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.
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 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?
- Avoiding the Total Party Kill
- Should I Fight or Should I Heal Now?
- Should Players Suffer When PCs Die?