5e: How to Run an Evil Campaign

Written by Leonardo Andrade

Leonardo is a writer/narrative designer. He spends most of his time crafting stories or immersed in them. Currently, he partakes in several D&D 5E campaigns and likes messing around with other systems such as Heart, Spire and Rats in The Walls. Here's his portfolio.

Meanwhile, in an evil D&D campaign: The party has forged papers to prove that a merchant they have blackmailed is the heir of a house beside where the city council big-wigs gather in secret to play cards every week. The party then poisons the elderly homeowner and moves in, immediately starting work on a secret door to the other house. They plan to use it to bust into the card game unannounced and kill the elusive Baron Osmund. Most of the party is in it for money, but, for the fighter, this is about revenge

The key to running a great evil campaign is knowing that—at its core—it is still about creating a shared, fun experience. This means teamwork, respect, player agency, and flexible DMing. The campaign must be player-directed for the evil to mean anything unless you’re going for cartoon evil.

Evil Player Characters (PCs) and evil campaigns are a bit of a touchy, polarizing topic in the D&D community. Plenty of horror stories to go around about people being absolute jerks and justifying it with their evil alignment: “It’s what my character would do”.

I, and Matt Colville, for that matter, believe that this is about some people being problem players and not about evil characters (Here’s our article on how to deal with them). 

Jerks will be jerks even when playing Jack Goodman, lawful good paladin of Pelor. And people who are not jerks can play a serial killer in a generally good party without detracting from anyone else’s fun.

There is much to discuss from both the DM and player sides of this. We’ll break it all down in this article, starting with a big question.

What Counts as Evil?

We have to get the whole alignment thing out of the way to tackle this properly. In standard D&D cosmology, Good/Evil and Order/Chaos are metaphysical forces that shape the cosmos as well as stuff that people do. So there are such things as innate good, evil, and neutrality in D&D creatures.

PCs are generally not such creatures: they possess free will to choose their path. Even the alignment suggestions in race descriptions (based on cultural stereotypes) have grown outmoded by now. 

It is much more useful to consider what the values and agendas of an evil PC are and how far they are willing to go for them.

You can have two different characters with entirely selfish motivations and only have one of them be evil, which is made clear by how one may have no qualms harming innocent people to get their way, whereas the other one tries to finesse his way around needless violence and will generally reserve his blade for people who are clearly willing to use violence on him.

On that note, neutral—even good—characters might end up working with a bad crowd out of desperation or because some circumstance is forcing them to do it.

Conversely, you can have a character do terrible things in the absolute certainty that their awful deeds will generate a net-positive result down the line in what they consider a selfless act. In other words: the ends justify the means

This blurs the line quite a bit because ignoring how alignment is baked into D&D leaves you with something closer to real-world morals, which are grayer and more complicated

Brutal pragmatism in service of a perceived noble cause (family, ethnic group, country, god) makes for compelling bad guys.

This brings us to my opinion that alignment—as anything other than a jumping-off point to bonds, ideals, and flaws—is a legacy feature we’d all do well to throw out. More on that here.

As I put it in the article on alignment, a smarter way to think about this is: “evil is about disregard for people’s wellbeing. Maybe you hurt whoever stands between you and what you want. Maybe hurting people is what you want.” 

To which I add: if you want to play a character whose goal is causing pain and death, you must work harder than most players to make them interesting. Think Hannibal Lecter, not Evilman McBastard.

Even a character built from a stereotype must be more than just that. And if you’re going for a cartoon villain vibe, they need to have an actual personality and goals, too. Take over the world, conquer your daddy issues with ultraviolence, etc. 

Finally, evil doesn’t mean unrestricted cruelty. Even evil people have values and lines they would rather not cross. Evil people can also be perfectly decent to their in-group while unleashing hell on everybody else. Just look into the daily news or history books.


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Making Evil Safe for Everyone at The Table

Different people are comfortable with different degrees and types of evil acts in their games. This is where session 0s are essential, and you can check out our article here.

A whole gaming group might be fine with doing over-the-top ridiculous evil like ordering that prisoners be used as catapult projectiles, but absolutely not down to cooperate with slavers. It crosses the “too real” threshold, making it hard to keep a healthy emotional distance from it. 

Then there’s each players’ particular assortment of triggers, traumas, and so on to contend with. 

  • What flavor of evil is the campaign about?
    • Self-serving nobility in a succession crisis? Thieves’ guild with a finger in every awful pie in town? Mercenaries who work for the highest bidder? Doomsday cults?
  • What is off-limits, and what should be left vague? 
    • Sex, animal cruelty, child death, etc.
  • How does the group stand on Player vs. Player (PvP) action and backstabbery?

For the back row, I’ll restate: the group should talk about all of this in a session zero before play even starts.

A solid session zero is a must for any TTRPG endeavor, but especially so when exploring darker topics. I can’t stress this enough. 

Consider this article to be required reading. You can learn all about the social contract, safety tools, and other productive session zero topics there.

Why Play Evil Campaigns

Some folks are quick to make negative assumptions about people for wanting to play an evil character or DM for an evil party. Probably a symptom of too many jerks using evil characters as an outlet to let their id run wild at the expense of everyone else. 

These folks still sound like a bunch of old conservatives correlating metal music and first-person shooters with violent behavior, though.

There are plenty of valid reasons to delve into evil in our TTRPG campaigns. The standard D&D experience is firmly in the camp of heroic fantasy fiction, but sometimes you want the fantasy without the heroics

You don’t want to rescue stolen children; you want to be a person with goals that clash with the rest of society, like a conqueror or crime boss. And it’s fine. It’s not the real world, and if everyone cooperates, it can be awesome

TTRPGs are a powerful medium for cathartic transgression in a safe environment. They are also fantastic for navigating gray morality in a way that videogames will never match because TTRPGs are unrestricted by software. 

You don’t have to make do with the options on a dialogue list or a set number of paths devised by the game devs. The only limit is that of your imagination.

Another quirk of evil campaigns is the range of new character dynamics to explore: 

  • How do the evil PCs maintain any semblance of party cohesion and cooperate at all? 
  • What is it like to relate to cultural institutions—and the people within them—generally considered “good” as an outsider or adversary?

Also, as players, we rarely get a chance to beat up celestials, metallic dragons, and other usually good-aligned enemies. Playing an evil campaign can seriously shake up what sorts of encounters the party comes across, and that’s pretty cool!


Discover Ancient Treasure

The party is tired, hurting, and in need of shelter when they discover a mysterious, ancient stone crypt.

The dusty tomb could hold immense treasure, danger, or both – depending on how they approach it.

Perhaps they’ll foolishly wander into this setting-agnostic, densely-written classic dungeon that provides plenty of unique choices and twists on old favorites.

Check out the promotional version (on the product page) before you buy the Mound of Harald the Conqueror!


How to Play an Evil Character in a Good Party

Before we dive too deeply into this: always check with the DM about whether they want or will allow an evil character. This is especially important if you want to play someone who’s secretly evil, as it’s more work for a DM,

Then make sure your session zero (more on that here) covers evil PCs as a possibility, to make sure everyone else is okay with having one in the party.

Now, we’ve established that “evil” isn’t the cartoon sort that hates “good” for its own sake. No. Evil people simply want what they want and don’t care how they get it.

This can easily devolve into extreme pragmatism: an evil person can easily use good people for their own ends. Will you survive by going it alone? Can you get to your goal without anyone else’s help? Chances are the answer is “no” to both of these questions in a D&D universe.

As such, an evil person can simply hide (or control really well, to a point) the detestable parts of themselves to work with good or neutral people.

Sure, they’ll try to argue their way out of good-samaritan actions, puppy-recusing, and the like, but this doesn’t mean they can’t capitalize on these actions for their own gain down the line. 

For example, once the party goes to sleep, you can stay up and coerce the kindly innkeeper to bestow greater treasures on you alone or perhaps you can convince locals that “donating” to your cause will help keep the town safe and run something of a protection racket.

You can do senseless evil, but it should make sense to the character, such as poisoning the well of a local town that treated you with disrespect (or just insufficient reverence). Pettiness can still be a great source of evil, after all.

The main ways to have a decent working relationship with less despicable folks are:

  • Secrecy: Keep your devilry obscured for the others’ awareness, conspire with the DM. But beware: not all of it will go unnoticed.
  • Manipulation: Or perhaps you employ deception and crafty arguments about how doing things your way is for the best. If you think about it, it’s really all for the greater good. Convince others to further your evil goals without grasping the full picture, like a true cat’s paw.
  • Teamwork: For you to be worth the trouble for others, you need to cooperate more often than not. 

Does this get more complicated with magical detections of evil or an ever-vigilant paladin? Yes. You’d also need to be sure that you communicate with the DM in secret so that no ridiculous metagaming takes place.
In short: ride the line between what your party deems acceptable or unacceptable for what you offer, extract as much as you can from anyone you encounter, and above all: cooperate.


Frighten Your Players

In a dark room, Jon is on the edge of his seat. He’s afraid his next act will be his doom.

Everyone holds their breath—except you, the DM. You enjoy watching them sweat as tension comes to a head.

Do something!” Sara shouts, causing everyone to jump. Rattled, Jon does something stupid.

For less than a Starbucks coffee, gift a thrilling night for you and your crew;

Check out Weeping Walls, our haunted house intended to fit into any campaign.


Evil Campaign Ideas & Tweaks

The meat of any D&D campaign is creating a coherent, shared, fun experience for all. That means teamwork more often than not.

Once again, for the people in the back: as long as there’s respect, open communication, and commitment to making the experience great for everyone involved, an evil campaign works just as well as any other type and opens up new and exciting ways to experience the game.

No amount of DM tweaks can make up for someone at the table being inconsiderate or mean. 

Still, there are some things we as DMs can do to take evil campaigns to amazing heights. Here are some of my favorites:

Provide Non-Heroic Reasons to Go Adventuring

Most of the time, an evil party won’t be roused to action by something like “the heartbroken families of the missing fishermen put together whatever little money they had to spare to send someone looking for them”. 

Tie that into an opportunity to acquire useful knowledge or substantial political power, however, and they just might. When creating plot hooks for the adventures you want to run, make sure there are plenty of selfish motivations to do it.

To orchestrate those sorts of events, it can help to learn from power structures in real life. This video goes over the basics, and it’s based on this book.

The caveat is that even bad people might have soft spots

Maybe the warlock of the Great Old One had an awful childhood in an orphanage sweatshop, and this drives her to unleash terrifying violence upon anyone who mistreats orphans. She even shows such children a kinder side of her personality. Not that this stops her from knowingly making new orphans on the regular. 

Focus on PC Agency and Consequences

Evil must be a recurring choice and have a tangible impact on the world to be meaningful. If you railroad the PCs into being bastards, instead of them repeatedly allowing them to choose when they have the chance to be better, you’re robbing the players of a huge part of what makes this experience powerful.

When DMing for an evil party, you must accept a more player-driven storytelling: PC goals and choices are the main drivers of the narrative. 

Your job as the DM, above all else, is applying consequences to their deeds and providing the occasional crisis that demands immediate attention and throws a wrench in their plans.

  • “Well, crap. Shouldn’t have publicly humiliated that priest because they’re the only one who can do us this favor we need.”
  • “Oh no, that rival adventuring group we murdered for their Deck of Many Things came back as a band of revenants, and they’re killing our whole criminal network.”
  •  “That guy we’ve been blackmailing for access to the royal coffers has finally snapped. Now we’re wanted around the kingdom”.

Use Good-aligned Monsters

Surprise your players with enemies they normally don’t have a chance to fight due to the moral leanings of their previous characters! 

I’m sure a doomsday cult trying to unleash an evil god on the material plane would attract the attention of celestials. A terrorist group might have their sights on the hoard of a bronze dragon to fund their operations, and so on.

You can also add levels of typically “good guy classes/archetypes” to humanoid enemies, like paladins!

But remember: not all bad guys are allies. In fact, the reason most baddies fail is that they end up falling to in-fighting, betrayal, and a lack of trust. 

Coming into conflict with bigger evils can lead to uneasy alliances with their erstwhile enemies to handle a shared problem. Further, build intrigue by providing each of these makeshift “allies” with plans for betrayal and personal gain.

Summary

Alright, scoundrels, now you know everything you need to pursue all kinds of devilry in your campaigns. Knowledge is power, and reinforced knowledge is knowledge that you keep, so I invite you to go over the main points again:

  • A good session zero is paramount to running a fun and safe evil campaign. Before play starts, the group needs to know what sort of evil the campaign is about and what lines shall remain uncrossed, among other things. Please be thorough.
  • Evil is about disregard for people’s wellbeing. Maybe you hurt whoever stands between you and what you want. Maybe hurting people is what you want.”
  • Evil characters are only as interesting as their values and agendas. The question of how far they are willing to go for what they want is their central tension. Lean into it—more on developing those here.
  •  Brutal pragmatism in service of a perceived noble cause (family, ethnic group, country, god) makes for compelling bad guys. As Sherlock said, “Love is a much more vicious motivator.”
  • Evil campaigns need to allow a more player-directed narrative.
  • Evil is a recurring choice.
  • Consequences give meaning and weight to evil deeds.
  • Evil groups work together for personal gain, and they often fall apart when members think they can pull the wool over the others’ eyes. Betrayal is part and parcel of what it means to cooperate with baddies. As they say, “there’s no honor among thieves.”

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