Tag Archives: roleplaying

De Ludos Maleficus – On Evil Campaigns

As inspired by an RPG Stack Exchange question on how to run evil campaigns.

I’ve run a variety of tones of campaigns over time and some could be considered “evil”; in fact currently I’m running a three-year long Pathfinder campaign where the PCs are pirates, Reavers on the Seas of Fate.  Not all of them are technically evilly aligned, but murder, torture, rape, slavery, etc. have all come up in the game. Here’s how you make it work.

Why Do It?

Why would you run an “evil campaign?” Sounds like hassle!  And dubious morally, I mean, it has “evil” right there in the title.  There’s a couple reasons to run an evil campaign and the measure of success is different per type.

  1. I want to freak out and kill everyone! Not a real mature campaign type, but often behind more immature groups who want to play an “evil campaign.” Tell your players “go play Call of Duty and teabag noobs if that’s what you want.” There is no meaningful success metric here.
  2. I want freedom! Much of the time people want an ‘evil campaign’ it’s because they feel constrained/manipulated by their GM and/or other players based on an overly restrictive interpretation of alignment (or whatever similar concept your game has). They’re tired of “you can’t do that” and “Your character wouldn’t do that!” and want to cut loose. If that’s the case, consider running an evil campaign once, use it to demonstrate that criminals generally enjoy effectively less freedom than good folks per the above reasons, and then take the hint and run ‘good campaigns’ with more meaningful character choices and letting the PCs be proactive and diverse in their belief. Success is measured by whether you all learn how to do that from the game.
  3. I want to explore the darker side of human nature! This is why I run evil games. I actually have stronger beliefs on goodness than most folks in real life. I like confronting people with the consequences and ramifications of their actions in games to make them think. Is trading off part of your soul or good name or humanity worth it for that goal? How about long after you’ve achieved the goal but you’re still marked by the act? Success here is fuzzier, since games that actually uptake more roleplaying have less clearcut “win conditions” in general. But it’s successful if it’s enjoyable and if it causes people to grapple with moral questions.

But What’s It Really About?

“Evil” is not really a campaign concept (well, not one that passes muster past the 9th grade level). You need a campaign concept and one that will generally keep the PCs acting together instead of being at each others’ throats unless you’re looking for a very short, PvP campaign, which is legitimate. In fact, there’s plenty of short form indie games that facilitate that (Fiasco is probably the most notable). If you are more going fora longer campaign, however, it needs to have as much in teh way of concrete goals as any other campaign. Smart PCs know they need other mighty people to achieve their goals, good or evil.

Heck most “normal” campaign setups work as well or better with evil groups – just because you’re evil, you don’t really want where you live and work taken over by zombies or whatever, that interferes with your cashflow. Often times players want to “play evil” because they feel like the GM has been using “goodness” to manipulate them into being passive and they want to be proactive and smart in confronting threats. Squinting too hard at many campaign concepts passed off as “good” reveals them to be a sequence of home invasion, murder, and robbery anyway.

The main trap you’re trying to avoid is the PCs just self destructing by going nuts on each other and everyone in the world in general – at least, if they’d be unhappy with being hunted down and slain a couple sessions in.

Decide on Limits, Within Limits

Some people, when they say “evil campaign,” just mean “I want to kill lippy villagers like they’re orcs,” not that they want to really delve into the darker aspects of human nature. You may want to establish an agreement on tone/content with your players up front – you are not required to run (and the players aren’t required to participate) in anything they feel like is over their boundaries. I’ve been known to have players vote on approximate levels of sex, violence, etc. in a game ahead of time, and where they want it to “fade to black.”

However, a lot of that will be emergent. In my current pirate campaign, no one really thought about torture until they caught an assassin who was trying to kill the crime-boss they were aligned with. The PC halfling rogue decided he’d torture her extensively to find out who sent her. This definitely put off the other PCs – but not enough that they stopped him. Boundary established (well, lack of one).

Not every “evil” person is 100% evil and on board with everything “evil,” though. The ship took two elven women prisoner and one was claimed as a slave by a vicious half-orc pirate. The PC captain didn’t really like that but felt somewhat constrained by the expectations of the crew (mutiny is always a threat if the crew doesn’t think they’re getting their due) so he allowed it. The PCs and that half-orc were having dinner in the captain’s cabin, and the halfing from the anecdote above suddenly stabbed the half-orc to death on the dinner table (he’s an assassin now – successful death attack). He explained to the shocked command staff that he wouldn’t have any slaves on board or associate with slavers. Boundary established.

If you have real characters really roleplaying and thinking through their motivations, you’ll still have limits, whether it’s “no women, no kids” or the Mafioso that are patriotic and still want neighborhoods to be “family places.” Try to depict other “evil” people as complex in that way as well so that they will understand that evil isn’t just a race to maximum depravity. With that halfling, torture of captives is OK but slavery and rape is a killin’ offense. There’s no “Evil Checklist” you have to adhere to and say every crime ever considered is OK – in fact most evil people really are just into one and consider the others to be as bad as other folks do.  Realistic motivations and roleplaying are what will make the campaign something real and not goofy.

However – some people make too much of setting boundaries for their games. If you came up to me and asked me “Do you want to see some chick saw her cheeks off?” I’d say “No! What are you talking about?” But I just went to see the movie Evil Dead, where that exact thing happened as part of the overall horror movie experience. “Boundary pushing” can be good and desirable and allowed based on initial buyin to the general campaign premise. Sure, there’s a very slight majority of people so traumatized by something that if it comes up in game it’s going to truly trip them out, and there you have outs just like any other kind of media – “press stop,” say “I can’t deal with this” – but most gaming groups don’t really need to do more than establish the general MPAA-rating (e.g. “Hey guys I’m active in my church and I don’t really want to go past PG-13 with this game”) and then mess around in that area. Worrying too much about what exact things might disturb your players is overthinking it IMO. If you go see Evil Dead, you’d better expect that if you have a fear of/complex about anything, there’s a nonzero chance it’s going to come up in lurid color. All the buyin we required for the pirates game was “people can be evil if they want, and expect HBO Original Series level depravity, the pirate world is not a gentle one.”

Actions Have Consequences

Review How do I get my PCs to not be a bunch of murderous cretins? – there are a lot of reasons people don’t perform unrestrained evil deeds all the time, from “I don’t want to” to “I will get in trouble for it.” Sometimes my players complain that the pirate-friendly port city they frequent is “too lawful” just because they can’t get away with any heinous crime or breach of the peace they can come up with – but all societies need some kind of stability and will crack down on those affecting that too much. On the other hand, they have become used to not going out into the city alone; traveling in groups is mandatory to not be victimized themselves.

Many evil societies are like this – see how lawful Drow society looks from the outside. Our pirate PCs have to fear their pirates mutinying, the law/navy hunting them down, the bigger pirates in port deciding they’re too big for their britches or have so much loot that they’re a tempting target in turn. Criminals “hide out” for a reason – they are not free to operate within larger society, and therefore end up having less freedom than good people (something good to play up as the GM). The law, higher level “good” adventurers, etc. are always looking to wipe you out with a clear conscience.

A mechanical option here is keeping track of “infamy points” – I have my own homebrew system I use, but there’s a lot of extant reputation-tracking mechanics in the world. People have heard of the big bad people and will react like people do – avoid, confront, narc them out, victimize them, etc. Remember that many victims of crime are doing something bad themselves – criminals, or at least the dishonest, make the best marks for cons and crimes because they have little legal recourse. The pirate PCs can’t go just anywhere as their infamy becomes known; honest ports reject them, and other evil folks are generally not the best allies because they like to turn on you when you blink.

So that’s my take on evil campaigns.  Our current one is turning out very well, with complex characters. Sindawe the captain is reluctant to do much “really bad” stuff himself except the occasional act of violence – but he’s happy to let/order others to do them. Serpent is concerned with getting married and having a kid, and even surreptitiously tried to let some of the elven women escape, but he’s even more murder happy than the more measured and Lawful Sindawe. Wogan tries to not do much evil himself but he doesn’t speak against it either. Tommy tortures and worships lust demons, but will do anything to free some slaves. HBO Original Series achieved!

Decrease Metagaming, Increase Immersion

Immersion. Actually taking on the role of your character in an RPG; behaving, and ideally feeling, like you are a person in this shared fictional world. To me, immersion is the heart and soul of roleplaying.  If I just wanted to push my character around a board and perform cool combat combos, there are a lot of wargames and stuff out there that are arguably better at it, and a lot of computer games that are definitely better at it. I often wonder why people that don’t value playing “in character” play RPGs at all.

But since a lot of players don’t “get” immersion, it can be hard to achieve.  In fact, it seems like game designers don’t “get” immersion any more – D&D 4e makes it difficult with their dissociated mechanics, and that’s just the most mass-market version – a lot of the hot new indie games are more narrativist/gamist and are more interested in taking a God’s eye view to characters and scenes and thus create a story – but not to live a story. Often I think this is a result of people not having actually been in an immersive game, because the ones I’ve been in have been some of the best experiences of my life,and the other people in them don’t want to settle for less in the future either.

I read a great question on the Paizo boards about how to get more immersion and less metagaming in Pathfinder. It didn’t get near as much attention as I’d like, so I reposted it over onto RPG Stack Exchange, where it’s starting to get some great answers, especially from Runeslinger and LordVreeg.

Please consider joining the discussion here, or on RPG.SE, or on Paizo. I think that there needs to be a lot more discussion about things like immersion, which are the real core of the hobby, not “here’s some more feats or geomorphs or some shit like that.” It’s always harder to write about “soft skills” than hard skills, but the problem is that since the industry (and blogosphere) does that, eventually the hard rules stuff drowns out the soft techniques part.

RPG Superstar 2009: Villain Round 2

The third round of RPG Superstar 2009 is to redo your villain and add a stat block.  I have to say, I do not have the patience to wade through stat blocks, but let’s see who improved their villain and do a top level check for awesomeness.

Sharina, Legend Singer (Female human bard 6)

The bard who gives the party fame and danger to leverage fame for herself.  She’s not that much changed in fluff, but she’s grown on me in that I’ve internalized that there’s more description of her schemes beyond “she starts a war!”  I don’t think she was perfect enough not to brush up the fluff.  The writer uses a few more commas than good grammar can stand.   Stat block’s OK but unremarkable.  I approve of trying a low level villain, though.  Overall she’s decent but I would hesitate to say Superstar material.  5/10.

Kar-En-Helit, Vessel of Moeris (Male human ghost wizard 18 )

This guy’s totally reworked and I liked the previous fluff better.  Now he’s a guy who’s waiting to ensoul his Osirian god-emperor ancestor ghost.  Concept’s fine, but the execution is a little confusing.  Especially as it splits focus between before he emerges and after, and there’s not enough info on either.  As for the stat block, I’m pretty confused about what are Kar-En-Helit’s stats, what are Moeris’ stats, and what are the stats of Moeris-in-Kar-En-Helit.  3/10.

Vashkar, the False Maharajah (Male vampire rakshasa Monk 8/Fighter 1/Eldritch Knight 4) *

Reworked from “generic rakshasa” to “demented vampire rakshasa who kills vampires and rakshasas!”  Much, much more interesting.  He starts to fall into the trap of not being in enough conflict with the PCs however.  The stat block is just huge.  I’m not so sure about legitimacy of the Eldritch Knight levels boosting his spellcasting (which is purely racial).  Triple class nonhuman with a template may be pushing it complexity-wise.  And even for CR20 this is a little buff.  AC50, SR40, multiple DRs.  24 special abilities goes over my line for what I’d like to deal with.  I think being a vampire rakshasa monk would be more than enough, especially with the new bloodline.  But you have to respect biting off such a huge task.  7/10.

Aelfric Dream-Slayer (male human reincarnated wood elf lich druid 15)

Was one of my favorites from last time.  He’s a druid who wants to stop an aberrant dream invasion by killing anything that can dream.  Fair enough!  Fluff slightly reworked and seems not as tight as last round.  I feel like the addition of the Rovagug reference is to be gratuitously Golarionesque.  And the stat block is kinda messy and error-prone.  Hrm.  5/10.

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RPG Superstar 2009: Villain Round

The Paizo RPG Superstar 2009 second round is in, and you can go read and vote on the villain entries from the top 32!

I am disappointed in these, especially in comparison to last year’s excellent entries.

What is it with druids and bards?  The two lamest classes.  Whenever my gaming group fights a bad guy and realizes they’re a bard or druid (or monk), we laugh, relax, and get to spanking them.

And the motivations this year – jeez! Everyone was a cliche. “I like to kill because…”

  • I’m EVIL!
  • I’m INSANE!
  • I’m a CULTIST!
  • I want WEALTH and POWER!

Here’s my thoughts in depth.

Phenyekashi (3/10)
A bone devil that just meditates but leaks corruption into the area.  Seems more like a plot device than a villain.  Could be an artifact instead of a creature and have the same “corrupt the locals” effect.

Bricius, The Wrath of the Forest (2/10)
An anti-civilization druid.  Pretty standard really, I’ve seen a dozen just like him before.

Sharina Legendsinger (4/10) *
An annoying paparazzi.  More of a plot device than anything, as all the proposed schemes/plots require the DM to assume social engineering succeeds on a level way past a 6th level bard’s capacity.  “She starts a war!”  Really?

Paradigm Theoguard (4/10)
A forceful pacifist.  OK, at least that’s different…  The name is awful.  And you’d better have a *really* good-aligned party, or else they’ll just catch his  minions stealing something and terminate them (likely legal in most medieval municipalities).

Montellan Corey (2/10)
A generic serial killer.  I’ve never seen one of *those* before.

Kar-en-haris (6/10) *
A thinking man’s cultist right out of one of the Mummy movies.  Still a bit of a stock character, but at least he has an agenda more interesting than “kill.”

Haldon Valmaur (4/10)
Well, it’s a little more colorful to want to kill elves rather than just kill.  But only a little.

Varrush (2/10) *
A generic rakshasa that sounds like every other rakshasa in the world.  Declaring a villain a mastermind doesn’t really make him more interesting.

Aelfric Dreamslayer (8/10) *
A pro-elf druidical lich.  OK, that’s interesting.  Heck, it might make Haldon an interesting character to be used as a foil.  Good staying power.  I like it!

Zelicia (6/10)
Crazy hot scorpion lady.  Interesting and memorable, though seems like a one trick pony for a standard adventurer “kill your way up the food chain” adventure.

Volner Tain (5/10) *
I liked the setup backstory but then he turned into “generic evil undead guy.”

Count Falconbridge (6/10) *
Hmm.  The execution’s not all I’d want, but I like the idea here, especially if unwound gradually enough and with enough plausibility to get the PCs initially on his side, ask themselves some hard philosophical questions…

Zavanix (1/10)
A killer pixie.  Like a generic serial killer but with more cliches sprinkled on him.  No thanks.

Boemundo (2/10) *
Just a monster, really.  “He used to have a personality, but now that he’s a wraith he done forgot all that.”

Derinogen (3/10) *
A good kernel of an idea that could have been very Nip/Tuck but instead just got boring.

Malgana (7/10) *
OK – more of a plot device or even object than a villain, and more helpful than really a villain, but it’s just so much FUN!  Assemble your own undead goblin!  She needs a better endgame than the lame “and then she’ll kill them” however.  Though I agree with all the other judges’ comments, this one at least interested me, unlike 90% of the other entries.
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RPG Superstar 2009 Round One – Results Are In!

Paizo Publishing is holding their second RPG Superstar contest to find some new talent out there in gamer-land.  The first round, where hundreds of folks submitted wondrous items for the judges’ perusal, is over and the top 32 have been selected!  Go check ‘em out.

Sadly, I’m not one of them.  So to avoid waste, here is my entry!  Taking prisoners is always so hard in D&D.  If someone may be a spellcaster, it’s hard to argue that they can be safely kept alive.  I’ve been in many a party that’s tried to interrogate a captured enemy; bound hand and foot, with a dagger to their throat in case they utter any arcane syllable.  Then can you really leave them lying around?  This item helps solve that problem.

SHACKLES OF SUBMISSION
Aura moderate abjuration, enchantment; CL 6th
Slot hands, feet; Price 13,000 gp; Weight 5 lb.

Description:
This linked pair of adamantine masterwork wrist manacles and ankle fetters traditionally has the symbol of Abadar stamped deeply on each of its four cuffs.
A creature bound by the shackles is considered to be entangled. These shackles magically silence a bound creature; this effect may be turned on and off by their captor at will. When not silenced, the bound subject is forced to give only truthful answers to questions as if inside a zone of truth. Lastly, the individual binding the wearer can issue suggestions (as the spell, with a six hour duration but no save) to the bound creature at will. These magical effects still function even if the leg fetters are removed (or both cuffs attached to one leg, a usual solution if the bound creature is required to travel under its own power).
They fit any Small to Large creature. The DC to break or slip out of the shackles is 30.

Construction:
Requirements Craft Wondrous Item, silence, zone of truth, suggestion; Cost 6,500 gp

New RPG Superstar Contest

Paizo Publishing is starting a new RPG Superstar contest for the gaming community!   Basically, it’s open entry and you submit more and more complex items each round to get chosen as a potential author.

It starts with anyone who wants submitting a wondrous item – the judges and community discuss and pare that down to the top 32 entries.  Those 32 enter a villain concept, which similarly gets judged and pared down to 16, which stat up the villain.  The final 8 design a villain’s lair with map, and the final 4 submit a complete design proposal.

The rounds are slightly different from the 2008 RPG Superstar awards, for which all the content is still up on the Paizo boards.  The previous year had six rounds, and they were more unrelated – design 3 thematically linked monsters, design a country…  Some of the entries from last year were really, really great, just toally crackerjack.  Christine Schneider (the eventual winner) and Clinton Boomer’s were my favorites.  (See here for my posts covering the 2008 event.)  The country round was my favorite, too bad there isn’t another this year.  But the wondrous item round will be using Pathfinder RPG stats this time!

Want to show your chops?  Enter an item between 12/5 and 1/2!

Is D&D 4e Really Role-playing?

There’s a lot of discussion about this all over the place. I hesitate to answer, but I would like to shed some light on some of the terminology in use and mention some bits where I think people may be being unclear.

According to the old Threefold Model, which is a seminal attempt at theoretically classifying approaches to roleplaying, there are three (natch): Gamism, Simulationism (or Immersion), and Dramatism (or Narrativism).  Usually people don’t come purely from one approach or the other but some mix of them, although you usually see consistent leanings into one of the three approaches.  Would you like to know more?

“Gamist” usually means a focus on playing the game for the rules, with clear challenges and victory conditions and metagame goals. Often in games this means combat, but skill and interaction events are also gamist if pursued with a “rules first” mentality. Some people like the gamist approach. Gamism is what people are complaining about when they say “D&D 4e plays like Magic/RoboRally/a board game/a tactical minis game/etc.” Gamists like to “do what will win.” People don’t use the old terms “munchkin” or “powergamer” much any more, but they were deprecating ways of referring to gamists, since they worried about their character’s build or loot more than a realistic in-game motivation.

“Simulationist” usually means a focus on “becoming” the character inside a realistic game world. RPGers like to use the big word “versimilitude,” which means “Yes I know magic isn’t ‘realistic,’ but the game world can still behave realistically according to its own rules from its inhabitants’ point of view.” Simulationists like to “do what their character would do.” Metagaming, or making decisions about what the character does using information not obvious to the character, is heavily frowned upon. D&D was extremely simulationist (with a side plate of gamist) up through 3e; a lot of the reaction to 4e is its movement in the other directions.

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D&D 4e – A Board Game?

In a post on his blog, John Wick makes some very good points about the differing goals of a board game (victory) and a roleplaying game (character development) and argues that D&D, especially 4e as it’s cast, is more of a board game than anything else.

Now, a lot of the people in my gaming group hate John Wick with the fury of a thousand suns, because he is an asshole.  I concede this point; however, he’s an asshole who frequently makes good points.  I see their point too, however – his anecdote about his thief named Rav seems to be an example of people who “roleplay” as a thinly veiled excuse to make the other gamers’ lives more difficult.  Although perhaps he would have stuck by his ideals and, if the rest of the party had caught him stealing and decided to lynch him for it, applauded the resulting story.

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First Runelords “Stone Giants” Session Summary Posted

It’s been a long haul, but we’ve now started Fortress of the Stone Giants, the fourth installment in the Rise of the Runelords Adventure Path! Nothing subtle about these bad boys. Also, some more full character sheets are up on the main campaign page.

Fortress of the Stone Giants Part I

Our special Spring Break adventure follows the standard format of a Spring Break vacation. A road trip, gossip, shopping, violence, assessing the damage, and fleeing the scene.

Drop a line or comment on the blog if you’re enjoying these!

Glimpse of the Abyss Review

My review of Glimpse of the Abyss, a monster book for Feng Shui (and the last planned book in the line) is up at RPG.net.  Read and enjoy!  Also, I hear that the Hero Games “Asian Bestiary” series has good Asian-themed monsters to use in a pinch!  I’m a sucker for fighting against demons, monsters, etc. in my Feng Shui games.  In fact, if you want a freebie, I wrote up an entire Feng Shui convention scenario based on the anime Blue Seed that has some monster-kickin’ fun!  Don’t say I never gave ya nothin’.

Sixth Runelords “Hook Mountain” Session Summary Posted

Finally, we completed the third chapter of the Rise of the Runelords Adventure Path, “The Hook Mountain Massacre.”  We put as many sessions into Hook Mountain as into the previous two chapters combined!

Twelfth Session – The Hook Mountain Massacre Part VI

The fun part about this is that Xanesha is becoming our main recurring supervillain, which is a deviation from the scenarios’ plots.  But she keeps escaping, getting tougher, and starting new evil plans. 

Our PCs are getting into the whole gig of running the Black Arrows – we all have Black Arrow tattoos now and have put a lot of work into making them a force to reckon with.  We got the local Hellknight to send us lots of recruits, got the Lord Mayor of Magnimar to send us an officer corps that wasn’t criminals, rebuilt and enhanced the keep, and have equipped our guys with the best captured equipment a sword can buy.  After frequent PC-led reconnaisance in force missions into the wilderness, they’re a tough bunch!

Fifth Runelords “Hook Mountain” Session Summary Posted

As we continue through the Rise of the Runelords Adventure Path, our intrepid group has gotten most of the way through the third installment (of six).  Thrill to our experiences in Hook Mountain, which was full of ogres and featured a stone giant necromancer!

The Hook Mountain Massacre Part V

Alas, we met with tragedy – one of our heroes will never rise again.  Hulmar Benk, Lord of Fort Rannek, was cruelly felled before his time by an ogre’s hook.  A moment of silence, if you will.