Dungeons & Dragons: How To Create Tension And Stakes Without Death

All the best laid plans go awry but instead of ending the tale of your adventurers use these tips to keep the action going!

Dungeons & Dragons: How To Create Tension And Stakes Without Death

You are getting set up for an amazing and dramatic campaign of Dungeons & Dragons with all kinds of ideas boggling around your mind. Only to have session zero and find out your epic murder hobo power fantasy ideas might not land well with a group that has a sensitivity to death.

That, or maybe your high-level party has had their umpteenth traumatic breakdown and could use a break that's a little bit more intense than shopping. No matter what the reasons, here are some tips and tricks on how to raise the stakes in your next game without relying on death.

How To Set Up A Limited-Death Campaign

Dungeons & Dragons: How To Create Tension And Stakes Without Death

Before you start your next limited death campaign, you should already create a handful of explanations for why death is not a prevalent consequence. Doing so before your campaign begins will allow you to get into the mindset of consequences that aren't death.

Talk to your players about their character's hopes and fears before your next campaign. When you know these hopes and fears, you can set up appropriate consequences in ways that have more impact.

For example, a character with an estranged relationship with their noble family might not die when they fail a major objective in the quest… but they might be disowned for the shame they bring to their name.


One way to create tension with your players without the risk of death is to have your players engage in a competition. Whether it's a friendly competition at an annual festival or an impromptu challenge from drunken bar patrons, you can create an opportunity for your players to shine.

Consider what the members of your party are good at and provide opportunities for your players to show off their skills in a competition. Some players might not be immediately intrigued by a competition, but if you offer a sufficient prize for winning, you can pique their interest.

You might also consider upping the ante by literally upping the ante and offering chances for your players to not just compete but gamble. Let them put their loot or coin on the wire, letting your players literally invest in the results of the competition.

Start to encourage your players to get invested in a narrative sense by portraying other characters who are cheating in the competition. Let your party decide if they want to call out and have the cheaters disqualified… or get just as gnarly.

Collateral Damage

People don't just care about dying; they care about a lot of other things, like the people around us. While it may be easy to set up a situation where a beloved NPC dies, it can be equally compelling to force beloved NPCs to face long-term consequences. You can even render the NPC as effectively dead to the party by removing them from play.

Step one for this to have any impact is to have an NPC the party is regularly in contact with and has some degree of attachment to. Be creative with the punishments inflicted on the people around your party and think outside the box about "fates worse than death."

A beloved and kindly merchant NPC who has helped your party out despite their low level could be forced out of business and can no longer provide discounts. The party is now forced to spend more of their gold on basic supplies, and their favorite NPC has now become a random encounter rather than the stable point of reference they once had.

Collateral damage doesn't need to be limited to individuals . A failure on your player's end might result in a beloved family home burning to the ground. Or, in more extreme situations, there may be a risk of an entire town becoming uninhabitable.

A crucial thing to make sure of is that your players are aware of these stakes going into the situation. Whether explicitly or through implications and skill checks, make sure your party knows that there is a chance these events could have consequences.

Tension relies on knowing that these consequences will happen if the party is to fail. You do not need to reveal your entire hand of the extent of those consequences, but it should be clear that the consequences will be severe.

Things To Remember While Playing

Dungeons & Dragons: How To Create Tension And Stakes Without Death

Now that your game has been going on for a while, your players and their characters should likely have acquired some status and loot. Ideally, your players have faced difficulty earning these titles and trinkets, and those difficulties can make it devastating for them to lose.

Tournaments or tavern bets where players are forced to place an incredibly valuable magical item that was difficult for them to get can rapidly up the emotional stakes your players have in their success. Nobody wants to lose prizes that they feel like they've already won!

A player failing a dexterity check to avoid falling down a cliff might result in an important piece of equipment the party relied upon being lost somewhere inaccessible or dashed entirely upon the rocks below.

What To Do When Someone Reaches Zero HP

Dungeons & Dragons: How To Create Tension And Stakes Without Death

All the best-laid plans go awry, and no matter how hard you try to keep your players alive, there is always the chance they might do something uniquely creative that doesn't go as planned.

Before you grab the paper shredder and destroy your player's evening, consider some alternatives to death when they miss that final death-saving throw. A failed death-saving throw might not result in death, but it must result in some form of consequence.

A lack of consequences in these scenarios can take away from the tension you want to establish in other scenes.


Once your players are already face down in the dirt, maybe even a few dead, you can still recover the campaign without calling it an end with a TPK. Consider who your players are facing and if they might have some reason to keep the characters alive.

Minions of an evil overlord decide they'd rather present the player's character to their lord rather than simply kill them. Wild animals are suddenly chased off by the guard of a local town that seeks the party. Bandits think they might benefit from some indentured servants.

One thing to consider, especially if any player characters die, is how the party is healed. Dungeons and Dragons has many practitioners of healing magic, but it can add additional narrative intrigue to explain how the group that imprisoned the party did so and why.

Faustian Bargain

Perhaps it makes no sense for the enemy your party is facing to imprison them. In that case, you might instead offer your players the opportunity to make a deal with an entity more devious than any devil, the dungeon master!

Take the time to talk with your players about what their characters are willing to sacrifice in exchange for another chance at life. Perhaps your players might be willing to sacrifice a few levels or a skill proficiency instead.

You can leave the player's decision during the interim between sessions. Not only does this provide an exciting "to be continued…" scene to hype your players for the next session, but it also gives you and the players a chance to privately discuss the bargain before your next session.

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