Show the party a horde of giants and ogres on the horizon and they might charge to attack. If it results in a total party kill, so be it. But if a single PC kicks the bucket by ingesting poison, that can result in the crying of foul with some players.

What is it about the less tangible threats that makes them seem like a cheap shot at the players taken by an evil GM? Part of the problem is that such threats are indeed devious in their design, but so are traps and most encounters with the main villain, and players seem to accept those scenarios as part of how the game is played. There must be something more to it than just the sneaky nature of “silent killer” challenges that irks some players so much.

Poisons, slow acting curses, diseases, parasites, and countless other challenges can be quite lethal without being obvious. This seems to be what the true cause of the controversy over these types of challenges is. The players never see them coming. I am sure that at some point in the history of RPGs the following words were once uttered at a table:

“What do you mean the party was exposed to lethal doses of carbon monoxide? How were our characters supposed to know about that?!?”

I feel that such a reaction on a player’s behalf is justifiable if the challenge is poorly designed. There are other scenarios though where I feel that the player made foolish decisions and ignored vital clues.

For example, I once ran a post-apocalypse setting game where the party entered an area with dangerously high levels of radiation. There were signs with radiation symbols in bright yellow and necrotic black surrounding the area, and the characters experienced a gradual series of symptoms. Eventually the PCs began to take damage, but not one player ever thought to use their character’s med kit to diagnose themselves with.

What happened next sounded something like this:

“What do you mean the party was exposed to lethal doses of radiation? How were our characters supposed to know about that?!?”

A poorly designed “silent killer” challenge can be unfair, but the same is true of a poorly designed combat encounter. That does not equate to mean that every threat that the players failed to recognize is unfair though, does it?

So what do you think? When is a “silent killer” a proper challenge, and when is it a cheap trick? How do you deal with the fallout that might occur if the players feel that they were cheated? How do you make sure that the players were not cheated to begin with when you design such challenges? When, and how, do you tell the players that the blame resides with them?

This time the ball is in your court! Leave a comment below and let the rest of us know how you handle “silent killers” in your games. I look forward to reading what our readers have to say on the matter!