Thursday, February 11, 2010

Am I a Killer DM?

We had another character death in this week's session. One player lost his 4th character since June 2009. In addition to this, we have had two other players lose a character each.

...the party encountered two wandering medusae, disguised as fair maidens. In the ensuing combat, the ranger was petrified. One of the medusae was reduced to 9 hit points and begged for her life, telling the party that she knew of a flower growing in the dungeon that could be rendered into an unguent that would restore the petrified ranger. The second medusa, laid low by the magic-user's stinking cloud spell, was bound and had a bag placed over her head. The party held the second medusa hostage while the first led the mutant fighter (who can see with echo vision and this did not fear her gaze) to find the plant.

...medusae are neutral evil. As the garden keepers of the citadel of Chaos, the sisters had adorned themselves with a special musk that rendered them immune to the more dangerous inhabitants of the garden. One such inhabitant was a variation of the amber creeper... a plant that moves in hypnotic patters to lure unsuspecting prey into its fronds, wherein their brains are sucked out and replaced with a new plant bulb. Well, guess what plant the medusa led the fighter to? He failed his saving throw.

Twenty five minutes later, the party decides they've been had, and escort the second medusa to the garden. They find their companion dead and the flower they originally sought mangled and cut. (By the first medusa, of course) They scraped together enough of the dead plant to make a paste that managed to revive the ranger, who had to make a die roll to come back normal. The party released the second medusa, but they still suffered the loss of a companion.

I have never had a campaign kill this many players. There are a number of reasons for it, I think... firstly, I do not fudge die rolls anymore. I don't fudge attack rolls, traps, etc. I use monsters that have poison, petrification, and even instant-kill attacks, though they are in the minority. I include situations where not putting two and two together can get you killed. My games do not have a pre-determined story, so I leave the players to keep themselves alive, rather than me trying to keep them alive.

...on the other hand, I allow my players the opportunity to gain fantastic boons as well. This last session, they found a book that they could use to alter the destinies of themselves and even their arch-enemy. They found lasers and grenades and other weird technology. They befriended a village full of mystical druid types who gave them a free place to stay for some time, as well as access to magic to remove curses and the like. I try to throw in wild, strange rewards to balance out the strange and deadly things they encounter.

...and yet, sometimes I think maybe I am too lethal and too capricious. My campaign has lost three players, though two of them left because they were a couple who had a baby.

Perhaps it was a stretch to call myself a killer DM, but I certainly am a lot more deadly than I was previously. In fact, the player who has lost several characters used to say I was one of the softest DMs he knew. (That was back in our 3.5 days, which are forever behind me.)

So Josh, if you're reading this... erm, sorry you got killed again!


  1. Is the Guy who runs "Save vs Poison" a killer DM? Well let me ask you this; is James Maliszewski(of Grognardia fame) part of the OSR?

  2. In my mind, a killer DM is someone who purposely tries to kill the party, and delights in doing so.

    What do the players think?

  3. Lasers and grenades for a few dead characters is an fantastic deal I would take in seconds esp if the characters were those of my dear friends and not my own :)

    > wherein their brains are sucked out and replaced with a new plant bulb

    You are an evil bastard("complementary" meaning) DM, not a killer DM.

    Player mistake 1, believing anything a evil snake headed women who was recently trying to kill you says.
    Player mistake 2, splitting the party.
    Player mistake 3, going alone with an evil creature to a lower level of the dungeon.

  4. By my book, you are not a killer GM. You appear to be very straightforward and play things as they come - no fudging, let the dice fall where they may. I note that you also balance things out in terms of corresponding rewards so all the crap your players go through have fair payoffs. I see nothing wrong with this. I may sound a bit 'anti-player/pro-GM' to some but the way I see it, you're a balanced and fair GM. I'm saying this because I know how you feel and I also try to run my games the way you described you run yours.

  5. If you mean "Killer" as Awesome! or Bitchin' than yes, you sound like a killer DM.

    Like Norman said, they party exhibited poor judgment and paid for it.

    I'm all about big risk/big reward gaming.

  6. no worries already have a new character thought out was just hoping to get that char to avengard so he could be draxxix carter of tarraxia

  7. Nah, you're not a killer DM. Work harder at it and I'm sure you'll get there eventually, though.

  8. When players go marching into dungeons and fighting critters of all types players will die. Dying is fine. Being bored is not. And it sounds like you and your players are having a blast.

  9. I think the only people that can really answer this question are your players.

    If you're seriously thinking you're being too harsh (and I sense a certain amount of tongue in cheek here), ask them. Better to talk it out with them than suddenly find yourself without a game.

  10. I usually think of a "Killer DM" as one who plans things so PCs are hopelessly overmatched or loads up on the save-or-die traps so that it's nearly impossible to get through the first couple of corridors in the dungeon.

    A lot of people are used to PCs going on and on as grand heroes in a novel-like story. That's fine and all, if that's the sort of game you want to play.

    Personally, I don't have too much trouble with the threats being real threats.

  11. When two medusas are hanging out, how do they interact without turning each other to stone. I just don't get this...

    I don't think you're a killer DM, at least not by my definition. Do you hound your players' characters into an early grave? When they've already been rocked back on their heels do you hit them with wandering badass monsters before they have a chance to recover? Do you set up trap rooms so fiendish that they may as well be considered "no win scenarios" - and spring 'em on PCs without warning?

    Any one of these things might make you a killer DM, in my book. I was a right bastard with my players when I was a kid, and was often accused of being a "killer DM" because I had a tendency to not cut players a break...I took an antagonistic role to their protagonists. I rewarded them richly, but I set up death traps and didn't give breathers, and let's face it...the DM holds the cards, and young DMs sometimes come loaded for bear when the players are loaded for softball.

    If PCs die in your game, you're not a killer. Some of your players may have been unlucky to die multiple times (or may need to step up their game). Instant-kill effects are part of the game and are present for a are saving throws. I think you're okay.

  12. Several things come to mind here...

    First, as the sole player in this campaign with my original character, I might be a tad biased.

    Second, I whole heartedly agree with Norman:

    >>>>You are an evil bastard("complementary" meaning) DM, not a killer DM.

    Player mistake 1, believing anything a evil snake headed women who was recently trying to kill you says.
    Player mistake 2, splitting the party.
    Player mistake 3, going alone with an evil creature to a lower level of the dungeon.<<<<<

    Third, you always provide us with hints and ways out. I can not recall any instances of bad things that we could not have avoided if we had chosen to.

    Fourth, I hate it when a DM fudges roles to get the results she wants. We roll dice because the results are supposed to be somewhat random. You want a predictable story? Go read a book. There are plenty of good ones. For that matter, if as a DM you want to tell a linear story, go design a video game.

    Finally, you are not a killer DM, that is not your goal. You are as previously mentioned, an evil bastard. We all love you for it. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT FOR THE LOVE OF GOD CHANGE YOUR STYLE.

  13. Thanks, everyone,for your input. I think the jury (including two of my players) has concluded that I am not a killer DM, though perhaps a bastard DM.

    I didn't really think I was a killer DM, but from my experience, most killer DMs don't believe they are killer DMs. My style has changed so much that I thought it a fair question to ask of myself. I want my game to be fun and interesting, but I also want it to be challenging and I feel that by making things dangerous and sometimes chucking balance out the window, (in both hazard and reward) I make player decision the thing that drives the game.