Evil D&D Campaigns: You Should Run One & How to Get Started
Updated: Feb 13, 2019
There are plenty of good reasons that Dungeon Masters (we call them Quest Masters) and players most often shy away from running or playing in evil campaigns:
The players want to be heroes.
It’s easier for Quest Masters to find good stories on which they can base their adventures.
Everyone wants to avoid the inappropriate excesses—the really raw and gruesome stuff—that they may worry will crop up if you indulge the evil impulses.
But with a few solid ground rules—like making sure there’s no room for racism, misogyny or sexual violence of any kind—you might find that an evil campaign can be a tremendously good experience.
What Evil Has to Offer
Running or playing in an evil campaign has a lot to offer that you won’t necessarily find in a more good-aligned campaign—like one-third of the game’s available alignments and a whole bunch of races, spells, and abilities that might not otherwise make sense. And that’s just the obvious stuff.
After you get past the open invitation to play as a lich and delve deep into all the game’s Necromancy spells, you’ll find that the biggest difference between the evil campaign and the standard heroic campaign is in how they treat the player characters.
Even when you’re busy battling dragons and rewriting history with Wish spells, your heroic characters tend to take their direction from other parties. Someone needs them to do something—and maybe offers some reward—and the heroes go on their merry way.
Evil characters, however, don’t give two figs for the poor baker and the problem in which his son has landed. They might agree to locate the missing son if the reward is worth their time, but they might also abandon the quest in favor of some more lucrative pursuit. They might even decide to join the cult the son had entered when they find him.
Such possibilities can make the evil campaign a real challenge for the Quest Master, but if you are the Quest Master, the evil campaign is a fantastic test of your storytelling abilities.
How good is your hook? Are you reading your characters’ motives correctly? How fleshed out is your world? Is it realized and flexible enough to adjust to your players' whims? If you can run an evil campaign, you can run anything!
That said, here are three great ways you and your players might get started down the path toward evil.
1. The Change of Loyalty
Perhaps your ongoing campaign has been tilting toward evil already, and all it would take is a good push—or some really classic temptation. A devil’s bargain, perhaps. Or some jerk of self-righteous hero who pushes the characters just that bit too far at the wrong time and gets them to snap.
Suddenly, the once-heroes find themselves on the wrong side of the law. They’re cut off from their former allies, or they need to deal with them more carefully than before. They’re separated from the good gods they had worshiped, but they’re more powerful than ever.
By turning your campaign sharply from good to evil, you bring the contrast between the two styles into stark focus. And if this switch also results in a change of loyalties, all the better!
Just imagine how incredible it could be to run or play in a campaign in which the heroes are trying to help the king thwart the evil warlord that has been ransacking outlying villages and pressing ever closer toward the capital.
As the heroes run mission after mission for the king, they become aware of the nation’s corruption and, after a tense social encounter with the warlord, they switch sides. Now the characters may still think of themselves as heroes, but they’re fighting for freedom alongside orcs, trolls, giants, lizardfolk, and other monstrous races.
2. The One-Off
Given how difficult it can be for the Quest Master to anticipate the players’ actions in an evil campaign, you might want to run your evil campaign as a one-off.
This doesn’t have to be a single session or even a single adventure, but it does have to be limited in its scope. Players shouldn’t get too heavily invested in their characters’ long-term plans. They should focus on what their characters want right now.
One of the best ways to establish the scope is to start with the expectation that all the characters are going to die (or be captured), and the question is primarily how long they can survive.
Perhaps you start your adventure in the throne room—immediately after the characters have assassinated the king. Now everyone in the nation wants the characters dead, and they need to try to get away.
If you ran such an adventure as a heroic campaign, you’d feel cheated. A key part of the hero’s journey is that you are ultimately successful. But as villains, you and your friends feel much less regret that your characters are punished for their actions.
3. The Alternate Reality
The fact that your characters are evil doesn’t mean that they work for themselves. Sure, it likely means they look out for themselves above all others, but they might do that as part of some hierarchical organization led by an even greater evil.
Maybe they’re part of a dragon cult that worships the very real red dragon at its head or a secret society led by a lich. Or they could potentially be an elite band of orc adventurers in the orc warlord’s army. It doesn’t really matter too much who the PCs work for, so long as they work for someone; this gives us the same sort of direction that we’d expect from a heroic campaign—and it allows us to build carefully and skillfully toward one of the greatest challenges in fantasy roleplaying… cleverly bringing two groups of player characters into conflict with each other.
With the same Quest Master and the same group of players, you can run two campaigns in which the players have their characters working against each other.
If the Quest Master executes the business skillfully enough, the players won’t necessarily see what’s coming until they’re fully committed to both sets of characters and they can feel the inertia in their guts as they realize that both parties are headed toward a face-to-face confrontation.
The ensuing encounter will be profoundly lethal. Provided the good and evil characters are at the same level when they meet each other, you’ll never find a more finely balanced fight. And that invariably translates to dead characters. But everyone will be invested in both sides, so the outcome is exciting no matter which side (if any) comes out ahead.
Unleash Your Inner Orc
The fact that the evil campaign runs differently than a heroic campaign makes it an unusual experience—and one that can be unusually rewarding.
In addition to the different approach it offers to role-playing, the evil campaign can be a great place to toy around with different races, classes, feats, and spells. Try Necromancy. Play the assassin. Unleash your inner orc!
You can take the evil campaign seriously, but you don’t have to. And that’s one of the greatest things about it; you want to be clear about your expectations before you enter the campaign, and you can set those expectations in whatever way best encourages you to try new things and experiences you might enjoy!
How did you start your last evil campaign? Let us know in the comments below!