|I find your lack of phat beats…disturbing.|
Human Slaves of An Insect Nation, Part 12-Chillin’ Like Villains
In the previous installment of the series, I detailed a few stepw toward generating a campaign villain: a creature that, despite its complexities and motivations, is wholly and utterly commandeered and controlled by you, the Storyteller, for the duration of the campaign.
Fellow redittor MetaMeh commented on last week’s article, proposing I focus on giving some tips (or more specifically, my own ideas) on handling the dynamics of more than one villains. As this is a subject that requires almost an entire thesis on its presentation and handling, I have instead chosen to take the easier road and try to address something that, again, focuses on a number of evil people, but does not require any in-depth look into campaign dynamics.
|In short, evil characters.|
This is not so much due to laziness on my part, but it’s rather an attempt at easing into the idea of handling antagonists and of course, taking an in-depth look into how you could possibly manage (and maintain your own interest in) a party of horrible people.
With that in mind, here’s the…
SHAPESCAPES MEAN GUIDE FOR MEAN PEOPLE.
|So an octogenarian bitch, an evil wizard, a fat chick with tentacles and an amputee walk into a bar…|
Step One: Define Evil
And I don’t mean in the horsheshit philosophical sense.
At every point in their hobbying lifetimes, gamers will decide that they want to play as the villains, for once. Saving the world may be its own reward, but sometimes, just sometimes, you just wanna break it into tiny little pieces and set them on fire.
While the idea sounds good (fraught with opportunity even) on paper, there are tons of problems that need to be resolved right off the bat. First off, you, as the Storyteller, are required to make the players decide on what exactly it is they consider to be evil.
Dungeons and Dragons works with moral opposites, clearly defined black and white morality: if you kill things that are slithering, flying, reptilian, inhuman and/or breathe fire, then you’re a good person. If you instead kill things that fall into all the above categories but also eat babies and rob farmers, then you’re evil.
In the interest of saving this article from turning into a philosophical black hole of pretension, let’s just consider Evil in an rpg as selfish behavior whose only purpose and ultimate goal is the benefit of the character. Any character who is willing to go to impossible lengths to secure his own well-being and his rise to power without regard toward the safety or well-being of others, is considered Evil.
|“But vat of nature versus nurture und ze other random factors zat dictate man’s demeanor and intent?” Shut the fuck up, Heidegger, nobody asked for your opinion.|
With that definition in mind, you immediately know that the team of people that you need to navigate through a campaign are going to be selfish, self-serving dickbags that are in desperate need of a binding force to drive them throughout the entirety of the game.
Why is that? Well, that’s mostly because players tend to equate evil with homicidal tandencies, as well as open and unashamed sociopathic outbursts of behavior. While this sounds fun, it tends to lose its luster almost two sessions into the campaign and make the players feel cheated and above all, bored with their characters.
In order to avoid that, you need to look into…
Step Two: The Universal Adherent
The Universal Adherent is the common binding factor that is intended to keep the evil team of misfits that you have found yourself burdened with united. More than just a common goal, the Adherent is a driving force that is necessary and can be easily invoked to stop them from getting at each other’s throats.
Good guys may use ‘Kill evil Wizard’ as an excuse to perform all the war crimes they like, but this is not the case with Evil characters. Remember: your players aren’t exactly Kevin fucking Spacey, capable of maintaining clean and virgin-white facades that perfectly mask their pitch-black hearts in order to achieve their goals. They’re just a bunch of people who like to cackle maniacally as they set fires to orphanages.
So what can qualify as a Universal Adherent? You’ll require something that is simple, short and sweet, that is easy for them to invoke or recall when push comes to shove and they’re about to tear each other apart. Examples include…
- Family slain by a party of good adventurers, during their service to the Lich Queen
- Sharing a prison sentence, or better yet, death-row buddies.
- Relatives or close associates of a criminal organization
- Persons seeking revenge for relatives or close associates of a criminal organization
- Loyalists of a toppled, amoral regime, who escaped the destruction
- Desperate, weak people who have lived trampled at the fringes of society for so long that have decided to work together for some constructive (and destructive) payback.
Evil characters are above all, people. No matter how petty, black-hearted or bloodthirsty they might be they still need a goal, a motivation, a factor that has turned them into bastards and will serve to keep them together.
But the Adherent is not enough in and of itself. The players also need to agree that they need to set boundaries that even they will not cross under any circumstances. That’s not the Storyteller’s job, however. This is more of a factor that needs to be thrown in, allowing the players themselves to set their own limits and work within and around them. Keep in mind, after all, that no matter their moral make-up, the players want their characters to be heroes. They want them to be cool and to awesome and to leave a mark on the world.
And to do that, they need to set up their own rules, no matter how rubbery, bendable or ill-defined they may be.
|Remember kids: Nobody licks a dick, but everybody loves a glorious asshole.|
With the Adherent secured, we can now move to…
Step Three: Providing Goals
|Why can’t I photoshop a goddamn moustache on this baby? Why?|
So what do those sons of bitches want? What is it that motivates this group of bastards that are about to run across the countryside, leaving destruction in their wake?
Good characters only want to do good and make the world a little bit worse for everyone else. But what about Evil ones? What do they want, that possibly fits into their agenda and what can you, the Storyteller do, to maintain your own interest in this?
Like the Universal Adherent and the morals, this is something that needs to be defined by the players themselves. Oh, sure, you can provide the goal du jour by shoving a quest or an important NPC in their faces that needs something done about something, ASAP, but what then?
This is the trickiest bit: because this is the point that does not happen at the beginning of the campaign, but instead happens halfway through or about six sessions in. During that time, players have tested their evil characters, have defined their morals and have agreed on their respective outline of morality but still lack a goal. Adherent or not, they are bound to lose interest, until they find something to do with themselves.
But you know what? You don’t have to provide it. If anything, this is a responsibility that befalls your players. All you need to do, is simply show them what they have to gain from working with each other in the interest of achieving their single purpose.
Is a kingdom in turmoil and ripe for the taking? Take them round it for a spin. Was the High Grand Poobah of Rha, the White Lord, recently slain, leaving his flock directionless and in need of guidance, ripe to be steered in the faith of darker gods? Make them overhear the proper rumors. How about those bastards in government, the ones who caused the war that drove the characters out of their homes and are now chugging it up in their mansions, enjoying their ill-gained wealth and power? Don’t they deserve a knife to the throat?
Evil characters may not be motivated by a need to benefit others, but they will seek any opportunity to allow themselves to grow in power. By providing them windows of opportunity, they will begin to take their own initiatives toward achieving those goals.
Keep in mind, however, that said goals do not necessarily mean that the characters need to hurt good people. Evil constantly does battle with Evil, culling out the weakest in its number, providing an evolutionary ladder for only the fittest and hardiest to climb. Evil characters can easily lock horns with everyone and everything, provided it benefits them.
Laslty and this is important: KILLING THE WORLD IS NOT A GOAL.
|Aaaand everybody’s dead! Good going, guys! Next campaign!|
That’s not just because killing everybody is a boring, childish goal. It’s also because it holds no reward, in itself. Mad-Eyed, forthing at the mouth cultists work for Call of Cthulhu NPCs (or mediocre JRPG villains), but aren’t interesting in the long run. No matter how well-developed or defined a character’s goals may be, the idea of slaughtering seven billion people isn’t exactly something that you could possibly ever get behind, as a player.
With their goals set, how about we move on to…
Step Four: Providing Antagonists
|Daederon Veldriss, defender of the light, vanquisher of the dragon K’helorr, slayer of my parents and all those I held dear.|
Good, unlike Evil, tends to band together. Where evil people will turn on each other as soon as they see the chance to climb up the ladder of power, good people wills tick together, to fight against the tide of villainy.
Evil people make for pretty damn good antagonists, but what if they aren’t the real threat? What if your characters find themselves hounded by a man who is the sole beacon of light and hope in the bleak world of their tale?
What if his henchmen fight not because they are paid or brainwashed, but out of true loyalty to the man who aided them in their time of greatest need? What if, for once, the bad guy is only bad in the eyes of your characters?
A proper antagonist in this context is a man that you CAN go out for a drink with. Hell, you’d probably even vote him for President, if you had the chance. Like the characters, he came from humble beginnings and instead of hating and seeking to make the terrible world he had been born in any worse, he only sought to make it better and largely succeeded.
Your characters, in this scenario, will be the villains, slowly rising out of the ranks, seeking to undo all that this saintly man has achieved and take his place for the sake of hate.
A proper Antagonist for the cause of Good will be a man whose loss will plunge the world back into the darkness he has just dragged it out of, but will inspire legends and loyalty into his subjects that will be borne out of love, not fear. It will be up to the players themselves to maintain their hate and to find in them the strength to destroy this man and his work.
Step Five: Evil has no true reward.
|“I’m sorry Mortimer, but you’ll have to consider this pre-emptive slef-defense!”|
During their adventures, their growth, their rise to power and finally, their victory over the forces of Good, Evil characters will make the world around them worse and maybe even keep it that way. The great bastions of light and wisdom will perhaps become twisted mockeries of themselves and their thrones will be set high atop a mountain of corpses, many of those once considered their allies.
When the campaign is done, Evil characters will look at their works and will perhaps rejoice, as they looked at the hushed, fearing multitudes and then…perhaps they will realize that they are not content.
Evil consorts with Evil and is in turn devoured by it. No matter how well-knit a group of bad people may be, they will still turn on each other or have their allies turn on them, in time. They might even consort with beings who are the embodiment of every sinful, amoral motivation that the Universe has ever (or will ever) know.
A good villain is not only memorable because of his lustrous mane of snow-shite hair and his 6-foot long katana. Sometimes, he is memorable because he is hated by those who meet him, because he corrupts and destroys without any mercy. A proper villain will make you hate him every step of the way, because he makes you feel weak nd defenseless against him.
Evil characters need to pretty much be the same: beings antithetical to everything the players have ever known and the only way for them to know it is by watching a world populated by beings like themselves. By subtly adding despicable basterds who turn on them, they will grow angry and bitter and realize that they need to be twice as venomous as any other, if they are to survive.
And the reward? Well, there is no reward and even if it is, it’s not one that is worth the trouble. So what if you sit upon your hard-earned throne, within the bowels of your citadel?
Your kingdom and your works are petty and vile. They will not stand the test of time and even if they do, they will not leave behind them any legacy that is worthy of note.
But was your work for nothing? Perhaps not. Perhaps your works and the ruin you have sown will breed a new generation of heroes to topple you and make the dawn that is to come all the brighter, all the sweeter.
This last point may appear overly melodramatic, even biased to any readers who may think otherwise (and they would do well to do so), but allow me to present my defense:
This is my opinion, put there only so it can set the tone. While it is not set in stone, it is also a very poor basis for a philosophical debate.
Roleplaying games are not over-complex narratives, with epic storylines and well-developed plots. They are games, intended to allow a bunch of friends to come together and have fun with their imaginary characters and let off some steam. Play Evil characters means you do that but in a different way. It means that, in the process, you hurt people and that you do much more harm than good.
This is not a matter of the ends justifying the means (and cannot ever be not in a tabletop campaign). It’s something that’s put there to help you, the Storyteller, come to terms and set your own mood as you plot and develop the story. You’re more than welcome to disagree and I will not shy away from any personal advice from more experienced gamers, of course. If anything, I will take them to heart.
But keep this in mind: roleplaying games are not meant to be overthought parallels to ‘real’ morality. You are not supposed to deal with them by using shades of gray, but by presenting clearly defined limits and working around them, tweaking them as you go.
Evil campaigns are a bitch to pull off, but are worth it. Keep in mind, however, that the bulk of the work here needs to be done by your players, not yourself. This is a choice that they all make, to create a team of people who are hateful of the world that has borne them and comfortable enough in their hate that will drive them to impossible ends just so they can rise to the top.
It’s entirely possible that your evil campaign will flop, halfway through, but that might be because you have forced the team to stick together without proper motivation. Remember: you did not make the choice for them to be evil, you only provided the groundwork. The rest of the deed, no matter how vile, is up to them.
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