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Olween (@CrisN1987 on Twitter) asks:
Recently i had an arguement with some friends about two things:
Can we play an evil party in D&D?
Do restrictions and suggestion from the DM spoil the freedom and/or the fantasy of the players? By restriction, I mean, for example: “you can’t play elves.” By suggestions, I mean, for example, “instead of a warrior maybe you should play a ranger for this adventure.”
First of all, let me confess I did a little editing on this question. Olween went into some further explanation and I cut it out because I’ll cover it in my answer.
First, “can you effectively run a game for an evil party in D&D?”
Yes. Yes you can. But it’s very hard and most people are stupid about evil.
The problem is that the standard gamer view of an evil character is a character that is a complete a$&hole who hates everyone, does whatever he wants, has no relationships or personal desires, and will backstab everyone to be the last one standing. And no, that monster can’t effectively play D&D. That’s the motherf$&%ing Joker there. The guy who just wants to f$&% with the world. To watch the world burn. Whatever. And those people cannot work together. Eventually, the Joker pisses off everyone who ever teams up with him and has to kill them. Because all the other people discover that the Joker wants anarchy, chaos, and destruction and that serves no one.
But that doesn’t have to be what evil is about. In the end, evil people are just people who have goals but they are willing to cross moral lines to get to them for whatever reason. Consider someone as simple as a thief who is willing to steal money and kill people to avoid getting caught. The thief might have any motivation. He might have a sick kid that he’s trying to save. He might be trying to buy his freedom from a drug cartel. He might be trying to pay off a loan. He might be trying to buy his mother out of prison. He might just be a greedy s$&% who wants the biggest house and all the best toys. Or he might be desperate to survive and feel like crime is the only way he can get by. He might have other justifications, like social Darwinism (only the people who can hold their money deserve to have it). He might convince himself that whatever he is doing with the money is better than what other people are doing with it (helping the poor, saving his sick kid, giving it to an orphanage), and so on.
The point is, true evil is not about motivation. True evil is about the line you are willing to cross to get that motivation. Since the 1980s, we’ve started to rate fictional characters based on their motivations. That’s where we get the anti-heroes and the sympathetic villains. “They want good things, they are just doing the wrong things to get there, so they aren’t really ‘evil.’” But that’s not a useful definition of evil. It means only the psychopaths and monsters count as evil. And those are very rare. The thief might be a victim of society and might be trying to save his sick kid, but if he slits someone’s throat to conceal because he got caught and needed to cover his tracks, it’s not unfair to call him evil.
Whatever definition of evil you PERSONALLY believe in, you have to decide what evil is for yourself before you decide if you can run a game for an evil party. But just because the party is evil, it doesn’t mean they throw away all of their relationships and personal ties and motivations. You could run a D&D game about the Medieval Mafia. The PCs can have friendships inside “the family” and relationships and loyalties and different honor codes. They can work together effectively. And they can all get whatever rewards they are after. Money, fame, more power in the family, and so on. Hell, if you couldn’t do this sort of thing, organized crime families would never survive. An organization can’t survive if every single member is utterly paranoid all the time. And human beings form personal, social relationships by their nature. It’s part of our biology.
But that’s how you’d HAVE TO do it to pull off the evil party in D&D. If you run a “king of the hill, last man standing, party of psychopaths” D&D campaign, it’s going to fail.
Second question, restrictions and suggestions.
Restrictions are easiest. No, there is nothing inherently bad about restrictions. But remember that every restriction you place might possibly piss someone off. If you take elves out of the game, there might be one elf-loving player set on playing an elf that now feels persecuted. So, the restrictions better have a good reason. As long as they do have a good reason though, they are fine. In fact, most games NEED restrictions. There are just too many f$&%ing options in games like Pathfinder and the GM really needs to know what the PCs are capable of to run the game effectively. So picking a subset is almost always a good idea. And if I wanted to run a world in which the magic of the world was dying and the non-human races were withdrawing or viewed humanity as the enemy, I might consider saying “humans only, kids.”
The most important thing about placing restrictions is being transparent. Make sure the players understand that there is a good reason for the restriction. Now, that gets hard when the reason is part of the secret of the campaign. For example, if the elves are all dying because magic is dying from the world and they’ve gone into isolation and are seeking to open a portal to a new world they can live in that will ultimately steal the last magic from this world and kill off the dwarves and orcs and dragons and everything non-human, you probably don’t want to give that story away. If your players trust you, just saying “there’s a really good reason why you can’t play elves and I don’t want to ruin the surprise,” is usually enough. If it’s a new group and you haven’t gained their trust yet, things might be harder. Maybe don’t run that campaign.
As for the suggestions, they are okay, but you should ask yourself why you need them. For example, if you steer someone toward ranger because your campaign takes place on the wild frontier and wilderness survival will be a focus. And it will be light and swashbuckly and heavy armor will be unnecessarily restrictive or difficult to obtain. Well, why not just tell the players THAT and let them decide for themselves whether to bring the fighter and cleric or substitute the ranger and the druid. Don’t hide the basic premise of the game, even if you don’t explain the reasons. Give the players enough information to make good choices instead of counting on nudging their choices.
But, there’s nothing wrong with a suggestion when a player is probably going to be unhappy. “Yeah, you can be trained in Arcana, but I have to warn you, it will probably never come up in this campaign. Maybe consider a different lore skill. Like History or Nature.”