Monday, August 16, 2010

Letting Players Run Evil Characters

(WARNING: This blog post addresses some issues that some people may deem distasteful or disturbing. I want to fully discuss these issues in context and explain my situation, but I don't want anyone to be offended. If you do not deal well with recountings of players running evil characters - and I do mean evil - then skip this blog post.)

It all started as an innocent foray into an old edition of D&D. With our current Pathfinder GM revamping his campaign to suit a smaller group since some of our regulars have gone on hiatus, we'd been filling our Thursday night game time with board games and random activities. I was sick of playing "Betrayal at the House on the Hill" every week, so I proposed to run a low-level adventure from Dungeon #41 adapted to Basic D&D rules. The other players agreed, built characters, and started off into the wilderness.

I never place alignment restrictions on my PCs. I believe that players should run the characters they want to be, and as long as group cohesion isn't a regular problem in play, even evil-aligned characters can play a constructive role as party members. I myself had a blast playing a Neutral Evil warmage in a mostly good group once, primarily because the GM for that game wove a tale that gave my character purpose and reason to cooperate (rather than simply incinerate the softhearted fools where they stood!).

This time, though, our group went overboard. We'd been talking for awhile about running a campaign where we all played evil characters - why not try it in this one-shot game? Tyler, as usual, opted for a milquetoast Neutral-aligned mage. Evan's brash and selfish fighter, James' sadistic elf, and Mat's perennial thief, however, were all Evil. Their characters' penchant for theft and mayhem were evident from the get-go; in fact, that's why they were going into a stinky swamp - they were all on the lam from officials in Carinidad, a large coastal city in my campaign world. The nearby swamp was a well-known place of refuge for criminals and exiles, because of the horrid monsters that populated its marshy streams and fetid bogs.

The scenario I was running, "Old Man Katan and the Incredible, Edible, Dancing Mushroom Band", depended on a few key party elements - primarily a group of observant PCs who were willing to interact, and even cooperate with, the NPCs. And here were my players, ten minutes into the action, assaulting, robbing and gang-raping a small group of peasants who were carting freshly baked bread to market.

It was going to be a long night.

The band of criminals proceeded into Glitchegumee Swamp, hitting some obligatory ghouls on the way in who nearly made a meal of two of them. I did this mainly to size up the group; they'd bought rather a lot of healing potions on their way out of Carinidad, and I wanted to evaporate a few of them so they wouldn't get too cocky. After that, they encountered the central characters of the adventure: Old Man Katan, an exiled ranger, and a group of intelligent, singing mushrooms who propelled themselves with their tails like snakes. The band of antiheroes chose to parlay, but only as a distraction to allow the thief to slip in unnoticed. Unfortunately, the elf did a poor job of covering up his vicious nature in front of Katan (a Good-aligned NPC). His brazen recounting of the recent cruelties visited on the peasants prompted the elderly ranger to run into his house, grab his crossbow, and start taking potshots at the criminals.

Once the heroes realized that the old man was about as good a shot on his own as they were put together (and the fighter threatened the old man's butterfly collection), they settled down a bit, and Katan fed them a meal and commissioned them to do a day's worth of fishing in the bogs to repay him for the damage done in his home (not to mention some quick blacksmithing work on the fighter's sword, which had been damaged during the caravan robbery). He loaned them his strange shapeshifting canoe (a swamp-dwelling mimic who'd been skimming off the codger's daily catch for years) and sent them on their way.

I kept things simple on my side of the table, picking stuff from the wandering monster table included in the adventure - a giant crocodile the size of a dump truck, moccasins that nearly downed the thief and the mage with poison, a huge carnivorous plant that lured in the lascivious elf with its sweet nectar, and some giant mosquitoes, who were the main adversaries of this scenario. A sentient, childlike bog monster controlled a swarm of giant mosquitoes that was killing off all the native wildlife, which is why game was so scarce in Glitchegumee Swamp.

Ideally, characters playing this scenario should be concerned about the ecology of the swamp and attempt to fix it by convincing the bog monster to stop "playing" with the mosquitoes and help them destroy the bugs' eggs. And surprisingly, my group of black-hearted miscreants did just that. The fighter's selfishness caused him to befriend the bog monster in hopes that the creature would lead him to some battle spoils from a forgotten war that Katan had mentioned during dinner, and he talked the bog monster into helping them drain the bog where the mosquitoes breed - the site where that battle occurred. They not only accomplished all their main goals, but they gained some significant wealth out of it.

My Thursday nighters are a tightly knit group who have played together for a long time and have a good knowledge of each other's personal boundaries and senses of humor. I almost hesitate to post this because I don't want to come across as glorifying evil campaigns. But letting my players play villains for an evening allowed us as a group to cut loose for the night and explore new possibilities. I was particularly impressed that they managed to accomplish the goals of the adventure without cheating their alignments - at no time did they stop being evil (the bickering over the loot in the breeding bog was comedy gold), and they still got things done.

They've expressed a desire to keep this game going, and I'm up for it. I intend to hound them as much as possible with do-gooders and let them rot in that swamp living off what meager possessions and skills they have. And I also get a chance to play some Good-aligned NPCs as antagonists, which will be fun, too. Of course, they still have control over a pretty big bog monster and there's not much more plunder to be had in the swamp (unless they decide to go looking for the will'o'wisp...). It will only be a matter of time before these desperados come up with a new plan for profiteering and mayhem. And it will be my job, as GM, to stop them. Instead of running the monsters in the closet, I'm running the ghost hunters for a change, and I like the storytelling possibilities that this situation offers.

I just hope they don't end up destroying my planet by the time they're tired of it all.

Please share your experiences. How do allowing your players to run villainous characters shape your play experience? Having never done this before with a majority of evil characters in the party, I'm interested in how it's worked out for other readers and contributors.

Monday, August 9, 2010

A Great Tool for GMs

For the past few days, I've had the pleasure of using Obsidian Portal, a campaign management site. To be honest, I've been on OP for about a year, using what they offered for free. Nice site, but not enough options for me to keep up the hard work. Always in search of ways to keep my notes orderly, I gave it a try with my "Adventures in the New World Campaign".

It was good for awhile, that is until I went overboard with recapping the games in detail. Then it became a chore. Then I quit using it.

Fast forward one year, I decide on giving it another crack. I pay for six months to release all options and see how it goes. So far, I'm happy with the options I get. More campaigns, a Google powered map system and forums.

Currently, I decided to put Cell 13 on ice for awhile and started moving forward on a Labyrinth Lord/1st AD&D campaign called "Chronicles of a Dead Empire". This campaign has been stewing for decades in my mind, so I decided to let it out of the bag. OP is great for keeping things straight, organized and linked. My players will be able to know what I'm wanting without printing out lengthy books of knowledge. They will be able to contribute and to post their own character's thoughts.

I'm excited.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Slight Change of Plans

At the beginning of this blog,  I thought it would be a private sounding room for the RTR Game Master's SIG. In hindsight, I see that I've given up a great opportunity to introduce new game masters to a resource that is Raleigh Tabletop RPGs. So, again, working on an idea that Melissa had, I listed both her WOD SIG and this one on the RTR home page for all to see, and so all can follow their curiosity.

If you're already an RTR member, please become an author and post what game mastering gems you can. It's a great way of trading information and improving the way all of us host our games.

If you're new to this blog and Raleigh Tabletop RPGs, I urge you to join. Even though access to this blog is now open to everyone, RTR events are reserved exclusively for members. To be a member, simply go to the link above and join up. It's painless, and it just might be the best gaming decision you've made in a while. Membership allows you access to the good stuff that RTR offers.