Greatest Hits 2010: Fighting an Opponent You Can’t Beat

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on December 24, 2010

While the Dungeon’s Master team enjoys some well-deserved vacation time, we’re breaking out the greatest hits and shining a spotlight on a few of our favourite articles from 2010. We’ve searched for hidden gems that our newer readers might have missed and our long-time readers will enjoy reading again. Enjoy a second look at these greatest hits from Dungeon’s Master.

This article was a reaction to something that happened in one of my games. Although it seemed like a really big deal at the time, this remains the only instance where I’ve faced and opponent I couldn’t beat since I began playing 4e D&D and I think therein lies the real issue.

Players feel that they should be able to defeat everything thrown at them. The D&D Open Championship held at this year’s GenCon is a perfect example. The big opponent was Orcus, arguably one of THE most powerful creatures in 4e D&D. Yet every table of five was not only capable of defeating him, everyone expected that they would.

So the big question is whether or not DMs should – on occasion – remind players that they are not at the top of the food chain. Should the DM put the PCs into situations where they may end up fighting an opponent they can’t beat? If done properly, I think this kind of situation hold tremendous educational value.

Unless players try and fail, they’ll continue to think they’re the best there is. And as true as that is in most circumstances it never hurts to remind players that this isn’t always the case. Just try not to kill off too many characters in the process. D&D players tend to see this as something that needs to be avenged rather than a hard learned life lesson to take away and think about.

From April 12, 2010, Dungeon’s Master once again presents: Fighting an Opponent You Can’t Beat

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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1 Ronaldo Nascimento December 24, 2010 at 9:59 am

What level was the PC party, and what was the level of the monster? Did anyone get bloodied? I have a bad memory, but as a player I dont think I have ever met a solo encounter we have not been able to defeat, but I would like to see more encounters like this. Making the players re-group, get some help or just plain level up to win.

2 Ameron December 24, 2010 at 11:14 am

@Ronaldo Nascimento
If memory serves (it was almost a year ago) the party was around level 7. The DM didn’t come right out and tell us what level the super monster was but he eluded that it was at least level 11 when he said he didn’t expect us to fight it until we reached paragon tier. By the time we realized we were in over our heads we were all bloodied, out of healing magic, out of encounter powers and down a bunch of daily powers. Oh, and one PC had already died. Lesson learned.

3 Liam Gallagher December 24, 2010 at 11:39 am

The super bad guy was level 14. I remember putting a lot of work into designing the layout and the maps of the bad guy’s lair, populating it with home made creatures, thinking it would last the group at least 4 levels of play exploring all the its ins and outs, but then the party just blazed right to the bottom in two sessions. Oh my!

That being said, the timing for this is good, because the next episode of the Shattered Sea actual play podcast picks up at the start of the fight mentioned in this article.

4 Jeff December 24, 2010 at 10:51 pm

I think this is a question of game difficulty.

In my opinion the Dungeons and Dragons game as gotten alot easier since the first edition. Though I never played the first edition this is just speculation. Game designers think that character death, permanent death is detrimental to returning players and fun. I could go through numerous examples of how character death has been treated in Diablo, Diablo2, Ultima Online, Everquest, World of Warcraft and so on. But it would take up pages that might never be read. Ressurection, getting items back and other things has removed the sting of death.

When I first started playing “role playing games” they were more or less “ROLL playing” dungeon crawls randomly or pre generated dungeons on my old 286 computer.

In my first “RPG”. Players knew that challenges would increase as they proceeded deeper into the dungeon going from level 1 to level 30 and knew they had to wait before they could master level 30 if ever. But a player could, if they wanted to, take the dice lottery and fall to level 30.

Some people get a thrill knowing that a poor roll could kill their character, some don’t. A dungeon master should survey the players and ask what difficulty they like. If you want to run a hard game, let the players know. EX: Diablo 2 has a hardcore option for players who want hardcore.

When I dungeon Mastered back in high school numerous characters died throughout the game and got ressurected. I through in a arrow of slay humonoid DC 13 just to add to tensions, and the fighter, of all characters got natural 1. Boy was he pissed. But he took it.

For most players being knocked unconcious is enough to add tension to combat.

If the party characters died during combat, I offered them the option of a “prisoner” quest/adventure where they needed to escape from the monsters. This did not go over well, the players did not like playing a character who was defeatable.

Different players have different tastes for difficulty. Some people prefer to win their videogames using the cheat codes, some don’t.

If a player does something stupid they should pay for it just to remind them the world is real. If you run an “Open” style campaign and a player fights the town guard and waits around long enough for the guards to get two dozen reienforcements and surround them, then they should face consequences. If a player asks around the tavern where the nearest ancient dragon is at level one. Then they should pay the price of foolishness. These days, these kind of players have been outlawed as game ruiners.

Nuff said. Food for thought Ameron. Thanks.

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