Kill 'Em All


So your player's characters are extremely powerful and all you can do is throw larger and more powerful monsters at them to slow them down, but there is really no way to stop them. Or maybe your campaign is growing stale, but you don't want to scrap all of your hard work and start over. My advice to you is to simply destroy everything and cheat while you do so! All you need is a piece of your campaign world that either is unmapped or unexplored by your players and a technologically advanced, expansion minded society to overwhelm your player's world. To illustrate this idea, we will look at a sample fantasy campaign world, design a society to overwhelm them and then look at the results.

So your player's characters are extremely powerful and all you can do is throw larger and more powerful monsters at them to slow them down, but there is really no way to stop them. Or maybe your campaign is growing stale, but you don't want to scrap all of your hard work and start over. My advice to you is to simply destroy everything and cheat while you do so! All you need is a piece of your campaign world that either is unmapped or unexplored by your players and a technologically advanced, expansion minded society to overwhelm your player's world. To illustrate this idea, we will look at a sample fantasy campaign world, design a society to overwhelm them and then look at the results.

Our fantasy world is pretty typical: there is an assortment of kingdoms, empires, duchies, elven forest nations, dwarven mountain strongholds. There are orcs and dragons and wizards. To make things a little harder on ourselves, we even include magics capable of raising the dead (something I prefer to make very difficult). The PCs are probably a mixed group of classes and races with some powerful magical weapons items. The technology of this region is High Fantasy / High Middle Ages (TL3, maybe TL4 in some areas for those of us using GURPS). Plate armors exist, armored cavalry dominates the battlefields still, but longbows, crossbows and the pikemen are restoring infantry's place in war. Maybe early cannon or arquesbuses are appearing in some nations, but these are still extremely slow to load and very unreliable. Perhaps Griffon or Dragon air cavalry exists; it really depends on how your personal tastes have imprinted your world.

Now we need to build an adventurous society to rip ours to shreds. The first and simplest thing to do is to make this society more technologically powerful than the one we want to tear down. Move the society forward a bit on the technology tree; matchlock muskets, wheel-lock pistols and cannons, drilled professional armies to face the pikemen and knights, whose armor is not immune to the musket ball. Ships of the line armed with 50-70 cannons and professional navies to face whatever merchant ships the fantasy world can muster up. If you have withheld any magical colleges from your campaign world, you may want to open it up to some of these more advanced mages from across the sea (or over the mountains, however you wish).

Up to this point, we know the invaders have a strong advantage, but even if there was a long drawn out war, it would be difficult, if not impossible for the invaders to totally dislodge and destroy the local populace. When the Dutch and then the English moved into Southern Africa, they quickly overran the Khosia hunter-gatherers, but the farming, steel using and resistant to western disease Zulus were never totally displaced or destroyed. We want society to collapse, so we will give the invaders the mightiest weapon they do not know they have: powerful diseases our society is not resistant to. Much like how smallpox destroyed upwards of 95% of Native Americans, many of them (such as the mound building Mississippian chiefdoms) collapsed and destroyed without ever encountering the Europeans: just their diseases racing through the Americas like a wildfire. As most endemic and epidemic diseases humans suffer with evolved from diseases which affected domesticated (or in some cases undomesticated) herd or group animals, we will have to cheat and pretend our invaders are resistant to the fantasy world's diseases. If you do not want to design your own deadly disease, I recommend just copying one of ours. Small Pox or the Black Plague are good ones (for a good plague resource, I don't know where it would be found but Dragon issue #138 was a plague special issue I have always found useful).

To play this scenario out, treat it like the Spanish exploration of the new world followed by mixing the Spanish conquest methods with the English colonization methods: initial explorations; perhaps initial small-scale attacks on locals. The diseases begin to spread as the invader's presence grows larger, and they switch from exploration to colonization. As the medical disaster sweeps the world, society begins to collapse in some hard hit areas before the invaders can fire their first shot. Eventually you have the remnants of the old world fighting desperately against this new force. Even if your players manage to defeat, drive off, or at least contain the invaders, the world they live in will be changed, forever. Caring for the plague victims will eventually be the death of any healers not disease-immune themselves, so doctors and clerics will be in short supply. Cities will be totally devastated, most of them will be nothing more than giant mass graves stinking up the countryside and the nations (as well as the balance of power) will be altered. Some will be non-existent, collapsed under the strains society has suffered. Other countries may be larger, if not stronger, having formed new and unlikely alliances and confederations, possibly with sworn enemy nations, to counter the mutual threat. Disease-immune species will quickly fill this power vacuum and may provide a counter-balance if the invaders retain colonies. It could be a very dark world if you decide orcs are immune. Even if it is just elves, dwarves or halfllings which are immune, the makeup of your world will dramatically change as they spread into now vacant lands. Drag the threat out. Maybe the PCs hear about strange ships coming into a distant port, as rumors slowly spread about these aggressive strangers. The disease begins to spread and eventually outpaces even the rumors. Only after the diseases have really ravaged the regions closest to the invasion point does the colonization begin. The invaders begin to overwhelm some coastal areas, and then the settlers begin to arrive. Once the settlers arrive, more soldiers arrive to defend the new colonies, and even to expand them. Perhaps some nations submit to the invaders, figuring the war is lost anyway. Once the world is aware of the scope of the invasion, how will they respond? How can they respond, with upwards of 95% of all soldiers, blacksmiths, farmers, merchants, rulers, mages, etc. having perished before a truly organized response even gets started. Your PCs may become world-renowned heroes (if they aren't already), bringing the perpetually feuding nations together to drive off or stall the invaders. Perhaps they find a cure, magical or mundane, for the plagues, maybe they just give their all to rescue one small town from the mighty invasion. No matter what they do, the PCs will be challenged severely in this resource- and people-depleted world.

Recommended Reading (all three of these books are a pleasure to read in their own right, though perhaps a bit grim reading, all three are very useful in understanding the mechanics of pestilence and):

"In the Wake of the Plague", Norman F. Cantor, Perennial, 2001 $13.95US. This book examines both the origins of the Black Death and the direct effect it had on European society. This is a very useful book in that it explores in detail the effects of pestilence on a society.

"Plagues and Peoples", William H. McNeill, Anchor Books Edition is copyright 1998 and costs $14.95US. This book examines the political, demographic, and psychological effects of disease on the human race over the full expanse of human history. It is not as focused on a single topic as Norman Cantor's book is, but it deals with disease origins and the methods in which they have spread.

"Guns, Germs, and Steel", Jared Diamond, W.H. Norton Company's 1999 edition retails for $16.95US. The scope of this book is amazing, Jared tackles virtually every major cause and effect which led some societies to acquire domestic crops and animals, metallurgy, and powerful communicable diseases while others could not. Essentially, Jared answers the question "why did Pizarro conquer the Inca and capture their emperor rather than the Inca invading Spain and capturing King Charles?" In answering this question, Jared shatters the theories of 'racial superiority' once and for all. I recommend this book highly not only because it is very handy for campaign creation and planning, but also because it is simply a brilliant book.

Nice article (in truth it's not nice to players). You make it clear that how it happens. One thing that I want to remind about is that in many fantasy world there are spells to cure diseases (this can be partially handled if you use GURPS Undead suggestions about undead microbes). I find two bad things about this: first, it migth be too big leap of technology in your world; second, it takes great amount of time to go trough it; third, it is hard to fix (by believable way) if you laterly find it bad to your campaign.

One of the best articles I've seen here. Real juice.

Cure Disease (or equivalent) spells can be circumvented in a number of ways without having to make the disease uncurable, and each suggests some interesting directions for the story.

- The disease takes very little time from first symptoms to death. This has some interesting social ramifications like people pouring into the cities to be near healers, people who are apparently uninfected begging to be healed (and exhausting clerics in the process!), and clerics being taken out of circulation for private attention to the rich and/or powerful.

- The enemy specifically targets clerics or other healers for destruction when they realize how effective their diseases are against this population. This has a good additional mystery hook for the PCs, as well as being a concrete enemy for them to fight.

- The ratio of healers to non-healers in the population is relatively small and/or the spell cannot be cast infinite numbers of times in a day and/or the disease is extremely virulent and can reinfect those previously cured. All of these things serve to force those with magical healing abilities to choose who they will save. They will simply be overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of those who need aid. This will also have some of the same social ramifications of the first idea, above.

- Cure Disease spells have mysteriously stopped working. Maybe the enemy has somehow intervened, maybe a powerful wizard has cast a counterspell, but no matter what the reason, this mystery should cause real panic. If your healers are theologically-based (like traditional clerics, rather than ritually-based like traditional mages), apocalyptic cults may arise as the people have obviously been abandoned by their gods, just for example.

- Healers are somehow organized (a guild, for example) and their organization limits or prevents them from using Cure Disease often enough to turn the tide of the disease. Maybe they've been paid off by the enemy, but it might be something as simple as only being willing to heal those who are sufficiently devout - as proved by financial donations or lifetime devotion. The long-term consequences of this, of course, might be the beginnings of a theocratic government as only the rich and those who are true believers survive the plague.

Anyhow, these are just a few ideas on how to get around the Cure Disease solution and keep the problem of plagues front-and-center for the PCs.

Wow. Amazing article.

Jessica, you are quite right about how to get around problem of disease curing spells, but I have to mention that I would not have such a problem about Cure Disease spell. That's why I did not include it in my list of bad things (a moment ago I noticed my little "typo" ("typo" because I am not sure if typo is right word) about number of bad things.

Very nice! I'd like to share a variation of this, which a GM used to great effect in a campaign I played in.

Rather than a technologically superior enemy, he gave us an inferior one. A race of nomadic herders on the norhtern steppes suddenly began to invade the civilized lands under a charismatic leader. In battle after battle the herders overcame the technologically superior (but un-united and numerically inferior) defenders. Eventually the entire campaign had to flee to a southern continent to try and build resistance.

As an interesting plot twist, the nomads were being helped by an interstellar race (the villains from anther campaign, as it turned out). The aliens were giving the nomads intelligence as well as subverting or assassinating important leaders and mages. Of course the aliens weren't willing to share their technology with the nomads, so the fantasy feel of the game was preserved.

Mmm.. Lovely artical. Ofcourse, it brings to ind a bit of a quandry. Is it possible to take these games too seriously? This proposition very nearly sounds like a professional job, building, creating and servicing a complex world similar to our own with some few twists and turns in events, just to challenge a small group of characters.

Not that I'm putting it down, I think its brilliant. But have any of you ever been cursed with players who think your going too far with detail or politics?

Maybe Im just running with the wrong crowd right now.

And so I light the flame of the Eternal Newbie and pass down the next hall of the library of information that is our collective minds...

After reading this article, I was called upon to DM a one-shot piece. I thought the article was a wonderful idea, but on the other hand the characters (Which I'll turn into a campaign) are a low-ish level at (Now) 4.

Some points that might make things interesting

- I drew upon my Arcanum experience and started having spells misfiring and technology going haywire around large amounts of magic and so on. Making rules for this seems fairly easy (I'll just have a bigger and bigger chance to fail for both).

- 3 1st level fighter Orcs with muskets and 1 6th level Seargent with a Bazooka-esque thing ( Needs Exoticwpn to use, -4 to hit, damage does d20 and then d12 in a 10 ft radius) nigh on annihilated a party of 5 level 3 characters. I used a bunch of tactics to make the muskets actually gain incredible effectiveness against old fantasy style (As they should be).

- Enemies are basically Orcs, but I'll have to work on villains and so on.

Well regardless, the article frankly turned out to be one of my best DM sessions ever. All I need to work out is how to let level 4 characters defeat this menace.. (Or whether they should)

I was thinking having divine magic effected just as easily as arcane magic. Without the effects of the gods so visible, people would stop believing - perhaps even succumb to the Orcs ways of thinking. From this there'd be religious groups splintering and reforming like everything, the lords would see the power of the muskets and so on and be grabbing it, despite the magicians overwhelming cries to the contrary.. all sorts of interesting nietzchean and modernist philosophies would ignite, and all sorts of interesting things would happen.

Perhaps hold off on the disease and well-ordered hordes with technology having huge battles for awhile - have everyone wondering and scheming against one another about the first introduction of these weapons, and introduce the age of reason with all of it's downfalls; The big bad army with everything (or plague or whatever) doesn't even have to appear. Interesting concepts would be forming alliances with all the magic and religion lovers.

And the roleplaying opportunities as the dwarf fighter takes the cannon and the muskets and the spellcasters can't cast spells around him..and he won't let them go.

All interesting. Yay for Josh!

VMB mentioned undead microbes as per GURPS Undead -- that's one of the few things I hated from that otherwise great book -- if the microbes are undead, how can they continue reproducing?

Let PCs use Cure Disease magic -- there will not be enough to go around to prevent huge changes to society.

I've used plague (a variation of small pox) in a campaign before. Took the PCs quite a while to figure out that only people who had full-blown symptoms for several days ended up immune. Before that, they wasted lots of magic on curing themselves repeatedly at the first sign of trouble. They also got run out of two different towns, because they must be secret agents of the god of disease to survive, right?

What you described is one of the classic issues of gaming: The PC/ GM arms race.

You know how it is. The players get more powerful, so the GM throws nastier things at them. They deal with them and collect their goodies, becoming more powerful. The cycle continues until you just can't stop them any more.

You, as the GM, can work very hard at preventing escallation. It requires the creation of puzzles and forces which must be outhought rather than out fought. It requires few and limited magikal mcguffins to resolve issues. While it is hard on the GM, it is good for the campaign.

Or you can just have a cataclysm and decimate the world... starting over and altering the genre of your game slightly.

This is the best article on breaking the world and staring over.

Excellent stuff, Josh. Along with Jessica's amplifications, it is truly inspirational. I'm enjoying reading your blend of research and thoughtfulness, and look forward to more.

Responding to the Eternal Newbie:

"Is it possible to take these games too seriously? This proposition very nearly sounds like a professional job, building, creating and servicing a complex world similar to our own with some few twists and turns in events, just to challenge a small group of characters."

Ayuh. Sometimes it's a lot like that. If I had a nickel for every time my wife voiced a complaint about how I don't get paid to do it...

"But have any of you ever been cursed with players who think your going too far with detail or politics?"

I don't know about Josh, but this has never been a problem for me. Even my hack'n'slash players have enjoyed the stuff going on in the background. Enthusiasm for a game world starts with the GM, and is contagious. ;)

my thoughts on this are as follows:
A)powerful magical thingie that happens during downtime and they all miss their saving-throws for (the DM does have final say, after all, so just say they did without rolling) turns all the PCs into little kids. they retain whatever academic-knowledge type skills they've picked up along the way, but due to a sudden change in physique any physical skills are severely lacking, and any magic they've got just won't work. their swords are too heavy, their armor doesn't fit, their physiologies aren't developed enough to accomodate the energies necessary for using spells, and all they've got to go by are their investigative powers and whatever skills they can manage to relearn over the course of the story.

B)suggest a different game. if the PCs are so powerful you can no longer devise stories to challenge them and keep players entertained, tell the players this and ask if they'd like to try something else. Ask if someone else would like to take over DMing for a bit so you, as the DM, can relax and only have one character to worry about rather than a whole world.

C)if the PCs have been adventuring for years and gotten vast power, why the flaming kobold are they still doing so? tis a fantasy setting, yes, but even in fantasy settings people age, warriors who get good at not-dying in combat eventually get tired of running, fighting, and lugging armor and settle down into castles. wizards have a few too many close calls and set up shop in a castle with an old warrior-buddy where they start tormenting the next generation of PCs, all those plucky young spellcasters and warriors and whatnot who have a grudge against the old PCs for destroying their families, villages, temples, or whatnot. so suggest new characters, starting PCs who must work their way up to eventually overthrow the old ones.

Just my 2 cents, Morose:

"A)powerful magical thingie that happens during downtime and they all miss their saving- throws for (the DM does have final say, after all, so just say they did without rolling)"

Frankly, if that happened in any game I played, without the GM consulting the players first, I would leave that group and never come back. It's the worst possible case of GM power abuse. Arbitrarily inflicing something on their character which basically reduces the character concept to shreds, and even pretending it happened during "downtime" and they cannot play it out, so their characters had no chance in hell to avoid it, see it coming, and you even deny them a saving throw? There are few spells in any game that do that, and it pisses players off and rightfully so.

If it was all part of a plotline the players had agreed on, then yes. But if they hate the idea of playing children, and like their characters as they are, why screw them over?

How long do you think children, even with the knowledge of adults, would survive out in the wilderness teeming with monsters? And in a city? Pick pockets? Get dragged off to an orphanage? Die of malnutrition and child work? If they made enemies during their lifetime (and many high-powered adventurers have enemies, from rival adventurers, guild leaders, mad cultists to deities) now they'd be helpless. It's not a challenge, it's not funny.

Now, I'd pick options B or C. C works especially well in a game like Ars Magica.

Just read "War against the Chtorr" from ...hell, who had written it? Anyway, its just about plague followed by a full-blown alien invasion. Fits the article nicely.
David Gerold? Yes, I think that was the author.



If you've let your players get that powerful, then you've already failed as a DM and probably won't have the wit and delicacy of touch required to put any of this advice into action without alienating your players. Just start again with a new bunch of characters and do it right next time. As my old Kung fu instructer kept reminding us 'failure is the road to success'.

One thing I hate is watching a character grow through many levels, trials and tribulations, victory and defeat; and then ultimately have to put my PC on the shelf because he/she is too powerful for the rest of the game to be fair.

Of course, the DMs solution when dealing with a whole group of powerhouses (not to be confused with power-gamers) is to up the difficulty level of opponents. Not just in their level, strength, damage, etc. But in their intelligence as well. The DM can make the enemies aware of your characters strengths and weaknesses. After all, your a group of living legends...the word gets around.

This is both good and bad. This gives players a challenge aside from the usual...


PC - "I hurl a fireball at the frost demon."

GM - "The demon instantly vaporizes leaving a few whisps of steam."


PC - "I hurl a fireball at the frost demon."

GM - "The fireball freezes instantly, the demon looks at you with fiendish grin...what do you do now?"

PC - "...uhhh........"

This keeps the gamers on their toes, they think of NEW ways to deal with their enemies when their otherwise 'phenomenal cosmic powers' fail them. The problem is that you must sometimes use ideas or tactics that would otherwise defy the laws of the system you are running. Not to piss off your players, but to keep the game challenging. This may result from delving into another game book or two.

So, when the invincible group of 'mortal turned demi-gods' are confronted by a little green guy carrying a chef's knife and a lantern: and their pet tarrassque falls after only one stab. You can sit back and say to the group...

GM - "So...what do you do?"

Holy shit I'd be pretty angry if you cheated that way in one of my games. It's not much of a game when the GM can over-rule the moves your character makes. Why even have players?

Raise the level of the challenge. Don't cheat the system. All you do in a case like that is remove your player's input from the game.

There's is a point of diminishing returns with these games.

I think the solution is not to cheat the players out of their powers, but rather encourage (I almost said force, but that wouldn't be right either) them to use as many of thier abilities as possible. I would think that very powerful players are that way because they tend to use a certain something in every situation. This is natural. You like to do what you're good at.

This does lead to ruts in the thinking processes, however. Roleplaying is about imagination. Get the players to be creative with what they have available. Maybe they need to hit that frost demon with a lightning bolt and THEN a fireball or two. Or possibly things will get a lot easier when they find and neutralize that evil cleric protecting it.

Also, don't underestimate the power of templates. Most of them don't exclude the use of others. Sure, a vampire is challenging for some characters. But an 18th level half-dragon, fiendish, lycanthropic, paragon, pseudonatural drow lich is a whole different story. Did I mention that he has the Hand AND the Eye of Vecna?

There is always, always, something bigger than your players' characters.

This article is definately inspirational.

I like the fact that it adds the disease factor. That is a detail that alot of people overlook. I know I did.

And I like the ideas from Jessica about getting around the Cure Disease spell. Especially the extremely simple there aren't very many healers, they can't cast it enough times a day to make a real differejnce and people can get reinfected.

Great stuff.

I didn't mean for you to cheat...but like Ashaqua said...encourage you players to think OUTSIDE there general or 'run of the mill' response to a threat. Use OTHER abilities at their disposal. It's not good to have one side to your character. Ya know?

Maybe the Frost Demon is so high-level that it is now IMMUNE to fire, and now has some other weakness.

A plauge.
A plauge.

One word.
I was playing as my weretiger pirate one session when we came across a costal village being ravaged by a Plauge Lord. This thing was armed with two short swords and the ability to infect you at 150 feet. Oh, and plauge infected undead. Turns out, touching one of his minions gave you some horrible disease. I, of course, volunteered to kill the thing. I go into his lair, destroying undead as I go. The hard way, by ripping them all to shreds and dumping alchemist's fire on them. I finally get to the Plauge Lord and he casts mummy rot on me. It didn't work. Then he went through as many diseases as he could before I pounced him and ripped his head off. I laughed for days.

Lesson: Plagues don't work on werebeasts.


what about a WERE-plague? takers?


*...sees a tumbleweed...*

*...hears a cricket...*

*...sees someone coming!!!*

*...damn! Another cricket...*


'hey baby, nice antennae!'

OK, I'll bite.

Hmm... plague of lycanthropy....

Interesting possiblities, like werecreatures suddenly being accepted or hunted as the source of the plague. Maybe a cult rises whose goal is to spread the disease to everyone and cause lycanthropes to rule the world/region/small hamlet.

Or maybe everyone decides that being a lycanthrope isn't all that bad and life goes on mostly normally.

Now, the slimy doom: THERE'S a plague for you.


I know of a variation of the slimy doom...

its called... ICK

Well...I was actually throwing that 'were-plague' worm into Felix's pond. But Felix's is sleeping.

I meant to hint to the existence of a plague that ONLY infected were-things...if you know what I mean.

*trying to keep this thread at the top of the list so it remains easy to find*

(Have you seen her?)

I've got this damn tune stuck in my head!


I just got a huge shot of inspiration! Let's see... uhhhh...It's where one catches a disease that slowly drops wisdom score to zero. Stick with me, stick with me!!! And uhhh... uhhh... OH! OH! It's transmitted by worms you encounter while bathing or swimming in a pond... (worm into Felix's pond). YES!!! It leaves a victim a mumbling idiot who hums silly tunes all day and cannot connect to the real world without the cure. AND IT ONLY INFECTS LYCANTHROPES!!! HAHAHAHAHAHA!!! OH YES!!! I WENT THERE!!!!

Oh Sam, I am ashamed...

No swimming with worms!


Oh no! They're onto me? How did you know I was actually a were-crocodile?

Oh no! They're onto me! How did you know I was actually a were-crocodile?


"...un urm ill url."

name THAT movie!


Well, you don't HAVE to...

"...un urm ill url."...

That's easy. Any movie with Sylvester Stallone!

As to were-crocs. I've some questions. In hybrid mode, do you get to keep some clothes on? Because if a female were-croc (sounds so wierd) was to change to hybrid from human, would you see a croc-chick standing there in stockings and garter? Because, that sounds like good ol' fashion fun to me... know... crocs in lingerie.

Actually there is a very bad movie from the 80's I think where a bunch of scientists turn nerdy lab girls into foxy obedient babes who happen to turn into were crocodiles after sex.

God the genius of that movie, the D&D Movie is almost as good.

Had they had as much budget as Matrix Revolutions they would have made a movie just as pointless.

I saw that movie, Sam. I believe it was called:

"Foxy Ladies III: Make It Snappy!"

Oh, and Shark, get you're filthy hands/fins away from our women! You're lustful feelings towards our cold-blooded spawning partners are ugly and wrong.

Heyyyy, relax there... There's nothing wrong with a little zebra nation... You gotta look at it with an open mind, baby. Man, our post sure have taken on a chauvinistic tone, eh? I apologize in advance to those female readers who take offense. Uhh… Ummm… No, no…Stop. I've retyped this sentence 16 or 17 times now. I'm just gonna submit this before the Jaws in me breaks through (god, I had so many inappropriate wisecracks to add).

NO! NO... noooooo. Uh oh...Will Save DC 35. Shark's will modifier total: -3 D20 roll: natural 1

Heyyy, that apology was totally, like, sincere. Let me take you ladies out to dinner and show you all my "sincerity." Hey if I weren’t sorry, would I have the audacity to say "Hey sweet ass," or "Iron my shirt," and still ask for some shugga before I fall asleep? (Visualize big toothy shark grin here...)


I see many pairs of dagger-eyes pointed at YOU...

*quickly swims off into deeper waters, head hung low*


And remember, ladies, the best way to kill a shark is to drag it backwards through the water at a high speed!