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Having played in multiple 5e campaigns over the past few years I've felt like a lot of campaigns have a "happy go lucky" nature about them - where my fellow players and I are playing mostly good or neutral aligned characters, the starting town is a mostly safe place and any grand evil / BBG seems a far off future.

I am setting up a campaign within an established world (the planet of Bienvenido) where the overall threat has a constant ominous presence, the inhabitants have a healthy inflated paranoia towards strangers and corruption runs rampant within human settlements. I am planning to give players the power to really choose their own fate: they will have plenty of chances to attempt to weed out corruption or partake themselves, to seek out true evil or selfishly avoid the danger.

There are a handful of established illegal drugs that have their effects and addictions, commonplace amputations from people that fought and survived the main threat and the chance of humans being entirely overrun looms on the horizon.

I have provisional yes's for this type of campaign from some players whilst I sort out the finer details of the setting. Though there could be a difference in what a "darker setting" means in D&D for me and for them. How can I best set expectations to run this campaign so the players enjoy the setting and associated danger to their characters?

This question is similar though is looking to solve an issue specific to the players choices and does not answer my question.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @MichaelShopsin Gentle reminder that answers, as well as partial answers, suggestions on where to find an answer, and general advice to the asker, belong in answer posts and not in comments. \$\endgroup\$
    – Oblivious Sage
    Sep 20, 2023 at 17:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ Can you clarify what you mean by darker setting? What are the features that make it dark or that you're concerned about for your players? That specifity may help with providing clearer answer to solve your problem. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Sep 21, 2023 at 13:58

3 Answers 3

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Bad places can have good guys, too

Your title and your body are asking slightly different things. The title is about how to run a campaign in a darker setting. However, the body also talks about the players potentially playing evil or morally quesionable characters. That is a huge difference and not the same thing. My key recommendations to you are

  • Explain to your players what kind of world you have in mind, and see if they are OK with it

  • Establish a clear social contract what kind and level of evil behaviour for a PC towards other PCs and in general is acceptable to all

  • Be ready to adjust if it does not work as you hoped for

My experiences with running campaigns in a dark, crapsack world setting and with treacherous characters are based on Dark Sun. And my take away from the experience is that doing both at the same time and having fun is hard.

Crapsack World: talk to your players beforehand. If they are used to heroic and lighthearted campaigns, this may not be what they enjoy that much. Looks like you did and did get tentative buy-in. You can use the ususal session 0 tools here, to ensure all agree on themes that the players feel comfortable with (or not). Still, be prepared that they find they actually don't like the experience, and be ready to adjust somewhat. For example, I cajoled my players into playing an old-school campaign with high lethality, modded to have experience points partly tied to treasure captured instead of full XP for monster kills, and they agreed to try it, but they found they don't like it that much after some time. So we adjusted, back to full XP for monsters.

Good characters in a bad place: You can play a good, or at least neutral group in such a world, and that may be a good middle ground. There are lots of examples of anti-heroes in movies and literature: Robin Hood types who stick it to the evil overlord and other scumbags in power but treat the poor fairly; "someone needs to do it, and there is noone else to do it" tough guys who have no interest in being a white knight and still end up saving the day like in Sin City; Dark Knights with their own demons who pay back a horrible childhood and stand above the law; the list goes ever on.

Beware of real crapsack pals. If the characters are really playing treacherous scumbags who backstab each other, this can turn out to be hard, because it puts a lot of strain on the social experience at the table. Everyone is passing secret notes to the DM, nobody is what they seem to be, everyone needs to constantly look out that their buddies are not taking advantage of them. It can be extremely unpleasant, and you really need players that enjoy that. My recommendation is to explore if the players are really into that, and clarify what level of evil is OK evil. We had several campaigns with evil characters, and for us, the only one that worked and was fun was one where they all stuck together like glue, evil as they were. Every time we had backstabbing, scheming, stealing intergroup advantage-taking, fun went out the window for us super fast. We decided to ban such characters. You mileage may vary of course, but make sure everyone knows what they are signing up for if you go there.

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    \$\begingroup\$ For "evil" players, one may take inspiration from The Black Company book series. The characters there are evil in the general sense: a mercenary group who will kill for money, and not only enemy soldiers. Yet, they stick together, and when a greater threat arises, they unite another evil character to try to save the world (and their skins). This may be a good way to give players a taste of "not a white knight by any stretch of the imagination" without breaking social bonds at the table. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 21, 2023 at 7:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think this answer could be improved by addressing the need to more rigorously define the crapsack world. While the players may give the okay for a dark world, there may be things that a given player will find themselves uncomfortable with: slavery, sexual assault, violence towards children, etc... It would be useful to use Session Zero to set the ground expectations -- what all players & the DM are comfortable with -- and to prepare "red cards" that players or DM can brandish at any time during game play to signal that the game veered into uncomfortable territory for them. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 21, 2023 at 7:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MatthieuM. good suggestion, I added a reference to that. Rather than rehashing how to do such a session zero, I will link to it, which I think is better than provide a cliff notes version on that. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 21, 2023 at 8:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MatthieuM. I myself have no experience with using X-Cards, and since the answer is primarily experience based, I feel not in the rights to add them as a recommendation, but for someone who is interested in that, they can follow the link in this comment. My brother by the way also likes Black Company, and for a while played a an Duergar barbarian with a sense of honor and belonging modeled upon it. That was a pretty cool character. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 21, 2023 at 9:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MatthieuM.: That reminds me of Dimension 20's Escape from the Bloodkeep actual-play campaign, 6x 2-hour episodes free on youtube. (spoiler alert for it). The PCs are all arch-villains, but in an Addams Family sort of way they treat each other very well. Extra spoiler alert: the final battle was planned to be pvp, but the DM adjusted after seeing from the party dynamic in the first 5 sessions that wasn't going to work! (Hrm, that's not that relevant to this question, since the campaign didn't have much of a dark vibe either) \$\endgroup\$ Sep 21, 2023 at 14:12
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Session Zero

The fast answer is to have a Session Zero where everyone discusses their expectations for the campaign, the play style(s) of the campaign, the etiquette of the table, the limits of content they are willing to engage with, the safety tools to ensure everyone stays safe, the tone and style of the campaign, the characters people want to play, and the rules changes that will be used in the campaign.

Established tables may have most of these issues already established, but it is good practice to review the agreements and conventions whenever you start a new campaign.

It may come out that none of your players want to play in a world of festering corruption that resembles too much of their actual lives. That is okay.

Good luck!

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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you run a session 0 for this type of campaign? How did it go? What did you cover? How did your players react? What should he be aware of? \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Sep 20, 2023 at 12:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NotArch Have I run a session 0 for a crapsack world campaign? No, because I don't run crapsack worlds. Have I run session 0 for a villains campaign? A couple of times; it went well - we covered the points I listed in my answer, everyone agreed with the campaign premise (with minor caveats), and fun was had in the campaign. Specific attention should be paid to player feedback - as I noted in my answer. "It may come out that none of your players want to play in ... ". \$\endgroup\$
    – ValhallaGH
    Sep 21, 2023 at 12:21
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Part one is having a quick character roll-up procedure. In particular, don't have players write a complex background including there short and long-term goals, which you as the GM must weave into the adventures. Instead, as characters survive let them show you what they're interested in.

Part two, the main part, is letting the dice fall where they may, resulting in killed/maimed characters. When someone blows a combat drug side-effect roll, they get a permanent -1 DEX (and not -1d4 damage or something else trivial). If someone goes to the known very, very bad part of town and blows the skill check, a gang will surround and rob them. If they attack the enforcer everyone warns them is strong and sadistic -- even it's not a TPK, he will purposely murder downed party members (which, again, they were warned about). If they try to sneak through the area they were warned has deadly traps from the last war -- those traps are deadly (not easily avoided with passive perception or a simple spell, and the damage will be high enough that a bad roll is instant death). Hopefully this only lasts for a few adventures. Or if the players take things seriously and don't do this stuff -- great (but D&D players are so used to "sounds like an encounter, we should go there/fight it because encounter CR rules make it so we always win").

Then part three is backing off a little from the lethality once the characters become more interesting (by acquiring goals, enemies and such). Part of this is the players will start to become more cautious and respect that warnings also apply to them. The other part is in the few cases where things go bad, the GM can set the odds of a main/kill slightly lower, or they get one extra roll to avoid it (for examples, the gang now says "give us one reason we shouldn't take everything", or the combat drug has a way to make it much safer on infrequent use, or the traps only insta-kill on very high damage rolls and are a little easier to detect).

Essentially, the way to have a deadly, dark campaign is to actually have it be deadly and dark. Players will take pride in the number of times they died when they pretty much deserved it, or just rolled really, really bad. Years from now they'll stop telling "and then I critted and killed the dragon" stories in favor of "and then the rogue fumbled stealth and I was the only survivor but lost 3 toes". When they finally go a few adventures with no one dead/maimed they'll still remember your game is dangerous, and know they were either lucky and/or planned well, and everything is more exciting.

(Per site rules on Back It Up!, all of this is from a great deal of personal experience)

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    \$\begingroup\$ Ooh, good point. While setting expectations by talking about them is also a good idea, establishing expectations early on through gameplay early in the campaign is important as well. (That being said, this answer could be improved by a little more discussion about observing players' reactions to content, just in case they're not fine with more stuff in the same vein.) \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Sep 21, 2023 at 21:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ @GMJoe I suppose this is a partial answer, then, since our dangerous, grim settings tend to be PG-13. Plenty of danger if you're stupid, but you just die and roll a new character -- your fingers won't be mailed back 1-at-a-time or some such. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 22, 2023 at 11:32

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