Adding a Sense of Dread to D&D Combat

rethinking death saving throws
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It’s become a well-accepted by many DMs that it’s harder for players to die in 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. There are numerous threads on places like Facebook and Reddit with DMs seeking advice from one another on how to deal with the death save mechanic of 5th Edition – “the player characters in my game never die. Death never seems to be a threat with these death saves!”.

In the not-so-distant past I remember the time in D&D 3.5 Edition, where our party was unexpectedly ambushed by goblins in a cave complex. The squishy d4 hit dice wizard found himself quickly isolated and unable to overcome the distance between himself and the party as blows rained down on his low AC self. In less than 2 rounds, he was dead. Not down. Not unconscious. Dead. The player had a shocked, disbelieving and slightly indignant look on his face for the next half hour or so. Now, in that encounter, it was the wizard and party’s fault for sloppy positioning, particularly while in unknown or enemy territory. We messed up, and it cost the wizard character his life.

But, was the above a terrible encounter? Was the Dungeon Master at fault for playing the ambushing goblins in such a way that they could quickly isolate a weakness of the party and eliminate it? Well, not really. The party were able to learn from that incident and were more careful and deliberate going forward. But, more pertinent to this article is that during this crisis, the players were on the edge of their seats – we were filled with dread at what was happening to the wizard and it was formative, but it was also…. exhilarating.

So, how do we foster a helpful sense of dread in players?

1. Death needs to be on the table

The first thing worth saying is that, if you want to create a sense of edge-of-your-seat suspense, death has to be a possibility. As mentioned above, with 5th Edition D&D pushing the survival curve towards players through larger hit dice, several rounds of death saves and effective ranged bonus action healing spells (i.e. Healing Word), a player dropping unconscious has never been less of an issue. From session 0, death in encounters and through foolish decisions has to be a real part of your world. Players should be heroes, engaged in deeds that your average mortal does not, but they should not cruise through adventuring like a Mary Sue (or Gary Stu), free of weakness and challenge.

I am oft reminded of the Death of Boromir in JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, where one of the heroes (Boromir) valiantly defends two party members, and dies in the attempt. Although, it is certainly arguable that this scene was brought on through foolish choices by several characters, this was nonetheless not a “balanced” encounter. And yet, this is one of the most moving scenes of fantasy literature, even accompanied by a song of lament from the writer as a sort of modern day Song of Roland. The character left a mark on the reader, and even found a measure of redemption for themselves in their sacrifice. Dungeon Masters rob their players of moments like this when their games are free from challenge, adversity, and yes death as well.

Am I asking you here to throw Death of Boromir style “unbalanced” encounters at your players without warning? No, this scene is an example of the kind of encounter where death is on the table and how the last stand and death makes for a memorable and compelling story. This is not a blueprint for every encounter.

The Death of Boromir from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film

2. Make encounters a little less predictable

Well, let’s not take overpowered encounters off the table just yet. If you want to create tension, you will need to remove the idea that every encounter should be balanced. If the party are constantly relying on you, the Dungeon Master, to ensure that encounters are balanced so that death, or a hurried retreat, is always a remote possibility (rather than an ever present threat) then you remove a sense of risk, and thus a sense of caution and excitement. Players want to feel like adventurers, and adventuring is a risky high-stakes profession. So, in session 0 (or wherever), make it clear to players that the things they encounter out in your world will not always be matched to their particular level or skillset. Tell them that there are things out there that are so deadly that when they encounter them, a retreat or covert style approach will need to be deduced and undertaken. This will not only create a sense of risk and thus dread at the unknown that lurks out in the world, but will vary up combat encounters to include more than just waltzing in to a battle map and rolling attacks.

Many have suggested using an encounter builder such as Kobold Fightclub, and these tools can be useful, especially for newer DMs. However, once you get a feel for creature strength and the party’s abilities, I’ve felt that it’s simple enough to pick up a handful of goblin minis, or a couple of owlbears, ogres etc and feel out the encounter. If it’s more underwhelming than planned, the goblin boss can scream out for reinforcements, who can pour in from a side tunnel. If overwhelming (but not supposed to be), you can subtly downgrade the HP levels of the individual combatants, have them choose to retreat earlier due to losses, provide a brief path of retreat to the party, or some handy furniture they can use to barricade a defensive position. Don’t obviously downgrade the lethality of the combat, though. Your players may thank you in the short-term, but in the long-term it harms the sense of risk and reward in your game.

3. Plan for intelligent enemies to act intelligently

One of the major criticisms by veteran players, but features that newer players tend to enjoy is the death saves system of 5th Edition D&D. Essentially, when a character drops to 0 hit points, they begin rolling death saving throws. This gives a minimum of two rounds before death over which the player can either save their character through rolling well, or another character can rescue them from the jaws of death through a spell, skill or ability. This has heavily impacted the meta of the game (i.e. how the game is mechanically played by the players), with players at many tables choosing not to act on their beleaguered comrades low hit points, but instead waiting for them to drop unconscious before quickly throwing a Healing Word, administering a potion or other ability to get the character back in the fight.

I am not proposing that you, a lone DM, has to change this meta, but I am proposing how you can insert some tension into it. On page 197 of the Players Handbook we have the following line:

If you take any damage while you have 0 hit points, you suffer a death saving throw failure. If the damage is from a critical hit, you suffer two failures instead.

D&D Player’s Handbook, p197

Although some DMs count the above quote as of incidental worth, such as catching damage from a stray fireball or terrain effect (and you can certainly apply it there), my suggestion would be to be more creative with how you apply damage to unconscious characters. A major way you can do this is by playing intelligent enemies intelligently.

Not much is expected from a hungry bear crashing through the undergrowth and trying to maul the party. It is a low intelligence beast after all and will attack the closest perceived threat. But the long-lived lich who the party has been pursuing for the last 10 levels on the other hand? You have to play intelligent creatures differently. Success in doing this well will change for the better how your players approach, experience and roleplay their combat encounters. It will make your world, and the stakes of the adventure feel more real and tangible.

And on that note, let’s talk about how that might look. How can intelligent enemies target characters differently, remove combat predictability, and keep death on the table?

a) Confirming the kill

An intelligent enemy will be able to notice patterns on the battlefield, and potentially have experience enough to prepare for them. If they notice the pattern of the front-line tanky fighter dropping down unconscious only to get up a moment later, they are much less likely to move on to another threat and much more likely to whack him a few times while he’s down; to “confirm the kill” and ensure he’s a problem that doesn’t come back again. Most intelligent enemies do not want the adventurers to get up and continue fighting them, so it makes sense for said enemies to finish them off when they have opportunity.

Other, more territorial creatures may be less interested in confirming the kill and more interested in a display of power and dominance to warn off the rest of the party. They could do this by goring, flinging, dismembering or decapitating the broken form of their dying comrade. They could even fly off with their unconscious form and feed it to their young on some mountain top. All very plausible and possible encounters in a world fraught with danger. And yet, others have it already written into their stat blocks to devour any creature that they have grappled or who are reduced to 0 hit points while grappled. Those might not be super intelligent, but they know how to confirm a kill.

b) Target the mage or healer

The idea that Dungeons & Dragons is like an online MMORPG with monsters and villains which attack like mindless drones has become more pervasive of late as many players come to the hobby from that gaming background. Although the new players are certainly welcome, those mechanics should certainly not be. D&D enemies don’t have to attack the fighter just because he’s at the front and is the most imposing figure. They might, certainly, but if they’re intelligent they might make smarter and more calculated decisions about who is the real threat.

If any intelligent enemy notices that a magical touch is administered or word of power is spoken shortly before the front-line tanky fighter gets up from his unconscious daze, are they not just as likely to target that healer to prevent that occurring? Maybe they will completely ignore the fighter until the guy who is healing everyone has been sufficiently dealt with. Similarly, that squishy looking mage at the back casting those spells that hurt, annoy or hamper the intelligent enemy? Maybe they should take him out or lock him down to prevent such inconveniences from continuing.

c) Countering the party’s known capabilities

As the character’s level and fight many battles over the course of their adventures, they will gain fame. People will tell stories of their conquests, and indeed their abilities. Intelligent enemies will hear of this and when facing off with the players these need to be roleplayed accordingly. They could set up charms, traps and anti-magic zones. They will know the fighter’s renown ability to get up after the healer waves their hand or speaks a certain word, and they may have a lair action, counterspell or set of minions standing at the ready to riddle the fighter with arrows the moment he goes down.

As a Dungeon Master you will need to get a feel for where and when these tactics may be appropriate. I would generally reserve kill confirming either for battles with moderately intelligent enemies or above that drag on for a while (i.e. where the player characters are dropping unconscious and getting up multiple times), or with high level and long-lived powerful creatures of higher intelligence who have dealt with higher level characters before and know well that a character dropping is not always a character dead. Feel free to play around with it and see what is the right pace of lethality for your game.

You get the idea – enemies with some level of intelligence will act in accordance with what they see and know (and what they have learned). And, therefore, the players should, if in any doubt, not take an unconscious round or two for granted – adventurer death could plausibly occur at any moment.

Alternative Death Saves

Alternatively, if you want to challenge your players but you aren’t interested in the above? Perhaps you run a story-lite hack-and-slash dungeon crawl? Meat grinder mode from Tomb of Annihilation might be more your style then. In Meat Grinder mode your odds of survival during death saves drop by more than half from 59.5% to 26%, and that assumes you get all your chances to roll without getting hit while down.

[In Meat Ginder] A death saving throw succeeds on a roll of 15 or higher (instead of 10 or higher)… Other rules concerning death saving throws remain unchanged.

Tomb of Annihilation pp6-7

If you have the above elements, I don’t think Meat Grinder is necessary, but some people love it so you’re more than welcome to give it a shot, particularly in games where you’re aiming for a blood bath of lethality. Be sure to have some spare characters rolled up on the side, though. Yikes.

Conclusion

Thank you for reading my article on how to keep dread in the game through keeping death in it. Yes, the mortality of your player characters may go up, but so could their enjoyment as their sense of risk and cost in completing their objectives goes up. The wins can be more climactic and the losses more bitter sweet as a group of hardy adventurers journey together to risk everything and in-turn gain everything.

Regardless, don’t take my word for it. Go try things out in your games, see what works, and toss what doesn’t. These are your games and your players. Comment below on both your strategies for maintaining a sense of tension or dread at your table as well as how you keep death and the prospect of loss on the table in your games.

But… when in doubt, i cast fireball!


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