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It's all but ubiquitous that a throwing a chaotic evil character into a heroic party can lead to hurt feelings and other stigmata. Some DMs don't even allow a chaotic evil while others attempt to discern between true chaotic evils and lawful evils, where interest alignment is easier to strike a balance with.

Suppose though, a species of where the player characters are all chaotic evil and are basically running amok in their own distinctive ways. Though their players sit at the same table, they are not in the same party and their roleplaying is often almost in a vacuum as their story lines are taking place in semi-isolation.

Other than an abstract 'exploring the darkside of human nature' as this post What are the essential features of a successful evil campaign? suggests, there isn't much "meaning" at first glance.

Question

As a DM, how can we add a layer of meaning to such a campaign, assuming all players are mutually consenting participants in this evil-campaign in the first place?

Note: By "meaning" I'm mainly looking at why a group, why still meet up and listen to each other?

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    \$\begingroup\$ So far, each of the three answers expresses how to get all-evil characters to cooperate. But your question asks "Though their players sit at the same table, they are not in the same party and their roleplaying is often almost in a vacuum as their story lines are taking place in semi-isolation." If your goal is to run a game where the PCs are not actually in the same party, you may wish to clarify / emphasize this to get better answers. Likewise, in "why a group, why still meet up and listen to each other?" it is not clear to me whether the group meeting is the players or their characters. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Jun 24 at 15:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ stigmata? don't think that's what you meant. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tiger Guy
    Jun 24 at 19:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ @TigerGuy Less common, but stigmata is a correct plural form of stigma - 'hurt feelings and other stigmas' \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Jun 25 at 5:59

5 Answers 5

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Take advantage of shared motivations

We have played a chaotic evil campaign. In my experience, the problem is not primarily the campaign story, it is keeping the players from murdering each other's characters at will. After all, they are all chaotic evil, so there are no boundaries to obey, and no good hearts to help deal with that.

Having a common background or backstory can help. For example, goblins are chaotic evil, but if you have a band of goblins, all from the same tribe, they are still going to be relatives, they still have shared cultural norms, and they still may have the same things they desire -- whether it is their evil god's favor, or becoming the great goblin under the hill. Such a backdrop can help you to find a story that will matter to all of them -- the opposing dwarves are planning to invade, and must be stopped.

Having a common threat can help. If, instead, you have entirely different individuals of different backgrounds, races and motivations, and they are chaotic evil, it will be harder. You would need to have something that is bad enough to threaten all of them and that forces them to work so each of them avoids his or her individual undoing. A classic "save the world" campaign might do it: even chaotic evil characters typically want a world to continue living in, and if they are the only ones to save it, well, they will have to, each out of their own best interest. And keeping the other guys around improves their odds.

Having shared off-table agreement on how to play is critical. More than anything, having a successful ongoing campaign here will require a social contract with and among the players that they limit psychopathic behaviors, or this campaign can quickly degenerate into retributive internecine killings, no matter what else is going on. Good parties make this easy. Here your players have to work harder to not slaughter each other.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for the common threat motivation. The scenario of "character A and B hate each others but must work together to both achieve their goals" is a classic and can lead to some very interesting and unique party dynamics. If they, along the way, end up warming up to each others, finding common ideals and long-term goals or anything like that can also keep some suspense and tension on how things will go on after this "temporary alliance" and whether they will continue adventuring, split off or just murder each others. All in all, a very nice way to build up to an uncertain future for the party. \$\endgroup\$
    – Matthieu
    Jun 24 at 6:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ I've unprotected this question, I see no reason to have it protected, see this meta for more details: How should question protection be used on RPG.SE? \$\endgroup\$ Jun 27 at 13:43
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Imitate the demons: dragoon everyone into working together

The only reason most demons bother to fight in the Blood War specifically (rather than just aimlessly slaughtering whatever’s convenient) is because stronger demons metaphorically put a gun to their collective heads and makes them. (This is also why the finite legions of Hell can hold back the literally-infinite hordes of the Abyss.)

For instance, a campaign I’m currently in has as its premise a special prison, a special divine realm within Carceri, used by a certain god as a place to put souls that he objects to. While it’s not a strictly-evil campaign, it’s a very evil-accepting campaign, and our party has a warlock who is a personal pet project of an Archduke of Hell, as well as two separate individuals who managed to magically nuke entire nations.¹ The other party members are a thief and murderer, and then the exception that breaks the rule, a paladin with a particularly strong belief that no one is without redemption. The rest of the NPCs are largely similar; plenty of evil alongside a fair few who don’t belong there at all. All of us are locked in this realm and cannot leave it without working together. There is nothing to do in this plane; even dominating the other inmates holds little appeal because the other inmates haven’t got anything worth taking—even the homicidal maniacs get bored, because death is no escape from this prison.²

In a scenario like that, evil and selfish people work together because they have to. Whatever they want, it’s outside of this prison, so that has to be dealt with first. No one has any incentive to jeopardize accomplishing that. And scenarios don’t have to be so specific to function this way—all you need is a big enough threat hanging over the party to ensure they’ll work together.

But, and this is key, ultimately the party has to be on board. A game where everyone does their own thing isn’t really a game—it’s more like several games, one for each person. To have a game, everyone has to agree to play that game. So you need players to understand that, no matter how selfish or even crazed their characters are, those characters have to wind up playing the game, or there won’t be a game. That has to be understood and accepted out of character—everything else is just rigging the in-character situation to make that plausible and consistent with these characters. It is totally possible for individuals to be so selfish, or so crazed, that they don’t work together under even the most dire threats.³ But those individuals cannot be player characters in Dungeons & Dragons.

  1. That is, we have individuals responsible—within our campaign’s canon—for each of Greyhawk’s Rain of Colorless Fire and Eberron’s Mourning. The former destroyed the Suel Empire, and the latter destroyed the Kingdom of Cyre.

  2. The campaign also had as a premise easy resurrection, to encourage more brutal fights from the DM, so everyone in this prison realm automatically resurrects when killed.

  3. Indeed, Carceri is the place for such people—the only reason our party has any hope of success is specifically because this god forced people-who-don’t-belong-in-Carceri into Carceri. That means 1. we can work together, given the right incentive, and more importantly, 2. once we start working together, Carceri itself is going to start trying to push us out since we don’t belong.

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You've written that you want to run a game where:

Though their players sit at the same table, they are not in the same party and their roleplaying is often almost in a vacuum as their story lines are taking place in semi-isolation.

My answer is: there's no reason why these players should be at the same table.

We have the proverb "don't split the party" for a good reason: although it's fun to play D&D, it's usually not fun to sit at a table and listen quietly to someone else playing D&D.

Consider running separate one-on-one sessions for each player. Or, consider switching to an asynchronous format such as play-by-post. Or, consider finding a reason why your characters want to work together and stay in the same group, despite being evil.

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A bit of a detour first.

What is the meaning of Chaotic and/or Evil alignment?

There are a lot of pre-conceptions and caricatures with alignments in D&D, and part of session 0 should be to agree as a collective how each alignment should work in the campaign.

My personal take on these alignments are that we are talking about either the Lawful-Chaotic axis or the Good-Evil axis.

I see the Lawful-Chaotic axis as a needle on "plays by the rules". At the extreme, a fully Lawful character (think Construct from Mechanus) will always play by the rule, even when rules do not totally make sense, while a fully Chaotic character will completely ignore the rules.

I wish to note that there's a big leap from "ignore the rules" to "kill everyone in sight" or "kill whimsically". And importantly, the absence of rules does not mean an absence of goals: the character will still work towards short-term goals (a warm dinner & bed tonight) and long-term goals (being recognized as the Champion of Flip Flop Juggling).

The presence of goals matters because a Chaotic character can still be level-headed, for example, and a level-headed character will not typically take actions that go against their goals. Of course, a character in thrall of their emotions (temper, temper, ...) may accidentally do so, or a not so smart character may without realizing do so, but those are unintended.

Similarly, I see the Good-Evil axis as a needle on "worries about others". At the extreme, a fully Good character will be extremely selfless, regularly going against their goals/comfort to help others achieve theirs, while a fully Evil character will simply not care and generally treat strangers as tools (emphasis on strangers, Evil can have friends).

Once again, there's a difference between "not caring" and "killing on a whim". A Lawful Evil character could be perceived as a wonderful Duke, even if perhaps a bit tough on crime, if the character had realized that mid-term/long-term wealth was better served by a happy people, and worked to improve the standard of living, encourage artisans and merchants, etc... Their "Evil" alignment only means that they are ready to kill/make suffer if doing so furthers their ambitions; but that's only one tool in the toolbox, it need not be the only one they wield.

And thus, once again, we are back to goals, and the means to achieve them. A level-headed Evil character will not slaughter or enslave everyone within sight if they have determined that doing would undermine their goals. They may accidentally do so (emotions) or may not realize the consequences of particular actions (lack of foresight), but those are once again unintended.

How to add meaning to an Evil campaign?

By adding meaning to each character first, as usual. D&D 5.0 has a framework to assist: the Ideal and Bond of the character backgrounds, and to a degree its Personality and the Reason they picked a certain class, are tools to help shape the goals of a character.

From there on, there is not much difference between an Evil group and a Good group: why does a Good group stick together instead of each going their separate ways?

And the answer is that the players wish to play together and therefore shape their characters to do so: they find common goals, form meaningful relationship (Evil can have friends!), and thus make up reasons to continue working together and solving the challenges thrown at them together.

The fact that they are Evil may alter the relationships between them (utility rather than appreciation) and that's fine, it serves the game just as well.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I would say that a neutral character treats strangers purely as tools. A good character strongly prefers to help strangers when it doesn't conflict with goals. An evil character strongly prefers to hurt strangers when it doesn't conflict with goals. For example: a good character would accept a small setback to save a bunch of orphans. An evil character would accept a small setback to torment a bunch of orphans. And a neutral character will do whichever (or neither) based on what gets them what they want the fastest. Otherwise "evil" bottoms out without quite plumbing the depths of depravity. \$\endgroup\$
    – Perkins
    Jun 24 at 21:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Perkins: Well, I guess this only illustrate how important it is to agree on what the alignments mean :) Personally, I don't like having Neutral be "others as tools" because I consider Neutral to be the default alignment, and most people have a minimum of empathy and will not sacrifice others for their own sake -- though they may stand by if someone else does the sacrificing, unlike a Good character. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 25 at 10:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ Indeed. Boiling down a complex character to a two-axis graph is kind of silly except for a general overview. But I'd be curious: If not caring what happens to other people and just doing what's most convenient is where "evil" starts, do you use a "evil+" designation for someone who, if you offered them a choice between powering their machines with coal or human souls, would choose the souls (even if they were slightly more expensive) just because their wails of anguish were music to his ears? Because I'd totally be down with more than three positions on the graph. \$\endgroup\$
    – Perkins
    Jun 25 at 18:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Perkins: Since I treat Good/Evil as an axis, I have more nuances than just 3 positions, so yes there's certainly less Evil and more Evil beings. I'm not sure for your case though; I'd describe the character as sadistic, certainly, but I'm not sure they're any more evil than a character who uses pressed soldiers as cannon fodder. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 26 at 11:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ The difference is whether the suffering of others is a means to an end, or an end in itself. The guy who throws a bunch of conscripts against the walls because it's the fastest way, or to save his trained fighters for other purposes is thinking differently from the fellow who could achieve the goal without that level of brutal slaughter, but chooses not to simply because he enjoys watching the carnage. It's the difference between eating puppies when you're starving and torturing them to death just to pass the time. \$\endgroup\$
    – Perkins
    Jun 27 at 20:14
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How can people cooperate?

It is an important question for our times. And one that could be well explored by a role playing game where characters do not subscribe to shared lofty ideals. How can people cooperate when they have nothing in common and each is a psychopathic asocial jerk. Very timely question!

I like the idea of mutual enforcement. If there are 4 players, and one goes after another, the other 2 will team up on the attacker. There is balance. Maybe this sort of deal is reserved for serious offenses, like harm or stealing. I like to think maybe a prank will be appreciated by the other 2, and pranking can build solidarity, or something.

I am thinking of the bank robbery scene in The Dark Knight where the Joker (chaotic evil epitomized) kills the other robbers. If all parties had known that was a possibility they never would be in groups of 2 at a point where their roles had been played. They would watch each others' ("others'"?) backs out of necessity.

This gives the players a reason to interact. Also a reason for the one holding most of the loot to cut off the escape route for the rest so she does not have to share. The rest then definitely cooperate to get out of the bind and chase down the one with the loot. Sounds like a fun game!

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