Friday, March 28, 2014

Burn It to the Ground and Salt the Earth.

Last night I was talking with an old friend and we got to speaking about his campaign that he's been running for the last year or so. Now my friend was convinced that he'd worked himself into a corner as a Dungeon Master and was seeking my advice to remedy his situation.
"The problem isn't that I don't have a story - I've got two hundred modules and a notebook full of ideas - it's that I can't challenge them. I let them use all of the books and they've min/maxed me to the point where I have to throw a damned Tarrasque at them to make it worth while and I'm half afraid they'd kill it."
I get calls like this every so often and the Dungeon Masters involved in these sorts of predicaments from my area and they usually want me to do either one of two things: come in and kill all their players for them; or give them a way to do it that doesn't smell like limestone. In this particular situation he already had the dynamite in hand but wanted to avoid coming across as a flustered prick incapable of dealing with his players ambitions and avarice. 

So we sat about talking out the complexities involved in robbing your players of their magical gear without them feeling like you're cheating them of something they've earned. He came up with contrived situations that smelled like traps from half way across the state and followed that by meandering his way through magical items that were given to their opponents that were far more powerful only to add at the end, "But they'll probably kill them and then I'll be in even worse shape."

Well, then it's time to burn it all down and salt the earth behind you.

"What do you mean?"

There are times when you're still having fun as a Dungeon Master that it's not only okay for your players to get the best of you, but preferable. This isn't one of them. They've pushed your game to the point where you're not having fun so it's time to push back and make it fun again for you, because I guarantee they're not having fun either. To do that we're going to strip everything away from them, piece by piece, and they're going to know what's happening. We'll start on the periphery with NPCs they know. 


Who's their favorite? Who do they like to talk to the most?

"That'd be Maggie St. John, she's a retired pirate who runs this little bar in -"

We're killing her and hanging her body on the front of the bar. Take it as far as you're comfortable with but over her head needs to be the words, 'Your Sins Are Remembered.'


Because that's the first step. After that we'll work our way through each of their contacts with variations on that message being scrawled above their dead bodies. 

"Okay. I can do that."

Good, because the next thing is going to make you uncomfortable. Whenever the players next leave their home base you're going to plunder their treasure horde. And after they get back and have their bitch fit, you're going to rob them in their sleep of their favorite magical gear.

"I don't know, that's going to piss them off."

That's the point. You want them mad and you're going to give them a target. Find someone they've wronged in the past. The long lost sister of a villain they killed and pissed on back when they were first level works, but you'll have someone they've wronged who wants revenge by this point. Either way you start dropping clues that this person is out there and that they're the one gunning for the players. 

Make the journey to her something special - lots of traps and a forgotten temple somewhere out in the wilds is just mundane enough to keep them from realizing how far you're going but still special enough to feel different since you don't use them. Let them think they have the upper hand, and just before they kill her, have her start a self destruct sequence. They'll want to run and you have to let them run, it's better even if they gate home, because home's about to be wiped off the map as she's just finished a magical ritual to bring in a mad god with an axe to grind against their city. 

"Fuck. I can use this."

Don't pull your punches, because you only have one shot at pulling this off.


  1. Good advice Charles!
    Make them feel the same sensation Sherlock Holmes felt against Moriarty. His nemesis seemed always a step ahead. He always managed to escape his attempts to capture him, even if only by a hair.
    Make sure that he has hooks very high and very powerful that will enable him to always have his back covered. That he has informants in unexpected positions of relief.
    Whether he hire killers, thieves or even another party that puts a spoke in their wheels, because he has a lot of important goals and they can be a big mess. :)

  2. Hmmm. Not my style at all.

    Why is it GMs mess up, let the PCs get too powerful and then feel the need to teach the PCs a lesson by taking away their stuff. Stuff YOU gave them. STUFF you didn't handle a while ago.

    It's fine when a new GM does it but when someone with experience does it I facepalm. What exactly did you think was going to happen when your party attacked one dude who was holding an artifact? That they'd let him live and run away? That they wouldn't take the item for themselves and use it? Has that happened a lot in your games in the past? No? Than it is unlikely to happen.

    I just don't get a sloppy clean up approach following being sloppy in the first place. Both aren't for me.

    1. What they are driving at is that it's no longer fun for the DM. If that's the case, then the DM can get as crazy, extreme, challenging as all get out in order to make it fun, again. As the PCs get up there in levels and items, it gets harder and harder to throw anything challenging at them. So, if that means stripping things away, killing beloved NPCs and actually making things HARD for them, and in in turn making it fun for you as the DM, then freaking go for it.

    2. Ideally you don't mess up to begin with like Allen says at the top, but when you do you push it till you have fun again like Jim says.

      Honestly I get called a lot because I tend find answers instead of just questions - even when they're sloppy. :)

    3. While your point of view is of course valid, I look at the "burn it, salt the earth" approach Charles is describing and see it as a recurring theme in a lot of stories and fiction that I recall fondly.

      Superman 2: he lost his powers and had to learn what it meant to just be human.
      Thor (recent movie): he lost his powers and, waitaminute.

      Serenity (movie): the beginning of the movie, and as it developed, had Mal reduced to his barest essence. And it wasn't a NICE essence, either.

      Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 2:

      Angelus: No weapons, no friends, no hope. Take all that away, and what's left?
      Buffy: Me.

      I think Charles likes to put things baldly, and he does it well. But the roleplaying and story aspects of a hero or heroes, friendless, outcast, and alone, and having to rise to the challenge, are legion, and it doesn't have to be played as "the asshole GM."

    4. I missed a big one: Lois McMaster Bujold:

      I have a catchphrase to describe my plot-generation technique — "What's the worst possible thing I can do to these people?"

    5. "What's the worst possible thing I can do to these people?"

      That's a maxim in the Akins household.

    6. I honestly think it's one of the best things you can do. It adds so much drama and tension. I love it when my players are looking at me with "that look" and they are thinking to themselves, "I can't believe he just did that! Fuck, you asshole!" I then feel like I'm doing my job.

    7. I think the challenge is important because it keeps the game fun. After all while the players may enjoy walking over the DM for a session or two it quickly loses its appeal. The challenge is where all the fun lies. Without a challenge the game grinds to a halt and stops being fun altogether.

    8. Honestly Barking Alien, your reasoning is correct, and I would do a mea culpa if I was that master, but here we was talk of giving it a solution to the error made ​​(except that restart with a new campaign) and I think that given by Charles is one of the tricks available. :)

    9. There are other tricks out there, of course there are, I just like making things challenging. More fun for everyone involved!

  3. I wouldn't necessarily do that because the players were too powerful...or rather, I wouldn't do it to "take away their stuff". But if the campaign has become stale, a massive realignment - i.e. blowing it up and making huge, fundamental changes - is a great way to refresh it.


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