Especially at low levels, Pathfinder characters can usually be killed easily by a single enemy attack, provided the dice fall in said enemy's favor. An example:

The PC has a Constitution score of 10 (modifier +0) and 8 HP.

The enemy is of medium size, has a Strength score of 14 (modifier +2) and is wielding a quarterstaff (obviously two-handed, as a quarterstaff is a two-handed weapon).

On a hit, the enemy deals 1d6+3 damage. On a critical hit (×2 for the quarterstaff), they can hence deal up to a maximum of 18 damage, which would kill the PC immediately with a single attack! There is no way for a healer to interfere, the character will die at once.

I believe stats as described above are neither unrealistic for a PC at level 1, nor for an enemy they might encounter. However, I recently ran a one-shot that almost resulted in TPK within 30 minutes due to two critical hits the enemies got in early on, killing two of the PCs and thus changing action economy massively in their favor.

How can I avoid that without pulling off some Deus ex Machina stunt?

To be clear about this: I always make sure in session 0 that everyone knows PC death is possible (and so far players have always agreed to it). But even knowing that, it really puts a damper on everyone's mood if a character the player possibly spent hours on creating dies in session 1 because of a single attack by a generic enemy.

Simply fudging the enemies rolls is not really a possibility, since I'm using Roll20 for my games at the moment and all players are able to see my rolls (including modifiers) once made. There is the possibility to hide rolls from players (which I sometimes use for opposed checks), but I would prefer not to do that for all attack/damage rolls just to be sure, because that already implies I intend to fudge a roll at some point (which I probably would in said situation, but I'd prefer players not to think about that constantly).

I like to get some general advice on this problem that applies to all (or at least most) of my future games. I am not just trying to deal with a single situation/campaign. Because of this, I'd prefer an answer that does take level 1 characters into account, because I will probably run some modules or adventure paths in the future which require the PCs to start at level 1.

While this question might seem related, the problem at hand is not encounter balance (as pointed out above), but dealing with the risk of a balanced enemy killing a player due to (bad) luck.

  • \$\begingroup\$ It would be pretty reasonable for a DM to hide all rolls, honestly. If you make it across the board, then they don't need to be suspicious of any particular thing. Might be a bit harder if you've already established a precedent contrary to that. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 15, 2021 at 21:19

12 Answers 12


This is quite simply a side-effect of the basic system that Pathfinder 1e (and D&D 3.5e before it) is built on.

There are a couple of tricks that can be used to deal with this...

Give the players more points to point-buy with.

Sounds stupid, but this (usually) is a reasonable solution. As others have pointed out, there’s a soft requirement for a CON of 14 in PF 1e to just be able to survive (barring having a very high AC or being otherwise very well prepared). The ‘normal’ point-buy option makes meeting that and other class requirements challenging, especially for certain classes, so just bump things up to the high-fantasy or epic-fantasy point-buy levels and nudge your players at character creation to ensure they have good contingencies for dealing with serious damage, be it very high AC (20 or higher at level 1 is usually enough to make things a non-issue), a good CON, or some other contingency to allow them to take a few solid hits without outright dying.

Skip the first few levels.

This is actually something I suggest for almost any D20 derived system. Level 1 is horrendously binary, being either mind-numbingly boring or downright deadly with essentially no in-between. So why not just skip it? The rules in pretty much any system cover starting above level 1 (it largely amounts to creating a level 1 character stat-wise, leveling it up to the appropriate level, and then giving the player a set amount of gold to work with for character creation). You can come up with all kinds of story reasons for starting above level one. For example, I’m putting together a campaign where the party are mercenaries hired to do the main quest by a major international alliance, so it makes no sense there for them to be starting at level 1.

This will quite often make most veteran players happier too because it lets them get right into the fun parts of the game instead of having to hope a bad roll means they need to build a new character.

Have everybody keep backup characters in-reserve.

This is, honestly, the single best approach I’ve found to this issue. Have everybody create a secondary character and have it gain XP concurrently with their main character. When their main character dies and they either choose not to be revived or can’t be revived, they kit out the secondary character with equipment based on expected wealth for it’s current level, and that character then joins up with the party next session.

This reduces the overhead of creating a new character and if sold right helps soften the blow of losing a character the player cared about (especially if you can work with the players to come up with story hooks for why the backup might join the party). VTTs like Roll20 even make this easy, because you can keep the backup sheets hidden from everybody but the GM and the player who the character is for until they’re needed.

Note that usually when I do this, I insist that the backup not be a clone of the existing character. I have no issue with them filling the same role, but they should not be a cookie-cutter copy of the existing character. This helps ensure that character death is still meaningful, which helps keep the party playing sensibly instead of treating everything like a suicide mission and not caring about death.

Just fudge the rolls.

You’re the GM. The dice don’t decide how things go, you do. So what if a monster rolled a crit and then went and rolled max damage on it? You’re the GM, you can just narrate it to sound spectacular and then have it do almost nothing (and then the character gets to quote Monty Python, because ‘It’s only a flesh wound!’). The goal is to have fun, and most people playing TTRPGs aren’t looking for a no-holds-barred roguelike experience.

As far as players ‘expecting’ it, that should not ever be a problem. They should not be expecting you to fudge rolls, otherwise they’re either way too distrusting/suspicious or you’re doing it way too often.

Aside from this though, there’s a very strong argument for not showing players any rolls made by anybody other than themselves. Ignoring the fact that Roll20 always shows the full breakdown of the roll in the tooltip (which gives the players way more info than they normally would have in a regular game, I have had issues before with people metagaming based on this breakdown), the simple fact of seeing the value on the die and knowing whether it succeeded or failed is enough for anybody who’s paying attention to figure out the associated total modifier after only a couple of rolls (good players can get a reasonable estimate after only 1-2 successes and 1-2 failures), and that level of detail isn’t exactly something the characters would have access to, which leads to the complicated issue of potential metagaming.

  • \$\begingroup\$ A lot of of good advice! Thank you especially for pointing out that it might be a good idea to hide rolls from players regardless of if I plan on fudging or not and giving a good justification for that I can pass on to my players. Still getting used to using VTTs like Roll20, on a "real" table I wouldn't even feel the need to justify why I'm not showing anyone my rolls \$\endgroup\$
    – user66921
    Commented Nov 19, 2020 at 15:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ About fudging rolls - I used the "Fist of Fate" trick for my games. When an undesirable d20 roll showed up, I slammed my fist on the table to make the dice shift a bit, and then rolled up with the new result. If you do it sparringly enough and only if favor of your players, this method can create very fun moments in the game table. \$\endgroup\$
    – T. Sar
    Commented Nov 20, 2020 at 15:53
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ @T.Sar Same here when playing in person. The beauty of such an approach is that for normal d20s it’s statistically likely to give you a result that is significantly different from the original roll. The downside is that it doesn’t work so well for anything smaller than a d8. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 20, 2020 at 16:23
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ hmmm, I don't consider the PCs figuring out the attack bonus, damage dice, etc. of a monster after a few rounds metagaming at all. I consider that fairly realistic. After seeing a monster hit and miss a few times, they would know a ballpark of how likely it is they get hit. You don't hide player rolls and its the same for the AC of monsters. If the PCs face a new monster thy don't know its AC, but after a few attacks on the monster they start to narrow it down. This represents them knowing what works (how good are that dragon's scales, how solidly do my blows need to land to penetrate them,etc \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 21, 2020 at 14:07
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @Hobbamok Yeah, that’s kind of a left-over from previous editions. In 3.5e for example, while a PC was fragile at level 1, they were still far better than an average commoner in most respects. The same is not really true any more in 5e, but the whole background thing acts like it is in many cases. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 16, 2021 at 12:50

Realistically, a Constitution score below 14 is nearly suicidal on its own in Pathfinder. Characters with large HD tend to be on the front lines, and so can’t afford to miss out on any hp they can get, and characters with small HD desperately need to get hp somewhere, and as a result everyone is basically forced to sink a 14 (or better) in Constitution if they want to stay alive.

This, of course, wreaks havoc with the rest of the game because many, many characters really need that 14 in another score. Monks are the most notorious for this (needing Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, and Wisdom), but really anyone who needs more than one non-Constitution abilty score is in trouble. So a barbarian who only needs Strength and Constitution does OK, but a fighter who needs those and a 13 in Intelligence for Combat Expertise is in trouble, and a paladin who needs those and Charisma for all their supernatural features (and really wants better than a 13) is in a lot of trouble.

Even when rolling scores and getting very lucky, at higher levels you still have a problem because of the exorbitant costs of magically enhancing all of those ability scores. Here, even the barbarian is pretty badly off because of Paizo’s inane insistence that all physical-ability-enhancing magic items must all be belts, and thus incur a 50% surcharge when you want to enhance more than one of them, starts to really shaft them.

So realistically the only classes that are really OK as far as abilities are concerned are the pure spellcasters, who need one mental stat and Constitution, and that’s it. That’s a big part of why magic dominates the game.

All of which is to say that, quite simply, Pathfinder is not an even remotely balanced game. It full of tons and tons of options that are written as though they were equally strong, equally valid, but are in fact wildly variable in their effectiveness. Choosing to have “average” Constitution, i.e. 10, is treated as just as reasonable as having “average” Charisma—except that the former choice is suicide and the latter choice is nearly meaningless unless you’re a Charisma-based spellcaster. Likewise, all the classes are presented as equal, when they are massively not.

So what can you do about it?

Really, and I say this as someone who plays a lot of Pathfinder (and D&D 3.5e, which it’s based on and from which it inherits many—though not all—of these problems), the best answer is probably to find a system that isn’t so ridiculously imbalanced. This is not a system where you can just pick up and play, making decisions based on what sounds cool or appropriate and expecting the system to make that work.

Which means that, if you stick with Pathfinder, the only workable solution I have found is for everybody to simply get to know the system really well, and learn how to avoid all the traps. I can point out a few of the biggest ones for you, but ultimately what you really need is expertise, which I can’t just transfer to you.

Everyone needs Con 14 or better

This is just something your players have to learn, and plan around. Someone with Constitution 10 isn’t average, they’re suicidally low. Someone with Constitution 14 isn’t moderately strong in this stat; they’re pretty much average.

Consider houserules to make this easier, if you like. If using point buy, having Constitution start at 14 rather than 10 might be a start—going above 14 still costs more, and you can’t get above 18 at all, but you ensure that everyone has Constitution 14 and still has points for the other things their classes rely on.

Alternatively, you could consider maximizing HD each level, instead of rolling or using the average. Con is still pretty important for Fortitude, but lower Con values are less inherently suicidal. It also eliminates one of the ways in which the order of levels matters, which is always a good thing.

Avoid 1st level altogether—probably 2nd too

Pathfinder at 1st level is utterly unlike Pathfinder at any other level of the game. Commonly referred to as “rusty dagger shanktown,” this is a problem found, actually, across many editions of D&D and throughout many D&D spin-offs like Pathfinder. The issue is that a whole lot of values in the game are linear, with little or no initial offset. That means those values are literally doubled by reaching 2nd level, and by 3rd level they’ll have been tripled (relative to 1st), and so on. Effectively, the math works out such that 1st level characters simply haven’t accumulated enough (hp, save bonuses, AC, gold, etc. etc.) to survive.

The solution chosen by a huge number of tables is to just skip 1st level. Skipping 2nd is pretty popular too. An enormous number of games start at 3rd level for exactly this reason. This avoids a lot of the worst problems, at least for a while, though really it starts getting bad again as early as 7th level—there’s a reason why E6 is popular.

Class choice needs to be careful

Monk is simply a bad class, for example. Any given “monk” themed character can be far more effectively brought to life using another class’s rules. For instance, there’s the unchained version, which is pretty solid, though there are still better options. This theme continues for tons of other classes as well.

Meanwhile, some classes are just fairly unreasonable from the outset. Pretty much every spellcaster that can get 9th-level spells becomes a problem sooner rather than later—spells just get so absurd. They are, themselves, a big part of the reason why E6 stops at 6th, because at 7th level they get 4th-level spells and those are insane.

Challenging a party that mixes classes of these two wildly differing power levels becomes extremely difficult for a GM—anything the former can reasonably handle could be a cakewalk for the latter, and anything actually challenging for the latter can be impossible for the former. (Playing a spellcaster well can be challenging too, so this isn’t entirely automatic, but playing a warrior well has its own challenges and ultimately they become much harder as levels increase.)

This is why the tier system exists. This method of roughly categorizing the relative power and versatility of Pathfinder classes allows players and GMs to find a way to make their characters more equitable, to avoid some of those headaches. Maybe cleric and wizard should be avoided, or at least the people playing them should intentionally choose some very weak options. Maybe you should skip monk or rogue, and go with something more powerful that can have similar flavor—or go with the unchained versions, which have exactly the same flavor.

Maybe those who are dead-set on a certain weaker class should do some research, and find ways of making that class as powerful as it can be. The kineticist is borderline unplayable if played the way it’s described, but with certain very specific choices, it can be OK. Not every class can be “salvaged” like that, but you can definitely improve matters in this fashion.

Again, E6 helps matters here.

The other option is to just have everyone stay in, say, Tier 3 or so. I have had very successful games where everyone picks one of the “two-thirds” casters, like magus or warpriest. That’s very effective! Those classes hit a very nice sweet spot in the system, where their spells help ensure they’ll have options for handling things that come their way, but the delays on them make sure you aren’t dealing with the real game-breakers, or at least not until later.

The alternative, ish

The other option is the one used by Paizo in modules: cater to the lowest common denominator. Most modules are filled with challenges well below the capabilities of fairly typical adventurers of that level—to make sure that the monk or whatever actually can contribute. For very casual players—that don’t happen to stumble upon the strongest options—this can work out alright. But many players, and GMs, get pretty bored with this.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Wow, thank you for a detailed and insightful answer! Definitely gave me something to think about, though I'm not really sure if we want to change our entire approach to the system like that - We're still having fun with our (granted unbalanced) way of doing things for now. \$\endgroup\$
    – user66921
    Commented Nov 19, 2020 at 14:54

Unfortunately, this is simply a symptom of the PF-1e game system.

Combat is incredibly swingy in low levels, then after 3 or 4, it evens out a bit, and then, just after 12 or 13, it turns into rocket tag. My recommendation is, instead of having low level characters fight a roughly equal number of similarly powerful enemies, have them fight a slightly larger number of slightly weaker enemies.

It would also do to take in to account that CR is only a guideline at best. While a level 8 sorcerer NPC would have a CR of the 6-7 range depending on gear, it could still be a deadly fight for a level 20 fighter who has a CR of at least 17, if the fighter does not have a means of countering an opponent with both invisibility and flight.

Similarly, an orc with a single level of warrior is going to be a much higher threat than his CR would imply, due to the fact that he has a higher STR than the average character, and also the ferocity trait, giving him effectively his CON score as additional HP, meaning that instead of 10 + CON bonus, his effective HP pool would be 10 + CON bonus + CON score, which would probably mean about 20-24 HP to get through before the fight was over. Meanwhile, a level 1 kobold warrior would be much less dangerous to the same character, as kobolds have a racial STR penalty, and no special bonuses to their HP pool, meaning that they both deal less damage, and can take less damage before being put out of the fight.

There's a fairly common trope that level 1 adventurers always get stuck fighting rats in the sewer, but that trope exists for a reason. The odds that a player will die in an even fight is, well, about even with the odds of them winning the fight.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that you probably need to be more careful about what you have them face as adversaries at early levels.

Try the Hero Points system

@zachiel pointed out the Hero Points system, which I am familiar with. The full extent of these rules are quite lengthy, so I'm not going to quote them here, but they can be found in the Advanced Players Guide, or on the PFSRD here.

Generally speaking, it's worked out very well for the groups that I've been in that have used it. It breaks down like this: Hero Points can be used on a variety of things, from granting bonuses to your or allies rolls, rerolling bad rolls, regaining spent spells/spell slots, and even cheating death. You start with, and have a maximum of, three points. one can be spent to give yourself a bonus, reroll a die, or regain a spent spell. Two can be used to donate one to an ally, or to cheat death. The general guideline is that you gain a new point at every level up, up to your 3-point maximum, and every time you accomplish a heroic deed, such as beating a chapter boss, or for staying behind to stall the orc horde while the rest of the party escapes.

Some players like to play fast and loose with their points and blow them on defeating enemies, while others prefer to always keep two in reserve for if they die (I'm firmly in the first category :p).

I believe that using this system might take a bit of the burden off of your shoulders of worrying about if your players might die, since they now have an active choice in either saving up their points to prevent death, or spending them on slaying orcs.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Using more, weaker enemies might not always work for me. It definitely does when running a homebrew campaign, but doing so in a module or AP would require spending more time on preparing/adjusting encounters, when the whole point of modules/APs is (at least for me) to cut down preparation time. \$\endgroup\$
    – user66921
    Commented Nov 18, 2020 at 19:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'll definitely take a closer look at Hero Points though. I was vaguely familiar with them before (never have used them though), so when @zachiel first mentioned them I was kind of worried because of the high boni you can get from them. But pointing out that that using them that way would increase the risk of the character using them dying later on did alleviate most of my concerns \$\endgroup\$
    – user66921
    Commented Nov 18, 2020 at 19:44

When I ran in 3.5e and pathfinder, I used a house rule: even if your character takes enough damage to instantly die, your character can still be saved if someone heals you really quickly.

I did not define "really quickly" but "within one round" was implied.

This saved characters a couple of times. They were fighting orcish barbarians with greataxes, and occasionally critical hits would drop someone below -10, and the healer would immediately walk over and cast a cure spell, and everything would be fine.


I am not very experienced and others certainly came up with very good suggestions. But let's assume we are stuck with level 1 and we even have some "suicidal" character with very low HP.

In such a case, I would suggest to not start the campaign with fighting things. Have the group earn their first XP with some kind of investigation or something, that at the end cumulates into a stand off with the murderer, thief, whatever.

So maybe they already reached level 2 before the big fight.

Maybe have the NPC be drunk or otherwise handy capped. This could mean the NPC has no chance to start his turn before any of the PC or has low accuracy and slow reactions.

Maybe he can't walk fast and far, giving low HP PC a chance to keep at safe distance.

Maybe he does not have his weapon ready and needs to grab it first.

Have the fight take place in a narrow corridor, making it easy for players to block the NPC and stop him from reaching lower HP targets.

Have a great day!

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Yup, starting from 1st but making the game focus more on exploring and NPC interaction and giving opportunities for non-combat XP until 2nd (or even 3rd!) is a very good approach. +1 and welcome to the site! \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented Nov 20, 2020 at 15:34

Use average damage

Instead of 1d6+3, use 6 (rounding down the 3.5 average, which is how D&D 5E does it).

I do this in my D&D 5e games for character levels 1 and 2. It removes the swinginess of the combat, which can really pummel characters with only one hit die. It also means that every character can take at least one hit and still keep fighting (so you don't get the "my character was killed by the very first thing that hit them!" issue).

Once the characters reach level 3, it is a bit of a milestone for the players. "Hey, your characters are now grown up, so let's start using rolled damage!"


Since you mention using roll20, you can use the /gmroll syntax instead of the usual /roll to make rolls only you can see.

I personally dislike having the possibility to change the result of the dice (why rolling dice in the first place when you're going to ignore them when you don't like the result?) but the function is also useful to prevent the other players from guessing the monster's modifiers.

You can avoid using orcs with falchions, of course. Everybody who played a certain AP knows why.

You can also suggest players to assign more points to Constitution. In my experience, 10 is a recipe for frequent deaths anyway.

Lastly, you can consider a different game: played by the book, Pathfinder has a lot of "the dice falls where it falls, and it makes for a poor story". Unless, maybe, you use the hero points variant, which I'm not familiar with. One of the options, the last at this link, is to cheat death, which leaves you unconscious and stable instead of dead.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I know about the /gmroll or /gr feature - that's what I was talking about when "hiding rolls". As I also pointed out, I'd like to avoid fudging anyway - I'd rather establish a mechanic that makes that unnecessary. My group (and I) really love Pathfinder, so we're not likely to play another game. Higher CON doesn't really solve the problem at lvl. 1, if the enemy uses a longsword two-handed instead of a quarterstaff. I know about hero points, but when used for stuff other than cheating death, they can be a bit overpowered i.m.o. Thank you for your answer nontheless! \$\endgroup\$
    – user66921
    Commented Nov 18, 2020 at 19:06
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I'm sorry, I'm taking back the part about Hero Points. As @RevenantBacon pointed out, those players using their Hero Points for "overpowered stuff" as I put it, risk dying for real when in grave danger instead. So I'll definitely look into that. \$\endgroup\$
    – user66921
    Commented Nov 18, 2020 at 19:32

It's simple: Don't start at level 1

This applies to Pathfinder as well as most DnD Editions: The first few, and especially the very first levels are INCREDIBLY swingy and random. Any fight can be a TPK and almost every monster attack could be an instant kill.

Which is why a lot of campaigns start at level 3: The game just isnt as punishingly random at that point. A regular enemy cannot oneshot you at that point.

The other answers here are correct as well, but this is the simplest, most "vanilla" solution available imho.


As the balance of the game is generally in favour of the players, anything that adds randomness to encounters is disadvantageous to the players. Random damage and critical attacks, therefore, increase the probability of the players loosing. Personally, I don't roll critical damage for attacks of monsters. That generally removes the possibility of instant death. Without instant death that players have the opportunity to turn a battle going wrong into their favour, which should make them very pleased with themselves. But it keeps failure on the table.

Personally, I don't think that a DM should fudge rolls. That takes agency away from the players. For example, the players with con 10 took that decision while another player did invest into constitution, probably at the cost of something. The choice of investing or not investing in constitution has become (slightly more) irrelevant. There were probable also plenty of choices leading up to the battle.


You could at some levels or for all, don't run damage dice but take the average. It has the side effect of being faster due to fewer dice throwing and also remove a part of randomness which may or not suit you.

In your example, this mean 1d6+3 average is (d6 average = 3) 3 + 3 = 6 damage in average and in case of crits 6 x 2 = 12 damage. Which put the character unconscious but does not kill him.

An alternative is to do that only for the monster (again maybe just for the first and second level) and letting the player rolling the damage dice.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks, but that seems to be an exact duplicate of @GreenstoneWalker 's answer \$\endgroup\$
    – user66921
    Commented Nov 21, 2020 at 21:24

Use the death and dying rules from PF2, or something based on them.

Under these rules, when you get taken down to zero hit points or less, you go unconcious, your hit points are set to zero and you gain dying 1 + the level of your wounded condition +1 if the hit was a critical. You then need to make a save on each of your turns to prevent that value increasing. If it ever reaches dying 4, your character dies.

If you gain any healing you loose the dying condition, and gain a level of the wounded condition. The wounded condition is only lost whenever you are restored to maximum hit points - or benefit from the treat wounds action (a medicine skill check to heal).

This solves a number of problems with the PF1 death and dying system, has been extensively playtested, and can be easily adapted to work with PF1.

  • \$\begingroup\$ A downvote is not useful without explanation of why it is given! \$\endgroup\$
    – Isaac
    Commented Jan 6, 2021 at 11:34

Less lethal encounters

You can focus on getting encounters with enemies with lower damage. Slings and daggers without large Str mods are less likely to crit for the one-hit-kill. This would probably end up looking like a mob of weak monsters. Some downsides to large numbers of weak foes are that it can slow down the game and you can get to a point where the encounter is effectively over but some enemies remain. You can try to address this by having enemies surrender once there is no longer a significant threat to the players. Or, by having one big enemy with multiple attacks that do low damage and having them spread out their attacks against different party members (like a swarm, but something that the players can hope to be able to kill).

Build encounters where the enemies aren't trying to kill the players. If enemies are guards trying to arrest players they have a reason to use non-lethal tactics. Enemies could challenge players to non-lethal challenges. Optionally, if it makes sense you could wave the rules for non-lethal damage (-4 to attack, can't do it with damage spells) and just say, since everyone agreed to a gentleman's spar, we can use all of our weapons/skills/spells unchecked and just know that no one will die. This option would allow the players to agree to a non-lethal fight without feeling like they have to drastically change how their characters fight.


You must log in to answer this question.