Content of the article: "If you wanna get better at running games at lower levels or with higher levels of lethality, check out systems that focus on that."
I periodically see a lot of threads complaining about characters dying early or low levels (1-3) being percieved as not being fun. A way that I'd view as being able to improve your ability to run or even really enjoy those levels is to check out (either just reading/running oneshots/general exposure) the design philosophies and playstyles of systems that have a higher level of lethality than normal.
Some good things to focus on when checking out the material are explorations of what lethality does to the game, how you can still have a meaningful impact on a scenario/campaign without being able to beat the threat to death and why we're doing this lower power stuff at all in the first place.
Call of Cthulhu
CoC is amazing for this, and then as an adjacent
learning to write really good modules in general. Outside of being a several decades old system that has enough content to rival DND itself it's a really good showing of how to manage lethality in general.
You're playing essentially normal humans, and even though the skillsets of adventures might differ (you might be better at driving than me, but I might be better at academic research than you) we're still essentially limited by how we can handle supernatural encounters with creatures that are nigh invulnerable in the same sort of ways.
It's also a good demonstration that you don't need millions of cool powers, races or classes to still craft amazing narratives. You can still have grand, amazing world spanning mystery adventures with plain old, low level humans.
For this I'd recommend checking out r/callofcthulhu. There's lots of good advice there to new keepers on discussions of lethality and how to present danger. The ven diagram crossover between this advice being applicable and levels in 5e where two goblins rolling well, not amazingly, just well can result in player death is strong enough to warrant a look.
This technically refers to more of a playstyle than a specific system, but it counts because I want it to. A lot of the materials for these kinds of systems assume that the world is a really dangerous place, and death could come at any time to anyone regardless of how strong they are if they make the wrong decision. Even if you're some super high level, ultra badass warrior you drinking that goblet of poison could still kill you.
This is my preferred style of play by far, but even if you don't want to go in that direction completely it's probably still good to check out these systems and earlier editions of D&D in general for an idea on how to run encounters when basically everything is pretty lethal.
Tomb of the Serpent Kings is a good start for checking this space of play out. It's free, will last several sessions, and is amazing at explaining the thinking behind each encounter and enemy placement. Spoilers but the party tends to remember encountering an ancient, all powerful lich lord at level 1.
Immediately for this we're doing something different, but something that plugs into that 1-3 feel that 5e does. You're not a hero in this setting, you're just trying to survive. A small group of beastmen could be this nightmarish threat to your party that could require quick thinking and dirty fighting to overcome. You're not gonna run into the group of goblins and mow them all down, you're gonna be miles off that at best.
Everything has this grim, low fantasy feel to it that crossover well with how 5e is very early on. I love that. Encounters are quick, deadly and likely to cost both parties involved a few limbs or organs in the process. Damage in general is nasty.
All great stuff. There's been a rush of free releases recently that you could checkout here if you're interested.
It's generally fun to run oneshots with other systems that are more specific about what they aim for players to do. We can still make these oneshots meaningful even by having them take place in the same universe as the home campaign even.
If you wanted to really get a good head around heists for example, and you wanted to get a bunch of really amazing mechanics that focus around tension and heightening stakes, then check out Blades in the Dark. It focuses entirely around that.
Basically there's useful advice for Dms that you can get for free from other systems that specialize in that if you're wanting to run adventures or campaigns that dip into that for a period, like 5e does with it's 1-3 phase.
- There should be more bosses like normal Atziri
- Hard lessons from DMing my first two campaigns
- Expanding Death & Revival: An Adjusted System
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