Random Blogness: When You’re Evil

Fun fact: Ammon Jerro actually exists in my campaign setting. And no, I do not play in the Forgotten Realms.Last weekend I kicked off a new challenge: running a Pathfinder game where all the PCs are evil. So far, the game has been entertaining, but I have to head back to the drawing board for my general story arc.

What was supposed to happen: The PCs, as new recruits of the Pathfinder Society, witness a fire set in the local Pathfinder lodge. After the fire is extinguished, they are assigned to track down the pirate who attacked the lodge. He stole something, but he also destroyed many of the archives, preventing the society from knowing exactly what he took. The PCs then track down the pirate, slay or capture him, and have the choice of either returning the treasure he stole or stealing both the treasure and the pirate ship, sailing off into the sunset as renegades from the Pathfinder Society.

What happened: The PCs used the fire as cover to break into the vault and steal the Pathfinder Society’s most powerful artifacts. They then hid out at a shady inn and spent most of the session trying to identify the items before finally fleeing the city.

End result is the same, but the PCs have much more powerful artifacts this time, since I decided to give them enough rope to hang themselves. As of the end of the session, they are 2nd level characters carrying around major artifacts. I’ve obviously decided to toss the expected wealth by level guidelines out the window.

The reason things got off the rails so fast is largely because I do not like video game design philosophy when it comes to crafting a campaign. When the PCs entered the lodge under cover of fire, I described three rooms: a common room, the archives, and the vault, which was guarded by magical wards and a seemingly impassable lock. The players, naturally, immediately wanted to get into the vault. In a video game, they would just be told that they can’t get in. I don’t like putting in impassable doors, broken bridges, or boulders that block the path. Or rather, I do like those things, but only as a challenge for the PCs to bypass. Since they were so dead-set on getting in, I eventually allowed the alchemist to melt the doors down with acid. Then they triggered a guards and wards spell that nearly left them trapped. And after they stole some of the items, a couple of the lock boxes had explosive runes in them. Had it not been for lucky rolling and the use of action points, the whole group would have been dead. But that’s my general design philosophy: table top role-playing games are great because they allow you to do anything. Therefore, I will allow the PCs to do anything. I will also bring the consequences of those actions down upon their heads.

The other reason the game got away from my original plot is because I didn’t know how evil the PCs were going to be. The group consists of five characters, four of which are chaotic evil and one which is neutral evil. My only stipulation was that they were not allowed to backstab each other. Despite the use of alignment as an identifier, there are several ways that “evil” can be interpreted. In this case, it is apparently killing and stealing from anybody that the group comes across (aka stupid evil). It doesn’t have to be that way, though.

My favorite example of a good evil character is in Neverwinter Nights 2. No, not Bishop – he’s stupid evil. I’m talking about Ammon Jerro, a neutral evil warlock. He’s a guy who has devoted his life to slaying one ultimate evil, all in an attempt to protect his homeland and his family. In the process, he summons demons and devils and binds them to his will. He leads this fiendish army through the Mere of Dead Men, destroying everything in his path. But everything he does is done for a good reason. To him, the means justify the ends. He even becomes a tragic figure as the game goes on and he realizes that he is no better than the game’s main villain. Despite this realization, he never undergoes an alignment change. He is a damned soul, but he does not regret his actions. Ammon Jerro is evil with a human core and is an evil character with long-term goals.

So far, the PCs in this game are stupid evil. That is not automatically a bad thing – it’s just the description I use to denote somebody who does nothing but rob and kill without thought beyond the immediate situation. There is also stupid good, which is the cliché that most paladins fall into, or stupid neutral, where the character mixes up good and evil acts in an attempt to maintain some idea of balance. I use the term stupid evil to denote that this particular type of evil is ultimately self-destructive and thus pretty stupid to adhere to in the long run.

In terms of handing out powerful artifacts like they were candy, that’s my idea of giving the PCs enough rope to hang themselves with. So far, they have seen the nooses lying on the ground and decided that they make excellent neckties. Eventually, the group will either evolve past being stupid evil and start forming a long-term plan, or the forces searching for these artifacts will hunt them down and kill them. Either way, the game should be a hoot.

I think my ultimate goal for future games will be to establish some recurring NPCs that the PCs don’t want to steal from or kill. That will be tough, but once I have them grounded in the setting, the buy-in to the game gets bigger and the players start caring more about their character’s actions.

This is my first attempt at running an all-evil game, and I am breaking many rules of RPG design in setting it up. However, so far it also highlights my GMing philosophy more than most games I run. I spend time developing intricate plots, but I also like tossing those plots out the window and being forced to improvise. Most of all, I do not like putting an obstacle in the PCs’ path that they cannot cross. That stuff is for computer RPGs. Tabletop RPGs are about doing anything. At the same time, everything that the PCs do has consequences. You can break into the seemingly impassable vault, but doing so is likely to be dangerous and self-destructive in the end. The players will learn that last bit soon enough, methinks.

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