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I made a homebrew campaign with some friends and gave them a more or less summary of what was to be expected of it. When they turned in their characters, all of them were either neutral or evil.

If the campaign is about saving the world, how can I convince them to do so?

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    \$\begingroup\$ This might be a duplicate of How to build an evil campaign. Either way, I'd recommend reading the answers there, as they provide a lot of good background on running a campaign with evil characters and how to motivate them. \$\endgroup\$
    – Matt Rick
    Jun 28, 2022 at 21:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ In addition to system, which carries a lot of presumption about style and meaning of terms, what did you tell your players would be expected? What expectations have you set that you need/want/think you'll adhere to? \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil
    Jun 29, 2022 at 10:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Saving the world" is way too vague to answer with any clarity. What subset of "the world" are they to save from what kind of fate? If they themselves are part or what nees to be saved, then their motivation seems obvious... \$\endgroup\$ Jun 30, 2022 at 16:05

5 Answers 5

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Evil characters need a world to live in too

They may not need any convincing. Evil is predominantly about egotistical self-interest, and little could be more in their self-interest than the world not ending.

Pg 122 PHB defines evil:

Lawful evil (LE) creatures methodically take what they want, within the limits of a code of tradition, loyalty, or order. Neutral evil (NE) is the alignment of those who do whatever they can get away with, without compassion or qualms. Chaotic evil (CE) creatures act with arbitrary violence, spurred by their greed, hatred, or bloodlust.

Unwilling heroes that do the job, because nobody else is doing it and it needs to be done are a classic archetype of fantasy, and can be quite rewarding to role-play, too.

See this Q&A on how to motivate a group of evil characters to work together, too.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Not worth a full answer, but a good addition is a "session 0" which includes "hey players, you evil characters need to have motivation to save the world." It's similar to an ultimatum I give evil characters in general (which is "work with the party or become an NPC") \$\endgroup\$
    – PipperChip
    Jun 28, 2022 at 22:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for getting straight to the point: If "everything you care about is at risk" doesn't motivate a character, that character is fundamentally unmotivateable. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Jun 28, 2022 at 22:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ See also how to be evil without resorting to kick puppies and laugh manically. \$\endgroup\$
    – user72703
    Jun 28, 2022 at 22:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ To quote The Tick, "You can't destroy the Earth! That's where I keep all my stuff!" \$\endgroup\$
    – ValhallaGH
    Jun 28, 2022 at 23:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AncientSwordRage Thank you for the explanatory comment. That is because it is not assuming anything. While I think they are very likely to play D&D, the answer does not assume this. The question and answer would work for a super-hero game just as well as D&D, as long as it is a game with good and evil. It does not reference any system specific mechanics. The linked question's answer are also general and not system specific (although that other question is labeled 5e). \$\endgroup\$ Jun 29, 2022 at 16:10
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Frame challenge: don't.

It's important that players create characters that work with the campaign. If you're running a campaign that is intended to have the PCs be world saving heroes then you should communicate that to your players at session zero (or character creation) time and insist that they make characters that fit into the campaign.

This applies as much to rocking up with evil characters as it does to creating characters called Bobby McBobFace and The Great Spoonhumper in a campaign that is intended to be serious, or turning up with a party of pacifists for the combat heavy campaign you intend to run.

Instead of trying to fit unsuitable characters in, it's perfectly reasonable to discuss with your players and get everyone on the same page about the kind of campaign that you intend to run.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I've downvoted for not stating what system this answer is assuming \$\endgroup\$ Jun 29, 2022 at 15:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AncientSwordRage It doesn't assume any system. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 29, 2022 at 17:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ Downvote reversed! You're no longer answering for a specific system, but now the question has a system tag you might need/want to factor that in? \$\endgroup\$ Jun 30, 2022 at 16:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AncientSwordRage How do you think this answer could benefit from system-specific content? This answer seems to focus on the system-independent possibility of the gm rejecting a character suggested by a player. Keeping the answer reasonably short is imho more beneficial than any citations from rule books you could add, even if they are perfectly on point. \$\endgroup\$
    – fabian
    Jun 30, 2022 at 20:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ @fabian in D&D Evil is a game term, namely for a set of alignments that still have a little rules baggage. Recognising that might make for a better answer. Or contrasting that by saying a Chaotic Good character might be considered evil by some, but they technically aren't. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 30, 2022 at 20:37
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The alignment definitions for D&D 5e are somewhat vague, which was the case in previous editions as well. I think your first step is to find out just what they think it means to be evil. As evil characters, what are their goals? If they want to be able to rape, pillage, and murder their way across your game world, and you're wanting to tell stories about heroes who save the world, then that's going to be a problem.

I think a lot of times, though, players have a less grandiose idea of what it means to be evil. Maybe they want to be a jaunty group of smugglers and thieves, living on the outskirts of society, pitting their wits against law enforcement and the powers-that-be, but never failing to help out the little guy. In that case, they would be easy to motivate to saving the world. It could even be more interesting if they have to fight law-enforcement in order to save the world.

They might also just want to focus on amassing a great deal of power for themselves in whatever way is most expedient. In that case, you could show them that the easy path to doing that would be to save the world. There are side benefits to being a hero in the eyes of society, and looting isn't frowned on when you're doing it to the BBEG and his goons.

Or maybe they've been irritated in the past by DMs who wouldn't let them waterboard the goblin prisoner who knew where and when the captured prince was going to be sacrificed, and they're trying to free themselves from those kinds of moral dilemmas, so they can just "win" the game. In that case, you just need to reassure them that you're not going to throw trolley problems at them, and then punish them for making the "wrong" choice.

Once you understand why they want to run evil characters, and what to expect from them, then you can decide how, or whether, those characters will fit into the game you want to run.

I once ran a game for one of my nephews when he was around 13. He had read the Dragonlance books and wanted to run a Raistlin-type character--a wizard, who has a lust for power and seeks to attain it in any way he can. He actually named the character Rassalan.

This was back in second edition, when kits were the rage. He chose the Witch kit, because it would provide his character with a magic item at first level. In the kit, it said that the character acquires the item by making a deal with a fiend. I chose to have him roleplay the deal.

The item he wanted was a Dagger of Venom, and he got it from an imp who wanted him to use it to kill his mentor. He readily agreed. Then he returned to his home, and I roleplayed an interaction between him and his mentor. His mentor told him that Rassalan had learned all he could teach him, so he gave him 200gp and told him he should move to Waterdeep where he could learn more about the Art.

I made the guy so nice and personable, that my nephew decided he liked him too much to kill him. Basically, when it came to performing an act that really would have felt evil to him, he balked. That wasn't what he had in mind when he chose to play an evil character. He wanted the game to be about his character becoming insanely powerful, rather than running around helping little old ladies across the street (figuratively). He didn't think that he could get that kind of game playing a good character, so he chose the evil alignment. A better discussion beforehand might have revealed that.

To finish the story of his character, the imp showed up that night, and said, "What are you doing? We have a deal. Go kill him." Rassalan refused, so the imp demanded his dagger back. Makes sense, right? My nephew wanted that dagger too bad, though, so Rassalan refused to return it. A fight ensued, and a first level wizard was just no match for an imp, not even when armed with a Dagger of Venom. He was killed. The mentor woke up, though, and destroyed the imp. He had Rassalan raised from the dead, and paid for it by selling the dagger. :)

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPGSE. The tour, help center, How to Ask and How to Answer provide some insights on how to get the most out of this format. If you can provide some insights (by editing them into your answer) on how you have seen this play out at the table, that would make for a better answer. Happy Gaming! 😊 \$\endgroup\$ Jun 29, 2022 at 0:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ Ignoring law by smuggling but helping out the little guys seems much more like chaotic good than any kind of evil. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mołot
    Jun 30, 2022 at 13:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ I would agree that the act of smuggling itself is not evil, but as a smuggler, you may have to defend your operation from law-enforcement, which could mean killing guards, or disposing of witnesses. You could also find yourself in conflicts with rival gangs. So if the players wanted to run a band of "evil" smugglers, you should ask whether they think the act of smuggling itself is evil, or whether they intend to engage in more nefarious deeds while running their criminal enterprise. And going back to the OP, you'll want to know whether those characters would be motivated to save the world. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 30, 2022 at 15:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Mołot Judging from this answer, it seems that many players seem to not understand what Evil is within D&D. They think not doing what society requires is the definition of Evil, when that is more Chaotic than anything. And even a Lawful Good character might ignore society's rules if they follow a code that they view as more important to the order of the world: if the interplanar charter of inalienable rights says that the Evil Empire's laws are invalid, they probably will respect the former rather than the latter. \$\endgroup\$
    – Obie 2.0
    Jul 1, 2022 at 11:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ Or they think that selfishness is the definition of Evil, so if you just want to "be the very best like no one ever was," you must be an Evil character, when Evil is more about selfishness at any cost (not caring about who has to die and suffer for you to have everything you want, or even enjoying it). So, like, an Evil character can have people that they care about, but most (at least Neutral or Chaotic) Evil characters, most of the time, would kill their mentor and run off with the gold if they could get away with it. \$\endgroup\$
    – Obie 2.0
    Jul 1, 2022 at 11:20
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Revenge: The Big Bad has hurt them personally, and they want retribution. Crossing their plans to destroy the world is just a side-effect.

Lust for power: Destroying the world requires immense power. They want that power for themselves. Either to rule the world or so they can be the ones to destroy it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I’ve downvoted because you’ve provided no support for your answer. It’s just two ideas with nothing to back them up. See here for some guidance on what we expect in terms of answer support. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 30, 2022 at 1:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ThomasMarkov Is DnD not a game based on ideas, fun and entertainment? So you want a scientific proof that player characters would some time like to take revenge or they might be lusting for powers themselves? What? \$\endgroup\$ Jun 30, 2022 at 14:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ @stackoverblown If you read the guidance post I linked above, you will find that "scientific proof" is not offered as a suggestion for supporting subjective answers. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 30, 2022 at 14:42
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I know this definition of "Evil" and "Good" will not agree with a great many people but I personally like it to be very simple, so it works for me during the campaign-design phase.

  • Good: the character in general will try to stop the Death of others.
  • Neutral: the character in general will try not to interfere with the Death of others (or lack of it).
  • Evil: the character in general will try to encourage/cause the Death of others.

Another thing I like about these very simple definitions, is that it becomes easy to set up situations where "Good" characters are too weak to do what must be done. (at least through the eyes of Evil)

Look at Batman. How much better off would Gotham be if he just killed a lot of his enemies? The thing with Batman is that the story sets up a narrative where it ultimately pays off to keep the enemy you know rather than open a power vacuum where someone else will come along, but what if the theme of the setting was that Good is weak and allows things to go on spreading more suffering rather than actually solving anything?

What happens if people don't have the guts to take a stand and say some things, some boundaries, are worth more than life? Imagine the sort of groups that rise to power, and the restrictions they might place to make absolutely sure that Death does not occur to the best of their (corrupted or incompetent) abilities. Imagine the resources and wealth they may amass to back up those goals. Imagine the consequences, especially in regards to the Religions and Gods of the setting - where there may be an entire "soul economy" collapse.

Imagine the power and wealth that can be obtained by overthrowing these groups, only doable by the players because they are the only ones willing to kill, no matter whether the players establish a structure of obedience or overthrow everything into anarchy. No matter whether the players seek personal wealth, the joy of killing, the power of knowledge at any cost, or the power of leadership.

I propose setting up the campaign according to this definition of Good and Evil, even if the book-definition is much more blurry, but as always you will need to communicate with players to determine what sort of thing causes their character to lean towards "Evil" to understand what you're working with.

Just remember that ultimate Good is just as stifling for the self as ultimate Evil is for others; it's a matter of boundaries between self and other and when people are too good they give away too much of themselves and don't live for themselves enough to actually be accomplished and happy. They become animals in a zoo. Alive, but not living life.

( if that makes you want to make an argument, then it is gray enough area to provide sufficient play-space beyond just being murder-hobos - that is what a simplistic definition of good and evil gives you, a space to create nuance )

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