D&D 5E When you've made the battle too much to handle...

toucanbuzz

No rule is inviolate
Been doing this for a long time, but inevitably there will come a time when you'll setup a battle that you thought was appropriate and it's simply too much for the PCs to handle. I'm at that moment, between sessions, looking for advice, with what I thought was a deadly, but manageable, boss battle.

Setup: PCs are 8th level, a caster-heavy group drained of resources, in a battle with an "atrophied" lich (has some lair and legendary lich abilities, capped as 11th level caster, reduced DCs, no phylactery so it won't stick around if there's a chance it could be destroyed) that had a Shield Guardian hidden nearby siphoning, then regenerating, damage. There's a complicated backstory, but let's stick to the fight part.

IF the battle keeps going as-is, it's a TPK. We paused in battle between session, so I have till next weekend to regroup.

It Got Out of Control When... The atrophied lich used its Lair tether ability (CON save or take half the damage the lich takes) and the Shield Guardian ability, combined with legendary actions to repeatedly cast Toll the Dead. I felt it's a fair tactic a genius-level bad guy would use, especially since he's been scrying the PCs for weeks now.

What the DM did to try and help... Threw in an alu-fiend that wanted out of a deal with the Boss and banked on the PCs being strong. She helped them find and take out the Shield Guardian. She has little to directly affect the Boss.

But, it's still too much... The Guardian is now down, but the atrophied lich is still renewing spells each round, doing great on HP, and tethering to the PC wizard. He's been scrying them for weeks now, so I've tailored his strategies to defeat their abilities. The PC fighter is on fumes. The PCs have exhausted their powers trying to keep her afloat.

The PCs missed out... I presumed the PCs would take advantage of several chances to gain power or allies in the dungeon but they whiffed on all. Zero. Nada. Not by bad choices, it just didn't happen.

So, damn, what do you do? I believe now the PCs should have been 9 or 10th level before this battle, my bad on that part. Too late now to correct. It's game on and if I play the Boss intelligently, it knows it's winning and simply has to spam Toll the Dead until everyone is dead. Looking for ways to throw in some (believable) chances for the PCs rather than mercilessly mow them down. Also, on a tangent, may approach the group again about limiting the # of attack cantrips one can cast between short rests. The fighter PC is probably not happy with cantrip spam at the moment...
 

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iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I don't really think it's the role of the DM to do anything to save the PCs here. If the option is available, they can just flee and return to fight another day. Or they can fight until they die (or get lucky and live!) or try to cut a deal. Or one PC stays behind to fight it while the rest escape, sacrificing themselves in the process. Sometimes there are setbacks. Sometimes evil wins. All of these can create an exciting, memorable tale in my view. The main thing is that it's up to the players to decide.

As long as you've telegraphed the danger and they can see their choices have led them to this point, then whatever reasonable outcomes that follow are fair as I see it. Let them choose their fate.
 


overgeeked

B/X Known World
The PCs missed out... I presumed the PCs would take advantage of several chances to gain power or allies in the dungeon but they whiffed on all. Zero. Nada. Not by bad choices, it just didn't happen.
So by this do you mean they tried and failed or never bothered trying? If they failed, I'd want more details. If they never bothered trying, that's their mistake. Hopefully lesson learned.
So, damn, what do you do? I believe now the PCs should have been 9 or 10th level before this battle, my bad on that part. Too late now to correct. It's game on and if I play the Boss intelligently, it knows it's winning and simply has to spam Toll the Dead until everyone is dead. Looking for ways to throw in some (believable) chances for the PCs rather than mercilessly mow them down. Also, on a tangent, may approach the group again about limiting the # of attack cantrips one can cast between short rests. The fighter PC is probably not happy with cantrip spam at the moment...
Never prevent the PCs from suffering the consequences of their poor choices. If they refuse to flee, kill them. Ask the players if they want to keep going with these characters or start a new campaign. If they want to continue, have the lich raise them as minions and give the PCs a chance to escape. Then they can go on an epic quest to reverse their newfound case of undeath...and seek revenge on the lich.
 

BookTenTiger

He / Him
Does the lich have any other goals other than a TPK? Maybe after it kills one or two characters it offers to let the others live if they take a deal or take on a job?

Or let the cards fall, but some celestial force gathers the characters' souls and grants them a chance to go back in and rescue their bodies?
 

Stormonu

Legend
Sometimes, bad things just happen. Easiest out might be to dial down its abilities or tactics, but that may be an unsatisfying conclusions - players can often sense when you start to pull your punches. They may die, and learn to be more diligent about gathering help the next time around.

Defeat however, does not always have to mean death. If the lich is spanking the party, it might accept/entreat surrender, thralldom or might even eject/give the party the chance to leave. "Better luck next time" as the lich casts the group out for their laughable efforts, or "Now that you have witnessed my power" it might send the PCs on a quest for an object or other task the lich itself neither has the time, means or direct interest to deal with itself.
 

TarionzCousin

Second Most Angelic Devil Ever
"Now that you have witnessed my power" it might send the PCs on a quest for an object or other task the lich itself neither has the time, means or direct interest to deal with itself.
This.
Have the lich send the party after one of its enemies--one of the powerful beings that they didn't ally with. You've probably already got them statted out, and their part of the dungeon mapped, right?
 

Problem with Toll the Dead (and Sacred Flame) is that the players must make a save so the DC can't fudge the roll behind a DM-screen. That means that you have a combat where (practically) all rolls are made in the open. Any DM that does that in a deadly encounter risks a TPK, as the dice may just fall in the wrong direction.

Practical solutions:
  • An ally appears - perhaps someone the party recently encountered tracked them and comes to their aid. (Ideally a healer).
  • An ally of the lich flips to the side of the PCs - i.e. some near-dead prisoner crawled out of the lab where he was being experimented on, and stabs the lich in the back with his last bit of energy. He may only last one round, but it gives the PCs some opportunities for flanking, and draws some fire away from them.
  • You review the player's character sheets, and make sure they really use everything they have. (I.e. the fighter did not forget the action surge or second wind, casters also depleted all magic items).
  • Whenever the lich must make a saving throw, roll it behind a screen, and fail it.
  • You make sure the lich makes attack rolls, which you make behind a DM-screen, and you make sure a number of those fail. If the lich normally has no spells that require an attack roll, you can always homebrew one. Or maybe the lich can also do Eldritch blast, and it thinks that the players are on their last legs and wants to spread the damage across multiple targets - except the dice don't cooperate.
 


In general, if the situation really is hopeless should the party try for total victory, there are at least three options always available to you as the DM:

1. Unexpected "allies" (or at least not-currently-enemies) arrive and save the day. Perhaps they exact a price (whether it be "we are evil and will lord this over you" or "we are good and would appreciate your help in return"), perhaps the PCs are totally incidental--perhaps, like your alu-fiend, these were other enemies of the lich that were simply waiting for a golden opportunity, and the players dropped one right into their lap. The core of the narrative direction here is what do these new actors want? You have created either a mystery hook or an obligation. Depending on your specific choice, it could make the party "important" or simply useful, but either way, it should reveal something significant about the movers and shakers of the world.

2. The party is suddenly, and without explanation in the moment, given great power--enough to easily permit them to finish this enemy. But...as far as they know, that shouldn't have happened. This creates a different kind of mystery hook: how or why did we survive when we should have fallen? This mystery strongly implies that there's something Special about the player characters, but as far as they know there isn't anything THAT special about them. Where you choose to take it from there is up to you. Perhaps this leads to the reveal that someone (good or evil) has been Watching them and wasn't ready to let them go just yet. Perhaps it reveals a secret about who or what they are. Perhaps they discover that powers like this aren't unique to them....and that that is a serious problem for the world. Etc. Whatever happens, this is pretty high on the Serious Implications meter. It also allows you to defer making a firm decision for the longest time, since you can be just as in the dark as the players are about what caused this!

3. The lich (as others have mentioned above) decides that these foolish fools who dared to stand against him might, despite their unbelievable hubris, actually have SOME uses if kept alive. They don't die at 0 HP, and you never ask them to roll death saves (ignoring any death saves that may already have been rolled)--because the lich isn't attacking to kill, he's attacking to subdue. They wake up and the lich does the usual dramatic villain thing, and then offers them freedom if they just take care of a few simple errands for him. "Oh, nothing that would offend your delicate hero sensibilities, I assure you. Just a few odds and ends, things that are...shall we say, awkward for one of my...necromantic investments to undertake." This can be a serious offer, or a false one in any number of directions; perhaps the lich intends to double-cross them, or maybe just intends to always put them just a little bit deeper in his debt with every successful job, so they can never truly escape. This makes the problem extremely personal, strictly between this villain and this party. It's much more down-to-earth, but requires that the players believe that the lich would actually want to employ them.

More or less, if the system indicates unavoidable defeat, you must change the parameters of the situation. Option 1 alters the battle itself; option 2, the heroes; and option 3, the opponent's willingness to fight to the death. Regardless of whether you choose these or some other option, you'll have to choose something that changes the input, otherwise the output remains exactly what it was.

Problem with Toll the Dead (and Sacred Flame) is that the players must make a save so the DC can't fudge the roll behind a DM-screen. That means that you have a combat where (practically) all rolls are made in the open. Any DM that does that in a deadly encounter risks a TPK, as the dice may just fall in the wrong direction.
I never roll anything secretly--at least, not in terms of "do people succeed/fail" at things.* Fudging is never necessary for avoiding TPKs. You just have to be willing to use other methods, like those outlined above--stuff that inserts new things into the fiction, rather than deceiving your players about how the system actually works.

*I occasionally roll secretly for things that don't actually matter if the players know, e.g. "I'm checking a table for which random room you appear in; whether or not you know the result of the die does not, in any meaningful way, inform the players about what will happen. It does determine it, but there's nothing the players could possibly do to affect the number, and even if they see "6" or whatever, that means nothing to them unless they also have the table I'm using to consult the result.
 

GM can of course always fudge and otherwise adjust rules, or cause a deus ex to save the characters. But if things are already going terribly, it might be hard to do in a way that is not rather obvious to the players, which probably would deflate the tension for the rest of the campaign. And I generally feel that if the PCs take the risks, it also entails that sometimes they might lose, even badly.

That being said TPK can be a campaign killer. Some characters dying is fine, if at least some survive to carry on the continuity of the story. (And then they have a motivation to take revenge for their fallen comrades!) So what I would do is try to find some plausible way for some of the characters either being able to escape or be taken as prisoners. The lich wanting some service from them is already mentioned. Could they also want some of them to be imprisoned to be interrogated later or for some other purpose? (To be sacrificed in a dark ritual etc.) This would give the characters a chance to escape, perhaps with the help of the alu-fiend, or some other NPC you could introduce (I'm sure you could easily come up with some reason for some of the lich's minions having reasons to work against their master.) Alternatively could the alu-fiend arrange some sort of a distraction that would let some of the characters escape?

Failing that, there is always an option the lich turning the slain characters into revenants or some such, so the party could continue their adventures as the lich's undead minions, perhaps secretly working to regain their freedom... But that's a thematic character shift all the players might not be comfortable with.
 
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CreamCloud0

Adventurer
Separate the players from the lich, allow them to regroup, recover and potentially encounter one of those missed ally opportunities, maybe the lich recovers some too but the important part is the players recover more, maybe even get enough exp from the fight to level up in preparation for round 2.
Maybe the lich casts erupting earth causing a cave in between the lich and the party or it causes the floor to collapse in taking them to caverns below(both also good for changing up the battlefield with piles of rubble providing cover or difficult terrain, holes in the floor they have to go around the edges of) tidal wave/tsunami (I don’t know the spell’s name) washes them all back out into the dungeon
 

beancounter

(I/Me/Mine)
There are a number of really thoughtful and creative post above.

However, I would let them suffer the consequences of their actions, and get ready to rollup new characters for the next session...

OT: The fact that a number of people are trying to find ways for the PCs to avoid death, just substantiates the point that I've made in another thread, that it is hard to die in 5E... (because in this case - DMs feel obligated to find a way to save the PCs)
 


Don’t fudge dice. It’s so unsatisfying as a player to find out the dm spared you. Suddenly nothing feels like a challenge or is exciting anymore.

If the PCs have a chance to flee, start telegraphing it. Have the Lich talk the whole time,

“I will destroy you! Flee now or become my thrall”

that kind of thing to telegraph that the lich won’t pursue if they run. If they don’t run, Once the lich kills one of the PCs, you can have the lich start offering deals,

“Can’t you see that resistance is futile? Surrender now or I will take your fallen ally and turn him into my minion”

or whatever. If they surrender, they can flee or barter a deal to get the bodies of their fallen allies back.

if they don’t get the hint, you kill them. Maybe one escapes or maybe not. They might have a chance to recover bodies or they might not. Just make sure the player KNOW that death is on the line so they have the information to make choices.

I agree with Isereth. Sometimes the PCs get their butts kicked.
 

aco175

Legend
A great part of movies and books is when the heroes first meet the BBEG and they fail, maybe to the point of giving up since there is no way of coming back from that beatdown. They regroup and find someone/thing to aid them and they come back to save the day at the last minute. Kind of like how Rocky was feeling all 8th level and then Clubber Lang put on the beatdown. Poor Rocky had to travel to the secret grove of Apollo to be healed of his fear and gain the secrets of the "eye of the tiger". Only then was he able to come back and win in the end.

What is your prediction for the fight?

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Perhaps Micky the Mage has been scrying the PCs since the day they helped him long ago and he can teleport them out at the last minute, or he is the court mage of the neighboring kingdom and pulls them out since the elimination of the lich would benefit his kingdom. This kind of saving should not be done more than like, once per campaign or the players will start to depend on it.

To make the PCs suffer a bit as a price of being saved you can have the lich cast a spell as they are being teleported away and have each of the PCs magic items make a save or be left behind.
 

DEFCON 1

Legend
Supporter
Don’t fudge dice. It’s so unsatisfying as a player to find out the dm spared you. Suddenly nothing feels like a challenge or is exciting anymore.
Says you. :)

For me, when the DM comes clean and says they f-ed up when designing this encounter (especially after we got our butts handed to us)... I am more than happy to acknowledge the DM isn't perfect and is trying to be fair and rectify things after the fact. And considering I don't use "Did our PCs live?" as the measuring stick as to the excitement of playing D&D... I can go on playing in the game and still feel the thrill of playing and the excitement of overcoming challenges in the future, even if we had that one hiccup.

I have never found hewing to the rules of the board game as the end-all-and-be-all of D&D and that everything falls apart if you don't. I think that's just silly. Because quite frankly the board game rules of D&D just aren't written that tightly or that well to put that much pressure on them to be that flawless.
 

Says you. :)

For me, when the DM comes clean and says they f-ed up when designing this encounter (especially after we got our butts handed to us)... I am more than happy to acknowledge the DM isn't perfect and is trying to be fair and rectify things after the fact. And considering I don't use "Did our PCs live?" as the measuring stick as to the excitement of playing D&D... I can go on playing in the game and still feel the thrill of playing and the excitement of overcoming challenges in the future, even if we had that one hiccup.

I have never found hewing to the rules of the board game as the end-all-and-be-all of D&D and that everything falls apart if you don't. I think that's just silly. Because quite frankly the board game rules of D&D just aren't written that tightly or that well to put that much pressure on them to be that flawless.
If a dm does this too much, I have seen players begin testing the limits of what the dm will do to save the PCs just to see if the dm will kill them. Also, I have, personally, lost total motivation to play a campaign where the dm fudges rolls or saves my character from some stupidly I’d accidentally put myself into.

so, maybe it’s some people’s preference to be bailed out but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. According to the OP, they don’t seem like the kind of dm that is trying to prevent a tpk at all costs but is trying to figure out a way to pad a mistake in encounter strength. Fair enough.

I’m recommending they don’t start creating unlikely plots and NPCs to bail them out and make the players feel overshadowed by heroic NPC plot devices. Or fudging dice. If you are going to do that, continuing the fight is pointless. It would be more fair to, as you say, Stop the combat, tell your players that you messed up and work together to come up with a narrative of how they lost/escaped/were rescued. This kind of out of character solution works too. In fact, I’d prefer this to fudging dice.

To me, if you’re fudging dice to give them the win anyways, why waste everyone’s time. Just tell them they won.
 
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steeldragons

Steeliest of the dragons
Epic
When the battle is too much to handle, it is up to the players to figure out their way out of it.

If they are too stubborn or proud to flee when things aren't going their way, that is on them. If they didn't bother to take any time or bread crumbs for allies or assistance along the way, that is on them. If their resources were depleted before this began, or even if they weren't "depleted" but the party wasn't at full strrength and decided to go running into a battle with the "boss" anyway, that is on them.

There is nothing for the DM to do here, particularly in the midst of a break in an already initiated battle, but to play the game. Roll your dice.

On a separate note: I can't even wrap my head around the idea of an "11th level caster" lich. How'd they even become a lich? I wouldn't even look at a lich that was under 15th. And, yes, a party of 8th level characters should have a tough time against them, but decent preparation and a bit of planning, it should be doable. A group (I'd say 4-7 characters) of 8th level characters against an 11th level caster should be a cake walk.
 


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