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


log in or register to remove this ad

Mort

Legend
Supporter
Because "the players not being too stubborn to run away" is a viable option.

Unless it isn't (a viable option).

Fights, in ALL versions of D&D with 5e being no exception, are difficult to flee from.

For that not to be the case the DM has to expressly build in a way for the PCs to flee and telegraph accordingly.

And as to the OP, he's stated he WANTS some ideas on how to avoid A TPK because HE made some mistakes. Saying, nah, just kill them - isn't all that helpful!

So as to options:

1. Have an out present itself, such as have an NPC distract the Litch so the PCs can run. Or have something else happen that the PCs see a viable escape route. Make sure the PCs know running is a viable and, likely good option.

2. Have something happen "elsewhere in the dungeon" that requires the Litch's immediate attention, the Litch then dimension doors out to deal with it. The PCs get a breather and a reminder that they need to step up their game or get the heck out of dodge.

3. Have the Lich go full bore, but he needs the PCs alive (for experiments or whatever) and captures them instead. Changes the focus of the adventure campaign but can be it's own fun.

While I'm not against the idea of on the fly modifying the encounter downwards in certain cases. I think, here, there are enough interesting outs to not have to do that.
 

ad_hoc

(he/they)
If they die, they die.

If there is no risk of defeat then there is no triumph.

You said the party missed out on chances to gain power and allies and were also drained at the beginning of the encounter.

Could they have retreated (and failed the goal but survive) without engaging the Lich?

At my table the group knows TPKs are on the table so they do their best in each encounter to keep their strength up. If they haven't been doing well they either retreat or throw caution to the wind and go for it. Makes for an exciting game.
 

Bluebell

Explorer
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).
I agree, I think there are fun things that can be done with this scenario that deepen the themes rather than pulling away from them. I'm a big fan of consequences that offer more opportunities for PC action -- don't save them from loss, just change the loss into a situation that they now have to fix.

My first thought from this "tether" concept was that the Lich might be somehow feeding off of one of the PCs, and infecting them with an undead state in exchange. If the fighter is approaching death, why not instead push them into a state of semi-undeath? Make them a thrall of the Lich and turn the party loose, leaving them to figure out how to reverse what's been done to the fighter before they become a complete zombie.

Or apply it to the whole party. The Lich has been spamming Toll the Dead, causing necromantic damage? Gradually everyone is becoming tainted by undeath. The Lich leaves them alive, but cursed. Even when they try to sleep, they're haunted by the clanging of bells. Now hunting down the Lich again is a matter of their own survival, but if they don't find the resources/allies they need first, they won't have a hope of reversing what's been done to them.
 

Mort

Legend
Supporter
I agree, I think there are fun things that can be done with this scenario that deepen the themes rather than pulling away from them. I'm a big fan of consequences that offer more opportunities for PC action -- don't save them from loss, just change the loss into a situation that they now have to fix.

My first thought from this "tether" concept was that the Lich might be somehow feeding off of one of the PCs, and infecting them with an undead state in exchange. If the fighter is approaching death, why not instead push them into a state of semi-undeath? Make them a thrall of the Lich and turn the party loose, leaving them to figure out how to reverse what's been done to the fighter before they become a complete zombie.

Or apply it to the whole party. The Lich has been spamming Toll the Dead, causing necromantic damage? Gradually everyone is becoming tainted by undeath. The Lich leaves them alive, but cursed. Even when they try to sleep, they're haunted by the clanging of bells. Now hunting down the Lich again is a matter of their own survival, but if they don't find the resources/allies they need first, they won't have a hope of reversing what's been done to them.

Exactly,

Consequences are generally much more fun than a TPK/near TPK (which aren't so much consequences as a reset).

The break in the action has provided the OP with a nice opportunity to plan something interesting/fun for his players.
 

RobJN

Adventurer
"Knocking a Creature Out
Sometimes an attacker wants to incapacitate a foe, rather than deal a killing blow. When an attacker reduces a creature to 0 hit points with a melee attack, the attacker can knock the creature out. The attacker can make this choice the instant the damage is dealt. The creature falls unconscious and is stable. "
 

Mort

Legend
Supporter
"Knocking a Creature Out
Sometimes an attacker wants to incapacitate a foe, rather than deal a killing blow. When an attacker reduces a creature to 0 hit points with a melee attack, the attacker can knock the creature out. The attacker can make this choice the instant the damage is dealt. The creature falls unconscious and is stable. "

The Lich is using a ranged cantrip that deals necrotic damage, so this doesn't really apply. but:

1. It's a Lich if it wants to knock you out it should be able too, so sure why not;

2. PCs don't die quickly when downed in 5e, so the Lich can down them and then stabilize them, if it wants.

Point being, if the Lich wants to capture rather than kill the PCs it should certainly be able to.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Unless it isn't (a viable option).

Fights, in ALL versions of D&D with 5e being no exception, are difficult to flee from.
Fights are exactly as difficult to flee from as the DM wants them to be.
And as to the OP, he's stated he WANTS some ideas on how to avoid A TPK because HE made some mistakes. Saying, nah, just kill them - isn't all that helpful!
It's quite helpful. It's just not something you want to do. Which is fair. But it's still a viable option.

The OP's request is predicated on a false premise. That encounter balance is something to strive for. It's not. It makes the world feel like a video game. Some things will be a breezy walk in the park, others a desperate and overwhelming fight to the death. Fights that you expect to go one way will inevitably go the other. So be it. The players can decide to run. If they don't, that's on them. The DM can decide to let them run, that's on them. The DM can also do any one of the dozens of suggestions already presented...up to and including the dreaded TPK.

If nothing else, have the lich raise the party as minions and give them a chance to escape its control and go on an epic quest to restore themselves to proper life. Or kill them and have them wake up in the underworld and the Lord of the Dead is pissed about all this necromancy and sends the PCs back to the land of the living to put a stop to the lich, after training up some because clearly they need a bit of help in that regard.

My point is: don't shy away from the consequences of bad choices. Lean into them and find ways to make them epic. That's where the memorable tabletop war stories come from. That time the party wiped, was raised by a lich, escaped, then sought revenge...not that time the DM took it easy on us.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Fights are exactly as difficult to flee from as the DM wants them to be.

It's quite helpful. It's just not something you want to do. Which is fair. But it's still a viable option.

The OP's request is predicated on a false premise. That encounter balance is something to strive for. It's not.
I would say it can be something to strive for, but that in the doing the DM and players both need to be aware that an equation in a book is not going to take into account all the variables that may lead to things being harder (or easier!) than expected. Smart play in that context is to have a Plan B at all times. If everyone is on the same page with regard to that fact, then it can work just fine as a principle of challenge design.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
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.

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...
OK, so when in a position like this, I would do a couple of things:
1) Review what's been going on carefully to make sure it's right. The tethering, for example, only lasts 1 round and can't be done 2 rounds in a row. That means the players have alternate rounds to lay the smackdown as much as they can when the lich isn't tethered. A good round of damage suffering and that phylacterially-challenged lich might be willing to bug out.
2) Change things up. Maybe instead of spamming the toll the dead cantrip, he should burn 2 of the legendary actions to use paralyzing touch. Add in a bit of monologue ("I have plans for you") as he reaches out to paralyze one of them. That might indicate that being defeated doesn't mean death and give them a brief respite from being cantripped to death.

Plus, do you give out inspiration? They might be in need of some given the difficulty of the fight. Say it's for their grit and heroism.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
I would say it can be something to strive for, but that in the doing the DM and players both need to be aware that an equation in a book is not going to take into account all the variables that may lead to things being harder (or easier!) than expected. Smart play in that context is to have a Plan B at all times. If everyone is on the same page with regard to that fact, then it can work just fine as a principle of challenge design.
Sure...but picking up any die and realizing that randomness is a part of the game...that dice are involved in play...should give you all the information you need for the "smart play" or to be "on the same page" in regards to always having a plan B. Players thinking they can safely rush in, brute force every problem, and always be assured an easy victory is as much a failing on the part of the designers as the DM and players.
 

Mort

Legend
Supporter
Fights are exactly as difficult to flee from as the DM wants them to be.
While true, this is a meaningless statement.

If the PCs don't know that fleeing is an option, then, likely, they won't do it. The DM not only has to make fleeing viable, he has to ensure the PCs know it's viable.

It's quite helpful. It's just not something you want to do. Which is fair. But it's still a viable option.
The point is a TPK or even partial TPK is, often, the least fun option. The break in the action presents an opportunity to inject some other fun things that can occur.

The OP's request is predicated on a false premise. That encounter balance is something to strive for. It's not. It makes the world feel like a video game. Some things will be a breezy walk in the park, others a desperate and overwhelming fight to the death. Fights that you expect to go one way will inevitably go the other. So be it.

Encounter balance is more about the DM gauging how hard an encounter is likely to be so he can plan his adventures accordingly. D&D is a level based game, the DM HAS to know what will challenge the group, what won't and what will likely be too difficult. If nothing else, the DM needs to know WHEN to build in opportunities for the PCs to get the heck out of dodge.

The players can decide to run. If they don't, that's on them. The DM can decide to let them run, that's on them. The DM can also do any one of the dozens of suggestions already presented...up to and including the dreaded TPK.
If the DM inserts a deadly encounter (an actual deadly encounter not a DMG rated deadly encounter, which is just a resource thing) without taking into account that the PCs may have to run, or worse doesn't build in/allow ways for them to run, then the DM is being a jerk - full stop.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Sure...but picking up any die and realizing that randomness is a part of the game...that dice are involved in play...should give you all the information you need for the "smart play" or to be "on the same page" in regards to always having a plan B. Players thinking they can safely rush in, brute force every problem, and always be assured an easy victory is as much a failing on the part of the designers as the DM and players.
I'm not sure that's obvious to everyone, so it's worth talking about as a group in my view.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
While true, this is a meaningless statement.
Not at all. It's a direct counter to your silly claim that all D&D fights in every edition are difficult to escape. You're wrong about that. The fights in D&D, no matter the edition, are exactly as difficult to escape as the DM decides.
If the PCs don't know that fleeing is an option, then, likely, they won't do it. The DM not only has to make fleeing viable, he has to ensure the PCs know it's viable.
As long as they have hit points and they're not locked in, the PCs can always run. If that needs explaining, there are deeper issues that need to be talked about first.
The point is a TPK or even partial TPK
We must not be using that abbreviation to mean the same thing. I'm using it to mean Total Party Kill. There's no such thing as a partial total something.
is, often, the least fun option. The break in the action presents an opportunity to inject some other fun things that can occur.
Only if it's the end of the game. As mentioned by me and a few other people, you can even make death or losing into a part of the game. Depending on how mythical or epic you want to go, it can be the most memorable part.
Encounter balance is more about the DM gauging how hard an encounter is likely to be so he can plan his adventures accordingly.
There's your problem. Don't do that. It's not for the DM to plan. It's for the DM to react. The PCs want to go hunting a dragon at 1st level? Fine. Let's go. The PCs want to play politics in the big city? Fine. Let's go. the PCs want to raid goblin villages at 20th level? Fine. Let's go.
D&D is a level based game, the DM HAS to know what will challenge the group, what won't and what will likely be too difficult.
No, the DM doesn't. The PCs get to decide what they tackle and how difficult the challenges are. If they want to hunt dragons at 1st level...cool. Start rolling up new characters now because you'll need them. Want to walk all over CR1/8 monsters at 20th...cool...if utterly boring.
If nothing else, the DM needs to know WHEN to build in opportunities for the PCs to get the heck out of dodge.
Again, unless the door is locked, the path barred, and the PCs dead, they can always run.
If the DM inserts a deadly encounter (an actual deadly encounter not a DMG rated deadly encounter, which is just a resource thing) without taking into account that the PCs may have to run, or worse doesn't build in/allow ways for them to run, then the DM is being a jerk - full stop.
The DM coddling the PCs and protecting them from their terrible choices is also a jerk move. The DM not playing the world with some sense of verisimilitude is also a jerk move. A hyper-intelligent lich scrying on an adventuring party and building the perfect counter to every one of their abilities is exactly what a hyper-intelligent lich would do. Anything less than that is coddling the players and being a jerk. Some fights are inescapable. Some fights are deadly. Some deadly fights are inescapable. A hyper-intelligent lich who can scry on the adventuring party and build the perfect counter to every one of their abilities is not likely to make it easy for the party to escape. Anything less breaks suspension of disbelief. If that seems unfair, tell it to the lich. I'm sure it'll be sympathetic. If the PCs are dumb enough to walk into a trap, then they're dumb enough to walk into a trap. It's only a jerk move if you don't telegraph it. Like old-school save or die stuff that's undetectable? Forget that noise.
I'm not sure that's obvious to everyone, so it's worth talking about as a group in my view.
It's not obvious that rolling a die produces a random number? Okay.
 
Last edited:


Mort

Legend
Supporter
Not at all. It's a direct counter to your silly claim that all D&D fights in every edition are difficult to escape. You're wrong about that. The fights in D&D, no matter the edition, are exactly as difficult to escape as the DM decides.

As long as they have hit points and they're not locked in, they PCs can always run. If that needs explaining, there are deeper issues that need to be talked about first.
This is simply not true. PCs OFTEN don't moves as fast/ or at least not faster than opponents. The DM needs to consider fleeing as an option or it may not actually be a viable one.

We must not be using that abbreviation to mean the same thing. I'm using it to mean Total Party Kill. There's no such thing as a partial total something.
Partial TPK just means short of a TPK like 50-75% of the party dying.

Only if it's the end of the game. As mentioned by me and a few other people, you can even make death or losing into a part of the game. Depending on how mythical or epic you want to go, it can be the most memorable part.
More often than not death just means rolling up a new character - which ok. A TPK just means everyone rolls up a new character. There are plenty of more fun/worse consequences than that.

There's your problem. Don't do that. It's not for the DM to plan. It's for the DM to react. The PCs want to go hunting a dragon at 1st level? Fine. Let's go. The PCs want to play politics in the big city? Fine. Let's go. the PCs want to raid goblin villages at 20th level? Fine. Let's go.
The DM still has to know how easy or hard the task the PCs are trying to accomplish is. You can't react if you have no idea what the PCs chances of success/failure are.

No, the DM doesn't. The PCs get to decide what they tackle and how difficult the challenges are. If they want to hunt dragons at 1st level...cool. Start rolling up new characters now because you'll need them. Want to walk all over CR1/8 monsters at 20th...cool...if utterly boring.
You're describing a true sandbox. Not all, probably not even a high % of games are run like that. Further, even in a true sandbox, the DM MUST know the relative difficulty of any given challenge. The situations you describe are obvious, but most are not. If the DM doesn't telegraph that certain encounters/situations are WAY above a groups paygrade -then cackles manically as they're brutally killed? that's not a good way to go.


Again, unless the door is locked, the path barred, and the PCs dead, they can always run.
Run where? just because they can run, doesn't mean the opponents won't follow. There has to be some way for them to escape successfully, or it's just a trap option.

The DM coddling the PCs and protecting them from their terrible choices is also a jerk move. The DM not playing the world with some sense of verisimilitude is also a jerk move. A hyper-intelligent lich scrying on an adventuring party and building the perfect counter to every one of their abilities is exactly what a hyper-intelligent lich would do. Anything less than that is coddling the players and being a jerk. Some fights are inescapable. Some fights are deadly. Some deadly fights are inescapable. A hyper-intelligent lich who can scry on the adventuring party and build the perfect counter to every one of their abilities is not likely to make it easy for the party to escape. Anything less breaks suspension of disbelief. If that seems unfair, tell it to the lich. I'm sure it'll be sympathetic. If the PCs are dumb enough to walk into a trap, then they're dumb enough to walk into a trap. It's only a jerk move if you don't telegraph it. Like old-school save or die stuff that's undetectable? Forget that noise.
Sorry, but a DM that builds a situation where the PCs are certain to die? That's a complete jerk move. It's basically a power fantasy where the DM may as well just read the outcome and not bother having the PCs even roll dice. A possibility of death, that's part of the game. A likelihood of death, as long as the PCs know what they signed up for - that can be great fun. A certainty of death - why even bother?
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
It's not obvious that rolling a die produces a random number? Okay.
That's a little reductive though. Not everyone is going to understand that the swing of a d20 is pretty big and that the range of possibilities may exist outside of their expectations. In my opinion, one can never be too careful about setting expectations ahead of time both in games and in life. It avoids a lot of issues downstream.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
I don't believe that every encounter should be tailored to the PCs. I also believe that TPKs suck - but that doesn't mean it's the DMs responsibility to override player agency when they could occur. I do think it's thew DM's responsibility to telegraph when opponents are powerful, and to train players from early on that not all fights will be winnable so that they have that in mind when they approach (or avoid) fights.

All of that said, it sounds like you were aiming for a lesser fight and missed. Happens. So, what options do you have at this point while still preserving player agency?

The first many have mentioned is that the lich has other plans for them and would be happy if they (or most of them) don't die. So a TPK means ending in something worse than death. You mentioned a complicated backstory, can any of that fit in?

Another would be that you mentioned this is an atrophied lich with no phylactery. Is that "hit the table/the players know it" true? Because if not you have the ability to introduce a new element that your players would be expecting. Perhaps it gets unearthed in the action soon. You can go several ways. Maybe they require the phylactery to live since they are atrophied and it can be attacked and destroyed. Maybe whomever is holding it is automatically missed by / makes saves against the Lich and it can turn the tide of battle. But my favorite would have the Alu-Fiend know about it and grab it, cackling in Infernal that it can use it to control the lich, and the lich turns a couple of actions to dealing with the Alu-Fiend, giving the party a chance to regroup. Heck, maybe it was embedded in the Shield Guardian, explaining what the Alu-Fiend has been doing, tricky devil*.

(*Well, demon, but who's counting.)

A third option would be to start next session with "The lich is winning. Is anyone willing to be a martyr that the rest of the party can escape?" If not then play it out, letting them know the offer is still on the table. Makes a great recurring villain who has already killed a party member - they will want their revenge. And if you have a player who wouldn't mind retiring their character for a new one, they get that opportunity.
 


overgeeked

B/X Known World
This is simply not true. PCs OFTEN don't moves as fast/ or at least not faster than opponents.
That assumes the monsters must chase them. That's simply not true. The DM can always have the monsters not chase the PCs. Just as the DM can always have the monsters not kill the PCs. If it makes sense for the monster to do those things, do them.
The DM needs to consider fleeing as an option or it may not actually be a viable one.
As long as there's an exit, it's viable. Surrender is also always an option.
Partial TPK just means short of a TPK like 50-75% of the party dying.
So not a TPK, then. Got it.
More often than not death just means rolling up a new character - which ok. A TPK just means everyone rolls up a new character. There are plenty of more fun/worse consequences than that.
An infinite variety. One of which is both killing the party and continuing to use those characters. There's a lich. It has raise dead. There is an underworld, many of them more than likely. Death might want something. Like maybe the pesky necromancer lich to stop taking all these people out of the underworld. Having death be the end is simply not using the fantasy milieu to its fullest.
The DM still has to know how easy or hard the task the PCs are trying to accomplish is. You can't react if you have no idea what the PCs chances of success/failure are.
One simply doesn't follow from the other. The DM can have the stats of the monsters and use them. The PCs have their in-character and in-game knowledge of the situation. The fun is seeing what happens next. I don't need to know ahead of time that the party has a 37.9% chance of victory before they engage with a fight.
You're describing a true sandbox. Not all, probably not even a high % of games are run like that.
Sure.
Further, even in a true sandbox, the DM MUST know the relative difficulty of any given challenge.
Patently false.
The situations you describe are obvious, but most are not.
The situation the OP is describing is obvious. If the PCs decide to last stand that fight, it's on them.
If the DM doesn't telegraph that certain encounters/situations are WAY above a groups paygrade -then cackles manically as they're brutally killed? that's not a good way to go.
Agreed. I never said otherwise.
Run where?
Literally anywhere the deadly fight is not. You know, away.
just because they can run, doesn't mean the opponents won't follow.
You mean the opponents that the DM controls? Yeah, hint: the DM controls them. Not following the PCs is absolutely a viable option.
Sorry, but a DM that builds a situation where the PCs are certain to die? That's a complete jerk move.
And no one's claiming otherwise.
It's basically a power fantasy where the DM may as well just read the outcome and not bother having the PCs even roll dice. A possibility of death, that's part of the game. A likelihood of death, as long as the PCs know what they signed up for - that can be great fun. A certainty of death - why even bother?
Likewise, a certainty of success and everlasting life...why even bother?
That's a little reductive though. Not everyone is going to understand that the swing of a d20 is pretty big and that the range of possibilities may exist outside of their expectations. In my opinion, one can never be too careful about setting expectations ahead of time both in games and in life. It avoids a lot of issues downstream.
Even if it's reduced to the binary options of success or failure, you still have both as possibilities. I mean, I don't know what to do if someone cannot comprehend that failure is a possibility. I agree that with a lot of modern players, especially ones in my games, you have to literally explain to them that failure is a possibility. I'd somewhat naively hoped it was limited to my table. Clearly not.
 

Level Up!

An Advertisement

Advertisement4

Top