# How can I show-not-tell my players that they are The Bad Guys?

My players have an interesting habit of changing their behavior on a dime. Between objectives, they'll be trying to fix problems at small towns they pass through and helping the locals, but once they have an objective, they're fine with taking shake-down jobs for money or services. It's come to a head recently when the players tried to cross a border from their home country (A) to a new one (B), where the tensions between countries are rising, and were arrested and detained for having forged their papers to cross. When given the opportunity, they fought their way out, slaughtering most of the guards.

However, the guards managed to alert the network, leading to consequences. Country B, fearful that an advanced strike squad from Country A might be punching a hole through its border, prioritizes the capture of my players. The local Quest Giver tells a team of Good-aligned adventurers to apprehend the foul villains who perpetrated this crime. The players narrowly manage to escape being captured by the heroes with the help of an unusual ally of theirs - an ancient evil lich.

To my perspective, their actions line up with "The Bad Guys". They kill people just doing their jobs when convenient, and essentially follow their own goals above all else when it comes to it. However, they are quite annoyed that the band of heroes (who they percieved as mercenaries, not wholly incorrect) were chasing them and trying to bring them down.

How to do I show my players it's their own damn fault, without making them feel bad?

From this question, I recognize that I need to signpost a little better. To help my players make informed moral decisions, I need to provide more guidance, in part from NPCs giving judgements small and large that tell them how their actions are perceived. For instance, the party of heroes didn't attempt to talk down the murderous players, so that could certainly have been played better on my end.

My players went from 100% murderous cretins to 100% nonviolent diplomats; how can I achieve a middle ground?

From this question, I take that I need to have the world reflect their actions. However, I already am (making prop letters that the dead guards were carrying on them/having authorities try to apprehend the band of murderers), and the players still see themselves as wronged heroes, suffering the judgment of an unjust government.

I'm fine with them playing how they want to play, and have no problems GMing an evil party. However, I do believe that it would be best for narrative purposes to somehow convey that the world thinks of them as dangerous criminals. Thus, what means do I have to show them that they're not acting morally?

• I feel like this question might be hard to answer from a system-agnostic perspective; the tools you have at your disposal may depend on the system you're playing.
– V2Blast
Jun 29 '18 at 21:55
• I agree, and I'd encourage you to specify what system you're planning on using for this game. Besides mechanics that can be made directly relevant, systems introduce gameplay and narrative expectations that you can leverage as a GM for communication purposes, ones that either the game sets up directly or that players in the community tend to bring to the table fairly reliably. Those expectations also set up pitfalls we'd need to advise you on working around. We encourage asking about your specific situation, and that usually maximises the question's helpfulness to yourself and others. Jun 29 '18 at 22:56
• Does it really matters what alignment the PCs have on paper? Are there any game mechanics involved? If there are, you should specify the game system you use. Jun 29 '18 at 23:36
• Jun 29 '18 at 23:44
• What is the party composition? That could help us answer
– Paul
Jun 30 '18 at 7:12

You know you need to signpost your actions - but something I've learned in my - cough - years of DMing is that often when I think I'm making something incredibly obvious, my players think I'm dropping tiny hints at best.

You mentioned you're currently using things like letters on the dead guards and the actions of authorities. Do your players see these letters at all? Do the letters adequately explain the situation? If it's something like this one, while it may suffice to make your players feel guilty about killing that guard, it isn't necessarily indicative that the players are the bad guys. Likewise, if you haven't sufficiently established the nature of the authorities or the government (likely not given the players perceive it as "unjust"), the players have no reason to assume it's anything else.

Remember, your players are operating under typical RPG assumptions, which is that PCs are the heroes no matter what acts of criminality they get up to. Think about Link smashing pots in random people's houses, or Cloud slaughtering dozens of ShinRa guards. The plot still frames both Link and Cloud as heroes, in part because of Gameplay and Story Segregation, which requires the game to provide challenges and loot to the players even when it's not strictly logical; but also because that's just how RPGs tend to work.

In other words, you've answered your own question: you simply need to signpost more effectively.

In particular, focus on telegraphing to the players what their actions look like to innocent people of the country, and make it at least twice as obvious as you think you need to. Have villagers run away when the party approaches, screaming for help because "those mercenaries from $HomeCountry are here!". Have "wanted" posters everywhere, which specifically talk about the players' actions in terms that you'd normally see on a Disney villain's rap sheet. Have the next batch of heroes, as you suggested, try talking to the PCs before attacking, and use language specifically describing them as bad guys, such as "Halt,$HomeCountry soldiers! We know you have come to our nation to scout our defenses and assassinate our leaders. You have butchered our guards and allied with that most ancient of evils, a lich. Come peacefully and your deaths will be swift and painless, or stand and die like the villains you are!"

As @Mark Gardner noted in a comment and @Icyfire in an answer, it's especially important to use signposts which the PCs have reason to trust or believe. This could be friends of the PCs who say, "Man, you guys are getting pretty scary, just slaughtering all those guards like it's nothing..." and act generally hesitant around them; or trustworthy authority figures (if you have clerics, paladins, or similar religious characters, a priest or other religious authority can be very useful here) who comment that the PCs are useful and effective, but "if you weren't working for me I'd have arrested you by now".

The point here is that your players likely haven't caught on to how they're seen in this new country. They have no reason to believe their actions are not being ignored in typical RPG fashion - all they see is random encounters and boss fights. You need to make clear to them, repeatedly and excruciatingly from trustworthy sources, that this is not the case.

(As a side note, your players might well choose to continue as they have been, and run with their reputation as villains. Since you say you're fine running an evil party, there's nothing wrong with that, but at that point you'll want to break character and have a brief "Session Zero 2.0" where you check in with the players that this is, in fact, what they want.)

• +1, if you need inspiration for the trusted friend, look at the PC game Dishonored. Depending on how many people you kill, Samuel, the boat pilot, treats you differently. He'll always stay loyal because of your shared cause, but makes it clear that he doesn't have to like you for it. Jul 2 '18 at 9:19
• Those guards had wives, children, and other family. Send them after the adventurers who try to kill them with poison and hidden knives for harming their family. these level 0 commoners will never be a threat but it would hopefully be a strong enough sign for their actions.
– Reed
Jul 2 '18 at 13:32
• @DonFusili It's a bit of a spoiler but if you go sufficiently down the slaughter everything route you can even get Samuel to turn on you in a fairly significant way. Jul 2 '18 at 15:32

Some suggestions:

1. Wanted posters. Historically, paper was expensive and many people in the middle ages weren't literate, but fantasy roleplaying games are not necessarily this historically accurate. There should be a poster with drawings or descriptions of the party and a bounty on their heads.
2. Random NPCs fear them. Ordinary people, having heard the reputation of these people, cower in the party's presence, or avoid them. Clerics refuse to heal or raise party members until they admit their sins and repent.
3. Heroes call them villains to their face. People show up to capture the party, calling them out (accurately) for their crimes. Having an NPC say something is quite direct, but it's also quite likely to happen.
4. Other villains offer to team up. Thanks to the party's reputation, people offer to hire them for plainly dubious tasks like assassinations and burglaries.
5. Consider that perhaps your players don't care about morality. Not every fantasy RPG campaign is strongly about good versus evil, and historically many were not. D&D originally had only the Lawful vs Chaotic alignment axis and the game was originally about collecting wealth, not helping people out. In some of the works that inspired D&D, such as The Three Musketeers, the protagonists regularly duel people, kill them and get away with it because the society they live in just kind of lets it slide. Mediaeval morality is not necessarily as socially ordered as the modern world, and perhaps your players are thinking like morally ambiguous fantasy characters and not so much like modern folk.

## Have the right people tell them that they're evil.

A lot of the answers here are telling you to simply get better at signposting. While that's true, I think you already know that, and it's more important that the signposts are coming from the right sources.

Basically, the PCs need to be reprimanded by NPCs they trust to be good.

the players still see themselves as wronged heroes, suffering the judgment of an unjust government.

This is quite reasonable! An oppressive, evil government might unjustly brand the heroes as villains, in order to further their evil agenda. There are plenty of real-world, historical examples of "evil" people/organizations that believe that they're doing good, and that all the people that say they're evil are actually evil persecutors. Likewise, it's a lot easier to brush off criticism from a random stranger than from a trusted friend.

Therefore, you need to judgments coming from sources that the PCs trust. You don't describe how your PCs get their objectives, but you could have a quest giver be horrified at the methods the PCs used to accomplish the quest. You could also have the NPC's employer pay them for the quest, then immediately fire them for their crimes. On the extreme end, you could have a cleric's (ostensibly good) god come down and reprimand them for their actions. Essentially, you need to have a source that the PCs trust to be "actually" good to do the signposting.

## This trust works for both good and evil

The key element here is not alignment, but trust. Therefore, it works equally well with an evil character that the characters believe is evil. For example, if that lich delights in the PCs evil deeds and tells them so, it's easier to believe because the PCs know for sure that the lich is motivated to tell them that truth. Going this direction is a bit more difficult, since evil stereotypically loves to lie, but it's an option if you can't go the "trusted good NPC" route.

## Very short answer, show the human consequences of their actions

The best way to get someone to re-evaluate their actions is to show the impact on someone else with whom they can sympathize. If they killed a bunch of guards, have some of the new widows and orphans pop up. If they destroyed property, show people who are now beggars because that lost property cost them their job.

As discussed below, that still might not do it. They may well say that it is acceptable collateral damage, that their ends justify the means. But if they have any empathy it should make them pause to at least ask do these ends justify these means?

## Do your players (or their characters) share your view of morality?

Without delving too deeply into philosophy, there is no universally agreed upon definition of what is moral. When it comes to conflicts between countries in particular just about all of the area (short of rare extremes such as the Holocaust) is grey area. One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.

If, for instance, they feel that they support Country A then they might feel fully justified in deliberately harming Country B. You say they kill people just doing their jobs, but it sounds like those people are guards and soldiers, people Country A would want them to kill and whose deaths are perfectly acceptable in a time of rising tension.

In short, it is easy to show that from a certain group's perspective they are the villains. They have almost certainly picked up that already. If you want to show that they are the villains, then that can only happen if they share the same basic moral perspective. Here, they may think their quest justifies everything they are doing. They may even think they are helping Country A. They might be right. They may realize they are villains from Country B's perspective, and expect (with some justification) that will help make them heroes in Country A.

## Do your players want to go deeply into morality?

Your players might also resist such realizations just because they don't want to think about that too deeply. They will turn away and blind themselves to the human impact and moral implications because they want to get to the next fight. They might want to be murder hobos focused on treasure. At that point, you and they are playing different games and it might be worth discussing out of character what everyone wants from the game.

## Judge actions, not people

To my perspective, their actions line up with "The Bad Guys". They kill people just doing their jobs when convenient, and essentially follow their own goals above all else when it comes to it. However, they are quite annoyed that the band of heroes (who they perceived as mercenaries, not wholly incorrect) were chasing them and trying to bring them down.

I hear you. "We kill for intrinsic reasons, that means we are mercenaries, not murderers" — this point of view is more suitable for criminals, not for "good guys". It is hard to disagree with that.

Money. Power. Any deliberate murder has its reasons. This way of justifying your actions is the notorious criminal mentality: "nothing personal — it's just business". Still, I want to challenge the frame of the question. Players don't see their character as "The Bad Guys" (whatever that means) — is it really necessary to make them do?

## "You are accused of a deliberate murder"

As a GM, I suggest that you leave the moral aspect of characters to the respective players. Instead, focus on more substantial things, things that can't be argued with. PCs have killed a human being — if murder is a crime in this country, hunt them for committing this particular crime, not just for being "the bad guys".

## Push from the other end.

So when the "good people" tell them they're doing the wrong thing, they write it off as propaganda.

What happens when the "evil people" tell them they're doing the right thing? The lich's associates, random bandit fanboys, sinister viziers from Country A, B, or even C who see opportunity in the chaos?

Taking what you want? Going where you want? Slaughtering the innocent? Great job, buddy, sign me up and let's do more.

It's a lot harder to tell yourself it's just Country B that has it in for you when people who don't care about Country B are saying the same things.

There is a question and a phrase that always remind me of this problem: What does makes a good action bad and a bad action good? And history is written by the winners. Most of the time, this problem is just a matter of perspective. Even the evil guys may see their actions and intentions as good, and believe that they are the good guys (and they die believing that). And players are the same and may die thinking that they are the good guys, too.

I used a simple technique when I face this problem. The central idea is to have a breaking point. A point in which they ask themselves the question "are we the good guys?". This can be as subtle as a whisper or as obvious as a bible landing on their heads. This usually depends on the type of players you have.

1- The first step is to ensure that your players really believe that they are the good guys. If they genuinely believe that you can proceed with the next step. If not, you have to have a new session zero to put things into perspective and to both, you and your players, play the same game.

2- Create the breaking point. You already have several good options in this thread, thus I'll focus on what I found the most effective one, though not necessarily the most subtle (some parties just don't get it).

Force of good. Do your party knows of true heroes in your world? What are the forces of unbreakable good that everyone in your world knows about? And I mean living legends. Your players should know that these guys are genuinely good guys. This create a sense of the morality of heroes.

Good actions are also gossips. People usually don't just spread the bad actions of people, they also spread good actions... and your players should have done some good actions, right? I hope so.

The conundrum. Make them face with a very cliche conundrum. A small kid in a village approach the players. They are his hero. But the villagers have been saying that they are not. They are a problem. The small kid ask the question to the players. -Is what they say true? Tell me that you are the heroes of "Major heroic action that they have done"-. The kid shouldn't give specifics about why the people in town may think that they are the bad guys, just that he heard them saying that. The innocence of a child is a powerful tool, never disregard this, they have a way to breaking into our hearts.

The benefit of the doubt. Some people might doubt that they are really villains. Maybe they were saved by them or they don't believe everything they heard. They doubt that they have committed a crime, a very well known by the players crime. Although this seems the same as before, it is different. You don't ask question here, you just point out that they don't believe that they have done this crime and laugh about it.

The confrontation with the force of good. The country is tired of the villains that roam their country. They ask for the heroes of now to face them. And they do. But they don't fight. They ask the question "why the evil when they have made so much good?". This is usually the breaking point for most of my (dense) parties.

It seems that the party does not wish to be outlaws, nor do they think themselves above the law. They saw no other way out when they committed the crime. I once had a similar situation. The PC-s killed over a dozen guards when they couldn't figure out how else to stop them from destroying a holy site and a small vilage dependent on it. When a week later they arrived in a big city, got hunted down and were nearly apprehended by the authorities, the players got visibly frustrated and asked me if I decided beforehand that they will be captured here. I told them that I did not, but they were simply the most wanted people in the county.

I think the problem was that when they made the decision, they did not stop to think about and accept the consequences. They did not do it because the were fine with playing criminals, but because they had no better idea.

This could have been avoided by me telling them: "Should you decide to engage the guards and kill them, you will be wanted men and hanged if caught."

In the heat of the moment, the full breadth of consequences might not occur to the players. Highlighting serious issues and confronting them before you show them on the PC-s migh save you and your players a lot of frustration.

## Okay, but I asked 'how to show'

Once they have commited crime or 'evil' act, showing would entail seriously endangering the PC-s, and (as I have also seen) that might not go over well. Thus, ideally, you would have to show on other people. The problem here is that the PC-s are usually exceptional people and might not think they could share the fate of Every Joe. You should demonstrate the power of law on someone they know to be exceptional. A named NPC that stands out from the crowd, possibly having PC class levels or rare abilities. Also, they have to be someone not expected to be persecuted (like a necromancer, blood mage or the like), as they do not expect they will be. A well-known wizard-for-hire who made a very wrong decision one day would be good, for example. Someone practically holding a mirror and a big neon sign saying "This could be you".

## Sometimes you gotta tell

However, there are many actions that will bring the wrath of the authorities or powerful pepole upon the head of the party. Showing the consequences of each and every crime is just not feasible. You can make one or two examples and hope to get the point across, but even then, I recommend explicitly warning them before they make the decision. Not telling is just not worth the headache later on.

Well. In my humble Opinion, I do think that I could give my insight as a player before responding to the question.

I can actually understand what your players feel regarding them being wronged heroes. See, in a situation like this, especially in a campaign where they were set out to be good guys, being arrested isn't exactly something fun to deal with. I mean, think of it this way, let's say that these guys were arrested and allowed their arrest? What next? Will they be prosecuted? Jailed? Then what? End of the campaign? Fight or flight seemed to be what the situation was signaling (I would like to note that I don't agree with their decisions or their course of action, it's just merely stating that I can identify with their problem)

As to your question, I do believe that something important to do is to either have a character who they actually like put on their face what they have done, is there any character back at Kingdom A that perhaps would try finding them to help them in a good manner? Try to talk sense to them of sorts? It'd also be a good way for having that tinge of sweet sweet drama that could hook to great things, trying to repent themselves from their actions.

If that doesn't help, and you think that the problem has to be addressed, I do honestly feel that sitting down at the table and talking with the players is important, though I got to say, I feel that "evil" is a bit of a stretch, they did kill a bunch of guards, but I'm pretty sure that they were merely trying to avoid being arrested, were the guards trying to calm the situation down? Perhaps when they were losing? Or were they very happy to draw weapons and keep trying to fight like a band of goblins?

I honestly feel that I lack some context to fully answer the question, but it may be my bad English. Hope my two cents on the matter are of any help,

Have the lich sit them down for a session, and just play back to them what they've done.

The other answers seem to be focussing on what you can do in theory to resolve this type of issue. So I'd like to focus on the specifics of this situation.

If it was me GMing this group, I'd have the lich tell them.

Presumably a lich operating in the area would be interested enough in the political situation to have a grasp on the wider effects of the PCs actions. Even better, the lich was literally right there when the players were attacked by heroes, and presumably has a much less blinkered picture of the actual situation than your players do.

People going around riling up the townsfolk and antagonising groups of heroes is almost certainly going to be inconvenient for the local undead monstrosity. And that goes double now that the PCs just brought the trouble right back to the liches' doorstep.

They'll probably want to argue out that they're the good guys here, and it will take them a while to adapt to the idea that the world doesn't see them the way they see themselves.

The best thing to do here is to give them someone no nonsense to have that argument with.

The other answers already cover many of the ways you can show your players they're evil in game, but as several of them also mentioned, players tend to overlook things. Even when you think something is obvious, they may only think you're dropping subtle hints and probably interpret them in a completely different way.

One way that I've found effective in dealing with this is to use a physical prop. It draws the players attention by being something unusual (assuming you don't already use a lot of props in the game) and generally makes them stop and take notice.

In the example you describe, you could make a wanted poster that they find around town and hand it over to them saying they see several posted around the town square. Alternatively (and probably easier) you could make the handwritten orders that the adventurers sent after them were carrying. Yellow the paper with tea, write out a short note describing the heroes and their crimes and have it signed (and possibly sealed if you have a candle to hand) by a lawful authority figure in the world.

In game, nothing different happened - the characters still found a wanted poster, or a note in a dead adventurers pocket. Out of game, the players all just got handed something physical that really invites them to take notice and stands out as being different, and therefore more important.

Well there's always the option of not trying to force the realization on them. They sound like D-Fens from the moving Falling Down. The end of that movie was pretty poignant as he realized, "Wait, I'm the bad guy?!"

Maybe you could run with it, let them discover in the end that yes, they were the villains despite their attitudes, or go down believing they were the good guys in the end, or even come out ahead at the end of the campaign.

Progressing them slowly down the dark path they've chosen, as good people turn against them, bounties and rumors of their crimes come to light, more good adventurers come after them, evil organizations begin to court them.

Maybe one day as they stand along side their evil Lich ally and his undead minions, chatting with Vampires and worse, they may look around and say, "Wait a minute... Why are we friends with all these monsters, and why does the Light of the Gods hurt so much?"

But maybe don't rush them to it, or try to be explicit about it. Subtle hints along the way, like those letter props you mentioned, or repeated attacks by more and more clearly good-aligned adventurers could serve as clues. Disfavor from gods and good spirits may work as well. Attracting evil sycophants and toadies to serve them as minions, or finding themselves taking quests from evil beings who reward them with dark items and knowledge may be a clue, but in all cases, take it slow and let them play it out without heavy-handed lessons or railroading.

Maybe some of them get angry in character and resentful enough to do something dire, like accepting the Vampire's curse, or learning forbidden evil magic, or making infernal bargains. Little things at first, but growing and growing until they either embrace the evil or they catch themselves and turn themselves around.

The slow and subtle descent into evil, seeing firsthand how those evil tyrants, warlords, dark wizards, etc came to be by going through it themselves could be an incredibly rich experience, even (especially) if they aren't cognizant that that's what they're doing.

It could be an amazing RP experience if you cultivate it rather than resist it.