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© 1998-2001 Dru Pagliassotti
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Running an "Evil" Game

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 all.
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 get.)
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 others' throats.
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 level.
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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