There are some play-styles of D&D in which the spectre of player-character death is considered a feature of the game rather than a bug. For my own reasons (which aren't the point of the question), I see them as a feature especially in exploration-focused games (e.g., sandboxes, old-school dungeon-crawling) where there are lots of ways for players to arm themselves with enough information to make informed decisions about the dangers they're willing to tackle.

Even with players that play strategically, seeking that intel and using it to pick their battles strategically, it is still on the DM's shoulders to provide good clues and tell-tales during play. How well the DM does this will significantly impact the players' ability to make informed decisions on where to go, how to prepare, what to fight, and what to avoid. If the players don't catch the clues, it should be because they weren't paying attention or didn't put 2 and 2 together, not because the DM's descriptions suck.

What techniques can the DM use to effectively telegraph to the players the existence and/or nature of the dangers they face?

These assumptions are inherent in the question:

  • The players are already playing strategically, and don't need to be "trained" in this play-style.
  • Senseless, random PC death is a real possibility, not just threat to set the tone of the game or generate fearfulness in the players.
  • Characters almost always die when players put them in dangerous situations they're not prepared to deal with.
  • Characters might live when players are observant, know what dangers to expect, are well-prepared, and don't take on dangers that are beyond their ability—and even then, the dice have to go in their favour. Knowledge is the edge they need to bend the odds in their favour.
  • The players don't necessarily have access to stat blocks or other, out-of-game information on in-game dangers.
  • Players are relying on the DM's descriptions to understand the world, including its dangers and rewards.

(This isn't an invitation to argue whether an exploration, frequent-PC-death play-style is good or not. That's just background to the question.)

Related: How can I make my PCs flee?


13 Answers 13


The single-most overlooked, in my experience, is evidence of deaths.

It's a dragon? What's it been eating? Few creatures actually eat EVERYTHING, so what's left by the dragon? Oh, there's an owlbear's beak and claws... there's mangled bits of what used to be +5 plate... (see those runes, there, there and there?) A broken longsword. Dead mind flayers.

And don't forget the massive piles of poo.

Also overlooked: Tracks for Numbers and size! Sure, it's a dragon lair. But its a lot different when the dragon's "wheelbase" is 20x5 vs 80x20...

And don't pull any punches at low-levels. If you're going the route of the "killer GM," go ahead and use that medusa as the boss of dungeon level 1. Served by myconids... (Plants are immune to Medusae gaze). And all kinds of statues... birds fallen from the sky... small critters, big critters... "Hey, isn't that Fred the town Bully? So that's what happened to him... hey, there's my missing purse!"

  • 54
    \$\begingroup\$ Right on. I did this once with a dead, chewed-on drow discovered in an above-ground city ruin. For 1st-level characters, the presence of drow on the surface worried them, and then whatever killed this one worried them more. I'd forgotten about that! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 18, 2010 at 4:37

Use Your Words

I think it begins at the campaign level - nowadays, with many campaigns/GMs being of the "Oh no, not character death, that would be unspeakable" ilk, you need to come out up front and tell people clearly that "this campaign is an easy-death campaign - encounters will NOT be scaled to your level and it will be up to you to determine what challenges you can pull off without snuffing it - I will TPK you without mercy if it comes to that. Don't be afraid to run." Just so the expectation is clearly set.

Show, Don't Tell

Then kill somebody. (A character, not a player, natch.) Might as well get it out of the way at level 1 where rerolling a character isn't too traumatic. Give them some kind of foreshadowing - locals in the inn saying "That guy's said to have killed thirty men" - then set it up to be likely that they'll give him static (just being in the same inn is probably enough) and have him frickin murder someone. Chase the rest of them out of town. "Threat of adversity" is bullcrap. Only real adversity creates behavior change.

(You could cheat a little bit by talking to one player and having them secretly be your murder-guinea pig... But then you both have a secret to keep forever.)

Show and Tell and Written Reports...

After that, in terms of telegraphing specific threats, there's a number of ways.

  1. Word of mouth. Locals warn you away from, celebrate the deeds of, shutter their windows at night in fear of, etc. the more badass things in their world. "Our lumberjacks fought them off but took some losses, can you go wipe them out?" is a manageable risk for a low level party, "Our lumberjacks went into the forest and were never heard from again, but a scout went in and found thirty skulls strung from the trees!" is not. Eyewitness reports are a stronger version of this.

  2. Environmental. The location where something like a bad monster operates doesn't show no sign of them. Just like someone who knows the wilderness from a hole in the ground can tell if they are in bear or wolf country, a PC should be able to discover "Uh, looks like owlbear hunting grounds" from spoor, tree scratches, tracks, wildlife behavior, etc. "Hmm those scratch marks on the trees are like 20 feet up. Don't want to meet whatever's doing that!" Or, at the higher end of the power curve, dead chewn armies.

  3. Skills. All those lovely knowledge skills in D&D 3.X help PCs identify critters and understand their general power level. "Hey, that ghosty thing over there - I think that's way out of our league." "See this slime? Left by a grey ooze; very nasty." If the characters don't use the skills, suggest it (Kill more of them if they don't take the hint. Somehow another character always shows up! They're a renewable resource.).

  4. Seeing it. Now, it can be hard to set up a no-risk opportunity for PCs to see the enemy in action without trying to mob him, unless it's like a civilized place and their enemy's a person type. "That guy challenged him to a duel and he turned him to stone and just laughed!" But let's say it's a big monster and the duke sends 20 men at arms with you, and the monster just tears through them, giving the PCs an opportunity to skedaddle.

  5. Historical treatises. Like word of mouth, but for moldy oldies. "Caused the end of a civilization" means "do not attempt under level 10".

Use Your Words Part II

And then you just have to be careful to have a way to describe the threats that can be decoded by the PCs. "Well sure whatever it was scared farmers, but they're level zero punks, it's probably just goblins." Or if you describe something that ended a civilization and it's CR5. This does affect a number of published adventures; I remember one where an ancient red dragon wanted to hire us level 1 characters to get her eggs back. "You must not want them very much!" was my thought.

It's common in published adventures (and novice DMs) to mis-describe low level threats as super badass and dangerous looking and similarly underplay hardcore things (see How can I tell how powerful an NPC is without being explicitly told? for an example). Now some things are deliberately hidden, and you want to tune your descriptions (a lot of things look dangerous to low level people, not so much for high level) but try to be fair in the amount of menace you convey so that the players trust your descriptions and their senses of the world.

  • 8
    \$\begingroup\$ +1 I like this answer the best, because it is structured. Like linux philosophy preaches, one can read the five bullet points and use them as ideas; but one can also read the whole post and get more insight. \$\endgroup\$
    – Vorac
    Commented Jul 31, 2012 at 9:07
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ '"Threat of adversity" is bullcrap. Only real adversity creates behavior change.' That is one powerful observation of human behavior right there. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 1, 2017 at 17:13
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Can I literally copy and paste this sentence as my disclaimer for CoS? "this campaign is an easy-death campaign - encounters will NOT be scaled to your level and it will be up to you to determine what challenges you can pull off without snuffing it - I will TPK you without mercy if it comes to that. Don't be afraid to run." \$\endgroup\$
    – HellSaint
    Commented Jun 25, 2020 at 3:58

If you want to signal danger, aside from some of the excellent suggestions above (particularly those of aramis), there's a few other techniques you can use.

First, there's the "red-shirt" approach. Kill an NPC. The more horrible the danger, the closer the NPC should be to the PCs. This technique, of course, only works if you've got players who actually play out their characters caring for anything other than themselves, but if you've got such a crowd, go for it. Just don't take it to the farcical levels of Star Trek....

Upping the ante, maim the NPCs instead – particularly NPCs that the PCs care about. A death is unpleasant, but gone from sight for the most part rather quickly. A maiming is just as unpleasant and is in the face for a longer spell. (Indeed the maiming could itself be a source of quests.)

Upping the ante still further, maim a PC. This can really upset the players, though, so be careful what you do and who you do it to.

Even higher up the annoyance scale is making PCs lose prized possessions. (Yes, IME, most players are more annoyed at their PC losing possessions than limbs. I can't figure it either.)

All of the above needs to be applied in a way that signals the nature and source of the danger, of course, but doing that they're all fail-safe ways to signal danger without falling into the trap. What is that trap? Killing the PCs. PCs being killed as a "signal" is widely viewed (whether you think it "right" or not) as a "killer GM" move. Depending on the complexity involved in making characters or the attachment to characters typical for your players it may even be seen as a dick move. Killing PCs is fine in perceived-fair conflict as the result of player choices and actions (or bad luck), but doing it as a "signal" of how bad the big baddie really is can backfire spectacularly.

... Unless ...

If you can get a player to volunteer to be killed as the signal (on the sly without the other players' knowledge), this can be highly effective. It's rare to find a player willing to do this, again, IME.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Great comment on not killing PCs as a signal of danger. That would definitely defeat the purpose in this sort of game! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 19, 2010 at 15:26

An underused approach is applying character expertise.

When I GM, I give different information based on who's doing the asking and what they can see/observe.

The fighters can make better judgments of how strong something is, and how well organized a group is in combat. The wizards can estimate levels of magic being thrown and whether something probably has magic resistance. The rogue always sees areas that are potentially good for ambush (against the party, or to be used BY the party). etc.

If people have taken knowledge type skills, I give a lot more raw info before the dice even get rolled.

One thing that frustrated me in a campaign I played years ago was that the GM would describe things literally - "A large wooden device, wheel shaped attached to the building" which anyone would know as a water wheel, but instead he would describe things this way. It meant that we'd often end up misinterpreting things as more or less dangerous than they were, because obvious character knowledge would have made it clear.

Even unclear things can be put through this lens: "This thing is either a trap or some kind of specialized mechanical set up. You're not sure which. Probably safer to leave it alone or get someone who really knows engineering to look at it."

The other thing is certain character types should KNOW what to look out for in certain areas:

"As a ranger, you know these hills have owlbears, displacer beasts, and giant hawks. You saw a very old set of owlbear droppings, but you should keep your eyes out for more signs. Avoid very large trees, and rocky outcroppings if you can."

These kinds of expert forewarnings allow players to make better decisions and helps reward them for the character choices they have made.


In order for players to be able to accurately assess danger, they must be able to gather intelligence. The presence or absence of players intelligence gathering activities should directly inform their chances at success, not through any mechanistic way, but through providing for planning and strategy.

The trick here is that the GM must be willing to release many of the ideas of the traditional adventure. A good party, with good intel, will perform ambushes, try to sneak past or distract danger, and otherwise confound the plots of the enemies. This can be incredibly frustrating to a GM who just spent 5 hours creating an elaborate series of encounters.

In many ways, the way to accurately telegraph danger is to provide the ability to accurately gather intelligence and to demonstrate that it's possible with NPCs.

Intelligence is comprised of trying to assess two factors: capability and intent. Capability is the form of "they are able to field 3 armies, trained to such and such specifications." In a fantasy game, it would be "This monster as a petrification attack that has destroyed X and Y notable heroes"

Intent is less relevant to assessing danger beyond the obvious "will they attack us?"

One interesting document is here (google cache) looking at the US Army's Humint practices.

Beyond humint, and in order to have an accurate idea of the threat of a monster, players must be given sufficient information to reconstruct recent battles between the threat and opposition. With sufficient tracking, they'll be able to create a hierarchy of threats that, eventually, will correlate with something that they fought.

Example Gratia: Players are investigating a complex swamp, before entering into the temple. They've fought the Swamp Goblins on the outskirts and defeated a large group easily, having a little bit of trouble with the swamp goblin shaman.

Investigating suggests that a huge python has been preying on the swamp goblins and that, from the actions of the sentry, they never heard it approach. (This suggests danger by showing that the python one-hit-killed a goblin and the means by which it did so.)

Another battlefield shows that the shaman easily dispatched a group of swamp bugs.

A third area shows that the shaman physically kneeled (and maybe trembled in fear) before a pair of large scaly feet, monster type unknown.)

And so on and so forth. By having players able to look at the history of an area through tracking or word of mouth, they'll be able to discover the correlation of forces and create a threat hierarchy.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This presumes a player party made up of people with an old school gamer mind set. I like it, but with the generational change and the non trivial influence of video games on expectations, this kind of approach has to be taught and trained, and encouraged. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 3:00

Maintain a consistent world and let players worry about getting the information

Many of the dangerous threats are automatically hinted at - you only need to consider what kind of impact does the creature or trap have on its environments. For example, if most dungeons are inhabited by wild animals or goblin tribes, then the one that is completely empty must be somehow special. Large predators create signs of their presence. People are likely to know or have rumours about local threats, and might know legends about slumbering threats.

Finding the unobvious information is part of the game. If players choose to stumble around blindly, then they get what they deserve. If, on the other hand, they devise a plan of gathering information, then you referee as usual. How likely is their plan to provide information? What can it reveal? Decide, roll some dice as necessary, and communicate the results to the players.


This is gonna be a very short answer: use The Witcher's style.

I was dealing with a similar problem, and The Witcher 3 helped me solve it. Especially the Monster's contract quests Use corpses, smells, markings, sounds, the vague descriptions of the witnesses, and this is important, give them a monster Pokédex. One that is incomplete and sometimes wrong; one they can keep completing with additional info as they find it. With notes and warnings of previous players. That also creates a feel of legacy knowledge. And gives some knowledge to use as contrast, so they get the feeling that not everything is new or old. Sometimes it is, sometimes it is not.

They need to stay in a good balance of familiarity and surprise. That creates fear, suspense, thrill and huge satisfaction when you overcome it, because it feels earned.

Also see Monster hunter

PS: Maybe it feels like I focus too much on monsters but it is just for clarity of the answers, the same principles may be (very interestingly) applied to in-game politics, the exploration and discovery of uncharted magic and spells, traps, etc... :)


Something that may need to be considered by the GM is how the group approaches the role-playing aspect. The brawny and low-intelligent fighter-type may run headlong into danger no matter what while the rest of the party wants to have some sort of "plan of attack". While I am personally not of the opinion that a GM should hold back anything if the party does something really stupid, there are times when it is necessary to create an idea of the danger involved by having them learn by experience (ie. near-death experiences rather than character death).

I have always been of the belief that the PCs should not only learn in their specific areas of specialized knowledge, but they should learn by experience how to handle certain situations. That fighter-type that runs headlong into danger and comes face-to-face with an enemy that can easily destroy him may be so badly hurt that the party has to negotiate his release from the enemy in the hopes that he has learned something so that they can come back at a later time to defeat said enemy.

It has been mentioned above about characters not having access to stat blocks and such, which is highly reasonable unless they have specifically done research about a particular enemy. Even in that scenario, there is always the possibilty of a "exceptional" enemy that doesn't fit the mold of their studies. Again, another learning experience. That seems to be a problem with many low-level groups and encounters..."Oh, a group of goblins. We can handle that." It should get trickier as the party gains levels, even if they're?running into another group of goblins..."Oh, a group of goblins? We can handle that...wait, did that goblin just cast a fireba...?" [searing pain]

Word of mouth, local legends (about the same thing), presonal experience, and ancient tomes are my favorite ways of telegraphing danger, but there are others that are just as effective, if not more.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks. I'll give a +1 for the last paragraph, but I do have to say that the rest isn't a good answer to this question: ways to teach players that the world is dangerous is a different question than what techniques I can use to convey the specific dangers of their current situation or region. (In my current game, the teaching technique is straightforward and is working fine: no dice fudging, and let them experience character death if that's what their choices lead to.) \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 2, 2012 at 21:07

If the players have any intelligence 2 stuff around, this can be an excellent way to communicate danger, whilst keeping some of the mystery. Force a ride check on anyone on a horse as they try to bolt. Have riding dogs sniff the air and whimper, or animal companions growl/snarl/trumpet a warning. The success of this sort of low level information can depend on your players "well, the DM wouldn't put us in a fight we can't handle, so I say we walk into the ambush with a readied action to kill anything that moves", but a cautious group may send in their rogue/animal companion/familiar/summon monster I/whatever to gain infromation and form a plan.

Pretty much any of the int, wis or cha based skills, knowledge or survival as the most detailed option or just a spot/search/listen otherwise, gather information etc.

If you want to introduce something that the answer should definitely be flee (and maybe fight another day), simply have it appear a long way away and do something particularly impressive. Use a high level spell or 1 hit KO something they know is powerful.


"it is still on the DM's shoulders to provide good clues and tell-tales during play"

Is it? Is it not rather on the DM's shoulders to provide clues that anyone could pickup on and on the players' shoulders to elicit any further clues from their actions or questions?

One method I've tried in the past for newbie players is to list details with an INT and/or WIS threshold - anyone of Int 14+ immediately realises the dead dog was killed by something big; WIS 14 notices footprints of a big cat, maybe a tiger, nearby.

But if the players are playing the way you suggest then I don't think such training wheels are really needed.

  • \$\begingroup\$ On the DM's shoulders in that they are the players' only conduit to the world, so if there's something there it's the DM gating access to the clue. I feel like this answer could be something very useful if it wasn't hung up on that point, because I agree, training wheels are not necessary in the circumstance the question is about, but there isn't anything in this post for non-training-wheels GM techniques. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 12, 2016 at 23:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ The highlighted part of this question is very interesting to me- what about asking the PCs why they are worried? "Something is twinging at your danger sense - what is it?" In a *World type game that would work great, but harder to fit into something more planned. \$\endgroup\$
    – glenatron
    Commented Nov 4, 2016 at 12:26

You can provide OOC effects for the players themselves, playing music (maybe, for observant players, dimming the lights, but be careful that everyone can still see). You could also provide in-game omens, such as dead crows, or a murder of them (the crows, that is).

Maybe try watching some horror movies (IT, Alien, the Silence of the Lambs, etc) or reading some horror books (Dracula, Call of Cthulhu (yes, this is a book too. It originated as a book.), Frankenstein, etc). Analysing things like Alien is always worthwhile (note the cupboard falling over when the face-sucker has disappeared is probably the scariest part (in my opinion, anyway), so try to provide false surprises to keep your players guessing whether there is actually something there).

Don't overuse things: a giant mistake that so many DMs make (even I am not unblameable) is overusing techniques. Don't. Only use the same technique ~2 times per ~3 hours (roughly my session length), and then don't use it again for at least the next session, preferably the next two.

Even just 'tingling in spine' techniques work, but they can sometimes be cumbersome and seldom give the intended effect.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I think this more points toward creating a horror or unsettling atmosphere, less toward just providing reliable information for sandbox decision-making. I can see using OOC cues, just not these ones or for these reasons. :) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 1, 2017 at 16:02

Intimidating Monster (IM) displays of power

  • Overpower (fire with fire): IM defeats a creature with an attack that targets the creature's strength directly: (immolating a fire elemental and managing to reduce a creature of pure flame to ashes; rotting a vampire where it stands; stabbing a mundane dagger directly through someone's full plate breastplate).

  • Beneath notice: IM shows abject disdain for the party, i.e. the
    dragon sees the party, snorts, and curls up to take a nap (having
    already eaten a flock of sheep). May also apply to the items of
    slain foes
    , i.e. bending/breaking a +2 magical weapon and leaving it on the ground, or a legible-but-unusable high level spell scroll
    because it's worthless considering the IM's power.

  • Coddling/Contempt: The adventurers arrive on the IM's doorstep. IM
    steps out and tells the party to go away, because he prefers for
    food/fight to pose an actual challenge.

  • Unnecessary Display of Power: After winning a duel in a fair fight, or at a disadvantage, IM utterly obliterates the remains of the loser (channeling the ending scenes of Dune where Muad'Dib wins a knife-fight at a disadvantage, then bursts his dead opponent's body with a word, because he can)

  • "We didn't even make it to the welcome mat": Making trash encounters nearly lethal (traps, random encounters) before meeting anything substantial

  • "Not worth my time": IM puts the party to sleep, covers them in webs and they wake up to a bunch of spiders crawling all over them (a much less lethal encounter, but indicative that the party is of no threat to the IM. Also, "I needed to feed my pets today..." where the IM leaves the adventurers to a much weaker encounter (Vampire's pet Wraith which is also a deadly encounter).


One trick I've used to make them more stressed about danger is give them time limits in the real world, similar to using a Game Clock in chess.

So for example:

  • Give them only 60 seconds to resolve their turn in combat
    • all of a sudden when you pass through an opponents' space it's a big deal; can you afford to lose 10 of your seconds resolving an attack of opportunity?
  • Tell them that in 10 minutes of play time - irrelevant of combat rounds - some major game-changer happens. (the dragon wakes up; the sorcerer finishes summoning the biggest nastiest demon)

This is great for players who tend to suffer from Analysis Paralysis.

Bear in mind, a player can still think through what they want to do while other player's have their turn, but once it's your turn the heat's on...

  • \$\begingroup\$ This is less helpful when you consider the edit, but depending on the group you could still end up with solid strategic play. \$\endgroup\$
    – LeguRi
    Commented Oct 17, 2010 at 23:39

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