Friday, December 30, 2011

Evil PCs: An Epilogue

Early in December of 2011, I wrapped up my year-long experiment in running a Pathfinder campaign for evil PCs. I tried my best to document the process here on the GM SIG Blog, but that effort fell behind as life got busier and busier. The story they wove was far too convoluted and crazy for me to write down in its entirety; at times I felt as though I were losing my mind just running the game, and I'd certainly do so if I continued to write about it with the same level of detail I did in my previous posts. I did want to post a follow-up message, though, to talk a bit about what developed and what I learned from the experience.

1. Players get tired of being the knights in shining armor.

I've heard this from many players whose GMs try to shoe-horn them into games where they have to be the good guys. Most players, at some point, want to run a character that is at least morally ambiguous, if not downright evil. In particular, D&D and its many iterations perpetuate the idea that the game just isn't made for villains (with the obvious exceptions of the few rare products that facilitated the idea, such as the Books of Vile Darkness). I think this is one reason (among many) why D&D players flocked to the banner of White Wolf's World of Darkness games in the mid to late 1990s - WoD was offering an outlet for that sort of play experience, publicity be damned, while D&D was still fighting a media-perpetuated image of Satanic overtones and didn't want to acknowledge that the moral spectrum of PCs was as wide as that of everyday people in the real world.

At some point, being the last beacon of light struggling against the encroaching darkness becomes tiresome. You're playing a character with seemingly untold power in the game world who often can't do what he most wants to do with those abilities because of the in-game repercussions, or the assumption that a good guy just wouldn't do that. That's fine if you're in the right mindset, but sometimes a villains game is just the thing players need - you take the training wheels off and see what they can do without a moral straitjacket confining their abilities.

2. Villainous PCs who do nothing but loot, rape, and murder get old fast.

We learned this lesson in our game when the (infamous in some circles) anti-paladin Edgar became too much for his comrades to handle. Edgar, the epitome of Chaotic Evil, started conflict everywhere they went - he mercilessly slaughtered people who insulted him with total disregard for local customs and laws, he made powerful enemies among angelic races for committing unspeakable acts against their celestial brethren, and his master, Osric, double-crossed the party, setting them up for failure as a means of inciting conflict among Osric's own peers.

The other villains, being a more subtle and insidious sort of evil, got tired of it. And once it became clear that Edgar was a liability, they murdered him. And I don't just mean they faced him down and took him out in a fair fight. I mean they waited for him to dispatch his own master, and then launched a calculated strike utilizing every bit of firepower they had at their disposal - including 44 fire mephits simultaneously targeting the anti-paladin with scorching rays to make damn sure the bastard went down and stayed down.

(Of course, Edgar was also a very effective and terrifying villain. My campaign world might well be more interesting with him than without him... and that should definitely worry my players.)

3. Non-standard monster races used as PC races can be troublesome for a GM.

This problem became particularly evident with regard to two particular characters: the devil Al'galon, and the umbral dragon Grigorovax (Edgar's replacement). Creatures with fast healing and high resistance levels are great as opponents in a campaign, because your PCs suddenly find their options limited and have to think outside the box to overcome the challenge. But being on the other side of that equation got frustrating really quickly for me, because if I didn't do enough damage to drop the devil, he would always spring back ready for the next fight in mere minutes (and sometimes not even that long). Similarly, having a dragon PC in the party was a challenge for me as a GM, because now one of my players had control of a creature type that I usually only pulled out as a capstone encounter - a creature that dealt tons of damage with a single breath weapon and could attack up to 6 times a round when locked into melee. I'm thankful for the experience, though, because it taught me a lot about how pulling in non-standard elements changes the power dynamic in an OGL game; simply put, Challenge Rating becomes meaningless when the limits on what players can run are so loosely restricted.

It's also worth mentioning that the character that consistently gave me the most problems in terms of providing sufficient challenges was the one that was a fairly standard build: the evil elf sorcerer, Vid Iza'thir. While Vid did eventually become a lich by the end of the game, he wasn't much more formidable as an undead than he was as a mortal. How does one deal with an opponent that cannot be seen, and uses spell effects that cannot be countered by most virtuous creatures? Many a time my carefully-crafted heroic NPCs found themselves melting into oblivion in the bottom of one of Vid's acid pits, and the player who ran him taught me much about patience, if I learned nothing else.

4. Letting players sculpt the bad guys and the campaign world makes them feel like they're part of the bigger picture.

This point just can't be overstated. By the end of this campaign, I had about four villains added into my homebrew world's canon that will almost certainly return to terrorize heroic PCs in the future. I am looking forward to the delicious day when I face down their next batch of "good" characters with one of the colossal horrors they themselves built. I can't decide which one to use first!

It goes deeper than that, though. I had a lot of vague and undefined things happening in my campaign world that still didn't have explanations or backstories. The best example of this is the necropolitan nation of Shadia, a large area of the world that is dominated by liches, vampires, and necromancers. In heroic campaigns, Shadia didn't need an explanation; it was just there to serve as a foil for the good guys and a source of trouble. No one ever went there, or cared about the country's political structure - hell, I didn't even know who led the damn place beyond a few token NPCs I had conceptualized. But having PCs working and living in Shadia, delving into its machinations, and in one notable instance becoming major power players in the political body of the necropolis all forced me to think about why this country was there. Why hadn't the "good" nations long ago stormed into Shadia and brought it to its knees? What were the goals of its leaders? How did day to day business get conducted, especially when a good third of your population can't walk in daylight without bursting into flames?

My players helped me answer these questions (along with some advice from guys like Andy Miller and Nathan Walter, who gave me some great ideas during a coffee-fueled brainstorming session at It's a Grind). In playing the game, they brought my world to life. They're invested in it - and that makes me more likely to want to come back and see what happens in it during the next campaign.

5. Sometimes the bad guys are also heroes in their own way.

Edgar was (is?) beyond redemption, and the evil dwarf pirate captain Caballo Graybeard (a PC who didn't get any screen time in my previous posts here) is a selfish, blackhearted mook - but the same might not be said of all the villain PCs. The lich Vid Iza'thir is ruthless, to be sure, but compared to the people he dispatched to get to the top of the political heap in Shadia, he's a warm fluffy kitten. Vid is more interested in maintaining the status quo and arranging events to his own benefit than any harebrained Foozle-type plan to slaughter the world. The devil Al'galon might want to enslave your soul for all eternity, but like Vid, he realizes that if the world ends, so too does his ready supply of contractually-bound victims that his next promotion depends on. Grigori was pretty likable for a dragon borne of pure negative energy, and his leadership of the nightwyrms of Shadia has made the nation a more formidable military power and changed the power dynamic among the Overlords that run the country - perhaps for the better, in terms of the greater good of Arinia's common citizens. The nightwyrms are now an autonomous unit, not subject to the whims and vagaries of the former Overlord who once dominated (and whom Vid and Grigori made quick work of in an aerial duel).

There was also a villainous NPC I conceptualized for this game that became very near and dear to my heart by the end of it all: Vid's master (mistress?), the mysterious transgender lich Nezariel. Originally, Nezariel sprang forth from desperation - I needed to introduce a new character who would act as a mentor to the PCs and deliver much-needed exposition. Pressed for time, I hijacked the voice and visual style of Tim Curry's Dr. Frank N. Furter (a character that, I hope, needs no further introduction in these circles). Nezariel was meant to be a gag, a one-note joke that would soon become less important as time went on.

And then something weird happened: Nezariel started growing on me. I started thinking more and more about what this person was like as a mortal, and why she (yes, I began to think of Nezariel as a woman even though she was born a biological male) would help Vid ascend to the status of Overlord. I fell in love with the character, at the risk of opening up myself to many, many jokes, and in doing so I wove a tragic tale of lost love and mourned innocence into my game world. Nezariel's tale, as it turned out, had a happy ending - with Vid's help, she regained her mortality and set out to live out her life with the man she most loved, and in exchange for Vid's assistance, she gave the newly risen lich the knowledge needed to cement his power base as the youngest - but most influential - of the Shadian Overlords.

Running this game didn't just allow me to tell my players a good story - it let them tell one back to me, and they inspired me to plumb my own creativity for greater, more fulfilling characterizations. For that, I am truly grateful. I had a blast.

But damn, it was a lot of hard work. Running this game felt like conducting a statistical cold war on a bi-weekly basis - and as a result, I don't intend to do another villains game any time soon unless my players are running low-level goblins. I guess, in the end, there truly is such a thing as rest for the wicked.