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In each session, I always try to gradually crank up the tension and danger, so that the final combat encounter (assuming that it is a combat encounter) is the most difficult (read deadly). However, this means that a few PCs do get knocked unconscious, sometimes fairly early in the combat (although that will usually be due to their own bad decisions).

The players of these characters then have the unenviable prospect of sitting through most of the rest of the combat, rolling death saving throws, while everyone else has fun. The party does not have access to much in the way of healing, so once unconscious, the characters tend to stay that way. Even worse, if they get stabilised, they have even less to do, as they don't even have to roll death saving throws any more.

How can I keep these players entertained, while still ensuring that the party is in danger? (e.g. I want characters to fall unconscious if their plan fails).

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As a preliminary note, a good solution to this problem will (as usual) involve talking to your players. Ask them if they think this is even a problem, and if so, what kind. You may find that they enjoy being reckless and don't mind dealing with the consequences, even if that means inaction or even death for their characters. If so, congratulations: you're all set! But if they don't want to be unconscious and bored, read on.

You can try different things to keep them entertained, like having them run NPCs, narrate the combat to make it more epic, or take notes for posterity. If your players are flexible, that may work, and they may even enjoy the change of pace. (Though honestly, in my experience once they're stabilized it's usually a good time for a bio break to get more drinks for everyone or take care of other necessities, which should resolve the situation nicely unless it's a really long fight.)

However, most players are at the table because they want to play their characters. (Not all of them, but most of the standard motivations require being able to influence the game in some capacity, and most of those involve investment in a specific character.) If that's true, then no substitute will ultimately be as satisfying as being in there with your own character, mixing it up.

So if I could back up a bit, I would ask a different question, namely, why is this situation occurring so frequently that you have to ask?

  1. If PC's routinely get KO'd, I suspect one of three things is true: A) your PC's are low level; B) your PC's are employing bad strategies; or C) your encounters are structured in a way that causes a lot of KO's, possibly because you're using Glass Cannons (warning: TVTropes).

    A) should resolve itself pretty quickly. B) might resolve itself as your players learn better strategies, but you may need to ask if they want any pointers. If it's C), though, you can fix this by adjusting your tactics, both in building encounters and how you run them. A plan failing because "You didn't even dent her armor!" can be as spooky as one failing because they spotted you and stabbed you. (Of course, if you go too far with defensive enemies, fights can drag on forever, but sometimes people have to be defeated in a particular way that requires a little in-game research or experimentation.)

  2. More importantly: if your boss fights are deadly and/or you've successfully cultivated an atmosphere where they feel deadly, when a PC does drop your players should be scrambling to get them back up so they don't lose the advantage of numbers (not to mention, y'know, keeping them alive). You've said the party doesn't have a ton of healing, but you can influence that by pointing them towards Goodberry and other useful spells and abilities, adding an NPC, or just giving out healing potions as loot (something that's working pretty well for 2 groups I'm in with relatively little healing). If people are watching each other's backs, a PC shouldn't be down for more than a round or so.

If you take the above into consideration, I think you can probably settle into a rhythm where this isn't too much of a problem in the first place.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Great answer that addresses what most players want: To play their characters. \$\endgroup\$ – GreySage May 13 '16 at 16:49
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Give them an NPC to control until their own character can rejoin the story.

If there's an NPC ally in the scene, that'd make a lot of sense.

But more likely and perhaps even more fun, you can give the player an enemy to run in the scene! Hand them your notes for one of the NPCs and let him or her spend some time on the dark side. This lets the player continue in the scene without any down time, shakes things up a bit, and gives you a little break.

Extreme example: I ran an adventure recently where a player volunteered to have his unconscious-and-kidnapped PC get replaced by a shapeshifting villain. He ran the villain, and we had a LOT of fun with her efforts to blend into the party for a month or more of sessions before the other PCs discovered the ruse.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Be careful though, some players are not really fond of stabbing their teammates, or of being stabbed by them. You should be sure nobody tooks it bad before doing that. \$\endgroup\$ – Anne Aunyme May 13 '16 at 13:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is also great for situations when you have non-players around. Occasionally while gaming at friends' places, other roommates, other friends, or other roommates' friends would sit and observe a little. (Or show up early if planning to hang out after) I would often conscript them to play a monster in a combat and it was always tons of fun. (Though I will say this was mostly 4e which is definitely "gamier" so YMMV) \$\endgroup\$ – heathenJesus May 13 '16 at 14:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'd disagree with this answer, having a player play an NPC or an enemy ruins immersion and connection with their character. You are far better off finding ways for the disable char to become useful again (maybe tell them to bring some healing potions and ranged weapons?), or to prevent becoming disabled too often than relying on this. \$\endgroup\$ – GreySage May 13 '16 at 16:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GreySage I think "ruins" is a bit strong. Frankly, I think giving them something active to do at the table helps maintain immersion in the game as a whole. Besides, if the players are having trouble staying up because they've made poor decisions (bad tactics or not having adequate healing), that's on them. \$\endgroup\$ – T.J.L. May 13 '16 at 17:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is two answers. I want to upvote for letting the player control an allied NPC, but I want to downvote for letting them control the villain. :/ \$\endgroup\$ – acbabis May 13 '16 at 17:52
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How can I keep these players entertained, while still ensuring that the party is in danger? (e.g. I want characters to fall unconscious if their plan fails).

First off, these are not the same thing. I'll get to that after answering as asked though.

  1. Steal from Dungeon World. In DW, when a player drops they see beyond the veil of death and then roll to see whether they die or not. If they fail they die(not the part I'm advocating, DnD already handles this) however if they succeed they either are given a bargain to survive death or just come back. But either way for a second they are on the precipice of the Great Beyond. If you treat being unconscious as this you can give them little RP vignettes and even let them interact. Great time to have gods or other powerful entities that might have an interest in their capital F Fate come give prophecy or tasks ect.

    Perhaps offer bargains to stabilize or even pop back up even, or just Faustian bargains in general. You don't want it to be an overall positive thing, otherwise you incentivize dropping but benefit at cost might be good. Keep it short too so that it doesn't steal spotlight from the rest of the players. You can have them on the border till they stabilize or let them keep seeing it after. I would definitely have them feel like they are being pulled further in every time they fail though.

  2. Change unconscious to unable to take actions. They will be able to communicate, offer advice, make wis and int checks to try and help out, but can't do anything physical. This keeps them minimally involved but still makes it an undesirable thing they will try and avoid.

  3. Give them something else to do. Does your campaign have a mystery? Give them a hand out they can pour over and try to figure out. Their characters will have done this at night or during downtime, so now they are just keeping up in the real world. Is there a Queen or warlord they need to negotiate with later? Have them write the envoy message out as their character would. Think of things the players enjoy as people and try to have side tasks their characters would need to accomplish but is usually handled off screen. Try to have something similar prepared for them.

All that said I believe there are two fixes that can be made to prevent the problem from happening, provided they mesh with your play style: 1) Create a situation where players will not let fights continue with characters down. 2)Provide realistic danger outside of typical, you are out of hit points now.

  1. As SirTechSpec says, if player feel like the encounter is deadly they will scramble to get their party members back up. If they aren't it may be because they think they can finish the fight and then save their friend. Screw that. We have a saying where I fight, don't leave change on the ground. If it's easy to finish someone off, do it. Have some enemies (not all because that's both dickish and not realistic) pick off the wounded. Predators will try to drag away their food to eat it in their lair and make sure it's dead so even if they have to retreat they can come back and eat it later. Intelligent enemies will occasionally target the weak one either; to force the party to stop attacking all out, to be sure that one won't bother them again if both sides manage to survive the battle, or just out of spite, because if they are gonna go down, someone is coming with them.

    This should have two effects. The party scramble to protect and revive dropped characters or the party makes a tactical retreat protecting their friend. Both solve the problem of people being out for a while. There are other choices they can make so it is possible this will lead to a couple of PC deaths, so make sure that's cool at the table if you go this way. If you do though it should cause them to adjust tactics rather quickly.

  2. You can also provide a sense of danger unrelated to HP count. Are you utilizing the injury table? Bring that in on crits, massive damage, ect and things will seem much more dangerous. You can even utilize that instead of unconscious (a common tactic to solve this problem with Shaken being a stun lock in Savage Worlds). Are you threatening things the players find dear? When they do something stupid like charge a group of enemies and get surrounded, instead of just making them eat 8 attacks and drop, perhaps they grab dudes weapon he loves and take it. That's their's now and maybe they toss it over the cliff to taunt him. In your combats are there secondary goals? Like perhaps hostages to protect? If a PC fails to react, sorry your favorite NPC just got executed, because you tried to fight the big bag one v one and instead he just fire balled your friend.

    Danger is about things players care about being at risk. One of those things is their characters life, but it is not the only thing. Try and think of other things they enjoy and put those at risk as well. Combat will still feel dangerous but the thing that they might lose is not a few rounds of combat, it's something else they value.

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