Evil GM Tricks #76: Driving Your Players Mad


Most people seem to agree a good Gamemaster's job is to run a memorable campaign the players enjoy. This entails a good mix of suspense, humor, intrigue, preparation, improvisation, and a little acting. What many GMs mistakenly leave out is Trauma. Not blunt force trauma like hitting someone in the head with a lead pipe. No, Trauma with a capital T. Trauma is, in a nutshell, doing something so horrible to someone's character that they start laughing. Until they realize you are serious.

Most people seem to agree a good Gamemaster's job is to run a memorable campaign the players enjoy. This entails a good mix of suspense, humor, intrigue, preparation, improvisation, and a little acting. What many GMs mistakenly leave out is Trauma. Not blunt force trauma like hitting someone in the head with a lead pipe. No, Trauma with a capital T. Trauma is, in a nutshell, doing something so horrible to someone's character that they start laughing. Until they realize you are serious.

Several years ago I ran a Shadowrun campaign for a trio of players that took place in the Amazon. One of the players was the head of security for a small research facility owned by Aztechnology. His character was a high-powered street samurai, and could carve up most opponents before they even knew he was there.

Imagine his surprise when he awoke to the sound of screams, and realized someone had cut the primary power to the whole facility. By the time he got his gear and got into the hallway all he could hear was the occasional distant scream. I let him wander around, and used some good description to build up the tension. The player made his way lower and lower into the facility, and things became more and more creepy.

Everyone had been slaughtered. Ripped apart. But there was no trace of whomever, or whatever had done it (Now for those who have played Shadowrun- the player in question was new to the game and no idea what Insect Spirits were). Out of the darkness three giant wasp-like things attacked the player. He did fairly well in the fight, but they overwhelmed him.

When he woke up he was chained to the side of a wall. His gun was still in its holster, and none of his equipment was missing. The door slid open, and a researcher the PC knew came in. He demanded to know what was going on. I used cryptic answers, and the player eventually got frustrated. He threatened the researcher by pulling out his spurs (claws much like Wolverine in X-Men). The researcher was an insect shaman, and using one of his spells took control of my PC's arm.

Very slowly the claws rose closer and closer towards his eyes. The player fully expected something to intervene. Nothing did. The claws plunged into his eyes, and he was suddenly blind. The character's reaction was priceless. It was the first session of the game, and I had maimed his character? Was I mad?

The next day a group of Shadowrunners invaded the facility, and stumbled on the hapless PC. They carried him to safety, and describing the escape using only sounds and smells made for one of the best scenes I have ever run. The PC made it back home, and his new Shadowrunner friends agreed to purchase him a pair of cybereyes.

So in the end the player didn't actually lose anything. He gained nice pair of cybereyes; they were even something he had considered buying during character creation. So why did I do what I did? Because my poor PC had no idea how things were going to turn out. He had no idea things would eventually be ok.

To this day he tells that story over and over again, and the character remains his favorite. Why? Because I broke the rules. I did things he didn't expect, and that put him on edge. I used Trauma.
Don't get me wrong. Trauma should never be used lightly. You only want to do it when you know how the player is likely to react. Some players would have flipped out the moment they lost their eyes, and I would never have tried anything like that on them.

Trauma can come in a variety of ways, and some of them may even be perceived as a blessing by the PCs. At least at first. In one of the early playtest campaigns for my RPG Faelands one of the PCs was a mid-level Shadowalker. This, for those who haven't played, is a stealthy assassin type. His character found a locked door in a ruined city the party had been exploring for several sessions. He was almost certain the lock had a trap, but decided to try picking it anyway. The mechanics of the game use percentile dice, and you can only critically fail on a 00.

Guess what he rolled. A little needle poked out and injected him with a lethal poison. His character failed the body check. Fortunately for him another PC was playing a Wandering Healer, and saved his life. Barely. He was in a coma for several days while the rest of the party further explored parts of the city. Eventually the character woke up. The first thing he wanted to do was try picking the lock again. The other players begged him not to, but none of their characters were there and so couldn't stop him.

Guess what he rolled again. Yes, another critical failure. Out comes the needle. This time there was no healer close by to save him. By all rights I should have let him die. His character had done something horribly stupid, and pretty much deserved what he got. But I also knew this was his favorite character, and the PC had been playing him for almost a year at this point. So I decided to use a little Trauma.

The rest of the party happened on an ancient temple guarded a by powerful wraith. Initially I had planned to have them fight it, but with the Shadowalker's death I had a new idea. When the PCs entered the temple the wraith approached the party's Knight of the Dawn, and offered him a deal. If he would agree to bring knowledge of the temple back to the world, then the wraith would give him an artifact that would save the Shadowalker's life.

The Knight agreed and was presented with a black sword. They rushed it back to Solomon, and it brought him back to life. Or unlife anyway. The sword made him into a flesh eating undead. Further, it required control of the Shadowalker's body for one hour a day during the hours of darkness. So the PC got to keep his character, but was twisted into a much darker version of himself.

The rest of the party was appalled by what had happened, but also felt guilty since they had been partially responsible for bringing it about. This one event helped to set the tone for the rest of the campaign. Party infighting, the Shadowalker coming to grips with his new appetites, the Knight's guilt.

As the years have passed and the campaigns have come and gone I have gained a reputation for excessive use of Trauma. Yet my games are always talked about years later, and I never lack for players. I have become the GM that players ove to hate. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Nice! Good ideas, there.

i wish my gm was more like you..............

I've this theory for a long time that critical successes and failures come only for the deserving. Never been able to prove it, though.

I can't recall the amount of times the PCs have said "dear sweet mother of god, just don't roll a one!" The mother of god ain't so sweet I guess...

I played a fairy once who due to being to curios and allways palying with things best left alone became quite evil and also quite mad... that was one of my favorite charicters...

and im certian that critical sucess/failures dont come to the deserving... I allways crit fail at the worst time. and i certianly cant be deserving to have that type of bad luck.

Really good idea. Sounds like a nice way to deal with critical failures. I personally just make the PC's look like bumbeling fools.

This is perfect for me. My only Pc's character, a half-celestial paladin, can take most things I've thrown at him. Keep in mind, my game revolves more around how you can describe your attacks in accordance to the rolls than the rolls themselves. He managed to hoild his own against a high-ranking devil, even. And today he managed to piss me off by going to a gaming convention without even telling me. And he's going to have to be at my house for three days. Not counting thursday night, that's two D&D sessions. *evil grin spreads across face* He thinks he's so safe...

Yeah, I love trauma. My very first DM punished me beautifully when my character made the decision to separate from the party to travel alone for a while and "find herself". Well she found something... she met someone she had met before who she thought was trustworthy, who turned out to be a slaver. He put her in bondage and brainwashed her. Now she can't remember any of her past life and is now the concubine of the slaver and madly in love with him... when she was in love with the leader of the original party... Guess that's what I get!

I like the ensuing moral dilemna put to your characters in the shadowwalker example. I regularly put my players into moral quagmires, and they can often gain a great deal depending on their lack of ethics, but such a price is often more than one realizes later ...

in a vampire game i'm in this year, our story teller has let us survive two helicpotor crashes (one over the atlantic), an air port explosion (when we were standing next to the plane that blew up first), 3 very powerful princes, countless police/military attacks (and we were being chased by an f-16 when we were in the chopper over the atlantic), true brujah, werewolves, archons, justicars, and i swear to cain that if we were to walk outside at noon, naked, we would survive long enough to fly a kite, go for a romantic walk, and catch a quick tan before bursting into flames.

Poor Geo... LOL! You need to come over to our gaming group and get your @$$ handed to you for a while! At least your storyteller has made some great comical material for you to post. I printed it up to pass around at our next session. LOL!!!

Well Geo, that's interesting trauma... but has anyone here ever had a group annoyed with a munchkin powerist (aka the virtual Redmage of www.nuklearpower.com, except successful) so much that you could traumatize him and not them at the same time?

It went kind of like this... his TFT rogue, 40dex 40agi 40str 20all rogue skills, BUT 12cha 12int 2wis, didn't bother to take a spot check before climbing the tower. he can climb over ooze and most repellent spells, so why bother? Well, halfway up the tower, while the wizard is searching for his Levitation component, this giant white dragon head pops out of the wall, and eats the rogue. Poo hoo, he didn't do a spot check. Is it really my fault? Anywho, the group managed to get up the tower, defeat EVERYTHING in it, then wisp around and behead the dragon with some absolutely brilliant teamwork. The rogue suffered poisoning, bringing all of his rogue statistics down to 38, however he did survive the encounter. In a resulting move, he did manage (YES! I succeeded!) in raising his wisdom a few points. The others in the party saw the illusion of the tower without a spot check because it was so obvious, but with 2 wisdom... he had it coming.

I remember this one player I had a long time ago when I was running Rolemaster. He was a powergamer of the worst kind, min/maxing every character he ever had. Anyway, he had just made the perfect Assassin PC, he only need breathe on a lock to open it or on a trap to disarm it. The party was exploring an ancient city and the first locked door they came to he confidently said, "I pick the lock!!" However, he forgot to check for the trap that beheaded him. Not much I could do to save him.

Such a waste, he must have spent two days making that character just to have him die in the first session. As a GM, I don't think I have ever prevented a character from dying, especially when the player was being stupid. I have always enjoyed a little bit of realism in my games.

I play 3e DnD quite a bit. I was pretty happy that my Rouge had thus far witnessed no trauma. Everyone in my party got robbed at least 2-3 times but me. Both the other characters had died 3 times each (heh) and i ws untouched. Then i left for the weekend and my PC turned NPC for 2 sessions. He got robbed once and killed twice and had his tongue cut out. (But i have to say it was another PCs fault) Everything however was back to normal before i even got back!

Perfect. Simply perfect. I have tried to instill a moral dilemma by handing one PC the power over life and death of another PC, but this was a total flop, for the player simply could not handle the matter.
I have once said to a player :"Now you better think of some GOOD excuse or I will just shred your character sheet without rolling" and I meant every word of that. I once asked a character: "Would you give your right hand to save her (an NPC)?" and he said YES, whereupon the one asking the question loped off his hand, telling: "Okay, you saved her."

Good trauma is perfect and elemental to a game - the players must not know whether you are bluffing or not.


Trauma is an ingredient for the great story-even the sweetest cakes need a share of salt, right? Trauma and pain are good for captivating the soul-especially when one has grown very attached to a certain character.

It's good stuff, man. Keep one bein' evil.

Villainously yours,

Let's see... Trauma...

Once in a fantasy campaign I was running I blinded a character. The other party members found a magical eyeball to give to that character, but in order to use it they had to cut out one of the characters useless eyes and replace it with the magical one. The party members got the character really drunk, cut out his eye with a dagger, and pounded the new one in with the butt of the same dagger (the eyeball is bigger than the opening to the eye socket) and he could see.

Later, that same character tried on a magical cloak that turned him into a (rather ugly) one-eyed woman. Depressed, he(she) stepped through a magical doorway and was teleported 500 miles away. In order to find his(her) way back (he had no money) he(she) promised two men that he(she) would sleep with them every night if they would guide him(her) home. Once on the road however, he (she) reneged on the deal and they raped him. By the time he finally got back home he was six months pregnant!

A mage in the party explained that the character could be turned back into a man immediately, but that the fetus would die and would have to be cut out, or the character could go through the entire pregnancy, give birth to the baby, and then get turned back into a man.

The character had a healthy baby boy which he gave to a martial order of priests (based on the Shaolin). The baby was the player's next character. That campaign was almost ten years ago, but the players still talk about that character as if it had happened last week.

Even though I did some horrible things to his character, the player loved it. I do horrible things to all of my players. For some reason, they keep coming back. One player told me that after playing adventures where the death of the character isn't the worst that could happen, and the characters were garanteed to die if they did stupid things, made all the other games seem boring and childish by comparison.

I am a huge fan of Trauma, both as a GM and as a Player. It breathes life and drama into every adventure and destroys complacency.

"No one can make you feel inferior without your consent, but you'd be a fool to withhold that from your superiors."

Why is ensuring that you hand the PCs' asses to them always so important? We have all dealt with the players that indeed deserve (and frankly, "need") to come down a peg or two but I rather enjoy the hitting players with fights (these are the usually the random encounters) inbetween the main plot line where they clearly have the advantage. so that the fighter can revel in his "Great Cleave", or a rogue in his "deft opportunist", the cleric destroyes with his turn attempt 25 skelletons etc. The players love it!
...and on a more sinister note, it lower their guard when they come up against the main-plot baddies and think they are "hard as nails!" - ooops i am a norty GM :o)