The Power Of The Dark Side

From Mike Bourke

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0416

A Brief Word From Hannah

Stat Synergy vs. Roleplaying Follow-up

A while back, I asked if focus on stat optimization was a hindrance to roleplaying. I got a ton of great responses, with some new perspectives I hadn’t considered. Ideas ranged from stat-obsessed players roleplaying their PCs as being obsessed themselves, to min-maxed characters reflecting heroic archetypes.

One idea that really caught my eye was Ted Swalwell’s. He suggested the following:

“What I do is simply think about the character I’m creating, and figure out what interesting things I could add in, keeping in the theme of the character. What would the character do in his spare time, given his primary focus in life? Occasionally this results in me then adding one or two stats and skills, but if you spend a while to think about it, most of the time, you’ll already have the stats that help.”

His example was an elven sniper in ShadowRun, whose patience and nature skills lend themselves as well to growing Bonsai plants as to waiting in the bushes for targets. It’s an intriguing idea. I like it a lot, because it allows for character depth that fits the stats, without having to sacrifice any min-max-y goodness.

Better To Light One Candle

I picked up the 4e books a while ago, and I finally have the time and the group to run a campaign. It’s going to be post-apocalyptic, which requires changing some of the fluff in the core books, but my players are willing to roll with it. They’re a great group – less than 24 hours after sending them some campaign background, I have three character ideas in my inbox, plus one who player took the initiative to explain the apocalypse for me.

It will be my first try running a dark, gritty game. Usually, my campaigns involve absurdity demons and bad puns, as well as swashbuckling and skullduggery. My typical style can best be described as “chaotic shiny,” so “lonely dark” will definitely be a stretch.

Forget points of light – the entire world has been plunged into darkness, and the small village of Candle is the only civilization left, so far as anyone living there knows. The players will have to survive the harsh landscape, prove themselves, keep the village from being overrun, return civilization to the world, and if they have the time, figure out just what is going on around here, anyway.

I’m excited about the game. I have some new techniques I’m planning to try out, above and beyond just the change in tone. I have grids, I have minis, I have poker chips, and I am only a little bit afraid to use them.

Have any tips for running dark, gritty games? Send them my way. If I get enough interesting ones, I’ll try to compile them into an article.

[email protected]

The Power Of The Dark Side

There has been a hot debate raging in certain circles about the pros and cons of an evil campaign. Both sides have scored points against the other, but ultimately there has not been a victory, one way or the other.

The debate started when Knights Of The Dinner Table ran an article dissing the whole concept of evil campaigns in D&D. They claimed the game mechanics and concept were biased towards parties that cooperated with each other, and that such cooperation was inherently a “good” trait. A few issues later, they gave the other side a chance to air a rebuttal.

There are points both sides appear to have missed. Since I have recently commenced refereeing an evil campaign, I thought I would throw my two cents worth into the mix, along the way discussing exactly what you need to run an evil campaign.

So What Is An Evil Campaign, Anyway?

An evil campaign means one of two things:

  1. The PCs are evil
  2. Everyone is evil

Evil in this context means the strong take what they want without being troubled by moral niceties.

The difference between the two kinds of campaigns might seem not to be all that strong a distinction, but there is all the difference in the world.

If not everyone is evil, then the PCs will face opposition on moral grounds – NPCs who will behave the way heroic PCs would normally act. If the PCs are a reflection of a morally darker world, then they will face opposition only because they are treading on someone else’s toes, or because the PCs’ plans are getting in the way of someone else’s.

Alignments From An Evil Perspective

Too often, evil characters are played as though they were “greedy stupid” in alignment. In actuality, Chaotic Evil is a street gang, where the toughest rules; Lawful Evil plots and schemes – the more intelligent the character, the more Machiavellian and less trivial their plots and ambitions.

The big differences between the two types of evil campaign come in the definition of “good” alignments. In an all-evil campaign, these need to be redefined as altruism for the sake of rewards in some afterlife, or a rare mental or emotional defect. You might come up with a different interpretation. The point is that moral standards need to be carefully examined in such a campaign.

Nor should it be assumed that, simply because characters are evil, they are without honour or there are not acts that remain forbidden by society at large. The reasons might be different, but there are still lines society will not permit people to cross.

This aspect of campaign generation can often be taken for granted in non-evil campaigns, but in an evil campaign, it requires careful consideration, and explanation for the benefit of the players.

A Reason To Cooperate

One of the assumptions made by the article that was critical of the evil campaign concept was, because the PCs were out for themselves, there would be no party unity. As the rebuttal article pointed out, this is nonsense.

The PCs will work together because together they are stronger. Cooperation carries each member closer to his personal goal, be it wealth, power, knowledge, or something else.

What is more important is to ensure the PCs do not have a reason to not cooperate!

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This is a good practice in all campaigns, but it is essential in an evil campaign. Each character needs to make slow but steady progress towards fulfilling their goals.

While it will usually be impractical for all of them to advance in this way at the same time, the GM should take care each player in succession gets a step closer to satisfying their ambitions. In addition, the opposition should become more difficult each time, of course.

Avoiding Conflict

So long as the PCs can see they are better off (in the long run) assisting each other, and so long as their goals are not opposed, most sources of major conflict are avoided.

There should probably be some object lessons on cooperation handed out from time to time, either directly by observation or through folklore, to educate the foolish and remind the wise.

Other aspects of adventuring that can cause conflicts still remain, of course, and extra care should be taken concerning such things as agreements over the division of treasure.

Normal adventuring parties might be more willing to keep their agreements loose and patch over any cracks that might arise with diplomacy and generosity; evil parties should be inclined to detailed and formalized agreements.

A good character might gift another PC who was a little short of ready cash with what they need, on the belief that “what goes around, comes around.” An evil character is more likely to describe it as a loan, with specified interest rates and a repayment schedule, with penalties for defaulting.

These terms can be generous, if the PC making the loan believes the money will benefit him in the long run, or might make a loan shark blush, if he’s not so confident. Either way, the principle of enlightened self-interest still applies.

Preparing For Conflict

At the same time, these are evil characters, and from time to time there should be disagreements between them, on everything from the proper treatment of prisoners to the priority to be assigned particular quests.

These should be roleplayed the same way as any other PC interaction. The GM should be extra careful to ensure other players know when someone being critical is speaking in character and when they are not.

Some of the techniques espoused in other Roleplaying Tips columns can be extremely beneficial in this regard. The use of accents, or of some characteristic mannerism, can help separate the words of players from those of their PCs.

Backstabbing And Betrayal

That leaves only one source of inevitable conflict to beware of: some players simply can’t get their head around an evil world view, and will insist on taking events aimed at the characters personally.

To my way of thinking, the best solution to this problem is to give each player a Joker. Once, and once only, they can use the Joker to get their own way, forcing an action directed at their character by another PC to fail completely. This should only happen when they feel strongly enough about an issue they would walk out of the game, or make so much fuss it would ruin the game for everyone else.

It should be made clear to all concerned that using the Joker means the GM will immediately begin efforts to remove the unhappy player from the campaign. The Joker’s only value is to relieve the pressure that could ruin the game for everyone.

It’s amazing how often the simple knowledge that there is an escape clause – but using it will be considered a personal failure – is enough to calm things down. Each time a player takes affront over some PC action, they get to ask themselves whether or not they are sufficiently upset to walk away from the game.

Even asking the question instead of going up in flames on the spot can give that little bit of perspective that lets players swallow their pride and begin plotting an in-game revenge.

It also helps to make certain up-front that everyone knows this is an evil campaign, and backstabbing and betrayal of other party members can happen. Forewarned is forearmed.

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With the proper attitude and a smidgen of extra preparation, there is no reason why the occasional evil campaign can’t be a refreshing change of pace for all concerned.

It’s time to unleash your inner schemer.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have some GM advice you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Music Tracks To Set Mood

From Patrick, aka The Wayward Mind

I pre-ordered Age of Conan: Hyborean Adventures a while back and, unfortunately, the only thing that’s any good to me is the bonus CD with 25 tracks of music for the game. Some of it is perfect for what I wanted and some of it has a bit too much of an Eastern sound to it.

Regardless, when I choose music for gaming, I break it down and write out what I’ll use each track for. I also note anything specific to my campaign. For example, track 7 will be used when the quest to open the Feywild gateway to allow the Eladrin city of Dorthorian to ‘manifest’ is completed.

Because of the diversity of most game soundtracks (and movie soundtracks), it’s quite easy to pick suitable racial and situational themes. This makes it easy for me to switch music without stopping the game or randomly clicking while my players eye me or suddenly become too focused on the music to the exclusion of the game.

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More Music Suggestions

From Ed

Although a lot of suggestions for music have already been given, I have found another that deserves recognition. Nine Inch Nails released a CD set called ‘Ghosts,’ which has 36 all instrumental songs. Some are typical of NIN’s style, but there is also a lot of piano work and ambient sounds in it.

If you purchase the larger box set, you get the multi-tracks from the songs, so you can even isolate certain parts of each song. Even better, the first 9 are downloadable for free at, and others can be sampled from the site. I suggest at least giving it a listen, it’s amazing music. Thanks.

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Medieval Occupations

From Sébastien Boily

Here is a link for medieval occupations and other stuff I recently found:

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Improving Campaign Longevity

From Mike Bourke

Overall, I’d say the number one suggestion for campaign longevity is to have a large, sweeping, even epic, backstory that is going on in the course of the campaign and that will factor into various scenarios along the way. Of course, as the PCs grow in power and knowledge, they will slowly get dragged into that subplot and take it over, priming the campaign for a big finish.

I never create ‘static’ campaign backgrounds – there is always a central plotline going on. This is not only a source of subplots and scenarios, but it also helps keep the campaign world evolving and fresh.

In some campaigns I have 6 or 7 such stories going on simultaneously and intermingling. In such campaigns, I usually require the PCs to have their own plotlines and story arcs built into the character background as well, which are often then subsumed into the larger plotlines.

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Wolfgang Baur Interview

From Bradford Ferguson

Since Kobold Quarterly/Open Design has been a sponsor of yours, I thought you might be interested in an interview I did with Wolfgang Baur about Open Design, 4th Edition D&D, Kobold Quarterly, GenCon 2008, and War of the Burning Sky: