One of God's own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.” -Hunter S. Thompson

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Killer DM And The Gritty Game

I’ve never really understood the mind set behind being a killer DM. I mean I can see the appeal to a certain degree, but when it comes down to it, as a DM it’s easy to kill characters. As a DM your word is that of God. As the clichéd saying goes with great power comes great responsibility. On some level there is this unwritten, and unspoken contract between the DM and players that the DM will not abuse his power of Godhood lest he bring down the wrath of the players. Whom, will in turn leave to worship a less blood thirsty deity.

When it comes down to it the DMs role is to be fair. He is to remain impartial, keep things entertaining and challenging for the players. It’s a fine line, and one that can be easily crossed in the heat of the moment. Maybe I’m just a pussy of a DM, because I take no satisfaction in killing PCs. I want my players to succeed, yet I defiantly don’t want it to be a cake walk. The way I see it, its my job to beat the PCs to within an inch of their fictional lives, make them beg and scrap by for every advantage, and then when they reach the victory line successful, it’s all that more meaningful to the players.
Lately I’ve been thinking about running a more gritty kind of game. This is something the older editions of D&D had, as well as games like Call of Cthulhu, or Legend of the Five Rings. One wrong move on the part of the character and he might as well kiss his ass good-bye. Yet I hesitate.
The problem I keep coming back to is that if one or two people in the party dies its OK. The story can carry on. But if it’s a TPK, then everything that has been gained over months or years of gaming comes to mean absolutely zero.
As an example, I ran the Call of Cthulhu campaign Shadows of Yog-Sothoth for an old group of players I had. They went through much of the campaign investigating the various mysteries thrown at them. They began to develop a nice relationship with various NPCs and each other. But most of all they came to develop this burning hatred for the main villain. When they got the chance they were going to make sure that this guy paid dearly for his sins and the pain, suffering, and evil he had caused.
But then they were all wiped out by some invisible monsters that they had no freaking chance of defeating.

The player’s all took it well. Almost too well. In fact I feel like despite this being a game players should have a certain amount of a healthy attachment to their characters. This isn’t fucking Super Mario Brothers. There’s no up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, A, B Konami code to give you a hundred lives. It’s a ROLE-playing game. Can you really be taking your character seriously if you don’t give a shit if he dies? If your playing a goofy light hearted game that’s one thing. But if you feel the need to give your character a serious name, and a plausible background story why the fuck wouldn’t you care if your character died?

When I think about all this it makes me wonder if perhaps I take the game too seriously. But is it too much to ask for a serious game? Do I need to pack up my dice and books and call it quits? Or are there others out there who feel as I do?

Back to my story. So the players died, and so did the story. Sure they rolled up new characters, and we finished the campaign. Yet at the conclusion of it all it just felt forced and hollow. The villain in question died, yet it was an anti-climactic death with very little meaning behind it. I mean this was the culmination of one of the few campaigns I’ve ever run that saw it’s way to it’s proper end, and I felt very unsatisfied as a DM.

So my question to all you out there reading this, What’s up with the killer DM thing and how do you stop it from just becoming a player vs. DM thing? How do you keep the tension up in a gritty game without having the TPK and ruining everything thats come before?


  1. "The way I see it, its my job to beat the PCs to within an inch of their fictional lives..."

    I may be a minority on this (I certainly see this sort of sentiment expressed a lot) but I've never really seen my job as DM to be "hard" much less "killer."

    Not that a game should be free of challenges (and sometimes deadly ones)--it should not--but it seems to me predicated on the view that there is some sort of linear "victory" to be achieved in an rpg, i.e. one "wins" if one clears out the dungeon or defeats the big bad. While these are certainly lowercase "v" victories to achieve, I've always viewed rpgs as being free of winners and loser--the playing is the thing.

    The journey is the goal not the destination.

    Now that idea in and of itself need not make a DM less "killer" but it sort of removes the thoughts of "I've got to put obstacles in the players' way to make 'em earn this" as there isn't really anything to earn.

    Different strokes, and all that, I guess. Hell, if I wanted to real challenge my players I'd throw in more situations were they've got role-playing talking info out of NPCs--that gives them more trouble and traps or fights! ;)

  2. Thats a great point Trey about the game being a journey rather than the destination. For some reason I always feel so compelled and rushed to just get it over with that I miss the scenery on the way to the destination.