Do players want challenging games, with a real chance of death?


I think the expected length of the campaign is probably an important variable. A per session or per encounter risk level that results in 50% survival for a 10 session campaign would make character death a near guarantee in longer form campaigns.

I also think it's important to avoid conflating low risk of character death with low difficulty. While a game certainly can have both of these characteristics, it's also possible to challenge players with stakes other than character death.

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B/X Known World
Depends on the players and depends on the day. The time involved in creating a character matters as well. So does what’s lost on character death. In Paranoia, you have six clones that can die and nothing is lost. In most versions of D&D, you lose everything and have to start fresh. Maybe even at 1st level regardless of what level the other PCs are at.

Some players never want challenge or possible character death. Others always want challenge and character death. Most players are somewhere in between.

Considering the popularity of D&D 5E, it’s safer to err on the side of minimal challenge and minimal risk of character death.


Guide of Modos
. . . I find combat is also more meaningful when life hangs in the balance. To counter this I provide big rewards and pay offs, characters level fast - but one hit kills are always possible, mainly through a poor strategic decision.

So the question is: do other players want to be challenged? Or do they just want to go through motions and level up? What do other GMs and players think?
Do the PCs want to be challenged, or do they want to be murdered?

Depends on the player. A lot of players just want to have fun. I want to solve problems and risk character death if I choose that risk. Don't force my character into deadly situations. That includes you, other players: if you got my character into a deadly situation, you'd better not cry as I run away from it!

Point 2, I think, is that challenge and reward need not involve death. It's probably better that way! I mean, my game has two separate (but sometimes related) systems for these things. One is a difficulty table that increases odds of an "unfavorable outcome." The other is a pool for collecting damage that doesn't even result in death - unless the player chooses for his character to die.


That's a good distinction made upthread -- death isn't necessarily part of what might be challenging or not, or even what makes it challenging. Death might be an outcome, but it's independent of challenge or difficulty). There's plenty of challenge available without death on the table.

Overall, I would say that what most players want is agency. That their choices not only matter, but have a direct, understandable, and strong influence on the outcome. Players and characters can be challenged, and things might be very difficult, but if it doesn't feel like your actions have much of an impact on whether the character succeeds or fails, then many will tap out to find and play a game (whether RPG or otherwise) that offers it. (And if they're not interested in agency, then a slot machine may be much more lucrative. ;))

Players who are reluctant for challenges or harsh penalties for failure might have concerns for the amount of agency, perhaps brought on by previous experience. Or they might just not understand this particular's campaign style or tone. I've found that a conversation to invite them in often works (and then I be darn sure I honour my word with regards to agency).

And if the invite isn't accepted, then I am totally OK with that as well. Certain players prefer different challenge levels. And these aren't fixed either -- tastes and interests in difficulty levels can shift based on a whole host of things, from real life to the campaign world. (And don't use that as a justification to badger or shame someone into a game they will not enjoy.)


As a GM for a table of players that really enjoy and focus on the roleplaying and social aspect, and are adept at developing their characters, I try to keep the challenges reasonably tough but the deadliness low - since they invest a lot in their characters.

In grimdark systems like WFRP the deadliness is higher by default and Chaos moves in unpredictable ways, but I still avoid creating meatgrinder challenges - that’s not where our fun comes from.

Depends on the players.

But it also depends on the cost of a replacing a character. If you can be back in the game in 15 minutes, it's very different from if you'll resume play only in a week or two. And it will depend on how much more the old character could do compared to a new character.

And it of course depends on the campaign, and how much any character's individual personality and identity is relevant to the game.

This is very true. In Numenera I would be unbothered if my character died as I could whip up another one in 10 minutes. Creating a caster PC in GURPS was a 5+ hour ordeal. If the PC died I would have screamed and quit.


He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
Not a one size fits all question. Really depends on the game and the group. In D&D and Traveller, it can happen with poor planning and bad luck, but its pretty rare. Other OSR games and Call of Cthulhu make it a good chance it happens every session. Depends on the mood.

Speaking specifically about D&D, the culture around character death has changed greatly over the last 35 years. I first played in 1986. Back then, characters were as disposable as kleenex. The rules of the game regarding character death were unforgiving.

Fast forward to 5E and the default rules make it difficult for your character to die. While some old guard dislike the "kid gloves" D&D of today, I am fine with it. The game is about different things now. I would never want the possibility of character death to be off the table entirely. But I am fine with the relatively low risk of 5E games today.

With regards to general difficulty in a campaign, I like a mix. If all the encounters are extremely difficult I find that exhausting. But if they are all easy we go to sleep at the table. Moderation is key. :)

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