For the Darker DM: Organic Corruption  

Posted by Michael Donaldson in , ,

Story-driven games are the heart of what makes gaming so appealing to me. The narrative that is co-authored by the GM and the player naturally unfolds into something unique and awesome, but I've noticed over the years that one aspect of the narritive - that is, character development - usually lacks the dynamic of the rest of the story. As characters are played they are often fleshed out as the player explores their nuances, but rarely do characters undergo meaningful and interesting changes that aren't forced upon them. Worse, sometimes characters' alignments arbitrarily change suddenly as an attempt to inject character growth by a player or DM that isn't very good at structuring narratives. (continued after the jump)

I was sitting in a meeting over at my office and between the sound of my brain cells committing suicide due to boredom, I overheard the boss-man (can we call him a BBEG?) talking to our social engineer about promoting the website's growth. The engineer did a little bit on "organic" growth on search engines, which involves at its most basic level creating links around the internet to your pages so google regards it as more relevant to search terms and thusly moves it higher on the totem pole.

It struck me that character growth is the same, in a lot of ways. In order for meaningful character change to occur, there's a process over time linked to a lot of events and actions taken. Different actions and events hold more weight than others, and in order for you to promote organic growth in your players, you've got to give them the tools and opportunity to change. Today, I'm going to talk about convincing your players (through the tools and opportunities given to them alone) to corrupt their morale fiber and give in to the allures of evil.

The Setup
PCs are in a constant struggle against the powers that be, who inevitably always wish them dead. Immediately establish two seperate entities of antagonism; your PCs main opponents and the corrupting party. Conflict with the main antagonists (let's call them the "bad guys") is what drives the story, and the PCs are essentially tasked with defeating them in some way. Only the problem with these guys is that they've got every advantage on the PCs - manpower, actual power, political clout, and no sense of morals to get in the way of their methods. Be sure to make them very villainous (I wrote an article on how to create hate-able villains, and if you need an example here's a D&D Villain you can hate!) so that  your party will be personally invested in their downfall.

Make sure the PCs victories are downplayed, and seem to have very little effect on the organization as a whole.Breed distrust in the ranks of your PCs. Give the motivations that are not necessarily aligned with each other. Then, you can bring in your corrupting party with a special offer - whatever it is, it's powerful and definitely a game changer. But after the party has used this new power, they notice that it's got a catch - perhaps it's only capable of controlling the minds of those that the control will bring suffering to, or needs to drink the blood of innocents to power it. Players may not be able to sacrifice innocents - perhaps it draws on the strength of the wielder itself, corrupting and twisting their flesh and soul.

The key is making the power amazing. Every fight it's used in should be a spectacular use of its power, and it should be available at all times. Perhaps the corrupting party has merely opened up a conduit to nefarious energies in the PCs, and they need but activate the supernatural abilities at any time. This will lead to characters using it in their dire times of need. It could even be healing! Eventually, characters will succumb to its allure.

While everyone may not be comfortable with the change (and even speak out against it), it's likely that one character will be drawn in by its promises. You will notice a dramatic change in their behaviors as they struggle to come to grips with using these dark energies. If they seem happy to just accept mechanical penalties, be more drastic - perhaps they wake one night to find themselves in an unknown house, a dagger in hand, and a corpse violently sacrificed in front of them.

All the while, the main threat is ever-present and the focus. If the characters can shrug off the influence of this power, it is likely that they will have grown as characters for the positive by their experiences. If they succumb to the benefits and use evil to destroy evil, the public views them as just another villain and they may outright accept this mantle with justification - having slowly been twisted by their victories, thinking that it was the only way.

Next time, I'll give a specific example of how to use these tools. What about you? How do you promote character growth (whether it be good or evil)?

This entry was posted on March 23, 2012 at Friday, March 23, 2012 and is filed under , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


Funny, you hit a nerve here. Though I've been corrupting player characters for ages (and fortunately also failed a lot at doing so - but sometimes not), I agree with you. Character development hardly ever seems to work out in games.

Possibly this is because players sometimes fear that giving in to an "alignment change" will give severe penalties. At least, that's what one of my players mentioned, and he referred to 2E AD&D rules as a source of this.

Nice piece.

March 23, 2012 at 4:54 PM

It can be beneficial sometimes to address this fear beforehand out of game, letting players know that this campaign is tolerant of all alignments. Sometimes you just have to find the right players, though!

March 23, 2012 at 5:14 PM

Some of my players have experienced this too many times before. They are immediately distrustful of any offers of aid, no matter how innocuous it looks. They'll spend more time checking out the powers offered than the main plot.

March 27, 2012 at 11:49 AM

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