Show the party a horde of giants and ogres on the horizon and they might charge to attack. If it results in a total party kill, so be it. But if a single PC kicks the bucket by ingesting poison, that can result in the crying of foul with some players.

What is it about the less tangible threats that makes them seem like a cheap shot at the players taken by an evil GM? Part of the problem is that such threats are indeed devious in their design, but so are traps and most encounters with the main villain, and players seem to accept those scenarios as part of how the game is played. There must be something more to it than just the sneaky nature of “silent killer” challenges that irks some players so much.

Poisons, slow acting curses, diseases, parasites, and countless other challenges can be quite lethal without being obvious. This seems to be what the true cause of the controversy over these types of challenges is. The players never see them coming. I am sure that at some point in the history of RPGs the following words were once uttered at a table:

“What do you mean the party was exposed to lethal doses of carbon monoxide? How were our characters supposed to know about that?!?”

I feel that such a reaction on a player’s behalf is justifiable if the challenge is poorly designed. There are other scenarios though where I feel that the player made foolish decisions and ignored vital clues.

For example, I once ran a post-apocalypse setting game where the party entered an area with dangerously high levels of radiation. There were signs with radiation symbols in bright yellow and necrotic black surrounding the area, and the characters experienced a gradual series of symptoms. Eventually the PCs began to take damage, but not one player ever thought to use their character’s med kit to diagnose themselves with.

What happened next sounded something like this:

“What do you mean the party was exposed to lethal doses of radiation? How were our characters supposed to know about that?!?”

A poorly designed “silent killer” challenge can be unfair, but the same is true of a poorly designed combat encounter. That does not equate to mean that every threat that the players failed to recognize is unfair though, does it?

So what do you think? When is a “silent killer” a proper challenge, and when is it a cheap trick? How do you deal with the fallout that might occur if the players feel that they were cheated? How do you make sure that the players were not cheated to begin with when you design such challenges? When, and how, do you tell the players that the blame resides with them?

This time the ball is in your court! Leave a comment below and let the rest of us know how you handle “silent killers” in your games. I look forward to reading what our readers have to say on the matter!

About  Patrick Benson

Patrick was born in 1975, and is more or less your typical American male for someone of his age. Except he is a tabletop RPG gamer and a damn fine game master! What else matters?



18 Responses to Hot Button: Silent Killers–Interesting Challenges or Unfair Tricks?

  1. I’ll only use this type of thing if I set it up properly. Often I’ll make sure players get three hints minimum for something that could end up in a TPK. If it will only take out one PC, then I’ll just give them one hint, but I’ll make it blunt. After that, it’s on their shoulders. Usually a simple “are you sure?” is enough to let my players know that something in the room can take them out. Sneaky? Yes. Dirty? No.

  2. There’s a similar thread on the Paizo boards discussing the dislike of Pathfinder Haunts. Haunts are like magical traps crossed with undead.

    I think the issue here is similar. If a monster or opponent spellcaster casts a nasty spell on you – it’s fair, because you could have beaten his initiative, hit the caster and prevent him from casting a spell on you. Everything is in the open.

    However for a magical trap, haunt, hazard, or poison the perpetrator is usually not around, so nothing could have been done by the victim to prevent the incident from occurring. To many, it seems like a one-sided attack against them, rather than an encounter with an opponent (that could be mitigated because there is an opponent.)

    Luckily I know that there are many who actually love the haunt mechanic like myself. It’s a problem that some do not, since I include lots of haunts in my existing publications – I’m the creator of the Japanese horror setting, Kaidan for PFRPG.

    As I said in that mentioned thread. Too much of anything is bad, but given the right presentation and setup by the GM, traps, haunts, hazards, poison can be effective parts of the game. If mishandled it can lead to unhappy players.

  3. I think one problem is that such silent killers often don’t feel like a challenge, except in old-school games, where survival is a stated objective. Attacking something or someone is an active decision by the players and they usually accept that it was at least partly their fault to get into a confrontation that killed their characters. Also there is something to gain, loot, fame and whatever results winning a particular fight will lead to in the ongoing story. Surviving poison often feels like something is forced upon the characters, and the only thing their character can gain from surviving the poison is their continued existence. As in most such cases it all depends on how the expectations are set before the game and how heavy a hand is needed in dropping hints to make the players not feel agrieved afterwards.

  4. In my games the main issue I’ve seen with “silent killer” hazards/traps is the players often feel I cheated somehow to injure/kill a character.

    Usually in any encounter a character gets to react to a perceived danger, (even if just to run away screaming) but many hidden dangers rely on surprise or innocent appearance, with me needing to make a private roll behind the screen for the characters perception or danger sense skill to become aware of the threat before it effects them.

    (Yes I could allow the player to roll for the perception/danger sense roll, but often this clues the group in something is amiss and they have real trouble not meta gaming increased caution/paranoia that really slows the pacing to a crawl.)

    In most fantasy games it’s not too bad if a trap or poison kills off a single character given they can be resurrected easily enough, but in post apocalypse and modern day through sci-fi campaigns, such deaths can be especially brutal.

    The best solution I’ve found with hidden dangers is to never let them outright kill a party member. Wound, cripple, knock out, place on the brink of death, sure; but never actually kill them outright.

    With the opening attack/effect anyway, once the group is aware of the danger then all bets are off, and the continued/after effects of the now clear and present threat may well prove fatal if not swiftly dealt with.

    This way a member (or the entire party) may be subject to sniper fire, or poisoned bottle of wine, but the initial damage will be less then lethal, allowing them to survive the surprise attack and deal with the aftermath rather then make wise cracks about another hit and run by the GM Fiat.

    (Which is often much more interesting/memorable then how a party reacts to a permanent death and doesn’t leave one of the players with nothing to do for the rest of the evening besides eat snacks and fall asleep.)

  5. I’ve played the Silent Death card before. It’s all a matter of set-up. For the last couple years, I ALWAYS give the players in my campaigns a 2-5 page synopsis of what the world is like as they go in, and encourage player feedback and questions. One of my primary lessons in each campaign is be aware of your surroundings. Look for clues.
    In a horror game I ran, the PCs stumbled upon people who were starting to grow gills and scales. Through subtle hinting, they game to realize it was caused by a meteorite that had fallen into the arbor of the nearby winery. All but one of the characters figured it out. Unfortunately, the last one found out the hard way. There were no cries of “foul!” since most of them had realized the source.

  6. Fair…not fair…doesn’t really matter. Even when it’s fair, it’s usually not fun for anyone involved. There’s almost always a more interesting way to do things.

  7. I say they’re totally legit. Of course, it needs to be done properly–the characters need at least some clues to go off of–but beyond that, players who complain just need to get over themselves.

  8. When was the last time a character got the flu or a cold in your campaign? If the answer is never, then death from disease is an unfair cheap shot end of story.

    It’s kind of like dying from radioactive super acid bird poop in the parking lot of the local McDonalds.

    You have to firmly establish the silent killer long before you use it against the party. Try something like running an adventure centered around a plague where you spend several scenes establishing the plague as a danger to the party. Then make sure you include sick people in the next few adventures. Drop in a barmaid with the sniffles, a boy with a cough, or an old man with a fever. The players need to see the silent killer appear in some form at least every other adventure or several times in the current adventure for it to be fair to use it against them. Even then you have to ask yourself one question… Would it be fun to roleplay being sick? The same is true for poison, radiation, weather, earthquakes, volcanoes, parasites, haunts, etc… Make it fair, make it fun, or leave it out.

  9. I try very hard not to kill my players – since they are my best friends and family. I don’t want anyone to get butt hurt about dying. I probably should be harder on them, but I sometimes feel like that takes away from the fun of it, because not everyone can handle failure.

  10. @Lychess

    I could see your point of view regarding poison, disease or radiation, even weather, but earthquakes, volcanoes and haunts? The first two might be once in a lifetime events. A haunt is only going to trigger in it’s vicinity, and is unlikely connected to any other haunt activity unless it’s at the same location.

    Sometimes traps can be unfun, but so can undead, spellcasters – really anything in the game, depending on how the GM presents it, and if he’s being fair about it.

    I can’t see poisoning the barkeep, the bar maid, the sentry as a means of hinting to the party they might get poisoned. That doesn’t make sense to me.

  11. Well, mentioning that one of the parties enemies is a known or rumoured poisoner might do the trick.

  12. A game is a series of interesting decisions.

    This isn’t a matter of “fairness.” If my PC is struck down by something I’m not even aware of, then all the decisions have been made for me, and it’s not a game anymore. Likewise, “deciding whether to worry about something” tends to be a very boring decision. So Silent Killers are bad game design, always.

    Now, Silent Severe Damagers are OK, because you’re still in the game. Coping with that damage or its source can lead to a series of very interesting decisions.

  13. @77IM
    But deciding whether to look out for silent killers or not is a decision, one of the major points of old-school dungeon crawls I think. That’s what I mean by setting the expectations before the game. If I know there are possibilites of dying by plague, poison, radiation or what have you, then I can look out for it. If the first time I hear about the possibility of such a hazard is when my character dies, then I’ll be pissed off.

  14. Great comments all around. Some I agree with, and some I do not, but I like that the discussion is civil and polite.

    For myself, “silent killers” when setting appropriate are okay if they follow three rules:

    1) They are take a great deal of time to kill the PC and produce symptoms.
    2) They can be detected, deduced, and eliminated with reasonable effort.
    3) They are able to be fully recovered from once treated in a short period of time.

    I have played in many games where “silent killers” made the game more fun. In one horror game the party had to break into a vampire’s lair to steal an antidote to a poison that the PCs had ingested at a dinner banquet. It was a great game as the clock kept ticking and the PCs kept getting weaker. The tension was tangible, and one of the PCs did not make it. Yet all of the players had a great time because the GM made us feel the strain of the situation without removing our ability to take action.

    That game alone tells me that a “silent killer” can be a fun part of an RPG session, but that does not mean that they are easy to pull off right. :)

  15. I have no reservations about using ‘silent killers’ occasionally in my games. Its a dangerous world and not all threats leap right out and say “here I am”. Some killers are just a little more subtle and insidious than that.

    In the radiation example above I think the GM did everything right. There were radiation warning signs posted, the characters began to gradually show symptoms, get weaker, and eventually began taking damage. To me it sounds like the players were expecting the unknown problem to just go away (or leap out and say “here I am”) after repeatedly being struck with a ‘clue x 4′.

    In that case I wouldn’t feel much sympathy when characters began dying because the players chose to ignore the problem. YMMV.

  16. So your players, seeing numerous radioactive signs, signs of sickness, etc did not stop and now complain?

    A player’s job is to take the hint. If you have decided to slap them around with the CO trick then yeah, little underhanded. But if someone delivers a silver platter clue with a giant neon sign above it and the player’s cry foul?

    Goodbye players :).

    Slainte,

    -Loonook.

  17. @Redcrow & @Loonook – I thought that whole scenario was blatantly obvious. Each character was a given a med kit with a radiation detector and medicine for radiation sickness. After the PCs dropped dead one-by-one from radiation poisoning some of the players complained with great anger:

    Pissed-off Player: DUDE! You made those giant mutant scorpions way too deadly! The venom should have eventually gone away. Why did it keep getting worse?

    Me: The scorpions didn’t kill you.

    Pissed-off Player: THEN WHAT DID?

    Me: Radiation. Your character’s med kits had everything that you needed to treat themselves with.

    Really Pissed-off Player: THEN WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL US TO USE THEM!?!?

    At that point I was pissed-off too. Two of the players in particular were all about “Don’t take away my character’s autonomy!” and then to have that change to “The GM should have saved our characters!” when their PCs died was a slap in the face for me.

    My reaction was a bad one amounting to “Shut your trap and quit whining about it. I’m done, and I don’t care anymore. If the game sucked too bad! I don’t need to hear this shit in my own home.”

    I should have handled their reactions better, but the players should have handled the deaths better IMO. I thought that the challenge was both fair and easy, and I still believe that it was. One player did agree with me and chalked it up to a mistake on the player’s parts, one said that it wasn’t easy but was pissed at himself for not reading the contents of the med kit and that the challenge was fair, and the other two I don’t game with anymore because they were whiny babies on many an occasion.

    Hey, not every game is great. Some blow up. But just like a good game is a group effort so are the bad ones. ;)

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