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While I have experience DM'ing 3.5e, I have far less experience in pathfinder and have not yet GM'd a PFS game. I'm currently preparing to run the Rise of the Runelord's first module (Thistletop) from the anniversary edition. Prepping it, I've noticed a couple areas which seem very deadly, including one spot where the least armored character is lured into a trap and one trap which basically sticks a PC into a supersized magical blender. It also doesn't scale down with smaller party size and has a nasty CL 7 optional encounter that could hurt.

When I DM'd my own games, the risk of killing players was balanced out by my ability to incorporate on-the-fly ways of bringing them back into the storyline, like maybe a quest or two for a cleric to earn a resurrection if they were too poor to afford it. But in PFS I can't change the modules like that, and especially at the 3 to 4 level, resurrection is out of the price range but there is still about a dozen games invested into the characters. Death in this module is effectively permanent.

My biggest worry is that my lack of experience could result in a player-character kill that otherwise wouldn't happen, and I don't want to be responsible for the loss of a character during my first PFS game as GM. So what is the best way to avoid killing PCs?

Options I've thought up so far (which I think are PFS legal):

  1. Suggest players play pregens applied to new characters. If the pregen's die, the new character is effectively tossed, but there is no loss outside of the time spent playing the module.

  2. Run with a larger table. Basically not running it if there are only 4 PCs. Maybe not even if there are only 5. Stick with the max of 6 for best chance of surviving.

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Since modules don't scale at all, your best bet would be to run the mod with a large table, with as many of the characters as you can manage at the top end of the level range. Most modules have a 3-level range for PFS, so try encouraging players to be at the top of that range. Also, try and encourage players to play a group of characters that work together - not having sufficient healers or healing resources, or a good mix of other classes, is just as likely to doom them.

Apart from that, it's really not up to you as a GM to keep them alive, as such. Your job is to challenge them as hard as you can. In PFS especially, if they die, there are ways to fix the condition that just cost resources, even in the event of a TPK (i.e. Prestige Points and/or gold). A Raise Dead, for instance, is a minimum of about 16PP - successful characters can have that by level 3.

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(1) insist you know exactly how much HP each of the characters has, and keep track of it, if you are ever unsure write what you think their HP on a piece of paper and quickly ask "is that your HP right now". Generally, players aren't allowed to give an actual number to other players about what their HP is. On top of that, calculate the maximum damage of each enemy's attack so you know if the next hit may be enough to kill them.

(2) when you know how close your PCs are to death also realise that your enemies don't have to fight to the death, especially in early low level encounters they may give up after 1 or 2 of their confederates goes down or at simply badly hurt. So if you think the fight is getting too close have one of the bandits turn tail and run, that could logically trigger a chain reaction of the other Bandits running as well. At the very least they may retreat to a consolidated defensive position. This has consequences, when one runs away then the others will be warned.

3) Suggest some means of effective healing in between battles. If you don't have a cleric, allow a Wizard to take Infernal Healing and suggest a day scribing as many as they can. It can be too tough to barely make it through a tough combat only to have so little HP in the next fight that you start losing players in single hits.

4) Allow your GM controlled mobs to make errors and be inefficient. You as a GM may know all about feats like Cleave, but they don't necessarily know. So they may deliberately bunch up adjacent to allow cleave attacks. Have them do reckless things like trying to jump gaps and falling short, have them even do crazy things like throw their spear, their only weapon, in what they think is a brilliant tactical move. Many animals may waste a whole round just growling or barking, have this be them making an intimidate check.

5) Brainstorm solutions from both perspectives and have the defending team neglect those but actually allow those failures. For your players, leave some clue to what you think are solutions, it's not enough that there be "a way" to get out, there has to be clue that they can deduce. Think how someone else may have escaped the magical blender and have some clue as to how they got out.

6) to reduce the costs of death, have as part of each player's backstory establish an important character who will take their place were they to perish, ideally indicating the replacement class. So you can come right in with a sort of Lando Calrisian sort of character who will take up the gauntlet and may actually be MORE motivated by the character's loss rather than detached from the story as a late comer. They could be brothers, they could be old army buddies, they could be ex-lovers, the point is they can get right in as soon as they get news of the loss of the PC. Hell, they can even pick up all their gear.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ 2, 3, and 6 are pretty much not allowed in pathfinder society. \$\endgroup\$ – Lawtonfogle Feb 9 '16 at 15:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Lawtonfogle Agreed. In regards to #2, most NPC enemies have instructions for what they do before and during combat, and their morale, which usually determines how hard they fight (at least in the season scenarios). For example, zombies usually have the text in Morale: "The zombies fight until destroyed." In PFS, DMs should be following these blocks of text so that enemies act consistently across all sessions of that scenario. \$\endgroup\$ – SocioMatt Aug 8 '17 at 15:32

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