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I'm a brand-new DM (haven't had my first session yet but it is approaching) so I'm reading up about all DMing-related topics. I'm about to play Pathfinder.

My question is about PCs having a risk of death in non-combat scenarios; for example, jumping between two very large buildings or across a crevice. If they fail the jump, they cling on to the ledge, and roll to climb up. Failing again has them fall to their death.

Does this risk add a little excitement to these situations or does it just lead to frustrating and unavoidable deaths that discourage players?

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closed as primarily opinion-based by Miniman, DuckTapeAl, KRyan, Maximillian, mxyzplk May 1 '15 at 16:06

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Hmm, this seems like it'd depend heavily on the preferences and playstyle of the table - so I guess a good answer would have to address a variety of different playstyles (possibly with reference to the same-page tool). \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe May 1 '15 at 4:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ Did you talk with your players about their preferences? One player might think it is amazingly fun that one wrong step could end up in a bloody stain on the floor, while others would much rather not bother with any non-combat-danger at all. \$\endgroup\$ – Theik May 1 '15 at 8:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ Hello and welcome. The problem with questions like this is that they just pull personal opinions on how people like to do it, which may not be relevant to your group and their playstyle. Rather than "is it better" you could ask "what are the pros/cons/effects in play of doing X" or "given a good bit more detail on my group and its playstyle, would this be effective"... \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk May 1 '15 at 16:08
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One of the most important things for a DM to remember is to make failure interesting. Your players (and you) are there to have fun. Dying because you had a couple bad rolls isn't fun, it's just frustrating. And as you suggest, it's likely to discourage players.

That said, that doesn't mean that there should never be a risk of failure in your game. If there's no chance of failure, that's boring! Getting failure right is all about how the failure affects the entire party. So perhaps instead of the PC falling to their death, they fall into a deep pit, where they take some significant but non-crippling amount of damage upon landing - and are then confronted by something hungry in the darkness. That's interesting, because now the entire group has to make some choices: should the fallen PC try to climb back up before she's eaten, perhaps with assistance from the others? Should the others purposefully jump down to help her? Can they provide assistance against the grue from above, without getting themselves trapped? Or perhaps there's no grue, but the time it takes to extract the fallen PC from the pit means they don't reach the Dread Altar before the Necromancer finishes her Dire Ritual of Destruction. Etc. You can even use it as a chance to reward the players if they do something interesting after the failure: perhaps they find the body of another adventurer who also fell into the pit, who still has some useful gear; or they find a back door into the dungeon. Whatever keeps things exciting!

Basically, try to never kill a player just because they had two unlucky dice rolls. (Obviously there's some situations where that might still be appropriate, such as sudden-death dungeons like the Tomb of Horrors, or failing death saving throws in D&D 4e, but in most such situations the other PCs also have a chance to intervene before the unlucky rolls kill the character.) Instead, look for ways to make failure interesting by throwing additional challenges at the players, and reward them if they figure out a way to turn the failure into an advantage.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Alas, I can only up-vote once. This is some of the best advice I've ever read, doubly so for its clarity and concision. \$\endgroup\$ – minnmass May 1 '15 at 4:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ @minnmass you can award a bounty for it if you want to give more rep \$\endgroup\$ – Wibbs May 1 '15 at 6:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ Hmm, this is good advice for some play styles, but not all - It might be considered inappropriate in a pure sandbox, for instance. Could it perhaps be expanded? \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe May 1 '15 at 7:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ @GMJoe sandbox is absoutely compatible with this play style, instead. \$\endgroup\$ – o0'. May 1 '15 at 13:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ At a guess (and, pardon me if I'm wrong), I think the term might be closer to status quo than pure sandbox. Failing forward (and here) is off-putting for some players because the DM adjusts the universe based on players' actions rather than letting the players experience the universe as if it were otherwise extant. That is, in your example, had the PC not fallen into the pit, there wouldn't've been a body with gear in the pit, but a status quo campaign predetermines the pit's contents. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan May 1 '15 at 17:37
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Really it depends upon the style of game you are running and what sort of consequences you are looking for. In a game with high character mortality then it might be acceptable to kill characters because they fell into a trap. In other games though even a complete Total Party Kill against the big bad would have the GM find a way to keep them alive (taken prisoner perhaps).

Personally I play somewhere in the middle, where risks are real but clear. Something like a trap I would have weaken the players. It would cost them some resources, lose a few hp or some healing spells, but would be unlikely to kill them outright.

The key thing here is player agency. Risks are good, in fact I think they are essential for an exciting game, but they need to be ones the players choose to take:

Example 1:

DM: You see your goal in the cave beyond, there's a 20' chasm descending into the depths below crossing the room.

Rogue: I jump the chasm!

DM: It's a long jump and deep, you realize that if you fail you will most likely die. Do you still go for it?

By giving that clear warning that if you want to do this you are staking the future of your character on the roll of the dice that leaves it over to the player to decide whether to take that risk or not.

Example 2:

DM: You're walking along the mountain ledge when suddenly it starts to give way. Make a DC20 acrobatics roll or fall to your death.

The first one is fair, the second one is arbitrary and unfair.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Be mindful of the style of game you're trying to run, make sure your players understand the situation, and separate poor decision making from poor luck, all definitely very good pieces of advice. However, I feel that if you interrupt every poor decision, you risk coddling your players. At some point, you have to draw the line and let the player (or the party) either take ownership and think ahead / ask questions, or suffer the consequences of not asking how wide the chasm is before jumping. \$\endgroup\$ – Alec Gilliland May 1 '15 at 16:02

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