How bad can it get for the PCs?

by mshrm

I’ve seen a couple of threads on the SJ Games forums (here and here) that got me thinking. One is talking about the maximum damage one should use against PCs. The other is discussing the assumptions behind Dungeon Fantasy, including how often a GM should do things like nerf the wizard with an anti-magic zone or use flying enemies against parties limited to ground movement. The question is, how bad can (or should) the GM make life for the PCs?

My answer always seems to be: “Pretty darn bad.”

Is it OK for an adversary monster to do enough damage to drop the party’s squishies to where they’re making death checks?  Sure thing. Particularly if that monster is some sort of berserk, slobbering, ten-foot-tall monstrosity with nigh-inappropriate piercings. It’s just false advertising to field something that ugly and have it hit like a feather. Is it OK for a gnome to punch like that? Probably not… unless there’s been some mention of how this gnome wears a Girdle of Giant Strength, or some other clue that this gnome is unusual.

Is it OK to throw flying adversaries at the party, even if they don’t carry missile weapons and will be generally helpless?  Absolutely! It shouldn’t come as a shock to encounter flying enemies in a fantasy world. The game that made dungeon crawls a thing to do was named after a monster that can fly, after all. The movie Jason and the Argonauts had a harpy fight, and it came out in 1963.

Is it OK to sprinkle around things like anti-magic areas, monsters with magic resistance, and meteoric iron locks to offset the power of magic to solve problems? Yup. If the PCs can do it, so can others. There’s a spell to remove mana from an area, and there’s another to provide magic resistance. Meteoric iron is available to anybody who’s willing to pay the markup. It’s a sure bet, if your PCs were worried about being ripped off by wizards, they would quickly pursue all three.

If you’re going into the dungeon, you should be prepared to meet (like the song says) “things that crawl, and things that fly, and things that creep around on the ground”, things “that’d make a strong man cry with fright”. You should know that it’s a hostile environment, chock full of creatures that want nothing more than to eat your braaaaiiiiiiins…. and some are surprisingly clever and go in for things like setting traps and laying ambushes. If the monsters aren’t that smart, your fellow adventurers are. Anything your party comes up with is fair game as a tactic for their rivals and enemies to use.

For verisimilitude, and for the challenge, the GM has to include things that the party can’t easily handle. If the PCs can waltz in and make off with the MacGuffin without any trouble, you’re faced with the dual problem of explaining why somebody hasn’t already done so, and figuring out what to do to fill the rest of the evening.

Furthermore, there has to be a real risk. If the party pushes too hard, goes too far, overextends themselves… they’ve got to pay the price. If they refuse to believe that there are things out there that are too much for them, they need to learn. Education is often painful.

I’ve seen a lot of talk about how consequences aren’t fun. You can even see it in the evolution of monsters over time: the first rust monster would just outright destroy metal items with a touch, then it was updated to destroy some items eventually, and ended up performing some sort of alchemical transformation so the PCs can reclaim their lost items. Or something of that nature, anyway; I lost interest after hearing how it’s no fun to have to risk your character’s precious magic items. Sometimes you hear it about game mechanics. I saw something in passing, the other day, about how it’s no fun to be knocked out of combat, so monsters shouldn’t have special attacks like paralysis, or stunning, or whatever.

Of course, if you follow that line of logic to its tragic end, you realize that it’s no fun at all to have to sit out half the combat because the dragon killed your character… and you end up standing up cardboard cut-outs of dragons to hold the place of the real thing until they’re knocked down by a band of hooligans with duct-tape-and-rattan swords. Nobody misses out on the fun, then, you see. All the risk is sucked out. Seems to me, the fun gets sucked out, at the same time.

It’s no fun for anybody at the table to have the PCs roll over all opposition.  (Maybe on occasion, but not a steady diet.)  If the bad guys can’t touch ’em, they won’t be effective and the PCs will own them. The players will get bored and you end up with PC-on-PC violence.

Likewise, it’s no fun to watch the PCs die helplessly, either. I might joke about wanting to kill PCs, but there’s no enjoyment to be had in watching someone’s PC introduce himself shortly before slitting his wrists. (Seriously, if your character is suicidal, at least gear up for some sort of epic last stand. Distract the dragon while the other PCs sneak in to steal its treasure. Do something interesting. Think of your fellow players!) I’m not going to put a monster in the dungeon with the powers of “takes no damage from PCs” and “kills PCs at will”, because that would be boring for me.

If I, as the GM, wanted the PCs dead, I could just call for a plague to sweep the land.  “You all wake up dead. New characters all around!”  I could have the next random encounter be with a planet-killer asteroid.  “Even with Deflect +3, I don’t think your large shield can parry that.” Neither sounds like fun to me, or anybody else.

The sweet spot, the place where everybody has the most fun, both player and GM, is where the PCs are challenged but not overwhelmed. If there’s something they can’t take, they should be able to gather that information, and avoid it. If they’re walking through opposition with a yawn, they need to face steeper opposition. If they get hit, it should hurt… because that’s what makes it a fight worth having.