Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Miserycrawl, Negadungeons and Killer GMing.


I've occasionally seen some table top gamers and bloggers denigrate "miserycrawls" as an OSR aesthetic, usually this is largely the typical litany of boring and traditional complaints and stereotypes about the OSR as a pack of neckbearded haters of innovation who relish in the unfair slaughter the player characters and the gruesome aesthetics of heavy metal album art.  As dull as this critque is, it did get me thinking about setting feel, adventure design and why I like both low fantasy settings and high lethality games.

I advocate for a low fantasy settings when using a Dungeons & Dragons based system, especially the early editions, where simple, quick combat that tends to leave even strong characters dead sometimes because these settings work with these mechanics.  When one is using the lethal saving throws, low hit point totals and the high probabilities to hit that one finds in white box style D&D (negative AC is an artifact of later editions and it can ruin mid-level play) letting players know that they are not invincible, or even the toughest people in the local area, tends to be important - hence the low fantasy, or grim fantasy setting.  The feedback between mechanics and setting are important for letting players understand how to 'play' in the world and help build player comprehension of both ruleset and setting expectation. Low fantasy settings (though whimsical 'gonzo' settings also work very well as failure becomes part of a narrative of slapstick black-comedy) become especially important now, as they reinforce the rules and set player expectations that character death is more likely then in more modern systems, or games with player facing narrative.

Retreat from Moscow - the Scenario (Painting by Adolphe Yvon - 1856)


The specific complaint about "miserycrawls" suggests a sort of game where the sandbox (really the setting) is about barest survival, and the characters are disadvantaged and ill-equipped against the wilderness and the horrors within.  While Deep Carbon Observatory has been specifically cited as such an adventure, I'd suggest that it is very different - a disaster scenario, much like Dragonlance's Dragon's of Flame, but with the key difference of not presenting a a strict railroad that ignores the suffering of 'commoner' NPCs and one where the writing is both evocative and filled with strong imagery.  Carcosa, Black Sun Death Crawl and DCC's Perils of the Purple Planet may fit the bill in that they are all settings where the survival aspect is emphasized, and character mortality is expected to be high.

To some extent this idea of the high mortality survival sandbox is deeply rooted in D&D's past, though it's notable that rather then the Fantasy Wildlands sort of setting (including it's dinosaur filled swamps) the products listed above take an explicitly post apocalyptic sort of approach (and even a contemporary Mad Max aesthetic, with a strong dose of the weird).  Now setting design is a subject open to debate, but to me steering clear of vanilla fantasy settings with strong Tolkien roots is important as it helps circumvent player expectations that the game will resemble a fantasy computer role playing game and allows both player and GM imagination to take the fore rather then encouraging the players to think like some stereotype from Fellowship of the Ring.  Similarly the DIY D&D/OSR tendency to reskin or redesign all monsters to make them unique is an effort to break free of the accumulated player knowledge about monster ability, so that monsters can be wondrous and frightful rather then an exercise in players' ability to memorize old monster manuals.

In other words I'm not sure what the distinction between a non-vanilla survival based sandbox game and a 'miserycrawl' is.  Perhaps the critique of the miserycrawl is a larger critique of dark fantasy settings - 'crapsack worlds' or the 'dung-ages'.  As someone who has run a long crapsack world game, I can see that an endless litany of depressing situations might be irksome, especially as any game setting that asks for complete player seriousness is dysfunctional.  All tabletop games lead to a fair amount of joking and irreverence towards the game world or become bathos drenched impossibilities. If one tries to focus on a world of downtrodden peasantry, depression and endless mudflats with an eye toward encouraging players sadness, hopelessness and despondence ... one will fail, and fail in an ugly manner because the dumb jokes and friendly banter of people sitting around and playing a game will always overcome a GMs efforts at serious pathos and convert it into bathos.  Yet the crapsack world can itself become the 'straight-man' for the humor of the game, especially when there are gonzo (i.e. funny because they are referential or absurd from a player perspective, but not a character one) or weird (because strange, hopefully evocative imagery tends to overcome mock seriousness) elements.  The basic complaint then seems to be either one of tone or one of character mortality, but these critiques overlook both the inherent silliness of tabletop games, the importance of system and setting feedback, and the emphasis on moral play and player freedom that such settings proivide

A couple of years ago there was a similar brief interest in the discussion of the 'NegaDungeon' that had similar undertones at times.  The NegaDungeon, exemplified by LOTFP's "Death Frost Doom" and defined as a dungeon that plays on player hubris and genre conventions to offer a negative result (world changing in Death Frost Doom's case) for player action, is an interesting idea, and one that was subject to the same sort of critique as wallowing in player misery, defeat and trying to derive fun only from the sadistic destruction of the characters.  I don't think the NegaDungeon is this really, rather it's a way to try to tell a horror story in a tabletop game, rather then and adventure story, and the player fun/success is derived from escape from the story or survival rather then retrieval of treasures or victory over enemies.  This seems like a viable playstyle, but perhaps a jarring one to spring mid-campaign in a traditional fantasy world and something that may work best as a one-shot or campaign starter (why are a band of skilled killers, thieves, sorcerers and religious fanatics wandering about without patrons or family - because NegaDungeon.)  Yet the complaint about NegaDungeons sometimes also includes complaints about the importance and ease of character death in these settings so it has a lot of similarity to the rhetoric around miserycrawls.

In an old school game, the mechanics mean you're the guys at the bottom of this painting.
The problem then that seems to remain with any critique of "miserycrawl", beyond simple genre dislike, is one of excessive or unfair lethality to player characters.  Indeed, the deadlines of older style D&D is often commented on, but this in some ways ignores an underlying question.  Obviously if one simply believes that characters should never die in games there's no way to answer this question to your satisfaction in a game where character death is possible, and if one likes games where character death only comes after an agreement to use it as a way to advance a story narrative, death due to random factors might look both pointless and unfair.

However, assuming that one is playing a game where character death is possible, how does one best make it feel both fair and not overwhelmingly terrible for players.  In a system where character death is known to be a possibility or likely result of going on dangerous adventures presenting the world as dangerous feeling, and so potentially as a 'miserycrawl', is actually helpful.  The idea that dying to everyday horrible like banditry, bar fights, ergot madness, food poisoning and disease is commonplace suggests that dying to poisoned spikes and the rusty weapons of the unquiet dead is at least somewhat glamorous and perhaps a better fate then what awaits characters who decide to stay at home.  Yet this isn't itself the big issue - most players playing a system with high lethality are doing so because they feel that character death is a reasonable penalty for failure. What makes even these sorts of players cranky is a character death that seems unavoidable and worse when it seems to provide the GM with glee. It's an easy matter to kill characters as a GM - just force them to repeatedly fight things far more powerful then the characters, at a tactical disadvantage and/or scatter deadly traps all over the place. This is adversarial, bad GMing.

Assuming a game with an open/sandbox world, lacking challenge levels or similar tailored difficulty, a system that provides for dangerous and potentially lethal combat and a save or die mechanic for other perils it is not hard to wipe out a party of characters.  Often this is the result of bad GMing or an adversarial approach to the game.  In a system where death is easy, the GMing can't be a partisan for it, and can't be adversarial towards the players' efforts.  Power is stacked with the GM, and it's especially important to be a fair even forgiving GM, because while players may realize that their characters can and will die, most find it 'unfair' if this seems like the result of pique or a GM on a power trip trying to show off that he can outhink the players. Character death should be the logical outcome of bad player decision making or bad luck, its possibility lightly telegraphed and certainly avoidable in hindsight.


Assuming that one isn't simply an awful person who likes playing petty tyrant to one's friends at the gaming table (and really if that's the case nothing I say is going to be good advice), no one wants to be a killer GM.  Now there's always a bit of back and forth between player's and GMs about rules and the activities of their characters, especially when something bad happens, and the GM should hold to their positions in these kind of discussions - not letting players have everything they want all the time is good GMing, even if what they want is sometimes cool.

Killer GMs though aren't just trying to maintain the fictional integrity of the world, but actively and antagonistically attempting to thwart player actions and plans.  I suspect there's a couple of reasons for this, from a spiteful desire for power and control to the need to tell a specific story creating an impulse to punish players who depart from that story.  This second set of behaviors was actually encouraged by some editions of the game (or at least some product lines - like Dragonlance), and still is popular in some sorts of GM advice.  Beyond any distaste for eliminating player choice, even the impulse to gently correct players back into the story can be very destructive in a high lethality game with random mechanics.  For example, in a game where the party encounters a snide but powerful NPC (say that classic slightly mad wizard) who wants to give the players a mission, but the players become annoyed and their characters attack.  In a sandbox game the wizard will make his demand, but the players will know that there's a good chance this NPC (or really faction) can wipe them out, and that there's no story dictating a next act.  They will weigh and scheme and wheedle, but are very unlikley to attack.  In a railroaded game the players have likely become convinced that there are 'combat encounters' and 'story cutscenes' and chaffing from this limitation, annoyed by the story pushing them to work for an arrogant quest giver they will likely attack.  Pushing the game off the GM's invisible rails is a fun time for some players, and leads to disruptive play because the player thinks that every event is already set. A GM that suddenly changes style, usually gently rerouting player actions that depart from the story, but occasionally making the logical and horrible consequences of player decisions to depart from the GM's plans will be seen as an unfair killer GM, because that GM has made his expectations of playstyle vague.

In a less deadly system, or one with narrative protections this sort of misunderstanding is less likely to occur, and when it does happen it's likely to be less final, because defeat and character death aren't the same.  Bad in character decisions driven by frustration at the lack of player choice or player inattention (really why pay attention to the GM's monologue if any response will always lead to the same place) is mitigated by a forgiving system. There's no mitigation in most older systems of D&D, and one of the defining features of a sandbox setting is that it's very easy to get into situations or in conflict with enemies that are far too powerful for the characters to overcome. So the key element to avoiding players feeling that the death of their characters is to avoid misunderstandings about what's happening in the game world, without completely warning off the player from doing certain things.  Additionally it's to make it so that when characters do fail and die these failures feel like the logical result of player decision and risk taking.

The setting and mechanics can both set expectations, and so help a GM and players avoid misunderstandings about risk and reward.  For example, the combat mechanics of Basic D&D are pretty unforgiving, and transparent about it, which should give players the idea that combat is dangerous and likely to result in character death. This is fine, even desirable for an exploration game where player freedom of action allow many alternatives to combat, but in a setting where the characters move from fight to fight without opportunity to avoid a die rolling frenzy of death or set up other factors in their favor, these deadly rules quickly become a hindrance as character after character falls to probability.  Of course players coming into such a game with expectations built around different more combat friendly mechanics (say 4E or a "World" game) won't know that fighting is a dangerous and poor decision unless they really read and comprehend the rules and they may end up fighting every encounter, with characters dying a lot and the player thinking "This OSR thing seems to be punishing, filled with boring simple combat, and attractive to GMs that love killing characters." 

Setting can help.  The descriptive power of a good GM can really get across a lot of clues about setting expectations, and when one wants to emphasize that combat isn't always the best option (even if it's clearly stated in the rules) a miserycrawl or low fantasy world of horrible injuries and high mortality provides a good way to do so.  It is also a reason that a lot of OSR/DIY GMs and players like evocative and weird settings - the cliches of vanilla fantasy have become the cliches of fantasy video games, where avatar death is increasingly uncommon and where players already come to ever encounter or location with a set of pre-existing world knowledge (perhaps goblins are weak enemies) which will serve the player poorly in a system where even weak enemies are potentially dangerous, and where bullying them into becoming allies is likely a better plan then fighting them.

The alternative to building a setting that emphasizes or provides clues and justification to or for the unforgiving nature of the rules is to focus on the inability and incompetence of the characters.  This works okay in extremely humorous settings, where players can be amused more easily by their character's failings - Paranoia seems like a classic example.   This technique is less helpful when one wants to run something that isn't gonzo and is closer to classic fantasy with more potential for heroic characters, as when one makes the characters seem fragile and weak it tends to detract from the sense that they might do anything in the open game world.  The other answer is to make the setting feel like a dangerous place, a match for even the toughest most competent of characters.  This second answer works best to encourage player freedom of choice as well - because the player has some belief in thier character's abilities. 


The idea of character competence at the heart of not being a killer GM is that the characters are competent at what they do.  The first level fighter is a 'veteran' - a warrior and slayer of men on distant dusty battlefields, hard to frighten, adept with tactical stratagem, knowledgeable about ambush and survival. The first level thief knows every dire mechanism that the merchant houses use to protect their wealth, has a fair grasp of standard poisons with the danger sense and ferocity of a startled alley cat. Magic-users are learned, filled with powerful secrets and observant and clerics blessed and protected by divine favor.  Yet the hazards of the underworld are far more dangerous then back alley brawls with hardened toughs, and the depths monstrous strangeness far more terrifying then breaking the final desperate shield wall of a band of sea raiders pursued back to their longship. The alternative is to view the characters as complete incompetents, weak willed, unskilled at the arts they profess and incapable of basic survival without specific player input.  I prefer the first way of viewing the game world, and this in some way leads to "miserycrawls", because the mechanics are still high lethality, the open game world offers the potential for "unbalanced" encounters and the focus on player choice means that players can make very bad decisions.

Player choice means this is what your 3rd level party is likely to be.
Why not make the world equally or more unpleasant?
To avoid running high lethality mechanics without being a killer GM, one must take the player's word that their characters are not incompetent wastrels and act accordingly.  Danger is already all around, and the mechanics punish mistakes harshly already - there is no need for the GM to use their power to interpret player action harshly. When the players describe their actions, don't look for specific actions they have overlooked which create a dangerous situation, always assume that if a common sense precaution would prevent a tragedy that the characters took it.  For example, if the players are climbing a long rope and have the time to do it, the characters know what they are doing and have cinched their belts to the rope as a means of preventing a fall, even if hit by a crossbow bolt from the dark they won't automatically fall off.  In other situation where there's a couple of risks at play and more then one logical simple answer, the GM should ask and even go as far as suggesting  the more obvious precautions. 

A classic example of this is the fast moving underground stream.  Wading across icy water in torchlight can be dangerous - especially in heavy armor, which will lead to sure drowning if the armored character is swept away. When players say they are going to cross such an obstacle, a good GM should mention that there's a special risk to armored characters, giving the option of removing their armor and assuming that if they do they properly bundle up the armor so it won't get lost.  Players have a choice here, because obviously plate mail will take a turn to put back on upon crossing the river - an unarmored turn where a random encounter would be especially deadly. It's worthwhile letting the players know the potential risks of the logical courses of action is fair as competent characters would recognize these things. When a player says "I open the door" in a world where doors are often trapped with terrible deadly things, it's a good idea to ask "So you're gonna just pull the handle open, or are you taking precautions?" and to do this consistently.  Assuming that characters are competent goes a long way towards letting your players know that you aren't out to get them, and assuring that when they do die in spectacularly horrible ways it's recognizably the fault of player mistakes or decisions and not the fault of the GM's adversarial approach.


This is how I run systems with unforgiving rules and how I especially run dark fantasy or low fantasy games where the world is obviously dangerous and grim.  Older high lethality systems and grimmer settings compliment each other the setting emphasizes ruleset and playstyle, allowing the GM to run things fairly without the perception that they are trying to make things harder or more dangerous for the characters.  This is I think the positive genesis of the "miserycrawl", which if GM'd right creates a synergy between setting and rules and provides players new to the concepts of old school play with  clear clues about wise game play conventions and differences with newer systems.  However, a key to making these settings work is to make sure that the mechanics and setting work together - running Deep Carbon Observatory in 5E might be possible (and 5E is easy to turn back into a far more deadly system), but without the rules reinforcing the setting and providing notes of concern or seriousness (characters in actual peril and character deaths) the GM might be forced to push too hard on the grim aspects of the setting, creating the sort of bathic nonsense that gave rise to the miserycrawl name.


  1. I've never run a sci-fi game, but I'm going to give it a run with basic Traveller soon. My first thought was to use Deep Carbon Observatory as the first adventure. Reason being the PC's are long time Traveller players and I have never GM'ed a sci-fi game. I will be shoving as many LotFP adventure modules into my Traveller game as I can. Because my idea of good sci-fi is horror. Therefore the use of Nega-Dungeon styled modules will give me the unexpected edge with PC's who feel comfortable with the boundries of the system.
    I've been thinking about this for a while. Take a Boot Hill module and use it in a D&D game. Take a D&D module and use it in a sci-fi game. Take a Gangbusters module and use it in a Cyberpunk game, etc...

  2. I converted a CoC adventure to DCC a couple weeks ago. Worked nicely.

  3. BRP easier to scare players I like to have players terrified of death but I rarely kill unless player stupid like run into squad of militia muskets because im a bear and guns dont hurt bears

    DnD i go for loss of followers and pets and items more than players which they find distressing and makes them wary and vindictive to enemies

    You can have players get not hurt much and afraid of death
    I find story games i never feel under threat or like i will be harmed so i act like a dick and go break the game. I do find the extreme story games favour bigger egos and fast imaginations and acting over skills of survival exploration adventures.

  4. This unfortunately includes a lot of the typical litany of boring and traditional complaints and stereotypes about people who might like lower lethality or non-exploration games as "video gamers" or anti-player agency." As polemics go it isn't a bad one and there are some good thoughts in it, but mostly its just red meat for the faithful, isn't it?

    Like Erik, I like a mix. I don't feel like I'm doing it wrong when I play in either sort of game.

    1. I think you're misinterpreting my intent, I don't know about people here so much as systems. I see it mostly as an effort to provide an understanding of how I play games and why certain setting elements work in them. I don't see it as a call for a one true type of play, or an attack on new school players, just thoughts on what I know. Call it echo chamber sound and fury if that haps a World Engine game feel superior, but I'd say that's a misreading.

    2. I may be misinterpreting you. Though I don't really see how the first paragraph (which I changed very little of) supports that goal. I'm not sure what you mean by the last sentence.

    3. What I mean is that I'm not trying to attack other playstyles here - I find some of the trolling I see from people that hate certain segments of out hobby, usually for personal reasons, or deride certain playstyles irksome - but I don't think that first paragraph is unfair to these trolls.

      The vast majority of this post is about how and why I use grim settings when playing oldschool games, and how this may interact with certain different playstles and expectations about fantasy settings or mechanics.

      It's not to say that DW, Dogs in the Vineyard, or FATE are bad systems only that players coming from those playstyle will likely be confused by the mechanics and playstyle of 0E or B/X and find themselves with a bunch of dead PCs and sense that 'OSR' style games are mostly about dying.

      Likewise a GM coming from a "combat as sport" game with a strong tactical component like 4E may be tempted to run the game with the same sort of adversarial, rules focused/gamefied approach that leads to killer GMing in a system where the GM is expected to have a great deal more 'power'.

      My comment about echo chambers has a confusing typo but the gust is that if one wants to read this post as an attack on a preferred playstyle there's nothing I can do. One can tone-police words like "new school" v. "old school" or claim that whatever sarcastic elements of the opening paragraph (in response to a specific set of very unhinged sounding complaints from another blogger and to some 5E Reddit boards)invalidate the rest of the post as a polemic, and maybe that's the way to go if it helps one have fun with one's preferred game. I'm still going to believe that there are mechanical and playstyle reasons why the OSR is using many grim settings or adventures (gonzo ones as well) beyond aesthetics.

  5. I am a killer GM (half inclination, half impatience with stats) and I found this post interesting and useful. Thanks Gus!

    1. Don't be a killer GM if you can help it. It's the dice, the character's mistakes and the world that should kill PCs. Adversarial GMing is far less fun then just watching the disaster unfold naturally in my opinion.

  6. Great article with some great DM advice stuck in. I also, through back and forth with players explaining that 'of course' my PC would be wary and check for traps or whatever, am 'generous' about character abilities. It makes for a better game. The weakness I have is a 0 to -10 hp mortality chart that prevents a lot of character death.

    Also, Trey, I think you're misinterpreting not only intent, but what Gus L says here. Explaining that many players have a video-game based expectation of their characters resurrecting after deadly failure and how to address that and how many 'miserycrawl'/old school games differ in expectation is not, in essence, shit talking. The article outlines how to address this (unstated) expectation. Defining the expectation is not the same as deriding it. And the article is specifically addressing issues in high-lethality and more exploration based games, not saying that high-survival and more combat oriented games are bad.

  7. Great article. I would add that a failure to lightly telegraph, or provide a reasonable chance to anticipate or respond to a threat, makes the players paranoid, finicky, and slow in their playstyle. They play the way you train them to play, given the threats of the world you put them in. Since I don't enjoy DMing for that playstyle, I've given up on gotcha mechanics that encourage that playstyle.

  8. Oddly enough, I just commented over on Bryce Lynch's tenfootpole about Death Frost Doom and its peers and the icky "killer DM" vibe I get from them. It's one thing to set up an adventure with stuff that might cause trouble if messed with, or if the players explore too far (the "Moria Effect", one might call it) but an adventure specifically set up, as I see it, to penalize PCs for doing PC things is just jerkwaddery. (It could also be my present personal bias against horror speaking.)

    1. I think Death Frost Doom does a fairly good job of setting up a horror scenario. It's likely a campaign changer for sure, and you don't run it without that in mind, but to my mind 'killer Gming' is not really a setting or adventure design issue but a playstyle issue. You can run anything that allows character death as a 'killer GM' - it's a matter of what the GM is trying to do.

      To me Miserycrawl is more setting design/feel to support a specific type of mechanical system and encourage player buy in to the possibility to character death. This same setting allows the 'Negadungeon' without prior build up because its already sending plenty of signals about the non-heroic, blood and gristle setting.

      A good negadungeon like Death Frost Doom does the same, it supports a certain set of mechanics and leverages them against player stupidity/mistake and genre convention for a horror payoff. DCC funnel modules do the same thing by encouraging players to be cavalier about the lives of their PCs to create a feel of hectic sword and sorcery via heavy metal cover.

      The danger with these sorts of adventures is leaving the players feeling tricked by convincing them that all the normal genre rules apply and then suddenly springing the twist.

      To its credit Dfd doesn't do this. There are literally no monsters in Death Frost Doom until the very end. Instead of 3D6 skeletons in a tomb there's a few deadly, but very reasonable puzzles/traps and lots of heavy evocative dread that tells a story. These things do a good job of suggesting that the characters aren't going to be fighting 'orcs in a hole' or anything typical, and when the climax comes it will only surprise a player so mired in genre cliches that they can't think or one who has been ignoring the rest of the adventure.

      A killer GM could ruin Dfd or Blacksun Deathcrawl really easily, but they've been ruining more standard adventures for years the same way.

  9. There's something to be said for just a one bullet killing as per Cyber Punk 2020.
    It forces the cerebral team play necessary to avoid team death.
    Too many hit points spoils the broth.