Friday, April 8, 2016

That One Time a DM Tried to Run "City of The Spider Queen" For an Evil Party

Many years ago, when I was still finishing up my degree, a friend of a friend said he wanted to run my regular group through a pre-written 3.5 Dungeons and Dragons adventure. The adventure, as the title may have given away, was "City of the Spider Queen," which takes place during a particularly dark time when Lolth appears to have abandoned the Drow, and the Underdark is currently in chaos. The party, composed of 10th level characters, is supposed to travel to the Underdark at the behest of a public official, and do their best to protect those living in the world above from the horrors that lurk below.

That isn't how this particular story goes.
I was working as a security guard at the time, so I had many hours to contemplate different character concepts. I considered putting together a Dungeon Delver, since it wasn't that often I got a chance to operate in the Underdark. I thought about a ranger who specialized in hunting the Drow on their own turf, using alchemical items and unusual weapons to capture and interrogate them. I considered clerics and sorcerers, barbarians and fighters, but lurking in the back of my head was a darker concept. Something that I knew would never see the light of day in a sensible DM's game.

How Sensible Was Our Dungeon Master?

The four players lugged our stacks of 3.5 books to the host's apartment early in the afternoon, and started making characters. Since it was my first time talking to our new DM, I went through the usual questions players should ask in order to be sure they're within the proper parameters. What books are allowed and not allowed? What races can we choose from? Are there any banned alignments, classes, etc.?

"Go nuts!"- DM's last words
Our new DM, clearly not sensing any danger, told us we could take anything out of any 3.5 book published by Wizards of the Coast. He was a widely-read player, or so I'd been told, so I decided to ask for the keys to the nuclear arsenal, and checked if we could use The Book of Exalted Deeds. He said sure, that shouldn't be a problem. Then, because I was feeling snarky, I asked if he was also allowing The Book of Vile Darkness. You know, the one that says quite clearly this is meant for DMs, and player access should be extremely restricted.

He said sure, anything we wanted to do, he could roll with.

The Monsters Rise

There was a moment of silence while I processed what he'd said. I then confirmed that he was not, in fact, joking, and that he was allowing us access not only to evil-aligned characters, but to the tomes of eldritch horror that are typically kept under lock and key behind the DM screen. He said that if we wanted to play evil characters, he was cool with that.

The Drow won't know what hit them.
I shared a long glance with two of the three other players, and through the odd, psychic link you share with people you've gamed with for a while, we all jumped feet-first into the dark side. Over the next hour or so, we assembled a team of dark defilers that, in any sensible game, would have been the high-level villains. Aberius Retch, a wizard alienist who worshiped the Great Old Ones was my contribution. A mad ascetic, the DM not only let me take the feats to speak the Dark Speech (and teach it to my pseudonatural familiar, in a mark of extremely poor judgment), but allowed me to possess a Bag of Devouring. Retch believed that this bag, far from being a curse, was a direct gateway to his master's belly. And, as a devoted follower, it was his duty to make regular sacrifices.

In addition to the crazed spellcaster, we had a priestess of Loviatar. The pain-worshiping cleric not only bore a full torturer's regalia, but she had the Mark of Evil featured prominently on the side of her neck. Bringing up the rear was a debased creature known only as Sange, who reveled in murder, rape, and all forms of torment and destruction, and who was a half-orc poisoner rogue with levels of the Animal Lord prestige class. We had the full spectrum of evil alignments, with the cleric as lawful, the wizard as neutral, and the rogue as chaotic, but we had something more than that. We had goals, drive, and intelligence. The wizard wanted to uncover ancient lore, and convert the Drow to the worship of the Old Ones. The priestess had a similar notion regarding her church, and wanted to use the wizard's arcane knowledge and ability to call shuddering abominations from the void to her advantage. Sange was smart enough to know who had the brains, and whenever he did as those two bid, he always got to have his fun.

Our fourth group member, after listening to this conversation and hearing about the group we'd created, insisted he was going to play a hound archon paladin. We managed to persuade him to play a lawful neutral dwarven defender instead, after pointing out that we didn't want the whole first session to be player versus player.

Our Faith in The DM Starts To Fade

The whole time we're building these characters, we're sharing our backstories with the DM. He's nodding his head, and I'm starting to get excited. He's making a few notes, and I'm assuming that he's altering bits of the campaign as it stands to better fit such a bizarre party. So, we all finish spending our gold, and take our seats around the table. Then we start getting the intro to the campaign... an intro which is clearly assuming we are not a band of evil bastards, and that we are here to take up the struggle for good and justice.

"You approach the mayor's house." Wait a minute... are we in chains?
The intro, for those of you who don't know, is a group of adventurers answering the mayor's call for aid in a town near a passage into the Underdark. Now, given what I've just told you about the party, this could easily have been modified to fit us. The three of us being led in under guard, and in irons, was the simplest way to go. The DM could even have made the neutral dwarf our jailer, and our overseer for a Suicide Squad style mission, where the villains are told to put their powers and talents to a good end.

That didn't happen. Instead, the DM is reading us the same dialogue we would have gotten if we were a group of paladins. The party starts moving around his office, clearly ignoring him. We get no reaction. Sange starts breaking things, because that's what he does. The mayor continues reciting his lines, like an animatronic president. The guards aren't called in. The rails continue. Rather than pushing the point, we decide to head off to our adventure, and away from this land where the people elected a malfunctioning android as their mayor.

Things didn't vastly improve, though. Like most pre-written campaigns, the game assumes that loot, and heroism will be your motivating factors. We obviously lacked the latter, but surprisingly we also lacked the former. The wizard was an ascetic, the cleric was uninterested in treasure, and since gold didn't bleed, cry, or grant sexual release, even Sange wasn't interested in it. Especially if it meant lugging it around all over the place. The dwarf, who on paper appeared to be the most sensible and sane member of the party, began breaking open crypts to find as much stuff as possible.

Seriously, bro? Show some class.
What made matters worse, though, was that the DM hadn't altered the challenges or monsters to deal with the toys we'd brought to the table. Traps were found by forcing captured enemies to walk ahead of us, or set off by low-level summoned creatures who opened doors on our behalf. Monsters who weren't a direct threat to us were ignored, or walked past, and Diplomacy, followed by Intimidate, was our opening bid when dealing with the first groups of Drow we found. It didn't work, of course, but adding the pseudonatural template to a mid-level summoned monster can wreck absolute havoc on a group dependent on poison and sneak attacks to be effective.

At the end of the first session, we'd used a minimum of our resources to bypass half a dozen encounters, and to destroy anything that got in our way without mercy, or care. Even worse, though, we chose paths and methods which made no sense to the DM, despite knowing who we were and what we did pretty well by this point. The result was that we had a blast, but he was sitting there with a look on his face not unlike that of a freshly converted cultist. Confused, with his mouth hanging open slightly, and staring around him as if he'd entered another world.

We recognized that look, and were completely unsurprised when that was the only session of the campaign we got to play.

The Moral of The Story

There is a dual moral here. The first is that when you are running a game, and your players tell you that you should probably disallow access to certain tomes, it's a good idea to listen. Especially if it's quite clear that the direction they're going is not the direction the campaign you're running is meant to go in. Secondly, while taking advantage of a DM can be fun, it's something you shouldn't do if you want them to keep running a campaign. Especially if you have an inkling that the things you're going to do are really not things they're prepared for, even if they say they are.

Third, if you're going to run an evil party, make sure they all have the same goals. There was not a single instance of in-fighting, betrayal, or plotting among these powerful, wicked characters, and it made them a force to be reckoned with.

As always, thanks for stopping by this week's Table Talk feature. If you've got a story of your own that you'd like to share, I'm always open to putting someone else in the limelight for a bit. Also, if you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron and get some swag? As little as $1 a month is all it takes to keep the content coming. Also, if you haven't already, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter?


  1. Thank you for giving me the best idea I've ever seen for how to run an Evil campaign. The Suicide Squad concept is pure gold.

    1. I was really hoping that's what this DM was going to go for... but no, it was just someone who didn't seem to get that by opening the door to madness and evil, we were twisting the whole pre-written idea of the campaign out-of-true. We didn't know that, but as we went along, we started to realize it.

  2. Great post!

    As a DM with decades of experience, I love it when players decide to go for Evil. Only 2 campaigns made it past the early stages, with the best one hitting 12th level.

    The best advice given was Working Together. Even the Joker used allies. And the guy who played the rogue in your group was so perfectly done, I don't know how I would have rewarded him.

    Kudos to my Evil players and those DMs brave enough challenge them.