“Natural Progression of Threats” is a phrase I use a lot. Eventually, I’m sorry to say, the wheels will fall off of your game if you just keep throwing damage and hitpoint sacks at the players. Today, we’re going to look at how to challenge and threaten your PCs outside of bodily harm and injury!
(Cover by MattRhodesArt)
Why Threats Must Change
“I hit it with stick in head ’till dies!”
Sadly, that’s what a lot of combat comes down to. You can read all my posts about narrative combat, centerpiece battles, creating monsters – but in the end, it all boils down to “can we kill these things before these things kill us.” While that threat is an honest one, it’s not your only option!
I’ve been running a game of Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition weekly for about 18 months now (sometimes 2-3 sessions a week depending on how voracious my players are). The hard part about running a game from 1st level to 11th is singular: It’s hard to consistently challenge them.
The Natural Progression of the threats they face have to increases at the same rate they do, but when you have a table as big as mine (6-8), combat becomes a bit of a chore and if that’s your only threat, you’re going to find out quickly that you’ll either outmatch the party or barely challenge them at all. So, here is a list of five ways that I try to challenge or threaten my players.
Note: This list is System Agnostic, it is not intended solely for D&D
1. One-Sided Confrontations
Not every hostile creature your party bumps up against wants to murder them. Sometimes they’re looking for food, wanting to test the party’s mettle, to escape, or to wear them down for some other purpose.
My players were traversing the Crags outside of Mirabar with a traveling troupe of Vistani performers when a black shape zipped by overhead. The troupe hurried into the abandoned mines to escape both it and the blizzard swiftly approaching. Moments later, an Ancient Black Dragon swooped down and grabbed the party’s Ranger, Tristan.
Before any of them could even think to act, the dragon was 200 feet up, clutching onto a stone spire, the Ranger pinned against the rock. The black dragon curled its wings around the spire’s point, blocking out the howling wind and snow, and said “What are you doing here, morsel?”
Now I, as the DM, know that an Ancient Black Dragon could have landed, breathed acid all over the party and into the abandoned mine, killing practically everyone. But that kind of story telling is pretty lame. Why would the dragon bother in the first place? If it can so easily brush aside the adventuring party, why not toy with them , ask questions, and gauge their strength?
Despite the combat being utterly one-sided, the party still enjoyed the fallout and crazy situation they found themselves in while trying to save Tristan from falling 400 feet, protect the traveling troupe from Yetis that made the mines their home, and setting up a threat they’ll deal with later in the form of the Ancient Black Dragon named Evnoss, the Impure.
Use these encounters sparingly, I warn you, as the players should feel capable and powerful in their respective roles, but you should give them something to overcome, to aspire to overtake, or another reason to band together – and one-sided encounters like this accomplish all of those goals.
2. Financial Issues
We, of the real world, know what this feels like. The struggle to make ends meet (or the struggle to maintain one’s wealth) is an endless one. Your players may be taken aback by this sort of obstacle and spin the story in new and interesting directions.
An NPC mercenary team finally tracked down Dakota, the patchwork cyborg Player Character hiding out in New Orleans. After some struggling and a well sprung trap, the mercenaries finally bagged their prize, but one wrinkle remained – a fae PC named Ophrys.
Unsure what else to do, Ophrys threw caution to the wind and said “Whatever they’re paying you, I’ll beat it.” Some rolls later, the mercenaries decided they believed her and asked what all mercenaries do: “How much?”
In this situation, as the MC of this game of Urban Shadows, I knew that Ophrys could have used magic or called in help, or any number of things. But letting money speak volumes gave the narrative an interesting twist. Now Ophrys was scrambling with how much money to offer, where to get that money from. Sirens wailing in the distance from the gunfire in a residential neighborhood put a heavy time-limit on things.
Letting your players manage a resource like funds can help anchor them into real-world struggles. If every threat can be answered with violence then everything they encounter will eventually devolve into violence. But twisting their wallets is an unexpected and fun way to put pressure on the party!
3. Esoteric Actualities
Your players are special cases in a sense, and sometimes there will be creatures, beings, forces, or realities that only they know of. I cannot stress how singularly amazing it feels as a player to have your character be “in on a secret” above and beyond mundane people. Play this up! Use it!
Embedding seeds of uncertain mythos is a rewarding experience for Game Masters and the Player involved. If there is interest on how to accomplish this, I’ll happily make a post about it in the future, but for now – an example.
The investigators find themselves scrambling to stop an immortal woman, a witch from ancient times from releasing a being onto the world that people could not even imagine in their darkest nightmares.
Finally finding her lair, a cottage stumbled upon by a PhD student, a horrifying battle ensues in which the investigators manage to kill Willa One-Eye, but poor Kirby, a 22 year old ex-crime scene investigator, has her arms melted away by some strange spell the witch cast on her. In and out of consciousness, Kirby sees her friends and fellow investigators rushing her to a hospital, where they put her under for surgery.
She finds herself back in the grotto, the strange place in which Willa tried to release death upon the world – and there sits a familiar dog. Old and wire haired, black and mangy, the dog sits behind a fire. The sound of a book opening draws Kirby’s attention behind her – to a tome on a pedestal, open to a page covered in names, scrawled in red.
When she looks back, A thin man nearly black from the shadows across his features stands from where the dog was. His boots tap lightly on the stone floor, his long blond hair stands in sharp contrast to the reddish muddled black darkness that covers his face. He holds out a quill, dripping with red ink, in his long, pale, unimaginably cold hand.
“I offer once.”
Kirby signs her name.
From that point onward, Kirby’s player has a weight upon her shoulders – the weight of this deal, this pact that she’s made, as well as everyone who comes in contact with her. This is a threat that the party cannot kill – it is their friend. It is a threat the party cannot ignore – it travels among them. It is a threat that is always looming but may never come to harm them. And that, my friends, is one hell of big pay-off for Game Masters. Even reminding the characters of that looming otherworldly horror feels like an engagement to them – it’s a tension crafting machine that never ends.
4. Social Complications
Most Game Masters completely forget this writer’s banquet when they run their games. Not everyone in the world is going to know your table’s characters, believe their stories, understand their logic, or even connect with them enough to believe their anything but trouble.
The Lightbringers travel to the village of Krezk in far western Barovia. Far removed from Strahd Von Zarovich’s looming tower of Ravenloft, it is still mired in unimaginable darkness. When the party arrives, the gates are shut to them. The guards standing atop the wall cry down that they should leave the city – that they are no friend of Krezk.
No matter their deeds or exploits, no matter their character level or rolls, these xenophobic people do not want outsiders within the city. And the Burgomaster of the city confirms the facts with the party. “Get you gone! Only by earning the trust of these people, can they hope to enter the city – or force their way in.
I love these social complexities. The party now has to decide: do they struggle to gain this guy’s trust as night falls, or do they easily force our way inside? What line are they willing to cross? Do they cast spells on the grieving father to gain entry? Do they kill to make their way inside?
An easy short-cut to this is to provide them with an effective but problematic NPC (for example, that rainbow-vomiting wizard I used as the featured image of this article. How amazing is that?) Give the NPC some real difficulties the party has to contend with, but make them so important they can’t be cast aside – fireworks will happen.
These situations often prove more difficult to surmount than all but the most harrowing of combat encounters, and you did nothing but have someone disagree with your party.
Be very cautious that you do not make every NPC the party runs across be a snide, unhelpful, or disobliging/disagreeable troublemaker. If the players feel the world is opposed to them, the game will veer off into uncomfortable waters in which the party feels they are at odds with literally everyone else. This is where some games spiral out of control and “murder hobos” become the norm.
5. Bereavement (Loss, Sorrow, Deprivation)
I’ve saved this for last because it comes with a warning. A serious warning.
Don’t be an asshole to your players and pass it off as “what would happen” – you’re creating the story with them, constantly killing people and destroying things they care about is not fun or interesting.
Having said that, bereavement is the most potent of all threats you can levee against your players’ characters. It is the hardest move you can make against them, and should be used so sparingly that even you sometimes forget it’s an option. This is basically fictional torture for your players.
Vektro Velikov wakes to find himself locked in a cage inside the Fire Giant stronghold of Iron Slag. His girlfriend and adventuring companion Zoey Lonsdale rouses across from him. Immediately the two of them can feel the heat wafting from beneath them – an immense vat of molten metal bubbles and churns beneath them.
Duke Zalto, himself, reaches out a massive hand and grabs the bottom of the cage, turning it on the creaking chains so that the lovers face him. “You killed my wife. You killed one of my sons. Tell me where your comrades took my flask… I will not ask again.”
Vek, knowing his companions must keep the flask from Zalto’s hands, tries to reason with the giant lord. Zalto, a man of his word, pulls the cage free and drops it.
Vek grabs onto Zoey as the two of them, still in the cage, plunge into the molten iron. Vek, gifted immunity to fire , can do little else but feel Zoey writhe in his arms. Only a heartbeat passes before the cage is lifted again by Zalto. Pinned against the bars, Vek looks down in horror as his lover’s skeleton melts away.
Boy oh boy, this is enough to spark riots at the table, tears, curses, and the stages of grief! But used very sparingly, it can slingshot your characters and campaign into unknown and very interesting territory. Vek could urge the party that abandoned him to slay every fire giant they come across, even friendly ones. The quest could transition from saving the world to bringing Zoey back. The possibilities are nearly endless, but never ever forget the cost of such a thing – your players certainly wont.
Entertain, engage, enforce – those are your tenants. Engage the player, engage the character, engage the story. Entertain everyone, even yourself, and enforce the rules of your table.
Constantly slamming enemies or damage or danger at your players will get old. You need to engage other aspects of their lives and use those as obstacles and roadblocks. In general, your characters will eventually find mundane problems trifles at best. But a murdered loved one, a pissy King that doesn’t like them, a creature beyond mortal understanding pulling a players’ strings, an empty coin purse with a hefty bill, or a combat encounter they have no hope of winning – there to prove a point, will always make your players stay on their toes.
All art by MattRhodesArt
I don’t always advocate rolling, but when I do… be sure you have to Drop the Die.
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