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



I find that the players want to be challenged and have a chance of death. This could be from terrible luck with dice, sacrifice, or poor decisions. They also tend to want some chance of being brought back at a certain point.

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I usually have my players vote on how difficult / unforgiving they want the campaign to be. A 1 would be that no matter how bad things get, characters will never die (without a player choosing). 2 is that there are deadly situations but I give strong clues on how to get out of them. 3 is a dangerous world that can definitely result in death if they are not prepared.

In my last big campaign they voted for 2. We had two character deaths, one mid-way through and one in the penultimate session.
I like that, whilst I've asked generally, I may formally have them vote on it before next campaign.


As a player, I want there to be challenges of the type where failing means the (temporary or permanent) end of my charzcter, or of my playing that character. Why? Because defeating/surviving those challenges brings a sense of accomplishment.

While death is the most obvious of these fail states, other equivalents can include: capture or imprisonment or enslavement, loss of mind, petrification, and so forth.

And most game systems provide at least some means of recovery from all of these states provided the requisite resources and-or people are available in the fiction and that such recovery is a desired outcome (it isn't always).
Good to hear, that's how I hope my players feel!


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.)
Well point. I agree, death isn't the only way to fail or create peril in a game. Agency, feeling like you can change the world, have meaningful interactions are more important for sure but I think a sense of mortality helps enhance all of that. It should matter if a character dies.


Mine do. No doubt about it.
Excellent, I hope there are enough out there that do. I'm going to start advertising my game soon and I am concerned that talking about it's challenging nature might be viewed as a negative. Interstellar Mercenary is tough!

Mod Edit: Advertising link removed. ~Umbran
Last edited by a moderator:


Prophet of the profane (She/Her)
I like challenging games and the bulk if not entirety of my TTRPG-related design work this year was dedicated to making games that involve a test of skill. Swashbuckling! revolves around testing players' and GM's ability to improvise witty insults on the spot, and in Inner Sanctum whoever is better at fighting games in a very visceral, tangible way will control the narrative.

One day I will finally make a skirmish wargame too.

That said.

The issue with "hard" and "punishing" RPGs is that they aren't hard and punishing in fun cool Dark Souls way, where you feel a rush of overcoming a tough fight after seeing "YOU DIED" over and over and over again. They are hard in Sierra way, where you have to somehow parse moon logic puzzles designed by eldritch horrors from beyond that don't think the way we mere mortals do, and every mistake ends with death.

aramis erak

My game (InterStellar Mercenary) is difficult. Trying to complete a mission while being hunted down by bounty hunters, deadly creatures, the enemy empire, and your fellow mercenary means there is a high chance of death. In a campaign (10 missions) I probably average about 50% die. Whilst my players hate when they die, even get emotional, when they survive it feels like a real accomplishment. 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?
Most of mine want that element of risk. In fact, it was a topic of discussion after they rescued John Carter from a giant White Ape...
They claim to like that I don't pull punches - fair, but not easy. Not every fight is winnable; sometimes you need to find ways to not fight. But I also allow a good bit of silly, and very limited PVP.

Which has kept me a stable of (at any given time) 6-15 players wanting to play in games I run. Some only play certain games; others play almost every one.

My character died in my last Pathfinder game - partly bad luck (x3 crits can do an insane amount of damage at high levels) but also my own fault, as I forgot about a class ability that could have saved him. I was annoyed with myself, but fortunately the other characters stumped up the money for a Raise Dead (and even agreed to split the cost equally rather than making my character pay for it all).

Since we were playing an adventure path, it would have been jarring to have to introduce a new, high level character into the party at that late stage.


but fortunately the other characters stumped up the money for a Raise Dead (and even agreed to split the cost equally rather than making my character pay for it all).
I have seen a lot of groups split treasure with an extra share dedicated to raising the dead. Not sure what it said about the DM or the players at the time. Might have been more 2e/3e.

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