Why it’s Bad to be Bad

The ‘Evil’ campaign (where all the player characters are evil) is something many groups try. This is where the party, rather than playing heroic figures, choose to play evil people. The campaigns rarely last long, mainly due to party infighting, yet the trends continue. In this article I want to look at why the Evil campaigns are a poor idea, but also how to make them work if you really want to take this path.

What Does Evil Mean?

Let’s look first of all at what it means to be evil. Most people seem to think that being evil means being as bad as you can at every opportunity. ‘Bad’ meaning to behave counter to common law and morality. The first issue we strike here is that most people play evil in accordance with modern concepts of law and morality, which should (in any complex game world) differ markedly from the game world.

Let’s say the country the characters are in consider slavery to be a basic part of the social structure. In this society, someone who smuggled slaves out would be viewed by the average law-abiding citizen as evil. This runs counter to modern morality which denounces slavery as wrong (even though it still exists in abundance). So in order to be evil, you must first understand what the game world considers good and lawful.

Most evil people are evil because they disagree with convention and they feel passionately enough that they will break with convention and the law in order to do what they see is right. They might kill to protect loved ones, or study necromancy as a path to resurrecting someone. They might look at the feudal system and deem it inherently wrong, thus seeking to overthrow the throne.

Evil is a very individual thing, and generally requires a deep and abiding passion in order to overcome social standards. What isn’t evil, is just mindless violence and crime for the pure sake of it. That form of evil is better characterised as mental illness. Is a Paladin evil if he butchers an entire village of orcs, including women and children? Some people will say he’s in character, but generating more hatred between the races is not something I would see as being virtuous in a Lawful Good character.

No one is ever wholly evil. Excluding mental illness, there is always a reason someone chose to walk the dark path.

Party Cohesion

In the majority of occasions the Evil campaign falls apart due to party infighting. People seem to think that being evil also means ripping off or harming your fellow party members. This is a ludicrous way to play evil and is completely counter to the way most unlawful organisations behave. In the real world, you don’t cross your fellow criminals, because they are a valuable asset to you. Ever heard the term ‘Honour among thieves’? There’s a reason for it. Your party should have enough common sense to realise their best chance at living longer rests in their compatriots.

I should also address those who think that being evil means doing harm just for the fun of it. They might perform vile acts just to rile up fellow party members or important NPCs. This form of behaviour is generally just childish pranks done as a joke, but the pranks should be addressed with the seriousness with which it is due. If you mess with the concubine favoured by the head of the Thieves Guild, then it makes sense that the guild will be used as a tool to find and punish the perpetrator. This might even mean hiring wielders of magic in order to uncover the mystery.

Limited Published Resources

You don’t really find adventures written for an evil party. Most adventures assume the party are known as heroes of the area. Why would the king seek the help of a band of ruffians to rescue his daughter? Of course desperation might lead to such as thing, but it’s unlikely.

Some systems make allowances, such as the Storyteller settings where the lines between good and evil are smudged. However in classical D&D settings there is a basic assumption in published adventures that the party is inherently good. Running those same adventures for an evil party just turns the adventure into a Monty haul experience. Or as often happens, they take the up front reward then walk away from the adventure.

Hard on GM

With the lack of published material the full weight of the campaign falls upon the GM. If you want to rob a jewellery store, the GM now has to spontaneously draw up a map and work out what defences the store might have. Chances are that the types of protection the jeweller can afford will be very easy for the evil thief to overcome. Of course the average NPC evil thief wouldn’t rob that store because the jeweller likely pays the guild for protection, but the PC thief probably feels obliged to ignore such protections because he’s not Lawful. What the guild understands is that if you rob a shopkeeper blind, then you destroy any potential income from him. This is why in times of trouble the Thieves Guild is often of the first to help out the commoners.

Make players explain how they turned to evil. If the answer is too facile (“I hate people”, “I was raised this way”, etc) then dig deeper. Why do you hate people? What did your family teach you? Doing this gets the player to think more about what their character motivations are, and as GM it helps you create a more meaningful story to tell.

Some GMs are comfortable with a spontaneous narrative style of game, so they might be able to run an Evil campaign. More likely there will develop a friction between the GM and players. For example, the GM will have to attach a consequence to the character actions. The Thieves Guild might send out their top thief to steal back the jewels, or the church might fund a group of heroes to put an end to the party actions. Evil should not go unpunished, yet this begins to erode the player/GM relationship because the play style becomes adversarial.

Making Evil Work

Making these evil campaigns work really involves a reversal of the things highlighted above. This begins at character creation, where the party being made should be able to work together as a unit. Characters should have passions which align with each other, which should minimise party infighting. The party should have a purpose as well, so the GM has some idea of what activities the party will pursue, thus giving her time to prepare some material.

Try to be considerate towards others players as well. Depending on who is at your table, some people are going to create negative feelings if voiced. Infanticide, rape, elder abuse and killing animals are just a few red button evils which could cause real world consequences. If you must go there, be sure not to glorify the acts.

As a GM, you need to carefully consider the impact the evil party is having on the society, and create suitable consequences for the party. For example, if the Ranger in the party shoots the king’s daughter off the parapet just for fun, then follow that through and have the king dump a solid part of his treasury on hiring some good adventurers to bring the criminal to justice.

Avoid evil done just for the lulz, because it lacks meaning. Evil should always have at least as much purpose as acts of good. Evil should carefully consider the penalties for acting outside the cultural norms, and the GM should be ready to apply the consequences.

Playing in an Evil campaign can be a really fun way to refresh the game, but it will be the most fun if it faces a new set of challenges which were never an issue for good characters. Above all, it should have meaning if it wants to last for any length of time. Remember, roleplaying is all about telling a good story, not just about acting like children.

Last of all, make sure your players practice a good evil laugh.