1. Make the Path to Victory Narrow and Obscure
Part of running an adventure is presenting a problem for players to solve. A straight up hack-and-slash dungeon crawl is all right on occasion, but defeating your players with amazing monsters and traps alone will get dull after a while. To keep things interesting, force your players to figure out overly subtle solutions to your puzzles. Then you can explicitly punish them for failure with a difficult encounter they could have otherwise avoided.
The smaller the clues you leave for your players, the better. No clue on its own should be enough for the party to figure out what’s going on. A realistic and satisfying mystery requires the players to assemble a multitude of clues before they can prove which powerful noble is traitor to the realm, or what method of entering the keep will bypass the veteran garrison.
When sprinkling vital clues throughout your adventure, make sure they’re difficult to gather and easy to miss. Location-specific clues are a good start; time-specific clues are even better. All vital clues should require PCs to succeed at difficult skill checks. If the party doesn’t have the skills required, that just demonstrates that they didn’t do a good enough job at creating their characters.
Once the party springs into action, they’ll walk right into your traps and pitfalls. They may complain when PCs are killed by their faulty solutions, but you can just point out the numerous opportunities you gave them to obtain important information. They failed their checks or walked right by hint hiding places without even trying. You didn’t cheat – you’re just better at making a complex, narrative driven game than they are at playing it.
2. Hold Their Word Choice to a High Standard
With your elaborate schemes and hard-to-find clues in place, it can be easy to overlook player mistakes that beg to be exploited. Don’t miss these opportunities to cement your lead. Players will often forget good IC and OOC discipline. They may discuss important secrets among themselves as if the villains weren’t in the same room. Or perhaps a player makes a sarcastic remark about the High Cleric’s scepter while in an audience with him. Was that clearly OOC? If not, then the High Cleric should take it as cause for throwing her in the dungeons. Then the rest of the party will have to decide whether to let the blasphemer rot in prison and continue without her, or attempt to break her out from the highly fortified Grand Temple.
It’s even more fun to punish your players for what they forget to say over the course of the session. If they dock at a spaceport, then enter the city without specifically stating that they are locking up their ship, they should come back to find it’s missing. It’s their fault for forgetting to secure it. Don’t harass them with this technique constantly, or it will lose its potency. Your players will become paranoid, and before long, they’ll all be reciting lengthy checklists of mundane actions. Instead, save it for a few major surprises.
3. Pit Them Against Each Other
The ultimate method of crushing your players is, of course, getting them to fight each other for you. A Pit Fiend or ancient dragon is more than a match for most parties, but there’s nothing quite as satisfying as PVP for crumbling their hopes of success.
If you have a new player at your table, you can try roping him into one of your plans between sessions. Come up with a character motivation that which puts his PC in opposition to the rest of the party, then get him to buy into it. Perhaps his people were once hunted by the King the party is questing for, and he is a vital part of their plan for revenge. With each session, feed the player more secret information that will hook them further into this personal side plot. When you get to the climax of the adventure, your sleeper agent will spring into action for you. Sure, one player against the party is probably going to die, but then they’re still down one, thanks to your scheming. And, if you’re lucky, that sleeper will take another PC down with them.
Another way to stack the deck in your favor is to use a heavy-handed prophecy to form a rift between players. Even if you can’t get a sleeper agent into the party, you can still create suspicion by creating a dark prophecy about PC betrayal. Or, if you mark one player as The Chosen One and put her in the spotlight constantly, the others will resent her for your favoritism. Never underestimate the potential of spite and paranoia to fracture an otherwise cohesive party.
Pitting players against each other requires laying groundwork early in the campaign. If you haven’t done any preparation and you need to pull off a truly dramatic TPK, you can always fall back on mind-controlling the tank. Whether they’re a melee damage machine, or a living shield that keeps the more useful PCs alive, one thing is for sure: they’ll have a low Will Save. One quick Dominate during the fight’s critical point, and the PCs are done for.
However you choose to defeat your players, the important thing is that they walk away knowing they lost to their GM. You may even let them complete the story arc, but it must be costly in lives and resources. If they start thinking they did a good job, point out where they missed opportunities to mitigate losses or reap greater rewards. Because at the end of the day, if you aren’t playing to win, why bother being a GM at all?
Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.