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My friend has recently started running an evil campaign. His players are having serious difficulty telling the difference between comitting evil deeds and doing random things that are evil acts.

I stayed to watch one sessions and after the group went to an inn the group waited till midnight and then the rogue of the group went off to rape the innkeeper's daughter, the bard went off to pee in the beer barrels, while their barbarian started to break the chairs downstairs. When I tried asking them what was the point of their actions their response was they had to do it since they were evil.

My question is how do you explain the difference between being evil by helping a villain and being evil by acting like college students on spring break that are extremely high?

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    \$\begingroup\$ It might help if you elaborated on the notion of "evil" that you're going for. All of those behaviors the players engaged in certainly do seem to be evils of various sorts, so the characters do seem to be "evil" in the general sense. If there's a more specific sort of evil that you're going for, what would that be? \$\endgroup\$ – Nat Apr 10 '18 at 3:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ Comments have been cleaned up. Please reserve them for seeking clarification, suggesting improvement, or minor moderation or meta matters. They aren't for discussing the nature of evil or suggesting solutions. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Apr 12 '18 at 12:12

12 Answers 12

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When I tried asking them what was the point of their actions their response was they had to do it since they were evil.

Bah! That's the problem with villains these days. They hear about the time Bar'br'shaup the Hideously Vile kicked a puppy and assume that Evil must go around kicking puppies all day. He didn't kick that puppy because Evil required it. He kicked it because it was in his way.

If you're going to allow your moral framework to force you to do things a certain way, then you might as well be good. Evil isn't an alternate moral code: it's an acknowledgement that, while such codes may be of use for keeping the peasants in line, Evil Overlords such as yourself are above such petty restrictions.

Explain to your players that evil adventurers shouldn't be looking for ways to "be evil", whatever that means. They should be looking for ways to further their goals that would be overlooked or rejected by less enterprising adventurers.

Suppose, for example, that a local goblin tribe has kidnapped several children, and the village is offering a reward for their safe return. A good adventurer might not only rescue the little brats, but reject the reward, stating that the village needs it more than they do. A neutral adventurer would at least have the good sense to take the money, so the exercise isn't a complete waste of time. But as an evil adventurer, you realize that if you offer the goblins a 30% cut of the reward money to give you the kids, then not only do you not have to fight, but the goblins are still alive and can kidnap some more kids for you to rescue once every month or so, providing you with a safe and steady source of income.

What your players need are goals. Something to accomplish and a lack of limitations as to how to go about it. If they're intent on being mere thugs, they can keep doing things the way they have been until they draw the attention of the local paladin and get killed off. It seems to be the fate of most would be villains these days. But if they instead decide what they want from the world and seek to acquire it, unfettered by the restrictions that lesser beings impose upon themselves, then they can start on the path to being true Evil Masterminds.

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My question is how do you explain the difference between being evil by helping a villain and being evil by acting like college students on spring break that are extremely high?

The problem is that "helping a villain" just pushes the problem back a step; how do we know that the villain is a villain? What makes the villain villainous in the first place?

What you need is a straightforward and clear characterization of evil. Ask ten people and you will get ten different explanations, but I think many people would agree that the moral principle of it is right and just that the strong use their strength to take advantage of the weak is fundamentally "evil", and that its opposite it is right and just that the strong use their strength to defend and support the weak is fundamentally "good".

Note that the evil don't do it for the evil, muah ha ha. The evil believe in the probity of their actions. They work from a moral framework in which accumulating power over others is the right thing to do.

Consider a straightforward old-school D&D module where the story hook is a bunch of orcs are in nearby abandoned castle and are raiding the village. A "good" party would probably be all about protecting the weak people in the village by driving off the threat. A "bad" party would see this scenario as an opportunity to drive off the orcs so that they could take advantage of the weak townspeople; better that they get protection money from the villagers than the orcs do. Chaotically pillaging the town doesn't further the ends of the evil party until they can do so from a position of strength.

That's the difference between being evil and being a jerk. Evil actively seeks to increase their power over the weak. Jerks are just jerks.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The discussion that arose connected to this answer has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Apr 12 '18 at 12:22
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Out of Game

You can certainly, as a DM/GM talk to them about how different evil villains work. There are plenty of examples in comic books, movies, books, television of evil characters. Ask them to give examples of characters who do what they've done and who are evil but wouldn't do stuff like that. They'll probably catch on pretty quickly most evil characters aren't as chaotic evil as they are being.

In Game

When you do things they are, you're going to gather attention of the authorities very very quickly. The barbarian starts breaking chairs, people are going to wake up. The rogue sneaks off to the innkeepers daughter, she's going to scream and wake people up. The bard is the only one who isn't going to wake people up, but he might get caught by someone anyways since he's in a pretty public spot. So just those actions are going to consequences with the good NPCs.

But it's not just the good NPCs who are going to have issues. The evil masterminds in the world are also going to want to get rid of them. If they are working with one of them, that villain is going to most likely want to stop working with them. If they are really an evil mastermind they don't want to draw additional attention to themselves by associating with those PC's.

In either case, they are likely going to be getting attention of the most powerful good NPC's and the most powerful bad NPC's, because in both cases it is less than ideal for them. So, in game the DM can start dishing out consequences to their actions. Doesn't mean that they have to be good, this is an evil campaign, but it'll force them to be smart about how they are being bad.


Now, if this is what the DM/GM wants. Then there's nothing "wrong" about how they are playing an evil campaign. I personally find it juvenile and disturbing even in an evil campaign, but to each their own in how they want to game.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The discussion that arose connected to this answer has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Apr 12 '18 at 12:23
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This is a typical case of players roleplaying the "Stupid Evil" character alignment. They are doing evil acts just for the sake of being evil. Not because they benefit from them in any way.

The difference between good and evil characters is:

  • Their goals. While good characters have altruistic motives ("protect the innocent"), evil characters usually have some egoistic motives they pursue ("become rich and powerful").
  • Their methods. Good characters will usually follow a restrictive moral code ("don't kill creatures which pose no threat, don't steal what's rightfully owned, don't pee in anyone's drink"), while evil characters will have very few things they won't be willing to do to achieve their goals ("I won't harm any of my close friends or family members... unless they cross me first.").

Note that evil characters are not limited to only use evil methods to pursue their goals. They might do something good if it will further their egoistic goals. For example, an evil character might save someone's life if that person needs to be alive for their plan to work. Or they might be nice to someone to gain their trust and get a better opportunity to backstab them later.

So before you run an evil campaign, have a session 0 where you discuss:

  1. What are the goals of your characters?
  2. What are they willing to do to achieve their goals?

When you come to point 2, you might also want to have an open discussion about how far you are willing to take the game. Murdering innocents? Sexual assault? Harming children? Where do you draw the line where any of you feel uncomfortable with the content of the game? Agree on your veils (things which might happen in the campaign, but you are not going to describe them in detail) and taboos (things which are not going to happen in the campaign).

Then the DM should conceptualize a campaign where those goals are achieveable using the methods the characters described and without crossing the lines you defined.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Evil people might even have genuine friends they care about and would never hurt. \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Apr 10 '18 at 15:29
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Is this a problem?

First, it looks like you're neither a PC nor a DM. If everyone involved in playing the game is enjoying the game that they're playing, what's the problem? I've played in games where we were chaotic stupid evil, and the DM would just give us towns and NPCs to knock down and murder, and everyone was on board with it.

It's about motivations and expectations, not good vs. evil

If you assume that this situation is actually a problem in need of solving, then this is really an issue of long-term vs. short-term motivations, not one of good or evil.

A good character could choose to spend all their time feeding beggars, helping the inkeeper with chores, or other seemingly mundane "good" activities. While these activities might seem more acceptable to us, they are similar to the evil equivalent in that they are small, local instances of good. However, most good campaigns have some kind of global good motivation, like saving the world. Therefore, PCs will often skip local good acts, like feeding beggars, in order to accomplish bigger goals, like defeating a demon lord. Sometimes, good characters might even commit questionable acts, like torturing a cultist, in service to a "greater good".

Evil campaigns can work in much the same way. An evil party can decide that they want to take over a city, for example. In trying to accomplish their goal, they might forgo small opportunities for evil, like petty crime or individual murders. Indeed, they might commit "good deeds," like eliminating criminals from the streets, in order to accomplish the "greater evil" of controlling the city.

The players and the DM are going to have to determine exactly what these long-term motivations actually are, but having any long-term motivations at all will help make an evil party's actions seem less random and local.

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There's a lot of important elements here the first is to set a good goal through in-game communication. It sounds like the GM probably didn't do a great job with this leaving the players (and their characters) directionless.

Condensed typical campaign opener:

You've just arrived to the Adventurer's Hall where Feengold has summoned you. "My scouts informed me of your arrival. Thank you for agreeing to meet with me. As you are likely to have heard in rumors Serten, Priest of St. Cuthbert, has been fighting the Ring of Five. Now this usually wouldn't concern us in the Adventurer's Hall but one of my men decided to take arms and he lost an important artifact. If you all could get it back I will surely pay you for your troubles.

Then through that the adventurer's would like find themselves eventually in the presence of Serten and asked to take up arms with him. This is a pretty stereotypical campaign.

Now imagine instead in an evil campaign they find themselves either starting out the same but suddenly finding themselves in the company of the Ring of Five being asked to work for the Evil Gods, or right from the start could be different. Maybe they find themselves awoken in shackles, prisoners of war, where a Cleric of Eclavdra (an Evil Priestess) frees you.


Another example might be in Curse of Strahd where instead of awakening and ultimately fighting against Strahd, perhaps the PCs awaken in Castle Ravenloft, summoned by Strahd himself to perform tasks and help free him.


To run a successful campaign in general requires direction and purpose. One easy way to do this is through the lore of the D&D world and understanding that typically players fight for those aligned as Good or at least neutral. An Evil campaign is really about positioning them to be on the side of Evil.

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Step One: required reading

Introduce each of the players to Rich Burlew's article on making the tough decisions. The point the author makes is (to sum it up) being evil in alignment doesn't mean you have to do that kind of stuff. The player controls the decisions. If further detail or discussion is needed, then a reference to "my guy syndrome" is in order.

Step Two: what problem are you trying to solve?

As you are not the DM/GM, why is this a problem that needs solving? While that is a somewhat rhetorical question...

  1. if the DM/GM doesn't mind and the players are enjoying themselves then there isn't a problem to solve just yet.

  2. If someone does mind, then see step 1.

  3. Likewise, if you are invited to join this play group, you need to be open and honest about your concerns, so make sure that you put your cards on the table. Discuss this specific concern of yours before beginning play with this group. Base your decision to play with them on the outcome of an open and honest discussion regarding your concern.

  4. If the problem is getting the players to better understand evil motivations for characters, @EricLippert's answer is nice and concise.
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Evil is not "OMG there's an orphanage, I have to burn it or else I'm not really t3h 3v1lz".

Consider an example that many of us know. The Sith on Star Wars are pretty much the epitome of the Lawful Evil alignment. They bided their time for centuries until they were ready to take over the galaxy, and even then, didn't go all out. Darth Vader, while in the midst of Force-choking an inferior, pulled back when ordered to by his superior, Grand Moff Tarkin.

What you are describing does tend closer to a Chaotic Evil alignment, but even Chaotic Evil is not "do whatever, it's evil". Chaotic Evil characters have personal motivations and a self-preservation instinct. The Joker planned his heists - he didn't just do random "evil" stuff "just because". Evil is not always very very smart, nor does it always act completely circumspectly, but it does originate in a cohesive world view.

Why would an Evil PC rogue want to rape an innkeeper's daughter? Until that question can be answered, you are dealing with a "Stupid Evil" character as mentioned by @Philipp. What are some reasons? Perhaps the rogue is just horny, and, being evil, sees no inherent moral problem with rape. Perhaps the rogue has a bet with a friend on how many maidens he can bed over the next year. Maybe he wants to spread his genetics and have as many children as possible because he believes that a world with more people like him would be favorable to his beliefs. Maybe he is insecure, and feels that he needs to do this in order to demonstrate that he is a Macho Man. Perhaps he serves a sex god and doing this is an act of worship for him. Any of those are reasonable motivations for an evil character to commit rape. You can probably think of a few more. What's important is that you find that reason.

Why would an Evil PC barbarian want to break chairs? This one is a little harder, but not too hard. Maybe the barbarian also feels the need to be a Macho Man and do what he thinks is stereotypical Macho stuff. Maybe he has a financial interest in furniture manufacturers and this is his "way" of drumming up business (he's Evil, so he may not care too much about hurting customers as long as they pay).

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I've run long-running evil campaigns that worked very effectively. What worked for us was to begin with these two ground rules in mind.

  1. Forget the word "evil". The in-character concept goes like this: People who do not have the willpower to effect their will often judge the highly motivated as evil. We do not think of ourselves as "evil." We are decisive; dedicated; intent on achieving our goals. In fact, we often serve high principles and the common good--by any means necessary. Which brings us to:

  2. The Ends Justify the Means. Whatever it takes to achieve our goals, we will do. Say we need info about a merchant's operations. We might bribe a shop clerk for the info. Or, we might kidnap the innocent fellow and squeeze him til he talks. Which approach is taken depends on how much time effort and/or money the characters want to put into the process.

At the end of the day, though, we achieve our goal by doing "whatever it takes." Those who are more chaotic in orientation might do this with little concern for consequences, because Poor Impulse Control or Judgment. So the whim of a moment might dictate their actions. In the encounter with the kidnapped shop clerk, one might kill the prisoner after interrogation because "I didn't like how he looked at me."

Those more lawful in orientation will act with cognizance of the hierarchy and expectations upon them and any 'rules of the road' their leadership has asserted. "We let him go after interrogation because the Boss wanted to see who he'd run crying to."

In either case, the strategic End justifies the tactical Means.

If characters do this in self-serving ways that disregard norms or what others want, their actions can easily be called evil. This does not mean they are not capable of acts of kindness, love, caring for family, friends, or even trusting each other. Those elements can still be in place. Their "evilness" arises from how others perceive their actions. Not (as others here have noted) because they are cackling in a corner, rubbing their hands, and saying "Let's be EVIL! Bwahahaha!" (Although, ok, some players might be doing that. LOL)

Final note: setting expectations

I always had an "expectations-setting" discussion/meeting that was its own separate thing for all the players as part of the required preparation for this kind of campaign. The ground rules above were outlined, behavioral questions and motivations explored. Individuals and group were encouraged to come up with some goals they would strive for, in the course of which they could explore their 'evilness'. We'd check in periodically, too, to make sure of people's comfort zones and any other dynamics-related things that came up in game play.

This worked out really well. Occasionally there'd be a "drunken frat boy" style player. I would have private convo with him to see if I could get him on the right page for this style game play. If he remained randomly disruptive, he was uninvited from the group. Only had to do that twice over several years.

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What's the difference between being "evil" and just being a "jerk"?

Scale.

Good characters actively seek to help others improve their lives. They may suck at it, and they may unintentionally make things worse, but they try.

Neutral characters do what they see as best for themselves and don't care what effect it has on everyone else. Many of the "evil" people in history were actually just neutrals who amassed too much power.

Evil characters actively enjoy causing suffering. They will hurt other people, even if they stand to gain nothing from it, just because they can. If you offer them two ways to make an equally large fortune and one of the ways happens to involve torturing small children, that's the one they'll take just because it sounds like more fun.

What you describe the party doing is definitely evil, but the rogue is the only one who's not obviously just petty evil, and arguably even he is failing miserably to live up to his potential for true awfulness.

Were I running this campaign, I'd probably let them continue their trite shenanigans for a couple of sessions, and then have them attract the attention of one of their world's powerful neutrals who sees them as potentially useful pawns. The neutral would proceed to bawl them out about their total lack of subtlety and offer to let them get in on doing some real evil, but only if they promise to be more discreet. If they're going to risk getting caught out being evil, it should at least be fun enough evil to be worth it.

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Consequences.

The consequence of being evil is losing your soul and gaining actual money and power in return.

The consequence of acting like a jerk is being able to pretend to have power, and having to run and hide afterwards.

Good and evil innkeepers alike accept well behaved customers who pay extra coin for the "no questions asked" policy. But neither good nor evil innkeepers accept customers who have raped another innkeeper's daughter and aren't even housebroken yet. In fact the innkeepers will hire people to protect them from such "customers", the city guard will require rapidly increasing donations to look the other way, and if the innkeeper's daughter previously flirted with the mayor's nephew, they can forget about the city's promised rewards* for that latest quest.


*Speaking of rewards: Proper evil, on hearing about a glorious quest with a generous reward, asks where that reward might be stored.

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explain the difference between being evil by helping a villain and being evil by acting like college students on spring break that are extremely high

From Eric Lippert's answer: "The problem is that "helping a villain" just pushes the problem back a step; how do we know that the villain is a villain? What makes the villain villainous in the first place?"

This point also applies to say "summoning demons", or "worshipping an evil god" - the meat of the issue is in how those beings can be - or expect you to be - evil.

Similarly, damnation. It might be evil to lead others to damnation, but in terms of understanding evil it's just passing the buck. What could being in hell be like that would make it evil? Sensations of physical pain and discomfort, being in a disgusting environment, seeing yourself and others tortured and abused - all pretty ho-hum in a way. What's a lot darker is the possible mental torture: isolation, inability to control our own thoughts, not having context and continuity, vivid revisiting of painful memories that left you feeling guilty or ashamed.

So, how can evil be done outside "hell" for its own sake?

  • violating innocence / sanctity; degradation

  • violating freedom: slavery, controlling behaviours, privacy invasions, isolating someone or forcing them into uncomfortably close circumstances, withholding education (e.g. killing monks), injuring people in ways that limit their freedom to move in and interact with the world (crippling them, sterilisation, infections/diseases, seeding fears of places or experiences)

  • pressuring/forcing/tricking/manipulating people to make compromises that make them feel tainted or evil themselves; sometimes for blackmail/control too; “dirty” addictions, bribes

  • violating peace of mind: seeding fear, doubt, egotism, pride, hatred, jealousy, lust, greed, vengefulness, sanctimonious righteousness to police others, excessive attachment/love/longing – manipulating them to be in love but then abusing that control e.g. using them sexually in callous ways / pimping them out, showing them or making them partake in your evilness and making them grapple with how they can still love you (only more mature people will stop painlessly as their understanding of you changes)

    • subjecting them to neglect, disrespect, contempt, disgust; questioning sanity, judgement, intelligence, worth
    • lies to compromise others relationships
    • manipulating into accepting blame for various wrongs they’re not really responsible for (scapegoats)
  • false doctrine: e.g. tricking people into practices that disrespect their gods, short term evil is in preventing powers of good from working /- teaching them to blaming that on insufficient piety/sacrifice etc. is a classic evil; eventually they might realise and regret/shame etc. kick in

So, for a character to be evil (and not just practical and sociopathically uncaring), they should be actively planning and acting to create these kinds of experiences/situations for people around them, often en masse.

For example:

  • trying to manipulate local rulers into paranoia, righteousness, jealousy or whatever it takes to subject their subjects to such treatments; e.g. demanding children or aged relatives be handed over for abuse or sacrifices, Mao/1984-like monitoring and behavioural control, witch-burnings of anyone with a black moggy...
  • infiltrating good religions and then doing things to tarnish their reputation, break down trust with their followers, manipulate their members into doing evil things, prevent them from educating/helping their followers (e.g. perhaps by attacking a temple at which lessons are given)
  • dealing drugs; so much evil flows on inevitably from that, but characters can also actively worsen things, e.g. injecting people involuntarily to get them addicted, making people do compromising things to get more - or when they're barely conscious and telling them they did it willingly afterwards to undermine self-worth

That's the kind of behaviour that should titillate the very darkest of gods. Designing quests/missions etc. around that isn't particularly easy, and may not add much in terms of fun, but that's my crack at analysis/exposition for whatever it's worth.

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