The Good GM’s Guide to Running Evil Campaigns

Cackle with evil laughter my nefarious GMs! It’s time to release the monsters that are your players on an unsuspecting land filled with innocent NPCs. Many GMs have this idea at one time or another, but often evil campaigns end messily and early with a lack of direction and cooperation. With just a few key adjustments to any evil campaign, you can keep your dark minions on track for a horrifyingly good adventure. If you’d like to let your players terrorize the countryside, then just follow these tips to ensure your campaign ends in dark victory rather than on the end of a villager’s pitchfork.

Why Run an Evil Campaign?

It’s fun to play the villain sometimes! Plot to assassinate a king or chuckle madly as your eldritch abomination rampages through the city. It can be cathartic to really let loose and play nefarious blackhearts and devious monsters. Evil campaigns are particularly useful for shaking players out of a rut, forcing them to experience role-playing entirely different characters from their typical archetypes. Experienced GMs will tell you though, evil campaigns are tricky. There are a few more obstacles you’ll have to consider in making your dark adventure a success. To keep your players having a devilish good time, you need to keep their characters coordinated, stop them from infighting and keep them motivated.

Coordination

Running a campaign is like herding cats sometimes, with players squabbling, working at cross-purposes, and generally failing to function as a team. All these problems get turned up to 11 in an evil campaign. You can solve a lot of these problems before they start by coordinating with your players before the first session. Really make it clear what you and your players want to get out of this evil campaign by discussing the following issues:

  1. Comic Villains or Grim Monsters? When your players sit down to make an evil character, their creation will fall somewhere on a wide spectrum of evil. A mischievous imp that steals coin purses and candy isn’t going to be at home with the orphan-eating cannibal barbarian. Try to nail down exactly HOW evil you want the players to be well before the character creation process even starts. If you discuss this with your players beforehand, you’ll avoid orphan eating horror in a campaign meant for mustache-twirling villainy and vice versa.
  2. Lone Wolves Can’t Quest! Many of the instantly recognizable villains in fiction are loners, unstable madmen that survive on the fringes of society. Or barring that, solitary tyrants leading armies of nameless grunts and henchmen. Sadly, all these cold brooding villain archetypes make for terrible adventurers. Try to dissuade your players from making any characters that would intentionally isolate themselves or can’t at least pass for sociable through a short conversation. If you don’t want to force your players to play something different, consider placing some form of mcguffin or contrivance that forces that player to cooperate with the party.
  3. Keep Track of Your Lies! During an evil campaign, your players will inevitably lie, cheat, and swindle their way through many encounters. Between sessions, it can be very easy to lose track of fib or two. Keep clear notes indicating what lies your players have told to which NPCs, and quite importantly if they believed them or not. Tell your players to do the same! I’ve seen more than one evil campaign end because a player let slip the wrong information at the wrong time.

Infighting

In evil adventures, it’s almost compulsory that the players are all plotting against one another. The potential for player on player combat is almost part of the allure of playing the bad guys. This isn’t actually conductive for going on adventures though. Even if your players try to keep honor among thieves, it’s best to prepare for the worst. To keep your evil campaigns from devolving into petty player infighting, use some of the following techniques:

  1. Scheme Together! If you have one player fiendishly plotting to take over the town, and another making schemes about killing everyone with a plague then they’re going to clash eventually. Evil can come in many conflicting forms and it’s important to get all your players on the same evil page from the get-go. Get your players to talk about their schemes and goals before the start of the campaign so you can fix those incompatibilities before they come up.
  2. Don’t Tempt Them! With an evil party, you can expect heartless and selfish decision making. Self-sacrifice situations turn into “the weakest party member” sacrifice situations. Moral quandaries turn into simple self-serving opportunities. When you reward your party, try to equally reward them without providing opportunities for loot-snatching. Assume your players will make self-serving decisions. If you can remove most of the opportunities to backstab, you’ll have a campaign with less backstabbing.
  3. Mutually Assured Destruction. Sometimes no matter what measures you take, your players will just go for each other’s jugulars. If you find yourself in this situation, it’s time for mutually assured destruction. You can use cursed magic items, an ominous ultimatum from a dark master or even some form of magical soul bonding. Whatever contrivance or mcguffin you use, make it so that directly attacking another player causes that damage to reflect back on the aggressor. This is a hardline approach, but it still allows for tricky shenanigans while discouraging pointless direct aggression.

Motivation

When a monster attacks the town, normally you can expect your players will at least try to save the day. With an evil party, they’re just as likely to start looting, run, or start slaughtering innocents alongside the monster. Evil tends to be inherently selfish and unpredictable. The master thief’s goals are innately different from those of the mad cultist. With evil characters, you can’t always fall back on the old saving the world tropes to keep your players motivated. Try some of the following techniques to properly motivate your evil players:

  1. Obey the Dark Lord! It can be a bit too much railroading if you overdo it but try giving your evil characters some kind of powerful evil master to serve. Vampires, cult leaders, ancient horrors from another dimension, there’s a ton of evil lord possibilities. Fearing the wrath of their dark lord can go a long way towards keeping an evil party on task. Every time your players get really off path, just have new orders from their master bring them back to the questline.
  2. Crush those Meddling Heroes! Just like your average campaign has a BBEG (Big Bad Evil Guy) you can create a BBGG (Big Bad Good Guy). Have a symbol of justice thwart your party’s evil schemes at every turn. Make them work together to destroy the meddling do-gooder. Or make it a righteous group, or even a whole nation! Common foes are one of the greatest unifiers and some pompous or self-righteous authorities can be the perfect opponents for your band of monsters.
  3. Live to Fight Another Day! Evil characters are diverse, but they’ve usually got a good sense of self-preservation. Construct threats for your evil campaign that target your players specifically, rather than threats that target the world at large. Make your evil characters wanted by the state, or have some inquisitorial agency target your evildoers. Or, if you base your players within an evil lair, place your questline threats against their lair for a clear call to action.

Evil Inspiration

Alright, you and your players are all gung-ho for an evil campaign, now what? What do you play? There are tons of evil campaigns floating around, but if you’d like to brew your own nefarious concoction then consider these underhanded plots:

  • The holy church is burning away the filth within the undercity, the filth strikes back from the shadows.
  • The return of your dark lord is nigh, but the ancient sacrificial rite must be completed to call him forth.
  • You lot are goblins ransacking the farmlands and barely escaping from a band of brave adventurers.
  • You are all abominations created by a mad scientist! Now the master is dead, and you’ve been left to your own devices with an unexpectant village…
  • You were all sealed away for centuries, but now an unwary archeologist has broken the seal and unleashed your evil upon the world.
  • You were all monsters kept within the king’s menagerie, now you’ve broken free to run amok through the palace.
  • The thieves guild has been shaken up and the leader is missing, anybody might become the new king of thieves.
  • Your gang of thugs attacked the wrong old woman, now you must work together to find a cure for the curse she put upon you all.

Whatever kind of evil campaign you decide upon, you’re now prepared to make it a villainous triumph rather than a b-movie horror flop. So roll the dice and Fly my pretties! Practice your evil laughs and bring about the end to boring normal campaigns!

This article is brought to you by SkullSplitter Dice a fine purveyor of dice and gaming accessories for Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder and other tabletop games. It was written by Andrew Engelbrite.

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