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Let me first set the scene

The group I DM for is in a position where they are at the mercy of a group of people who are contemplating what to do with the party.

I have decided on a game of chance to decide their fate (It makes narrative sense), and at a certain point one of the PC's may do so badly that their fate is to be killed (Again it makes narrative sense).

The particular method of death is that they are going to be pushed off a very high ledge.

While I do plan to give the player chance to do something to avoid this fate (Running, bribing, fighting, etc.) the gist is that if the player doesn't do anything they will be pushed to their death.

The player may well trust the 'enemy' because there is a likelihood that other members of the party have had amusing fates, and be curious to find out their own.

Further to the above:

Some of my players read this site, so I was trying to be vague, but the players are already 'captive' in this scene, and due to language barriers the level of communication is minimal. As such I can't forewarn the party, and I think having the enemy communicate clearly for the first time cheapens the scene.

The PC's are literally sat at a table playing cards and losing may mean being thrown off a cliff. They don't know the rules, can't read the cards, can't understand much of what is said around them and are 100% out of their element.

Examples:

  1. Player draws the king > character doesn't know what it means > NPC's lead character somewhere > something potentially ominous happens such as being surrounded by NPC's > character is given his stuff back and set free
  2. Player draws the queen > character doesn't know what it means > NPC's lead character to a cliff edge (The ominous happening) > character is pushed over

So:

What techniques are there to ensure that this player knows they face potential death, without just outright telling them?

Basically when they get to the cliff edge I want them to have a good idea that they are going to be pushed off.

Note on answers: I am playing D&D 5e but I am very influenced by ideas from other systems so I am happy to hear about how to successfully pull this off as a GM, regardless of system. I don't stick to RAW either.

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Use some narrative emphasis

As they're being led to the edge, spend some time describing the scene in detail, playing up how threatening the cliff looks. Mention offhand that they're pretty sure that if they were thrown off, they wouldn't survive it. Put the idea in their head that they're near a cliff, they're not in control of the situation, and that if they go off the cliff they'll die, and they should be able to connect the dots themselves.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I accepted this answer because it is one of the few to take into account the entirety of the question. \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Nov 7 '18 at 13:16
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Show, don't tell

You need to convince your players that this situation could absolutely turn lethal if they don't play their cards right. As you say, it wouldn't make sense for the NPCs to outright tell them. (Though a snide remark of "I can't wait to see your skull break on the rocks" from a random NPC could work.) I think a better approach is to show them how lethal this could be.

Some suggestions

Find a reason to lead the players past the base of the cliff. Point out how high it is and how unnervingly fresh the bloodstains on the sharp rocks look.

Have the PCs overhear a conversation. "Did you see his face as he begged for his life? Shame that cliff isn't higher, then we'd hear them scream for longer."

Have skulls, lots of skulls. Put them on posts. Classic warning sign.

Execute an NPC. This is potentially the most direct and easiest. Simply have the NPCs execute another NPCs in a way that the PCs are aware of it. Death is on the table now.

More subtle

Have an NPC that isn't ok with murder. Mention their reaction (worry/fear/disgust/disappointment) when the player draws the wrong card. If the PC chooses to engage with them they mouth "RUN!!"

Alternatively have an NPC that's a huge fan of murder. Mention their reaction (excitement/glee/bloodlust) when the player draws the right card. If the PC chooses to engage have them draw a finger across their throat and grin.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I see what you did there ... if they don't play their cards right and I chuckled. @TheGrumbleputty that needs to be an answer, or part of an answer, not a comment. (And IMO, it's the core of a decent answer) \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Nov 2 '18 at 13:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast I actually wrote that before the edits to the question added the information about the card game. When the question was edited I laughed too. \$\endgroup\$ – linksassin Nov 2 '18 at 13:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ Upvote is specifically for "have this happen to another NPC first" \$\endgroup\$ – Ifusaso Nov 2 '18 at 13:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ I would suggest something like describing the drop off as "You feel like a fall from this height would kill you." In case somehow the player doesn't grasp that the situation is deadly. \$\endgroup\$ – Captain Man Nov 2 '18 at 13:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Show, don't tell" is used in movies for exactly this type of situation. When the hero (or the audience) doesn't necessarily know they're moments from a grisly fate, some clear cue will be provided to provide dramatic tension. The drawing of the card is a tense moment, and the impact is lost if the players don't know. An example that comes to mind is the pit scene from Army of Darkness: Ash is disengaged, almost bored, until they throw that other nameless person into the pit. Once Ash sees the resulting blood fountain, all of the sudden he's really interested in not getting pushed in. \$\endgroup\$ – Beofett Nov 2 '18 at 16:30
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Chance and Character Death

I think Linksassin has a great answer with regard to how to narrate the risk and encounter, but I do believe it is worth addressing whether or not your players are on board with an encounter like this.

Even with enough subtle clues, creating a path to fast character death that is out of combat may create problems at the table.

If your players are fully on board with this type of encounter and are okay with it, then there is no problem. But unless you know for certain that such is the case, you run the risk of creating some very unfun drama at the table.

Even if this is the final session of a campaign and the thematic ending of "life and death is random", that could still be a huge let down to the players. Remember that they have been heavily invested in their characters and developing an encounter that is entirely based on chance where the players don't even know the rules is roughly the equivalent of Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies.

Again, if you know that your players are on board with this, or they know that character death is something that happens regularly at your table, then this is less of an issue. But removing any player agency from character death is a big enough concern that I wanted to address it for you and for others considering encounters like this. We all know that characters can die, and often from poor decisions by the player, but making it happen due to random chance from a game with unknown rules may is a real concern.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The lack of agency is what concerns me, which is why this question is about how to give them one last chance at exercising that agency. They have taken various wrong turns to get here, but at some point the line ends. \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Nov 2 '18 at 13:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri But your 'last chance' is one in which they have no agency. Providing them with a 'game' that they don't have knowledge of the rules and that most likely ends in death is removing agency. The only chance they have to win is chance itself. You might as well have them flip a coin with heads live, tails die. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Nov 2 '18 at 13:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri My point is that whether you are happy with removing agency from your players isn't the problem, it's whether your players will be happy with it. If this is something that they've signed on for, then you are most likely fine. But if it isn't, you could have some very unhappy players and possibly no more players. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Nov 2 '18 at 14:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri One thing to keep in mind is that DnD is a Role Playing Game not a Role Playing Simulator. Getting too caught up in what is realistic seems to be the DM equivalent to "My Guy" Syndrome. Don't sacrifice a fun and engaging experience (for yourself and your PCs) just because it is realistic. \$\endgroup\$ – Malco Nov 2 '18 at 19:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch - You seem to be entirely focused on the "card game says you'll be executed" part, but, as I read the question, what the OP is looking for is a way to let the players know when they're being sent to the chopping block specifically so that the players can regain agency at that point and attempt to resist or flee, rather than blindly following along, unaware of their impending doom. \$\endgroup\$ – Dave Sherohman Nov 4 '18 at 11:07
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As other answers have stated, showing them NPCs drawing a card and being pushed off the cliff or set free is a great visual to show how the card game works. I won't go into more detail on this as others have covered it fully. I do want to add...

Give them a long rest after pulling a card

Toss them in jail for the night. They might not need the HP, but this will allow the party to make a plan and allow the casters in the party to potentially swap out spells (depending on class) which might help them escape their fate. They don't even need to know what the card means, as long as they know that a card can mean either death or freedom. In my experience, PCs are very good at escaping executions if they are given a little time to prepare appropriately and make a plan.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I accepted a different answer that was more focused on the narration, but the long rest suggestion is really very good. \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Nov 7 '18 at 13:17
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A fairly simplistic answer-

Have them be clearly blood-thirsty. No language needed. Someone loses a finger? They go nuts. Someone gets freed? Disappointed looks. Back of the cards have a skull on them.

Then, when the fatal card is drawn? The crowd goes wild. Jumping and shouting and clearly very excited. If they're getting happy over a finger going missing, what on earth could get them so happy? Hang on, that's an awfully high cliff... and the cards all have a skull on the back.....

I think that's enough foreshadowing. Perhaps a smaller member could do an initial pre-preemptive "weak" shove if people still aren't getting it.

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Let them see the outcomes beforehand

One way to let your players know what may befall them is to have them witness a the outcomes of a group of NPCs beforehand.

The day before their game of chance they are brought into a courtlike room and made to witness a group of NPCs go through the same trial they are about to face, however each card that the NPCs draw is predetermined to show off the various outcomes that are possible.

The question about taking away player agency can also be an issue. The solution I have used before is to create a plot hook out of it. Have a the remaining PCs meet a powerful Warlock or similar that knows where they can find/rescue their dead friend if they are willing to take a short jaunt through Hell. You could even talk to the deceased player beforehand and see if they would like to play as that character until their previous one is saved.

I find this method doesn't take away the fear of death for players but shows that there is a significant cost. If/when another player dies you can be sure the fiends and dark lords will be much better prepared if they attempt another rescue.

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The classic way to do this is a riddle, prophecy or cryptic fortune telling

The adventurers have an encounter with a peculiar or extraordinary figure who says something cryptic. It could be a dramatic encounter or just a brief chance encoutner.

Such as when the witch tells Julius Caesar "Beware the ides of March!" The message could come from a sphinx, a dragon, a hag, a cleric acting as a divine oracle, a jester, or any quirky fey creature... there are plenty of options.

Since they're going to potentially fall to their death, the cryptic saying could be something like "at a great height you'll soar" or seomthing that is variously interpretable.

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Player agency is very important

What you're talking about here takes away player agency. They need it, no matter what. You're talking about one action that will result in an instant kill. And that's not fun for players. The whole reason why people play is to effect the outcome.

So, big obvious stuff--make it a ritualistic killing

Place artwork on the wall of the prison with people dressed up the way that their captors have dressed them, and maybe even makeup that's the same. (Maybe woad or something) Or have them find someone, rotting, dressed like this on a pile of bones at the bottom of the cliff. They must know something to make the choice. Otherwise, they don't know what the choice is at all.

Realism vs. Fun

At a certain point, realism has to take a backseat to fun. Maybe your players enjoy realism, but keep in mind that they have engaged in a game where mages, lovable rogues, and fantastic creatures roam. Do you studiously track every drop of water they drink and where they got it from? Do you occasionally give them dysentery without any warning? Because water can look clear, but it doesn't mean that it's not a vector of disease.

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