Designing Encounters That Can’t Be Beat (Part 2)

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on March 4, 2011

Sometimes we want to challenge our players. Other times we want create an interesting story element. Occasionally, we even want to try to kill our players’ characters, though this occurrence is a rarity. No matter the reason, sometimes we simply need to design an encounter that can’t be beat. In Designing Encounters That Can’t Be Beat (Part 1) we discussed the questions surrounding why a DM would decide to create an encounter that his players couldn’t defeat. The reasons range from story driven motivations to simply wanting to challenge your players.

Today we take a closer look at how to design this type of encounter. How to implement and describe the encounter so that you get the desired effect. At the end of the day you can never predict player behaviour, they will always do the one thing you never expected, but you can plan for them.

There are two ways to introduce an unbeatable encounter to your players: skill challenges and combat. Both scenarios have strengths and weaknesses. Both will have a different feel to them. The skill challenge, while less of a physical threat, provides great opportunities for players to describe heroic actions as they deal with an overwhelming challenge. A combat encounter can go one of two ways. It will either put the fear of god in your players as they flee, hoping to keep one step ahead of their foes, or it will frustrate them to no end because they don’t understand why you have created such a difficult encounter.

Skill Challenges

A skill challenge represents an obvious way to deal with an encounter that the players can’t defeat. Rather than have the players overestimate their own abilities, move the encounter to a skill challenge. This allows you to tell your players that they can’t beat the monster in a combat challenge. The players are now faced with how to escape the encounter by using their skills and wits. Failed checks can still result in a loss of resources. Healing surge loss due to a failed check being the most common and easiest way to implement this.

Combat Scenarios

Combat represents the other way to lure your players into an encounter and then trough overwhelming force channel them into an option they hadn’t considered. This is rather easy to initiate as dungeons are alive and combat in one room will quickly alert other monsters that something is afoot. No monster should just be hanging out waiting for the players to enter their room so that combat can begin. Instead the monsters are going to join the combat already in progress.

This requires some very careful planning on the part of the DM. The initial encounter needs to be difficult in its own right and the addition of new combatants also has to represent a significant threat. Finally, the players must have some form of escape available to them. In a recent combat I ran my players through, I wanted them to flee the combat. My intention was to make it a running fight where they would need to move to the next section. I introduced a monster that was much higher level than them, thinking that the fact the monster was only missing on a 1 or a 2 would indicate the players should run. Add in very high defenses, one player could only hit on a 20 and I hoped the result would be clear.

However, I made a fundamental mistake with my monster selection and placement. My first mistake was monster placement and map design. My intention was to have the party advance to the next encounter by blocking the entrance to the dungeon. My error was in placing the monster in a room in front of them. The escape route led to another room and the players assumed that a new room like that meant a new encounter and not the same encounter. My second error was I selected a monster that immobilized. It’s very difficult to have the players flee when they are immobilized. You would think that such an oversight would be obvious, but it is very easy to get caught up in your idea and then miss minor details listed in monster powers.

My recommendation in building an encounter that the players aren’t supposed to defeat is to build the encounter at the party level +5. This gives you a great deal of extra xp to use when designing the encounter, then make it an extremely difficult encounter for that level.

Monster selection should include a handful of monsters that the party could handily defeat. Add in one or two monsters that are clearly above the ability of the party and make this information available to them via a monster knowledge check. Finally, add a lot of minions. I prefer to introduce minions in waves, so that a few rounds into the combat the party finds itself overwhelmed.

Do not use monsters that slow, restrain, immobilize, grab, daze or stun. Doing so will lock  your players down and remove the ability to flee. Instead use powers that weaken or grant vulnerabilities to other attacks so the party is taking extra damage and their own output is reduced.

Your map must also be constructed to channel or funnel the players in the direction you want them to go in. If you introduce the encounter at a bottleneck you’ll find yourself with a group of players fighting it out. The escape route needs to be obvious and close at hand so the party can access it without great difficulty.

Something to remember when you place your players into an encounter that you don’t intend to have them win. If they are missing on their at-will and encounter powers they may start using daily powers as most do damage on a miss. This could cause your players to use far more resources than you intended making any subsequent combat much more challenging than designed.

Finally, never underestimate the will power, ingenuity and creativity of your players. They ultimately and honestly believe they can defeat any encounter you throw at them. In many cases they will find a way to defeat what you considered to be an unbeatable encounter.

What design tools or decisions would you make if you were creating an unbeatable encounter? Would you use a skill challenge or a combat encounter?

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1 Acheron March 4, 2011 at 10:01 am

Nice continuation of the post, hum…

I will probably go for the combat encounter. some mayor enemy and waves of minions sounds very good, i have encounter that same situation as a player and we all go slowly to the door defending hits and find a way to destroy the door portal so the outer roof fell and we could run for our lives… hehehe very funny, there had being a TPK before, and a player had more characters made than levels…

It was a new way of playing of our DM, he wont forgive, “forgot to buy enough potions and your hanging arround with 500GP cash?” Your mistake, “tried to grapple the huge crocodile”, your mistake by not forgiving he gave us the best real life feeling in the game “I really REALLY DON’T want to DIE” once we got ambush by an ogre barbarian in an encampment and the wizard that was scouting while the others slept was so afraid of loosing his character again ( he just rolplayed as if he was very scared to die, which is very logic) saw the oger on us, he was a more than a few levels higher than us and we were not don in armor and all… he just yell “the ogreee!!!” and run for his life, that hole session was everyone for his life in completely different directions lol none die at the end but was a check away from do so… very cool.

So yeah the combat encounter, scoring high damage on one hit I believe is the strongest reason a player can feel it is outmatched, definitely good planning needed, escape rout…

I will take all this you mention in consideration since I want to make a similar encounter soon, thanks for the tips with the small details, will do to read carefully the monster abilities and special properties.


2 Gaptooth March 4, 2011 at 2:16 pm

Wimwick writes:
> [Sometimes] we even want to try to kill our players, though this occurrence is a rarity.

Kill the players?! Um, maybe the 1980s was right about this game. 😉

3 Sunyaku March 4, 2011 at 9:12 pm

I think one crucial element of any foe that players are not expected to defeat is description… the more time you take to embellish the perilous details of the foe, the more the players will feel like they’re really in trouble.

My players don’t always make knowledge checks to learn about their enemies, so in such a scenario, I spoon feed a little to them. For example, if you have an unbeatable evil entity, basically give it an old school fear aura– any character feels unsettled by the presence of the being, and any divine or arcane characters are mentally overwhelmed by the oppressive force of its presence. If the creature has an elemental alignment, you could do something similar with hot/cold, wind, odors, etc.

4 The Red DM March 4, 2011 at 11:39 pm

I think one of the things you need to answer when making such an encounter is do you want the party to run away fast, or do you want them to experience a bit of a beat down first.

If its the former you are looking for, then you need to choose monsters that the party can immediately recognize are beyond their ability; if you are going with the level +5 model suggested, you might want to pick monsters the players are likely to mistake for level+10.

However, it is the latter, you should pick monsters that are a bit more of an unknown, so the party will engage them for not knowing any better. But the monsters should be of a kind that the players will be able to figure out what they are in for before they are dead. Flashy powers that get the players attention or defenses so high it scare the bejeebers out of them can make players realise they are in over their heads.

5 Jacob Dieffenbach March 5, 2011 at 1:37 am

I don’t know, looking at the monster list, if I wanted to create an ‘encounter’ which was either a road-block (“Run away!”) or a beat-down (“We had no hope of winning…”), I wouldn’t go with a rule of Level + 5. That means at level 6–when you’re fighting ogres and rust monsters for standard and occasionally hunting a dragon–the ‘impossible’ Level + 5 encounter will feature dire bears and doppelganger infiltrators and demonic savage minotaurs. High-level beasts, certainly, but none of them scream “OH SHIT!” to me for a 6th level party.

In addition, I’ve playtested numerous times the philosophy of running even Level + 7 encounters against a party, but having the monsters run when they’re bloodied for half XP; it’s a vicious fight, a memorable one, but not insurmountable and it seems to reliably work out.

I definitely think that Level + 10 is the way to go for a truly terrifying encounter. With that level of challenge, a party will get severely beaten up, they have no chance of even bloodying their foes if they try their hardest, and at that level of monster it should be extremely obvious they’re out of their league (“We just defeated some basic ogres and a rust monster… Is that a TREANT? An earth titan?!? A rakshasa and his army of angels?! IT MAY BE TIME TO LEAVE THE PREMISES.”)

And coincidentally, a level + 10 Moderate DC is about equal to a Level + 0 Hard DC.

So on several counts, I definitely think I would go with the philosophy of Level + 10 encounters if I want to be absolutely certain the players cannot possibly believe they can handle the challenge before them.

Anything much less, and they might get confused and think it’s a climactic battle, rather than a battle they shouldn’t face at all…

6 Acheron March 5, 2011 at 8:24 am

Very valid point Jacob, a +10 should do it, but i don’t know if i want to be that obvious, the idea is for the terrifying tought of not be able to win, to come little by little while they fight so they sense the desperation, if they see a +10 encounter they may just run away.

So balance and good description i think should do the trick.


7 Wimwick March 7, 2011 at 9:43 pm

@ Everyone
Sorry for the delay in responding to comments. Family engagements took up most of my free time.

@ Acheron
High damage or almost impossible to hit is the way to go with these types of encounters.

@ Sunyaku
I agree, the better you describe the encounter the more aware your players are likely to be of your intentions.

@ The Red DM & Jacob Dieffenbach
I’m all for a bit of a beat down before they run. It makes the follow up encounter more satisfying from a player perspective. The reason I suggested the level +5 is because I want my players to have the ability to win the encounter if they decide to stick it out. What it means is that the next couple of encounters which are targeted for their level will be more difficult due to the resources they have spent.

8 striatic March 9, 2011 at 11:17 pm

I’ve always wanted to see an unbeatable encounter where a party is well and thoroughly beaten before they can escape in a seeming TPK … and then all wake up from unconsciousness in an enemy prison, weaponless.

They then have to make a prison break, using a lot of unarmed combat, retrieve their weapons and either flee or seek revenge.

All the horror of a Total Party Kill with none of the consequence .. or rather, a surprising consequence that results in a unique challenges for the party.

9 Don Edwards March 24, 2011 at 8:28 pm

So maybe the quest is to retrieve a collection of five sacred objects that have been stolen from a temple. They get to the BBEG’s lair where it is quickly demonstrated that they are not yet ready for that challenge… but they do get a chance, during the combat, to grab ONE of the objects, providing them at least a partial win…
… except it’s a fake and the fact of their stealing it provides some advantage to the BBEG, such as his being able to hear whatever is said near it…

(My mind isn’t twisted – it’s sprained.)

10 Svafa April 4, 2011 at 11:59 am

I usually go combat for unwinnable situations, but skill challenges might work better; I just hadn’t considered it. I tend to use skill challenges for quick fights that aren’t very important (random encounters while traveling and such).

If I’m going to be throwing unwinnable fights at my players though, I normally let them know beforehand. I’ll often tell them blatantly, or at least strongly hint (“now’s about the time you should run”), the first time or two. After that, I leave it up to them to figure it out.

I once set up an TPK encounter for the party that ended a bit more fantastically, but along the same lines you gave. The PCs were hired to find a magic gem stone (not knowing it was a fragment of a dead god), and on finding the gem stone were ambushed by their employer who proceeded to Disintegrate them.

Next session opened with a time skip to a few months later with them all “waking up” in the room they were killed in. The latent energy from the dead god’s body fragment having instilled the chamber they were slain in with potent life magics. And thus they went on to escape the ruins, regear, track down their former employer, and find vengeance.

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