Killer GM: A How To

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Last week I talked about why, although being a Killer GM isn’t something that’s desirable, there’s a a way to borrow tricks from their playbook to spice up the game. Having players believe that you have some kind of personal investment in their destruction can heighten tension and make them more personally involved in overcoming challenges. Now I’m going to lay out some strategies you can use to instill this idea in your players. 

The Evil Grin is Your Poker Face
That’s right. Worried about letting something show? Smile evilly. Practice in the mirror a bit if you have to, but just think about something dastardly and delightful for a bit and your face will probably follow suit. The presence of the grin can keep people guessing, and even if it becomes frequent enough that they start to ignore it, it just means that when you let it down, then people will really start to worry that you’re up to something. Which you undoubtedly are.

Every Crit is Worth a Snicker
I do this in D&D all the time, and highly recommend it. Roll a critical threat, or an exploding die? Chuckle as though the thought of possibly annihilating a PC with a ridiculous damage spike has just improved your day.  It’s the little things like this that make encounters seem more personal, and when a player survives a snickered crit, it’s as though they weathered a personal onslaught from all of your mighty GM powers. It helps to roll dice in public, so there can be no suspicion of fudging in order to get crits.

Next Time Gadget, Next Time!
Just as you chuckle when they’re on the edge, curse them a bit when they overcome an encounter. It has to seem personal for you, too. That’s what makes it believable. A bit of fist shaking can lead to some good laughs, and it can heighten tension for what’s to come. Sure they beat you this time, but what about what comes next?

When in Doubt, Laugh Maniacally
I’m serious. If you have a spare moment, flip through the Monster Manual and laugh to yourself. Some of my players actually wince when they see me poking around on my laptop and  I say “Hmm, that’s interesting.” What am I looking at? It doesn’t matter. Even if you get caught, and sometimes they know it’s nothing, that doesn’t mean that other times it won’t be something. Exude an impression of silently plotting against them, and watch how it changes their risk evaluations.

There’s a question of ethics here, that should be addressed. Doing these things essentially involves broadcasting social chaff in order to confuse your players’ perceptions about the game. This might be unethical in other circumstances (such as in politics, or in relationships), but as the GM you are empowered to exhibit moods which will enhance the game. Sometimes you may be confused for an actual Killer GM, which is okay, because you’re not, and demonstrably so. If you keep enough notes, it should be child’s play to show that your challenges aren’t impossible by any stretch of the imagination. If you find yourself actively trying to kill the PCs, rein it in a bit and think about whether or not you’re respecting their agency if you stack the deck against them.

I hope these tips help increase tension, and I’d love to get some pictures of your evil grins and maniacal laughs at the gaming table, or even stories about how you use these and other techniques to keep your players on edge. Let me know in the comment box below, and happy gaming!

6 comments

  • One of my favorite things is to dully explain a passage or corridor and then offhandedly ask, “What’s the party order again, just askin…”

    And as the Rogue announces he/she is now opening the chest, “Okay, your going to open the chest…who’s in the room again?” or, “Where is everyone else in the room?”

    The eruption of “oh -bleep-” and sudden fidgeting by the players just makes me feel all warm inside.

    • I do the party order thing quite a bit or casually ask, “So, exactly what do you guys have in your hands right now? And where is that really questionable Chaos item that you got last session? Uh-hunh. How is it wrapped? Is it just stuck in your pack?” Then, when they answer, I look down at my notes, write something, and say very slowly, “Ooookay.”

      • Love it! I utterly forgot about asking innocuous questions to put people on edge, and asking about the marching order always causes some tension. I also like to ask about minor NPCs, usually one’s hostile to the party. “Remember that guard from two towns ago, the corrupt one? What was his name again?” It usually serves a triple purpose. It reminds people about things that have happened, tells me what’s ending up in their notes, and makes them really suspicious about why I’d want to know that.

        Another technique I thought of is note passing. Pass notes to players now and again, making sure to write something down so people can see them take the time to read it. My favourite thing to do with this is write “I can’t tell you,” and take it back after they’ve read it, saying “Actually, give that back. It’s not time yet.”. When other players ask what it said, well…

    • No problem Nick – it#128&7;s still hogwash in Hogwarts, but the one where they go back in time and interfere with their future selves, I like that one a lot. I think it was the third part. Hey James, maybe I can turn the tables on you here and you can clear up an issue I’ve had for decades – what is it about LotR that makes it such a treasured English literary classic? I mean, I get Austen and I even get Dickens and Hardy, but hobbits, goblins and speaking in elvish?! It’s not even for kids, really – what is it that I’m not seeing?

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