This is an article I wrote several years ago – about five, in fact. I thought it was worth resurrecting and archiving here.
People run many types of role-playing game and styles of gaming have changed over the years, but in general your average D&D game is made of two components: role-playing and gaming.
Sounds stupid? Well, in a way, it is. However, it’s an important insight.
When you come down to it, combat is a huge part of a D&D game. That combat provides the “game” aspect of a RPG: where you apply rules and make decisions in order to fulfill a goal: that of defeating your opponents. The role-playing portion involves much of what leads up to that combat: the interaction your characters have with NPCs, the story of the game, your characters’ backgrounds, to just name a few parts of it.
One gets the sense that many of the early D&D games had little role-playing and much gaming. This is probably accurate. It isn’t a bad thing, either. The amount of role-playing compared to gaming you like having in your game is strictly a personal thing – and a consensus between the players and the DM. If a devoted role-player ends up in a group of gamers, you are likely to have some conflict about where the game goes. This is normal, and you don’t have to worry about it too much. If the group can’t work together, then the group just has to change it membership until it does work together.
In a role-playing orientated campaign, the story you collectively build and the personae of the various characters become much more important, and where most of your effort is placed. As a result, character death probably occurs rarely, and when it does occur it is because of an agreement between the player and DM that the death is suitable for the campaign, heroic or tragic as appropriate.
Obviously, if you have to wait for your players to agree that their characters should die, you’ll never be known as a Killer DM – well, not unless you have some strange players – so, in truth, this article isn’t for you. Being a Killer DM requires you to be running a group that is interested in the gaming side of things. Which is not to say that a bunch of role-players can’t also enjoy the gaming side, for they certainly can! However, they have to agree that the continued life of their character is less important than having the game rules be broken.
It is very easy to be a Killer DM, in fact. Just drop a Great Wyrm red dragon on a party of 1st level characters, and presto: dead characters! There’s just one slight problem with this technique: your players will never play with you again.
No, to be a true Killer DM, your players have to keep coming back. They must enjoy your campaign enough so that when an unfortunate accident occurs to their character, they will cheerfully accept it as the whim of Fate, and will cheerfully reach for their dice to roll up a new character.
This has a lot to do with what makes them gamers, and not just role-players. My dictionary defines a game as a “contest played according to rules and decided by skill, strength or luck.” Is there any doubt that a D&D combat is a game? It certainly has rules, and the result is dependent on both skill and luck.
A large part of what makes a gamer is the challenge of winning the game: the characters being able to defeat the monsters and stand triumphant. This challenge only exists if there is the risk of failure – and in D&D combat, that failure can mean the death for your players’ characters.
If you fudge the dice so that the characters always survive every combat, then there is no challenge, which leads to boredom, and possibly the Monty Haul campaign. “Another Great Wyrm red? Where’s my vorpal sword of slaying dragons?”
The Monty-Haul campaign is not inevitable for this style, of course: if the gaming isn’t that important, then you’re probably running a role-playing dominant campaign. I’m just giving you a warning: the gamers in your group will not enjoy it if combat does not provide a challenge. (Of course, death doesn’t have to be the only result of combat; if they can lose combats and not die, but still suffer a penalty, then you have an alternative).
Conversely, if you fudge the dice to make the monsters always win, then there’s no challenge there either! The result is always pre-determined; soon enough your players will realize the inevitability of their fates and find a better game elsewhere.
Does this mean that you can never “fudge” the dice? By no means, but you should strive to avoid it where possible. Altering die rolls should always be aimed at having a combatant survive, not at inflicting more damage. You should very rarely do it for a monster, unless that monster is a major villain. After all, the characters might always fall victim to the next foe!
Being a Killer DM is actually not about killing the PCs – much of it is about keeping them alive, whilst staying true to the spirit of the rules. More correctly, it’s about keeping your players interested enough in the campaign so that the occasional PC fatality is just seen as a possibility of a properly-run game, not the inevitable conclusion.
The truth is that it is by carefully choosing the challenges and monsters they come up against that you can best become a Killer DM. By keeping the challenges appropriate to the PCs, you keep the players interested, and you avoid the two traps of the Impossible Campaign and the Monty Haul Campaign. However, by the very act of keeping things challenging, you admit the possibility that PCs might die. The hardest job for a DM is this: selecting monsters that will challenge the players. Monsters that have a chance of killing the PCs if they’re stupid or unlucky, but most likely will fall victim to the PCs, and have the players looking back on the combat thinking: “We played well to survive that!”
Not, “We were lucky to survive.” Instead, “We played well.” It is when they know that their survival is due to their skill as players, and not due to luck, nor DM intervention. When it is due to them playing well, then you are running your campaign properly.
The converse to this is that when they don’t play well, or are unlucky, they have to pay the price: one or more characters may die. Most often, this isn’t about being unlucky on just one die roll, or making just one bad decision: if characters die, it’s most likely going to be because of a string of bad rolls or decisions. As the DM, you have to put aside your desire to intervene, and let the dice fall as they will.
It is when the PCs get into trouble, that your skills as a DM are going to be most called for. When do you allow them to escape, and when do you allow them to die? They are hard questions for most DMs. I feel that when you pit characters against tough encounters, it is important to allow them an option for escape, and to recover from a bad decision. This becomes quite essential when you realize that the encounter you thought was merely challenging, was instead extremely deadly.
That the PCs can recognise an encounter as too difficult, even if their players don’t think so, should be something you consider. Once the characters actually become involved in an encounter, then it becomes much more difficult to sway the outcome. Allowing the PCs to notice their foe a distance away is a good first step. Not concealing too much information the PCs would discover is also important – if they’re up against fire giants, tell them that they are if they’ve faced them before or would know from the descriptions. Indeed, you can also tell them if their characters would be worried by an upcoming encounter – surely their characters know much more folklore about various monsters than the DM and the players do.
When the PCs do become involved in the combat, it is often not until one of their number dies that they will realize they are outmatched. A superior party will have an escape plan. If you are playing with novices, it is probably worth while discussing such matters with them beforehand. You should also not foil their plans in an unfair manner: allow them where possible to work. It’s no good if the entire party dies every second session!
If they leave a dead or unconscious companion in the clutches of the enemy, allow them a chance to rescue him. The raise dead spell is quite affordable in the standard D&D campaign, and level loss will teach that player a lesson.
On rare occasions, when it seems like the entire party will be killed, then you have to make the toughest decision for any DM: do you let the party die, or do you save them? I’ve done both, and the primary rationale behind my decisions were based on how the party was playing: were they playing stupidly, or were they the victims of an encounter I should not have sent against them?
In the former case, I let the characters die. New characters are easy enough to roll up. If the campaign story had allowed it, perhaps they would have been recovered by an expedition mounted by their friends, but that was not the case. Killing an entire party adds to the respect your players will show you: they know that if they play badly, they will pay the price.
In the latter case, the characters were saved by divine intervention – although I’ve also had powerful NPCs help out in similar occasions. This may seem hypocritical, but in many cases, you’ve got to do something like this for the good of the campaign. Especially if the PCs have been doing things like saving kingdoms, they’ve got to receive the reward for their services at some point. Being saved like this can also bring new obligations – which is good for the campaign’s story.
If the party died because of simple bad luck, then the decision is much harder, and I leave it to you to solve that one yourself.
Note that whilst I’ve discussed most of this in terms of combat, it also applies to traps and cursed items. Avoid arbitrary resolutions: you picked the wrong lever, so you died. Try to always allow the players to properly evaluate the situation and make the best choice.
For the game portion of D&D to work, you must try to apply the rules impartially, and present a proper range of challenges to the players: not too hard as to kill them outright, and not so consistently easy that no challenge exists. (You can get away with a few easy challenges, but it’s hard to get away with even one challenge too hard). If your players are challenged by the game, then they will enjoy it more. They must be rewarded for their successes, and punished for their failures.
If you get the balance right for your group, you may find that PCs occasionally die – and whilst the players won’t ever enjoy it happening to their characters, they will consider it part of the game, and part of what makes the game enjoyable. With the challenge of the game will come the longevity of the game, and with that eventually the kill-count that allows you to be called a Killer DM, and the peculiar triumph of knowing that your players wouldn’t have it any other way.