. They didn’t even get to destroy the Church of Lothian, let alone raise the Galchutt from their ancient slumber and destroy the world! :(

  20. Toord says:

    I want none of it. I avoid them. Don’t like them. Usually don’t join my group when they DO run evil campaigns. Moral relativism always trouble me. And how we are perceived from the eyes of the mobs we kill is not really important. I wouldn’t kill them if I didn’t have to (I usually play Pally’s or lawful good casters) and usually evil-leaning creatures tend to be the ones starting the fight inside the dungeons. I’d love to diplo my way through a dungeon but I don’t like having a hobgoblin taking two-handed shots at my noggin either :D It might work for some … not for yours truly.

  21. The D says:

    Another thing a lot of people overlook is the fact that the alignments as presented are mostly a matter for the gods, devil, and demons, as they are the only beings to truly stick to one alignment all the time. This is especially true in 4e, where no spells of items are affected by alignment.
    I’ve taken this idea and used it in my current D&D campaign. The players started out mostly unaligned, and one of them was good. Over the course of the campaign, through various choices, the players have come to be enemies of the gods. All of them. Their goal is to cast down the entire pantheon and free the world from their meddling. This has gotten them mixed up with various evil characters and has lead them to perform some evil acts, including human sacrifice. These actions have shifted their alignments to evil, but the characters’ basic personality and motivations are the same.
    Ultimately, if they succeed in their plan, there will be no gods to define good and evil, and they could ultimately be seen as heroes. Sort a “the ends justify the means” dilemma.
    The moral ambiguity of the campaign leads to some really interesting choices for the characters and some unexpected enemies and allies.
    Taking normally good (or at least socially decent) characters and putting them outside their comfort zones is a great way to encourage creative role-playing.

    I’ve also been a player in games where I’ve played an evil character, sometimes in a good party. I really enjoy exploring the motivations of my character and justifying the actions.

    No one wakes up saying “Today I will be evil!” Even the most depraved villain believes that he is doing some good in the world, it’s just not what others would consider good. Evil campaigns are a fun way to examine concepts of good from a new angle.

  22. GiacomoArt says:

    Anyone worth telling a (non-comedic) story about has a dark side, but the biggest problem with “evil” campaigns has nothing to do with logistics or morality, but with the very psychology that compels gamers to call them “evil”. You can tell lots of interesting stories about “antiheroes”, but however wrongheaded, selfish, or desperate an antihero may be, he ultimately sees himself as reasonable and justifiable, not “evil”. You can be sure that even Adolph Hitler, arguably the most evil individual in the history of the history, saw himself as a hero. What we call evil, he would have called, well… ANYTHING else. Something along the lines of “pragmatic” or “expedient”. Evil is something that the other guy does. So call them “dark” campaigns, or “gritty” or “edgy” or even “sadistic”… but calling them “evil” just turns the whole thing into a self-conscious farce.

    Alignment-based morality is the greatest disservice that D&D has done to the hobby of role-playing. Rather than think out motivations and take responsibility for their choices, players grab an alignment and hide behind it like a shield. The party thief acts like a jerk because he’s chaotic evil. The party paladin acts like a jerk because he’s lawful good. The party druid acts like a jerk because he’s “true” neutral. Over a lifetime of gaming, the only alignments I’ve come to accept as tolerable are “neutral good” and “chaotic good”, which both tend to get interpreted as, “I’m trying to be a decent guy, but hey, we’re only human”. Few players adopt either of those two as excuses to be nasty to each other. And if you think being nasty to me as a fellow player is all part of the game, I’ve got better ways to waste my time than playing games with you.

  23. tim says:

    I’m evil in the campaign i’m playing in and there is also a good character wih who i don’t get along with.
    I make deals with her : i heal the wounded ones and i got to wear my skullmask or they pay me for it
    (yes it is a real human skull)

    p.s. I’m a cleric and the only one able to heal in the party :D

  24. That’s pretty funny – but if your character was *truly* evil, then he would wear the skull mask anyway and let the other characters die, who cares if they don’t make it, it was merely fate. Truly evil characters with access to healing would only use it on themselves heh heh

  25. Morthos says:

    Well spoken, its about time I heard some positive feedback on evil campaigns. I have been running dark games since 89 and although the people may have changed the fun in playing in them has not. Bottom line, you can play a sucsessfull evil campaign reguardless of what the standard rules say.

  26. Chinnma says:

    I began DMing and evil campaign just yesterday. Fortunately, the players i’m working with are mature and experienced enough to realize that “hack-n-slash” playing will have reprocussions and tend to work in a more subtle manor. Before we rolled the first d20, i made it a point to tell all of them a few things:
    -The reason you decided to be evil is so that you will have the freedom to do whatever you want, however there will be reprocussions for open murder and destruction.
    -That being said, do not fear these reprocussions so much that you make descisions based upoun what i (the dm) have prepared for you to do, if you do something that i am not prepared for, i may need a few moments to react, but that is part of the process.
    -Fighting another PC will not be encouraged (or stealing from them, lying to them etc..) but checks will be placed to allow you to do so if you wish. That being said, no PC will die as a result of one of these attacks from another. if reduced o 0hp or fewer, they will become unconsious and wake after a reasonable time at wich point they can determine what they wish to do about it.

    After only a few encounters, the PCs chose to distrust the sorcerer’s former mentor (whom i was using to guide them to a dungeon i had prepared) and decided to go a completely different way. I am currently in the proccess of determining what will actualy happen when they get to their new destination.

    In short some of the things you should keep in mind:
    Prepare a ton of random encounters
    -this will allow you to “roll with the punches” and give you time to plan your next move instead of floundering for immediate results of unnexpected decisions
    Make rewards NPC’s offer specific and usefull for the entire party.
    -This will make it more likely that they will follow your lead.
    Encourage creative gameplay
    -its your job as DM, not theirs, to determine the events that follow unexpected decisions.

    Overall, so far the campaign is going well and the PC’s are doing some pretty creative things. For me, there’s nothing better as a DM than being supprised by what your PC’s will think of next, and that’s what being evil is all about.

  27. The Reaper says:

    YEAH!!!!!!! Evil is the new good! With evil, you don’t need morals! My advice: If you haven’t already, try and do an evil campaign, whether heroic, where you burn villages to the ground, paragon, where you start doing the more legendary stuff, like assassinating a ruler and tyrranizing the village he ruled rather than torching it, or epic, where you can do some real badass stuff!

  28. The Reaper says:

    Also, a great idea: (if you have a bunch of expert players, of course) make 2 parties, one good, one evil, and have the players duke it out against the opposing players! Kinda a form of PvP that would satisfy a prepared DM and the many, and hopefully bloodthirsty, players.

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