I recently acquired the reputation for being a killer GM and while I don’t dispute the moniker I would like to put forward the reasoning (as I see it) for how I earned my reputation as a killer GM.
I‘ve been playing Shadowrun for the last 14 years on a consistent basis and regularly show up to games with little more than a single sentence summary of what game is about. The reason for this is because the player characters are the protagonists and outside my control. Preparing something that might not be used is not in my best interest. Instead I focus the game on the PCs and their struggle in the shadows. One thing the PCs are going to have to struggle with is the prospect of their character dying. However what is more important to me is their journey towards death, if a player cannot look back and understand they had it coming then I’ve failed to convey the actual risk to the player.
Circling the drain
In post-game discussion I often refer to the lead up of a character’s or party’s death as circling the drain. It’s an apt description because of the two principles I employ during a game combine to create an escalating amount of risk that gets harder to escape as the PCs accept more and more. The first principle I employ is explaining the failure of skill checks. To summarize the linked article as it applies to my games, if a player fails a skill check then I need to explain the failure in the game world. For a failed infiltration check a character might witness a beam of flashlight from security guard as he double checks the noise the player just made. Now the player has a few options but must work with additional risk (the security guard):
- 1. Re-try the infiltration test and hope he succeeds because if he fails it’s almost certain the security guard will find him.
- 2. The character could run. This option will make noise and put security on alert and possibly jeopardize the run.
- 3. Fight or subdue the security guard and possibly risk the character’s life.
If the PC goes with option 1 but fails then it’s more likely he will need to confront the guard. Which leads to principle #2, combat is the resolution of all the risk the character has accepted so far. When combat is started all the additional risks (security guards, cameras, Lonestar) come into play and if the party successfully defeats their opponents then most of these risks will be neutralized and needn’t be carried on through the rest of the game. However there is a corollary to principle #2, don’t bring knife to a gun fight. The PCs need to know what level of risk they’re currently carrying and be prepared to counter it. If the PCs show up with pistols and civilian hostages then they need to expect hostage negotiators and SWAT teams.
These two principles combined with my PC focused lack of prep often put the characters in the line of fire as their decisions create the story in real time. I don’t mind this level of risk when it comes to the PC’s lives because Shadowrun has rules for death (and avoiding it after the fact) and I don’t pretend to rule-0 this. Instead I let my players know through in-game clues that death is fast approaching. Together we play in a sandbox campaign and a failed run isn’t the end of the PC’s story but death is. It’s up to the players to know when the risk is too high to proceed.