Salutations, nerds! I’m talking to the fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters, today in particular, so strap in. We’re going on an adventure that has to do with creating credible D&D threats and challenges without being labeled a “killer DM.” We want our players to feel like the game has stakes. We want them to feel like death is a possibility without feeling like that is specifically what we have in mind for them. After all, what fun is it if it’s too easy, right? But it’s also no fun to feel like the DM is actually trying to kill you on purpose. And as DMs it’s our job to strike that balance.
The challenges your tabletop roleplaying game players want
This is probably the hardest part, and the part I can give you the least amount of help with. Because every party is different. Even two hardcore strategist parties are going to have different concepts for what is a good fight to them. The only really solid way to understand what your players want is to listen to the words that come out of their faces. And if they aren’t giving you words, ask them.
Some parties like to have a lot of difficult roleplaying encounters. They don’t want the NPCs to roll over for them easily and they want layers to every social encounter. There’s a rule in writing that in every scene, somebody should want something, and there should be a reason that whoever they are trying to get it from doesn’t want to give it to them. D&D shouldn’t be any different; everyone has an agenda.
Does that mean every time your players go shopping the merchants should try to strong arm them into buying more or leverage more money out of them? Of course not. Although you certainly can do that if your players are the kinds of people who like to play out shopping trips. It just means if the scene is going to go easily, it’s probably one you should gloss in favor of playing something with a challenge factor.
Some parties want to feel like they might die in every single combat encounter, and that’s great! Take a little extra time working on combat for those players. But some don’t. And it’s totally okay for you to give them a few easy ones as you’re working up to the serious stuff.
Sliding scale of difficulty
With the exception of those power gaming groups that want to feel like they are on death’s door every single combat, most games are going to have boss fights that are significantly harder than your average encounter. Unless your table has specifically expressed interest in wanting to feel their own mortality every single time they fight, it’s probably better to save that for the aforementioned boss fights. But use the smaller ones to prepare them and give them a taste of the challenges ahead.
Say you have a difficult mechanic coming up on your boss fight, for example. Your players are going to be fighting a medusa at the end of this terrain. You know she has a DC 14 petrifying gaze, and she’s CR 6. You also know basilisks have similar abilities but are only CR 3, and sure enough, their petrifying gaze is only DC 12. Basilisks would be a reasonable step down and a preparation for this medusa.
A smart party might even go back to town after fighting the basilisks and seeing there are more of them and come up with a contingency plan to deal with being petrified. Preparation — they have the opportunity to do it!
At that point, your players probably aren’t going to think you’re coddling them. You’re giving them a chance. You’re foreshadowing.
Be willing to kill them — but not trying to
So your players got through all these basilisks without bothering to prepare for petrification and now they’re fighting the medusa and everyone is failing their saving throws. Do you fudge the rolls? If you don’t, are you a killer DM?
No and no. I mean, you could. Some games are like that and if it’s how you and your players like it that’s totally fine. Most tables, though, would feel cheated if they thought you were cheating, and if you gave them the chance to protect themselves and they went in half-cocked anyway, that is when you show your teeth.
It is generally considered a bad move to say “you’re dead, no saving throw.” It feels much better to have a fighting chance to save yourself and fail it than it does to just be knocked out or killed outright without any rolls being made at all. And you know what? Sometimes your players are going to get in there half-cocked and win anyway. But sometimes they won’t.
There are going to be things your players care about more than their own lives. I had a character adopt a child once during a game. She almost died several times, but the moments I remember most in that game were the ones where her son was being threatened.
Get an idea of what the characters value. If it’s their gear, throw a rust monster at them and I guarantee they’ll be feeling the stakes. If a character is about their reputation and social standing, a social encounter will feel more high stakes to them than a combat will, even if there’s no threat of actually dying.
Have a clear idea of what is at stake for your players in every scene. What do the PCs want? What do their opponents want? What happens if the PCs win? What happens if they lose?
A quick trick: Never set the stakes higher than you’re actually willing to follow through on. I know you worked hard on your world. If you are not really willing to end it if the PCs fail, don’t threaten it. Threaten a town, a kingdom, or a continent instead.
If you’re willing to follow through, they’ll believe in every threat you throw at them. And that’s how you get them to take you seriously. It isn’t about killing your PCs; they’re going to have to make sacrifices sometimes. Pick what you choose to put in peril carefully and those sacrifices will be meaningful.