Attendant: How do you deal with players who try to break the game?
Gabe: Lie to them. Rob them. Drive them mad. Concoct impossible scenarios whose only outcome is their death.
And then, when their eyes glisten with shame and rage, drink their tears.
The Killer GM is the player’s worst enemy, and strives to be so, creating scenarios where the PCs have no choice but to die. It’s a different kind of agency denial than the railroading GM, who forces the players to go along with their story. The Killer GM marshals all the forces of the campaign setting against the PCs, and cackles with insane glee when one of them succumbs to the icy hand of death. This can be fun in certain settings, or for short term games, but in a long term campaign I’d never advocate this kind of strategy. However, I think there’s a lot of things to be learned from the parts that are fun, and that it’s worth being a bit of a Killer GM in any game.
My general stance on PC death is the same as it is on most anything in the game. PCs are responsible for their actions. In D&D and other games, the outcome of some sets of actions is death. There are games where death is nearly impossible, like Toon, 7th Sea, and Spirit of the Century, defeat being the sort of ultimate price one pays. There are other games where death is so frequent it’s a game mechanic, like Paranoia. As a GM, my role is to challenge PCs, and one of the ways to do that is to put their lives at stake, but challenging them isn’t the same thing as actively trying to kill them, which is the purview of the Killer GM.
But adding a bit of that Killer GM flavour can spice up ordinary challenges, especially combat and hazards. If the players feel like they aren’t just overcoming blocks of statistics but actually stifling your efforts, it makes every challenge more personal. Every critical hit becomes a reason to grin or curse, depending on what side of the die you’re on. It also raises the stakes by making them aware that death is a legitimate possibility. Sometimes we forget, or portray the GM as being a master of artfully losing to the PCs, rather than purposfully testing their mettle. There are lots of ways to make the players aware that their characters’ lives are at stake without summarily executing one, or even bending a rule, simply by stepping up the challenges and rewards.
I do think it’s important to step up the rewards, though. The mentality you’re trying to cultivate isn’t that of fearful peasants scratching out a living in the shadow of your mighty GM screen, but a good-natured attitude of “Who dares wins”, encouraging players to take risks and be prepared to gamble with everything they have, rather than feeling secure that there are a few things they never have to worry about losing. If PCs proceed with a legitimate concern of dying, it heightens the tension, and forces them to think more about how they conduct themselves. Next week, I’m going to talk about some ways you can cultivate the appearance of being a killer GM in your campaign, and the benefits of doing so. How do you make things personal for your players?