Thursday, May 12, 2011

Sucker Punching Your PCs

This post is in direct response to a conversation I had with a friend the other day. He's a new GM, and while he is doing well (I'd know, I'm in the game), he is having problems really challenging the players at times. See, he has two problems. One, is that everyone in the game has more RP experience than him, and in several cases more GM experience than him. Two, is that the players keep rolling incredibly well in this game. One player, rolling 7k3 (roll 7 D 10s, keep 3 of them. 10s explode) has managed to roll in the triple digits at least once per session. Now, my advice to the GM was to sucker punch us now and then, and this post is to give some ways to sucker punch your players and up the stakes.

The Disclaimer
This is not a technique that you want to use often, and can be taken as a page from the adversarial GM's playbook. If you do it right, you will up the tension in your game, and force your players to address problems in a different way than they normally would. Why would they have to do this? Well, because they've just been sucker punched, and thus are hurt.

So, how is this different from being adversarial and just hurting the PCs to go after them? Well, because you should be planning around the characters being hurt, and setting challenges appropriately for injured PCs. Remember, the idea is to up the tension, not murder your play group.

Now, with that out of the way, let's begin.

The Ambush
One of the first ideas I tell people to consider when they ask about challenging their PCs is to set up an ambush. So often PCs get the drop on the enemies, and that bit of surprise bonus can make a huge difference between total victory and failure. So, give the advantage to the adversaries every now and then. Let the PCs know that the fight has begun, when a giant drops into the middle of them and baseball bats one of the party members into a wall.

Now, this works better in systems like Mutants and Masterminds where the system has a built in method for paying the PC for being fiated against. You open the fight by kicking the player through the wall, you give them a hero point, and all is well. Hell, the hero point can be used to remove any negative impact from the hit. However, with other systems, you need to be a bit more creative. If the player has a consumable item on their stat sheet (like void in R&K, or the luck trait) then giving them one of those can help to pay for the fiat as well.

Also, something to keep in mind with this is that you don't even have to do damage to make it effective. Drop the enemy in, and knock a few players prone and scatter their characters a bit. Then, when the fight starts and the other enemies show up, the players aren't in position and have to spend that first round regrouping. It can shake the combat up rather nicely too.

Add A Dash Of Spice
I'm not saying to cheat (matter of fact, you can't cheat, you're the GM), but sometimes it can be fun to do things that the game doesn't have rules for. Now, I only recommend this in a game where you also let the PCs try things, but sometimes life happens, and the PC just has to react.

For an example of this, lets take a modern combat scenario. The PCs have taken cover on one side, and are fighting some enemy force. The next thing the PCs know, the GM is asking them for reflex checks as a volley of grenades bounces over their cover and lands at their feet. The PCs make their rolls, and dive over their cover - or off to the side - to avoid the grenades. Now, they may be exposed to further enemy fire, and at the very least are prone and out of position. Very likely, at least one of them dropped their gun in the dive for safety.

Either way, you've just spiced up the combat, and added a bit more challenge to how it ends.

You Can Only See So Far
This is the last one I'm going to go over for today, but it is also one of the more important to remember. See, people can only see so far. A wall blocks line of sight, and that means we can't see around a corner. People can only hear so well, and it is highly improbable that you're going to hear a gun cock when you are in the middle of a battlefield. So, use that when setting up your ambushes and traps.

Now, I'm not saying that you remove the notice roll entirely, just that you limit how effective/protecting it can be. So, for example (and I did this recently,) the PC rounds a corner and gets a notice roll. They fail the notice roll, and thus are penalized (higher difficulty on the reflexes roll), which they also fail due to the penalty. They aren't able to get away from the heavy machine gun waiting in ambush around the corner, and get shot hard a few times. Had the player made the notice roll, they'd have gotten a bonus on the reflexes roll as they immediately saw the threat and could react quickly. Had the player made the reflexes roll, then they would have taken half damage and not been hit so hard.

That's right, the reflexes roll to save themselves isn't a Hit or Dodge check, it is a Full Damage or Half Damage check. Now, before you come at me with pitchforks for being adversarial, I'd like to point out that many systems (including D&D up to at least 3.5) didn't even give the perception notice to help out with things like this. Many traps and every area of effect attack had a rule that the player could make a saving throw for half damage. Meaning that once the trap was triggered, or the second that the Mage cast Fireball, everyone in the effect area was taking at least 1/2 damage (unless they were a rogue.) So, whats wrong with using it in your game now?

Repeat Disclaimer
I just want to repeat that these tricks are basically a form of playing dirty with your PCs. You are doing things to up the tension, and to hurt their characters for more drama. Don't over do it, and make sure you scale your threats appropriately. If you want an example of how rare it should be: how often is Batman injured badly enough that he is on edge for the majority of a storyline (barring big events like Joker)? Not very often. In fact, in the five seasons or so of the Batman Animated Series, they only really featured it in one episode. Now, in a game you may want to use it more often, but I still stand by keeping it rare. Using it occasionally makes it special, and makes the added tension stick out.

So, do you have anything to add? Other fun tricks or ways to up the tension and challenge the players? Ways to stop those pesky dice from robbing your mood with crit after crit? I'd love to hear them!


  1. Thank you for giving me a guide on how to kill you guys. Maybe tomorrow I can strive for the coveted Full Party Wipe. :P

    I have a serious hangup about being unfair, both to the players and myself, and so I think what I'm doing is giving the players too much opportunity to detect planned ambushes or wiggle out of them. But I think, from the stuff in this article and what I saw in the Deathwatch game, I'm starting to get the hang of it.

  2. Giving a check or two to detect things, especially if PCs are being cautious, isn't a bad thing. Sometimes though, however rarely, you just gotta let it rip. Sometimes the bad guys just get the drop on you, or the fighting is just ridiculously damn hard.

    Endless Waves is another way that can be done, but well, you can figure it out :D

  3. Weird, this post randomly vanished... Well, it is back now

  4. Legend of the Five Rings, but it is the same dice rolling system.