Well guys, I've noticed that I have a tendency to hold back too much with my players.

All of them have been playing for long, however they're used to linear plot style campaigns, and besides the fact we're all close friends (and the only roleplaying group of the city, we're not from USA and according to WOTC searcher the closest groups are nearly 5 hours away from me), they really love the way I write my plots. It makes me happy to have them sit down after sessions, and order a pizza JUST so they can have a Q&A session with me about the plot and discuss it sort of with a fan club.

However this has also made me hold back myself a lot from trying to kill the PCs, since it comes a point where they grow too atached, and because I really make them feel indispensable to the story from the very begginig, to the point where they just stare silently to the map or look like about to get away running and screaming if a PC screws it up. Really, once our druid was about to die, she got up of the table, laughed nervously and ran away, and then fell to the floor...

So, even tho I've prepared deathly encounters with traps and evil monsters, I always end up giving them enough HP to die in 1-2 rounds and I erase from my mind those monsters can eat souls or make heads explode...

So, I'm always afraid of killing, hurting or making the heroes have a hard time, and that really kills my enjoyment as a GM.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you exhausted the reasons why creatures might use nonlethal force? \$\endgroup\$ Jul 20, 2014 at 15:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think you basically are looking to decide between alternatives to death (see rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/34585/…) and doing death well (see rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/19189/…). So I think this is an effective duplicate? \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Jul 20, 2014 at 18:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ GM a few games of Paranoia. If you don't get a TPK or two in that game, you're doing it wrong. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mark
    Jul 20, 2014 at 20:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ Actually I'm going to put this on hold. See my previous comment. Are you asking "How do I use alternatives to character death," "How do I have character death but respect my players' time and investment," or some third thing? This and your other questions focus too much on your emotion - "I am afraid" or "I don't like," which are basically personal problems, with what we might be able to help you with about your game. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Jul 21, 2014 at 4:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ His question is how does he remove his fear of killing characters so that he can unleash the monsters, as the body of the question states. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMNoob
    Jul 21, 2014 at 5:10

3 Answers 3


I think the more important question here is why do you want to be more okay with PC death? When Gary Gygax ran his games back in the day, he was the original Killer GM. Everything in those old dungeons has a save-or-die effect, and that was rolled into how the players approached the game (ie, with backup characters and not a huge amount of attachment to individual PCs).

But how you handle character death in your campaign is really a social contract between you and your players. If your players are not excited about the idea of dying all the time, why make them? I know you're playing 5e, but the Fate Core rulebook has some really good system-agnostic advice on character death

Most of the time, sudden character death is a pretty boring outcome when compared to putting the character through hell. On top of that, all the story threads that character was connected to just kind of stall with no resolution, and you have to expend a bunch of effort and time figuring out how to get a new character into play mid-stride.

That doesn't mean there's no room for character death in the game, however. We just recommend that you save that possibility for conflicts that are extremely pivotal, dramatic, and meaningful for the character -- in other words, conflicts in which the character would knowingly and willingly risk dying in order to win. Players and GMs, if you've got the feeling that you're in that kind of conflict, talk it out when you're setting the scene and see how people feel.

Basically, character death should always be a major event, that leaves the player feeling like it was worth it.

An example from one of my games:

For a year or two, I ran what appeared to be an extremely deadly campaign. The characters were always facing things a couple CRs too high, and barely escaped most encounters with their lives. But over the course of that campaign, only one character actually died. His name was Rimble, and he was a ranger.

Earlier in the session, Rimble had been humiliated by a rival ranger who'd gotten the jump on him. From that point on, he was actively looking for a way to redeem himself. The climax of the session was a battle in a secret thieves-guild hideout with a giant were-rat trying to smash his way into the room from below. The rat had made a big hole in the middle of the floor, and the rest of the party were wisely moving their fights away from the hole.

But not Rimble. No, not Rimble.

"NOW'S MY CHANCE," he screamed, and charged towards the hole in the floor, to leap at the rat.

Now, I knew he was going to die if he faced the rat head on. Its CR was so high that it was more of a level hazard than an actual opponent. But I wasn't sure he knew. So I asked him,

"Are you sure you want to do this?"

"Oh HELL yes," said Rimble's player. But I still wasn't satisfied. I told him that in order to get to the were-rat, he first had to jump across the fire pit in the center of the room. He rolled the check, and got a natural one, pitching headfirst into the fire. I figured that would be the end of it.

But next round, Rimble picked himself up, brushed the embers off of is face, and screamed


Then he leapt through the hole in the floor and onto the were-rat's face, wielding his mundane shortsword. He died that round. Everyone was in fits of laughter, overcome by Rimble's valor and stupidity. A few rounds later they found silver weapons, and were able to chase the rat off with a deluge of colloidal silver, which beautifully outlined Rimble's shattered corpse where it still clung to the rat's face. There were a lot of memorable moments in that campaign, but that was probably the best.

And the important bit was, Rimble's player was just as happy as everyone else. At the end of the day, no matter what system you're running, you're collaboratively telling a story with your players. You're not playing against them. Even a killer GM is a killer GM because that's what the players signed up for.

So basically, the best way to conquer your fear of character death is to make sure that your PCs are ready to die.

But if you still want to get deadly with it...

That said, if you're not having a good time because you don't feel like your games are deadly enough, but you don't want to piss off your players, the best advice I can give is to get a better feel for how close you can come to killing your party, without actually killing them. While not everyone enjoys losing their characters, everyone will fondly remember a scenario where their character almost died.

This is what the unconscious/unstable rules are designed for. Unless your monsters are dealing massive damage, once a character drops to negative HP and becomes unconscious, they've still got a pretty good chance of surviving, due to death saving throws (without help from anyone else in the party, the quickest they can possibly die is in three rounds). These saving throws are generally pretty tense moments for the players, and usually make for a memorable session.

If your players aren't interested in losing their characters all the time, you're never going to be able to escape pulling your punches altogether. For example, you probably shouldn't include save-or-die effects in your game, or abilities that you know have a high probability of killing characters without giving them a chance to react. But it sounds like you can probably go a bit harder than you are currently. Provided you are putting them up against level-appropriate challenges, the system will actually be surprisingly forgiving.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @GMNoob I'm challenging the frame of the question. Even in DnD, the players don't live and die solely at the whim of the dice. In modern version of DnD, player death is a lot rarer than in earlier versions because players have discovered that save-or-die isn't really very fun. And ultimately, we're talking about maximizing fun. But that is a fair point. I'll add something that I think addresses what you're saying. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tack
    Jul 20, 2014 at 18:23

Option 1: Be inspired by Fate points.

There is a mechanism in wfrpg called fate points which I have drawn inspiration from. A fate point basically says you were about to die but some twist of fate and luck kept you alive.

I would use this concept to allow your monsters to rip people to shreds, but then use some plot element to save them from actual death or complete death. Another way is to have the soul be so strong that the body is left with 1 hit point. With the death saving throw mechanic you should be able to suspend death for long enough for the rest of the party to kill off the monster.

Option 2: Create a quest to resurrect the dead characters

One of those plot points might be resurrection. Order of the stick had a long arc of bringing a character back to life and the ordeals the spirit had while dead. As long as you avoid a total party kill, you should be able to find a reason to bring the dead person back.

Options 3: Add character death into your plots

Another option is to craft the plot so that you can insert a prophecy where the death of a player is a potential plot point itself. When a player dies, that plot opens up.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Not a fan of 1 (personal preference, I suppose) but 2 and 3 are pretty solid advice. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 20, 2014 at 20:34

If you're playing a fantasy RPG in a world where magic exists, then death doesn't have to be permanent. There are ways to resurrect players, or travel to the land of the dead to rescue them, or even ways they could be cursed with immortality.

I play with a role-play heavy group, and in my first campaign our PCs were cursed with immortality - we would return to life 1 hour after death. The Raven Queen, the goddess of death, refused to be cheated and would claim the soul of the person closest to our character (e.g. best friend, teacher, family) in our place.

If you have a total party wipe, you can pull a Final Destination. Everyone wakes up a day or two before the events that lead to their death and gets a chance to change their fates that were shown to them in the vision of their party's annihilation.


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