Thursday, February 19, 2009

More on Evil Campaign Settings

First off, many thanks to all those who responded to my previous column on this topic. One thing that many people expressed concern over was the "slippery slope"; what happens if the game gets too bleak and nihilistic and the players lose interest? This is definitely a concern, so I began to think of other "Evil Settings" in RPGs and other sources to see what hope I could offer. Below are some of the examples I could come up with. All have had extensive fictional and RPG exploration in one from or another and proved continually popular.

1. Call of Cthulhu. This is the grandaddy of all "evil campaigns", because when it comes right down to it, whatever the PCs do, it doesn't matter. Half the party is killed off and most of the rest are driven permanantly insane keeping a Great Old One from coming through some cultist's ritual gate? Big deal. That Great Old One is millions of years old. It's got time on its side, and sooner or later, there won't be some naieve bunch of do-gooders around to spoil the party. If you dig deep enough into the Cthulhu mythos, you see this is the great irony - all the struggling and all the madness and all the sacrifice...all it's doing is buying Mankind a few ticks of the Universal Clock. But in the end, Earth will be snuffed out like a candle in the wind, and the rerst of the Cosmos will carry on like nothing has happened. It's about as bleak as you can get, but people have been gaming in the Mythos for decades, and its not going to stop any time soon.

2. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. No, I'm serious. Beyond the witty banter and the comedy and the cool kung fu moves, that is a pretty effing bleak show. You've got hell-mouths dotting the world like pustulent boils, and all they do is churn out Evil. I shudder to think of how many deaths from unnatural causes there've been in Sunnydale over the course of the show - easily in the hundreds. Buffy probably kills as many vampires and demons and the like, but there is only one Slayer, and there's a LOT of evil out there. How many times do Buffy & Friends save the world from being swallowed up into some Demonic Realm? Like CoC, it only takes once, and Demons have long attention spans. While the series does end on a positive note, by and large if taken seriously, the premise for the show is quite sobering.

3. The X-Files. Similar to Buffy, but lacking in its hip coolness and Kung Fu Cheerleader vibe, the world as depicted in this series is a bloody bleak one indeed. And as with CoC and Buffy, it becomes very obvious not too far into the series that humanity is really living on borrowed time. Insidious weirdness and "other things" abound, and the best you can do is give these malicious forces a bit of a stumble as they carry on with their dark labors. The efforts of Mulder and Scully, as heroic as they might appear from the protagonist's point of view, are little more than an amusing side-note; how often in the series do the pair actually stop anything? Aside from perhaps wasting a lone monster here or there, all they can do is shudder at the thought of what they've encountered and move on. That's a heaping helping of bleakness and evil for you.

4. Cyberpunk. Taking a look at the wikipedia entry for the Cyberpunk genre, we find this quote from Lawerence Person:

Classic cyberpunk characters were marginalized, alienated loners who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life was impacted by rapid technological change, an ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information, and invasive modification of the human body.
Doesn't that sound fun? A bleak technologically advanced but utterly soulless world where megacorporations rule every aspect of your lives, and humanity is little more than a scuttling backdrop to megaopolises shrouded in pollution and seething with crime, corruption, and dispair. In many of the Cyberpunk stories and RPGs I've stumbled across, the PC do little more than try to stay afloat and make a living in a world that would tread them underfoot during the march toward techno-utopian progress without a second thought. Campaign climaxes in a heroic takedown of an insidious megacorp, exposing it for all it's corruption and evil and terror? Big effin' deal - there's a score more where that came from, and they've just bought that office space you helped vacate at a bargain price. Now, be a good little plebe and let us put this chip in your get the picture.

5. Games Workshop's Warhammer Fantasy Battles & Warhammer 40,000 Universe. The two have a very similar tone to them, but 40K is (of course) on a much larger scale. A (barely) human Empire clinging to life, surrounded by inhuman enemies who are constantly battering at the bastions of civilization, while within the Empire there is a seething underbelly of chaos, evil, and corruption trying to desperately bring the whole shaky house of cards crashing down. Yes, for the moment, mankind is holding the dark at bay, but at what cost?

And while there are "good" nonhumans (Elves and Dwarves in WFB, Eldar and Tau in 40K), they are only good in comparison to the soul-blasting evils they battle against. Flipping through some of the Chaos Codices and Army Books is like viewing catalogs of pure nightmare, and they make the savage brutality of such races as the bestial Orcs/Orks, the insectile Tyranids, the warlike Lizardmen, the soulless, mechanical Necrons, and the sadistic evil of the Dark Elves/Eldar look almost cheerful. And, compared to all that, the cold, aloof Elves/Eldar, the crass and grudgeful Dwarves, the dangerously expansionist Tau, and the merciless, intolerant, and uncaring Empire/Imperium look like a bunch of rosy-cheeked schoolchildren.

Actually, the sort of baddies you find in WFB and 40K are what I based a lot of the tone and flavor of Thraxx around. This isn't just "this monster is evil cuz it says so in his statblock", the evils found there are utterly mindblowing, galaxy-spanning, totally sickhouse horror movie tear your eyes out and make them dance on strings like little puppet animals evil. And it's not just a case of "Evil always wins, because good is dumb" either. Evil wins because it's smart, it's ruthless, and it's everywhere. And no matter what you do, how many heroic sacrifices you make, you are never, ever going to win the ultimate conflict.

Anyhow, I've carried on long enough. Hopefully there's some fruitful discussion to be had from the above commentary.


jamused said...

The difference in at least the first three is that those are worlds where you can have a normal life, and in fact most people don't even have an inkling of the potential for existential horror. Even if the bad-guys will inevitably win some epoch or other, humanity has made it this far and the actions of the heroes may postpone it for the entire lifespan of everybody now on the planet, even in Call of Cthulhu. Maybe the heroes have a reason to be nihilistic...but much the same is true of our world: everybody dies sooner or later, humans will only be around for a few ticks of the Universal Clock even without Great Cthulhu, and the heat death of the Universe is inevitable. So nu?

satyre said...

Having played in (and run) a few Evil Triumphant games here are some observations.

1. PCs must make a positive change to the setting - even if the end is still doom-laden and stacked against them.

In these games, the PCs are likely to be outlaws. They will adopt strategems ranging from the flashy antics of Zorro to downbeat fun of Firefly/Serenity. Bring the fun and always play consequences.

2. Some villains will die.

Whether at the hands of the PCs or the betraying hands of bigger NPCs doesn't matter. This may also not be a good thing for the PCs as the devils you know unintentionally give you breathing room while the devils you don't, well, don't.

3. Be aware of burnout, shift the locale if you need a holiday...

There is a limit to how long you can be a fugitive. Some rest-time or time in a less-fraught locale will be helpful for people to get their breath back. I've found this with a Mage game set in New York that moved to Sao Paolo in Brazil for a while.

5. Be inventive.

Monolithic evil is OK but everyone has seen endless undead marches. Even an undead army will realise their battleground is pacified ruins after 20 years.

Those calling on eldritch horrors may have interesting motives for doing so that are tangential to the traditional. The very best example I can think of here is The Fate in Delta Green who use eldritch horrors and magic to control the New York underworld.

6. The balance of power will shift eventually. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow...

Evil betrays itself - it can't help it. The vices and flaws that mark those characters rarely stay static, sadistic killers, despotic tyrants and crazed summoners do not make stable communities and eventually things break down.

Thraxx sounds like fun. Enjoy it.

Badelaire said...

"The difference in at least the first three is that those are worlds where you can have a normal life, and in fact most people don't even have an inkling of the potential for existential horror. Even if the bad-guys will inevitably win some epoch or other, humanity has made it this far and the actions of the heroes may postpone it for the entire lifespan of everybody now on the planet, even in Call of Cthulhu."

You make a very good point. I guess I was looking at them more from the perspective of the PCs and their outlook on life, rather than that of the average citizen.

To the PC, those settings are filled with evils lurking behind every closed door, shrub, or alleyway. For the "normals", everything is peachy-keen...until the day some aberrant monstrosity comes along and eats your face.

Never fear - there'll be more columns on this stuff to come.

Masakari said...

Not entirely relevant to evil campaign settings, but re: the Buffyverse being a bleak place. This reminds me of a few notable bits from Angel (the Buffy spinoff series), which sometimes got even worse on the bleak factor.

It's been a while, but IIRC, there was a point roughly halfway through the series run, where an agent from Wolfram and Hart (the demonic law firm that was Angel & Co.'s chief antagonist) basically corners Angel in an elevator for a chat. His basic argument is: "Look, you've had a good run against us, but what does it really matter? The Senior Partners represent the evil that exists in all human hearts (and across multiple dimensions to boot). No matter how many apocalypses you prevent, you and your friends can't reform all of humanity, and so you can never hope to 'win' against us in any cosmically meaningful sense. There will never be any endgame, no final triumph of good over evil. Just war without end, and Wolfram and Hart will be around plotting apocalypses 10,000 years after you and your friends are forgotten dust."

This culminates in an offer: "So if you can never beat us, why not join us? We offer all kinds of neat perks. You can even continue to run your little detective agency on the side, helping the helpless in your spare time, if it makes you feel any better. It's not like that ultimately matters to us."

Several seasons worth of Plot happens from there. But in the final season, the law firm actually DOES give Angel control of their L.A. branch. Basically saying, "Gosh darn it, you heroes are so resourceful! There's just no profit in fighting you. So we give up. We're pulling out. Here - take our stuff. Maybe you can reform this demonic law firm and do some good with it, on a scale you could never do as a two-bit detective agency!"

The ultimate ploy here being, "power corrupts." So the villains deliberately withdraw; not just withdraw, but do so in a way that makes the heroes kings in the process. Then the forces of evil sit back and watch the fun as all that new-found power goes to the heroes' heads....

Josef Mieszko said...

In the same vein as Buffy (I infer, never played it...), how about Paranoia? A hilarious game, totally gonzo, but again, at the root - utterly hopeless.

When I used to run the game we had a lot of fun, but every once in a while, there would be a brief flash of angst or genuine frustration.

To enjoy playing the game, players had to sacrifice all hope of fulfilling long-term goals or plans - knowing that the entire environment was stacked against them.

MR-X said...

I knew this one wasn't going to go away. Seems to be the point here is that it doesn't matter what goes on in a game or what the setting is, it's all hpeless in the end. The characters will die(Sooner or later) and the players will either roll up more or move on to a new system/setting.
I reitterate. The slippery slope theory is irrelevent. Get the subplot right and you're on to a winner. Still waiting to hear about the speakers podium though...

BlUsKrEEm said...

You forgot the bleakest and most futile setting of them all : Gurps CthulhuPunk

honestly it is a pretty cool setting, but when i first heard of it I couldn't imagine running a game (much less convincing players to give it a chance.)

MR-X said...

[sigh] I despair of ever finding a speakers podium on this dead and desolate world.

Samuel Van Der Wall said...

I love the Call of Cthulhu campaign setting. And, I may be running an X-File style setting using the Spycraft v2.0 rules soon. Great ideas about evil campaign settings.