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Evaluating Evil – Revisiting Evil Campaigns

March 15, 2016 Comments off

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One of the greatest things about role-playing is that the choices are not limited.  You can elect to solve a problem different ways, act recklessly or thoughtlessly, and indeed can do something downright evil, and the GM has to adapt to that approach.  It’s the one thing that, to my mind, will always keep role-playing slightly ahead of video games, no matter how interactive they tend to get.  With the option of unfettered control, players can elect to play evil characters in RPG’s with some degree of success. However, evil campaigns are where the boundless possibilities of table-top gaming can become a two-edged sword.

ALIGNMENT ORIGINS

It has been widely suggested that Gary Gygax original developed alignments with significant inspiration from  Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions, which contributed the idea of Law versus Chaos and of forces aligning with that principle.  Basic Dungeons and Dragons had Law, Chaos and Neutrality depicted handily by this, one of my favorite sketches from those books:

basicalignment

This, theoretically, should just about do it, but not to keep things too simple, our beloved Gary went and made this much more marvelously complex alignment chart, with Good and Evil, Law and Chaos on varying axes:

align2

This added shades of nuance, and later became colored with tendencies.  Lawful Neutral with Lawful Good tendencies etc. etc.   This allowed for a description of many different layers of alignment, and theoretically should permit a player to describe his character’s beliefs pretty closely.

WHY?

This level of detail originally existed to force characters to act in accord with their proscribed ethos, maybe as a story telling tool, maybe as a heavy-handed way of teaching players how to role-play. Some of it was simply a game mechanic or limiter on how players interacted with items and spells – numerous items would do damage to or be unusable by members of a certain alignment.  I believe it was to limit capricious behavior by players who, having different consequences in-game than in real life, find themselves looting and killing more quickly than they typically would in other situations.  It’s a clumsy tool for keeping the game on track.

THE ISSUES WITH EVILNESS

So what happens when you toss the limiting element of that out the window?  An Evil Campaign incorporates alignments that don’t tend to go past Chaotic Neutral, and are traditionally very difficult to get off the ground.  When alignment fails to work as a tool, all bets are off.  Characters can burn buildings and torture the innocent to get their results, and a party full of such characters has no limitation or recourse, making the story telling a very difficult proposition for the GM.

It’s very strange for me to articulate this idea, that alignment is still a tool we need to keep things on track.  But most stories that are written or created take the heroic point of view as a given, or at least the mercenary view as the farthest the players are likely to take it. While, Mercenary values should have some appeal to all parties, but there is an added consideration when Evil is at play… betrayal, backstabbing, and advancing the cause of the adversary are all on the table.  Accordingly, Evil is very hard to consistently motivate.

It’s more relevant than ever because Paizo has recently released its Hell’s Vengeance adventure path, where, for the first time, the adventure path centers around evil characters.  Serving the fiend-aligned throne of Cheliax, the heroes take part in a series of adventures to quell uprisings in the name of Iomade and so on.  It promises to be an interesting experiment to see if an adventure series can be constructed in such a way so as to not break down in to absolute chaos.

Paizo is aware of the danger of such an event.  In the introduction, they say that the key to not having everyone kill each other is for everyone not to be a jerk, and for the group to advance the mutual cause of fun.  This is the best answer one can give, but I can tell you from personal experience that this is very wishful thinking.

BACK IN MY DAY…

Several years ago, I ran an evil campaign, known only as “The Evil Campaign”.  People hungered for it, and for a few years, it was a favorite.  It coincided roughly with the publication of the Book of Vile Darkness, which gave us some rich material to work with.  The characters were nuanced, and the players some of the best I’ve played with.  Thinking that these details were enough of a check on their own, I introduced the characters to the world without any safeguards in place.

They literally all killed each other within 30 minutes.

The only survivor was, fortunately, the mild mannered and charismatic necromancer, who had gathered each body as it fell and dragged it back to his laboratory. Struggling to find a way to bring the game back into some sort of order, I extended an invitation to this necromancer from an agent of Iuz the Old, and decided then that some sort of guarantee needed to be made as to compliance, since player restraint did not appear to be trustworthy.  Acknowledging its cheesiness, I borrowed from SSI’s Curse of the Azure Bonds game, imprinting them with tattooed sigils that stay their hand’s when moving to kill an ally.

Through his clumsy but necessary mechanic, we were able to play for another year or two, though players worked to undo other characters in the game and constantly sought ways to kill one another, getting around the curse.  While much fun was had, and there were moments of peace, it was in the nature of the characters to be at odds.  It wasn’t bad role-playing, in fact it was quite good role-playing, but it was somewhat the nature of the beast. In the end, it was exhausting as a game master to keep the story moving in a predictable way allowing me to prepare, and we fell away from it. You could never tell what crazy thing the players were going to do next, but often it was to kill a major NPC because they looked at them funny.

REAL EVIL

That’s because often, as players, we hold Evil to a much higher standard than we do good. Players act as though evil aggressively seeks out mischief, chaos and death.  And while it sometimes does those things, it more often strikes randomly as granted by opportunity. The true face of evil is not the monster that wants to kill, burn and destroy.  It’s very seldom Rovagug or Tharizdun.  It’s typically more like Doyle Hargraves in Sling Blade, or Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  It’s subtle, selfish, and sneaky.  In a fantasy game, the evil out there operates in the open by virtue of acknowledging the power of law and working around it, nibbling at its edges, and slipping back away into the night. Evil people work together all the time, and while there are disputes, the first move is not always to kill each other.  There are layers of frustration, and means of revenge that aren’t killing.

It’s a tough road to go down, but I look forward to hearing what players in Paizo’s Hell’s Vengeance AP experience.  It’s got potential, and if someone could pull it off, it would be them.  But I think more likely, we’ll see a pile of bodies by the end of the first book, and maybe another reskinning of the old Azure Bonds mechanic by a few GM’s.   Look forward to hearing how good ‘bad’ can really be from our readers who have played it, and what they’d change if they could.

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