So I just finished playing through Shadow of Mordorand let me tell ya: Middle-earth would have been just fine without someone’s fan-fic ranger stabbing all those orcs. Gimûb the Infernal hates Skak the Poisoner. Akoth Pain-Lover wants to murder Ûkshak Bone-Ripper. Jôanie loathes Châchi. These Uruks are all the time assassinating one another, fighting for rank, and generally being back-stabbing bastards. It was nice to see the trope in action.

As the resident half-vampire-half-werewolf Miss Gestalt so ably demonstrates, self-destructive evil is useful shorthand for “I’m unbalanced and dangerous.” More aligned with the grimdark style than cartoon villainy, it also serves as a nice contrast to the “friendship and teamwork” shtick of your typical adventuring party. For my money though, I think that the best use of this villainous style lies in the opportunities it affords clever players.

When people say that they want an intrigue game, I don’t think that courtly drama or secret messages are necessarily what they’re after. What they’re really saying is, “I want to turn my enemies against each other.” That’s the most basic mechanic in Shadow of Mordor after all, allowing the player free reign to mind-whammy the local orcs and send them out to cause trouble in the enemy camp. When you set your villains up as ambitious social climbers, you’re setting a clear motivation. These baddies want power, plain and simple. Dangling that power on a stick in front of them is a great way to split up the enemy forces: “Challenge your rival. My friends and I will make sure you win. Just remember the favors you owe.”

If you want to create a campaign arc based on taking advantage of self-destructive evil, the real trick lies in providing the players with the resources to make that play. That includes a cast of evil lieutenants. It means giving those lieutenants easily-discovered (and conflicting) motivations. You’ll want to include rival gangs. Plenty of dark corners for doing dark deeds. A healthy does of “Yes, and” when players do attempt coercion. Even something as video-gamey as a tutorial can work wonders.

“You lads are new to town, eh? Surely you know of the bad blood between the Black Nine and Gimbald’s Rabble. No? Well blimey, they’ve been at one another’s throats ever since His Imperial Darkness sacked this town. Lucky for us, they aren’t the brightest lot. Watch this.”
Your contact saunters over to the table of hard-bitten gentlemen sporting the matching “9” tattoos. He nods once at the bouncer who gave you guys trouble on the way in. Signs flash in thieves‘ cant
Abruptly, the ugliest of the company jumps to his feet, pointing at the bouncer. “Seems we got us a spy from the Rabble,” he shouts. “Make him bleed, boys!” 
The bar erupts into abrupt chaos as your contact, apparently unconcerned, rejoins your table. “Let’s just say it’s any uneasy alliance serving under the new regime. Even a little spark can set off this powder keg. I hope you lot are the spark we’ve been waiting for.”

Showing your players what’s possible in your campaign world is always a good idea. Doubly so if you’ve put in the time and effort to make that web of evil alliances and rivals we discussed. It’s all about transforming the storytelling trope of “self-destructive evil” into a properly useful game mechanic: one that your players can leverage throughout the course of play.

That of course leads us to our question of the day! Have you ever taken advantage of Evil’s self-destructive nature in a game? Did you manipulated a minion to serve your cause? And if so, was it a matter of charm person and dominate, or did you rely on good old-fashioned deception and Bluff checks? Let’s hear all about those bad guys fighting bad guys down in the comments!

 

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