Cooperate with the bad guys? Sometimes, it’s the only way



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The enemy of my enemy is my friend. -Arabic Proverb

The vast majority of Dungeons & Dragons adventures involve the forces of good, represented by the heroes, striking against or foiling the plans of the forces of evil, represented by the villains and monsters selected by the dungeon master (DM). It is logical to assume that this pattern is common because it helps lead to a quality game – players like to see villains get what they deserve, and love to give villains what they deserve – but like any pattern, DMs can gain as much from breaking it as they can from following it.

One way to break the pattern involves introducing a new evil into the campaign, an evil powerful enough to scare the villains the heroes have faced thus far in the campaign, and an evil so powerful that the heroes must actually join forces with their erstwhile foes if this new, great evil is to be defeated.

Defining the new evil

It is important for the new evil to be too powerful for the heroes and their allies to face alone. Fortunately, the phrase “too powerful” is relative to the strength of the party, so the new evil can be anything from a hobgoblin tribe with expansionist goals to a demon lord approaching on the horizon. The DM’s goal is to select a foe that is obviously too powerful for the heroes, but not so unconquerable that the party would decide to surrender or flee.

Setting the stage

There are two basic ways to introduce the new threat into the game. The first option requires that the heroes be aware of the scope and power of the emerging evil. The heroes can be informed of the danger through a single, unexplainable and overwhelming encounter, or they may begin to develop increasing unease about the new power over a period of several sessions, perhaps by facing increasingly capable agents of the evil during the course of other adventures. The heroes may even see evidence that established campaign villains have also suffered at the hands of the new evil.

When the heroes understand the overwhelming power they face, the DM can direct campaign events to a point where the great evil threatens not only people, places or institutions of value to the heroes, but those of established campaign villains as well, who logically appear to be far lesser evils. After all, while none of the heroes want to see that evil temple gain power and followers, at least the evil temple only wants to dominate the area, not destroy it, like the demon lord who views the heroes’ homeland as a new feeding ground for his infernal troops. Suddenly, that evil high priest doesn’t seem like such a bad fellow, and the heroes may decide to send him a message asking for aid, since the heroes and the priest currently have compatible goals. If the heroes don’t think to do this, the DM may allow the evil priest to contact the heroes with the same offer.

The second option for introducing the great evil is to have an existing campaign villain discover the scope of the new threat well before the heroes do. The introduction begins when an emissary from the villain visits the heroes, warns of the great doom to come, and humbly requests their aid before it is too late. In such cases, heroes are justifiably suspicious of the emissary’s motives, but are faced with a quandary: if the emissary is lying, the heroes will end up walking into a trap, but if he speaks the truth and the heroes ignore him, the emerging evil may become too powerful to stop.

Running the adventure

An adventure featuring cooperation between heroes and their former foes provides rich role-playing opportunities, but it does require some unusual elements, including:

  • A meeting between the heroes and their former foe, during which they agree to cooperate against this new threat;
  • Some sort of temporary truce, under which both sides agree to suspend their differences until the new threat is eliminated. This truce may require signs of good will from either side, such as an exchange of hostages or deposits of wealth which become forfeit if one side breaks the bargain;
  • One or more combat encounters, during which the heroes and (former) villains fight side by side against their common foe;
  • Situations where a villain or hero is in a position to heal or save the life of a former foe; and
  • An encounter, taking place after the great evil is thwarted, where the heroes and villains end their partnership and go their separate ways – for the time being.

Apart from these elements, a cooperative adventure is structured much the same as any other, with the exception of abnormally numerous or powerful foes to compensate for the party’s augmented strength.

Have you run an adventure like this in a D&D campaign before? If so, please consider sharing your experience in a comment to this post.

The link to the photo uploaded with this post is here.


5 comments on “Cooperate with the bad guys? Sometimes, it’s the only way

  1. ClefJ says:

    Great post, potentially a classical experience for an RP group. It inspires me for my next session actually, where I am rather stuck on where to go.

    I have not done this before, but perhaps I could contribute an example: The CG canadian tv show “Reboot!” has a wonderful example between the hero and series-long villain teaming up to defeat ‘the Web’. They are successful when their armies and minds join… Yet what’s a great villain if not one who employs a well played double-cross afterwards? ;D Alas, that might be expected for veteran players.

    • Alric says:

      A keen observation. I probably should have mentioned something about the potential for double-cross by either party after the greater threat is neutralized.

  2. Philo Pharynx says:

    I’ve run and played in a couple of games of this. In one case a demon’s demiplane had been taken over by an undead dragon that was a much greater threat. It was trapped and being drained of it’s energies. It wanted free and contacted the players to help. One of the players was a paladin, and he chose to cooperate, even though it would lead to the loss of his powers. In another game, our foes bound a devil and set it upon us. We slew it’s allies and almost killed the devil before it teleported away, but we had a lot of lucky rolls int he battle. The next time it appeared it offered to parley. It knew a battle with us was risky on both sides. It was told to slay us before we exited a magically hazardous area and it had to follow those instructions to the letter. But if it helped us to undo the magical hazard, then it would need to fight us. We succeeded, and it left. We expect to face him again, and probably with more explicit instructions.

  3. […] Cooperate with the bad guys? Sometimes, it’s the only way “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” This is a long-lived axiom, and I’m not sure of the source. Probably Sun Tzu or someone like that. I don’t have time to research it at the moment (but leave a comment if you know the source!) Sometimes things get so horribly bad that the PCs are forced to turn to someone who would normally be considered an enemy in order to defeat a greater evil. I’ve personally had a Cleric of Bahamut turn from the Platinum Dragon in favor of demonic allies in order to gain greater powers to attempt to overthrow an evil emperor and his countless inquisitors. […]

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