I'm running a Pathfinder campaign, and I frequently run into trouble setting up combat encounters that "matter" (in the sense that my players aren't just skipping through a park picking daisies and chopping the heads off of Bad Guyz) but aren't near lethal every time. I hate to waste precious game time on meaningless encounters that don't offer the PCs any sort of challenge or where success is guaranteed, but it seems like I go too far in the opposite direction and nearly kill at least one of them every time. This may work for a hack and slash dungeon crawling campaign, but we're playing more of a story focused campaign, and I'd much rather not actually be killing off party members on the regular. Death, and the threat thereof, is a pretty significant thing; I'd prefer not to overuse it so as not to desensitize my players, and I don't think my players really enjoy the high lethality either.
Trouble is, I'm not sure how to make fights feel like they matter without upping their danger level to lethal levels. Damage can be healed away in a moment, and their HP bounces around from near 0 to max so often that I don't think my players really feel concerned about damage on its own. Restricting access to healing might be one approach, but it's sometimes hard to plausibly do that (there isn't a party cleric, but they've got a couple of secondary healers in the form of a Paladin, a low-level Bard, and an Alchemist, and they're savvy enough to stock up on the standard healing items all the time*). And as far as I'm aware, pathfinder doesn't have a system for lingering wounds - just easily healed away HP damage.
In summary then, I'd like to break out of the whole win/lose dichotomy for combat by learning how to give my players intermediate outcomes: soft failures where defeat doesn't have to mean death and soft successes where they can defeat their foes but not without cost. As I see it, this requires two things that I don't have a good handle on how to do:
- Non-lethal consequences for failure: I'd like to broaden the range of fight outcomes and consequences I have at my disposal so that combats don't jump straight from "zero consequences" to "somebody died". My main motivator here is the fact that I'd like to be able to run encounters that are challenging and that feel meaningful to my players (because of risk to themselves, because something is at stake, etc.) without constantly putting them at risk of death.
- A broader range of lose- or win-conditions: I don't want the win-condition for every fight to be "kill it before it kills you". If the only way to lose a fight is to drop to zero HP, then the only way to accomplish the above is to have different things happen when players drop to 0, and this doesn't sit well with me, since it makes actually dying of HP loss seem much more capricious.
*One thousand curses on the wand of CLW