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I am planning a campaign that I would like to present as a frame story: the heroes are recounting their adventures in a tavern in exchange for drinks (and then picking up the last leg of the adventure after the story is told, but that doesn't hold as much bearing on the question).

Required level of planning and forethought aside, the biggest problem I am facing is that if one of the characters is present in the tavern scenes, that player knows that his character survives the adventures. Since I think that the threat of death (and the occasional fulfillment of that threat, if the story and situation demand it) creates a more interesting and compelling story, I'm at a loss of how to reconcile the two. It also presents an additional problem if one of the players later drops out of the campaign, but has already been introduced in the frame story.

I can mitigate the problem a little by introducing characters into the frame story slowly, but how can I keep the atmosphere of "this is dangerous; we could actually die if we're not careful" among the players of already-introduced characters, while still presenting the story I want to tell?

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This reminds me of the assassin's creed games, where most of what you experience is a 'retelling' of something that already happened. The games' equivalent of 'hit points,' rather than being a measure of physical health, is a measure of how accurately the events you experience match what really took place. In effect, "dying" becomes "a mistake while storytelling" rather than a time paradox. Perhaps you could frame death in a similar way in your campaign: Make 'death' be "Wait, Sir Steve wasn't even in that fight! We left him back in town because he had a cold, remember?" –  GMJoe Mar 27 '13 at 3:56
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Of course, that could make TPKs particularly strange. –  GMJoe Mar 27 '13 at 3:57
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"So then after the dragon butchered us, we all headed back to town for drinks..." –  Problematic Mar 27 '13 at 4:05
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I was thinking more like "And that's what happened to that band of adventurers that was impersonating us, the poor sods..." –  GMJoe Mar 27 '13 at 4:35
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If it's a TPK maybe it ends up that the bar is in Cayden Cailean's realm and they're all dead. SIXTH SENSE ENDING!!! –  mxyzplk Mar 27 '13 at 22:19
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7 Answers

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Well, this is Pathfinder. It's a world where telling the story of how you die is totally possible, due to resurrection magic.

If one of their companions dies before they're powerful enough to bring them back, it still totally makes sense that they'd raise their fallen comrade once powerful enough to do so.

If someone gets turned undead it might get a little more complicated, but not much more so.

I do agree with Flamma that you can still have tension without the possibility of death. Not every story has to be written by Joss Whedon or George R.R. Martin. (And even with them, you get the occasional resurrection! It's just... more complicated)

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+1 for resurrection magic. Plenty of game groups refuse to perm-kill the PCs, but there's still a sense of danger and excitement without that. –  Yamikuronue Mar 26 '13 at 19:12
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I think "turned undead" could make perfect sense if it's the right kind of undead - drinking with someone's ghost would be a neat twist. –  Colin Fredericks Mar 27 '13 at 15:23
    
In one book that I read I skipped to read the last page to see if one of the main characters lives. He seemed to, so imagine my surprise when he actually died and at the very end it was his wife seeing his image/ghost taking her to the other world. –  Maurycy Zarzycki Mar 27 '13 at 20:41
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You should watch some action movies or maybe cop movies, if you use the ideas correctly you can make a great frame story. Take Renegade by example.

Edit.

In every episode Reno Raines is wanted for murder that he didn't commit and sometimes he is captured by the police, he already lost what he most loved, his wife. Now framed for murder he prowls the badlands in search of justice/revenge. He is pushed over the edge, but not killed. You can strike fear in the PC's hearts by threaten not only their lives, but what their characters like, what they love. You can threaten the life of those they love, or threaten what they like.

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I'm not sure how this actually addresses the OP's question. –  starwed Mar 27 '13 at 6:32
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Interactive fictions handle tension and exposition very differently from non-interactive fictions; can you elaborate on what techniques from the latter you would use in the former, and how? –  BESW Mar 27 '13 at 7:35
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If I may, you're playing a fantasy roleplaying game in which things are not necessarily what they seem. All you have to do is make the frame story look like veteran adventurers sitting around in a tavern. Then the particulars can mold around whatever happens during the adventure.

TPK, you say?

"Then the orcs descended upon us! We fought desparately." said Sir Donder.

"Then what happened?" asked the serving-wench, Hilda, as transfixed as the rest of the evenining's guests.

"Strength of arms is never a surety of victory," said the knight, his voice heavy with memory, his gaze wandering somewhere between the hearth and infinity.

"You lost? How did you survive?"

The heroes looked from one to another. A long silent moment passed.

"You tease us! Come, finish the tale!" she said, smiling, playfully swatting at the knight's shoulder. But her hand felt not the cool steel of his armor, but an icy chill that sank deep into her flesh. Looking down in surprise, she saw that her hand had passed through him as if he were made of mist.

The crowd gasped. Hilda pulled her hand back in shock, and started to shake.

"Remember us," said the knight, his voice thin, as from a great distance, or from underground.

They stared at him, and even as they looked, he and his noble companions seemed to recede, and fade, and become transparent. Soon their table was empty, save for four settings of wine and bread. Hilda realized that they hadn't been touched, though the tale had gone on for half the night.

She sat for a time by the great fire in the hearth, her face turned to the flames. Warmth slowly returned to her hand.

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Niiiiice! Did you write that yourself, or get it from somewhere? –  Mason Wheeler Mar 27 '13 at 16:20
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It's my own composition, but in a way I can't take credit for it. I only write this well while I'm rereading The Lord of the Rings! –  tex Mar 27 '13 at 18:35
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There are some tropes to weasel with the frame story, such as one of the characters in the frame story is really dead and gone, and the other characters are really reminiscing about him before confronting the bad guy that killed him.

Of course, those usually work as a surprise to an audience that doesn't know the character has been killed, like many tropes, doesn't work at all in a RPG.

However, you could do the modified RPG version where the characters think they can't possibly die, then one of the NPC's present in the bar dies in an irrevocable way. Huh, perhaps we are vulnerable after all. You could use a trope like the one above to justify it. (I wouldn't kill of the NPC too quickly, since you might prefer it be used with a PC should one die - if you are allowing that to happen).

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Look for fiction that uses this technique. Do the story loses all its tension? I don't think so.

Maybe the tension should be built around other things than character survival. Will they be able to stop the evil, or only barely escape? Will they rescue the lady from the sacrifice pit? Would they be able to save the village from the hordes of the undead?

When they use this technique in fiction, story is still interesting, because you know some of the survivors, but still don't know HOW they survive, and the final outcome of their quest. I think a good example would be Interview with the Vampire. Knowing that Louise is alive don't make the story less exciting. What matters is the transformation the character goes by along the book.

One final piece of advice, if you play that, it would be cool if you let the players make up some of the details.

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+1 for building tension around other things than character survival, and the tension being related to the "how" rather than the end result. –  thatgirldm Mar 26 '13 at 18:33
    
+1 for pointing out that not all tension requires life-or-death struggle. There's a whole lot of tense stories where the main character's lives aren't at stake - there's no reason why that can't apply to camapigns, too. –  GMJoe Mar 27 '13 at 4:48
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I think you can actually build tension in this way depending on the content of the adventuring stories. One technique I've used to actually give my players goosebumps is instead of a combat, giving them something that seems mundane but on hindsight was a brush with death.

What I'm suggesting in your case is that each of the stories is the piece of a bigger puzzle. The contrived example I can come up with right now would be a common NPC. In one story, he's an ally of the PC and a stupendous badass. In the next he's a criminal. After that he's trying to secure a Sphere of Annihilation for an unnamed collector. Finally, he's shown being wronged by a gnome, and swearing vengeance against the gnomish people. Or something more subtle. At any rate, putting these things together should reveal to the players that this NPC is extremely dangerous and up to no good and that they were all vulnerable to him at some point.

To me, that's much more dangerous than the everyday danger my adventurers usually come across. Of course, at some point the players will have to break the structure by leaving the tavern to go confront this guy.

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I like the idea of confronting the enemy after telling the story. It's a powerful trope. Characters tell the story. The readers/viewers/players think that the story is over. When they finish the tale, they learn that it isn't, so the climax is about to come. They must confront the evil. That would be the most dangerous part. In, as they are not telling a story, now they can be killed for good. –  Flamma Mar 27 '13 at 8:52
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Depending on your style of game, the threat of death may not be necessary for it to be interesting. When I GM (for any system), the players generally know that I will not permit a PC death without the players consent. Deus Ex will step in to not only keep them alive, but keep them so that they can get back to the adventure after a suitable recovery time.

But that doesn't mean there isn't tension. Relationships can be damaged, enemies gained, NPC friends and allies kiled, towns can be destroyed that the players were trying to save, plans can suffer setbacks. The player might also gain a permenant injury they then have to deal with or have a significant item lost or destroyed (not enough to make the character ineffective, but enough that the invocation of Deus Ex isn't free).

So, in short, I would deal with it by just making it part of that game's social contract that permenant death will never happen, but that the characters can experience loss and suffering in lots of other ways. That doesn't help so much when a player leaves, but that can be dealt with by turning them into an NPC (perhaps one that breaks off from the party when the player leaves, but shows back up for the reunion in the frame story) or by simply retconning the change so they were never actually at the tavern in the frame story after the revision.

At the risk of going off topic, I will say that frame stories are very hard to do well. There are some that really benefit from the frame (the Princess Bride gets some extra humor from the frame), but for many of them the frame is just fluff that is better discarded. Even with Shakespeare it is very common for directors to discard some of The Bard's frames. The Taming of the Shrew has its frame tossed aside very often for one.

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