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A few years ago, I played a D&D 3.5 game in Forgotten Realms with an evil party. The characters (played by my brother and me) were sociopaths, bent on exploiting anyone and everyone. The game revolved around our characters confronting a situation and then coming up with a plan to exploit it as much as possible.

This campaign gave me some of the best memories of role-playing to this day. So, when it was my turn to run a game, I decided to recreate the feeling, only this time the whole game would be designed around it.

I set it in a modern-day urban environment. The PCs were a bunch of orphaned teenage brothers with antisocial personality disorder. Each session was designed to revolve around a single "bet": the characters would have to exploit a situation, looking for gaps in the structure of society and human psychology. I used a mostly free-form skill system without rolls or ranks. If you are smart, it means you can reason about the most difficult situations. If you are charismatic, it means everyone except the most cynical people love you. If you are good with computers, hacking most government systems is a piece of cake.

Still, it didn't turn out as I had hoped. Most of the time, the players couldn't come up with creative plans and even when they did, it was nothing to celebrate about.

So, I changed the system. I gave the players more power over what happens beyond their characters. Scenes, puppet characters, narration. But things didn't improve.

So, what do you think went wrong? How would you design a game around this principle?

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I asked Dexter Morgan but he said he was in the middle of something. –  Naurgul Nov 24 '10 at 15:41
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World of Darkness comes to mind, both with the vampires (sociopaths by nature) and with the human monsters (in a supplement I think). Look at EvE-Online's background stories. –  Kheldar Aug 31 '11 at 18:42

5 Answers 5

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You need a setting with characters that have plausible motivations and reasons to act the way they do. Make sure that the goals of these characters conflict. Set up several, probably around a dozen. You can start off with just a paragraph or two for each.

Then, you sit down with your players and work with them one-on-one, asking them what they want their character to be in general terms. Using the material you developed in the preceding step, you work with the players to narrow it down to specifics. This will provide an initial background from which they can make choices. Obviously, you are going to slant this toward the theme of the campaign.

This will allow the players control over their characters beyond being sociopathic orphaned teenage brothers, plus provide context for the initial choices.

Also, I will caution against "misery tourism." I found long-term evil campaigns work best when players are working from plausible motivations coupled with a "the ends justify the means" attitude. That helps get away from the icky factor, yet produces as much or more mayhem as deliberately trying to be "evil."

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The most critical component, I found, was finding adequate motivation for the characters to cooperate. It's much more difficult for a (mostly) evil group to find common ground for cooperation, and trust - it's difficult, but possible to maintain through character development, background and careful adventure design/choice. –  blueberryfields Dec 8 '10 at 22:53

There are a couple games designed for play with sociopathic characters. Check out Acts of Evil and kill puppies for satan, to see what those designers did.

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@Naurgul Here's a Wayback Machine archive of the KPFS page from before Vincent reorganised his site and broke most of the outgoing links. Clicking the links in there will give you the 2005 versions of the pages, which are unbroken. –  SevenSidedDie Nov 24 '10 at 18:36

First, I would ask you this:

When you created that campaign, how did you know it was something your players wanted to play? Without their buy-in, any campaign can fall flat. And you created a very narrow sort of game. A lot of groups might balk at milder constraints, let alone, "You all play sociopaths! Isn't that fun?" If you didn't get a lot of enthusiasm from your players when you were selling this, maybe it was just the wrong game, wrong group, or wrong time for it.

Presuming you had player buy-in for the premise, I would ask you this:

What did the characters have to achieve, besides just screwing with people? Take Dexter as an example - he's got a lot of goals he has to pursue that drive all the rest of his actions:

  1. Don't get caught.
  2. Keep the Dark Passenger quiet
  3. Protect his sister (or family, depending on whether you're talking books or TV)
  4. Kill the monsters (people worse than he is...people without a Code)
  5. Follow the Code

So what goals did you give your adolescent PCs? They were orphans, so they didn't want to keep their parents safe. But how about:

  1. Stay out of jail
  2. Stay together
  3. Never give the Family Services shrink who suspects their condition enough to be sure
  4. Avoid the cop who thinks they murdered their parents / sisters / whatever

Once you have goals like that in place, you can add threats to those goals and / or opportunities to advance those goals to the situation that each episode presented.

As far as system recommendations go, check out games that are all about character evolution. The first one that comes to mind is Prime Time Adventures.

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The players not buying in could have been the problem I guess. However, they all are people who almost never show any excitement, so it's difficult to know for sure what they were thinking. As for their goals, aside from having to complete the "bet" without getting caught, each of them had some personal stuff assigned to him to explore and resolve. But I got the feeling that they didn't like it when I explicitly assigned character goals like that. –  Naurgul Nov 24 '10 at 16:30
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There's a mismatch there: passive players who "never show any excitement" and "evil campaigns" don't go together. Good guys have the ability to be reactive, stopping the latest scheme of the villains. Bad guys have to make their own trouble. –  Jadasc Nov 24 '10 at 17:21
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@Naurgul Passive doesn't mean uncreative, just not proactive. If you have to motivate them first, then they're passive, even if they're creative once given the right motivation. It's not a judgement so much as a play style description. If you had proactive players, who go and make their own motivations (often to the consternation of Planner-type GMs) this game would probably fly on its own without your needing to provide motivations, is all Jadasc's saying. Games that are Situation + "Now what do you do?" really need proactive players. –  SevenSidedDie Nov 24 '10 at 18:39

I'm not really into RPGs myself, but have you looked at Paranoia? In that game, most of the PCs are trying to kill or double-cross all of the other PCs. Hillarity ensues.

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Player interest is the most important thing for you to have.

Firstly, and most importantly, not everyone is comfortable roleplaying characters who are evil or insane/mentally different. The prospect of portraying a character with an ability to perceive events, or capacity to understand them, that is different from your own might be daunting, or just plain unappealing. Part of roleplaying is "getting into your characters shoes," and not everyone wants to get into the shoes of a sociopath. Not everyone feels comfortable there, or really even has any idea of what it would entail.

Secondly, not everyone is capable of the quick, manipulative thinking necessary to make this type of game work. You say your players lacked creative ideas - what types of characters do they normally play? What types of games do they normally play? Player intelligence and character intelligence are always going to be two different things; I understand that the game you ran was rules-light, but is that what they normally play, or do they more commonly play in games where they can supplement their out-of-character faults by rolling an Intelligence Check for more information, or a Charisma Check to transform that thing they said into diplomatic gold?

This sounds like it could be a fun and engaging game, but you need players who are excited by the idea in order to make it work, and then (IMHO) you need to avoid handing them the world on a plate. I played a 12-year-old sociopath in a zombie outbreak game, and one of the things the GM did to immediately engage my character was introduce an NPC that was trying to blackmail her -- he had photographs of her torturing animals, and he was threatening to show them to her father.

Ultimately, my character not only kept the photographs hidden from her father, and from the other PCs, but one of the other PCs killed the blackmailer, silencing him forever. Success! (It turned out he was also a KGB spy.)

I enjoyed playing that character, however, had the game been run by a different GM, or involved different players, "child sociopath" may not have been an appropriate character choice. It's not the kind of character that everyone is going to be comfortable playing with, never even mind being comfortable playing one yourself.

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