There’s an issue in D&D 5e where really a PC is kind of untouchable in terms of mechanics once downed and unconscious. It’s seen as ‘unfair’ to directly attack the PC when they are in this state. In some ways this is good – it’s a soft ‘lose’ condition, in that the PC went down and that feels bad so it’s a way of losing without having to have a PC die (particularly useful if resurrection isn’t possible in the campaign). Some other PC stabilizes them or heals them and then it’s gets back to normal.
So they never die…but on the other hand they never die!
Here’s an idea: The PC has a significance rating – the more significant and meaningful things they do and are involved in, the more points the DM subjectively adds to the rating. It can add up to 25. In a way significance rating is a kind of treasure and the DM could suggest various things gain it (and some things might reduce it)
If the PC goes down the DM rolls an unmodified D20 and tries to get equal to or over the significance rating. If the result does so then an available monster will hit the PC once, but not for a crit! Just a regular hit, making the PC fail one death save. That’s all! Now if the PC A: Has to make a second save and B: Rolls a 1, they actually die! >:)
Even if the DM doesn’t equal or beat the significance rating, the rating goes down by 5 points after the roll. So best earn some more points after that!
This sort of thing I would tell the players before the campaign, either deciding whether I’ll negotiate with the players over it or whether I will insist it’s a requirement (which runs the risk of no one playing. But if something is important to you at that time, it might be better to not game at all than game without it)
The point of a significance rating is that sure, you don’t want that really important character to die. But on the other hand, if they are really important, shouldn’t they be earning significance points anyway? A player can feel they can be more secure in their character without feeling the complacency that comes with plot armour. Keep earning those points!
This started out as a reply to this post
Well common wisdom is forced captures are a bad idea – players fight to the death because they play to be bad asses and being captured severely damages the idea their PCs are bad asses. Also it’s a forced capture – there’s no point even playing out the event because there is no uncertainty in the outcome. Depending on who you talk to, this can be described as basically ruining what makes roleplay different from reading a novel (or even ruins what makes it different from a pick a path adventure)
For myself I would never do a forced capture – I would foreshadow that enemy forces might try to capture them, I would have various things they could do to lower the odds of that capture (some I would explicitly say, some I would hint and some I’d leave to the players to figure out on their own). They do enough of these things and I’d use some dice rolls to work out the capture party strength. So they might well get out of it, but if they are captured then they are captured.
At that point you have a question of how much you take from them. Frankly I think of it in terms of a difficulty slider. At the easy end all their stuff and wealth is in a box at the end of the corridor in the cell block they are being held in. At the hard end all their stuff is gone, they should feel lucky to be alive – in fact it’s not really even the hard end if they aren’t dead. Doing ‘what makes sense’ does not make sense. If you are running what could be classed as an easy game and you then suddenly strip everything from the PCs then you will just deliver an unfun game to the players. I’d argue this is a matter of basic human psychology. You can’t spike difficulty – if you’re running at X difficulty, you can increase it a little at a time. Kind of like the players are in a hot tub and you’re heating up the water slowly – you can’t just set it to boil suddenly and think everyone will find that okay because ‘it makes sense that would happen’.
So if you were running an easy game (and come on guys, don’t go ‘Oh no, I don’t play with kid gloves’, lets be honest with ourselves in thinking about this because it really does matter to whether you make a difficulty spike or just a difficulty increment), then you could try out having all their stuff and wealth at the end of the corridor where there cells are located, but say 10% of their gold is taken. Why did the bad guys take that? Well make up a reason – the bad guys guards aren’t supposed to touch it, but they skimmed some off the top and lost it at the casino already. All game situations could generally result in multiple results, not just one. Look for a path of results that does not spike the difficulty of your game. I assure you that path is there if you look.