I'm relatively new to the game and DMing a group who are all also new to the game, so maybe this is something obvious that we just don't know. Last session the party was beset upon by a group of assassins in the night. In the ensuing fight, at two separate times a character was brought below 0hp. Both times, the cleric immediately either healed or cast Spare The Dying on them before they had to make a single death saving throw.

I'm not sure how to proceed because I feel like the way things shook down really undermined any feeling of danger, it seems like the only real way for anyone to die would be Disintegration (or something similar that insta-kills), or for the cleric to be the first to go (though he's usually quite good about staying out of range).

Am I missing something here, or is it just hard to kill a party member when they have a cleric?

To be clear, I don't want to go out of my way to kill any players, but I feel like combat is beginning to feel very low stakes, even when up against challenging enemies, due to what is described above.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Is there a reason you want to kill your players? Or are you more saying something like “Hie can I make combat have higher stakes for my players when the cleric seems to guarantee survival?” \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 1, 2021 at 22:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ Related questions on How can I make combat more engaging? and How do I make combat more challenging without making it longer? \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Commented Mar 1, 2021 at 22:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ Clerical error. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 12:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ What level are the characters? Combat is a lot more lethal to low level characters, so if the group is past level 3 they've kind of earned their hardiness. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 17:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ Are you letting them take short/long rests too often leaving them too many options? \$\endgroup\$
    – JeffC
    Commented Mar 5, 2021 at 5:38

10 Answers 10


Dying in Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition very rarely occurs by chance. Importantly being reduced to 0 HP only renders a player character unconscious.

Finishing off Unconscious PCs

An intelligent enemy will likely notice if their targets keep getting healed by a party member. At that point they may ensure they "Finish the job". Each successful attack within 5 ft against an unconscious player causes them 2 death save failures. Meaning one of the assassins in your scenario (assuming they are the Monster Manual specific NPC named Assassin and that you are not using the name as a general description) could use their turn, attack the unconscious player twice, and kill them.

Typically most DMs will not immediately attack unconscious player characters. However if the Monsters in your encounter have witnessed the player character coming back up from being knocked out, this could be an indicator they need to go for the kill.

In addition to intelligent enemies recognizing players are returning, many enemies may make sense to have some sort of feeding frenzy on a knocked out player character. Zombies, rabid animals, swarms, crocodiles, quipper, sharks and some monstrosities may be unable to resist the urge of feeding on fresh food even in the middle of combat.

Also remember that if a damage source reduces your character to negative their hit point total, the character is instantly killed. This makes bringing players back into the fight with a few hit points particularly dangerous if you have hard hitting abilities.

Hit Point Maximum Reduction

If healing in particular is giving you trouble, you can consider some of the monsters which have maximum hit points reduction. These include : Blue Slaad, Diseased Rats, Specter, Bulezau, Chasme, Wraith, Wight, Clay Golem, Succubus and others.

Ability Score Damage

A few creatures have ability score damage, such as Shadow or Intellect devourer. These give a sense of danger which cannot be immediately remedied in combat.

Long-Term Status Effects

Long term status effects are also harder to fix. Famously the Medusa, Gorgon, Cocatrice, and Basilisk can turn foes to stone. A slightly less permanent version is the many incapacitating poisons. Giant Spiders, Giant Centipede, Giant Wasp, or Phase Spiders are good examples.

Splitting the Party

Another way of ensuring a more difficult encounter is to have monsters attempt to ambush players when they are separated. They can also use their abilities to force players apart so they are unable to support one another. Many creatures have grapple abilities, which after used, they can move away from the party with their prey. They may do this with conscious or unconscious players. This is especially effective if a monster has a method of travel that is unavailable to the players. Climbing, flying, or swimming could allow a creature to get away faster than the players can give chase.


Hopefully between these methods you will find a way to make your party feel a sense of danger in their encounters. You should probably have these used against an NPC rather than a player character to demonstrate their danger first.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I really like these suggestions and I have a quest that I hope my PCs will grab this next session that involves an NPC who could "demonstrate" these techniques quite well! I'll wait to accept in case others post, but +1 \$\endgroup\$
    – Bitsplease
    Commented Mar 1, 2021 at 23:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ Be careful when designing encounters with monsters that damage ability scores. Intelligence and Strength are common dump stats, so Shadows and Intellect Devourers can take out even high level PCs. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 15:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ In my experience, the fastest way to accidentally kill a PC is to have one drop when there's enemies around who use area damage effects. If your unconscious body is in the zone, you just racked up a death save failure. You can keep tossing down spare the dying to reset the count, but that's costing an action each turn so the party is now down 2 actions instead of 1 and you can easily get into a death spiral. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 17:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ One more way PCs can die is if they're at zero and take damage in excess of their maximum HP. I once had a PC die this way - I stayed in the fight at low HP, then took an unlucky crit from a gibbering mouther. The total damage easily exceeded my maximum HP and tripped the instant death rule. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tim C
    Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 18:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ I would also note that some monsters have an instant kill ability. The mind flayer would make a ready example. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 17:32

D&D 5e combat is low stakes

At least, in the sense that anyone is at serious risk of dying in any given combat. Each edition of D&D has progressively made dying less likely.

However, perceptions of risk can vary greatly from one side of the DMs screen to the other. Remember, you have a lot of information that the players don’t; what looks like a cakewalk to you may seem like a life-and-death struggle to them. And, more rarely, vice-versa.

If the dramatic question your combat poses is “Will the PCs die?” The answer is almost invariably “No”. The game is biased towards the players, and not in the way a paid off referee in a football match is; more in the way a Soviet show trial is biased towards the state. In fact, the encounter design in the DMG assumes players never use limited resources (except HP); the rating of an encounter is based on using weapon attacks and cantrips alone.

So, don’t ask that question.

Instead, ask questions like:

  • Can the players end the combat in time to stop the ritual?
  • ... before the prisoner gets executed?
  • ... before the alarm Is raised?
  • ... before the guard captain recognizes them?
  • ... with enough resources left to push further into the dungeon?
  • etc
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    \$\begingroup\$ I like the idea of making combat less about "will we survive" and more about "will we succeed" where failure might occur even if everyone survives \$\endgroup\$
    – Bitsplease
    Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 0:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ Out of curiosity, do you have a reference for the encounter design in the DMG assumes players _never_ use limited resources (except HP)? \$\endgroup\$
    – Eddymage
    Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 7:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ That second paragraph really gets to the heart of it, but there is more to it. To use a real-world example, if someone went out and did all their normal activities this year, without taking any precautions, they might have had a 1% chance of dying from COVID, total. But a whole lot of people, myself included, felt that those are not great odds! Your characters in D&D are not concerned with the 99 times they stick a sword in their enemies, they are concerned with the one time their enemies stick a sword in them. Saying that a party with clerics wins 9 times out of 10 would not reassure them. \$\endgroup\$
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 2:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ Or, in other words, a battle in which the enemy is as likely to kill them as they are to kill the enemy is not a "engaging and fair fight" for them as it might be for a player, it is a desperate last stand that they will avoid if they have any other option whatsoever. Even many Good characters are not going to take a 50% chance of dying, 50% chance of killing the assassin that is terrorizing the city, and very few Neutral or Evil characters would. \$\endgroup\$
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 2:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is dependent on your DM - in my current campaign our DM hasn't given us a single encounter below deadly. Our healers were the only things that stopped each encounter being a TPK. However every encounter feels like the stakes are so high that we're reluctant to fight anything. Not sure its necessarily a role model of a campaign. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 4, 2021 at 14:16

The First Thing We Do, Let's Kill All The Clerics

With apologies to Dick the Butcher, if you want your characters to feel the heat in combat and stop taking clerical healing for granted... kill the cleric. Or more properly, take out or somehow occupy the cleric early in the combat, so they can't easily dispense healing at the earliest opportunity in a combat.

On the one hand, intelligent adversaries who can recognize clerics and want to actually win the fight would do this as a matter of course. Assassins certainly qualify, here, and ought to be well-briefed on who they're trying to kill.

On the other hand, one expects this to work maybe once or twice before the group starts stocking up on healing potions or otherwise taking protective countermeasures. (And if the opponents are focusing fire on the cleric, that means they're probably not focusing fire on the wizard, the barbarian, or whoever the biggest and most reliable damage-dealer in the party is.)

A Frame Challenge Or Two

But remember, there's a natural narrative tension running through most D&D games: Most D&D games have a lot of combats, and most D&D games aren't grimdark enough to be killing characters on a regular basis. And if you run through enough combats where everyone survives, eventually the player are going to figure out that maybe-- just maybe, whether it's because of the existence of healing potions, or clerics, or because of the way the whole game world is structured-- they're not quite treated the same way as the minor NPCs.

That's why clerics and healing potions exist. They are meant to be used to rescue the characters.

But not all tension in a game comes from the immediate threat of death in any given combat. Another way to look at things (both at the level of an individual combat, or a series of related combats before the group can rest, regroup, and recover their resources) is as an exercise in resource management.

At the level of an individual combat, every time the cleric has to go over and heal someone (and remember, those healing spells have a range of touch, meaning the cleric has to go over there consuming movement and action(s) on a round) means that he or she can't be doing anything else that might be useful, like buffing other characters or casting damage-dealing spells against their opponents.

And at the level of a series of combats, every healing spell cast now is a healing spell that cannot be cast in the next combat, or the next after that... until the players shut down and take a long rest. This is critically important to the way 5e and related systems work. Your PCs can feel like demigods if they blow through scarce resources in the early (probably less challenging) combats of a sequence, only to be left high and dry when fighting the Big Bad at the end.

If that's what's happening, they'll eventually feel the pinch.

If you're following this school of thought, then one of your jobs as GM (which is not necessarily easy) is putting the characters in situations where they can't come at each combat at full strength like a sledge hammer, but rather where they'll have to run through a gauntlet with some real uncertainty on their part of where they should be spending those resources.

A natural result of this-- and I think a good one-- is that not every combat will feel like a mortal threat, but some of them toward the end of those sequences, surely will.

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    \$\begingroup\$ consuming multiple actions on a round - in 5e technical terms, Movement isn't an Action. It means that's what you have to use your movement on (and might get yourself into melee range, unless you meant using Disengage as your Action to avoid opportunity attacks?) ... Or unless you were a smart cleric and prepared Healing Word and/or Mass Healing Word that day so you can get somebody up from 0hp + cast a cantrip that turn. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 12:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for mentioning "series of combat" and the resource management that necessitates. At my table if the cleric blows all his spells in the first combat, we're in big trouble. \$\endgroup\$
    – Gus
    Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 15:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PeterCordes So modified. \$\endgroup\$
    – Novak
    Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 19:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ The first point is a big one that a lot of newer GMs never think about. Healers in high fantasy are not modern combat medics who drag you back to safety and then just keep you from dying, they’re miracle workers who get you right back into battle immediately. In such a setting, taking the enemy healer out is such basic tactics that it would border on being instinctual for seasoned warriors. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 20:37

You're not wrong...

5e combat is designed around "set piece" cinematic conflicts. PC's may go down in a fight, but generally speaking as long as their side holds the field at the end, they can be revived with little chance of death. That is the intent, so your experience is not surprising. I came to 5e from 1e/BECMI, and am still adjusting to how unimportant things like skirmishes, attrition, lingering wounds, and asymmetric fights are in 5e.

...but are you sure you are doing it right?

As you and your players are all new to the game, you may be missing a few of the rules that can, when taken together, make it harder to get through a combat without having to make a death save. For example...
Initiative An unconscious PC (U) remains in initiative order and makes their death saves at the beginning of their turn. Your party's cleric (C) can only heal or spare on their own turn. So if an assassin (A) drops a character on A's turn, the cleric can only spare (U) from making a death save if (C)'s initiative comes between (A) and (U) in the Initiative order. Any other combination means that (U) has to make a save before the cleric gets to them.
Range and Movement Spare the dying, and a Medicine check or Healer's Kit, all have a range of touch, meaning the cleric has to be next to the downed PC. You say that the cleric is "usually quite good about staying out of range", but in this case that means he has to have enough movement to start his turn out of range, move into the combat to the point where someone just went down, heal or spare, and then move back out of combat. Keep in mind that if at any point in that journey he leaves the reach of an opponent, said opponent can elect to make an Opportunity Attack on the cleric.

Action Economy

Yes, the party can definitely worry much less about dying when they have a dedicated healer. But if that cleric is healing every round, they are not attacking, which means it will take longer to win, which means more PC's have a chance of going down, which means that there is more of a chance of one of them having to make a death save - particularly if two of them are down at once. The cleric is taken into account when the difficulty of the encounter is being calculated, and if the cleric never attacks because he is always attending to his companions, the encounter may prove more difficult on the front end.

Target the Cleric and Remember to Double-Tap

This needs to be used sparingly, because players (even those who use the same techniques on their opponents) frequently resent them. But if you have an opponent who has knowledge of the PC's (the assassins know their targets, don't they? Or are they just assassinating random PCs for the lulz?), and the PC's have a demonstrated history of relying on a dedicated healer, the cleric is making themselves a prime target. This doesn't necessarily mean attacking to kill - anything that frustrates the cleric's vision or movement can be equally effective in limiting their healing potential.

Also, attacking an unconscious opponent in melee is done at advantage to hit and an automatic critical to damage, resulting in two failed death saves. If PC's keep popping back up, intelligent opponents will adjust to make sure they stay down. Again, this should be reserved for not only intelligent opponents, but ones you want the PC's to particularly dislike.

  • \$\begingroup\$ You are right that I missed that Spare the Dying requires touch, that'll be helpful for balancing in the future. Additionally, I think you raise a good point about leveraging the clerics need to be constantly healing to keep him occupied, raising the general difficulty of the encounter. I've been avoiding double-taps because they seem like bad sport, but I suppose limiting it to intelligent opponents who have already seen the PC get back up could work to balance it \$\endgroup\$
    – Bitsplease
    Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 1:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ Tagging onto this is that, while a dumb or smart enemy probably wouldn't focus on knocked out enemies, in favor of immediate problems, an Assassin isn't there to win a fight. They're there to end lives. It's one of the few cases where I would definitely recommend attempting to murder the PC outright. \$\endgroup\$
    – Carson
    Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 20:29

Dropping to 0 HP in DnD 5th edition is not that bad and happens occasionally. However it’s still bad because an unconscious player can’t attack or move.

The Cleric is also less powerful than you seem to think. He can only heal one party member per turn, he can only heal a few HP and he’s going to run out of spell slots. Using actions on healing means he can’t attack and he’s used up a spell slot which could otherwise be used to attack. Often the Cleric is also busy surviving himself.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Clerics also have some very good crowd control (including Hold Person); "healing" by stopping the other side from doing damage via CC early in a fight can be a good choice, sometimes better than just damage. (Although clerics have some good damage options, e.g. Spiritual Weapon + Spirit Guardians, although once those are out you still have an Action to cast other things.) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 12:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ Michael, the Life Domain cleric, for example, has the Preserve live ability (channel divinity) that can heal numerous allies all at the same time. Mass Healing word is likewise available to heal many at once. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 19:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast: True, but it’s still pretty limited. Mass Healing Word is nice because it’s a bonus action and heals up to 6 creatures. But it’s a level 3 spell and only heals 1d4+spellcasting modifier. Only a game-changer if your whole party is unconscious and within 60 feet ;) \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael
    Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 19:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Michael Mass Healing Word really comes into its own when you have a large number of soldiers. Cast by a Life Cleric, it's 1d4+spellcasting modifier + 5 hit points. With only a 16 Wisdom and 6 soldiers, that 10.5*6 or or 63 hit points, and 6 people who can cycle into the front line again. \$\endgroup\$
    – Alan Peery
    Commented Mar 4, 2021 at 16:19

Players do not need to fall unconscious, to take the fight seriously

As a player, Barbarian lvl 13 with 130 hp or something, if a NPC hits me for 30 HP on a single attack I won't wait till I fall unconscious to start getting worried.

This guy can 'bring me down' with 4 hits; I'm taking him seriously.

Players do not need to fall unconscious to start getting worried. An NPC can be intimidating enough to make them take the fight seriously.

Also, if a fight means I'm going to use all my resources, my party's and my healer's attention away from the other players (as a tanky barbarian) it means this is big and bad, and especially if I dont take anything out of it, even if we make it I'll think twice before I get into another fight with something like that.

I saw some suggestions to target the cleric... ... please do this only when it makes sense. I've been in fights where sludges attacked the cleric first, and it felt really wrong. I'd say, as a personal suggestion, attack people with some reason which you think makes sense role play wise.

For example, how does the other guy know that this guys a cleric? Unless they are wearing some really exceptionally priestly robes, the cleric can look like a run off the mill undventurer, unless they start their casting, and then maybe the attacker would need to recognise the school of magic (unless cleric is sitting down praying etc). I'm not saying it's impossible, i'm just pointing out pitfalls that might make your players feel like you're using meta stuff even when you don't.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPGSE, Marina. I edited in a few grammar and prose correctins, and a bit of formatting. The tour, help center, How to Ask, and How to Answer offer guidance on how to get the most from this site's format. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 19:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ I've always considered that any spell with Verbal components pretty much discloses the class of the character unless the fight is unusually distracting. When a spell is available for different classes, the caster does the way their class would. My cleric is shouts out "By the tramping Goats of Thor" when he's casting Sacred Flame, which makes it really obvious. :-) \$\endgroup\$
    – Alan Peery
    Commented Mar 4, 2021 at 16:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ @AlanPeery "I've always considered that any spell with Verbal components pretty much discloses the class of the character unless the fight is unusually distracting." why would a random passer-by know the difference between muttering the arcane formula for Ojamar's Very Hot Fiery Column and the prayer to Ra in the ancient tongue for The Punishing Ray Of The Sun? If they are a spellcaster themselves, they might know. Say, a cleric might probably recognise it's a prayer but not necessarily which one. But how would they know if a spell is cast by a wizard, a warlock, a sorcerer, or whatever? \$\endgroup\$
    – VLAZ
    Commented Mar 4, 2021 at 19:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ An important DM skill is remembering to have different monsters act differently. For example mindless zombies just shamble forwards, while intelligent foes will have objectives, look for weakness, etc. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tim B
    Commented Mar 4, 2021 at 23:31

All the other answers are, of course, excellent. But they don't mention one really easy way for the Party to die:

Overwhelming mob!

The Cleric can only save 1 character per round, and if they do then they aren't dealing damage or healing other characters.

If you throw a large mob of low-mid level grunts at the Party (especially if you manage to surround them, and or your grunts have ranged attacks), then pretty quickly you get to a point where you can be knocking players unconscious more quickly than the Cleric has actions to save them.

This just happened to my Party where a huge mob of Needle Blights and Twig Blights and Druids entirely surrounded us, before we realised that we'd chosen our Battle poorly. One party member died, and one round later the other three (incl. our Cleric) all ended up all falling unconscious in the same round, ending the combat encounter.

It turned out that this was an outcome that the campaign allowed for, and the DM had been aiming for once we chose our (innately doomed) battleplan, so the DM did an excellent job of ensuring that it didn't go any worse for us than that! If he'd not aggressively managed the Blights' targetting and avoided any unfortunately timed AoE attacks, we could easily have had more than one character die! :D

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    \$\begingroup\$ Internet points if you can identify the Campaign and location of our encounter ;) (But ROT13 the location to avoid spoilers for others :) ) \$\endgroup\$
    – Brondahl
    Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 14:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ Good answer, but I think it jumps past the main point: the fear isn't so much 1 person dying as the entire party dying. When a character drops unconscious you're not so scared for them, maybe a little, but mostly that you're closer to losing this battle and everyone dies. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 18:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ Heh, I think I know where the sol deprived encounter took place ... \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 18:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ @OwenReynolds: That's a really good point. In a party with nobody that can cast healing spells, it's much more possible to have 1 death without losing the fight. (So combat can be a long-term danger / threat without TPK levels of danger). But with a healer or two, you can play whack-a-mole until everyone's low and then the healer themselves goes down or runs out of spells. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 4, 2021 at 19:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PeterCordes Or if the players are forced into a fighting retreat and end up with their fallen behind enemy lines. I've ended up with three people behind enemy lines on one particularly memorable occasion. 2 made their death saves, one died before the last 2 players managed to defeat the remaining foes and go back to try and help their friends. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tim B
    Commented Mar 4, 2021 at 23:35

Assassins are professional killers, they wouldn't survive long if they didn't study their targets, and plan ahead.

Imagine this scenario, where they first attempt to steal the clerics holy symbol.

The party are walking through town when an half-ling disguised as a urchin attempts to snatch the clerics holy symbol. If they succeed in the theft they run into a nearby alleyway where the assassins have set an ambush.

The players have ample opportunity to foil the theft, and can also choose to focus on the half-ling to recover the symbol.

or maybe they hire a magic user to cast silence.

The party wander into a narrow ravine when they notice that it has all of a sudden become deathly quiet. As they look about they spot a robed figure flanked by a group of armed thugs. The thugs surge forward brandishing their weapons.

The most important thing is don't railroad these encounters, and don't use them too much as it will make the Cleric feel like they're being attacked by you. Make sure you give the players an appropriately difficult check to foil the theft, or notice the assassins laying in wait.

These sorts of situations give the players a challenge other than "kill everyone" and it increases the tension, and hopefully their engagement.


As other posters have mentioned, there are reasons it's supposed to be difficult for PCs to die in combat. However, combat shouldn't be a cake walk either. In my experience, combat where your PC really can die makes things more interesting.

Know that combat difficulty is entirely under the DM's control. Adding more enemies, giving them more HP, or making them hit harder are effective ways for beginner DMs to do so, and easy enough to try out and ramp up as you get a feel for where the threshold is.

It may be a good idea to give the party an encounter difficult enough to show that the kiddie gloves are off. When they know it's possible to die in combat- and that they will if they aren't careful enough- any situation where they are down resources or outnumbered by serious enemies starts to feel a little more tense.

We've had a couple encounters where we were so badly outmatched that the only thing to do was run, lest the entire party die all at once. Throwing in a couple of those every now and again will make your party ask if this is a fight they can win, and stealth, diplomacy, or another approach may be required.

Another thing that my DM introduced was "return from death" saves, i.e. if a character is dead-dead and they would be resurrected, they don't get to automatically come back. They have to pass more saving throws. Additionally, each time they die, they get a permanent, cumulative -1 to those resurrection throws, making it less and less likely that they will survive death if they push it.

  • \$\begingroup\$ It can be story telling that causes the danger. My character had a "probably going to die" situation when there was necromantic magic chaining a sacred tree so an evil cross-dimensional Hag could come back into the the world. The storm was growing in intensity... The magic was substantially above our power level -- so I called on the old gods before pulling out my draw knife and carving the runes off while casting "Eldritch Blast" through the tool that kept me fed as a teenager. If the roll hadn't succeeded, my character would have had a glorious death. The tool is now a talisman. \$\endgroup\$
    – Alan Peery
    Commented Mar 4, 2021 at 16:40

PCs are not supposed to die in a single encounter

Good players know that they've messed up if they are forced to spend more resources than expected to finish an encounter. This is because the DM has ultimate authority over when the party gets to refill their resources, so good play involves preserving resources against the possibility of something unexpected occurring.

The chances of actually dying are reserved for later in the day if the party has not obtained enough value from the resources they have expended within the limits imposed by the DM. For example, if there are five encounters planned for the day, and the party is running low on resources after obliterating the first three fights with all their spells, the fourth fight will be hard and the fifth might be impossible.

That's not to say you should force your players into fights all the time, but by my estimate, if your players decide that they cannot continue without dying, there is a very real threat of death. A lot of the survival spells (shield, resist elements, healing word) burn resources quickly to stay alive. This is intended by the creators to cost the players without killing them.

Healing is over-rated

While it's useful for a party to have these spells just in case, most power gamers have a little less respect for healing spells than you might assume. They are what you are forced to cast when your party makes big mistakes or your DM is being brutal. You can prevent a lot more damage than a healing spell will heal by picking the right option in the right circumstance. For example, shield is also a first-level spell with the same action economy as healing word, but can potentially prevent over a hundred damage. Healing spells are good, but they are the floor for how effective your resources can be. Clerics are often considered better damage dealers than they are healers, and wizards are often considered better at keeping your party alive (not including those new busted cleric classes twilight and peace).

You are a god with control over the entire world

Let the players control their characters, but you control... everything else. The only limitations are those you set yourself. Search on youtube for those videos about making goblin/kobold encounters dangerous for ideas (although they tend to go overboard). Have an enemy throw a fireball at the party and see if they're still feeling like there's no chance they'll die.

But nobody has fun when you kill players without giving them a chance

By straining player resources over multiple encounters it means that if the players die, it's a predictable consequence of their own actions. Not because the DM didn't like them and decided to target them while on the ground or because a monster was way overstatted. I like a challenging game but I consider every PK a personal failure. The game needs to be fun, and the challenge you provide should facilitate what your players are looking for in the game.


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