Sunday, October 16, 2011

On Zalekios Gromar, and the Undervaluation of Evil Campaigns

Everybody who plays RPGs is familiar with the harm that religious zealotry can cause. Thankfully, the general populace's opinion or role playing has largely shifted from "satanic" to "dorky" in recent years. But as a person who had to hide his Player's Handbook from his parents as a teenager, no one is more aware than I that this prejudice still exists. There are people, a lot of people, convinced that role playing games are the first step on the road to virgin sacrifice.

I suppose they've almost got it right. But it's not "virgin sacrifice," it's just "virginity," amirite?

Taking that into consideration, it's only prudent that Dungeons and Dragons has spent a long time avoiding the subject of evil PCs. Player Characters are good almost by definition, and the evil alignments only exist as labels for NPCs. There are other games which are not quite so shy about evil, such as World of Darkness, but they have that luxury only because most people are unaware that there are pen and paper rpgs other than Dungeons and Dragons.

Even the excellent Dungeons and Dragons 3.0 book "The Book of Vile Darkness," which was labeled with a sticker marking it as containing mature content, skirts the issue of evil PCs. It presents itself solely as a tool for GMs, to help them create truly vile villains for the truly heroic heroes of their gaming group. Though, to give credit where credit is due, I still think publishing the book was a courageous move on the part of Wizards of the Coast, and I applaud them for that--even if they did avoid a few issues I would have liked to see addressed. Publishing a book which covers topics as controversial as cannibalism, slavery, and incest had the potential to generate a lot of bad press. I like that Wizards of the Coast had enough respect for their product, and for their customers, to risk that.

Yet still, the very concept of evil PCs is relegated to a three page appendix in a 191 page book. Which saddens me, because I love evil PCs.

Who hasn't imagined what it would be like to break the rules? To take what you want, eliminate those who frustrate you, or even force the world to march to the beat of your own drum? It's only natural to think about these types of things. Musing about how nice it would be to punch a cop in the face while he's giving you a speeding ticket does not make you a bad person. It just makes you a person. If anything, it's a coping mechanism to deal with the sense of powerlessness being at a cop's mercy can cause.

There is nothing wrong with playing the bad guy in a pen and paper role playing game. Nothing wrong with capturing damsels (male or female) rather than saving them. Nothing wrong with stealing the quest reward rather then earning it. Nothing wrong with constructing a fortress of evil, rather than raiding one. Of course, it's important that everyone at the table be comfortable with the content of the game. Topics like rape, slavery, or racism should be verboten in groups where they would make others at the table significantly uncomfortable. However, villains exist in any D&D game, so any table should already have an acceptable level of villainy established.

Allow me to introduce you to Zalekios Gromar.

Zalekios is a level 12 gestalt character, with four levels of Hexblade, ten levels of rogue, and ten levels of warlock. He is the most chaotic evil motherfucker in the room, and that's true even if he's in the same room as Orcus. He's committed every depraved deed you can think of from conceiving a child with the same succubus which gave birth to him, to using that child's bones to fashion a sword. He is a murderer, a slaver, a cannibal, and a rapist. He is a highly intelligent sociopath with a penchant for taking unnecessary risks just to further pain those who cross his path.

He's been my player character for half a decade now.

I was in Highschool when I first rolled up his stats. I only had one friend who shared my interest in D&D at the time, and as the more experienced player he did all the GMing. Sometimes his girlfriend would join the party, but most often it was just him and I. After playing several of the traditional hero types (like Tarin the Half-Elf rogue, or Xunil'Nerek Sharpedge the Illumian Fighter), I got it into my head that I would very much like to play an evil character. I had read about the Vasharan race in the Book of Vile Darkness--an entire species of pure sociopaths intent on killing the gods themselves--and I wanted in.

I won't bore you with the details of a campaign which has lasted five years or longer. To be honest, a summary wouldn't sound all that different from the summary of a normal D&D game. I fought an ancient civilization of phase-shifted trolls, infiltrated a magic college, explored a castle which sank beneath a lake in ages past, foiled a plot to trick two nations into going to war with one another, killed a dragon, and established a stronghold. Zalekios has even been taken through at least one published adventure (the Standing Stone) without completely breaking it. The only thing which really changes is an evil game is the motivation and the methodology.

Allow me to use a recent game as an example. For reasons unknown, the plane of fire intersected with the prime material plane. A rift was torn between the two dimensions, and now a large area of land which was once peaceful planes is a flaming hellscape. I don't know yet how it happened, but when it did happen it burned down my secret apartments within the city. So, thus enraged, I set out to see what was up, and what I found was a tower filled with fire-breathing goblins.

Now, Zalekios had decided recently that he wanted to acquire some minions. Conquest was starting to sound good to him in his old age, and subduing a tribe of goblins seemed like a good first step. So what did Zalekios do? He kicked in the tower's doors, melted the faces of the goblins which got in his way as he ascended to the top of the tower, and confronted the goblin king. Zalekios waited until a large number of the goblins had rushed to their king's aid before cutting the king's head off, picking it up, and taking a bite out of it as though it were an apple.

I then stood up at the table, and (blatantly ripping off a game I've never played) shouted "I am the blood god! Bring blood to the blood god! Brings skulls for his skull throne!"

This serves as an excellent example of how an evil game can function. Allow the player's to revel in their bloodlust. Give them motivations like rage and vengeance to get them started on their adventures, and allow them to further their own evil schemes within the context of the greater storyline. The GM which runs Zalekios' game does a good job of this, even if he does constantly complain about how difficult Zalekios is to plan for. I've promised him my next character in ones of his games will be a paladin named Kronus Mountainheart to make up for it.

Despite spending five years inside the head of an imaginary sociopath, sometimes to the point of excitedly shouting his evil proclamations at the table, I think I've become a better person rather than a worse one. It's difficult to point to moments in time and identify them as when you became 'more ethical.' However, it's only since I started playing Zalekios that I came to acknowledge and confront the fact that I carry a lot male/white/heterosexual/cisgendered privilege. I would call that an ethical step forward.

In closing, I'd like to offer a lists of "evil campaigns" which I've come up with. I've actually got a notebook filled with potential plots for future campaigns which I'd like to either run or play in someday. Evil ones probably make up about 25% of those. (Note that all of these below are for D&D/Pathfinder unless otherwise noted)

Band of Thieves The PCs would all play the role of thieves, and each adventure would be focused on stealing some item or items. At low levels they might simply be knocking over taverns or shops for money, but they could eventually build up to stealing great pieces of artwork or even the crown jewels.

Band of Assassins Much like the band of thieves idea, but rather than the object being the theft of items, the adventures would focus on killing people. At first perhaps they're merely contracted by a jealous wife eager to have her cheating husband out of the picture. However, as their levels rise they could find themselves in the middle of political intrigue, or plots to usurp the throne.

Urban Vampires There are games specifically designed for the players to be vampires, but I would very much like to try it in Pathfinder. Vampires have such a unique blend of limitations: inability to go into sunlight, inability to cross running water, inability to enter buildings without an invitation, etcetera. I would love to throw all those restrictions at players, and watch them try to survive and flourish in a town. Particularly one in a setting where everybody knows monsters exist, and there are many out there eager to fight them.

Slavers Touchy as the subject may be, slavery is a reality in many D&D style games. And where there's slavery, there is the slave catcher. Someone who needs to find people which can be taken without being missed--or who needs to be able to fight off those who miss them. Adventure variety could come from certain kinds of slaves being needed (such as ogre slaves for a large construction project) or re-capturing a specific slave which has escaped.

Pawns on the Overlord's Chess Board I actually did start running a campaign based on this idea once. The PC's boss is Dark Lord Evilguy, and he needs them to further his goals so that he might achieve the world conquest he's so long desired. What's great about this is that it's just as open-ended as a standard campaign. While good heroes fight goblins to save small villages, these PCs would fight the small villages and tell the local goblin tribe to start sending tribute to Mount Scaryhorror.

BBEG* in training The PCs start at level 1. Their only task: to conquer the world. They could choose any method they find preferable. Perhaps they'll construct an elaborate plan which is undetectable by the forces of good until its too late. Or, perhaps, they'll immediately set out to conquer one small village at a time.

Imperial Navy This is for the old West End Games D6 Star Wars game. I don't have much of a plan for it really, but I would really love it if all of my PCs were members of the Imperial Navy. TIE fighters, Star Destroyers, and greasing rebel scum. That's the life!

There are more, but I think that will do for now. Thanks for reading.

*(You may see this on the blog from time to time. It means Big Bad Evil/End Guy)


  1. If you are willing to step out of the OSR world, some of the ideas for evil games you listed are the core concepts for other systems: Band of Thieves/Assassins - Shadowrun; Urban Vampires - White Wolf (old or new WoD); Slavers - Rifts or Earth Dawn; Pawns - pretty much any of the old WoD games; BBEG - Hackmaster (old school edition).


  2. @Pragueale I'm actually not in the OSR world. I'm only just now reading D&D 1e for the first time, and before that the oldest game I'd played was Star Wars D6.

    I have not played any of those games, and several of them sound fun. Particularly BBEG-Hackmaster, I think I'll be googling that in a moment.

    But I think there's a real value in exploring the different possibilities within a given rule set. After dozens of campaigns playing good (or somewhat good) guys in D&D, playing an evil character in D&D will be different than playing one in a completely new system.

    Being evil in any of the games you mentioned will be a new experience which comes along with an array of new rules and procedures for gameplay.

    Whereas being evil in D&D feels like you're breaking the rules, which everybody likes to do.


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