Elden Ring is an infamously brutal video game, often feeling more survival-horror than fantasy RPG. The Lands Between feel dangerous to explore, with hazardous environments and terrible creatures everywhere you look. Players learn quickly that they can’t defeat every enemy they see, and adapt their strategy in favour of stealth and running to fight another day.
Elden Ring often feels like it’s designed to frustrate its players - so what can we as DMs learn from it? After all, we’re supposed to facilitate a fun experience at the table, not bully our friends. But part of a fun roleplaying session is the thrills, and we owe it to our players to make their adventure challenging. They won’t feel clever or powerful if they just win all the time, which happens all too frequently in D&D 5E. Combat encounters are balanced to the party’s level, favouring resource management over tactics and quick thinking. Especially if you’re running a sandbox-style game, where players choose their own path, not every fight should be winnable at first. It should be more like Elden Ring, where the enemies don’t change with the players’ level and combat is a truly risky endeavour.
Here, then, are a few lessons DMs, GMs and worldbuilders should learn from Elden Ring.
Make your world dangerous
If your world is full of danger, it should feel that way for the characters exploring it. When travelling, they may see giants roaming, dragons flying overhead and legions marching on the roads. Not only will this make your setting come to life, it will help your players decide where to go, and when to rest and hide. Until they’re stronger, they’ll have to tread carefully and use non-combat abilities to travel safely. Think of Frodo in Mordor, or your own experience in Caelid.
While you should increase the challenge of combat, don’t force your players into a fight they can’t win, even if you plan to resurrect them. Instead, let them see overwhelming power without being seen first. Skip the scripted total party kill and don’t waste precious table time on what amounts to a long narrated cutscene. There are other ways to show how big and bad your villain is; show their trail of destruction and let the survivors tell the party what happened. In Elden Ring, players hear of Godrick from Roderika, learning how he killed her comrades and grafted their body parts onto his own.
Use environmental hazards like Caelid’s scarlet rot swamps to make travel challenging even if players avoid combat. Tough random encounters can make your players think twice about their travel pace and resting just anywhere. Play even your weakest monsters with cunning and survival instincts. A band of goblins should be like guerilla fighters, setting up ambushes and using their Nimble Escape to hide and disengage while attacking at range. Utilise terrain features and objects to give both sides places to hide and take cover.
The survival aspect of exploration does get stale eventually, so be sure to mix it up and have areas that are relatively safe as well. Your world doesn’t need to be equally perilous everywhere you go. You can lock off your high-level content in an open world with clever use of key items and achievements like in Elden Ring. Remember your players could just fly over the gaps in the Lands Between, so you’ll need to account for their abilities when you sequester certain areas.
Make deadly encounters fun
D&D isn’t a video game. Players won’t just respawn outside the boss room when they die. We may never force the players into a fight they’re unlikely to win, but their own goals will sometimes push them to take that risk themselves. Your table time is limited, so you need to move the story along even if the party faces a deadly threat they’re unprepared for.
The solution is to present deadly encounters with options for your players to hide, run, talk and outwit their foe. Don’t let them take all day figuring out the most optimal strategy however, especially after rolling initiative. This anime-style combat dialogue is fun in doses, but cuts into table time and ruins suspense. Some DMs use turn timers to keep it under control. Players may be resistant to the change at first, so you need to follow your own rules and plan combatants’ actions during session prep.
No matter the odds, give the players a chance at victory. D&D 5E’s bounded accuracy system gives even the weakest creatures a chance to hit any enemy. Make use of this by letting players bring hirelings or allies. Give options to hide and take cover or high ground. Place objects they can interact with for an advantage or improvised trap. Your bosses may have weaknesses the party can figure out and exploit. They might flee when they lose enough HP, or have a secret to be extorted. Maybe they have a literal weak spot, like Elden Ring’s Fire Giant: a location on the body with its own AC that takes extra damage or has a debilitating effect if reduced to zero HP.
If the party hides, don’t tell them immediately whether they did so successfully; the fun part is not knowing! When the group decides to flee, make sure they have at least one escape route and be prepared to run a chase sequence. Make the chase more thrilling by adding complications and obstacles to overcome. In life-or-death situations, don’t let failed checks ruin their chances of survival. Instead, use failures to make your players sweat and come up with alternatives. If your players do end up losing, your baddies don’t always need to kill them. Great villains play cat-and-mouse, capturing the heroes and toying with them. This will give players another chance at success, but not without consequence.
All this advice is for challenging your players and rewarding different playstyles, not punishing them. If they seem frustrated with the changes, just dial them back; Elden Ring may not have an easy mode, but developer From Software has adjusted the difficulty in updates.
Regardless of these recommendations, discuss with your group during a Session Zero what level of danger they’re comfortable with, and plan your campaign with respect for your players. No DM wants to be maidenless, after all.