Looking back at last couple of G&G sessions I recognized the arbitrary death and I've spent some time thinking and discussing it with players. I'm firmly in the "provide a dangerous world with consummate rewards and let players suss out / make choices based on risk vs reward" camp of DMing. Here are somethings we've come up with.
First, to make rational choices players need to understand the situation they are in. Where risk is and were it isn't. Whether their choices end up being rational is up to them. But, if I haven't provided them the info (or at least ability to acquire it) I've failed as a DM. To this end I'm providing them with accurate wilderness map as discussed in previous post.
Also, mystery/suspense needs to be limited to nature of threat. The level of threat must be clear. "No one ever has returned from the Swamps of Almost Certain Peril". Definitely a deadly threat is in the swamps but is it the old crone living there or the castle of nubile maidens? This is very hard for me. By nature I'm a misleader, a trickster, a manipulator. I like to throw out 3-4 "hooks" and 2-3 red herrings. Then try my hardest to confuse the players... This doesn't seem to work so well in sandboxes. Players need to be able to "trust" the information they gather for choices to have meaning.
I'll start using a NPC "guide". Someone to demonstrate basic survival skills. Such as investigating through roleplay before charging after everything DM mentions, listen at the door first, shouldn't we look for traps, there's at least 20 of them and we are surrounded don't you think we should parlay instead of fighting to our deaths, hey this time instead of just charging in and everyone doing their own thing why don't try having a plan and working as a team, and the most important lesson of all, running the hell away (ideally before people start dieing/knocked out slowing down whoever remains conscious).
NPC will also help with another problem. 3-5 low-level characters is no where near enough, esp in wilderness where danger isn't channeled along corridors. Smaller groups are vulnerable to having no backup specialists (healer, caster, etc). When party flees there aren't enough bodies to provide rear-guard, carry the injured. So, either injured are abandoned (and die) or the whole party is slowed and TPK'd by merciless bad guys. There is saftey in numbers. 8+ characters is my new semi-enforced requirment for low level parties. Doesn't matter how they get there; running multiple PCs, hirelings, henchmen, pets, more DM controlled NPCs.
Finally, I've tweaked my version of the Death and Dismemberment Table. Now with "Less Deadly"(tm). Likely death only on results 5 or less. More "out of fight results" knocked out and stunned.
When character reaches 0 hit points and every time they take damage when at 0 they must roll 2d6 +/- Con Modifier. Dwarves may reroll once, taking better result, except any natural 2 is always applied. 2d6 Death and Dismemberment Table ======================================== nat 2 "Instant Death" = Decapitation, red mist, or similar. You are dead. <=3 "Fatal Wound" = Death in d6max minutes. Knocked Out until death unless Save vs Death is made. Magical healing allows Save vs Death with bonus equal to lvl of spell cast. Success means Incapacitated 3d6max days. (magic used for this doesn't restore hp) 4-5 "Cleave" = Limb loss and bleed out (die) in d6max rounds. Knocked Out until death unless Save vs Death is made. Magical healing, a tourniquet, or cauterization allows Save vs Death with bonus equal to lvl of spell cast, if any. Success means Incapacitated 2d6max days. (magic used for this doesn't restore hp) 6-7 "Broken bone" = Incapacitated d6max days. Knocked Out d6max rounds unless Save vs Death is made. 8-9 "Brain bashed" = Knocked Out d6max rounds. 10-11 "Glancing head strike" = Stunned d4max rounds. >=12 "Lucky bastard" = No effect. nat 12 "Now I'm mad" = Surge of adrenaline returns d4 hit points per hit die. If you roll this more than once in a single combat consider yourself a Fanatic (treat as potion of super-heroism). Result 3-11 Lack of helm worsens result one level. 3-7 Optionally use die to determine hit location. 3-7 All result in loss of ability point. Any hit to head/helm will knock off/damage helm such that it does not protect from further hits.
[d4max, d6max, etc means roll max value on that die type, roll at start of each time unit, round/day/week. My method of "tracking" durations without having to track rounds/whatever.]