Fighting an Opponent You Can’t Beat

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on April 12, 2010

Dragon's Lair by Matt Stawicki

As PCs you think that you’re invincible. You assume that no matter what the DM puts in front of you, you can defeat it. After all, you’re the heroes. Sure some fights may be tougher than others, but if the DM’s read the DMG and set up the encounter according to the rules then every fight is beatable. But what if that’s not the case?

In a recent game my DM created a super-monster that was significantly tougher than the PCs. The intent was to give the PCs an opponent that they needed to work up to. The problem was that the party (me included) assumed that if and when we found the monster that we should fight it immediately, just like we would with any other combatant. When we finally found the creature we (predictably) ran headlong into battle.

After two grueling hours of combat we still had no clue that we were in way over our heads. In fact, we thought we were doing a pretty good job of killing the monster. And then one of my companions said to the DM, “Since we’re down to just our at-will powers, are you willing to call the fight, otherwise this could drag out for a long time?” to which the DM replied, “This monster is no where near dead. I’m not calling the fight.”

The players looked around the table with shock. If the monster wasn’t anywhere near dead, then we were in big trouble. We decided to stop playing for the night but we had an interesting discussion with the DM afterwards.

The DM explained that he didn’t think the PCs would actually fight the monster right away. He tried and tried to explain in-game that the monster was too tough for the PCs at their current level. But the PCs being PC didn’t hear this as a cautionary tale, we heard it as a challenge. The DM flat out asked us what he could have done differently to dissuade us from fighting his super-monster. We finally had to admit that there was probably nothing the DM could have done differently. He tried to build the legend of the dangerous and undefeatable monster and all we could think of was killing it. After all, we’re PCs and assume that what was impossible for everyone else is surely possible for us.

As we continued discussing the situation the DM asked if he was wrong to introduce such a powerful foe into the game at all? No one felt that the DM was out of line. Not one bit. We all admitted that it’s simply D&D mentality to assume that everything can be defeated. No one ever assumes that an encounter is out of reach.

We asked the DM what he expected us to do when we finally found the super-monster. He reminded us that there was a magical portal in the creature’s lair. A fact that we knew about since almost every NPC told us of its existence as we got closer and closer to the lair. But none of the PCs thought to follow-up on that seemingly unimportant piece of information, even though the portal was the very first thing the DM described when we arrived.

The DM then turned it around on us and asked what he could have done differently in-game to make it obvious that the PCs shouldn’t fight this monster (at least not yet). One player, who is also an experienced DM, came up with an interesting – albeit extreme – way to accomplish the DMs objective. The DM could have introduced a friendly NPC that everyone clearly understood was a higher level then the PC. Then have this NPC and his similarly high-powered companions get ripped to shreds by the super-monster. Once the PCs realized that higher level heroes tried and failed they would likely proceed with more caution, if they proceeded at all. But even this might only seem like more of a challenge to us.

Have you ever faced a monster or an encounter that was designed to be too tough to overcome? As the DM, have you ever thrown something like this against PCs? What might you have done differently in this situation as the DM? Does anyone think that the DM was wrong to put the PCs in front of such a powerful foe in the first place?

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{ 42 comments… read them below or add one }

1 numenetics April 12, 2010 at 9:18 am

Don’t want to start an edition war, especially since I play 4e myself, but I think that you’re describing one of the out-of-the-box difficulties with both 3e and 4e: DMs are expected to scale encounters to the characters. It’s not a fatal flaw, but the DM has to make it clear out of game that there the world is not built to provide them with increasing levels of success. With all of the 4e-mmo connections, its easy to explain that they should think of leveled zones.

Even with this, it’s a hard habit for players to break; my players are in the middle of a similar situation, although its not as intense as you’ve described.

2 Arcade April 12, 2010 at 9:22 am

First off, the DM did the right thing. the powerful NPC thing is a good way to go. Or the DM should account for the fact that the PCs might be foolish enough to start the fight and then give them a way out after they realize how outclassed they are. At the point in the fight where the PCs realize they are in trouble, that’s when the super powerful NPC comes in. That NPC sacrifices themself to give the party a chance to get through the portal. Or the creature lets them live but at a huge personal cost to the PCs. When the party finally faces the super creature again, they’ll have great respect for the creature and feel greater accomplishment when they finally defeat him.

I’ve run into this twice. Once, we were 2nd level in a 3E campagin and ran across a roper. We knew the roper was there because we saw it snag a fish from an underground stream. We tried to sneak by, but when the paladin used detect evil and saw this thing needed to be purified, we ended up fighting it. In this case, after the roper trounced us, it made a deal with us to go on a mission for it. (strength draining attacks work good for subduing a party that way)

Second time was just a few weeks ago. Our party was being fired upon from attackers on a cliff and we could see more attackers up ahead in the treeline. Thinking they were all part of the same encounter, our party split up- half to take the tree line and half flew up to take out the archers. It turns out they were 2 separate encounters and we were meant to fight in the forest first which would give us total cover from the archers. The fliying party got beat down bad and quickly retreated down to the forest to barely finish off the first encounter, using all our dailies and action points. In this case, the DM forgot about our flying abilities and never considered us tkaing on everyone at once. And the players, seeing an encounter with 15 combatants between the 2 locations, assumed nearly everyone was a minion and charged headfirst into combat. It was only after a few members were surrounded did we realize that they weren’t going down after a single hit.

Jay

3 Dixon Trimline April 12, 2010 at 9:54 am

An excellent article, and a good heads-up to all of us players who have never faced the Kobayashi Maru (which has excellent sushi, by the way). There are going to battles that we cannot win, and opponents that we cannot beat.

In my own experience DMing, it was a rundown tenement that had been converted into a giant ant nest. The party charged in and attacked, even though I had tried to make clear that this was a nest, a whole nest, and nothing but the nest. Hundreds, thousands, millions of ants. I did everything but post a giant KEEP AWAY sign on the nest.

When playing, I (the sneaky halfling rogue) blew a stealth check while circling a huge stockage and was fired upon by the archers on the walls. Instead of attacking, I ran the heck out of there, because I saw an obstacle I had no hope of overcoming. Bless the DM, he let me escape, but not before porcupining me with arrows.

I guess the only thing a DM can really do is to plan for the characters failure, given the nature of the game and today’s players. “If they do attack and inevitably die, I will do this, this, and this.” In my giant ant example above, I had their patron (who was still monitoring the characters’ progress) swoop in and drag them out, and tried to convince them there are fights they can’t win.

The lesson didn’t really stick, but at least I tried.

4 Sean Holland April 12, 2010 at 10:07 am

As has been mentioned above, this is to some extent a problem with the way encounters are suppose to be constructed in 4e (agreeing with the ‘no edition wars’ mantra of numenetics above). But a coherent fantasy world will have monsters/being that characters of level X cannot cope with. It certainly sounds like the DM tried to give every warning he could without breaking the 4th wall (until the end) and saying “you cannot beat this monster right now.”

It sounds like a failure to communicate as the players were expecting one thing because of game convention (‘of course we can beat the monster’) while the DM knew differently because that was how he designed this part of the campaign and was trying to warn the characters in-game
.-= Sean Holland´s last blog ..L5R JYSB Campaign Report 7 =-.

5 Toldain April 12, 2010 at 11:22 am

I’ve run into this kind of thing in many different systems, including D&D 1.0, Hero System, Traveller, what have you. (I’m a 3000-year-old high elf, so I’ve played a lot of different systems over the years). If you want to make an ongoing villain, who appears onscreen, but can’t be defeated right away, it’s a problem. The villain either needs to be so tough that he would flatten the PCs right away, or you risk Darth Vader getting killed in the first 10 minutes of “A New Hope”.

By the way, playing in an established world with reference to known figures, will help this. First level Star Wars characters do not think they can take on Darth Vader. Because they know what he can do, and what they can do.

But there’s lots of ways to dramatize more powerful characters to the PCs. Show them a “vision” of the bad guy in a Reflecting Pool or something. Let there be tales of his evil exploits in taverns, told by bards. Give them a mission, but let the mission giver tell them, “stay away from Darth Vader, you can’t handle him. He did X”.

The other kind of ongoing villian is the one that has a surefire escape route. The PC’s COULD beat him, but he teleports away. Or he has a high government post, and is effectively untouchable. Or he has an impenetrable fortress and talks to you (And taunts you) via hologram.
.-= Toldain´s last blog ..Lucky in Love, Unlucky in PVP =-.

6 Coign April 12, 2010 at 11:32 am

I have used the powerful NPC in my game a few times. Most recently was the Age of Worms campaign in 3rd Edition. (I am now DMing 4th Edition.) The players were about 12th level when I introduced the NPC Mazorian. He was a level 22 Epic mage. His talking about the places the party shouldn’t go to yet because he was hard pressed to survive there, well if the epic level guy told them it was dangerous they immediately understood he was describing the end game battle they could look forward to.
.-= Coign´s last blog ..That’s a lotta snow =-.

7 SpectacledBear April 12, 2010 at 11:36 am

I’ve found two approaches to this situation that have worked in the past.

The first approach was that during character creation the DM explained that not every encounter will be scaled to the PCs, and some encounters will be easier or tougher than we would normally expect. As a player I found that information very useful.

The second approach was something I’ve used. I describe to the players the creature’s attacks and its health. It soon becomes apparent that it is tougher than they are and is capable of eventually wiping them out. My example would be a tough bear (can’t remember the build as this was for a D&D 3.0 campaign a while ago) against a 3rd-level party. It pulled off a rend in the first round and I was able to describe the pain and wound sufficiently enough that the group was able to retreat and try a different strategy.

8 Gangrel767 April 12, 2010 at 11:59 am

I think I have two things to say here:

I think that perhaps this is a question of meta-game vs in-game. Now let me explain. The player’s expect to defeat everything they encounter, or as Arcade says above, they expect a certain percentage of a large encounter to be minions. This is not true of your characters. They see the imminent danger in each situation. They live in worlds with Dragons and Tarrasque and other destructive creature which ruin kingdoms, let alone a few heroes. They know there are gods and other fantastic creature who will smite them without much effort.

Now let me take off my DM hat and put on my player hat…

I can definitely understand how the heroes can get wrapped up their hero-ness and figure… if its in the story… we must be able to defeat it. A la smaug.

It’s a tough situation. I’m currently in a situation where i want to kill off my pc’s (for plot purposes), but im afraid they arent going to bite on the encounter…. how do i inspire the pcs to wade into the horde of orcs?

9 yongkyosunim April 12, 2010 at 12:04 pm

The DM should have introduce the monster but from a different perspective by introducing evidence of its power first and then have the PC’s encounter it. Let’s say the monster is a red dragon for example to make this easier.

1. First, have the PC’s encounter a fellow set of NPC’s who are total ubertough. Maybe the PC’s consider these guys mentors, or rivals, but the players know that when they spar off with these NPC’s, they get their butts handed to them hand over fist. A good way to do that is for the PC’s to take part in some kind of non-lethal arena games and have the NPC’s decimate them in their match easily. Now the PC’s know that these NPC’s are tough and where they fit in the pecking order between themselves and the NPC’s.
2. Now, there’s this red dragon going around terrorizing the villages. The NPC’s go off to fight the red dragon and they are wiped out. Add flowery description of how easily they were wiped out. Now the players have perspective of the challenge of the monster because they KNOW that the NPCs who can clean their clock were killed, now they KNOW that this red dragon is serious business and if they are to avenge the NPC’s, rescue the village, whatever, they got to gain levels and firepower.
3. Another way for evidence of power is to kill off an iconic character from your campaign that everyone knows is uberpowerful. Elminster or Blackstaff in the Forgotten Realms are examples. Have them go off and face against this red dragon and then word gets to the PC’s that these guys fell in battle. Of course, as DM, you can always bring them back later since they are NPC’s, but right now, they’ve served as cannon fodder.
4. Another tactic of evidence of power if the monster is a new creation of the DM which the player’s have no idea how to guage the “power level”, then have it served by “lesser” monsters that the players do know are tough. For example, if the DM wants to create some kind of intelligent undead, have it command balors to do its bidding. It’s the stories of how this creature can summon and command balors that will establish that A. It’s tougher than balors, and B. balors are tougher than PC’s, therefore C. PC’s should tackle this thing until they can tackle balors first.

For DM’s who are creating some kind of tough monster to introduce it to the PC’s, there does need to be an evidence of power, but that it has to be immediately recognizable in that players can metagame and think about the risks involved should they decide to head up to Skull Mountain, or whatever evil lair of the creature is and face off. Of course, I’m assuming your players have thorough knowledge of other creatures, but if they are total noobs where they can’t frame the sense of a pecking order, then establish it with NPC’s.

10 corwin April 12, 2010 at 12:13 pm

Ah, one of the timeless problems of D&D players…

I’ve found 5 solutions to the invincible player syndrome, 3 of which have been mentioned already in the comments:

1) Earlier, when they are getting destroyed in a fight, have an NPC show up and kill the remaining bad guys with little effort. Then, when you encounter the big unbeatable baddie, have that same NPC get torn to shreds in front of them – it’s not subtle, but should infer the power difference.

Problem with this: the players will assume that they’re meant to avenge the NPC right then, and that they’re able to do so, because they’re players! Not some wussy NPC!

2) Constantly encourage your players to do monster knowledge checks, and plainly tell them the monster is far beyond their skill level. In my game, a successful knowledge check gives the players a small bonus to damage rolls, so they check everything as soon as possible. Usually I’ll respond with a key word to let them know if it’s out of their league: “this monster would be a challenge even for heroes powerful enough to be considered paragons of the world” or “this dragon is matched only by the most epic heroes.” It’s cheesy, but they get the point.

Problem with this: some jackass player will try to “test” the monster to see how hard it hits, and the other players will stick around to help out and watch. The tester usually dies before he can get away, unless you play the monster off as uncaring toward something that attacked it – and if you DO do that, the players will stick around anyway, assuming it’s not aggressive and they can just wail on it.

3) Wait for one of your players to land their all-powerful damaging daily, let them roll the 7 different dice and add up all the modifiers, and when they lean back, grin, and fold their hands behind their head before giving you a smirk and telling you, with pride, the massive damage they just inflicted, THEN: say something like “your attack lands, but leaves barely a scratch. the monster doesn’t even look in your direction.”

Problem with this: your players will assume there’s another way to beat the encounter or damage the monster, and will start looking all over for the right damage type, usable terrain, or anything they think solves the puzzle to killing the monster.

4) Before the game, plainly tell your players that there are going to be fights they cannot win; the players will not be invincible, and need to act accordingly. This works the best, in my opinion, as most players will either a) act more carefully, or b) admit that you warned them when they’re killed by a big baddie they wouldn’t leave alone.

Problem with this: from my experience, players will still attack the giant monster and die, and when you remind them of what you said before the campaign, they’ll say “I know, but I didn’t think it was THIS monster.”

5) KILL THEM. KILL THEM FOR THEIR TRANSGRESSIONS. When I played a campaign a long time ago and thought I was the all-invincible player, we engaged a monster that we should have known we had no chance at defeating. The GM didn’t say anything, and let it kill all of us. We were pissed at first, but the GM simply asked “what made you think that five 4th-level heroes could kill an elder dragon?” There wasn’t anything in the game that made us think that, just our own feelings of safety and security. So we rerolled new characters and continued. And didn’t attack anything giant for a long time. It worked.

Problem with this: players don’t like being killed, especially if they think you are intentionally trying to “teach them a lesson.” They’ll see it as a punishment, you become an evil GM, and they think you killed them just ‘cuz.

Wow, that’s long. Anyway, great discussion! Fun to read.

11 mthomas768 April 12, 2010 at 12:16 pm

As a GM, I’ve definitely thrown too-tough challenges at my players. I’ve also faced them as a player. I think part of the solution here is to be up front with the table expectations.

Ultra-tough monsters are a great tool to inspire negotiation. As an example, a party I ran had just finished cleaning out an abandoned monastery full of undead creatures. They were very beat up, so they retreated to rest up and resupply. They returned to the site expecting to open the final (still protected) vault, only to discover a powerful dragon had taken advantage of the newly emptied site and taken up residence.

The party were sure the dragon would be too tough to kill so they negotiated a deal. They got to loot the vault (which the dragon couldn’t open), but the dragon got first choice of treasures. Everyone survived, and the players created a relationship with a potential ally.

12 Bevin Flannery April 12, 2010 at 2:02 pm

One of my players commented, in the midst of a session that involved little more than the characters trying to decide their next maneuver against the Big Bad, that my campaign is unique in our group as one in which they really need to carefully think out the possible consequences of their decisions. I take that as a compliment.

I started my first run as a GM a few years ago (in a campaign that is still on-going, though currently on hiatus) with a statement to the players that I reserved the right to kill a PC for acting stupidly. Since resurrection is not an option (dead is dead in my world), I wanted to make clear from the outset that their characters needed to play smart. Don’t assume your character can get away with anything, don’t assume that every encounter is winnable by combat, or that every opponent can be beaten down. If they approached encounters with that mindset, and allowed their PCs to take on something they shouldn’t have taken on, or stay in a fight past the point of wise retreat, then I would not hesitate to kill them.
(The other side of the coin is that I also promised a random dice roll, by itself and without accompanying PC stupidity, was extremely unlikely to lead to permanent death.)

That made a definite difference in the way the group approached things, and restrained the one player who tended to go all out just to see what he could get away with. By the time they encountered an older dragon, who possessed a religious artifact they needed to retrieve, along with his retinue of land wyrms, my bigger concern was whether any of them would save against the frightful presence and be in a position to bargain with him. (Three of the six did make the save, fortunately — and two of them the right ones to actually carry out the bargaining.)

I’ve also kept the Big Bad off-screen. I have told the players they are free to try to take him out any time they want to go after him, but I deliberately don’t set him up for a direct confrontation with them. He delegates things to lackeys to carry out while he is hundreds of miles away. At this point, I’m not even sure that killing him is in their plans — they’re aimed more for cutting his political legs out from under him, which really is a much better revenge.

13 Neuroglyph April 12, 2010 at 4:05 pm

Another way of handling the big bad monster fight is have the PCs discover it in mid-clash with another monster that they know is deadly. It’s easy for DMs to create powerful versions of currently existing monsters, or to build creatures that on the surface are hard to identify their inherent threat. So having it ripping into some creature that IS a known quantity works out too. A little old man with a walking stick is just a beggar, until he starts firing fireballs out of his staff. Letting Characters see a demonstration of a bad guy’s power is not only good drama, but can develop the plotline as well.
.-= Neuroglyph´s last blog ..Pre-Release Review of Amethyst: Foundations by Dias Ex Machina (Part 1) =-.

14 Jason Dawson April 12, 2010 at 5:43 pm

Everything said in the comments above is completely valid, and I add my +1 to the crowd.

One additional thing– in addition to outright tearing through an NPC the players know to be powerful, have a powerful NPC actually tell the PCs that he is frightened of the monster. It’s always surprising to me how powerful that can be for PCs. Learning that an NPC they know and recognize is more powerful than they are is actually *afraid* of something that they are heading toward facing can be a powerful psychological motivator.
.-= Jason Dawson´s last blog ..Wil Wheaton Said It Best…Don’t Be A Dick =-.

15 panzerleader April 12, 2010 at 7:20 pm

As a Dm I have used the above techniques with mixed results. The players are always chomping for a fight so to get them to back down is difficult and often frustrating or them. And sometimes it is not the PCs who suffer for it, because the big bad we DMs thought was so big and bad gets annihilated by serious teamwork too soon. Heh.

However, danger and surprise are elements of the game that should not be diluted by anything but the astute observation of the players.

In 4e there are some new factors to help mitigate this problem, such as bloodied value, and nature/other skill checks. However, even then, they might just think ‘solo’ and dive right in, blades swingin’ :)
.-= panzerleader´s last blog ..4e Mega-dungeon : Chapter 1 Laying the Foundations Deep =-.

16 wickedmurph April 12, 2010 at 11:20 pm

Another thing to consider here is the intelligence of the monster. If we’re talking about a Dragon or a Lich or other highly-intelligent creature, why would it not stop and “negotiate” before eating their asses. If the party is busted up, they are more likely to listen to what the creature has to say. Likely, they will be spending the next little while playing “step n’fetch it” for a moody red dragon or a semi-sane undead wizard. Good way to teach both the values of “look before you leap” and “it’s always worth chatting”.
.-= wickedmurph´s last blog ..4e Sandboxing =-.

17 xerosided April 12, 2010 at 11:22 pm

My players and I are friends. We get together to have fun. If I’m running the game and they have an idea that’s a really bad idea, I’ll confirm their plans repeatedly. By the second time I ask “so you’re going to do X,” they usually figure out I’m trying to warn them subtly. If they don’t, then each subsequent confirmation my tone gets more and more exaggerated. When I start asking “are you SURE you want to do THAT?”, they know it’s time to rethink the plan.

It also serves as a stalling tactic while I figure out a way to save their asses. Because sometimes even telling them flat out that they’re making a mistake isn’t enough to stop them. They’re players, after all.

Other times, a quick, subtle head shake or mouthing of “bad idea” does the trick. The fourth wall exists to be broken, says I.

18 rednightmare April 13, 2010 at 2:20 am

You could make it clear that the monster isn’t even trying. have him use only his standard and minor, ommiting his move for example.
Or use a little trick from the Naruto anime. At the beginning of the series Naruto and his teammates fight their future trainer as a test. al the time he’s reading a book while fighting them, showing how little effort he needs for the fight :P

19 Daniel Brouwer April 13, 2010 at 3:24 am

Hahaha, I actually did that twice in one (3.5) session. The first one was to punish a player who thought he was funny, the second one was part of my adventure hook. They ran headfirst into both encounters.

It was actually the start of the game. They were in a village that I had drawn out pretty accurately. One asked if there was a butcher. I said “yes”, as I had actually drawn one on the map.

He, or rather his wizard character named Bob, wanted to buy half a kilogram of black pudding. He thought it was funny. It cost him 5 cp.

So as soon as they entered the forest, I gave them an encounter of a bear smelling black pudding nearby. How obvious do you want it? Just throw the darn meat at him. But now, they charged in. Suffice to say, they were back in the village tending their wounds.

They continued on afterwards to the ruins with the strange light, where a mysterious stranger who was obviously a vampire offered them a drink (of blood). He was being polite to them too! The half-elf paladin quickly hid behind a rock (lol), and the ranger immediately shot an arrow his way.

I admit I was railroading the character, but personally, I think those encounters are some of the most interesting. They give the characters the sense of living in a real dangerous place and being part of a real great story. They thought they were just there to kill everything.

Well, at least the encounter was memorable enough to still be in the minds of us all 3 years after it happened.

20 Ameron April 13, 2010 at 10:25 am

@everyone
Thank you to everyone who posted a comment. There’s a lot of great feedback here. I thought this article might have some legs, but I was blown away by how many people commented and the quality of the feedback. And welcome to all the readers who posted comment for the first time.

@numenetics
As a DM I try to change it up a bit and throw some encounters at my PCs 1 or 2 levels above or below them on occasion, but I rarely use a villain or monster that is unbeatable. I know that they won’t back down… ever, so pitting them against an unbeatable opponent just seems mean and underhanded. I’ve been told that a few games of Call of Cthulhu will “take the D&D right out of my players.” I have yet to try it.

@Arcade
The huge personal cost that our party is about to make is that one of the PCs is likely to die when we rejoin the encounter already in progress. Some lessons are hard learned.

I’ve run into the 2 encounters that become 1 encounter scenario a few times. It’s always ended with disastrous results.

@Dixon
I agree that all the DM can do if the players decide to fight the unbeatable foe is to have a back-up plan ready. This is good DM advice in any circumstance, but even more so in this case. Sometimes it takes the death of a PC to drive a warning home.

@Sean Holland
I applaud the way my DM handled it in game. Looking back there were plenty of warning that the PCs ignored. I think I enjoyed the encounter more because the DM didn’t come right out as say it was unbeatable at the beginning. Now if we can manage to flee with our lives I’ll chalk this up as a win.

@Toldain
Part of the challenge is that the campaign world is one the DM designed himself. None of the players have ever played in this setting before. Had it been Forgotten Realms or Eberron then the DM could throw around well know power players and that would give us the context you describe (excellent Star Wars examples, by the way).

I’m not a fan of the disappearing villain. If the PCs are capable of defeating him, then give them a legitimate shot at it or don’t let them encounter him yet. I’d rather face the unbeatable opponent than a villain that DM knows he’s going to just wisk away before the encounter ends. But maybe it’s just me.

@Coign
Good idea to have more powerful NPC provide advice. The problem with our campaign is we’re the heroes in a “points of light” setting and there are no powerful NPCs, just really tough monsters.

@SpectacledBear
I think if the DM told us flat out at the beginning that some monsters would be way too powerful to fight initially we would have been (slightly) more cautious. But we’ve been playing for 4 or 5 months now and in all honesty, even if he told us that on day 1, I’d have forgotten by now.

Describing the pain is an approach I hadn’t considered. Good call.

@Gangrel
It’s a really tough balance for players between feeling challenged and feeling smug or arrogant. And of course every player will see the situation differently so no one rule will work every time.

I’ve often found that players are more willing to make a self-sacrifice when they know (out of game) what their options are. For example, since PHB3 came out some of my players have expressed interest in trying the new classes. If they die heroically I’d certainly be willing to entertain that option rather than forcing the surviving party members to bring back the dead PC.

@yongkyosunim
The DM tried to show us evidence of the monster’s power, but we ignored the signs. We fought a lot of really tough monsters on the way to its lair and each time the monsters told us or we found evidence, that their numbers were decimated by the super-monster.

But all we saw were monster it fought. If we’d seen monsters that worked for it or that were controlled by it that might have changed things.

@corwin
Your 5 solutions all have some great potential. Thanks for being so detailed.

I like the idea of monster knowledge checks to give the PCs an idea of the monster’s power level. This is especially important when the DM has the Monster Builder at his finger tips. Just because the MM has the monster as level 5 doesn’t mean he’s still only level 5.

The monster shrugging off a daily attack (or any attack that the PCs think is awesome) is a good way to scare players. But your right that some will just see this as a puzzle that they need to solve. Still, I’ll have to remember this tactic.

As hesitant as I am to kill PCs outright, if I’ve given them ample opportunity to change their tactics and they don’t then I let the dice fall where they may.

@mthomas768
It seems that just telling the players that some fights are outside of their power level seems to be the best way to handle this problem.

@Bevin Flannery
When the players fear the monsters definitely take it as a compliment to your DMing prowess. You’ve obviously done a great job of putting the players in their character’s shoes.

Your suggestion to acknowledge the existence of the super-monster, and then let the PCs choose to fight him or not at a time of their choosing sets expectations. Having the monster use his minions (not the 1 hp kind, but the subservient creatures bowing to his superiority) against the PCs first should open their eyes to the super-monster’s real power level.

@Neuroglyph
A first hand demonstration of a bad guy’s power against someone other than the PCs is a great approach. I think that would have worked in my situation.

@Jason Dawson
I often forget how power fear is. If the king or some other notable NPC expresses fear, the PCs should quickly realize that they are not as tough as they thought and maybe they should fight the super-monster (yet).

@panzerleader
In our situation we got the monster down to bloodied pretty quickly. The problem was that it took all of our biggest attacks to do it. When we didn’t realize (at first) was that when the monster fell below his bloodied value he entered a rage that raised his defenses and gave him new, more formidable powers. As mentioned above, I think we should have made more monster knowledge checks and more Perception checks to try and learn more about our foe.

@wickedmurph
We got the impression that the monster is quite ferial and territorial. This is why the other bad guys set up a portal in its lair. He’s the perfect guardian. But if the monster were intelligent we would have tried talking to it. In fact we tried and that just alerted it to our presence.

@xerosided
I’ve taken this same approach many times. But every once and a while the PCs expect me to change it up and I’m happy to oblige them. I’ve found that if I caution them in the manner you describe (which I usually do) then they use my reaction as a gauge of how powerful the monsters are. If I don’t say “Are you sure” then they run headlong in. They assume I’ll always warn them of real danger. Sometimes the only way to get the point across is to break the 4th wall.

@rednightmare
Effort vs output. That would certainly drive the point home fast.

@Daniel Brouwer
I find D&D is like poker in some regards. You many not remember every victory, but you never forget a bad beat. If the monster is so tough that the PCs can’t defeat it, they’ll remember it for a long time.

21 btorgin April 13, 2010 at 5:36 pm

A couple more thoughts:

1) Tell the players, experienced adventurers, you are sure this monster is too tough for you.

2) A slight change to a previous idea: Instead of sending their lackeys in beforehand, have them wonder off and leave his “pets” or whatever to deal with the rabble. If the pets are tough, the main villain must be tougher.

3) My personal favorite, don’t have a monster picked out from the builder. If the players attack, narrate. They can’t get into a fight the DM doesn’t actually have. They swoop in with their powerful attacks and the bad guy easily sidesteps them, or ignores the hefty blow they just made. Just because there is a fight doesn’t mean you have to pull out the monster stat block and run it via the normal combat rules. If they can’t win, don’t let them fight.

Cheers

22 btorgin April 13, 2010 at 5:37 pm

Couldn’t find an edit link.

Regarding 1) above. I mean, their character realizes this creature/fight is beyond them. Remember, the characters know things the players don’t. They aren’t stupid so don’t let what they know be ignored.

23 Smerg April 18, 2010 at 3:15 pm

I’ve been down this road a few times as GM and as player.

1> I had a brand new group of players that had been used to doing DnD and I introduced them to Shadowrun (1ed). I had warned them that this wasn’t DnD and they needed to be more careful in their approach. First time out they tried to go ‘guns ablazing’ through the front door. A few rounds of combat and some Moderate to Severe Wounds and the players decided to retreat and rethink their approach. They still had their mistakes (like firing a grenade launcher at a door when standing only twenty feet away) but they learned and got better. A couple of those players several years later did a ‘run’ and were so smooth on planning and execution that they didn’t even need to use a gun once (I was proud that they had learned).

2> I did a ‘Sandbox’ style of campaign when 3.0 was still fairly new. I had decided to use the ‘number appearing’ values in the MM to determine the size and distribution of the groups of Kobolds and Lizardmen in the area. If you remember those ‘number appearing’ also described how many leader types would also be part of the population. The group of Lizardmen (I think 40 were in the band) were the toughest group next to the Adult Black dragon that was ‘mating’ and producing ‘half-dragon’ templated creatures in the area. The group was expected to slowly explore and pick out fights that they could win and work their way through troubles. The group of course almost directly bee lined for the Lizardmen and decided they would do a solo assault on the Lizardmen. When their first efforts were rebuffed by the Lizardmen the players decided to solo the leadership group of the Lizardmen (The leader had I think 7 levels of Fighter and was accompanied by a Druid with 5 levels and a wizard with a few levels and couple of 3 level fighters). It was a quick swift lesson and the players later agreed they had ignored warnings and just ‘assumed’ that the lizardmen would be like lizardmen in past modules that were 2 HD and not much else. It was a lesson in Old School usage of the MM instead of the carefully crafted encounters that only had so many of something so the players were almost guaranteed to get a win.

3> Now, an example from me as a player. I was playing with a group doing 4e when we encountered a green dragon. We were 2nd level and even though it was not a big dragon it was more then we could straight up and solo. So, we applied some brains to this obstacle.

First, we knew where there was some bandits encamped (30 to 40) that we had run into some outliers of the group. We volunteered the information to the dragon along with what we had learned of the bandit’s loot. So, off the dragon went to fetch itself some loot (the enemey of my enemey is my friend). We took the opportunity to do some more poking around.

We found a trapped up treasure chamber. We by passed the trap and realized that it could only really belong to the dragon. So, we left clear evidence that we had been inside the area and re-rigged the trap so it would work slightly differently.

The dragon returned from the bandits with its loot but some wounds from the bandits. It then noticed the treasure room had been opened and checked to see what had been touched or taken and got smacked by the re-engineered trap. We then went further into the catacombs to await what happened fully prepared to run if our plans hadn’t turned out.

The GM awarded a shaving the green dragon’s hit points for getting the dragon to fight the bandits and re-rigging the trap. We decided to go for the fight inside the caves where the dragon wouldn’t be able to fly. It was still a tough fight for the group but we pulled through.

Teamwork, planning, and preparation for what to do if we had to run all added up to a win on a more powerful opponent.

24 endymion April 19, 2010 at 5:45 am

It’s funny, because I’ve gotten my hands on some vintage Dragon mags (1995 and older) and one of them had a discussion on this very issue. I think a recent Dungeon column touched on this issue too. This got a little long, because I’m responding to a lot of the issues raised by the discussion (though generally).

Part of the problem here is the inherent expectation of fairness. The PCs are the heroes of their game, and they expect things to essentially work like a heroic tale: the obstacles they face will be tough, but not insurmountable. Besides, D&D is a game, even though it has other elements, and games are usually contests of skill that take place on a level playing field, like chess. If we remember that a DM’s job is to 1) make sure everybody has fun and 2) tell a good story, then a lot of these issues go away. This is why I feel trying to solve this problem by warning the players that the game world is unfair and stupid behavior will get them killed is missing the point.

As a DM you want to instill a sense of real jeopardy without killing everyone’s character. The problem is a player will feel none of his character’s hit point losses, but the thing he does feel, his character’s death, might be going too far. This is why it’s so frustrating when your players are foolhardy. How can you continue to give the world and their actions a sense of verisimilitude if they expect to carve through everything like a hot knife through butter? At the same time, the players need to feel a sense of agency, like their actions matter (and have consequences).

Honestly, without a dedication to everyone having fun, the game would be dreadfully unfair. The DM gets to decide what the players face and how the world works, and if he wished, the DM could kill the players pretty easily by putting them up against something far too tough. And the argument that “life isn’t fair, so this isn’t either” doesn’t hold water for me, because we play D&D to be heroes, not for grim life lessons.

Ameron, this is why I think your DM fell down on the job. Having a big threat looming over the players is a great way to build suspense and tension and make that eventual battle taste so much sweeter. But there’s no way, in my opinion, he should have allowed you to track down and face the monster when you had no chance to defeat it. And why, I wonder, did you have no idea the monster was beyond your abilities until you’d blown through all your powers? That’s where colorful description comes in (“He shrugs off your massive attack like you would a flea-bite”). If you’d gotten some sense of how you were doing during the battle, you would have figured that maybe it was time to retreat and the whole frontal assault was a real mistake.

This is where D&D isn’t a game, because the players really have no opponent, since the DM’s duty is to give the players an entertaining story and not to beat them. A big villain is a good thing to use, since it gives the story scope, but what about big villains in actual stories? In Lord of the Rings, Sauron is 1) not immediately accessible because he’s in the middle of Mordor and 2) can’t knock on Frodo’s door and kill him because he’s trapped. Inaccessibility can feel like a cheat or a cliche if it’s done poorly, but I think if we’re inventive enough it doesn’t have to be.

But then again there’s a narrative truth to the idea that not every battle is winnable and sometimes even heroes fail (even though they might later transcend that failure to be victorious in the end). That’s why I think the advice about contingency plans is great – if the failure isn’t complete, the players will be more cautious the next time, and their eventual victory will be sweeter.

25 j_king April 20, 2010 at 12:47 pm

I’m about to kick off a 4e campaign.

Houserules:

1. Know the game mechanics. In combat, roll your dice before it’s your turn. Role play the result. No meta-talk.

2. You don’t have powers. “Powers” are a game mechanic. It’s considered meta-talk to use “power” names and talking about resting up to get your “powers” back. Banned.

There are others, but for the sake of this comment these are the important ones.

So the PCs are sent off from their village on one errand or another. However, they don’t get far before receiving news that their village is under attack. When they get there, it’s too late — it’s burning and their are monsters marching towards them.

The final encounter here will involve the Big Bad. The PCs will have already been through a few encounters before meeting him though (no resting dangnammit — your village is burning! Honestly, who sits down for a cup of joe when their town is on fire and monsters are rampaging everywhere?). When they do encounter him, he is being escorted by a retinue of extremely terrifying high-level monsters the party could never hope to beat. He orders his minions to kill the PCs while he descends into the tomb to retrieve what he came for.

I intend to let the PCs just get beat up a little by the Big Bad’s body guard. They won’t get to roll initiative before the guards get their orders and the Big Bad descends into the tomb. Instead they will have to face the guards and watch as maybe one or two of them get knocked out. Luckily they have been assisted by a “divine influence” in the encounter just previous to this one where it explained to the party what was going on. The divine influence saves them from annihilation.

Exhausted, weary, and perhaps missing a party member or two — the party once again meets Big Bad as he emerges from the tomb victorious. They can attack him if they want. I don’t care. Neither will he. In fact he will probably mock them viciously as their weapons crumble to dust and spells are swallowed by his amorphous black armor. By then the futility of their situation, I hope, will sink in has he dispatches the remaining party members and flees with his prize.

This might drive the rules-lawyers crazy. But I’m here to be entertaining. In pivotal scenes where the PCs meet the Big Bad for the first time, I take carte-blanche on the mechanics and suspend them. If all they want to do is roll dice and use power-cards, we’ll just pull out any number of excellent board-game/RPG hybrids and play one of those. However, at my game we’re playing an RPG because we want to tell stories and experience something outside the framework of mechanics and rules and winning or losing. Yeah we have character sheets and expensive hard-cover books… but those are just there so we don’t have to get into the “bang I shot you / no you didn’t” argument. As the DM I feel no shame putting the rules on the back-burner for important scenes where the dramatic effect is more important than playing a game.

26 Daniel Brouwer April 21, 2010 at 5:42 am

You know, it really all depends on what you and your players want.

My friends and I all grew up with Final Fantasy, Zelda, and the likes. They don’t mind being rail-roaded. There’s a huge section (well, I think it is huge) on how rail-roading is not the best of ideas, but that really only holds true for so many people. It’s funny that earlier on you read about all these different types of players and how you can best cater for them. It’s exactly the same here. They love being rail-roaded. Really, I think they wouldn’t for the life of them know what to do if I didn’t give them the information to get on with the story. Since they’re also not the types to say “So we have to go north to find this guy? Let’s go south!”, it makes life for me very easy and I can come up with cool stuff they will actually go after. If part of the story is a big bad Black Knight to deal with that will almost kill them the first time they meet, they will understand that. Actually, I think they even EXPECT an abundance of “cut-scenes”.

For some reason I am constantly being reminded to a cut-scene from the game Breath of Fire. I don’t remember much from the story and the game, but I do remember that one cut-scene, I think it was even the beginning of the story, where the bad guy totally destroys the player. It’s a great start of a story, and instantly gives them a really good reason to continue adventuring, because next time they run into him, “You better believe it, we are ready!”

I am going to do the same thing next time we play. Okay, so I am letting an NPC handle the big bad guy, which will promptly flee the scene, but not before the PC’s get a taste of how powerful the big bad guy is. I am careful enough not letting him utterly destroy the PC’s (because I do believe that it’s not wise to always make sure the players know they’re too weak), but at least this way they will know that there’s more in the world than just weak kobolds.

And really, what is sandbox anyways? Even if you say “Hey, there’s this tower down there filled with awesome treasures, but really, you can also go somewhere else if you really want! Whatever man!”, you’re still rail-roading. You’re just not forcing them to get on the train, but everyone knows it’s the funnest thing to do. Oh wait, was that another discussion?

Anyways, I am not using the rules and mechanics and stat blocks for that encounter either. Once the big bad guy takes off and is being pursued by the NPC, they will still have an evil Undead Spawn to deal with, but that guy won’t have any stat blocks other than “will die in about 3 turns, and hits with around 2D6″, and of course a cool description of how utterly disgusting he is (and another fortitude check to see if the characters can fight him without throwing up, absolutely hillarious every time).

27 Hadoken April 21, 2010 at 1:47 pm

First of all, great discussion and awesome ideas! Lemme add my approach to this issue.

Ever since I began roleplaying I noticed such ‘problems’ and thought about them. And though some solutions offered are interesting, most of the times they act like a band-aid, making the problem go away for an instant, but it emerges again.

When I began DMing, my goal was to give the party a good experience, via the story and action. But, not all friends and players were ‘educated’ in fantasy and action as I was. Also, seeing that there were many who learned the rules so well that they could even quote the text by heart, I began thinking about how I could shape the party to avoid playinf in such a senceless way, before I ever read the first line in that 2e DM guide. I had to find the reason they played like that.

In toyday’s culture people are taught that the epic hero can take on an army singlehandedly, or that while playing a videogame, one doesn’t need to think too much about their strategy because if the simple one they thought of fails, they can always reload and try something else on-the-fly. This notion that there is a second, third and Nth chance and that there is a Deus-Ex-Machina that will set things striaght in our favour, has made people careless and reckless. RPG’s are no different.

So, from my very first DM session I began to ‘educate’ my players. I didn’t make a speech or warn them or anything. Simply put, I began showing them that each fight, every trap and every riddle, or even being careless when not seemingly in danger, can have fatal results. The very first experience they got from this came from one of my favourite monsters, the humble kobold.

Being expereinced players and knowing what’s in the Monster Manual they felt 2 kobolds were a pushover. Noone expects 2 kobolds to act as bait for a trap of being surrounded by another 12 kobolds. Also (and this is somethin that’s the DM’s fault), monsters have stats. Why not take advantage of that high dexterity you rolled for that kobold and make him swing on a vine and then on a treebranch, escaping the PC’s attack, showing that he might have few HP but he’s not dying that easily.

Now, I’m not suggesting each opponent or encounter be treated as a high threat, nor that it all has to be super hard and impressive, but, when you use those easy encounters to educate your players that there’s more than charging in a fight, and that the dumb charge can be countered and turned against them, even by lesser foes, they learn.

Pretty soon players learn to not underestimate anyone. Then you begin throwing in more clues to strategy. For instance, all those descriptions in the MM about the creatures ways and powers aren’t there just for the DM to use for himself. If you give them a hint of a special power a monster might have, they will (if you’ve trained them to be aware and think) look for more info before beginnig their quest. They will analyze their environment and try to use it to their advantage. But you, as a DM, must make them think this way.

One example is the final ‘boss’ for a first level dungeon I designed for the 3e. It was a hydra. I know hydras are impossible for 1st level characters to beat. The players knew this too. The had no idea they were going to fight a hydra, and you can imagine their expression when they heard the description of the monster they were facing. I wanted to teach them 2 things. 1) What THEY knew about the monster, isn’t the same as what the PCs knew and 2) I wanted to teach them to think before charging.

The whole purpose of the dungeon was to provide the PCs what they needed to kill the hydra and barely survive (and it worked!), but at the same time, they learned right from the start, all I sought to teach! By turning their game knowlege on them, they forgot the ‘it’s meant to be killed by us’ mentality.

Strategies like this worked miracles for me when, later on, I began introducing my own monsters. Legends of the monsters, stories, scrolls on them etc, became important, they became the game. Needless to say the same holds true for dungeons, forgotten tombs and that tall spiraly caste on the snowy peak.

This is the way I’ve dealt with these issues, and it ranges from learning when to fight and when not to, to how to use spells, to anything else. It enhances the fun and makes it a great experience. Because, when a player knows that not even Conan always charges in and wins by brute force, they know that they can’t. And that is enough to know.

28 Maxo June 21, 2010 at 4:23 pm

Player losses need not be player kills.

Players can be unconscious.
Players can lose their gear.
Players can be ransomed.
Players can be offered an out.

Players can be captured and taken elsewhere… sold into slavery… set to work in the mines.. put in prison.. etc. etc.

29 MicTar December 27, 2010 at 12:56 pm

I am currently running a dungeon crawl where my PC’s are going to face this exact situation. But I have built in a Deus ex machina situation for it so that the entire party does not die (this is also a hook for a larger campaign). But they also have the ability to escape the whole situation if they would explore in a different direction.

My problem is I can not let 2 of my PC’s die as they are both being run by 1st time pen and paper gamers (one is 11 the other is 9) and I do not want to make them hate these type of games. But at the same time I want them to learn the realities of gaming that the PC does not always win. Any sugestions?

30 Ryan December 27, 2010 at 2:06 pm

3.5
SoulKnife
WearBear Cleric
Fighter
-I forget…most likely a heavy caster.

All level 13 and had been fighting random monsters all day. Doing pretty well too.

A buddy of mine got home from work and decided to have us fight something.

4 Upper Tear Basilisks (Monster Manual 1 I think). He had us enter a box canyon and 4 failed DC28 will saves vs petrification later….we died in 1 round.

The one of us with the highest will save needed to roll a 14….the rest needed a 18-20.

31 Jack the Cleric January 3, 2011 at 8:00 pm

I started gaming mid 80’s in a hobby shop filled to the roof with Naval ship to ship, Napoleonic, and World War 2 wargamers who were also old school D&D, AD&D, and even Chainmail miniature players. 1st edition was the current game du jour, but plenty around who still gamed like it was brown book. We died all the time. You would have thought it was cruel by today’s standard, but that was life. You screw up, you die; so learn and begin anew. I found every character is just as important as the last, and the death is just as hard every time it happens.
I find video games no different. Even if you have unlimited lives, to go on a long run and then die for the 12th time, you still groan and feel the frustration. Bad thing about games like 3.5 is the effort that must be put in to create the character in the first place. Old school was far far easier. Roll the stats, basic equipment, give a name and have some idea of background and voila! instant new character. I still see game death as just a speed bump, and nothing to get hung up over, but only many a death can get you to that place. Nothing to be gained by trying to over-protect the gamers.
OTOH, 11 and 9 year olds may have a harder time I guess, but teenagers like myself when I started are hardly much better.
On another note: I would never say to anyone “life isn’t fair, neither is my game.” They know why they died… most likely bad dice rolls on their part, a lack of asking the right questions, or really great die rolling by the bad guys. I would have to have a long talk with anyone that would accuse a DM of being “out to get them” since they may be taking a game too personally. I grew up in the age of “evil demonic D&D” accusations so finding someone getting a bit too wrapped up in the game world means a bit more to me, but if most are having a great time, death notwithstanding, and one guy is really bumming out, he may need talking to.

32 Jack the Cleric January 3, 2011 at 10:54 pm

I forgot until just now. I did hear some DMs back in the day say they were disappointed if they didn’t get to kill a character (usually to a bystander just before a game within earshot of the players), but it was mostly “trash talking” to put players into a proper paranoia. We did a lot of running (for our lives) in those games now that I think of it. LOL.

Our game playing up to the point of combat most likely resembled the scene from 2001 A Space Odyssey when the primates are approaching the obelisk and keep retreating and making noises at each other. Quite to the contrary of the article, we had a very active fear of most critters unknown, and no room was ever entered without 5 minutes (or more!) of questions about room appearance, and always 10 foot poles tapping/leading the way!

33 JonathonVolkmer January 5, 2011 at 1:46 pm

I should say first, that I really like Maxo’s note about alternatives to outright PKs. There are a lot of other good ideas here too, too many to comment on.

Frankly, I have long been a fan of warning players before the campaign starts that stupidity is lethal. I’ve killed relatively few characters over the years, because they know going in that I rarely pull punches.

That said, my players are generally careful and creative when it comes to encounters and problem solving, and I hope to eventually raise them to the level of Sun Tzu-style battle strategy: win the fight before it starts!

34 Geoffrey February 24, 2012 at 1:36 pm

As I’ve thrown some encounters at PCs that they were not meant to defeat until later, I very much enjoyed this story. I prefer to use the very baddy bad guy every now and then and I very much enjoy throwing him at PCs several times only to leave them a little bruised and watch the villain run away, only to set up more devious traps the next time.

To me, this is part of the way the game is meant to be played. Yes, standard encounters are based on the levels and abilities of a party, but a lot has to be done and thought about to mix it up. A few easier encounters, and some much harder. It helps create paces in different parts of the game, creating intensity right before a major development is made in a storyline, :).

I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t set up warning after warning. They will get one piece of information that is realistic that may warn them of impending doom. For example, when they land their dingy at the mysterious island and step in a footprint twice the size of their party, they have an option. There is always an alternative.

35 strangeomen February 24, 2012 at 4:13 pm

DM was right on. The issue is the boring idea that a “hero” means kicking everything’s ass, just this canned progression of fights for xp. What about picking your ground, studying your foe, choosing to fight another day, skirmishing, retreating, etc? Basic Sun Tzu Art of War! That kind of D&D is far more interesting, living in a world where there are way more powerful beings than you and using your battle smarts wisely. As a DM I tell my players that yes they can die, rushing headlong into every battle is a sure fire way to rolling a new PC. I encourage them to ask questions of NPCs, research, and leave escape routes open. I will always try to “save” them if they’ve done the best they can against a tough foe, but don’t reward arrogant stupidity. D&D is the whole adventure: winning, losing, learning. Give players the bigger picture, makes for a better game!

36 Billdave May 6, 2013 at 9:50 am

I play 3.5 – Nemeses and big bad monsters are what keep player’s in check, what keep them engaged. In a bad situation, with a bit of fudging, i can take players to less than 0 hp, leave them for dead, and then fight another day. But i seldom have to do it- my players learn at first level to be wily and careful- to kill the flesh golem they had to lasso it and roll the boulder on the other end of the rope off the cliff in perfect timing. “Expeditious retreat” is made for retreating. Rope trick makes a place to hide. We don’t think the world is fun if you don’t have to be smart to succeed in it. And that means not always being the most powerful entity in the room.

37 Ameron (Derek Myers) May 14, 2013 at 9:38 am

@Billdave
Your comment pretty much sums up our issue. We had been playing so much 4e that we were unaccustomed to facing an opponent we couldn’t beat. I applaud the DM for putting us in that situation to remind us that there’s always a bigger fish. Between retreat and the creative sue of items, spells and powers (as you describe) the game provides ways to get out of trouble when the party realizes they’re in over their heads, something that just doesn’t seem to happen as often in 4e.

38 Pentagon August 23, 2013 at 11:26 am

I did once make the PC’s fight a creature much higher level than them. I think I made it a lvl 18 soldier vs. a lvl 8 party. This meant that the players were only hitting it on 20’s, but I made sure the party had enough miss/damage attacks to eventually down it as the damage the creature was doing was quite low too.

The fight worked quite well as it gave the players the feeling of fighting something way over their head but still being able to come out victorious. Though I did have some initial complaining from the players until they worked out it was beatable.

39 northierthanthou January 13, 2014 at 5:54 pm

I was once in a campaign where the GM kept having NPCs tell us that no-one survived a particular forest, but of course they said similar things about the last few challenges. When we went into the forest anyway, he just kept upping the ante until he killed a player character, then flat out said out-of-game that we weren’t supposed to be there, that it was too big for us. So, we left. In this case, it was frustrating for us, because the GM had cried wolf too often, but I also remember thinking that is a sticky wicket. Players often interpret warnings as challenges and visa versa. In my last campaign I did precisely the bigger-group gets slaughtered approach and it worked almost too well. the players tried to run like Hell instead of working an indirect route into the campaign.

40 Duke June 14, 2014 at 12:39 pm

as a DM i like giving encounters that the heroes cant fight their way out of i don’t give many hints until it stops getting funny, does this make me a bad person?

41 Lex June 15, 2014 at 2:09 pm

my 1st ever campaign, we did a dummy run of ‘keep on the shadowfell’ to get somewhat familiar with the rules and i did ALOT of my own studying as a 1st time DM with 1st time players. after the dummy run we went right into a world entirely of my own making with custom gods, creatures and maps also new lvl 1 characters.

i gave them a beautiful castle to start with, full of monsters, traps, puzzles and most importantly loot. the party had a nasty run in with some spiders and kinda… well skipped the quest. they got sick of it and using good role playing and other such sought out what they were there for to just finish the quest up and leave the castle behind… and all the loot and XP.

then the went on to the quest i had hinted that i was giving them next… which involved fighting a undead army lead by a dark godess whos followers were people tortured into madness where they could feel no pain on misery. they were called gleemen and were seriously dangerous and creepy.

party finds a town full of them, i describe a serious freak show and they go right in… they encounter some gleemen who barely even care that they are there and immediately get into a fight with one who in a 4v1 still manages to put a party member to half health… then they went and picked a fight with over a dozen of them. I felt no pity and it was hard for them to argue as i had given them a taste of how tough these guys were.

luckily the rouge escaped and managed to rescue the captured party before they could be tortured into becoming gleemen, i used some DM hacks so the rouge stood SOME chance but after that i must say they approached most encounters with alot more caution.

lesson well learned.

42 Gabriel Tunar June 23, 2014 at 10:49 am

This is a matter which I’m really happy Stumbleupon brought to my screen. So let me tell my own story.

As a novice GM, a year and a half ago, wanting to play a game, I created a basic D10 system, using White Wolf’s Vampires: The Masquerade as my guide on how to make a stat sheet. Being a new GM and having new players, I made it a combat based system, something easy to get into, so that you essentially got the same game feel as D&D, that you are the heroes, that you are doing things nobody else can, and that you are extremely powerful. Perhaps not as strong as some of your mentors, but they cannot be everywhere, and you are just as good as a group.

One day, I decided the game was gliding too easily. I hadn’t challenged the group in quite a while, since one character was very good at boss killing. I had the mentors each warn the group about a certain general, Petrine. A powerful fighter with powerful flames, she was NOT somebody that the team could beat, even on a whole. Despite this, disobeying orders, and acting as reckless as she did on any occasion, the boss killer charged head first into battle. Not wanting to simply wipe her for making a single wrong move, I started employing some of Petrine’s powers. Flames engulfed the area, water attacks from Boss Killer were fully ineffective. Debuffs hardly hindered her actions, and though the Boss Killer wasn’t yet dying, she turned to me and said “What the hell!”

As previously stated, the mentors were supposed to be a league above the players. While not necessarily as explosively strong, they had skills and techniques that would make them a fair match for an entire team of players. I placed two mentors, and one advanced student on this mission, as well as the team of 3. Both mentors had worked under Petrine, and didn’t think they could take her alone. They constantly stated that fighting her alone was suicide, and against this warning, the player tried to solo. She then wanted to know how she was supposed to fight it, to which my only response was “You weren’t” I tried to explain that it was supposed to be a wake up call. A rank “S” mission for a rank “C” team, with rank “A” mentors. Being their mission to take the base, an NPC did eventually stop her, after the other mentor almost died. But the point remained.

I tried to teach my players that they weren’t the strongest in the world. That not only your teachers were more powerful than them. This lesson failed, as they simply now refer to it as Petrining. Being given a boss they can’t hack. In a more recent game, some of them are going to terms with such things, but others, including boss killer, expect things to go their way on the battlefield. Any suggestions as to how to prove my point are well accepted.

Thank you.

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