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?
- Fighting an Opponent You Can’t Beat
- The Evolution of the Dungeon Encounter
- Embracing the Total Party Kill