Friday, May 18, 2012

Becoming a Killer DM: Enough Rope to Hang 'Em

 "H is for Hallways" by Jeff Easley, featured in Michael Curtis' The Dungeon Alphabet

The worthy GM never purposely kills players' PCs. He presents opportunities for the rash and unthinking players to do that all on their own.
Gary Gygax

Running a very deadly game practically requires a lot of player choice, e.g. a sandbox approach.

If you are railroading a party through a series of meticulously planned encounters they had damn well better be balanced.

(Aside: Today, 'balanced' is usually implemented - if not honestly interpreted - as "The PCs will succeed unless the players make fantastically bad choices or rolls". I was brought up differently: When my first AD&D character, a fighter, used a wish to "fight a worthy opponent over a fat purse" (so as to recover his honour with a duel and get some gold), the DM sent a guy actually slightly stronger than my fighter. My fighter died. Ever since, I've interpreted "worthy" as "stronger" and "balanced" as "has a 50% chance of killing you". If I forced my party into a series of really 'balanced encounters' - and without a chance to tip things in their favour through clever play - they'd be dead by the end of the session.)

If you are letting a party run loose in a sandbox, 'balanced encounters' are not much of a concern. As Gygax points out, the idea is to give the players enough rope to hang their characters with.

To wit:
Corridor A opens into a room marked with goblin graffiti and contains a large chest.
Corridor B opens into a room reeking of undeath and features a priceless* gem on a pedestal.

*Okay, not 'priceless'. Let's say 'worth one level each', by the calculations of the thief.

If the players choose corridor B you can run whatever deadly trap or encounter you have prepared. Flood the room with negative energy, teleport a dozen wights into the midst of the party etc. - knock yourself out!

And if the players figure out a way to get their grubby little hands on that gem - and there should be a way, not to mention clues! -, by all means: let them have it and level up. Great risks should yield great rewards.

If you are starting out as a Killer DM, take care to let the players choose which challenges to take on and which to back away from. You'll have far less compunctions about killing off PCs if they chose their own doom.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Death, Dying and TPKs

Poring over the excellent Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG I came upon rules for saving ostensibly dead characters:

Bleeding Out: There is a chance of saving a dead character by healing him very quickly (such as with a cleric’s ability to lay on hands). […]

I’m sure you are all familiar with similar rules. As the Swords & Wizardry White Box notes

[...] many referees allow characters to be ‘unconscious at 0 hp and not actually die until they reach some pre-determined negative number.

Whether one uses the ‘death at 0 hp’ approach or ‘dying’ rules has serious ramifications.

Most notably, ‘dying’ rules decrease individual risk but actually increase the chance of a TPK.

If the party’s fighter goes down after a brutal crit the best strategy might very well be retreat, i.e. cutting one’s losses and running. But if Bob’s character can still be saved the other players may want to continue fighting in the face of unfavorable odds.

In the latter case, the decision to fight or run is a tough one. I like confronting the players with tough choices but it bears pointing out that in this case, social pressure (whether overt or not) may well be involved.

The upside is that if the other players try to save their fallen comrade the players will almost certainly bond (or deepen their bonds) - regardless of whether they succeed or end up losing their characters as well.

The downside is that the atmosphere at the table might be seriously impacted if the player of a PC left behind harbours hard feelings.

The DM has to make some tough calls, too. Realistically, many monsters will concentrate their attacks on a fallen PC. A pack of ravenous wolves, for instance, will likely try to drag off the body of a not-quite-dead PC or tear him apart on the spot (i.e. start feeding).

But Bob’s already having a hard time and if the DM decides the monsters go after his poor PC he might feel picked on.

I think the best practice is to decide on – and communicate! – such behavior beforehand and/or to let the dice decide.

I'm not condemning 'dying' rules at all, but for DCC, I’ve cooked up the following house rule:

Damage and Death p. 93
PCs die at 0 hp. Period. 

More precisely, PCs are fatally wounded at 0 hp.

A PC who is not yet at -10 hp may continue fighting for a number of rounds equal to his level. He is considered to be fatally wounded. Neither medical attention nor mortal magic can save him. When his time is up, he dies.

For more of my DCC house rules, click here

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Becoming a Killer DM: Shock Therapy

The Executioner
A hidden blade slides down the doorway, mincing the two fighters and the cleric. The thief gets nine crossbow bolts in his back, and the magic user is hit by an intense beam of light, burning a hole through his head.
(“The 28 Types of Game Master”, by Scott Butler and J.D. Frazer)
A good first step on the road to becoming a Killer DM is to run a one-shot with a system and/or adventure that’s explicitly designed to kill off plenty of PCs (and I mean plenty, i.e. at least a dozen).

I can heartily recommend the 'character funnel' from DungeonCrawl Classics RPG where every player runs 2-4 characters (you can find my write-up of the funnel by way of the introductory adventure here) and good ol' Paranoia, where each PC has five clones waiting in the wings.

With such a one-shot, it should be easy to show your players that character death can be great fun. More importantly, running such an adventure can help you to overcome your inhibitions and (re)discover your killer instinct.

Have fun!