Evil GM Tricks # 52 Kill Em All


As the GM you can't wipe out the party or your campaign is over, right? What if I offered you a way to kill them all and get away without them lynching you? Intrigued? Read on.

First, I'll explain the process in a nutshell. You'll need to set up The Meeting with someone we'll call the Oracle. The Meeting will be very important later, but for now just make sure it includes every player character. If you don't think one of them is appropriate to fill the role of the Oracle you can have an NPC present that you have in mind for the task. More on The Meeting later.

Next, pick a confrontation you want your characters to have. Hopefully this will involve a long standing villain, but if not any momentous event or encounter will do. Then, you are going to have your party show up to that confrontation. They could be fighting a dragon or an army or even some kobolds if that's the level the party is at when you want to use this Evil GM Trick. What you use matter less than how you will use it.

The idea is that your party will lose and lose badly.

The idea is that your party will lose and lose badly. The dragon sees them coming and prepares an ambush. Or the lich. Or any other threat that works for your current game. Each of the characters will be systematically wiped out. Give them no chance to survive but make sure that you have a realistic fight. Just have them overmatched by an opponent that was clearly prepared for them, and knew both their strengths and weaknesses.

The look of horror on each player's face as their characters are cut down before their eyes is priceless. The taste of their tears is the nectar of the Evil GM, and with this trick you can drink deeply. How could you let their whole party be wiped out? What a horrible GM!

You wouldn't, and that's where the Oracle comes in. Someone in your campaign will need the ability to predict the future. You could choose a character if you feel it fits, or you could choose an NPC or henchman to give the ability to. Regardless of who fills the role the Oracle is going to manifest the ability to have visions of the future. Immediately after you wipe out the party you set the scene back to The Meeting.

The Oracle will startle everyone with a scream and will go into a seizure during which they experience a vision of the future. They see the ambush that wipes the party out, and now that they know its coming you can get to the final and most fun part for the players. Instead of being ambushed and wiped out now they are setting a counter ambush to trap their foes. They know what spells will be used when and can prepare accordingly. If you designed the encounter to be both challenging and slightly overwhelming the PCs preparation should be enough to tip the balance when they finally meet.

So, now that you have good idea of what I have in mind I'll show you how I put it to use in my own game.

In my own Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 game the party was approaching 10th level, and had become embroiled in a brutal civil war. They'd fallen in with a dark summoner with an army of undead, and agreed to help him cripple an invading army. To aid them he gave them an artifact of some power that raised anyone who died in its radius as a Wight. Their plan was to drop a lot of high damage area of effect spells, and then raise the troops killed to spread further chaos.

...we'd talk about new characters after the scene was over.

All in all the plan was solid and would most likely have worked. Instead a flying invisible mage dropped a disintegrate on their main duskblade, and he failed his save. The rest of the party took a few fireballs from other sources, and then the survivors tried to fall back. All but the druid were pursued, caught, and killed. As each fell one after another I maintained the illusion that this was 100% completely real. Even to the point of telling them we'd talk about new characters after the scene was over.

When I was done hunting down the last of them I rewound the game and reset the scene. Suddenly they were back in the same room in the castle where they'd planned the assault. They were still all sitting around the table thinking when one of the female NPCs, a follower of the god of fate, shot to her feet and screamed. In bits and pieces she sobbed out the vision she'd had which is, of course, the combat you ran where the party was wiped out. Armed with the fore knowledge of what they'd face the party quickly and fairly easily handled the assault on the legion.

Now, prophetic visions are part and parcel of fantasy games, but ask yourself which sounds more fun. Playing through a two hour desperate combat in which the PCs are pushed to their limits, and then killed. They then find out about the vision and match it up with the experience they just had. Or, you just tell the PCs that they are going to be ambushed. I know which one my players preferred.

They'd genuinely believed characters they'd spent months building were gone, and that sharp sense of loss followed by the relief when they found they were still alive was amazing. Most of them still talk about that specific part of the game years later. Really, when you get right down to it that's what being an Evil GM is all about.

Not a bad idea. I have something happening right now where I wanted to pull some kind of bait-and-switch routine while still making it seem rather realistic. I wasn't sure how to pull it off, and since time travel is perfectly possible in my setting I was going to do it that way...but this is so much better and no one wil se it coming because it certainly is *not* my style as a GM. it won't be the death of the group though...it will be an invasion from space (Githyanki if anyone is wondering...they're there looking for the last of the Illithid, and don't care if they have to destroy everything else to get to them) that happened last session.

The players are already starting to suspect some kind of rift between the Continuum (everything happening in the same place all at once) and the Paradox (linear time strung together by the belief of it's participants), mainly because major events where there are two possible Parodoxes can trigger just such a rift where two things become probably rather than possible. It's happened before.

Since the world is becoming less and less "mystical", this will really inject the fantasy back into what is essentially a steampunk science fantasy world...at least for a while.


Yay! The evil GM has returned! I can't tell you how much these articles have inspired me and helped me along my own path to becoming an evil GM. Some of my favorite ideas (turning my players into half-elementals of questionable powers and source in Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, sticking an enemy spy device into the belly of one of my other players in the same game, etc.) have their inspiration rooted in these articles. Stick around man! The Evil GMs will rule!

I would think the biggest flaw with this trick is you can only really use it the one time.

The second time you really have to kill them.

Well, that's really a flaw with almost all evil GM tricks. Like, in a previous article, you could only do the taking out that guys eyes thing once. After that, they'd all just be like, "hey, we can get electronic eyes! not a problem!" See, being an evil GM is hard work.

Wow, dude. Nifty idea; it will have to be employed...

And as far as future use goes, if the players expect that the enxt fight that goes badly will be the prophet-trick again, they'll be complacent, and thus deserve the deaths they find...or the capture and interesting fun that can follow...

I love you, evil GM.

*g l o m p*

I really like this idea! Muahahahahaha!

Yes, the flaw with most Evil GM tricks is that they only work once. However, you can use that to your advantage and I'll have to cover that in another article soon. Once you've established your place as an Evil GM and your players expect it from you you gain a huge advantage. Every scene in your game is tinged with a bit more suspense, because at any time something really messed up could happen. Whole adventures can go by that are 'normal', and the longer that goes on the more worried your players will get >=)

I love GMing! Thanks for the kind words everyone. Its good to know that people enjoy these articles and I'll make sure to keep them coming. Aeon, thanks for giving us a community to share them in!

Good one! Had a similar scheme once long ago, but it's nice to see some variations around.
And I really can't disagree on the point made by (I believe) Monte Cook - if the players are in a good campaign, the DM/GM has to be very, very evil.

Terrible idea. This is about as good as the "it was all a dream" ending they have on bad sitcoms. It's a deus ex machina, plain and simple.

I have to disagree...not because I used this idea recently and it worked smashinly, but on more simple grounds:

I can see how this *could* be construed as deus ex machina; but the intention is not to save the party from something they couldn't handle after the fact. It's set up ahead of time by the GM as something intersting to take place. It serves a couple of purposes; 1) it shows players that the world and their actions in it have consequences (death) without killing them (at least, not the first time); and 2) it is the coolest way to include some kind of divination that I've ever seen.

I hate divination magic and it's ability to wreck something you had planned out. This allows the PCs to use it, and still allows the GM to have some fun with what he was going to do.

So, what's so bad about deus ex machina? Granted, I've been very disappointed with a number of stories that ended that way, but, if use correctly, it's an excellent device. Take Donnie Darko, which is practically a study of the device, or many instance in Lost, where the Deus ex Machina actually made things worse and enhanced the mystery of the show. If set up correctly, and with it in mind, it's a powerful device. In many ways, the Ring in LOTR is a deus ex machina, but because it's there the whole time and it's purpose and fate known early on, it doesn't carry the false feeling with the typical use. When used correctly, the deus ex machina is a powerful, effective, device. There's a reason people have used it.

-"A deus ex machina (lat. IPA: [ˈdeːus eks ˈmaːkʰina], literally "god from a/the machine")[1] is an improbable contrivance in a story characterized by a sudden unexpected solution to a seemingly intractable problem.[1] Neoclassical literary criticism, from Corneille and John Dennis on, took it as a given that one mark of a bad play was the sudden invocation of extraordinary circumstance. Thus, the term "deus ex machina" came to mean any inferior plot device that expeditiously solves the conflict of a narrative."

I don't see The One Ring as deus ex machina. It doesn't solve the conflict of the narrative...in many ways it *is* the conflict of the narrative. Likewise with Lost...if something makes the situation worse rather than solving it, it doesn't truly fit the definition of the term.

Still, this Evil Trick doesn't fit the definition either. It doesn't solve the conflict of the narrative; it might show what that conflict is, and through that show the PCs how *not* to handle it when they get there...but it's still not a terrible idea. It's an Evil idea though, to be sure.

Now, if the campaign actually ended with this...that would suck. That would be the lamest ever, and would certainly fit the deus ex machina profile. That isn't what Arkelias is suggesting though.

Well, then let me edit what I'm saying. Take something normally seen as a Deus ex Machina (just destroy this and it will all be over!) and make it the focus of the campaign, something that makes things worse rather than better. If used correctly, deus ex machina is an excellent device. I'm not calling for magical swords that can do anything, but objects that are *seemingly* the solution but only make the problem more intractable. Here I am particularly thinking of the first season of Lost, with the episode explicitly titled "Deus ex Machina" where what Locke thought would solve all his problems actually makes everything worse (for everybody!). Think of it in those terms.

So the difference here is that the device isn't something used in desperation to save a horrible plotline, but something used deliberately to advance the plot and make it fun and interesting. This one use idea from Arkelias fits the latter definition - it was very deliberately employed, with the end result in mind from the start. It's especially well-placed if used in a campaign that makes significant use of divination. The idea can be applied to all sorts of things, not just TPKs. Think of how on their toes your players would be if they never know if this is a divination or what. Maybe you could sprinkle divination scenes with little clues for your players to look for - if they start catching on, things could get more and more interesting. That'd be tons of fun.

Deus ex machina doesn't refer to "just destroy this and it'll all be over". It refers to "we tried to destroy this for ages so that it would all be over, but then all of a sudden a giant pancake came and did it for us during the last session of the campaign, effectively neutering us and our involvement in the plot from the very beginning". Likewise, deus ex machina as a plot device cannot save a horrible plotline...it *makes* the plotline horrible. It undermines everything that happened before it by making the actions of the heroes seem meaningless in retrospect.

It's Elminster showing up and casting a Mythal around the Death Star. It's Drizz't showing up in your climactic battle and killing the big bad evil guy while everyone else is rolling for initiative. It's all the aliens dieing from the flu at the end of War of the Worlds. It's Zeus coming down and saving the characters in old plays right at the end of their great epic struggle.

I do see what you're saying though...it just isn't deus ex machina.

"we tried to destroy this for ages so that it would all be over, but then all of a sudden a giant pancake came and did it for us during the last session of the campaign, effectively neutering us and our involvement in the plot from the very beginning"

Sounds like quite a few 2nd edition published adventures I could name. Some of them are OK if you surgically remove the linear plotline. Though 'Vecna Lives!' is beyond redemption other than as source material....in places.

It's all the aliens dieing from the flu at the end of War of the Worlds.

In H.G. Wells' defence, that was probably a pretty ground-breaking idea in the 19th century. I'd agree that it qualifies as Deus Ex Machina due to its sheer improbability (The aliens didn't consider the dangers of hostile micro-organisms before they mounted their invasion? They didn't send any probes or scouting missions to check the place out first? etc). But the idea was ahead of its time so I'm willing to forgive.

Well, I forgive Wells as well. I also forgive the Greeks, and I forgive myself for the time that I had some high level NPCs pull some PCs asses out of the sling when things got too rough for them. I was 14 and didn't know any better.

No, I still think what I'm saying is deus ex machina. It's more along the lines of the giant pancake crushing the evil thing but also bringing an intergalactic disease with it! When used to further the plot, not to end it, deus ex machina works very well. If you know Greek myth like I do, then you know Zeus hardly ever made things any better. He just moved the problem to different places (if he did anything at all). I also hate the neutralizing effect on the struggles of the main characters when deus ex machina is invoked, but I love the trope when used to further those struggles. I'm thinking here of the play Electra, wherein Electra convinces her brother Orestes to kill their treacherous mother (who killed Agamemnon, their father) and her male lover. The act is committed. Immediately, both are beset by the furies. Along comes Apollo. He is the deus ex machina of this story. But, interestingly, he just moves Orestes somewhere else, and then lets them deal with the guilt themselves. If you know Orestes, then you know the rest of his story is years and years of fleeing the furies, redeeming himself for his intractable moral failing (or success) until he is able to come before Apollo, penitent and redeemed, and is released from the furies. This is deus ex machina my style - the gods intervene, but can ultimately do nothing for Orestes until he's done what needs to be done for himself. There are many uses of a deus ex machina in storylines that come off just fine - for instance, the virus in Independence Day. What makes it more than a deus ex machina is that the characters caused it to happen, they engineered it, they fought for it. It is part of the struggle - it doesn't neutralize it.

Fair comments. I still have a hard time thinking of something that the characters do as "deus ex machina" (as per your Independance Day example). If the characters do it, struggle for it, work for it, and pull it off...it isn't deus ex machina. By it's strictest definition deus ex machina moves the solution of the struggle out of the characters hands and into an outside force that resolves the situation for them. If they had been trying to find a solution, and then off screen (or right in front of them, doesn't matter) the pancake had come along and released the computer virus and saved the day, then it would qualify by definition.

Likewise with the Orestes example. If the story doesn't end there, and Apollo's actions in no way helped resolve Orestes struggle...then is it *really* deus ex machina? In my opinion it isn't. As far as Electra goes, since it's her story and it (assumingly) ends with Orestes being moved somewhere by Apollo...then it *is*; but not in as much as it relates to Orestes. His struggle is by no means resolved by the involvement of Apollo. Essentially, Apollo is the deus ex machina of Electra's story and struggle...but not Orestes' story or struggle at all.

Regardless of any of that, I myself use similar plot devices frequently. My setting (but not the campaigns run in it) is based around an ongoing theme of tragedy. Tragedy in the Shakespearean sense. Things rarely work out for the best, and when they do the other shoe just hasn't dropped yet. Since my players are all ex-thespians, it works very well for us. Each campaign has it's own central theme (currently, revenge...last campaign was redemption, etc), but in some way it all relates back to the literary concept of capital T Tragedy.

(like all good threads on Gamegrene, this is now woefully off topic...LOL. As I've mentioned before on this site, it's too bad we can't get together for pints and continue this conversation further Tzuriel. The first round is on Gazgurk)

Well, I don't drink, but I'll take a soda or something. It would be a lot of fun. Like Lorthyne said before he left, we should all get together at a comic con or something. Just once would be a lot of fun.

Hell my GM pulled that kind of trick on us in his Legend of the five Rings campaign. It turned out that instead of being in the darklands surrounded by demons we actually were just in a giant rice field chasing farmers. Damn illusion spells!!!

A rather neat trick, but there is one minor flaw.

What happens if the party wins the unwinnible? It can happen, either between a miraculous ability to roll well in a pinch or if the party has a few rules lawyers who can pull it some kind of obscure technicality to turn the battle around.

Don't laugh it happens. I once had a party kill a villain they were supposed to only be able to barely survive sealing off long enough for them to level up and fight him again.

Heck in a few parties I was the one responsible for turning it around.

I suppose it's always possible to resort to cheating and assigning impossible DCs, though I wouldn't be able to get away with it if the party thought it was real... They get violent.... and throw dice.

Cal, that part comes down to your skill as a GM. You need to effectively gauge the party's strength and weaknesses and capitalize on them. In my own game the PCs were at a level where they simply couldn't deal with a disintegrate. They had no defense, very little chance to save, and even a successful save would kill the weaker members of the party. What you choose to use should be tailored to your campaign and can vary widely.

If by some chance they do win (and they may), then you need to ensure one thing. They must suffer a loss. Even one person dying is enough for the knowledge provided by a divination like this to be of great use. Nor does it even have to be one of them dying. It can be a kingdom integral to your campaign losing a key battle that could mean the entire war. You just need to make sure that something very, very negative happens that foreknowledge would have prevented.

To the Anonymous person who posted about the deus ex machina I do understand where you are coming from. Any poorly implemented plot device can be cheesy. I learned early on in GMing that proper use of traditional motifs is often more effective than untried gimmicks. The best GMs, in my opinion, combine a mix of both. Part of my next article will address that point, and I'd be curious to hear what you have to say about it.

As I was reading I thought of a number of responses to I wanted to add, but Tzuriel and Scott Free pretty much covered it. Wintershade, I'm curious to hear about the plot device you used in your own campaign if you're willing to tell us.