How deadly do you like your game (as a player or DM)?


He / Him
I started running my Curse of Strand game (the infamous and fun Death House) as a "dream sequence" so that my group could try out playing online for the first time without long-lasting consequences. Dead characters died horribly but returned in the next scene.

Then I totally changed the campaign and made it my own, with multiple vampire barons and tyrants. When the characters started to fight their first vampire, we had a quick discussion. I asked them how deadly they wanted the campaign:

3) Deadly. When we are in over our heads, let the dice fall where they might.

2) Somewhat deadly. When we are in very dangerous situations, give us a clue to a way out.

1) I don't want my character to die.

I consider all three to be valid options. As a DM, I prefer 3. I love to have a world with dangerous places that the players are absolutely free to explore, with deadly consequences. I find new characters breathe a lot of life into a campaign. (Ultimately the players voted for 2.)

Then I was playing in my other D&D game, and we are facing a pretty tough combat. I realized that if things went south, my character had a pretty good chance of dying... And I was shocked by how sad that made me! I realized that as a player, I'm definitely a 2.

So where are you on the scale, as a DM or a player? Or would you use a different scale altogether?

NOTE: Do not denigrate other play styles in this thread! People like to play D&D in many different ways, which are all valid. No yucking other people's yums!

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Mod Squad
Staff member
When considering how deadly a campaign will be, to start with, I think less about how deadly situations are handled, and more about how often those situations arise.

For example, some GMs build their games so that any time you draw a sword, someone in the party is apt to die, and others will work more like a work of fiction has a rise and fall of threat, and there's only real risk at the high points.


Elder Thing
As a DM, I'm firmly in the 1-but-make-it-feel-like-3 camp. For example, when a PC died in an encounter back in the 3.x days, I gave the player the option of becoming a ghost using the Ghostwalk campaign setting rules.

In a 5e game a couple years ago I had a character who had to make a last desperate maneuver, bringing themself and two other PCs to 0 hp because it was the only way they could think of to frighten off the pack of winter wolves that was handing them their butts. We cut the scene as the PCs collapsed, and they awoke a few hours later in a cave full of winter wolf corpses.

I like to keep things intense and absorbing, but as a DM I am ultimately on the same team as the players.


As a DM definitely #1 as dead PCs no longer have narrative momentum and that's way more boring than them being able to add to the story.

As a player #3 cause I can just make a new character which is almost as fun as playing the old one.


Guide of Modos
. . . I consider all three to be valid options. As a DM, I prefer 3. I love to have a world with dangerous places that the players are absolutely free to explore, with deadly consequences. I find new characters breathe a lot of life into a campaign. (Ultimately the players voted for 2.) . . .
You let your players "vote?" Very deceptive. I like it :devilish:

I prefer PC death to be 100%, George R. R. Martin, on the table. It's a cheap way to ramp up the excitement: deadly scenarios. The irony is that a deadly game should have less combat, or else no main character is going to remain "main." A game that isn't very deadly - the GM provides ways out of combat - will likely have more combat, since the stakes are lower.

Somewhere between a 2 and a 3. I'm definitely a "let the dice fall where they may" kind of guy. That said I'm fine with the DM dropping a hint if the PCs are about to get in over their heads. Dying because you pushed a bit too far and wandered into the boss fight with half HP and no spells feels too arbitrary because players didn't have enough information to really base a decision on. But if players make informed decisions then they should live (or die) based on those decisions.

While I would be happy to run a campaign at a 1 if that was what the players wanted it would be a hard pass for me as a player.

I like to see games move from 1-3 and back again. Difficulty should not be set at a permanent threshold, but should ebb and flow. Sometimes you need the thrill of a nail-biting fight to really bring the game to life, and sometimes you just want to get to roleplay your character at the inn before stomping all over some skeletons.

Grinding difficulty all the time gets old, but so does every fight being a cakewalk.


I guess I'd be in camp #2. I dont mind character death, but sometimes it comes out of nowhere, with no chance to avoid it, at no fault of the player or character. In those instances, I dislike character death, but I do like a swingy systems like 3E/PF. It can make combat really exciting when you have a drag out 10+ rounder and if a player drops due to exhausting all resources and being out of luck, then it feels right.

I like action/hero points being given to players. This allows me as GM to take the gloves off and the players a get out of death card. The points need to be managed by the player so taking too many unnecessary risks will eventually lead to a dead character, but not so risky so that players break out the ten foot pole again.



3) Deadly. When we are in over our heads, let the dice fall where they might.

2) Somewhat deadly. When we are in very dangerous situations, give us a clue to a way out.

1) I don't want my character to die.


So where are you on the scale, as a DM or a player? Or would you use a different scale altogether?
Of your choices, my preference would be 3. But your scale addresses only the situation that PCs find themselves in. But as Umbran mentioned above, how did that encounter arise? Did they search it out? Did they miss clues that this would be a Deadly encounter? Ultimately, my preference is based on a lot of factors so I'd probably fall under "using a different scale altogether".

One factor is genre. You mentioned D&D so let's stick with that (versus superheroes, which as we all know, (permanent) death is practically non-existent). But the main factors are the campaign I want to run (or play) and the game mechanics of said campaign. Some campaigns (in D&D) I want to explore character, so I lean toward 2 (but usually never 1). But for the run-of-the-mill campaign or a hex-crawl, I like 3 because the game mechanics do the heavy lifting to achieve the level of lethality I like.

So for D&D, I like the lethality of 4e and (to a lesser extent) 5e. As you've probably heard, PCs in 4e are pretty robust. Plus, they have death saves and much (perhaps all) of the save-or-die stuff were stripped away. This doesn't mean that PCs weren't knocked out often (at least in my games, they were). And in my Dark Sun campaign, I added house rules to increase lethality [1]. But if a PC dies, it was pretty much due to poor choices like doing nothing to help their dying comrade or not running away/surrendering if that's the best thing to do to survive. Interesting to note too that the VTT I'm using (FG), which has a lot of automation, doesn't allow fudging, as far as I know.

If players wanted 1, D&D would not be the right rule set to use.

[1] Once you reached 0 hp, you rolled 3d20 each turn on death saves, meaning there was a (slight) chance of instantly dying.

John Dallman

As a DM, I'm firmly in the 1-but-make-it-feel-like-3 camp.
That's how I like it as a player. As a GM, I often go a long time between combats (I don't run traditional fantasy styles), but will suddenly drop something quite dangerous on the characters. They're generally meant to win, but they should feel as if there was real risk involved. So much the same as when I'm a player.

Something that I like as player and GM is the sudden switch from "Everything's fine, seems safe around here" to "Holy Carp! All-out effort, now!" The fight that builds up gradually feels too scripted to me; the opposition are generally staging an ambush in which they're fully prepared, and the characters have to respond fast.

The fun of combat in an RPG comes, in part, from the adrenalin rush of reacting to threats. So providing that is part of GMing.

Player: I will take whatever the GM is cooking. Sometimes a death warranted. Other times saving a life is needed. I don't care. It's all part of the story. So I would say a 2.
GM: All rolls in the open. Any deadly encounter is prewritten (and generally tested). Possibilities almost always exist, such as running away or bribing or surrendering. So it's up to them to figure out how to not die. So I would say a 2 again.


Limit Break Dancing
As the DM, I trust the players to judge for themselves if they are in over their heads, and to always have an escape plan for their characters. So I guess the game is as deadly as the players decide it should be.

As a player, I'm the most paranoid person at the table. I get teased for being quick to call for a retreat, and for always fleeing from combat. Strangely, I've only ever had one character die in combat...
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Death is always final in my games regardless of rules set.

The dice fall where they may.

Staying alive is the players' responsibility and should be their chief concern.


This is in RPG General, so I assume we're not just talking about D&D or about fantasy RPGing.

Generally I prefer character-oriented drama to single-person-per-unit wargaming, and character-oriented drama works better when the main threat is not PC death.

But deaths can occur when the game dictates as much. This is a function of mechanics and of fiction.

A couple of mechanics-first examples: a PC died in our Wuthering Heights one-shot, and a PC died in our Classic Traveller game, because that's what the action resolution mechanics dictated. The mechanics here then dictate the fiction - eg in the Wuthering Heights game there was a scuffle in the bookshop, and the PC lost and so had to make a role against Decrepitude, and rolled a fumble (1% chance ie d% result = Decrepitude score) which = death. I (as GM) narrated it as a heart attack, so as to bring the fiction into conformity with the mechanical outcome.

A fiction-first example: in our first session of Prince Valiant, one of the PCs was hunted down by the Wild Hunt. Mechanically, this was a standard extended contest in that system: opposed dice pools with the margin of success depleting the loser's pool. Being dropped to zero meant the PC had lost - the fictional context for this meant that he had been captured by the Hunt. Hence he was dead. That's been the only death in that campaign, which is now into double-digit sessions, as it's the only time the fiction has mandated such an outcome - eg in a more recent session, one of the PCs was reduced to zero dice in his pool in a fight against an undead lord, and I (as GM) narrated this as a serious wound (the enemy's greatsword having thrust through a gap between breastplate and pauldron to inflict serious bleeding) and not mere stunning and exhaustion (which is my default narration for a lost physical contest).

The idea that a RPG is "soft" or "easy" if PCs don't die very much seems wrong-headed, because mechanics can be about when you lose an argument or when you lose a race just as much as when you lose a no-quarter-shall-be-granted duel. And the fiction of a RPG can be just as challenging to navigate if it is about figuring out how to leverage this NPC away from that NPC as if it is Tomb of Horrors.

Li Shenron

As a player, I don't care, I'll take whatever.

As a DM, one of the things I hate most is having players disagree with each other about how deadly the game should be, so I've been letting each player choose whether their PC dies or not when it happens.

aramis erak

I like combats, but not overly drawn out ones.

So...I like a certain modicum of risk - if you get in a fight, you may die level - but PC's should never have a non-forewarned "prolly gonna die" level fight.

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