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

Li Shenron

Legend
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...

These are my own ways to deal with the case:

Do's:

- tell them openly (in case they haven't figured out yet) they will likely all die, and remind them they can attempt to flee, hide or possibly even surrender, then obviously don't try hard to make them fail at those too

- personally I never permanently kill a PC without the player's agreement, so even in the event of a TPK I would offer them to discuss an alternative ending such as being captured, and continue the story from there

Dont's:

- fudge the rolls

- save their butts with a deus-ex-machina intervention

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.

My first guess was neither... it could be that by chance they simply didn't visit other locations where they could have gotten allies or supplies.
 

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overgeeked

B/X Known World
To me, if you’re fudging dice to give them the win anyways, why waste everyone’s time. Just tell them they won.
Same with railroading. If you’re just going to force a predetermined outcome on them anyway, no matter what they choose, just read them the story you wrote and stop pretending it’s a game where the players have any choices.

If you’re going to protect them from their own bad choice and give them the win, no matter what they do or what the dice say, just read them the story you wrote and stop pretending it’s a game where the players have any choices.
 

Jer

Legend
Supporter
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.
At this point I will fall back onto the idea of a "campaign loss" from 13th Age. The lich will win the battle but - for its own reasons - leave the PCs alive. But once they come out of the dungeon they find that that survival comes with a cost. The lich has taken something from them that they care about - a person, a place, an item - something that the player of each character actually cares about. And if they want it back they'll have to do something for the lich. Something they likely won't want to do. (This relies on your players having something they care about in game. When in doubt you can always steal their favorite magic items, and honestly my players have been happy to keep their characters alive in exchange for their flamebrand sword, especially if I'm giving them a chance to get it back. I've also used "the bad guy has stolen one of your special abilities from you" like stealing spell slots or extra attacks, or have stolen memories or things like that, but that is really for high-level high magic type games).

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...
Is that because the fighter is irritated that the spellcasters are not spending their daily spell slots and instead are casting their less effective cantrips? If that's happening that's another reason you're likely seeing the PCs fail when you think they should be winning - if the spellcasters aren't releasing their big guns on this bad guy I'd be irritated too. (I don't know that the solution to that is to limit cantrip casting but instead to have the other players say "um, Bob, can you maybe skip the Ray of Frost here and throw a fireball or something instead").
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
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.
Inherent in the thinking of the DM you mention though is that encounters must necessarily be something the PCs can defeat through combat and therefore must be carefully designed to that end. The CR system isn't that fine-tuned and the DMG discusses how not everything can be defeated with sword and spell. The players own decisions, a spate of unlucky dice, or unforeseen synergies between monsters, traps, or terrain can make the difficulty of a combat go way higher than what the game design may intend through no fault of the DM. I don't think the players should have any expectation that they're going to win by default. They need a plan for winning and a plan for getting out if things go pear-shaped. If they didn't prepare for the latter, that's on them regardless of whether the DM did or did not expect the difficulty to be too much for the PCs.
 

CreamCloud0

Adventurer
At this point I will fall back onto the idea of a "campaign loss" from 13th Age. The lich will win the battle but - for its own reasons - leave the PCs alive. But once they come out of the dungeon they find that that survival comes with a cost. The lich has taken something from them that they care about - a person, a place, an item - something that the player of each character actually cares about. And if they want it back they'll have to do something for the lich. Something they likely won't want to do. (This relies on your players having something they care about in game. When in doubt you can always steal their favorite magic items, and honestly my players have been happy to keep their characters alive in exchange for their flamebrand sword, especially if I'm giving them a chance to get it back. I've also used "the bad guy has stolen one of your special abilities from you" like stealing spell slots or extra attacks, or have stolen memories or things like that, but that is really for high-level high magic type games).


Is that because the fighter is irritated that the spellcasters are not spending their daily spell slots and instead are casting their less effective cantrips? If that's happening that's another reason you're likely seeing the PCs fail when you think they should be winning - if the spellcasters aren't releasing their big guns on this bad guy I'd be irritated too. (I don't know that the solution to that is to limit cantrip casting but instead to have the other players say "um, Bob, can you maybe skip the Ray of Frost here and throw a fireball or something instead").
I think they mean in general play, considering they said they were entering the lich fight with diminished resources implying they'd burnt most of their higher level spell slots already as well as that they described the cantrip matter as ‘a tangent’
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
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.
Congrats!

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.
Isn't death always on the table when your active opponent is already, you know, dead? Also, I think it's not called a "phylactery" anymore.

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.
Seems like a waste of power keeping the fighter afloat when the opponent is a caster. They're getting what they deserve...

So, damn, what do you do?
Offer surrender (while continuing to fight if PCs do). A lich is a lich though; one PC must become a cadaver for experiments. Conveniently, it's the character of the player most willing to roll up a new one.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
At this point I will fall back onto the idea of a "campaign loss" from 13th Age. The lich will win the battle but - for its own reasons - leave the PCs alive. But once they come out of the dungeon they find that that survival comes with a cost. The lich has taken something from them that they care about - a person, a place, an item - something that the player of each character actually cares about. And if they want it back they'll have to do something for the lich. Something they likely won't want to do. (This relies on your players having something they care about in game. When in doubt you can always steal their favorite magic items, and honestly my players have been happy to keep their characters alive in exchange for their flamebrand sword, especially if I'm giving them a chance to get it back. I've also used "the bad guy has stolen one of your special abilities from you" like stealing spell slots or extra attacks, or have stolen memories or things like that, but that is really for high-level high magic type games).
I think this is a good choice, but that it's best to establish this as a possible outcome in some way BEFORE the battle, not after things go wrong for the PCs. Otherwise it has the feel of being tacked on to save the players from their own decisions which in my experience is not very satisfying. If I knew going in that I might live, lose, and have to deal with some horrible aftermath, when it happens it feels a lot more organic and less like the DM fudging. It's really about setting the right expectations.
 


Jer

Legend
Supporter
I think this is a good choice, but that it's best to establish this as a possible outcome in some way BEFORE the battle, not after things go wrong for the PCs. Otherwise it has the feel of being tacked on to save the players from their own decisions which in my experience is not very satisfying. If I knew going in that I might live, lose, and have to deal with some horrible aftermath, when it happens it feels a lot more organic and less like the DM fudging. It's really about setting the right expectations.
Right - that's the best approach.

However in the circumstance where you as the DM feel like you screwed up the encounter and you weren't intending it to be as difficult as it turned out, it can also be a way to fix things. Be up front with your players that you think you screwed up the balance a bit so there's blame all around and give it to them as an out.

I think it's fine to let characters die if it's the result of the players own decisions, but when you as a DM feel like you didn't correctly anticipate the difficulty of an encounter and so weren't able to place the clues to the players that they needed to prepare better or try to avoid the encounter or consider that they might need to be able to flee instead of fight, then having an alternative to death is useful. It's not really the result of their own decisions if they had no reason to think the upcoming encounter might be extra difficult, it's just a random fluke at that point.
 

DEFCON 1

Legend
Supporter
Inherent in the thinking of the DM you mention though is that encounters must necessarily be something the PCs can defeat through combat and therefore must be carefully designed to that end. The CR system isn't that fine-tuned and the DMG discusses how not everything can be defeated with sword and spell. The players own decisions, a spate of unlucky dice, or unforeseen synergies between monsters, traps, or terrain can make the difficulty of a combat go way higher than what the game design may intend through no fault of the DM. I don't think the players should have any expectation that they're going to win by default. They need a plan for winning and a plan for getting out if things go pear-shaped. If they didn't prepare for the latter, that's on them regardless of whether the DM did or did not expect the difficulty to be too much for the PCs.
That is all true... but not what was said that I was responding to. Here was the quote that I replied to:

"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."

A declaration of universality that fudging dice is inherently unsatisfying and that all challenge is now lost for the remainder of the game. A declaration of "fact" that I find silly and not at all true.

Now, if @TaranTheWanderer wants to respond with "Okay, yes, I was exaggerating for effect and that I only meant that some people might feel the way I detailed...", then great! The DM now knows that some players could find being "saved" by the DM because they screwed up the encounter design has now irrevocably destroyed any vestige of enjoyment in the game going forward. Which... yeah, there may be some who feel that way. But then there are also others-- like I myself am-- who wouldn't care that the DM was trying to fix a mistake. And that the implication @toucanbuzz I thought made relatively clear in their post was that the encounter seems overtuned and if they just played the fight as-is... the PCs are going to be mowed down. And based on the fact that @toucanbuzz seems concerned with that happening... it seems to be an indication that just mowing the PCs is not what they or the players would probably want to see happen or would find satisfying.

There's nothing wrong with PCs dying (or having a TPK)... and if it happens as part of something of worth then most of the time the players probably understand and end up okay with it (once they get past any disappointment.) But when there is a TPK that seems worthless... I'm fairly certain most DMs know how that will be received by their players. And since @toucanbuzz specifically came here asking for ideas to not have that happen... tells us that most likely a "Let the chips fall where they may because otherwise why bother playing D&D at all and instead just read them a novel" response ain't exactly going to go over. Or at the very least is not a universal truth of playing this game that could/would/should work every time.
 

DEFCON 1

Legend
Supporter
Why are you assuming it's the DM who screwed up? It seems to me that the players have options that they aren't considering (e.g. running away)
Uh... it's when the DM said this...

"I believe now the PCs should have been 9 or 10th level before this battle, my bad on that part."

That seemed... rather clear to me.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
That is all true... but not what was said that I was responding to. Here was the quote that I replied to:

"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."

A declaration of universality that fudging dice is inherently unsatisfying and that all challenge is now lost for the remainder of the game. A declaration of "fact" that I find silly and not at all true.

Now, if @TaranTheWanderer wants to respond with "Okay, yes, I was exaggerating for effect and that I only meant that some people might feel the way I detailed...", then great! The DM now knows that some players could find being "saved" by the DM because they screwed up the encounter design has now irrevocably destroyed any vestige of enjoyment in the game going forward. Which... yeah, there may be some who feel that way. But then there are also others-- like I myself am-- who wouldn't care that the DM was trying to fix a mistake. And that the implication @toucanbuzz I thought made relatively clear in their post was that the encounter seems overtuned and if they just played the fight as-is... the PCs are going to be mowed down. And based on the fact that @toucanbuzz seems concerned with that happening... it seems to be an indication that just mowing the PCs is not what they or the players would probably want to see happen or would find satisfying.

There's nothing wrong with PCs dying (or having a TPK)... and if it happens as part of something of worth then most of the time the players probably understand and end up okay with it (once they get past any disappointment.) But when there is a TPK that seems worthless... I'm fairly certain most DMs know how that will be received by their players. And since @toucanbuzz specifically came here asking for ideas to not have that happen... tells us that most likely a "Let the chips fall where they may because otherwise why bother playing D&D at all and instead just read them a novel" response ain't exactly going to go over. Or at the very least is not a universal truth of playing this game that could/would/should work every time.
Certainly there are no universal preferences as you say. One person's delicious fudge is another person's poison.

I think what needs to be taken more fully into account here is the player's decisions in arriving at this point with no means of escape or plan B (if that is indeed the case). That's not on the DM.

Also, one thing that I notice DMs do is that they often underestimate how survivable D&D 5e PCs are. One of my own DMs proclaims every session practically that this is the one where the TPK happens. Yet, against all odds, we manage to pull out a win. That may not be the same thing going on here, but the DM will never know if they start putting their thumb on the scale. Players can surprise us often.
 

aco175

Legend
I watched a Matt Colville video, for what it is worth, that talks about your mistakes as a DM and the player mistakes. If you designed something and then it is proving too difficult because of your fault, then you can/should modify the encounter during the encounter. Just because you wrote something down does not mean that encounter design is over. If things are the player's fault, then they should learn to run away and will know that there are bigger things around than themselves. They might need more levels or knowledge or such and go find it before coming back. It is not bad to run away if you let them. If you prevent them or hound them, then they learn not to run away.
 

DEFCON 1

Legend
Supporter
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.
If you had said that being bailed out would not be some players cup of tea, I wouldn't have responded to you. But it was only because you had made a seemingly universal declaration (which I had quoted) that I felt the impetus to reply somewhat cheekily. ;)

That being said, I agree with you. Some people would find it to be a betrayal of the game and the ethos of playing it-- no argument there. But we do have to acknowledge that it isn't a universal response and that there will be plenty of tables wherein a DMing copping to a mess up (especially if it's the first time of it ever happening) would be seen as graciousness and concern for the enjoyment of the players.
 
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I'd give them a fair opportunity to run. If your group isn't normally inclined to do that you could suggest that to them either in-fiction (maybe the alu-fiend says "He's too strong! We need to get out of here!") or straight up suggest it to them out of character ("The lich seems like he is just getting stronger the longer you fight. You don't know if you can defeat him.") If your PC's choose to fight then they have made a choice and you can let the dice fall where they may. If they run the lich can try to pick off stragglers, so escaping with everyone alive can feel like a "win." (One of my most memorable sessions as a player was narrowly escaping from a massive goblin ambush that would have TPK'd us if we had tried to fight). The PCs now have an long term enemy that they are genuinely hate and his eventual destruction will be far more satisfyingly.

I'd recommend against pulling your punches on this. Deus ex Machina is a bad technique in fiction and it is even worse in RPG's because players understand that the DM has saved them from their own bad choices. Similarly "consequences" like being captured or forced to work for the bad guy rarely work because: 1) players understand that they have been saved by DM fiat, 2) they rarely feel like consequences rather than speedbumps. (I don't think I have ever seen PC stay captured for more than half a game session before they escape and get their gear back; telling adventurers "now you have to go on adventures for the bad guy" is less a consequence as it is a plot hook.)

TLDR; 1) give them a chance to run, 2) flat-out suggest it to them if it otherwise wouldn't occur to them, 3) if they choose to fight to the death - let them.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
"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."

A declaration of universality that fudging dice is inherently unsatisfying and that all challenge is now lost for the remainder of the game. A declaration of "fact" that I find silly and not at all true.
It all depends on what the players want out of the game. If they want to be told a satisfying story, with a beginning, middle, and end...that includes relevant themes, callbacks, etc...then no, fudging dice can be perfectly satisfying. In fact, using dice at all will tend to be unsatisfying, unless they confirm what the DM has already decided will happen next. If they want to play a game where their decisions matter and there's an element of random chance, then rolling the dice and playing them where they lay is satisfying...but fudging is unsatisfying.
 

DEFCON 1

Legend
Supporter
I think what needs to be taken more fully into account here is the player's decisions in arriving at this point with no means of escape or plan B (if that is indeed the case). That's not on the DM.
Absolutely. And I also agree with the person upthread who said that it might be worthwhile to point out to the players at the top of the next session that retreating or any other response besides running headlong into battle are all valid options and things to keep in mind. Too often we all see these fights as "fights to the end"... oftentimes because we DMs reinforce this by chasing the PCs down as they try and move away or retreat otherwise-- using the game mechanics of "I move / you move" to never allow a PC to truly get away. Which yeah... the game mechanics allow that to occur and can make it impossible for PCs to truly escape a bad situation. And knowing that... I think oftentimes players believe there IS NO escape from a fight and thus they don't even think about trying.
 

Some thought from the OP.

If things get out of control, it mean they were in control before?

The fight seem to been setup from a while ago, but unfortunately PC didn't get enough level and enough ally to handle it.
Do the setup expect PCs failure?

The DM already burn a card allowing an unexpected ally, unfortunately the DM didn´t make it powerful enough to reverse the tide. It could, but the DM choose otherwise.
So now let the game roll.
 

Quickleaf

Legend
I know how moments like these can make us second guess ourselves as DMs. Did I provide enough foreshadowing? Was I clear about the opportunities for power/allies in this dungeon? Did I lean too hard into their weaknesses? I've been there and I'll be there again. The silver lining is that, if I keep my wits about me, moments like this are a great opportunity to explore the story deeper.

For instance, just taking the standard MM lich's Lair Actions, there could be a lot of story implications behind "tether" and "dead spirits."

That "tether" implies some kind of a psychic or soul-based connection between the Lich and the Wizard PC. Even though the MM describes that mechanistically as a one-way street benefiting the Lich, that need not be the case. What does that connection look and feel like? For instance, can the Wizard PC catch glimpses of the Lich's past to ascertain its weaknesses (either mechanical vulnerabilities/weaknesses or roleplaying flaws)? Might there be a way for the Wizard PC to strip away certain condition immunities (e.g. charmed? for the alu-fiend to get charm through) from the Lich by sheer force of will exploiting that connection? As a last ditch scenario, could the Wizard deliberately nuke himself and force the Lich to take half damage in a sacrifice play to win the day or at least cause the Lich enough harm that it retreats?

Or with the "dead spirits", that implies there are a lot of souls that have been bound to the Lich over the years. Maybe in the heat of combat, the Lich's binding on these souls weakens? Could a cleric or paladin use Channel Divinity – perhaps with a bit of roleplay interaction with one of these spirits – to turn the souls against the Lich?

I'd lean harder into your story, and also see what story implications there might be to the scene / stats that maybe heretofore have been hidden or unexplored.

On the plus side, for an experienced group of 5e players, it's probably refreshing for them to feel like something is pushing them beyond their limits. I know you said that a TPK is a foregone conclusion, but I've learned never to underestimate my players, especially when all the chips are down. They just might have a plan (even a reckless one).
 

DEFCON 1

Legend
Supporter
It all depends on what the players want out of the game. If they want to be told a satisfying story, with a beginning, middle, and end...that includes relevant themes, callbacks, etc...then no, fudging dice can be perfectly satisfying. In fact, using dice at all will tend to be unsatisfying, unless they confirm what the DM has already decided will happen next. If they want to play a game where their decisions matter and there's an element of random chance, then rolling the dice and playing them where they lay is satisfying...but fudging is unsatisfying.
Or it's not all or nothing. :)

A table of players can play out an exciting game and compelling story that includes all manner of randomness and following what happens with the dice that are rolled... while also being okay (or not even noticing) if one time the DM makes an adjustment mid-combat because they messed up in the encounter's design.

Now yes... there have been a number of people here on the boards who have stated over the last many, many years that they can tell automatically when a DM has fudged a die roll or adjusted an encounter and that the DM doing so has destroyed D&D for them at that particular table. And if that's actually the case... sorry to hear that. But they should acknowledge that just because they are that good at sniffing out a sting, it doesn't mean everybody else can, or even if others even care enough to bother trying.

I know I certainly don't. I know I don't ever worry about tracking every single goblin's hit point total so I can know for certain that they only fall down when they definitely reached only 0 HP, rather than the DM saying "It's dead" when it reached 1 HP because the fight went on a lot longer than expected and it was the only goblin left and the end result was a fait accompli anyway. Personally I don't give a rat's ass if the DM does that, even if I am told by the DM as it happens. A goblin falling down at 1 HP rather than 0 HP does not matter to me, especially if it has only happened like one time in a years-long campaign. And I'd be willing to bet that there are plenty of others out there like me. Nothing is universal. In either direction. :)
 

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