This story was submitted by one of our very own viewers, Azrael. Thank you!
The way I have always felt is that both the Players AND the DM deserve to have a good time, and regardless of what side of the screen I'm sitting, I try hard to make sure that happens. As the DM, after a very extensive Session Zero, where we hashed out all the rules and expectations, the four relevant ones to this story being "No Evil PCs", "Read the World Lore", "Cinematics", and "Actions have Consequences".
We began our campaign. I've been playing / DMing for about 25 years now, so I'm good at rolling with the punches and improv, but I also create a rich, organic, living breathing world for the PCs to interact with full of complex plot hooks that run their own course without PC interaction. I'm a world builder and I care about verisimilitude to provide my players a world they can get lost in. But I'm also a realist, so this World Lore is only about 2 and a half pages, one sided text. And for those not familiar with the term, a "Cinematic", much like a cutscene in video games, is a period of time where the DM gets to monologue a bit to set important scenes without the players interrupting.
Well, I knew from the beginning that this was going to be bad. The PCs were every mix of race and class, so all the "party roles" were filled but the one thing they all had in common? They were all Chaotic Neutral… which as any DM worth their salt knows is the alignment PC’s pick when they can't be "evil" but still want to be an a-hole. If I know all this, why did I allow it? Long story short, I hadn't played in a long time, and I was desperate enough to try to make it work. Well, it went as you might imagine. If they weren't raping, and pillaging, they were just ourtright killing any NPC I put in front of them. I was getting more and more dejected, frustrated, and pissed off. I wasn't having any fun and was ready to just call it quits and drop the game, when a brilliant… and Evil… idea came to me.
They wanted an Evil campaign? Done. They wanted to kill everything? Done. Wanted to feel epic and unstoppable? Done. They wanted to feel like heroes charging across the countryside leaving a wake of bodies and destruction in their path? Done. Over the next YEAR my plan slowly unfurled and I loved every minute of it.
The plot hook: A rumor, whispered in a tavern, of a village of necromancers. And they were hooked.
They go to the village and the first thing they see is the tiny zombie of a little girl. She is horribly decayed, practically bones, but her clothes are very well tended, and as she shambles towards the party the paladin can even see dozens of little yellow ribbons delicately tied in her hair, in contrast to her dark green dress. I barely have the description out of my mouth when the paladin yells "Smite!" and obliterates her. From a nearby house the party hears the piercing shriek of a woman howling in pain, shock, and rage. A woman, wearing a dark cloak, comes charging out of the house at the paladin, screaming "Saaaaraaaaah!" with her hands in front of her like talons, clearly intent on strangling the paladin. There is commotion from the other houses in town. Roll initiative. The fight goes as you'd expect it. The party kills every last necromancer and undead in town. Every man, woman, and child. Even a couple of cats and dogs. And when they're done, they take everything valuable and then burn the village to the ground. They ignored all the descriptions of the insides of the houses and focused on just "what looks expensive?". Blatantly brush off my descriptions of the undead and the tools they're using to attack/defend. Impatiently interrupt me, to attack, as I try to roleplay the necros' questions and pleas. Basically, being the worst possible group of people sitting around a table a DM has ever had to endure… and I'm loving it.
Now, for those of you thinking this is a trick or an illusion, it's not. It IS a village of necromancers, and there are lots of undead. Actually, I forgot something. The players did spare one woman necromancer, to brutally torture information out of her, in order to find out more information about other Cabals and Mini-Bosses. Because, obviously these are peon necros. Which of course they insisted on roleplaying THAT in graphic detail for the rest of the session, about 1 and a half hours. When they were done with her they crucified her, alive, as a warning to other necromancers. She didn't survive the process.
The next few months were pretty much a rinse repeat of this with increasingly more powerful undead and necromancers to challenge them, with me trying relentlessly to describe the world and they relentlessly ignoring me. With one exception. They started to hear rumors of an evil group of mercenaries going around. Strange powers. Wielding mighty weapons. Slaughtering whole villages and leaving no survivors. There's a bounty that grows larger and larger each time they hear a new rumor, but no matter how hard they pursued them, they never seemed to catch up to them. They run across random encounters with groups of bandits that get stronger and stronger, but the mercenaries seem to always be one step ahead. It was a thorn in their side, and some of the players even pulled me aside from time to time to tell me it really pissed them off that I kept dangling these guys, with good loot, under their noses but never let them fight them.
Side note: up to this point every time they encounter a "Boss" they've gotten a Cinematic. They're getting used to this. This is usually met with sighs, eye rolls, and half the group pulling out their phones to fiddle with until I say the beloved words "Roll initiative". Am I pissed? Nope. Couldn't be happier!
Fast forward to the end of the campaign. They've finally uncovered that there's an Archlich behind all this, training necromancers to raise countless hordes of the undead. They've finally discovered his lair. They've breached his defenses, stormed the gates, and carved their way to his throne room. They've killed everything that could stand between him and them. The corridor leading up to the throne room is silent and empty and the party can hear their footsteps ringing on the stone floor as they stride across the empty space. They are super stoked about this last battle and finally getting to kill the BBEG. The paladin crashes through the throne room doors and I say "Roll initiative". For the first time, the group looks up, uncertain and confused. Some of them had even started pulling out their phones expecting a Cinematic and a "cheesy epic BBEG speech". Also for the first time, I stand up, and roll the Archlich's initiative right in front of them. I've been doing this a long time and sometimes I just know when the dice are in my favor. And wouldn't you know it, the dice gods are smiling on me; nat 20 on the die. The PCs don't even come close, but the Paladin does roll the highest. Since it's my turn first, I get to take my time. An evil grin spreads across my face. A year in the making and my patience has finally come to fruition. I begin to speak:
"You stare across the empty room and you see a wizen old man in plain robes, sitting on the throne staring back at you with eyes that glow with an unholy eldritch light. He slumps there, looking tired and defeated. In his hand he holds a porcelain latticework in the shape of a small human heart. It glows with a soft pure white light that pulses in the rhythm of a heartbeat. He looks down at it and you see pain wash across his face."
Paladin Player: "I…"
DM: "It's still my turn. Looking up from the heart, he addresses the party"
"After the gods left, people were lost. Many came to me looking for answers, but with all my knowledge I came up short. What does a wizard know about gods? And then the Plague came. I did the best I could with my limited abilities, but I'm no healer. People still died… horribly.”
He looks back down at the little heart cradled in his hand, and smiles sadly.
“So many died. Pretty soon the dead outnumbered the living and there weren't enough hands to tend the farms. Those that survived the Plague were starving to death. I had to do something… so I turned to necromancy. The dead could till soil. The dead could plant seeds. The dead could harvest the grain, with a little guidance. I focused all my magic and all my spells on bringing the dead back. But I am just one man. I wasn't strong enough. They begged me to teach them, and Light help me, I did. Pretty soon there were enough ‘Elders’ that I could go back to focusing on finding a cure.”
“I told them that their loved ones were gone, that it was just their bodies left behind. That they were at peace. You have to understand, some had lost their whole families. Husbands, wives, sisters, brothers, children. I think all the deaths… broke them, somehow. I think they liked to imagine their ‘Kin’ were still there, and I let them. Hope is a fragile thing, you know? In the meantime, I kept looking for a cure for the Plague and I kept looking for a way to bring the dead all the way back… and then I got sick.”
“You know, I hired adventurers to try to stop you? I thought there might be some heroes out there who could defeat you. I bled our coffers dry, but you always won… you always won."
I knew the symptoms, I'd seen it often enough. It was just a matter of months of wasting away in agony and then I would be gone too. After years of failure, I almost welcomed it. I already knew how to beat death by then of course, but the cost was unspeakable, and I was still looking for another way.
His eyes take on a look of puzzled wonder.
“But they wouldn't let me die. They begged me to stay. They begged me to try. They wouldn't relent. They hounded me relentlessly, until, in a fit of rage, I told them that it involved the willing sacrifice of a child pure of heart. I figured that would be the end of that. I was such a fool.”
He looks down with a sad fond smile, and caresses the heart gently as tears begin to trickle down his face.
She came to me with her mother, my daughter, and said ‘Grampy, it's ok. You won't be sick anymore and then you can make everyone else not sick anymore!’ She was so brave, my little sunflower. She even looked like a little sunflower that day, with a riot of little yellow ribbons in her hair… She was still smiling right up to the moment I took her soul.”
“This is all that's left of her,” gesturing to the heart. “Her soul keeps me alive. It is ‘between’ somehow. I don't know what will happen to her if it is every destroyed. Will she go somewhere evil? Somewhere better? Or will she just be lost to limbo? In all my research I never learned. That fear is the only thing that's kept me from smashing it all these years. And the chance to learn how to bring her back.”
“Not that it matters now, I suppose. You've destroyed my research. You've burned all the fields. You've destroyed all the ‘Kin’. You've slaughtered the ‘Elders’ too. The few living, if you let any survive, will be dead by next winter from starvation and exposure. Everything is gone, or soon will be.”
“With one last look of sorrow he takes the heart in both hands, kisses it gently, and says ‘Forgive me, Sarah.’ When he crushes the surprisingly delicate heart, it crumbles to dust. The soft light immediately dissipates and plunges the room into darkness, save for his two glowing eyes. He stands up with a weary sigh, walks 15 feet up to the paladin and says ‘Finish it.’”
DM *in a chipper voice to Paladin player*: "Ok, your turn."
Paladin Player with all eyes on him, some of them quite damp: "Uh, I guess I attack?"
As he reaches for his dice I interrupt "Don't bother. He's flat-footed, no armor or defensive spells. Your bonuses are higher than his AC."
Looking for his damage dice, "Then…"
DM: "Don't need to worry about that either. The Plague really did a number on him before he changed. He's only got 1 hp. He's dead. And that heart was his phylactery in case you didn't gather, so he's dead dead. Congratulations. You won. You rule an empty kingdom, from a decaying castle, surrounded by a barren wasteland of death and destruction wrought by your own hands. The end.
The silence was deafening.