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I'm going to start DM'ing for the first time next week. When I got together with my group to figure out what type of game to play, when we got to alignment, I told them they either all needed to be good or neutral, or all evil or neutral, or else it wouldn't make sense for their party to stick together. I got a unanimous "evil". That's fine, but I've never played a DnD game where the PC's are evil, and I'm having trouble coming up with a campaign.

I want to sandbox this, because this campaign we're starting is just going to be for the next few weeks while one of our regular group is in Europe, then we'll go back to playing through the Tyranny of Dragons, where I'm a PC, not the DM. Because ToD is a pretty railroaded game, I wanted to give them something different with this and sandbox it. So to me, that means I should come up with several different options and let them decide as they go along.

This seems like it'll be a bit harder than a simple railroad. Anyway, I'm having trouble coming up with what first-level evil characters can actually do. They're too weak at the moment to take over a major town. And even if they took over a small village, eventually the local militia would show up.

The players haven't completely finished their characters, yet, but the motivations I've heard from them so far aren't very helpful at this stage -- one of them just wants to murder people for fun, another wants to become a powerful necromancer lich and rule the world, and one is just going to be a mercenary (and the other two haven't told me yet what their motivations are).

I can put people around for them to murder, but it doesn't seem like much fun to just slaughter innocent civilians with no quest or anything. At level one, my death domain cleric (who styles himself a necromancer) won't be able to find any way of turning himself into a lich, and as a said before, taking over even a smaller town seems out of the question. I can't think of anything good for the mercenary yet.

I've been thinking about some evil rival to show up and decide to teach the PC's a lesson about who's the real bad guy in Khorvaire (it's an Eberron game, BTW) by beating them all unconscious and then they could fight him again later. Or I've been thinking that some good guy could show up while they're doing something evil and try to stop them.

I'm just not sure.

Have any of you DM'ed an evil campaign before? Do you have any advice?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Also, do you want a campaign specifically focused around being evil, or just one that works with evil characters? Many campaigns designed for a good party will work equally well with an evil one. (e.g. Treasure hunts, it's in everyone's best interest to save the world, etc.) \$\endgroup\$ – Miniman Dec 17 '14 at 3:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Miniman Thanks. I'd prefer to build a story where they actually achieve something evil, though of course a detour treasure hunt isn't out of the question at some point. \$\endgroup\$ – user18101 Dec 17 '14 at 3:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ Also, see How can a GM prevent growing disillusioned with their own game? for some good discussion on managing evil groups. \$\endgroup\$ – Zimul8r Dec 17 '14 at 14:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ related: What are the essential features of a successful evil campaign? \$\endgroup\$ – gatherer818 Dec 17 '14 at 20:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ Consider taking their evil PCs after the game and using them as villain NPCs in a future campaign. They may come to regret any power optimization they employed, but it's a lot of fun and provides a very deep villain experience \$\endgroup\$ – user47897 Jan 17 at 17:04
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I've played in and run evil campaigns of various sorts in both 3.5 and 4e (though not 5e, I think my learning will transfer), and run into a lot of problems: My Guy Syndrome comes up a lot, as does a tendency to default to a regular D&D storyline only with more stealing of spoons and kicking of puppies to remind ourselves we're evil. Sometimes an evil campaign instead descends into over-the-top motiveless violence until there's no story at all. There's a whole host of at-the-table and in-the-story issues, and I tried many different strategies to address them. Eventually I came up with a framing device which works well for us in avoiding these problems:

Provide the PCs with a Master to guide them toward orchestrated works of Evil.

Start the game with the PCs as underlings/minions/hirelings/apprentices/etc of a powerful evil NPC. The Master has a complicated Evil Plan and he tasks his minions to enact various parts as the Plan progresses: "Bring me the soul of a hound archon," "Raze the border keep," "Steal the Apocalypse Gem," "Help a spy infiltrate the paladin's ranks," and so forth, tailored to the PCs' abilities.

This provides the party a reason to work together despite having different agendas (and working together will hopefully bond them as friends so that they want to continue as a group) and establishes small achievable evil goals that accumulate into an Epic Evil Event.

All you need to do is ask the players to make sure their characters have a good reason to work for the Master: The serial killer likes having his rampages subsidised (and the Master protects him from the Law); the necromancer seeks to learn from the Master's experience and gain access to his libraries of forbidden lore; the mercenary's in it for the money and benefits.

Eventually the Apprentices will surpass their Master.

Expect the party to betray their Master at some point, hijacking his Evil Plot for their own gain: this is not only expected, but awesome. It's the Master's Evil Plot, not yours, and the story isn't about the Master--it's about his apprentices. Consider the Master to be training wheels for evil, setting an example which the party can then follow to surpass and overthrow their instructor as they level up.

This works because Evil Needs Goals.

As Ed describes so well and AgentPaper elaborates in the D&D context, evil needs concrete reasons motivating its actions. The Master provides goals and motives while the players find their feet in the new paradigm, channeling and guiding their exploration of what it means to be evil in ways compatible with the D&D paradigm without simply kicking puppies during a dungeoncrawl.

A word of warning: Alignment is tricky.

D&D has a history of the details and nature of alignment sparking major heartfelt arguments, because D&D alignments are not easily (or appropriately) matched to real-world philosophies and moralities; they're narrative simplifications to support the game's conceits and draw their power from storytelling conventions rather than from genuine moral complexity. Exactly what this means and how to deal with it are beyond the scope of this answer (and possibly this site, although there's a LOT of questions on the topic you can look at), but you should be aware it exists and be ready to talk with your players about what "Evil campaign" means to them so there aren't nasty surprises mid-game.

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    \$\begingroup\$ That is a great idea! I had never thought of that. \$\endgroup\$ – user18101 Dec 17 '14 at 3:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ Note: the "patron of PCs" frame works well in non-evil campaigns too! I heartily suggest it as a possible solution for any group trying to overcome aimlessness. \$\endgroup\$ – BESW Dec 17 '14 at 9:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ With regards to the point about making sure the PCs have a reason to follow the master: I was writing an evil campaign several years ago which opened with the players all playing level 0 peasants that were being slaughtered by an invading army. After their 30 seconds of resistance passed I fast forwarded them 100 years while reading flavor about torturing their souls until they were bitter and evil enough for the big bad to reincarnate them as their badass actual characters. This bakes in a beholden relationship, and a reason for revolt later. Sort of revenge rather than greed/power-lust. \$\endgroup\$ – Sloloem Dec 17 '14 at 14:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Sloloem That's also a very good idea. I'm not sure if I'll do exactly that scenario, but definitely setting up some scenario first game that gives the PC's their motivations is another great idea. :) \$\endgroup\$ – user18101 Dec 17 '14 at 17:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is such a good idea I now want to run something just to use it. +1 \$\endgroup\$ – MrTheWalrus Dec 19 '14 at 18:45
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The most important thing for an evil campaign to work is to give the players a goal or objective. In a good-aligned campaign, you don't need to necessarily start with a clear goal, and often you don't want to, as often the player's role is reactionary; someone does something bad and the players have to stop them. They do good for it's own sake, because that's how heroism works.

For evil characters, though, this doesn't work as well, because generally evil people don't do evil for it's own sake. They do evil to accomplish something, often selfish, but not necessarily. Your players might have banded together to seize power in a nation, or steal a powerful artifact, or summon an evil god into the world, or even just to make a lot of money in any way they can.

Also don't forget that, while the characters' alignments are the opposite of the norm, this doesn't necessarily mean that they won't run into many of the same problems and obstacles as a normal, good-aligned party. Monsters don't care if you're good or evil, and even the sentient ones would probably rather kill them and steal their treasure rather than do their bidding. Environmental hazards remain the same, and most people they meet won't know that they're evil just by looking at them.

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Taking a page from history, in medieval Europe unemployed mercenaries would sometimes resort to brigandage to supplement their income. Players as bandits aren't necessarily evil with a capital E, they could be more like self-interested Robin Hoods. There's no need to roleplay torture, rape, murder.

You could dangle the opportunity for banditry/thievery in front of the player's faces without explicitly spelling out to the players "We're going to play an Evil Campaign". See what happens when the possibility of making an obscene amount of money by breaking the law lands in the laps of nominally Good players. Even better, make the PCs really desperate. Rent's overdue, the bar tab is at criminal levels. Maybe they owe a LOT of money to local merchants or moneylenders/loan sharks. And the PCs can't find work or adventure opportunities. Things will get nasty unless they find money soon.

A few ideas:

  • They overhear a gang of green, relatively unknown adventurers discussing their plan to recover all the loot from their successful dungeon foray the prior year, which they were forced to bury when they got snowed in on the mountain pass & lost their pack mules. The loot will contain 1,000's of gold pieces, precious gems, magic items, a king's ransom.

  • The local lord is sending a huge shipment of gold - backpay for his mercenary army - disguised as a (heavily guarded) merchant caravan. The players discover the route and timetable of the caravan. Or, perhaps the PCs themselves are the caravan guards. If the mercenaries don't get their money, there'll be trouble. You could substitute other valuables for gold, such as a rich lord or merchant's daughter + her dowry who is being married off, so that the opportunity to kidnap and hold her for ransom may present itself.

Another possibility is to make the PCs accidental criminals who are so deep in the soup they may have to resort to further crimes as a matter of survival. For example:

  • The PCs are involved in a brawl with a gang of armed and violent drunkards in a tavern. The PCs end up killing the ruffians, only to find out it was a VIP (the Crown Prince, captain of the guard, a rich merchant, etc.) and his drinking buddies, out on a bender in disguise. There are no other patrons in the inn. The innkeeper exclaims "When word gets out you murdered the Crown Prince, you'll all hang for this vile crime. I never forget a face!" and then runs for the exit... Depending on what the PCs do next, they may be wanted for multiple murders and hounded by the law and/or bounty hunters. Having a large ransom on their heads may lead to interesting opportunities (see "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly").
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    \$\begingroup\$ This seems like a fine way to build an adventure, but it's not really relevant to this, since his players explicitly want an Evil campaign, or at least a campaign with all evil players. \$\endgroup\$ – AgentPaper Dec 17 '14 at 17:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ Ah, good point. Well at any rate perhaps the adventure hooks will be of some use. \$\endgroup\$ – RobertF Dec 17 '14 at 18:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ I still like this answer because it touches on the banality of evil. Reading real medieval history is probably the best possible sourcebook for running an "evil" campaign. I grow weary of mustache-twirling villains with grand schemes, as opponents or masters. Show the players what evil really truly looks like, put aside the cartoons for a while. \$\endgroup\$ – MEP Dec 17 '14 at 18:14
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All of my campaigns in the last 4 years were what most people would generally call evil campaigns. However, I did not force them to be this way.

What I did was to create a situation with a rife with conflict; a town under siege, barbarians at the borders, racial tensions between elves and dwarfs, etc. The details don't matter, but the one important aspect is that there are no easy solutions. Everything has a cost. Whatever solution is good for one group is bad for another, and that there are multiple factors (and factions) at play.

Present the players multiple options to solve smaller parts of the conflict. Often, the solutions that were more obviously evil ones traded long-term benefits for short-term results. A more insidious way to get the party to become more evil is to let them take their choice, and make it continuously worse. Maybe they had to bribe the elven and dwarven leaders to get them to accept a truce. Now, the start to demand more and more. Or the leader's popularity is falling so they start to stage incidents to re-establish the external enemy. Take inspiration from real life conflicts. There are rarely clear good and evil sides in reality, just desperate people on both sides and leaders with their own goals.

Another very important part is the portrayal of (large-case) Good. I generally tend to make the good leaders competent, well-intentioned but too idealistic. They want to help, they try to help, but they try to achieve good ends with means unfit for a world of grey, so they often fail.

I found some of the most interesting storylines to be about people who use evil means to achieve good. A necromancer might raise the dead to protect his village from invaders. A druid might corrupt the river to drive away the villages who destroy his forest and it its animals. Sometimes, the people were completely corrupted by their evil deeds, at other times they could be redeemed and sometimes the situation forces good but desperate people into the grey areas.

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I'm gonna go against the grain of "give the PCs a goal" and say you should make ample use of the sections in the DMG on Downtime Activities; evil characters going out, robbing and stealing to build up an empire of strongholds and seized lands is interesting, challenging and lets them craft their own goals.

An evil campaign that's just people running around, doing the same things that good characters do but without a moral compass is kind of lame. An evil campaign where the group is running Latveria is awesome.

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