Of Death and Tension


Pathfinder First Edition General Discussion


Hello all. I was reflecting on my own (inexperienced) DM style recently, as well as my DMs preferred DMing style and noticed something. We both try to make our encounters challenging. Like, pretty difficult, near death experiences for the PCs. And honestly, it hasn't given any notable tension to the game. For me at least.

As many times as my characters have come close to death, I can't honestly say I was on the edge of my seat, worried, nor feeling tension or any real emotion. This isn't to say I don't care about my character, I definitely do. But instead of pulling emotion out of me, I found it sort of pulling me out of the experience. Thoughts like, "what character should I make after this if my DM allows for it?" Or, "Well... darn," or, "maybe I should try this action next and see if it works" go through my mind instead of, "oh no!" Or, "what's going to happen next?!"

I was curious if anyone else faces these issues. My DM seems to enjoy survival style games, challenging encounters and such. Enough so, that he's making his own trpg to better make a gritty, rough experience. I however find it all rather bland personally.

I know of some alternative ways of getting tension. Targeting something the character holds dear. Something past their lives. Like a loved one, their stuff, etc... Or doing a count down, restricting thE time they have to succeed at a certain major goal.

So what is your experience on tension? Do you feel it when your characters are fighting near death? Do you have other ways you've found to be really intense? Memories of really tense moments in a game? What is your tension?


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Third Mind wrote:

Hello all. I was reflecting on my own (inexperienced) DM style recently, as well as my DMs preferred DMing style and noticed something. We both try to make our encounters challenging. Like, pretty difficult, near death experiences for the PCs. And honestly, it hasn't given any notable tension to the game. For me at least.

As many times as my characters have come close to death, I can't honestly say I was on the edge of my seat, worried, nor feeling tension or any real emotion. This isn't to say I don't care about my character, I definitely do. But instead of pulling emotion out of me, I found it sort of pulling me out of the experience. Thoughts like, "what character should I make after this if my DM allows for it?" Or, "Well... darn," or, "maybe I should try this action next and see if it works" go through my mind instead of, "oh no!" Or, "what's going to happen next?!"

I was curious if anyone else faces these issues. My DM seems to enjoy survival style games, challenging encounters and such. Enough so, that he's making his own trpg to better make a gritty, rough experience. I however find it all rather bland personally.

I know of some alternative ways of getting tension. Targeting something the character holds dear. Something past their lives. Like a loved one, their stuff, etc... Or doing a count down, restricting thE time they have to succeed at a certain major goal.

So what is your experience on tension? Do you feel it when your characters are fighting near death? Do you have other ways you've found to be really intense? Memories of really tense moments in a game? What is your tension?

I will feel tension during a difficult session of an RPG, but I will also feel tension when I'm playing chess and I'm down a bishop, or when the local football team is down by ten points going into the fourth quarter. That's part of what makes a game exciting, even when it's not, strictly speaking, a competition you are involved in.

Winning is more fun than losing, and so I would prefer not to lose. But that's not because I'm particularly emotionally involved with the character -- it's because I'm emotionally involved in the game.

Grand Lodge RPG Superstar 2015 Top 32, RPG Superstar 2012 Top 32

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I don't think I've ever felt narrative tension as a result of the PCs' lives being in jeopardy. In the same way, it's pretty rare I feel any narrative tension as a result of a book or movie's main character being in mortal danger. In fact, if you look at the vast amount of storytelling history in the world, the number of really good stories in which the protagonist's survival is a primary point of tension is so staggeringly small that it quickly becomes obvious that the interest in life-threatening RPG encounters has nothing to do with narrative tension. I could discuss where the draw of deadly encounters does come from, but that would be getting off topic.

Anyway, no, narrative tension doesn't come from the threat of a PC dying. It comes from the same place it comes from in non-gaming mediums: the stakes.

What happens if you can't stop the evil plot?
What will the choices you've had to make do to you as a person?
Are you going to be able to find the answers to your questions?
Can you win without destroying everything you love in the conflict?
Will your victory actually change anything?


Well said Jiggy.

The thought of rolling a new character or getting raised doesn't add much to tension for me, especially as a game with no real affect on the real-world. Tension comes from the story at hand and what the consequences are for failing.


Yeah, I don't normally feel that either. Sometimes I do when I really enjoy playing that character. When I was playing my Winter Witch this one time and the campaign ended, I was pretty disappointed since I wanted to keep playing them. Had the same feeling when they almost died too. That's more of the exception than the rule for me though.


I've definitely felt tension for the characters that I play. I think a lot of it has to do with creating enough details for your character that they start to feel like a real person.

When the character has genuine thoughts, goals, morals, etc., then the character dying is the end of that character's story.

It's similar to when a beloved character dies in a novel. It can cause a lot of retrospection on that character's life, involvement in the plot, impact on other characters, etc.

Another major factor is transparency - If my character is in some danger but the GM rolls behind a screen or has a habit of pulling the punches when a character is low on HP, then my mind focuses more on that then my character's possible doom.


Death gets tense in my groups for three reasons: closeness of achievement, when it gets personal, and bragging rights.

Some of the most tense encounters are those that occur just before or as the result of a turning point in the player's favor. In one adventure the players arrived just ahead of a conquring barbarian horde to the town they were trying to rescue, and had to hold of the barbarians for hours in a thunder/hail storm while the town evacuated. Not only was this a tough fight, but the players knew that if they succeeded then their enemy would be crippled and embarassed.

The second would be when the PCs learn to hate a bad guy so much that thwarting him becomes almost more important than the main plot. Don't just make him target the PCs friends and family, have him succeeded, and make it brutal. When the final showdown occurs it'll carry that much more weight. Careful though, because if this guy is a minion or side boss he may undermine the BBEG's importance.

Lastly is bragging rights. When the players are attempting the seemingly impossible, like bringing down a boss 8 lvls higher than them, or fighting in hostile or unfavorable conditions, or most thrilling fighting to defy the DM's plot and skip whole parts of the adventure. A skilled DM can recover from this well, but nothing rewards a player more than the DM fuming about having to skip over X amount of notes/pages.


Tension can come from trying to deny your fellow players the sense of schadenfreude they'll be able to enjoy if your PC gets killed. In many games I play in you also come back a level lower if you start a new PC. Since getting raised and restored can be pretty expensive I guess that helps create at least around 7,000gp of tension?

Honestly I don't understand why so many people want a lot of tension and excitement in their games anyhow though. I enjoy making up personalities for my PCs, talking in funny voices, and doing research to help bring my PCs to life like reading about Vikings since I'm playing a Viking PC or about Roma culture and vardos when I was playing a Varisian.

That said, I agree that "bragging rights" can be pretty compelling. Some of my PCs like to show off a little sometimes even if it might be dangerous. Usually they try to avoid death, but showboating can increase the risks.


A lot of interesting and good points here. As I had said before, it's not that I don't enjoy my characters, or that my DM won't kill my character (he has before), I guess it is as Jiggy had said for me. It may even be the type of characters I play.

The one I currently am having a ton of fun playing, he's the heroic, protect the innocent type with a chunk of humble to the point of nearly thinking he's not good enough for anything. Personally, I feel this type of character would be less concerned with his safety and more with everyone else's, so dying isn't a big deal to him (and thus me).

I do like the bragging rights mentioned by Captain Kuro. Our group has had that a few times and it did come to beating the improbable once (we were 4 lv. 7s with two cohorts vs a lv. 16 or 18, his lv. 12 cohort and his followers. Managed to win via cunning, thankfully.) Otherwise it was us doing things our DM didn't expect that is our bragging rights.

Tension through important actions rather than near death is my preference. I'd be on the edge of my seat if an NPC my character really liked was in danger in front of him, but not if I was the one in danger. I sort of find that interesting.

EDIT: While I can agree with your point to an extent Devilkiller, I do see a point in tension. I don't need or want constant tension obviously, but when it's peppered in and done right, it gets me more emotionally invested in whatever is going on, more aware of it I guess, and thus makes a more vivid memory. I can of course still get fun memories from shenanigans, obscure moments and occasionally RP depending on what's going on too. But, I find tension just as fun, especially on making serious moments enjoyable and memorable.


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Some games seem like they're on constant overdrive, and I wonder if that could be one reason why folks don't feel like they can get the tension they want from the threat of death or defeat. If your PC is dancing on the edge of death in every fight then I guess it wouldn't feel "special" anymore after a few sessions.


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Pathfinder Adventure Path, Lost Omens Subscriber

Devilkiller's point is a good one. If you're ALWAYS encountering near death fights, there is no tension. You will be just wondering about what replace your character with when they ultimately die because you know it's going to happen sooner or later, maybe through the next door you open.


After a decade and a half of playing this system (3.x) I've had enough character deaths that tension is a hard, hard thing to generate. Sure, character death sucks, and yes, I get attached to characters, but you can never experience the shock & horror of your first PC death more than once.


I play a lot of dungeon crawls, especially Stone Soup. Now, when I first started playing, I mostly sucked but, eventually, I piled enough dead characters to get over the initial difficulty wall. The thing that makes a dungeon crawl particularly tense are out-of-depth encounters. When I'm cruising along with a new character, if he's hardy and robust, I can mostly plow through anything I encounter for the first couple of levels. However, eventually, I will meet enemies that are simply too high a risk to fight when I first see them. I've got to avoid them, explore as much as is safe, and get to the next floor. After I gain some more experience, I might be able to come back and deal with them. If I don't expect to see a pack of gnolls until around D3-4, and I run into a gnoll Sargent on D3... well, first I curse out the game for being so unfair, then I flee. And then, I run into another pack of strong monsters and die and have to start all over. There are other times where I'm cruising along, plowing through all enemies in my path... then suddenly, everything goes pear-shaped. It's especially frustrating when I'm on the final floor, about to retrieve the magic macguffin, and I encounter the most devastating enemy on the floor... times two. And I haven't found any of the necessary resistances.

So, it breaks down to this:
1) Don't have a steady, incremental difficulty progression. Make part of the challenge knowing when to run away and when to stand and fight.
2) Don't hand them everything they need on a silver platter. There are actually magic item rules where they need to roll to see if any store in a particular town has a particular magic item. It shouldn't be as simple as, "Oh, I want to buy a Cloak of Resistance" and just orders it on Amazon on the spot.
3) Have dynamic encounters. Don't just make it a slug-fest and flanking conga line. Incorporate difficult terrain, cover, vantage points, tactics, etc. You really want tension? Two words: Tucker's... Kobolds.


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Blake's Tiger wrote:
Devilkiller's point is a good one. If you're ALWAYS encountering near death fights, there is no tension. You will be just wondering about what replace your character with when they ultimately die because you know it's going to happen sooner or later, maybe through the next door you open.

Yeah, if I'm playing in a "you could die any instant" sort of game I don't get tense, I just make sure I have a good backup character ready to go.

I think Jiggy nicely covered the importance of story in creating tension. Tension is a matter of buildup, stakes, and story arcs all coming to a head. "Uh-oh, I'm low on HP for the third this session" isn't enough to do it.


I wonder what level of difficulty is required for different people to cross that "you could die any instant" threshold.


“There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”

-Alfred Hitchcock

I'd also add that as both a player and watching players as a GM, sometimes not knowing generates a huge amount of narrative tension. After all, the thing we imagine in the dark is, almost always, far, far worse than what actually is in the dark.

Almost always.


As a player I need to be challenged to enjoy the game. If I go multiple sessions without getting hit or threatened in the slightest i begin to lose interest.
I do like my characters, but i want to see what they are really capable of...not just speculate.
As a DM my goal is to make the party think they are about to die..and watch them pull thru against the odds...and their own expectations. PC deaths are uncommon, but the threat is ever present.


Chengar Qordath wrote:
Blake's Tiger wrote:
Devilkiller's point is a good one. If you're ALWAYS encountering near death fights, there is no tension. You will be just wondering about what replace your character with when they ultimately die because you know it's going to happen sooner or later, maybe through the next door you open.

Yeah, if I'm playing in a "you could die any instant" sort of game I don't get tense, I just make sure I have a good backup character ready to go.

I think Jiggy nicely covered the importance of story in creating tension. Tension is a matter of buildup, stakes, and story arcs all coming to a head. "Uh-oh, I'm low on HP for the third this session" isn't enough to do it.

Agreed. I guess it doesn't help anything that I'm a laid back person and not very excitable, but I can identify with constant danger causing jaded feelings.

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