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I am planning to run an one shot where it will be me against the players, with me running the game as the dungeon lord (AKA final boss) and the players will be playing as adventurers. However, as the person running the enemies, I fear I will come off as cheating or vindictive against the players.

To clarify, unlike a regular game of Pathfinder where I will be designing encounters according to CR, I will actively be trying to kill players. They will be expected to think to check for traps or listen to the door themselves, rather than me reminding them to do so or asking if they plan to.

To clarify the CR part, it will be similar to the D&D board game when it comes to encounters. I will start with a set amount of monsters that I can command as I desire. The player characters will be level 5.

How can I make sure the one-shot stays fair, despite the confrontational nature of the game I am planning?

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    \$\begingroup\$ To be sure. From the two current answers, one assume a more old-school fair playstyle while the other assumes a game of killing the character. From your question I would assume you are going for the fair approach. Is that it? \$\endgroup\$ – 3C273 Jan 16 at 2:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure you've defined what 'fair' means in this context...does it mean, for instance, just following all rules as written, and not fudging dice? Or does it mean not using tactics that will bone the player's characters as well? Something else, perhaps? \$\endgroup\$ – YogoZuno Jan 16 at 5:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ Clarification: If you snapped your fingers and said 'Rocks fall, everyone dies' would you consider that "normal GM vs. Players" or "unfair"? \$\endgroup\$ – Syric Jan 16 at 6:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ Could you explain why you wouldn't just line up a series of layered traps in the entryway followed by a large cavern with every single enemy in your 'pool' to overwhelm the players? I feel like more insight is needed toward intent for us to give accurate answers. \$\endgroup\$ – Ifusaso Jan 16 at 12:58
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You can’t

If you’re playing to beat the players, you will. It’s not possible to be actually fair when the referee is playing for one of the teams. Even if you’re trying to be fair, it just takes a slight bias to bend decisions in your favour in small ways that add up. And we’re all human and biased.

You're probably thinking of a different style of game anyway

There’s a old-school way of running games, and how you wrote your question contains references to it. It occurred to me that you might be confusing old-school deadly D&D with Killer GMs.

Killer GMs aren’t fun. For some rare, really motivated players the challenge can be appealing for a bit, but the GM will always win eventually and it’s only a question of how long you can survive, and how much you can mess up the GM’s plans on the way to the grave.

Few GMs actually ever ran those kinds of games except through inexperience with GMing, or as a way to get back at frustrating players (not a good situation). It’s the rare Killer GM that was skilled, did it on purpose, and wasn’t just lashing out. Even those were only fun for those rare players who liked that kind of challenge.

The style of GMing that was deadly but not Killer GM was much more demanding of the GM, but more fulfilling. The point of this style of game is to be as impartial as possible, neither out to kill the PCs nor trying to help them.

When you say

… they will be expected to think of looking for traps or listening to the door themselves rather than with me saying "Maybe you should listen to the door first?"

… you’re echoing this style of play, not the Killer GM style.

To do this style well, you have to be fair running the game, but not fair setting it up. You design deadly places to explore but ensure that it has many ways and directions to approach it, including ways to go around or escape from problems. But when you run the adventure you’re fair, neither giving them the answers or success without effort on their part, nor withholding information or success that they’ve earned through careful and thoughtful strategies.

When your players succeed, it’s real accomplishment: you just ran the impartial, deadly, but rewarding environment, and it was their own skill, own strategies, own luck, and own skill judging their chances that got them through it, not the hand of the all-powerful GM deciding who lives and who dies. It’s a very satisfying way to play, for those who are interested in it.

There is more to this style than can be put in one post. I hope I’ve prevented a disaster that you weren’t bargaining for, and piqued your curiosity enough to go learn more. This style isn’t quite the same as sandbox play, but it shares all the same DMing principles — you could do worse than studying how to run sandboxes.

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Bring multiple character sheets, make it fun, and make it clear what sort of game you're playing.

Explain explicitly to your players that death is likely, and they should bring multiple character sheets and not do too much characterization. Run combat in a quick and brutal manner, with hilarious deaths, and don't punish players for fucking up. Make sure they have fun.

  1. Death is likely. Not playing is boring, so if a player dies, as you expect, they should have backup sheets. A lot of people go into a roleplay expecting to have a lot of characterization. If they know that's not gonna happen, they should be fine. You should aim to have no one standing around bored for long.

  2. Make combat fast and quick. Make sure people are on their toes, make traps brutal, and if they're dying, offer them the chance to run or quickly last stand so you can get over it.

  3. Their deaths and injuries should be funny. When they accidentally step on the pressure plate and get sliced in half it should be fun, quick and a positive experience. If you're purposely killing them, make it fun. It should also give them a good chance to avoid it next time. If they repeatedly die to the same trap, that's not fun.

  4. Keep it fun, keep up the pace. You want your players to move through your content. If they die too much, make the enemies dumber and the traps easier to avoid so they can get deeper in. Don't be sadistic in the same way repeatedly. Let them get deep enough to die in new and interesting ways.

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