6/666 Tips For GMing An Evil Group
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #159
By Mark L. Chance
- Game Mastering Evil Characters
- Reader Tips of the Week
I have some experience GMing for an evil group. I ran a high-level 2nd edition AD&D game for evil warlord characters a few years ago. I’ve also run a handful of super-villain-oriented games in systems such as DC Heroes and Marvel Super Heroes.
When I saw the request for 666 Tips For GMing An Evil Group, I thought it’d be fun to think back on those campaigns to see what sorts of things they had in common. And so, here are a few of the requested tips. Six down; six- hundred-sixty to go!
Game Mastering Evil Characters
Before launching a campaign designed for an evil group of PCs, insist on receiving a written character background from each player. This background need not be overly detailed, but it should include basics such as a brief description of childhood or adolescence, how the character chose the life he or she lives, mention of any friends or enemies made, and some sort of past evil activity.
Each character’s background is grist for the idea mill. You, the GM, should pick apart each background for possible future plot complications. Remember, there is no need to treat a character’s background as canon. You have every right to modify (with or without the player’s knowledge) or even reject elements of a background. No one remembers all details of their past, or even has full knowledge of all that has transpired around them.
For example, suppose a character’s background says that the character worked as an assassin for a time before having to flee the kingdom after murdering the heir-apparent for an evil uncle. Is the heir-apparent really dead, or did the character assassinate an impersonator? Other than the evil uncle, who knows of the character’s involvement? How comfortable is the evil uncle with the idea that his nephew’s murderer is still at large? Various answers to all of these questions yield ideas for future campaign events.
Character goals are a good thing for any sort of campaign, but are most important for GMing an evil group. An evil character with no goals is not much good. Every character should have two or three short-term goals and one or two long-term goals. Like backgrounds, you should have these goals in hand in order to shape the direction of the campaign. Basically, these goals form the backbone of an evil campaign. With goals in hand, you can flesh out scenarios that put the players in a proactive stance.
For example, one evil character’s short term goals include forming a new gang, carving out a section of inner city turf, and entering a partnership with the city’s primary crime family. The character’s long term goal is to garner enough money, influence, and power to eventually take the city’s primary crime family out of the picture entirely, thus emerging as the new reigning force in organized crime.
There is a caveat. As with background, you have the right to modify or even reject goals that are not workable. Designing a campaign around character goals requires more work at the front end of events than the typical here-is-your-mission- du-jour style of campaign. Consider the example above. Before the character could recruit gang members, you would need to have an idea about what sorts of prospects there are in the area.
Evil Need Not Be Graphic
The imagination is more than capable of filling in the gory details. In book and film, a minimalist approach to graphic subject matter is almost always more effective than depicting all the gruesome details. This is a point that is often missed in narrative and cinema today, but was the rule of thumb just a few decades ago.For example, compare the recent motion picture The Ring with Jason X. Both movies will end up in the same section at Blockbuster because they’re both supposedly of the same genre.
Which of the two movies is actually suspenseful if not frightening? Certainly not Jason X, which goes out of its way to be both shocking and cartoonish, and fails at both. The Ring, on the other hand, includes little in the way of graphic violence or gory images, and yet I heard grown men shriek in the theater during some of the scenes. Why? Because The Ring does not push the horror in the viewers’ faces, but rather leads them circuitously toward the fear and then only flashes the images for an instant.
The Ring shocks the senses and seduces the imagination by leaving out most of the violence and only, ever so briefly, showing the consequences. Jason X attempts to shock sensibilities and leaves nothing to the imagination.
Despite what many auteurs claim, there are boundaries of good taste, even if opinions about where exactly those boundaries are vary from person to person. The purpose of a game is to entertain, not offend. Do not feel obligated to include material or explore subject matter that you find offensive. Do not force material or subject matter that one or more of your players may find offensive. If you do not know your players well, survey them before starting the evil campaign in order to determine what sorts of topics are taboo for your players.
By way of personal experience, in one super-villain campaign I was running via email, I had a prospective player approach me with his idea for a dyed-in-the-wool Nazi, a former death camp guard turned white supremacist icon. I vetoed the entire concept, and not only because of the Jewish player in the group. I explained my objections to the character concept, and the player understood and submitted a different concept.
A Watched Back Is Harder To Stab
If all of the characters are evil, the characters have good reason not to trust each other. Encourage the players to take a page from U.S. nuclear policy and get M.A.D.Mutually assured destruction emphasizes the precarious nature of doing business with evil people but also provides a rationale that keeps any one character from unilaterally deciding to eliminate allies in order to increase his or her share of the pie.
If cucumber-cool hitman Icepick Ike knows that three of his partners-in-crime will whack him gangland style for not keeping it professional, Ike is much less likely to try to stab any of his cohorts in the back (figuratively or otherwise).
Another technique that can keep a campaign from self- destructing (thus ruining all of your hard work turning backgrounds and goals into scenarios) is to have the evil characters in the service of an even more evil boss. Care must be taken with this approach, however. The focus of the campaign should be the characters, not a GM character.
Keep ‘Em Hungry
Evil is rooted in vice, and vice is never sated. A particular vice over-indulged leads to a person becoming jaded, but there is always another level of viciousness to sink to. The epitome of modern evil, the serial killer, provides the perfect example. A monster such as John Wayne Gacy does not – cannot – stop of his own accord. He is too passionate about killing, and that passion rules his life.During the course of an evil-oriented campaign, goals need to be reassessed and redefined.
There is always one more step to be taken, one more conquest, one last act to be performed. In a way, this means that an evil character never really achieves his or her goals. Even when a goal is attained, it is not enough. It is also entirely appropriate to send the characters in an out-of-control spiral of crime after crime in order to keep a hold on any goals reached. As Shakespeare’s Richard III noted, “But I am so far in blood that sin will pluck on sin.”
Actions And Their Consequences
Inevitably, it seems, all groups of evil character must eventually face failure, imprisonment, and/or death. This is because actions have consequences, and the consequences for evil actions tend to be of the permanent sort.An evil group is also outnumbered, progressively worse as the campaign progresses. With every crime committed, the evil group’s list of enemies grows larger. Not only are the White Hats gunning for the characters, but their Black Hat competitors are also a constant source of unease.
Keep a record of all NPCs the evil characters cross in any way throughout a campaign. Categorize these NPCs by levels of power and influence. Figure out what sort of payback would best satisfy each NPC. Then, a few enemies at a time, have the past come back to haunt the group. If the characters go too far too fast, and they find themselves overwhelmed by revenge-seekers, so be it. Sooner or later, the piper must be paid.
Reader Tips of the Week
In issue #157 I asked for some dungeon twist ideas and here are the ones I’ve received to date. Enjoy!
- This one had my players confused and hunting every inch of a room. In your usual, dank dungeon, they found one room that was nicely decorated, warm, and very livable. Who says every hermit likes living in the cold and dank?
- Another neat thing the PCs found once was a stone column in the middle of a wet, damp part of the cave. And they were subsequently bright enough to try to knock out one of the rocks that just happened to look like a big chunk of silver. Got a nasty surprise when this column was actually a well somewhere up in the castle and had a sudden flood on their hands to deal with.
- Extremely detailed stone statues. I had a party freaking out about a beautifully detailed piece of painted stone work for about 30 minutes.
- Try adding something impossible (physically speaking) like a beast that is too big to have used the door in a room large enough to allow it ample fighting room. Or a hint at which way to go that actually takes you the long way around when you could have gone straight through
Thanks to Brymear, Incubus, Sethor, and The Viper for these great twists.
Got any more dungeon twist ideas?
The Earth At Night – Modern RPG Resource
From Mark M.
A shot from high above – the world is truly spectacular at night.
- Look at North Korea vs. South Korea.
- Notice India’s amazing saturation of population sites.
- Check out the one tiny light in the middle of the Sahara.
- Hawaii seems awfully bright – could the more northern islands glow be caused by volcanos? What about the spots to the east of Madagascar?
- Be sure to play “Let’s Spot The Capital” in Spain and France.
- Check out the railway through northern Russia, running east-west.
Use Video Games For NPC Names
From Phil W.
Finding good NPC names on the fly can be rather slow on game play, and having created a number of NPCs on the spot, I’d know.
Anywho, I don’t know if this has been mentioned, but if any of you have played Baldur’s Gate, or a similar game, you cross quite a number of NPCs. What I did was look through the journal section and copied out all the NPC names of insignificant characters so that the players wouldn’t recognize them and think I took them from the game.
I wrote up a list of them and whenever I come across a nameless NPC I consult the list, pick one, and scratch it off.
Here’s my list of Baldur’s Gate NPCs:
Euric, Ghorak, Agnasia, Arkion, Nemphere, Ordulinian, Noralee, Kesheel, Kerrachus, Entillis, G’axir, Shaella, Elkart, Reginald, Firebead, Phlydia, Dreppin, Nessa, Hull, Reevor, Caola, Tiax, Ramazith, Kereph, Theodon, Jessup, Bendalis, Shistal, Brunos Rieltar, Kestor, Tuth, Piato, Tethtoril, Fuller, Marl, Kennair, Nethalin, Mirianne, Roe, Landrin, Bentley, Perdue, Oublek, Emmerson, Jessa, Gurke, Endor, Petric, Dun, Tremain, Fergus, Dra’tan, Thaldorn, Karan, Shistal, Ulraunt
The One-Two Punch
From Mr. Sharon F.
Everyone has their own pace of doing things. The world, however, is always changing regardless of the mood of the players and situation of the PCs. So, for example, instead of giving the players a moment’s rest after killing the beast, give them a surprise visit from a higher being whose plans were foiled by the gang.
When it’s raining and the battle looks grim, have the smart NPC throw some metal wire over the castle wall and electrocute the field of raging charmed men.
Every day in the real world I am surprised by many things and it keeps life interesting and forces me to grow as a person. I try to relay this sense of bewilderment, in proper measure, to my campaigns.
- Johnny Walker USA is walking down the street. His character needs to make a contact with Vennom, a villain- type who can extract info about the funds Johnny’s abducted wife holds in the united bank of I.B.M. Vennom turns out to be an autistic child with split personalities, some good, some bad. Now the warrior PC has to play babysitter or use his wits to find someone who can access the child’s talents, and guess what–he is not the only one that could use the child.
- Helen of Troy is a babe. We know it, she knows it. What you don’t know is she has a twin connected to her by birth, so that when he dies, she dies. A seer sends the players to kill the guy so that the city of Troy lives.Now, what the seer himself does not know is that the brother is a seer too and he hired a mage to kill and revive him so the spell is broken. The gods are miffed that some little man is meddling with their plans so they send their own envoy to put some sense into him.All those characters meet on their way to the twin brother’s house. The fun starts when Helen, remember her, turns into an undead monster after all the twists in her lifetime, causing Troy to burn…
- Miral the archer has received a wicked Christmas gift–a Remington 700 338 Lafua sniper rifle. Is she a time traveler or just very good with a drawing board? The league of extraordinary mercenaries (the PCs) are given their weight in gold and twice that amount upon their return if they come back with the “way of the gun”.On the way to the woods of Cosh-Maw, where the famous “boom stick” lives, Miral joins the gang for her amusement. She’s an immortal with too much time on her eight shiftshaping hands, and her father, Nick the Greek Thunderbolt, is miffed by such low conduct. He switches bodies and powers around in an attempt to rein Miral in.
- Twist a legend, like the Sword In The Stone, but only half-way. Yup, Arthur is a drunk and Merlin is a woman in drag who does noble weddings to get the next dose of Melange. However, Liuk, age fourteen, has found the sword when digging a hole for a new steam bath for dad. The realms of Magic and industry collide in The Saga of Liuk the Destroyer. Even good swords go bad…
- “Make it cash and make it now”. The healer holds the gaze of the stoic hero. “And am I going to be here all night, cause that’s extra.”The players in a hero type campaign are used to a certain frame of thought. Give it a wink now and then to resemble the richer tapestry of life. We all have good days and bad days. How about a bad decade. Ending tomorrow.
- “Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste.” So said the Rolling Stones. Do your players think they got game? Have them think again when confronted with Mr. Smooth Operator, Jin the writer/director of his own story, a man who pulls his own strings. But does he? Is he the king of his castle, lord of the manner? Great characters have chinks in their armor from time to time and it is unexpected for them to draw from different worlds: religion in a sci-fi game, low self esteem in a hero game, and so forth.
Idea For Bringing A PC Group Together
Your newsletters are always a superb aid to my life of tabletop roleplaying and see your one on bringing characters together has inspired me to tell you about a system I use to bring together a crew of 5 ordinary people (in my espionage styled d20 modern game).
It’s fairly simple. Have you ever heard of the “7 Steps To Kevin Bacon?”
Essentially, it is based upon character knowing people…but I’ll explain who the party is so it will work.
- Craig, a 15 year old high school dropout hacker.
- Diedrich, an illegal arms salesman.
- Leonard, a car salesman who is forced to live in his father’s shadow.
- Lance, former military officer and now a Washington Post photographer and an excellent wheel man.
- Fraunze, a German investigator.
Now, here is the trick. You link one character to another character through NPCs so that all the PCs come into contact with each other, get to know each other, and share the story together.
- Craig’s dad, a druggie, bought some drugs off a man that Diedrich turned in.
- One of Diedrich’s friends bought a car from Leonard.
- And Leonard sold a car to Lance who was, at one time, stationed in Germany and helped in an investigation with Fraunze.