When I was younger and first getting introduced to D&D, I found myself wondering whether Evil characters always got coal in their stockings by default. The idea of Santa’s naughty-or-nice list seemed to roughly align with D&D alignments, but I wasn’t sure which axis was more important – lawfulness or goodness. And what did neutral characters get for the holidays, anyway? Socks?
Look, I was a very odd kid at twelve, let’s just move on.
It would be years before I dropped D&D’s idea of alignments like a bad habit, both in game and out, but the question still stuck with me: what sort of behavior would get rewarded and what would get punished? Good and evil are often matters of perspective and scale. If you set a hospital on fire to stop a global epidemic, is it a good act? What if you spare it and the world becomes infected as a result?
Which brings me to the idea of the “evil campaign.”
Every group I know of has at least talked about running an evil campaign – a game built around villainous PCs who may or may not end up saving the world by accident while in the throes of their complicated and maniacal schemes of vengeance. But there’s a reason the evil campaign is typically the exception for a group, the chance to “try something different” – looking out for yourself is most fun when you’re doing it alone.
Evil in a group environment is a whole other dynamic. If you’re the only evil character in an otherwise good and neutral team, it can be a lot of fun playing the shoulder devil or sneaking off and making trouble when the other PCs might otherwise enjoy a diplomatic resolution to the situation. Being the troublemaker is occasionally fun because of the friction it creates and the guaranteed impact you’ll have on the campaign and the other players (instead of blending into the crowd as you help accomplish the common goal).
But when you’re all evil, suddenly being good becomes the stand-out approach, and before long equilibrium is restored, turning most ‘evil’ campaigns into just ordinary campaigns. Many players love the idea of an evil campaign, but find the execution much less satisfying unless it’s handled just right. So how do you give the players a chance to walk on the dark side and actually enjoy it while they’re there?
Step Zero to running an evil campaign your players will actually enjoy is understanding what type of ‘evil’ most players actually enjoy. The first common mistake is confusing ‘evil’ with ‘recklessly malevolent.’ You meet an NPC, you instantly know they’re going to end up robbed, flayed, mind-controlled, or some awful combination of the above before the day is done. Doesn’t matter who they are. You could be getting a bagel, suddenly the guy working the counter is your mutated man-servant whom you call “Nigel” and keep on a spiked leash. Just ’cause.
But in practice, that level of aimless evil tends to have a enjoyment half-life measured in minutes. Before long, “I burn down the orphanage” evil runs out of steam or becomes an agonizing limbo contest of who can go lower in terms of moral decrepitude with no endgame. At most, you can make a one-shot out of that kind of evil, and even that is a serious stretch.
More often, what players want is less evil and more antagonism. In a ‘standard’ campaign, the PCs are typically just rolling along, doing their thing, when the Big Bad comes along and kicks over their collective sandcastle, thus driving them to complete whatever quest is at hand. In an adversarial game, the PCs become the sandcastle kickers, responsible for their own ‘Big Good’ going on a quest against them.
Just as the Big Bad in your campaign should always have a reason for kicking over said sandcastle (or burning the village, or betraying the run team, or whatever), you need to draw your players in initially to commit whatever initial act of evil will then fuel the rest of the game. From there, the reaction of the setting trying to enact justice on them creates a cycle of motion that will quickly mirror a standard campaign.
The PCs rob a bank, the local king sends agents against them, they have to take out the king to stop them, that raises the attention of a warlord who wishes to recruit them and later betrays them, etc. Instead of PCs having the plot happen to them initially, they have to be responsible for the snowball that rolls downhill into an avalanche. Everything else becomes a regular response to forces acting against them, just like in any other campaign.
Naturally, the advantage with evil characters is that they can be opposed equally well by good forces as other evil ones. They might start by being opposed to the law or other forces of justice, but later become rivals with other evil organizations, or accidentally discover that the ‘good guys’ they’re up against were actually secretly bad guys all along, and wind up becoming local heroes when they remove a despot by mistake.
That last one brings up another point, however. Another reason some evil campaigns fail is because the GM still steers the PCs into the same world-saving antics despite their orphanage-burning efforts. While that can be a cute gag once or twice, it’s best avoided as a regular trend in an evil campaign, or else the walk on the dark side won’t end up scratching the itch that may have led your players to request an evil campaign in the first place. Be willing to let them genuinely be evil, and to redefine success as taking out their enemies and building their own empires. Taking out their main opponent is still a win if it lets them achieve their personal aims.
In fact, personalization of the endgame is often the hallmark of an evil campaign. Heroes have their own tales, but often it’s the story of the group as a whole that shines brightest. Evil characters work together until the last minute, and then value their own goals above anyone else’s. Sometimes it’s enough to settle that in the epilogue, but if you can tie the climactic finish to each PC’s individual selfish needs, all the better. Each character walks away in the end, holding the key to their personal power to remain infamous for ages to come.
Alternatively, if your players are keen on it, the climactic fight can serve as purely prelude to the final conflict, where the PCs themselves wrestle over the single, exclusive object that is the key to each of their goals individually. To motivate a group of evil characters to work together, sometimes the best lure to offer is that the last moment will be anything but. Only one of them can truly walk away the ‘winner.’
Although any epilogue for such a game that doesn’t punish the winner in spectacular fashion for killing their colleagues to get the object of their desires is clearly missing something about the overall theme of the game. In the end, the best way to run an evil campaign is to be a little evil yourself.