GM Tips is our series to help Storytellers and Game Masters improve their craft and create memorable roleplaying experiences. Last week we talked about storytelling while you have limitations, and this week we cover alignment swapping.
Dungeons & Dragons have iconically evil villains in their settings clearly bent evil-for-evils sake and little redeeming qualities. Personally, I’ve always found the “over-the-top” chaotic evil style a bit boring when it came to the arch-villain. Letting a few chaotic evil aberrations rampage without motivations can make for a fun encounter fight. A single human serial killer who lost his marbles and gone after tavern owners is something the party will have no problems chasing down. Why exactly would legion of orcs follow Gruumsh if all he promises is death and destruction? Why would anyone willingly work for the Zhentarim if they are cast as eternal villains?
When running modules and preset content, it can be helpful to swap things around or put yourselves in the minions’ shoes. Not only will this help you storytell better, but it might offer new insight into backgrounds that are filled with new angles to explore. Rakados Bards, that are filled to the brim with their Chaotic Good deeds or followers of Grummsh who know his harshness stems from centuries of violence and if he doesn’t fight, who else will? Running your modules this way often shifts the campaign into a more roleplay heavy environment with players and characters debating ideals rather than kill each other—but when the fighting happens, it sure has an impact.
Strahd Is A Hero
Count Strahd von Zarovich is one of the greatest villains in the history of Dungeons & Dragons and he serves as the perfect template to give life to any villain in other campaigns. In his past, Strahd was a hero who did serve goodness and light, and due to a mix of tragedy, jealousy, and a healthy dose of murder—he became a master vampire and dark lord ruler of Ravenloft. It has themes from Dracula, Castlevania, and Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust mixed together (it’s a cycle of repeating tributes). In novels where Strahd is the main character, he is often presented in a nobler light, often as a protector of his realm from outside bandits and invaders.
Despite easily qualifying for anti-villain status, it can be hard to rationalize a character like Strahd as a true hero given the canon material. After all, he murdered a girls lover to earn her affection, and she threw herself off the castle walls in grief. If you want to flip the script and make him a proper hero… you will have to rewrite his past a bit. Try instead that Strahd is bound as a dark lord and he’s the only thing keeping Ravenloft in check, and all his actions (no matter how vile) are the only thing that works to keep the greater evil at bay. Or perhaps the legend is swapped, where Sergei was the one who murdered Tatyana and Strahd rose to vampirism out of revenge. There are many reasons to rewrite or alter canon for your player; chief among them is the surprise. Having the players check their expectations and work as Paladins for Strahd going out INTO the world in order to stymie the expansion of their realm would make a fun campaign.
The flip side of making an existing villain become good, is to showcase how the player’s good intentions can make them the villains. Defeating the evil bandits that terrorize the town, selling all their loot, and even using their curing magic to heal the injured sounds pretty good. The characters spend their time in the town helping rebuild, getting people set up, and maybe even teaching a trick or two.
What happens when they leave?
A grim reminder about player characters is their destabilizing effect in communities (particularly rural ones) that they adventure too. A sudden influx of wealth into a tavern owner or blacksmith could change the towns political dynamic after the characters had left. Maybe the town has absolute success and starts exponentially growing! Even to the point where it transitions from a small town into a larger city, complete with an army, paved roads, government, universities and more being drawn into it. The characters might initially feel proud of their work and return to see the dangers and consequences of rapid expansion on the local wilderness or those left behind as new wealth has flooded in.
This doesn’t exactly fulfill the hero fantasy most players are looking for, and sometimes can hit pretty close to reality; so only use ideas like this to set up the third kind of “Good” villain.
Good Vs Good
When you have two groups of characters both working for positive means, that doesn’t mean they won’t crash. In the above example with the rapid city expansion, nature characters might feel pushed out. Even when the characters try to work in means of mutual harmony, a third leak might sprout in the dangers of magic being overused. Fix that, and you might have a problem with multiple cleric domains vying for prominence in the area. After they raced off to help solve the cleric crisis, the lawmen might start clamping down a little too hard—and the process starts over again.
These kinds of adventures can be fun, because not every problem is easily solved by blowing things up or whittling down boxes of hit points. Often, this type of campaign works very well as you get to higher tiers of play and allows the players to find creative applications for their powers in new and inventive ways. When ideals do clash, the fights err on the side of non-lethal but have a lot hinging upon their outcome. A duel in the city town to determine which cause is correct can shape the future of a campaign to follow.
As a storyteller, these sessions can be very relaxing to run as you set the stage and watch players roleplay and weigh their options.
Have you run chronicles where players weren’t sure what side they were on? Let us know in the comments below!
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Featured Image by: Strahd in Neverwinter: Ravenloft
Image Credits: Wizards of the Coast, Legend of the Five Rings
Rick Heinz is the author of The Seventh Age Series, Dread Adventures, and a storyteller with a focus on D&D For Kids, Wraith: The Oblivion, Eclipse Phase, and an overdose of LARPs. You can follow the game or urban fantasy related thingies on Twitter or Facebook or reach out for writing at [email protected]