What is "risk" in 4e?

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I like to run games in which the risk of failure is at least as likely a possibility as success. In previous editions, I narrowly defined failure as physical -- death, dismemberment, rapid aging, etc. For the past 2-3 years I've been playing 4e, physical harm has become an evasive reality of adventurering. With the advent of healing surges, introduction of leader-type roles, and combat sessions that are hours long, the risk of physical danger is just too improbable.

So, with physical danger being an ineffective option, what other tools do y'all use to create that sense of risk in your games?
Alternative goals is mainly the thing you want to go with.  Have your characters build a legacy and then have to defend it.  Their heroic deeds are told, but then a book is released potraying them as the real villians.

Also if you find physical danger is not a threat to players, which in my games it still is very real, put someone the group cares about in a side role for that danger.  I wanted to pull on the strings of some of my players so I had them fight inside a nightmare.  Slowly the players realized whose nightmare it was and what the nightmare was all about.  It was the dream of a small child who was being abused by their parents.  The risk didn't become failing the challenge or the adventure, but failing the child.  The big key, if you want to do it this way, is that you need to make the characters invested in things before you rip them into pieces. 
Currently working on making a Dex based defender. Check it out here
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Need a few pre-generated characters for a one-shot you are running? Want to get a baseline for what an effective build for a class you aren't familiar with? Check out the Pregen thread here If ever you are interested what it sounds like to be at my table check out my blog and podcast here Also, I've recently done an episode on "Refluffing". You can check that out here
4th Edition clarified the concept of failure for me in the chapter on skill challenge. Failure should not cause the game to grind to a halt.

In thinking about this, I thought about movies and stories which strive for a certain level or realism, but are bound to not kill off their characters too soon. But that doesn't mean that the characters always win. Sometimes the characters have nothing but escalating trouble until the end. They survive, yet they lose. Yet the story continues.

So, the answer is to give the enemy goals that do not hinge on and perhaps even would not benefit from the deaths of the PCs. The PCs can then survive, yet still lose. Ideally, they will encounter scenarios so personally important to them, that they will be forced to get into a tactically bad position in order to win, and death once again becomes a tense possibility. And as the player chose to take that risk, they are substantially less likely to be unhappy if death occurs.

You can try giving the PCs goals that don't hinge on or benefit from the deaths of the enemy, but unless they come up with these themselves you can expect to find them not very receptive to this. In fact, sometimes players just want to revel in their low-risk enemy bashing. Let them.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

While failing skill challenges should not end the game, they should have a consequence. Sadly, in my experience, no skill challenge has been written with both a realistic chance of failure and a negative consequence. The DC is almost always too low. Usually, there is no consequence for failing. "Oh, don't worry. The monsters will just wait."
That is a failure in the writing, not the concept.

And once you get past about 3rd level, characters seldom die, unless they do something really stupid. Like try to take on an encounter all by themselves. In fact, except for the aforementioned piece of tactical brilliance, I've only seen 1 character die, and that was when down to fewer than 10 hp and then critted.

And it depends on the class of characters and the monsters. My default is to make encounters at least 1 level higher than the players. Just because.
[P]hysical danger...is very real [in my games].



Matyr - How do you achieve this?
Failure should not cause the game to grind to a halt.


I couldn't agree more. Nothing is worse than a meaningless TPK. 

And as the player chose to take [a] risk, they are substantially less likely to be unhappy if death occurs...[however] sometimes players just want to revel in their low-risk enemy bashing. Let them..


Any suggestions with risk adverse players? Of the two groups I DM, one is full of players who won't (knowingly) take any risks. It's grown kinda boring as I've run out of ways to challenge them.
For people who aren't interested in this sort of rocket taggy combat escalation, there's a much different path to danger: use combat somewhat sparingly but make each one matter. This is essentially what Centauri is discussing above, where the question isn't whether you live or die --at least not until the climactic battle--, it's how well you do along the way.



Niether of the groups I DM is interested in game math like you describe above. As a matter of fact, I wish they'd optimize their PCs a little more so that the combat encounters wouldn't last as long.

That said, I like combat and think it's a necessary aspect of the game and probably use them as a pacing tool more than as an integral part of the storyline. As such, it might be one of the reasons I've felt they lack luster and/or any real sense of danger or risk.

As far as "how PCs do along the way," do you mind sharing some examples?
While failing skill challenges should not end the game, they should have a consequence. Sadly, in my experience, no skill challenge has been written with both a realistic chance of failure and a negative consequence. The DC is almost always too low. Usually, there is no consequence for failing. "Oh, don't worry. The monsters will just wait." That is a failure in the writing, not the concept.



I actually really like skill challenges, but consquences for failure are more often than not meaningless. The whole "you loose 1 healing surge" has never produced any real in-game negative affects. 

And it depends on the class of characters and the monsters. My default is to make encounters at least 1 level higher than the players. Just because.



Yes.
[P]hysical danger...is very real [in my games].



Matyr - How do you achieve this?



Not answering for Matyr, just picking up on that line of thought.


I usually achieve it with terrain and traps, not with hordes or hard-hitting monsters. A few examples:


I had bad guys who could slide you one square with each successful attack, from a distance of 10 squares. Underneath the natural stone bridge they were fighting on (which was 3 squares wide, BTW) was a pit with three hungry owlbears. Falling off the edge of the bridge meant facing three baddies alone, and a non-negligible risk of being mauled to death. In my game one character fell down... twice. Boy, was he ever happy about that Bloodcut Armor.


Enemies activate a large rock slide/avalanche trap, which not only damages the characters, but also turns a good portion of the area into difficult terrain. Ranged attackers can shoot a few more volleys from a safe distance than they normally would. What would normally be an easy combat encounter now becomes more tense.


Unsure footing that could break and make PCs fall. Lava slowly filling up a room, until a few stepping stones are left. Poison gas that attacks every round until you find the switch to close the vents. Geysers. A creature that can conjure walls.


IMO, it doesn't have to be deadly, but rather anything which forces PCs to switch gears and say "We gotta deal with this somehow, or else this is going to be much harder than it needs to be."

[P]hysical danger...is very real [in my games].



Matyr - How do you achieve this?



1) I occasionally kill off characters

2) I sometimes have them pick off a specific type of enemy, have a helluva time brining one down and then have 50 show up on the horizon sacking a town.

3) I regularly knock characters near negative bloodied

4) I don't play with a DM screen so the players can see when I throw out a ton of dice.

5) I use monsters with lots of dice in place of monsters with big dice (I rarely use more than d8s for anything)

6) I use effects that stack to devastating effect (like a creature that gives ongoing with a burst attack and his melee attacks deal double damage to people taking ongoing)

7) I threaten instant-kills with mechanics for specific character-spotlight fights (ie climactic moments in the story focusing on one character's heroes' journey)

8) I will kill groups if they don't play well.  My players know they are little things fighting huge challenges and constantly hanging on by a thread.  When I design my "hard" encounters I run a simulated combat without the terrain (for sake of ease) and then I keep adding creatures to team monster until I have just enough to kill the players with average damage.  The players have to make up for this by being creative, working as a team and, to a lesser extent, using a couple of resources I don't sim with (cards and terrain mostly).
Currently working on making a Dex based defender. Check it out here
Show
Need a few pre-generated characters for a one-shot you are running? Want to get a baseline for what an effective build for a class you aren't familiar with? Check out the Pregen thread here If ever you are interested what it sounds like to be at my table check out my blog and podcast here Also, I've recently done an episode on "Refluffing". You can check that out here
[P]hysical danger...is very real [in my games].



Matyr - How do you achieve this?

Don't be afraid to bloody well kill them.  Seriously, you're the DM.  The players have a finite amount of HP.  Inflict it as damage and they'll die.  Don't be afraid to hit them, and hit them hard.

I actually really like skill challenges, but consquences for failure are more often than not meaningless. The whole "you loose 1 healing surge" has never produced any real in-game negative affects. 


Then stop using it.  Find meaningful, natural consequences for failure, and impose them.
Seriously, though, you should check out the PbP Haven. You might also like Real Adventures, IF you're cool.
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Shirebrok touched on something i enjoy employing myself, and that is layered combat encounters.

I recently ran a one shot at 11? The first fight my players had was against four creatures that could slide and immobilize. Part of the floor my players fought on was crumbling and would give way if someone ended a certain number of turns on a given tile.

The creatures themselves were only level 9, but the pit was 40' deep and thus the pressure of managing the fight and keeping themselves and their allies from getting stuck in a bad spot really kept them on their toes.


I have done fights in giant airships where the bad guys were trying to destroy the rigging with bombs that needed difussing, or a room that was filling with poisonous gas while the players fought a handful of manageable creatures, etc.

No piece should be challenging by itself, but layer a few together and suddenly your players have to be much attentive and inventive to manage things. I find this brings the threat level up significantly when somethng as simple as the pc trying to activiate a mechanism suddenly gets slid 1 sq and now everyone is about to get nailed for some serious damage. 
In RPG world: Risk to Players = Risk of death. There is no other risks. Risk of completing adventure? Risk of saving the town? Risk of... Lets be honest folks, no one gives a $%^! about those things. No one cries over it. BOTTOM LINE; Risk = your character's sudden death.

Low level characters, this risk is high. You are low level with low health. Makes sense.

Higher level you go? This risk in all the DnD editions, even in 4e, diminishes significantly compared to Real Time spent in combat rounds. Unless, you pit much higher level monsters against your lower level P.C.'s, and expect your P.C.'s to solve the problem outside the box, but based on current system, that creates whole new problem.

Create your own solution to your own problem in your game;

You can Twick the DnD 4e imperfect system to the one you and your players like. Make it riskier without making it time consuming boredom of hit point reduction.

You can jack up Monster Manual damage by 50% and reduce monster health by 25%. That will ensure, more damage output per round by the monsters, and less health to whack through = Less Boring Rounds & Faster outcome...for both sides.

Talk with your players about how you want to twick the game so as to make it less time spent on meaningless boring stuff (such as taking hours bringing down health pool w/out any immediate sense of risk), to more exciting stuff (such as your life hanging in balance every round while you make choices to defeat your foe in a except-able Real Time manner.)

Man I miss Middle Earth Role Playing game Critical Hit Table... don't matter the level of anything. One good roll on the crit chart = Instant Death. Adds whole new flavor of Risk in combat.
I think this thread might be interesting for you.

In RPG world: Risk to Players = Risk of death. There is no other risks. Risk of completing adventure? Risk of saving the town? Risk of... Lets be honest folks, no one gives a $%^! about those things. No one cries over it. BOTTOM LINE; Risk = your character's sudden death.


The risk of losing magical items? MacGuffins critical to the plot? Allied NPCs? Resources? Things in which the PCs invested, like a keep? Reputation and favor? If my players failed at a task and lost any of these things, they'd be pretty upset, because all of those things help them immensly. They wouldn't cry of course, because they know it's just a game not worth crying over.


Maybe it's not losing something, but rather complicating future endeavors. The BBEG becomes stronger. The PCs are lost, possibly in another plane. The fort they're infiltrating is on high alert. Constant ambushes and chases as they travel.


These are only a few examples, and the best part is they can be mixed together. You may have lost access to certain resources because you were defeated at a keep in a strategic location, so repelling the invading forces becomes more difficult in the future.


So I disagree with the notion that death can be the only indication of failure and source of risk, especially in a game where death can be more or less easily reversed.

I think it's as important to come up with fun and creative encounters as it is to come up with encounters that threaten the PCs (though you can do both). For example, last weekend I had an encounter where the group set off a trap that summoned spiders into the room, whole hoards of little spiders and some bigger ones. It creeped the players out immensely, so their characters were fighting desperately even though I knew math-wise there was little chance of a character getting killed.

Of course, there was a cool aspect to the spiderlings where their bites only inflicted 2 damage, but gave vulnerable 5 poison. Each subsequent hit upped that vulnerability by 2, so when one of the fighters got surrounded by spiderlings (just minions) and I started rolling dice, the players realized those rolls meant the difference between 2 damage and 30+ damage depending on how many bites they took. It caused everyone to step back and say "Whoa!"

One of the other PCs, a paladin, attacked a large phase spider, and when he moved adjacent it, he was teleported to the edge of the battle. That's when a Doomspinner hiding in the dark used a web power to pull him five spaces... into the darkness. Everyone at the table loved it, and there was a mad scramble to go save the paladin (even though, again, he really wasn't in that much danger and ended up killing the Doomspinner with only a bit of help).

That whole spider encounter was one of three encounters I ran Saturday, and probably was the "easiest" in terms of actual risk, but THAT is the encounter all the players are still talking about today.
In RPG world: Risk to Players = Risk of death. There is no other risks. Risk of completing adventure? Risk of saving the town? Risk of... Lets be honest folks, no one gives a $%^! about those things. No one cries over it. BOTTOM LINE; Risk = your character's sudden death.

First of all, why would anyone want players to cry, or have any adverse reaction?

Second of all, players can either resurrect their character or make another one. Some people even like making new characters on a regular basis. I like one of my current characters, but I'm sort of hoping he dies so I can try something else. Plus, sometimes a death scene is just right, something to cheer about.

No, death is not the only way, and it's not even a particularly interesting way to threaten players. I'll concede that it's the easiest way, especially if a DM has no rapport with their players, but it has more than it's share of issues as a failure mode. It works best with players who are really bought into the game, but if you've got that then just about any approach will work equally well.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

I think it's as important to come up with fun and creative encounters as it is to come up with encounters that threaten the PCs (though you can do both). For example, last weekend I had an encounter where the group set off a trap that summoned spiders into the room, whole hoards of little spiders and some bigger ones. It creeped the players out immensely, so their characters were fighting desperately even though I knew math-wise there was little chance of a character getting killed.

Of course, there was a cool aspect to the spiderlings where their bites only inflicted 2 damage, but gave vulnerable 5 poison. Each subsequent hit upped that vulnerability by 2, so when one of the fighters got surrounded by spiderlings (just minions) and I started rolling dice, the players realized those rolls meant the difference between 2 damage and 30+ damage depending on how many bites they took. It caused everyone to step back and say "Whoa!"

One of the other PCs, a paladin, attacked a large phase spider, and when he moved adjacent it, he was teleported to the edge of the battle. That's when a Doomspinner hiding in the dark used a web power to pull him five spaces... into the darkness. Everyone at the table loved it, and there was a mad scramble to go save the paladin (even though, again, he really wasn't in that much danger and ended up killing the Doomspinner with only a bit of help).

That whole spider encounter was one of three encounters I ran Saturday, and probably was the "easiest" in terms of actual risk, but THAT is the encounter all the players are still talking about today.


That's awesome! I might steal this idea...

I had bad guys who could slide you one square with each successful attack, from a distance of 10 squares. Underneath the natural stone bridge they were fighting on (which was 3 squares wide, BTW) was a pit with three hungry owlbears. Falling off the edge of the bridge meant facing three baddies alone, and a non-negligible risk of being mauled to death. In my game one character fell down... twice. Boy, was he ever happy about that Bloodcut Armor.

Enemies activate a large rock slide/avalanche trap, which not only damages the characters, but also turns a good portion of the area into difficult terrain. Ranged attackers can shoot a few more volleys from a safe distance than they normally would. What would normally be an easy combat encounter now becomes more tense.


Unsure footing that could break and make PCs fall. Lava slowly filling up a room, until a few stepping stones are left. Poison gas that attacks every round until you find the switch to close the vents. Geysers. A creature that can conjure walls.


IMO, it doesn't have to be deadly, but rather anything which forces PCs to switch gears and say "We gotta deal with this somehow, or else this is going to be much harder than it needs to be."




This is great stuff. I usually don't spend enough time accounting for dynamic combat encounters. Thanks for sharing!

1) I occasionally kill off characters
2) I sometimes have them pick off a specific type of enemy, have a helluva time brining one down and then have 50 show up on the horizon sacking a town.
3) I regularly knock characters near negative bloodied
4) I don't play with a DM screen so the players can see when I throw out a ton of dice.
5) I use monsters with lots of dice in place of monsters with big dice (I rarely use more than d8s for anything)
6) I use effects that stack to devastating effect (like a creature that gives ongoing with a burst attack and his melee attacks deal double damage to people taking ongoing)
7) I threaten instant-kills with mechanics for specific character-spotlight fights (ie climactic moments in the story focusing on one character's heroes' journey)
8) I will kill groups if they don't play well.  My players know they are little things fighting huge challenges and constantly hanging on by a thread.  When I design my "hard" encounters I run a simulated combat without the terrain (for sake of ease) and then I keep adding creatures to team monster until I have just enough to kill the players with average damage.  The players have to make up for this by being creative, working as a team and, to a lesser extent, using a couple of resources I don't sim with (cards and terrain mostly).


I did this for a while in heroic tier, but the party quickly changed their approach to risk. Several players mistook my attempts at creating a "high stakes" game for vengence or malice. How do you prevent this?
I think it's as important to come up with fun and creative encounters as it is to come up with encounters that threaten the PCs (though you can do both). For example, last weekend I had an encounter where the group set off a trap that summoned spiders into the room, whole hoards of little spiders and some bigger ones. It creeped the players out immensely, so their characters were fighting desperately even though I knew math-wise there was little chance of a character getting killed.

Of course, there was a cool aspect to the spiderlings where their bites only inflicted 2 damage, but gave vulnerable 5 poison. Each subsequent hit upped that vulnerability by 2, so when one of the fighters got surrounded by spiderlings (just minions) and I started rolling dice, the players realized those rolls meant the difference between 2 damage and 30+ damage depending on how many bites they took. It caused everyone to step back and say "Whoa!"

One of the other PCs, a paladin, attacked a large phase spider, and when he moved adjacent it, he was teleported to the edge of the battle. That's when a Doomspinner hiding in the dark used a web power to pull him five spaces... into the darkness. Everyone at the table loved it, and there was a mad scramble to go save the paladin (even though, again, he really wasn't in that much danger and ended up killing the Doomspinner with only a bit of help).

That whole spider encounter was one of three encounters I ran Saturday, and probably was the "easiest" in terms of actual risk, but THAT is the encounter all the players are still talking about today.


That's awesome! I might steal this idea...

Shirebrok, steal away, and let me know how it goes

One thing I didn't mention: The doors leading into the chamber had wards carved into them to keep vermin at bay. The group didn't realize until they set off the trap in the chamber the door wards were to keep the spiders from escaping the room ;)
Then stop using it.  Find meaningful, natural consequences for failure, and impose them.



I've considered things like the standard issue diseases in the DMG or handing out "x" amount of hours/days worth of "1d[n] penalty" to attack/defense for things like loosing their way in a swamp or spending too much time in sewer, etc. Think that's fair?

Non-physical consequences of failed skill challenges are harder and I've haven't come up with any good ones. Ideas, anyone?
Then stop using it.  Find meaningful, natural consequences for failure, and impose them.



I've considered things like the standard issue diseases in the DMG or handing out "x" amount of hours/days worth of "1d[n] penalty" to attack/defense for things like loosing their way in a swamp or spending too much time in sewer, etc. Think that's fair?

Non-physical consequences of failed skill challenges are harder and I've haven't come up with any good ones. Ideas, anyone?



I recently ran a sewer encounter with a whirlpool trap in the center and randomly placed water nozels throughout the room. The nozel traps would push people toward the center whirlpool, which would suck them down and toss them out of a larger tube on the other side of the room.

I also had rat swams and a dire crocodile that had been feeding on the rats who was attracted to the noise of combat.
[H]ave a metric other than survival or death for the PCs to care about in fights.



I've been thinking a lot about this since your original post and think it's one of the big things my campaigns are missing. We touched on it in a recent session, but I didn't realize what I had and failed to build on it. Thanks for sharing. The linear concept of a chase scene is simple enough to explain what it is you're trying to achieve and now I can duplicate it. This is great stuff.

All of these are great ideas.  If your problem is specifically that "level-appropriate" fights at higher levels seem to become too easy for the PCs, try the following updated damage expressions: dmg42.blogspot.com/2012/02/boot-on-face-...
In RPG world: Risk to Players = Risk of death. There is no other risks. Risk of completing adventure? Risk of saving the town? Risk of... Lets be honest folks, no one gives a $%^! about those things. No one cries over it. BOTTOM LINE; Risk = your character's sudden death. Low level characters, this risk is high. You are low level with low health. Makes sense. Higher level you go? This risk in all the DnD editions, even in 4e, diminishes significantly compared to Real Time spent in combat rounds. Unless, you pit much higher level monsters against your lower level P.C.'s, and expect your P.C.'s to solve the problem outside the box, but based on current system, that creates whole new problem. Create your own solution to your own problem in your game; You can Twick the DnD 4e imperfect system to the one you and your players like. Make it riskier without making it time consuming boredom of hit point reduction. You can jack up Monster Manual damage by 50% and reduce monster health by 25%. That will ensure, more damage output per round by the monsters, and less health to whack through = Less Boring Rounds & Faster outcome...for both sides. Talk with your players about how you want to twick the game so as to make it less time spent on meaningless boring stuff (such as taking hours bringing down health pool w/out any immediate sense of risk), to more exciting stuff (such as your life hanging in balance every round while you make choices to defeat your foe in a except-able Real Time manner.) Man I miss Middle Earth Role Playing game Critical Hit Table... don't matter the level of anything. One good roll on the crit chart = Instant Death. Adds whole new flavor of Risk in combat.



I prefer games like this because it makes sense to me -- if you go around swinging a sword when there's a bunch a people within arms reach of you, someones gonna die and I mean quick. We still play with a homebrew Crit and Fumble chart and I also modfied monster stats when we were in heroic tier; achieving what I was trying to (fast, risky combat encounters), but the math fell apart as we entered paragon tier. A few reasons I had to stop modifying monster stats:

(1)Things became TOO deadly. I had two TPKs (one in each of the games I DM) in heroic tier, which  was perfect, IMO -- heroic tier should be a "roll of the dice" so getting through the first 10-or so levels should be applauded. I did kill a few single PCs in 6th and 7th level, but each of those instances was a fluke the players did insane things. As we entered paragon tier individual PCs started dropping when they weren't making stupid decisions and faster than I can figure out the new mathematical "sweet spot" for the next 10 levels.

(2)As PCs died as a result of the modifief rules, the players started feeling like I was out to get them (not what I'm interested in doing at all). They grew annoyingly cautious and they simply stopped "biting" on the adventure hooks I was throwing out there -- "no way, we'll die" was a common saying around the table. We'd literally sit and stare at each other for an hour before they waited for the right deal to walk through the tavern doors.

(3)The higher the monsters got in level, the faster combat went, but the players didn't have enough rounds to use all their neat powers they were accumulating. It produced an overall unenjoyable session, especially for the min/max-ers.

If you have any pointers on how to continue modifying monster stats in paragon tier, let me know.

In RPG world: Risk to Players = Risk of death. There is no other risks. Risk of completing adventure? Risk of saving the town? Risk of... Lets be honest folks, no one gives a $%^! about those things. No one cries over it. BOTTOM LINE; Risk = your character's sudden death.


The risk of losing magical items? MacGuffins critical to the plot? Allied NPCs? Resources? Things in which the PCs invested, like a keep? Reputation and favor? If my players failed at a task and lost any of these things, they'd be pretty upset, because all of those things help them immensly. They wouldn't cry of course, because they know it's just a game not worth crying over.


Maybe it's not losing something, but rather complicating future endeavors. The BBEG becomes stronger. The PCs are lost, possibly in another plane. The fort they're infiltrating is on high alert. Constant ambushes and chases as they travel.


These are only a few examples, and the best part is they can be mixed together. You may have lost access to certain resources because you were defeated at a keep in a strategic location, so repelling the invading forces becomes more difficult in the future.


So I disagree with the notion that death can be the only indication of failure and source of risk, especially in a game where death can be more or less easily reversed.



I agree with this. Players hate losing magic stuff, reputation, in game friends, places that they own/have a strong liking to, or anything else that they acquired through their adventures.

What many DMs don't get though is that you've gotta give them something to worry and care about. Lets say you gave them a keep (or let them build it). And lets also say this is were they store most of their gold, and other items of importance. What if they learned that someone in their keep, upkeep staff was crooked and was stealing money and things to get money. Or if everyone that works there isn't undercover as the thieves guild.Any thing that you wouldn't want to happen to you in real life equals risk for the players. Heck even small things like the players having creepy stalkers can be risky business dealing especially if they are psycho.

Come to 4ENCLAVE for a fan based 4th Edition Community.

 

For example, last weekend I had an encounter where the group set off a trap that summoned spiders into the room, whole hoards of little spiders and some bigger ones. It creeped the players out immensely.



I'm stealing this for my next session immediately. AWESOME! I hate spiders...and snakes.
For example, last weekend I had an encounter where the group set off a trap that summoned spiders into the room, whole hoards of little spiders and some bigger ones. It creeped the players out immensely.



I'm stealing this for my next session immediately. AWESOME! I hate spiders...and snakes.



That was my inspiration. Several players HATE spiders. And I happened to have a bunch of spider miniatures ;)

This is very interesting stuff, and I agree with most, if not all of it. I'm a big fan of having the PCs care about something in addition to their own lives. My only question is, since you call PC death as rightfully taboo, (And that's the part I'm still not sure I agree with on every level.) What role would you say that PC death should play in a typical campaign? You've been using the mystery novel as an analogy to good effect so far. In keeping with that analogy, would you say that player death is appropriate fi it moves the party closer to the fulfillment of their victory conditions? Or is there some other metric that you use?
I don't always agree with Erachima and Felorn, but I am really appreciating the povs you guys have brought to this conversation.

1) I occasionally kill off characters
2) I sometimes have them pick off a specific type of enemy, have a helluva time brining one down and then have 50 show up on the horizon sacking a town.
3) I regularly knock characters near negative bloodied
4) I don't play with a DM screen so the players can see when I throw out a ton of dice.
5) I use monsters with lots of dice in place of monsters with big dice (I rarely use more than d8s for anything)
6) I use effects that stack to devastating effect (like a creature that gives ongoing with a burst attack and his melee attacks deal double damage to people taking ongoing)
7) I threaten instant-kills with mechanics for specific character-spotlight fights (ie climactic moments in the story focusing on one character's heroes' journey)
8) I will kill groups if they don't play well.  My players know they are little things fighting huge challenges and constantly hanging on by a thread.  When I design my "hard" encounters I run a simulated combat without the terrain (for sake of ease) and then I keep adding creatures to team monster until I have just enough to kill the players with average damage.  The players have to make up for this by being creative, working as a team and, to a lesser extent, using a couple of resources I don't sim with (cards and terrain mostly).


I did this for a while in heroic tier, but the party quickly changed their approach to risk. Several players mistook my attempts at creating a "high stakes" game for vengence or malice. How do you prevent this?



There are a few ways I keep it from ending like its me against them.
1) I sympathize with their struggles.  I don't gleefully shout when I crit the rogue for the forth time in a row, I get a pained look on my face and go "jeeze, the dice gods hate Ssarnath today".
2) I let me players know what is up, sometimes I exaggerate the danger for them.  After the first time the players encounter one of the "razor's edge" encounters in my campaign I tell them how I built the encounter.  I've had one group die to that encounter, and then we discussed how they could work better as a team, how they can be more creative.

I repeatedly explain how I'm making the game harder than it should be because I expect more from my players than simple numbers and using the abilities on their sheet.  The one group that died had some serious teamwork issues to work out and it gave me an opportunity to get them to work those out.  Every other group realizes pretty early on when one of those encounters has started and the know they need to focus in and be the heroes.  They also know I will verbally pat them on the back for getting through it because I am designing it to kill them.

3) I don't do fumbles or extra crit charts.  I think this gives a false sense of tension and I really dislike it as a player.  Typically it is because the crit fumbles are balanced to be more devastating than the crits and it feels like you are adding an extra level of lethality that will effect the players much more than the monsters.  While I threaten instant kills with mechanics, I don't do it with anything that is random.  A good example would be an upcoming Paragon Path setup I'm doing.  Since some of my players read the forums I'll put the example in a spoiler.

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I plan on making a side pool of "hit points" for the shaman in the party.  That side pool of hit points will measure her connection to the world during a certain encounter and if it runs out she is dead.  No saving throws, no if ands or buts, her soul is ripped from her body and she either rerolls or the players have to figure out a way to get her back. This is especially potent because there is no Raise Dead in my world.  Many of the creatures in the encounter will have abilities that attack her connection directly, or will fray her connection to the world in addition to their other effects.  I am going to tell the players there is no obvious way to repair it as the fight goes on, but I will be open to their ideas.  I have balanced the encounter so that the tether will be destroyed in 4 rounds, which is faster than my group can kill this encounter without incredible luck.  That means the players will have to be creative or their friend will die permanently.
 

4) My world is a sandbox and I explain it to them in somewhat MMO terms.  All of them have played WoW and when I say there are "higher level areas" they know what that means.  The sandbox is designed to let the players go wherever they want to go, but they have to evaluate the threats they encounter in every direction.  They discovered a paragon tier threat at level 2 and have been trying to find creative ways to deal with it for 7 levels. 
Currently working on making a Dex based defender. Check it out here
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Need a few pre-generated characters for a one-shot you are running? Want to get a baseline for what an effective build for a class you aren't familiar with? Check out the Pregen thread here If ever you are interested what it sounds like to be at my table check out my blog and podcast here Also, I've recently done an episode on "Refluffing". You can check that out here
I prefer games like this because it makes sense to me



The problem is, what you call "sense" is actually nonsensical under scrutiny.

Consider the mystery novel. At a superficial glance, the central question of a mystery novel is the mystery itself, the question the detective must answer: "Who [murdered/stole] the [hostess/diamonds]?" But this is the question of the mystery, not the question of the mystery novel. Answering that question is the detective's interest, not the reader's. The Question the reader has, The Question they are reading the book to see answered, and The Question the author must keep firmly in mind when writing, is not WHETHER the mystery will be solved, it is HOW and WHEN the mystery will be solved and WHAT the solution will be. This is why Knox's Decalogue, the classic rules defining how to write a good mystery, waste no time discussing whether there is a solution and instead are focused on how to ensure that the method of reaching that solution is satisfactory to the audience. A great author will of course know when to break these rules to keep things interesting, but no rule should be broken until it is understood.

Roleplaying games are just the same as mystery novels in this respect. The PCs are the detectives, the players are the readers, and the DM is the author. (Technically, since RPGs are a bidirectional medium the DM also has certain traits of the reader and the players certain traits of the author, but this is irrelevant here.) The PCs have a "question", or rather a quest, but the players are not there to answer that question. They are there to answer The Question. It's not their goal to learn IF the PC's quest will be fulfilled, they are there to learn (and shape) WHAT the fulfillment is and HOW it is done.

Now, since the PCs are the detectives, what does this tell us about PC death? First, that it is rightfully taboo, certainly not impossible, but a shocking reversal of expectation. There are mysteries in which the detective dies. Some of them are great. (e.g. Game of Thrones, Infernal Affairs) But they are unusual, primarily because they are very difficult to do properly. Second, the detective's death cannot prevent the answering of The Question. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the detective's death is NEVER random, even if it looks like it at the moment. It is always a tool that ultimately advances the understanding and answering of The Question.

As PCs died as a result of the modifief rules, the players started feeling like I was out to get them (not what I'm interested in doing at all). They grew annoyingly cautious and they simply stopped "biting" on the adventure hooks I was throwing out there -- "no way, we'll die" was a common saying around the table. We'd literally sit and stare at each other for an hour before they waited for the right deal to walk through the tavern doors.



I said this earlier, but I'm going to repost it for emphasis. LOSS BY MATHEMATICS CREATES DISENGAGEMENT FROM THE GAME. You may not have "been interested" in driving the players away from the game, but you are making the natural consequence of playing the game be loss of ability to play the game. It's called extinction of interest, it is literally the simplest behavioral cause-effect relationship that exists, and it is what you are doing when you create PC death in this way.



Ahh ... +1 in general and a second +1 to most of this.


It is possible to play 4e as a PCs get Slaughtered -type of game.
Crank up the level of the monsters, little by little.  But it's easier
for the players and DM to "have fun" if it's known ahead of time.

Here comes your 19th forums breakdown ... ohh who's to blame, it ain't 5E driving you insane.

 

Consider the mystery novel. At a superficial glance, the central question of a mystery novel is the mystery itself, the question the detective must answer: "Who [murdered/stole] the [hostess/diamonds]?" But this is the question of the mystery, not the question of the mystery novel. Answering that question is the detective's interest, not the reader's. The Question the reader has, The Question they are reading the book to see answered, and The Question the author must keep firmly in mind when writing, is not WHETHER the mystery will be solved, it is HOW and WHEN the mystery will be solved and WHAT the solution will be. This is why Knox's Decalogue, the classic rules defining how to write a good mystery, waste no time discussing whether there is a solution and instead are focused on how to ensure that the method of reaching that solution is satisfactory to the audience. A great author will of course know when to break these rules to keep things interesting, but no rule should be broken until it is understood. Roleplaying games are just the same as mystery novels in this respect. The PCs are the detectives, the players are the readers, and the DM is the author. The PCs have a "question", or rather a quest, but the players are not there to answer that question. They are there to answer The Question. It's not their goal to learn IF the PC's quest will be fulfilled, they are there to learn (and shape) WHAT the fulfillment is and HOW it is done.



This is a wonderful analogy and requires me to make a significant paradigm shift. I am going to begin approaching my campaigns with this concept in mind. Yet I still hold fast to the idea that the alternate play-style is equally valid. To use your language, for me, Ghost007, et al, The Question (your words) is not how will the PCs make it, but if. It sounds you have given it some thought and fundamentally disagree, which is cool, but it's not the only way to play the game. That said, I think your approach to campaign design is probably where I need to take my own game with my current group. Thanks agian for sharing it.

I said this earlier, but I'm going to repost it for emphasis. LOSS BY MATHEMATICS CREATES DISENGAGEMENT FROM THE GAME.


I think that you're correct with my current group. It's not what I'm use to or even necessarily the simplistic game I prefer to play, but it's definitely what happened when PCs started dying, despite their best efforts.  


Lately I've been a lazy DM and I think it shows in my game.  By Lazy, I mean run the encounters just by having Team monster wail on Team Player and first one dead wins.  I've tried to inject some alternate goals, but haven't done so very well yet.

I'm running 2 games: 1 for a fairly High-Op paragen level group of 5, the other is 5 newish players at level 1.  
I'm going to try and  rework pretty much everything I have to incorporate these ideas- to include much more terrain powers and effects, to have combat rarely be about Killing team monster.  

I want to make success feel good and failure feel important, where failure actually has meaning.   When it comes to skills and skill challenges, I haven't been running them like the books explain.  I've been assigning multiple DC's for each skill, and raising or lowering the DC depending on the Player's narration and/or intent.

If they want to open a locked door, there's multiple ways of doing it. A High thievery check gets it open lickety split.  Medium DC means it takes some time, maybe makes a little noise.  If they beat the Low DC means that it's made some noise, maybe ut whatever's on the other side on alert.  Failure means lockpick broke, tumblers broke, etc.  For the most part, the PC gets what they want- the door opens.  But they may not get it HOW they wanted.  

I really like Erachima's Mystery novel  analogy.  I'm not sure if I fully accept the "its not how the PC's make it, but if" statement yet.  As a DM, I want the players to succeed.  I think there's different levels of success though.  
Oh I noticed the point you made. It might as well have been written in giant neon letters to me. I'm sorry the forums ate your post, I bet it would have been fascinating. I was actually thinking specifically of Death Note when I read that final paragraph. The combination of bad luck and poor judgment is what I always set up. Thanks for your thoughts.
Then stop using it.  Find meaningful, natural consequences for failure, and impose them.



I've considered things like the standard issue diseases in the DMG or handing out "x" amount of hours/days worth of "1d[n] penalty" to attack/defense for things like loosing their way in a swamp or spending too much time in sewer, etc. Think that's fair?

Non-physical consequences of failed skill challenges are harder and I've haven't come up with any good ones. Ideas, anyone?


They're not really something we could just hand you a list of.  Skill challenges cover too broad a potential array of activities.  I've mulled it over for a few trying to figure out how to say this, so hopefully it comes through:

1.  Don't rely on mechanical consequences for a failed skill challenge.  If it makes sense in the situation for someone to pick up a disease or lose a surge, do it, but don't call it a day at that point.  

2.  Don't think of skill challenges as separate from the rest of the adventure.  Your party is in the swamp.  Why?  It's not likely they just up and decided to spend a Tuesday afternoon wading in filth.  They're there for a reason.  Don't just think, "what could go wrong in a swamp?", think "what could go wrong with this adventure?"
Seriously, though, you should check out the PbP Haven. You might also like Real Adventures, IF you're cool.
Knights of W.T.F.- Silver Spur Winner
4enclave, a place where 4e fans can talk 4e in peace.
I'm not sure if I fully accept the "its not how the PC's make it, but if" statement yet.  As a DM, I want the players to succeed.  I think there's different levels of success though.  

That's my position. I want the players to succeed. Thing is, "success" is only the same as "survival" when "survival" is the only goal.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

I'm not sure if I fully accept the "its not how the PC's make it, but if" statement yet.  As a DM, I want the players to succeed.  I think there's different levels of success though.  

That's my position. I want the players to succeed. Thing is, "success" is only the same as "survival" when "survival" is the only goal.




And if survival is the only goal, then failure has to mean death. There's no way around it. I think there is an underlying spectrum from which we all draw, some of us just sit more in one area than others.

I would simplify it as something like:

Bad roll - mechanical consequences like healing surges

Bad decisions - character consequences like equipment or world changing events

Combination - Only then does death enter the equation.

Ex. A character comes across a locked door and taps it with a 10' pole. A crappy skill check and you take some damage.
     The same character comes to the same door and this time taps it with his dagger. Even on a good check you have your dagger destroyed.
    Finally, the character attempts to use his tongue to pick the lock...
I think there is an underlying spectrum from which we all draw, some of us just sit more in one area than others.
I would simplify it as something like:
Bad roll - mechanical consequences like healing surges
Bad decisions - character consequences like equipment or world changing events
Combination - Only then does death enter the equation.



This is the balance I'm leaning towards . . . with more grit, of course. I'm a firm believer that anytime a player "runs out of HPs," then s/he could very well die. But instead of being dead forever and throwing away the character sheet, it's more intriguing to have the PC warped into another dimension, plane, or simply taken prisoner; it's as if I've been given a blank check that I can spend to propel the story forward. 

I guess I look at it like this, bad luck and poor choices could spell death, but it's more interesting (and sometimes just easier with the storyline) if the party simply has to dig themselves out of a hole.