I'm having a little discrepancy with my usual gaming group regarding a topic I don't see much, difficulty, or how challenging the games actually are.

We usually play very system heavy games like Pathfinder, Legends of the 5 rings 2nd ed or other d20 homebrews. Our most common game is a WH40k d20 homebrew that has elements of DnD 3rd and 5th ed. This goes well with us because we love tinkering with builds. Still we also play the occasional indie game now and then.

My perception is that players like playing it safe, and that's okay but whenever I tried to pose a challenge that forced them to take risks they got into a block and start arguing how I was not being fair. I'm not talking about situations where characters die because the DM lost control of the situation, I'm talking about usual narrative tools, like ambushes, or situations where the protagonists have to flee rather than fight, or someone gets taken as hostage, or even die because the plot demanded so. They like to be in control constantly, and even though I would give them just that I begun to find games really boring, so I jumped back in the pack and switched to play instead of DMing. Thing is... From the player perspective I still find the game is absurdly easy, we're so in control it's imposible for us to lose, I find no thrills in this style of play.

I've talked with the DM plenty and though we both agree on this, he's as scared as I was to actually go ham on the team because everyone is going to tilt the moment things go downhill.

Going into a little more detail, I know that If I tell them I want to bring in more challenge as DM or that I want some more as a player, they'll agree to it in the moment because they are nice people and also want me to have fun... But when we start playing they will back down as soon as the heat rises (and I know this from experience, I'm not just presuposing). So It's not just telling them what I want, I need to convince them to do something they're not partial to. The same way you would convince someone to go to the dentist.

How do I make a good case to prove that losing, or facing a real risk of defeat is actually fun?

  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ system-agnostic tag looks like a good description of this question. Or is it only d20-system? Either way, it looks like there is a system tag you could use, and I think it's a good idea to use the one that fits. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mołot
    Commented May 23, 2019 at 12:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ I feel this question in my DM bones... Nothing worse than an underlevelled party taking on an encounter too big for them and then complaining about unfairness. I'm not a loot machine, I'm a worldbuilder! \$\endgroup\$
    – IT Alex
    Commented May 28, 2020 at 13:22

2 Answers 2


My perspective on this question comes from mostly always playing games with significant risk, difficulty, and player responsibility to make choices that lead to their fates.

How do I make a good case to prove that losing, or facing a real risk of defeat is actually fun?

What I do is show them how fun it is, usually in a new small game situation that starts with deadly action, using disposable pre-gen characters.

I tell them to expect that some or all of those characters are probably going to die quickly, and play some sample situations out that are just the danger parts, without any lead-up. At least, this works for me in the games I play (e.g. The Fantasy Trip, and GURPS), which have mapped tactical boardgame modes that are fun and interesting to play just as tactical games. So I run a simple arena combat, maybe splitting the players into two teams and having them fight each other, to learn the rules and some tactics with disposable characters.

I have also seen this work very well in less tactical games (e.g. Dungeon Crawl Classics) that are designed to start with a "funnel" adventure where players start with many low-level characters, most of whom (and possibly all) are expected to die in the first dungeon/adventure, which begins immediately.

Understanding what there is to appreciate:

While I appreciate @Renegade's answer, in my experience, what I and most of my players most appreciate about such a game style is not neatly inside any of those listed categories. (The closest would be "Challenge", with some elements of "Fantasy" and "Discovery".) Instead, I think of it as the game mainly being about logically playing out game world situations with the players and NPCs choosing what to do as events happen. The appreciation is in getting to experience a dynamic game about choosing what to do in a situation, and facing the risks and consequences of those choices. It's about getting to have that experience (partly for the immersion, partly for the challenge, partly for the discovery, but mainly for the whole experience).

And the opposite of that experience, is what you're describing your game is like, and what about it is disappointing to you, and would be to me too: the lack of actual risk, the lack of actually having important choices to make.

I would add though that what also would be disappointing to me, would be if the GM were presenting tough situations where there was seemingly no chance to detect them, avoid them, or respond in interesting ways to them. So when you wrote:

I'm talking about usual narrative tools, like ambushes, or situations where the protagonists have to flee rather than fight, or someone gets taken as hostage, or even die because the plot demanded so.

I notice you talk about "narrative tools", which suggests to me a GM having a pre-determined story in mind that are determined to be the situation the PCs must face outside the situation they get to play. Instead, what I would do is determine that there are NPCs who are setting up that ambush, or planning that hostage-taking, but think about how the NPCs would plan and organize that, and then play out the whole situation leading up to those actions in enough detail that the PCs get fair chances to notice something is going on, take precautions, and/or happen to be doing something that avoids those situations, or has something else happen that the GM didn't expect, or, if the NPC plan does happen to work, maybe does happen as planned, but only if it is played out fairly to get to that point.

  • \$\begingroup\$ The tools you're proposing are some interesting ones and I'm surely going to use them. On the other hand real danger often comes without warning, and when someone's so confident on their control of the situation I think it's good to remind them life's full of unfair. In my experience players either tend to think more out of the box when faced with the unfair, or they feel powerless and refuse to keep engaged. I want my players to be more of the first kind, not the second. I know you can't go unfair all the time, but keeping it fair all the time is boring for me. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 24, 2019 at 6:59
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @NameDisplay Yes, life is full of unfair and a game can (and my tastes would agree with you that it should) include that. I prefer to draw a distinction though between unfairness from natural circumstances with appropriate probability, and more forced unfairness where the GM just rules something bad happens without assigning odds and rolling. Some situations might have high chances something bad will happen, but I like to play it out with odds & outcomes I think make sense, rather than just making something bad happen. I like that a lot better as a player too. As either, I prefer play to fiat. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dronz
    Commented May 24, 2019 at 7:28

It's hard to say without knowing the personalities of the players involved, but it seems likely that you and the other DM are looking for different stimulation from the game than the other players.

Different Kinds of Fun

In 2004, game designers Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, Robert Zubek published a paper based on studies they had conducted between 2001 and 2004, titled "MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research". In it, they defined eight unique kinds of "Fun" that people had. They also found that different people needed different engagements, in different combinations and ratios, to enjoy themselves, and that others might actively detract from a pleasurable experience. This paper formed a foundation upon which others have built, and many designers now keep these principles in mind when designing games.

  1. Sensory Pleasure: Miniatures, background music, detailed maps, and dice can all give sensory pleasure.
  2. Fantasy: This is the wheelhouse of many character actors. They like to lose themselves in an immersive experience where they can be their character in the game world. Abstractions and decisions that are outside of the scope of the one character can break this.
  3. Narrative: These players are in it for a good story. Introduction, Crisis, Rising Action, Climax, and Denouement, the whole 9 yards.
  4. Challenge: These players want to accomplish something by their own power, and they want to earn it the hard way. I'm guessing that you and the other DM favor this kind of engagement.
  5. Fellowship: This is a social activity for this player. Catching up with friends, cracking jokes, and just being included are a big part of what this player wants.
  6. Discovery: These players like to fill in the blank spaces of the map. Not just the literal cartographic map, but maps in understanding about the world, themselves, and others.
  7. Expression: Another wheelhouse of character actors, this is also where you'll see those who come up with oddball characters. They want to make a statement about who they are, what they believe, or how they feel.
  8. Submission: What is best in life? To kick down doors, kill monsters, and take their stuff. These players want to use this time to unwind, not think too much, and just enjoy themselves.

Your Situation

At first glance, it seems like your players are averse to Challenge, and they may indeed be Submission games, but things are rarely that simple. It's more likely that they want as much control as possible, so their engagements of Fantasy, Narrative, and/or Expression aren't disrupted by anything as vulgar as character death or personal loss. Unfortunately, if Challenge isn't one of someone's sought after engagements, there's not much you can do to change their minds; that's just the way their brain is wired. However, there are things you can do to better scratch the itches they do have, while also sneaking in a little challenge.

  • For your fantasy seekers: Include lots of social interaction scenes and make sure that the world is reactive to their choices. They're looking for immersion.
  • For your narrative seekers: Focus on making sure your adventures have good structure, pacing, and appropriate tension throughout. For these guys, it's pretty easy to sneak in some challenge by saving a hard challenge for a high narrative tension moment. They also tend to be a little forgiving of railroading if their itch is being scratched.
  • For your expression seekers: Give your players room to do what they please; I've found Expression seekers to be the most likely to drive their own adventures, so if you let them wander, they may enter a space that allows you to bring down the Challenge hammer.
  • For your submission players: Apart from keeping adventures simple, there's not much special to do in preparing for submission players. I'm afraid I can't help much here.

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