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© 1998-2001 Dru
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Running an "Evil"
Sometimes you get tired
of being the good guy, don't you?
Your players are about
to toss their cookies if their characters have to do one more charity
mission or bow respectfully to one more social superior. The player characters
are starting to itch to kick some major gluteus-M for no good reason at
And you, you're tired
of happy endings. You'd like to just let loose on the characters and watch
blood and guts fly. You'd like to sit back and watch the player characters
backstab each other.
Time for a change.
1. Plan your "evil" game to be a one-shot or a short-term campaign.
For the most part, nastiness and villainy can't carry a long-term campaign.
Although it's fun to cut loose once in awhile—just like it's fun
to cheer for the bad guys in the occasional antihero movie—overall,
the good-guy campaign will be the most successful, for the same reason
that most books, movies, TV shows and so forth are all about good guys
triumphing over evil. Being bad gets boring after a while, and in the
end, it's much less satisfying.
2. Decide what sort of "evil genre" you want to run. Basically,
you have two choices; Bad guys versus even badder guys, a la "Dusk
to Dawn, " "Payback" or "The Usual Suspect,s"
or bad guys versus good guys, a la "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance
Kid, " "Bonnie and Clyde, " or "Natural Born Killers.
" In general, bad guys versus badder guys plays better, which is
why there are many more movies out there that pit gang members, hit men,
psychopaths, and monsters against even worse gangs, hit men, soulless
institutions, aliens, and monsters. You can be as underhanded or crazy
or ruthless as you want and still feel good about it if you're stomping
on people or things even nastier than you, right? You can even feel kinda
righteous as you rip off their heads with your bare hands. (Hey, when
you're bad to begin with, you take whatever moral high ground you can
Bad guys versus good
guys doesn't play quite as well, because most people feel sympathetic
toward the good guys. Still, it's been done. Usually, however, successful
bad-versus-good antihero movies have the bad guys committing nonviolent
crime ... a classic Western train robbery, a sting operation, a con, a
burglary, something that doesn't involve the terrorization, mutilation,
or death of innocents. Should you be considering running a game in which
innocents will be harmed, sound out your players on the idea, first. Some
players have strong moral or ethical qualms about playing an RPG in which
innocents are harmed. Some players have events in their past or present
that will make them more sensitive to certain violent scenarios than othes
(for example, most parents develop a strong distaste for anything that
involves harming children). Rape, of course, is always a dangerous event
for an RPG to handle.
3. Decide whether you want the player characters to work together or try
to backstab each other.
If you're running a
campaign in which the player characters are unsavory sorts, you're going
to have to deal with interparty conflict of the deadliest kind. If you
don't want them killing each other, try the "bad guys versus even
badder guys" approach, so that the player characters are forced to
work together to survive or accomplish their goal. Of course, this doesn't
always work. The "I don't have to run faster than the monster ...
I just have to run faster than YOU" approach is fairly common among
villainous sorts, who seldom have any qualms about sacrificing their companions
to save their own skins. Nonviolent bad guys (con artists and burglars,
for example) are the most likely to work together without cutting each
If, on the other hand,
you like the idea of setting the party members against each other, you
might want to try the "Dark Secret" approach. With this approach,
you work individually with each character to develop a set of two or three
Dark Secrets per character that the character will want to keep hidden
from the other characters. For example, take the excellent movie "L.A.
Confidential" and/or the novel of the same name. In movie and novel,
almost every character has some sort of Dark Secret that comes out during
the movie to complicate the character's life and relations with others.
In the end, almost nobody in the movie turns out to be "clean"—they've
all done something bad at some point. Characters' Dark Secrets should
be related to each other whenever possible (Character X turned over Character
Y to the feds in a plea bargain, although Character Y doesn't know it
... yet ... but Character Y slept with Character Z's husband, and Character
Z doesn't know that, either ... yet ... etc.). When they aren't related
to each other, they should be the kind that will anger the others or endanger
the mission's survival (for example, drug addiction, hunted by a U.S.
Marshall with a vendetta, etc.)
As Dark Secrets are
discovered by others, they open up excellent opportunities for roleplaying.
They also, incidentally, open up excellent opportunities for bloody revenge
and betrayal. But, hey. Nobody said being a bad guy was easy.
4. Determine your violence, gore, and atrocity level of comfort. Again,
this is something you'll probably want to check with your players, and
you'll want to make sure they all understand the limits in the game.
Violence is the level
of combat permissible. Most RPGs are combat-heavy to begin with, so this
may not be too much of a concern for players. Still, there's a difference
between shooting somebody and using dynamite against them ... or planting
a suitcase nuke in the enemy spaceship ... or unleashing your planetsmashers
against the alien home planet. The nice thing about being bad is that
you don't have to wring your hands and worry much about overkill. Note,
however, that the level of violence is linked to the gore and atrocity
Gore is the level of
detailed description of wounds and guts that you want to maintain. Violent
movies can be goreless—look at how many movies feature people being
shot who fall down with little more than a drop of blood on their shirt-front—or
gory—such as movies that feature slow-motion close-ups of the bullet
smashing into the victim's head, or people tripping over their own entrails.
If you want a high gore factor, remember to use a lot of description as
GM, and encourage your players to exercise their morbid imaginations,
too. For those who want anatomically correct gore, pick up a book of crime
photos such as "Death Scenes" or forensic pathology such as
Spitz & Fisher's classic and expensive textbook. This is not, I might
add, conducive to continuing your evil game, since it's very likely to
turn off most of your players. Most GMs should stick to bad-horror-movie
gore if they want to crank up the blood button in their games.
Atrocity means intentionally
horrible things done to others. Setting off a bomb in a building that
kills the enemy but also hundreds of innocents is considered an atrocity.
Rape, torture, mutilation, and vivisection are atrocities. I advise keeping
the atrocity level low and, should the players commit atrocities, adjusting
NPC reaction accordingly. Police will hunt down a murderer, yes. But they'll
call in the feds to hunt down a torture-murderer, and even bounty hunters
and other vigilantes may get involved. The more atrocities the player
characters commit, the more likely they should be to face increasingly
powerful foes with increasingly sophisticated equipment and other resources
at their command. Even other bad guys might get disgusted with a character
who commits atrocities ... think of the mythic code of the Mafia in which
it was perfectly all right to gun an enemy down in the street, but you
never, ever touched the enemy's family.
5. Determine the fatality level of your game. Do you care if all the player
characters die? Do the players realize that it's a high-fatality game?
Even if you'd prefer
to keep fatalities, low, you have to realize that in a game in which the
characters are bad guys, it's quite likely that some will fall, either
at each others' hands or at the hands of NPCs. Be prepared for that, and
make sure your players are prepared, too.
6. Make the NPCs as nasty as the player characters ... and worse. After
all, why should the PCs have all the fun? In a campaign where all the
player characters are villainous, they should expect NPCs to be, too;
and if they aren't prepared to be betrayed and backstabbed by the NPCs,
well, ... tough luck. It's a jungle out there, and the golden rule is
survival of the fittest, right? This is your chance as GM to unleash all
that pent-up frustration at having the good guys beat up your bad guys
each game, and get even. Don't pull your punches, especially if you've
decided that a high fatality rate is OK.
With all that said,
it's important to point out that one of the great criticisms against RPGing
is that it glorifies and teaches violence. Be a responsible gamer and
remember that your actions reflect on RPGing as a whole. Running an "evil"
game can be a refreshing change of pace from normal goody-goody RPG fare,
but remember that it IS just a game, and nothing more.
originally written November 3, 2000
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