This is a sort-of sequel to the previous post on how to have an evil party, and very much builds on notions I discuss there. At the very least, the things I’m going to discuss here relate to how I have built the world for the campaign I am running, and it has a party like the one discussed in that post. You can find said post here.
First of All, A Disclaimer
I love moral ambiguity. I love people who do bad things for good reasons. I love it on the smallest scale, and on the largest. I love the thief that stole bread to feed his family, and I love the totalitarian king who genuinely believes conformity is the only way to ensure total safety. My world is filled with humans, and by that I mean realistic flawed people and not the DnD race.
My players just finished up a side-arc that had them in a ‘western pastiche’ area called The Shine, and one of them said to me ‘My character is Neutral Evil, and I just left feeling like the good guy.’ This is a character who not three sessions earlier smothered a teenage girl to death because she might turn in to a hag and told the parents she died while being rescued from said hags.
That really got me thinking. He probably felt like the good guy because The Shine was built on a mining boom, but the boom ended and those left behind can’t accumulate enough wealth to leave. Everyone is desperate, and that desperation creates the sort of place that propagates the worst sorts of people. First you get folks who are willing to take advantage of others’ desperation to get ahead so maybe they can get out of that miserable place, but they’re only doing that because they’re desperate themselves. So then you get folk who don’t want to be taken advantage of. These folk are guarded, selfish, rude. They’re too slow to trust, and that makes them impossible to help. It’s impossible to go to a place like that as an adventurer and feel like a hero, because even the people you’re helping genuinely don’t trust you. So why bother helping them at all?
It’s a classic Western trope really, and boy do I love classic Westerns (I made a DnD pastiche for a reason, there really isn’t enough Fantasy-Western media out there!).
Not Being Good
Heroes help in these situations because it’s the Right Thing To Do(tm). Non-heroic characters? Well, they do it because they’re there for some other goal. In the case of my party, it was to track down an assassin-for-hire and kill them (meaning, in effect, the party were assassins-for-hire themselves). So why did this character feel like a “good guy”? Because, in his mind, his cause was at least justified (‘a good man was the victim of an attempted murder! I’m getting rightful vengeance!’). Unbeknownst to him, that man is just as morally mixed as the very people in The Shine who the party currently feel so superior to.
The party are evil, and the players know it on the character sheet, but now for the first time they will realise they are just as bad as the people they think they are better than. The players aren’t just saying they’re evil, they’re actually being evil and they’re not even realising it.
The Evil World
So how does this all apply to your campaign? It’s simple, build a morally grey world for your morally grey party. Let them ride the line of acceptable, then put them somewhere in the world that seems even worse than they are. Send them to the town so ravaged by plague that the only remaining locals are terrified of outsiders and suspicious to the point of paranoia. The evil characters will feel superior by comparison. Then, pull the rug out from underneath them. Have the same plague ravage the party, and lead them to believe one party member is a carrier that’s hiding it. Watch that same paranoia they so decried spread through them all like wildfire. Then suddenly they’ll realise what they’ve done.
Even when players roll up an evil character and stick them in to an evil party, half the time they don’t really feel evil, at least not as a player. They’ll do things like murder without a second thought, set fire to villages just to flush out a criminal gang, and so on. But they’ll do it in a detached way. They’re just roleplaying being evil. They’re not really thinking so bloody-mindedly. But if you put them through the morally grey world, let them feel superior, then show them they’re not, then for the first time you’ll get your players being evil, not just their characters.
Now, this isn’t all meant as some IRL moral trap so you can play god with your player’s emotions, it’s simply a guide for one possible way to deepen the immersion of an ‘evil campaign’.
Or maybe by deploying this technique you’re just as manipulative as the ‘evil’ NPCs in your world. After all, you created them…