Adding to our string of death and defeat posts, we wanted to work through some ways that DMs can enhance the drama and tension of failure without wiping everyone out. [And just so we’re all on the same page, TPK=Total Party Kill] Especially in one-on-one games, where the death of the primary character could result in the end of a game, it’s a good idea to keep non-deadly stakes on the table. What follows are a few ideas on increasing dramatic tension through the threat of non-deadly (at least for the party) failure.
The Pyrrhic Victory
Sometimes it’s not the party’s lives on the line at all. Perhaps they succeed through effort, cunning, or luck, but at great cost to the lives of important NPCs. Making players and their characters consider the cost of their victories can be fun for everyone at the table.
This can look like the demise of secondary characters or DMPCs, but it may be desirous to avoid such a drastic scenario for the same reasons that you would avoid primary character death. It is my suggestion, then, that lesser NPCs be at risk.
This can look like hostage situations, escort missions, or something else. Make your players invested in the well-being of these characters. Key to this working is for the NPCs to not be annoying (to interact with or in a mechanical sense). If they are inconvenient to the player, they may not mourn their passing but instead feel relief.
Recently, in our duet, Beth was DMing and created a scenario in which we had to rescue a number of people being held in two different locations. Our powerful heroes were reasonably certain of their ability to survive in both of these places, but the challenge was in figuring out how we were going to extract a bunch of wounded (relative) weaklings. I’m happy to say that we were relatively successful, but it still created drama and felt bittersweet when we were not able to get everyone out alive.
In another scenario, an assassin attacked a powerful council of Elves. If our party had not been there, it would have been a complete slaughter. The party saved most of them, but some were lost, and it shook up the entire political balance of the region. Many of our characters are still dealing with that experience, especially because one of the people who died was the mother of the NPC the party had befriended, personalizing the tragedy and stakes without directly threatening the party’s lives.
The War Machine
It has been suggested that D&D, at its most basic, is a resource management game. Players must balance the benefits and costs of choosing to expend time, health, and spell slots in order to achieve their goals and make it through an adventuring day.
Forcing the expenditure of prized resources is another way to maintain the tension at the table while not necessarily threatening the lives of your PCs. Whether it is the sacrifice of a powerful magical artifact or the expenditure of vast wealth, don’t be afraid to present players with reasons to offload resources. This motivates the acquisition of more resources. Suddenly, exploring those lost, haunted, certainly filled with traps dwarven tombs doesn’t sound crazy, but something we definitely want to do… there’s treasure down there!
Recently, our characters were in an intense sea battle that took a few unexpected turns, and the party ended up diverting from the original plan in a risky bid to take out an enemy ship. During that assault, an enigmatic Tiefling used a Finger of Death on Beth’s PC, knocking her unconscious…at first. Unbeknownst to her, another character had rolled a high Sleight of Hand check and slipped her a precious Death Ward token (a consumable, single-use item that brings a PC back to 1 if they fall unconscious).
The loss of that powerful magical item stung and felt weighty, but was ultimately the high price to pay for the success of that mission and safety of the character.
The Political Backlash
Hopefully you are playing games that have rich and complicated NPCs and factions/organizations for your characters to interact with. Some of the best scenarios result from when, while it would be beneficial to curry favor with two powerful organizations, doing so is not possible or even results in losing status with one in favor of the other.
This takes a bit of set up. You will need a minimum of two organizations or entities that you think your party may want to align with. Depending on their disposition, think about how you can tailor these groups to appeal to your player(s) and their character(s). I especially think it is interesting when one would be exceptionally useful to one member of the party and another to a different party member. This creates a conflict both inside and outside the party.
For example, say there is a mage’s college that wants to see a government official shamed and brought down. They can offer magical services and learning to the wizard, a strong incentive to work with them. However, the thieves’ guild wants him protected from scandal (maybe he’s in their pocket), and they are willing to pay in addition to giving the rogue a place to offload ill-gotten gains. Both cannot be happy at the same time, and both can offer something substantial to the party. Yay tension and conflict!
The Lingering Mark
One of the ways, especially with players starting out, that I try to make sure that they understand that actions in Dungeons and Dragons have consequences is to leave a permanent mark or scar. I only resort to this when a character makes their second or third foolish decision resulting in their unconsciousness.
Not all scars are physical either, as Liam O’Brien plays so well as Caleb in the second season of Critical Role. Agreeing to make a saving throw under certain specialized conditions, while potentially sub-optimal on a mechanical level, can serve to ground and substantiate our characters.
In our duet, the primary character was abducted by agents coming from the Shadowfell. She was in their power for only a short time before we were able to bring her back, but in that time she was marked. It manifested as black tattoo-like marks scratched into her skin in the language of the Shadowfell. The marks allowed her to be tracked by those that had taken her, but additionally were a constant reminder of what had happened.
These are only some of the super fun ways you can think about raising the stakes at your table. How do you keep things tense and fun without resorting to full-on deadly stakes? Let us know below!
If you like what you’re reading, please consider supporting the blog by purchasing our adventures and supplements in our shop or on DMsGuild or sponsoring us on Patreon. We’d also love for you to follow us on Twitter and Instagram. We appreciate you so much! Thank you for reading. – Beth and Jonathan