Designing Encounters That Can’t Be Beat (Part 1)

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on March 2, 2011

Rarely should the DM intentionally design an encounters that can’t be beat. However, there are times when the DM finds it necessary. I am not stating that all encounters should be designed as a player killers or deliberate total party kill encounters. Nor am I talking about introducing a villain that the characters will fight in ten levels, only to have them attack him at first level. This series explores the reasons behind why the DM might feels it’s necessary to design an encounter that can’t be beat and how to pull it off.

Dungeons & Dragons does not feature an antagonistic relationship between players and DM. The relationship is more of a partnership, with each side participating in and creating a shared story and experience. The DMs job is not to kill the characters. Yes, he should challenge the players, but intentionally killing all the players will quickly land a DM out of a job.

It is not the DM versus the players. So why would a DM ever want to design an encounter that the players can’t beat? The driving force of this design decision needs to be very clear to the DM. It isn’t enough to build an encounter that can’t be beat just to see if the players can beat it. That is a decision that is best left to one-off encounters where the players know this is the intention.

In an ongoing campaign the decision to create this type of encounter needs to be story driven. There has to be a reason that exists in game to support the encounter design. Occasionally, the decision may be made to challenge the players perceptions of an encounter or to encourage them to pursue a different course of action. However, in most instances it should be story driven.

For example, imagine that a local village has been attacked by bandits who are now using this village as their new base of operations. The party, having ties to the village, decide to go and liberate it. In the initial encounter the party is forced to flee due to overwhelming odds. The party realizes that reaching their objective will require a longer, more sustained effort or different tactics. The initial encounter from which the party flees sets up the next campaign arc.

In a recent session with the Dungeon’s Master home team, I ran them through an encounter that wasn’t intended to be defeated. My intention was to have them flee from the situation into the next encounter. The party would be low on encounter powers and would enter the next encounter damaged with the reduced ability to heal. My intention was to challenge the players and (let’s be honest) to use the experience as inspiration for a post here at Dungeon’s Master.

My design did not go as intended. The party did not flee, instead they stood their ground and prevailed against the encounter. I’ll discuss what I realize were the design flaws of the encounter in the follow up post of this series. Instead of the party entering the next encounter damaged and down powers, they entered it down healing surges and a few daily powers. The interesting footnote to this is that they have decided to flee from the third encounter in the series as they are out of healing surges. An encounter that while difficult, I anticipated they would be able to handle. It is interesting to note that my encounter as designed didn’t occur as intended, but I ended up obtaining a similar effect.

This highlights one of the key realizations that a DM must have if he decides to create an encounter that the party isn’t meant to defeat. Dealing with the consequences of having the party stick it out and try to defeat the encounter. I’m not talking about the encounter where the party attacking a major villain when they shouldn’t, which can ruin your long term campaign plans.

If you create an encounter that the players aren’t supposed to defeat then as the DM you need to handle the consequences of the party deciding to finish the encounter. The very mechanics of 4e work against this type of encounter design. The expectations of players work against this type of encounter. Your players expect to expend a certain amount of resources in a given encounter. Within short order they will notice that something isn’t right about the encounter, but flight will not usually be the first thought. Your players will first think that you as the DM aren’t out to kill them, that this fight is winnable.

This is the most difficult aspect of designing an encounter your players can’t beat, they think they can beat every encounter. It is the way the game is designed. Total party kills usually result when the DMs dice are hot and the parties are cold. Also, when the party goes into an encounter that the DM has cautioned them in game or out not to enter.

A total party kill should not be the result of deliberate encounter design. This means that your unbeatable encounter actually has to be winnable. The presentation of the encounter is what will give it the impression of being unbeatable, not the design itself. In other words the party does actually need to be able to defeat the encounter. Your job as the DM is to describe the situation in such a way that the party gets the hint that perhaps they are over their head.

This can be difficult. It requires one part monster selection and one part strong descriptions of the scene from the DM. If your group has more of a hack ‘n slash approach to playing when you start describing the scene you will immediately tip your hand.

Why then would a DM want to create an encounter that the players can’t beat? Because the story demands it. Failing to defeat an encounter leaves every player at the table holding a grudge and wanting to go back for blood. It will make the follow up encounters that much more satisfying for them.

In Designing Encounters That Can’t Be Beat (Part 2) we’ll look at the actual design decisions of creating an encounter that can’t be beat.

Have  you ever designed an encounter your players couldn’t beat? Why did you do it? As a player have you ever been involved in an encounter that the party just couldn’t win?

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1 Acheron March 2, 2011 at 10:06 am

Nice post, i deeply enjoy this subject, and i do believe it should be story based.

I have made encounters my players can’t beat, just for them to know that it is not that the world only launches perfectly balanced encounters at them, some times is a goblin with a shovel, some others a death titan with an axe, you just need to learn when to run, to come back another day.

One thing it worked for me was to kill a NPC the PC’s knew was stronger than them, i think i remember this mention in a post here at DM, but i applied once when introducing an assassins guild the players had to destroy, after the NPC died, they new they had to take more of an guerrilla approach than trying to go hack n slash with them.

This not beatable encounters can leave the player’s mouth with a bad taste, but i believe it gives the “real” factor, the chill that rune’s throw you when you know that you are the slowest running and now you have to run…


2 JR March 2, 2011 at 12:01 pm

I surprised my players (and myself) with two encounters. The first encounter was a time-delayed pincer movement: easy minions drew the players into a long narrow room with entrances at the north and south ends, and an exit on the west wall. Once the players were deep into the room, the heavies showed up from the north and south entrances and started to close the jaws of the trap. The design was intended to force them down the west stairwell where they could fight a Thermopylae-style stand and then notice that the basement had a cool plot point in it. Instead, they surged south, focused fire ruthlessly on the larger force while leaving the best possible remnant to draw fire from the north; upon defeating the enemies to the south, they reversed and demolished the northern enemies. Instead of putting all that firepower into elites and soldiers, I should have used more two- or three-hit minions to emphasize that they would not be able to defeat everyone before they started taking losses.

In a separate encounter, one of the enemy leaders was so upset by his archers missing their targets (a player used an immediate reaction power to make him look incompetent) that the leader made an immediate reaction attack against his own archer. The attack critted and the soldier was a minion, so he died in one shot. At that moment the players all simultaneously muttered the same four-letter word, and stopped to reconsider their tactics — they were so awed by this demonstration of power that they changed course and worked to get the leader on their side, because they feared that he would kill all of them.

The lesson here, for me, was to think carefully about your descriptive flourishes, but make sure that you SHOW as well as TELL. Sure, you’ve said “this looks very dangerous!” but your PCs are Heroes! It’s entirely possible that “Danger” is actually their middle name! What *mechanical* effect tells your players that the enemies are too dangerous? How can you demonstrate the enemy’s power succinctly?

If the enemy misses with his first shot, perhaps it digs a 5-foot crater into the dirt and creates difficult terrain. “Moradin’s Beard!” shouts the dwarven NPC, “that blast would go through steel like paper! Our armor can’t protect us from that attack!” (or sotto voce to the player with the highest perception: “It looks like his attack is ignoring the benefits of everything but heavy armor. Casters, you’d better watch out unless you can make yourself more resilient than a granite wall.”)

3 Nex Terren March 2, 2011 at 12:03 pm

I once had an experience like this. One of my players, a low-leveled wizard, struck off on his own to chase after a criminal. After several blocks worth of a chase, he pulled out a utility power that let him pin down the criminal, only to find out that the criminal had been leading him into a trap. Surrounded by a group of a dozen or so criminals at close range, I expected him to lay down his wand, and try to talk things over–and accept capture if it came to that–or to run as fast as he possibly could.

Instead, he attacked them. More specifically, their leader.

This blind-sighted me, as he’s one of our most intelligent, rule-savvy players, and I would have thought that he understood the risks, and that he wouldn’t attempt to engage in the, to paraphrase, “encounter that couldn’t be beat.” I responded in turn with what I thought would make sense–the criminals fighting back–and before the archers fully unleashed their first volley his character reached his bloody negative in hit points, killing him.

This is actually the third time a player has set off on his own, only to be ambushed by a group and killed, the first time in the open battlefield of a war zone in which the player attempted to fight a group of goblins head-on, and the second when the players were guarding a group of public officials from numerous and repeated attacks, and one player character struck off on his own to hunt down the enemy.

In another instance in a game where I was not the GM where we played together, the GM informed us beforehand that she did not expect us to be able to win the upcoming solo fight against the current ongoing villain, and she told us this more than once. While some of our members wanted to run when we found the solo, most wanted to stay, and so we fought. Several characters would have been killed–if not a TPK–if the GM wouldn’t have changed the rules to save us.

In all three of these cases in which I was the GM in–the most so with the most recent with the wizard–and then his other instance where the GM came out, and–out of character–told us we couldn’t win, I felt as though the GM painted the dangers clearly, and maybe a bit too clearly. As this seems to not be the case, I’m now a bit uncertain with introducing any such encounters as this article discusses.

Any advice with this? I don’t like to force the players hands whenever possible, so I’d rather not do anything like command them to run out of character.

4 Vance March 2, 2011 at 12:10 pm

I actually have an encounter coming up this Friday night that I am TOTALLY designing as a TPK, but let me explain…

This group of PC’s are all half brothers, and were brought together by the reading of the will of their father. He was a Paladin, and died recently, leaving them some magic items and a promise of inheriting ALL of his riches if they completed a few tasks. The final task is stealing the key to the vault where his wealth is stored from a local evil noble.

This week, I’m going to start with a “flashback scene” where the players will get to play out that last battle where their father died. I have index cards made for the Paladin and his 4 friends – just enough for my 5 players. They will get to choose their character and play out this impossible battle against the high-level necromancer and his undead horde. The odds are HEAVILY stacked against them, and the great thing about undead is you can just keep piling on waves of them…

(I haven’t decided if I’m going to tell the players that this is the paladin’s death scene, or let them think it could be any battle he fought.)

Once that scene is through, they will continue planning the heist from the noble’s underground vault. During the heist, they will uncover evidence that this noble is actually the necromancer that killed their father! This realization will also come with the fact that he is so many levels above them that they had better complete their mission and get as far away as possible – they DO NOT want to face this guy themselves.

This way the big bad is set up for a future epic battle. AND I get to run a “harmless” TPK scenario. AND it should add enough layers of foreboding that they should really want to take this guy down in the future.

Oh, and want to know the big secret of this leg of the campaign? When they steal the “key” and reach the vault, they will not find a massive treasure, but their father and his companions (all intelligent undead, of course). The father planned the whole “fake will” and promise of treasure to get the PC’s to let him out of this vault where the necromancer is keeping them. The “key” will also let him control undead, and he is planning not only his revenge but to raise an undead army for conquest of the land. The PC’s must now choose to either stop him or join his side. Should be fun!

5 Alphastream March 2, 2011 at 12:45 pm

One tactic I find works well is to first have a skill challenge against a clearly too-hard-to-defeat foe. An example would be the PCs being in heroic tier and they encounter in the wilderness a gargantuan monster that is crushing trees, devouring some monster they had trouble with in the last fight, and suddenly turns to look at them. If for some insane reason the players don’t get it, they get nature checks (or other appropriate monster knowledge skill) to learn it is way over their heads. You then deploy a run-away skill challenge, where players can use powers to do things, but with no hope of defeating it. For example, a PC might use a power that slows. The damage isn’t tracked, but slow gains a success. Or, another PC might want to attack a rocky outcrop to have it fall onto the beast. Or, a PC might use Endurance and try to hold it off for a single round. Success = lose two surges and hold it off and rejoin the party; failure = lose four surges and the thing is right on their heels.

An encounter like that makes it clear that some things are way bigger and meaner than the PCs. This is especially important in a world like Dark Sun. (Or, Mordor… one does not simply…)

You can then follow this up in the future combat with a fight that is over the top. For example, heroic tier, 30 minions on top of a level+4 encounter featuring at-level monsters. Here, the PCs can beat a number of the monsters, but they will churn through resources to do so and they will feel the overwhelming numbers against them. They will use up healing and they will know they have to run. It has a real feel. You can further this by having a clear out… spend a lot of time discussing that other doorway, or the swiftly moving river, or the chariot tied up by the open gate…

6 Alphastream March 2, 2011 at 12:53 pm

To Nex Terren: In the example with the wizard, I would likely stop and ask the player what the PC is planning. Something like “You know you face overwhelming odds. What is you plan?” Often, the player will respond with “I don’t think I have another choice… they are trying to kill me.” To which you can counter, “Your PC is very bright. You know…” and now it can be a skill challenge to accomplish goals (buy time, distract and run, negotiate a surrender, etc.). The fight doesn’t really accomplish anything, so I would not even mechanically go into it. I would just say “Ok, so I hear you choose combat despite the overwhelming situation. Correct? Ok. So, the dice won’t help you. Here is how the scene plays out…” and I would just describe how the PC dies. That night, I would probably stay up late trying to find a good way to have that PC death be rewarding to the player. Maybe a kid saw the fight. The next day there is a rumor going around that a hero became a martyr, refusing to give in to thugs. Commoners sing the PC’s praises and start organizing crime watch, etc.

7 Toldain March 2, 2011 at 1:10 pm

I’ve definitely been one of those players that beats an encounter that we were supposed to run from.

As a GM, I usually avoid the issue by giving the PC’s something else to do.

When Redspring was attacked, the PC’s got some autonomy, but the mayor (whom they knew) decided to evacuate, there were too many fronts to deal with, and the town had been set on fire whilst the pc’s were busy doing something else.

So, could the PC’s please act as guards for the evacuation?

Another classic trick I learned from a GM friend of mine is to use the PNPC’s to make suggestions or observations. One must be careful not to turn them into oracles, so they have to give bad advice sometimes.

8 DarkTouch March 2, 2011 at 9:28 pm

I always try to avoid creating binary (win/fail) encounters. Instead I try to go into them with the idea that there is a minimal win level that should be achievable. But then there are levels of success above and beyond. I also try to make sure the Players know what the bottom levels are.. in most cases they’re fail=die, basic win=run away but not always.

9 Jacob Dieffenbach March 2, 2011 at 11:17 pm

“Dungeons & Dragons does not feature an antagonistic relationship between players and DM.” I think this sentence would be best appended with “In modern editions” because that certainly hasn’t always been the case. Gary Gygax was big on cruelly murdering player-characters.

* * * *

I think it’s funny that if I broach a topic on the Wizards Community Forums, it’ll receive a ton of hate, and then a week or so later I’ll log onto this blog and see a post that agrees with my opinion that everyone seemed to revile.

I’ve faced two types of unbeatable encounter situations: ones I plan for, and ones I don’t. The ones I plan for are really easy for the party to spot, because I always make sure to take the threat visibility up to 11–it’s not a camp of orcs, it’s a camp of battle-scarred orc veterans, and it’s not a camp of battle-scarred orc veterans, it’s a freshly-constructed wooden fort. Or, the party was fighting The Shadow, who had created an alternate mirror-universe Eberron, conquered that, and planned on merging the two universes so that he’d have at least 50% of the power. In his universe, he used shadow dragons as minions… not the half-dragon template, like the party expected, but entire Ancient Shadow Dragons. When they were crawling through the ruins of Sharn, and they saw a half-dozen of the beasts descended towards them… they knew it was going to be a battle of wits, not a battle of brute strength.* I’m fairly good at handling these battles, simply because they rarely actually come to combat, and when they do the party is nervous about it and when the first attack deals 30+ damage, they know they’ve made a mistake and run.

When I don’t have plans for the battle, things don’t go so well. Like a party who decided the best way to infiltrate a drow city was to prance about in the town square naked, drawing attention of every guard, priestess, royal guard, etc. etc. while the assassin snuck into the main building. I didn’t expect them to draw the attention of the ENTIRE TOWN, so that fight… didn’t go well, and the party decided to confront it head-on and lost.

Though sometimes I kind of like it when the party gets roughed up by the big bad evil guy, so they know in 5-10 levels they’ll be able to fight him. I did a straight conversion of the original Ravenloft module to 4E, and ran my party through that. So of course, when Strahd shows up as a random encounter, they decide that if they gang up on him, they can surely kick his ass or at least dent it a little. They… were mistaken. One less PC later, the party was rocking back and forth in the fetal position, hiding in the basement of the local church, while the fighter was decapitating and dousing with lamp oil the twitching, ashen-faced, fang-growing corpse of their former comrade. It’s definitely not something a lot of DMs would want to do, but I think it is certainly a VERY valid tactic to have the big bad beat up the party, possibly killing one of them, in order to show how hard they’ll have to work to beat him. It’s a bit cliche, but it’s cliche because it works and creates for great dramatic tension.

* Okay, this was a high-level 3rd edition party with the shadow dragons, like level 14-16 or something. They eventually found a clever way to separate the dragons, then each party member used his particular expertises to slay their own dragon. The fighter stabbed one to death, hit point by hit point, the cleric used Harm, the wizard did it… but, it still is a good example of this technique, because they had to work hard to get the dragons to NOT be in a tight cluster of breath-weapony-death.

I’ll probably spend a few minutes posting the mother of all Unbeatable Encounter stories after the break.

10 Jacob Dieffenbach March 2, 2011 at 11:44 pm

Before the story, I’d like to point out that players either see their DM as someone who will kill them if they screw up, or they see them as too forgiving and wanting to press the story forward rather than let people die. DMs who regularly kill party members, or at least put them in positions where it’s very obvious they were one death save or orc ax away from death, gain both fear and respect and, to an extent, immersion in the story (how can you be immersed in a story you can’t fail to best?).

If you’re one of those DMs, you can easily throw in a massive, unbeatable encounter, and the party will properly avoid, outthink, or simply run from it. If you’re a DM who the party believes will let them live no matter how badly they misbehave… well, then they’re going to charge that encounter head on. That’s how I see it.

* * * *

I realize I don’t feel like typing up my story again, nor do I want to fill three pages of comments with just the story, so I’ll link to me saying it on the Wizards forums.

It’s good stuff, go read it! =P

11 Sunyaku March 3, 2011 at 12:27 am

I recently ran my private group through their first experience with one of the main villains of the campaign. I was ready for what would happen if they tried to fight him, but thankfully, due to adequate descriptive warning, they didn’t try it. The villain was threatening the group “between the lines”, but he was also offering them a fair trade for the relic he wanted from them… in the hopes that they might prove “useful” in the future.

The players essentially had three options, attack him outright, trade, or resist. Since the villain stood between them and their horses, fleeing was not really an option. Had they attacked, the villain would have dropped a couple players before helped arrived in the form of another main character in the campaign. If they resisted, the other main character would arrived and scared off the villain (with illusion magic and a ridiculously high bluff… e.g. rolling at a +25 or so) before a fight broke out.

What I thought was most interesting was the debate within the party. It really forced this new group of players (who were just leveling their characters to level 2) to think about what their characters would do. They were fairly divided between trade and resist when one character crit’d on a prayer for guidance from their deity, the Raven Queen… and fate informed them that they need not fear death on this day.

@Vance That storyline sounds awesome. 😀

12 Jason Dawson March 3, 2011 at 9:13 am

I think the real key to this kind of scenario is advance communication. Letting the players know in advance that an unbeatable encounter is a very real possibility is vital. If their minds get set in the standard D&D “every encounter should be balanced against us” mindset, then you’ll never get them to retreat. However, if you start EVERY game session with “…and I want you guys to remember that not every encounter is going to be designed specifically to your level… sometimes you’re going to run into stuff you shouldn’t stand and fight against…” they’ll have that in their brains every time they get into a fight. So when you actually DO run them against an unbeatable encounter, they might actually…ya know… RUN.

13 Alphastream March 3, 2011 at 1:36 pm

Jacob, that is a ridiculously cool story! Fantastic cinematics. Loved it.

14 Wimwick March 3, 2011 at 2:19 pm

@ Everyone
Thanks for the fantastic feedback and discussion. Clearly this is an area that has a lot of potential for further discussion.

@ Nex Terren
As Alphastream mentioned you want to either transition into a skill challenge or ask the player what their intentions are. Most likely when you get to this point you may be operating outside of anything you have already planned. The key, as always, is to ensure everyone enjoys what happens.

@ Vance
Having the players play an encounter which sets up the adventure their characters are about to embark on or assist with is a great idea. Thanks for sharing.

@ Jacob Dieffenbach
As I am normally writing only for 4e I don’t normally qualify my statements. You are correct that earlier editions did feature a more competitive relationship between player and DM. The exception to this are adventures like Tomb of Horrors, where your players know well ahead of time what they are getting themselves involved with.

Also, thanks for sharing the link with the story.

@ Jason Dawson
You clearly haven’t met my players. =) Good advice none the less.

15 Jacob Dieffenbach March 3, 2011 at 4:04 pm

@ Wimwick
I’m aware this is mostly a 4E blog, however that in mind there is still a massive quantity of old-school DMs running 4E, plus there is the fact that while you might be trying to write mostly for 4E a lot of your content feels edition-neutral and the advise or themes in it can be applied to multiple editions.

So it still seems somewhat relevant to me, I guess, to mention that D&D is only sometimes not an antagonistic relationship =P

16 Wimwick March 3, 2011 at 8:52 pm

@ Jacob Dieffenbach
You are right many articles have an edition neutral feel. That is just the nature of many DM related articles, they are able to easily transcend edition and game.

17 Victor Von Dave March 4, 2011 at 12:28 am

I’ve done this sort of thing as a DM before, but it’s a very tight balancing act. You have to be fully ready for your players to stand their ground and fight to the death. There are a lot of times when people retreat, but if they feel they can’t, or there is too much at stake I’ve seen players get very frustrated and ‘go out in a blaze of glory’ rather than surrender or retreat.
If you want your players to retreat or run away you have to make it easy to do so, and make the enemy slower and/or unable to follow them (or they’ll feel that running is just a waste of time and choose to die on their feet).
I’ve also noticed that players are much more willing to retreat and regroup than surrender. I try to avoid any scenario that depends on the PCs surrender, because I know that some of them just won’t.

18 Evalis March 8, 2011 at 1:44 am

+1 to Jason. This warning is always issued to players starting my campaign. I prefer the world be vibrant and alive with areas containing ecologies resulting in ‘food chains’ of the various baddies. That said ‘impossible encounters’ need not be versus creatures. A room flooding with water that contains a passageway or treasure chest at the bottom might not be surmountable at that point in time and the players must later return.

There are three specific circumstances I have used this type of encounter. The first is obviously the above, the second was in a network of cave systems in which one of the characters had been charged to navigate alone. Fully knowing that he was rping his character as a coward I sent a CR = character level enemy after him (it was a cave crawler if I recall) that I had the first attack missed describing a gigantic claw the size of his body reaching to snap him in half and blocking his passage backwards, the only way to run forward.

The description was enough to key him in not to attack and he had an indiana jones style get away sequence complete with falling rope bridge ^^. The third was the party traveling through the woods in which the ranger was given an auto-pass on his perception to notice something massive barreling through the woods. Given my prior warning regarding the ecosystem the party hid and had an entertaining chase from the brior thorn war beast towards some owlbears (which I decided it found tastier).

The purpose of these encounters was simply to breath life into the campaign world and give some later surmountable challenge for the PCs. However, any time in which there is a slim chance the PCs will avoid my warning I make the encounter beatable, indeed any time I warn them not to attack, chances are high they will do so anyway. The reason being that almost every story arc starts with some impossible challenge the players must accomplish. Which sort of means saying something is impossible is thouroughly meaningless.

As players level though I don’t really find this to be a good method of keeping the story flowing, as monster size stops being a determinant of difficulty and no ammount of description will stop your 15th level fighter from charging that dragon.

19 Evalis March 8, 2011 at 1:53 am

Err to add in a time in which I was a part of this as a PC. A DM of mine once had us enter a ‘trap’ which while injured we defeated the first line of defense, drawing the ‘big baddie’ into the fray. It ended up being a TPK, in which we all stood our ground straight to 0 hp. The reason being the enemy he chose could tranform itself into mist, which meant it could outrun us through any terrain, entirely preventing the option of retreat.

He later indicated that we shouldn’t have sprung the trap.. but to a PC everything is a trap.

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