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Deadly Encounters vs Deadly Dungeons

One of the most common misplaced concerns about DMing I see online is that the player characters are winning most of the time.

But remember that they need to win every single time if they want to survive.

Let’s say, for example, that they are gonna go through 100 fights over a long campaign. If every fight has a 1% chance of them dying, that might sound like super easy, barely an inconvenience, but that adds up to a 63% chance of them dying.

Sometimes I see misguided advice out there that want to push the danger in climactic fights up to near 50% chance of dying in a single fight, or sometimes even more “in a climactic fight”. You know what chance they have of surviving even ten such coinflip fights? That’s right, same as flipping ten heads in a row on a coin: less than a tenth of a percent. (And I’m talking even when player characters have full rest, full heal, full slots, full nova for each fight, not some sort of gauntlet without healing between fights.)


A couple of people wrote in, saying that losing doesn’t have to mean dying.

I didn’t wanna get into fiddly semantics but just replace

But remember that they need to win every single time if they want to survive.


But remember that they need to not-die every single time if they want to survive.

and count every time they are captured or flee as a win for them, and only count actually dying as dying, and then go re-read the post, and it’s still the same math and the same point.

We do use morale rolls (some monsters, like skeletons, don’t need to roll, but most monsters do need to make a DC 10 cha save to stay in the fight after their leader dies, or after half die if they don’t have a leader) and our PCs flee often too. Even so, there’s still the occasional PC death. Our last eighteen sessions we’ve seen five characters die, so one every third session or so. (And raises are rare since you need a diamond.)

So when I see advice out there “how to make your encounters more deadly and challenging”, I don’t adopt that, since it’s already very dangerous to go out there.

It’s true that the best way to make a game where your character can’t die is to add a rule “if your characters would die, they don’t, but instead [and here you’d put in some other consequence like a tally mark or an xp penalty or an out-of-game thing; something that motivates them to try to not die, while still being a safety net].” We don’t have such rules, but I recommend those rules to groups that really do want more longer-lasting, super-heroic characters. It seems a lot better than fudging.

But the question of dying vs other forms of losing is kind of unrelated to the point I wanna make about “encounter balance”.

You could replace “dying” with “failing the quest” and “winning” with “succeeding the quest” and even then it’s the same mathematical concern, which is:

As a DM, you have an entire dungeon, an entire world, while the players only have one party. When making the quest, I want the quest-as-a-whole to be a challenge, and even with fights that would likely be the characters steamrolling the monsters, getting through a whole bunch of those steam rolls successfully is considerably harder.

Just like Russian Roulette is a thrill every once in a while when you’ve got a five-in-six chance of winning, but if you try make a career out of six spins per night that’s probably a pretty short career. You’ve only got a 1/3 chance of surviving even the first night.

That’s the problem with all of these encounter-balancing sites: they look at fights in isolation, one by one, instead of the chance of making your way through the entire dungeon.