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You can't win this encounter

Something that I've been seeing a lot lately is that the party should be faced with encounters that they cannot win. That they should run. My question to you is how do you convey this information to the party without being ham-fisted about it? Now there are the obvious clues like the dragon being really really big or the player failing to penetrate the monster's armor after rolling a 19. But how would you subtly let your players know they're in over their heads. Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you just can't save the players from themselves?
 

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Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
Part of my Session 0 is that not all potential encounters will be level-appropriate. Then just train then that way from 1st level. Have them see some big foe in the distance that the decide not to encounter. Have a battle with a foe that can't catch them/has no reason to pursue (perhaps guarding a nest) that they can start to fight and then get away clean when they realize it's too much for them. Have an obviously numerically superior force but that doesn't want it to turn to bloodshed, so they see alternate solutions like RP, bribery, stealth, etc. are available options they can use if they are unsure about the opponent - or sure they can't take it. As long as you introduce it early and make it a recurring if rare issue, players will just get into the habit of evaluating if they want to fight something. Sometimes they can take something and won't fight it because they don't have enough reason to. I've been in a high level party (12th) that paid off rival explorers we are pretty sure we could have beaten just because we wanted to conserve resources for the forgotten temple we were in. Not enough reward to fight.

Oh, this really works best if you are using story award or milestones (either for XP or directly for levelling) instead of XP for encounters. If you only reward XP for encounters, players will (rightfully) expect that they can beat encounters.
 

Tantavalist

Villager
It probably varies with the table. I have never been a fan of level-based games or balanced encounters, so my players tend to know not to push their luck in any game. I've never had a situation where they kept going when it became clear things might be going against them.

The session zero advice seems pretty good though. Make sure that you tell the players they won't be able tp win everything. Also, tell them that the burden will be on them to work out whether or not they can win- that any TPKs will be on them and that you'll not pull punches if they get in over their heads. Tell them this even if you actually intend to cut them slack.

I definitely agree that this is hard to make work in a game where you get XP for killing monsters. If there's a reward for winning a fight then players are much more likely to start one, and to keep trying to win it. If they get the same XP for sneaking past without a fight or talking things out then they soon learn that starting combat means risking their characters for no actual gain.
 

We had a GM growing up who, not only did he treat his campaign like he was writing the Great American Novel, but his definition of heroic was this:

Of six encounters, three should be heavily favoring the baddies so the party retreats, two should be 'neutrally' balanced 50/50, and one should be winnable by the PCs. He thought that was heroic. I can't even think of a fantasy novel that follows that math.
 

MGibster

Legend
Now there are the obvious clues like the dragon being really really big or the player failing to penetrate the monster's armor after rolling a 19.
I'm going to tell you right now that some players will not notice an obvious clue. In a Star Wars campaign I was running, the PCs were planet side on their ship being attacked by swarm after swarm of Tie Fighters. I gave them plenty of obvious clues that the Empire wasn't going to run out of Tie Fighters any time soon and there were a lot more Star Destroyers and Tie Fighters in orbit. Instead of finding a place to lay low the pilot continued to engage the Tie Fighters until they were blown out of the sky.
 


billd91

Hobbit on Quest
I'm going to tell you right now that some players will not notice an obvious clue. In a Star Wars campaign I was running, the PCs were planet side on their ship being attacked by swarm after swarm of Tie Fighters. I gave them plenty of obvious clues that the Empire wasn't going to run out of Tie Fighters any time soon and there were a lot more Star Destroyers and Tie Fighters in orbit. Instead of finding a place to lay low the pilot continued to engage the Tie Fighters until they were blown out of the sky.
Yeah, it's cases like this that underscore that there is no foolproof method of foreshadowing an unwinnable encounter. The world just keeps making bigger fools.
 



MGibster

Legend
I try to establish these things in session zero. For my Delta Green campaign, I explained to them that we were an "X-Files" level of realism here and that any human threat you encountered could potentially end your life. That state trooper might not be as skilled as your character but that 9mm he carries can end your life. And if you ever see a group of men wearing black masks, body armor, and carrying MP-5s coming your direction you need to get the hell out of Dodge.
 

tomBitonti

Adventurer
One thing is to make sure that the players have tools for evaluating the difficulty of an encounter. And, that they have options other than a fight. And that moving forward the story or campaign doesn't require fighting a particular enemy.

This can be hindered by an "open door, roll initiative" tendency for encounters, ramping up an encounter to the use of lethal force as the immediate step. And by a lack of feasible options for breaking off combat.

TomB
 

I'm going to tell you right now that some players will not notice an obvious clue. In a Star Wars campaign I was running, the PCs were planet side on their ship being attacked by swarm after swarm of Tie Fighters. I gave them plenty of obvious clues that the Empire wasn't going to run out of Tie Fighters any time soon and there were a lot more Star Destroyers and Tie Fighters in orbit. Instead of finding a place to lay low the pilot continued to engage the Tie Fighters until they were blown out of the sky.
I once started a campaign that had a goblin army attack the PCs home town. The PCs and the town militia fought the goblins but fell back from the town wall and gate into the town. As the rest of the citizens fled for their lives, the PCs got ready to make a stand against the goblins in the town square. The forces arrayed against the players were, at least to me, clearly overwhelming. I wound up having to punt and ask the players if they were prepared to go down swinging or if they wanted to make a dash for the exits. Not a great start to a campaign.
 

GrahamWills

Adventurer
I had one GM (for a non-D&D game) that would explicitly tell us before play began if the threats were going to be particularly high threat.
In Fate, I would say "Since you are a <choose suitable aspect> you know that fighting this would be near-unwindable"

in Night's Black Agents (Gumshoe) "Since you are skilled in Tradecraft, you can tell that these guys re so far above your pay grade that fighting them would be suicide"

In Pathfinder "You don't need to make a Recall Knowledge check here -- your passive knowledge lets you know that this is more dangerous by far than the most dangerous enemy you have yet faced; there would be no disgrace in fleeing from it and staying means almost certain death"

I strongly agree with Umbran -- hints are too risky a tool; as a GM I can think I have been pretty clear, but the players aren't on the same page and so they plough on and because I think they have understood the risk, I don't take any further actions to make them aware. Much safer to be absolutely clear.
 

tomBitonti

Adventurer
Unwinnable fights can cut against game expectations. If the pcs are hired to rescue a family that was taken by goblins, and they discover, deep in the goblin cave, a powerful goblin shaman well above their power level, a lot of players would give the fight their best shot. Their fantasy is to overcome evil foes and rescue people, not to run away and allow the hostages to be sacrificed or eaten or soled into slavery.
TomB
 


MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
In my first battle, for the first session of Rappan Athuk, the monster took down a character in one hit. Now they were in a caravan with a lot of guards, so they survived by staying smart and letting the guard absorb a lot of the damage. No permanent PC deaths, but lots of dead guards and they got the message.

This makes the players a lot more shy about taking risks and isn't as conducive to heroic play, but for our campaign, that is a feature, not a bug. The Dungeon of Graves is a terrifying place for low-level characters and even at higher levels, they need to be careful about not being too cocky.
 

pming

Hero
Hiya!
Something that I've been seeing a lot lately is that the party should be faced with encounters that they cannot win. That they should run. My question to you is how do you convey this information to the party without being ham-fisted about it?
o_O
Uh...you don't? I mean, it's NOT UP TO YOU TO SAVE THEM, simply put. Your question is like someone picking up a 1000pg mystery novel and the first page says "Synopsis: The butler did it, in the Kitchen, with the Candlestick. Enjoy!".

So, you do nothing. The Players will figure it out...or not. Either way, it's not your problem and certainly not your "job" to help them not die.

Now there are the obvious clues like the dragon being really really big or the player failing to penetrate the monster's armor after rolling a 19. But how would you subtly let your players know they're in over their heads. Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you just can't save the players from themselves?

Ok, I think you're doing it wrong. ;) Y'see...when you're sitting there doing the DM thing, explaining the situation in terms of what the PC's would sense (see, hear, smell, taste, touch), all that information is already "letting your Players know". If they don't recognize the danger, then either they are really not picking up on it for whatever reason...or you just need more practice describing stuff. Keep at it! You'll get there! :)

Tips: Tone of your voice and "pacing". These, imnsho, you just have to learn/develop. They can't be taught. There is a distinct difference between "The chamber is 40' square, with a vaulted ceiling, 20' or so overhead at it's central point in the middle of the room. The walls have faded frescos of Sir Lightheart slaying various foul creatures...a black dragon being decapitated, a demon being struck down by Sir Lighthearts legendary sword, 'Angle-Kiss', and another of the Evil Ursurper, King Rendwood kneeling in defeat before the knight. In the north west corner is an old Romanesque style couch and footstool. Upon the couch rests the bones of some humanoid, once dressed in fine clothes, now rotted and eaten away. A dust covered golden goblet lays on it's side, just out of reach of the skeletons outstretched hand. Slowly, to your horror, red-glowing embers start to form in it's dark eye-sockets!". ... ...and... ... "The 40' square, vaulted room has frescos on the wall, but your attention is drawn immediately to the skeleton on the small couch in the NW corner...as it's eye-sockets suddenly spark to un-life with a hellish red glow!".

The length of the description and the detail all set the "pacing" of the scene. In the first, it's more of a "slow burning horrific realization", and the second is more of a "sudden surprise of danger". Both descriptions will affect your Players differently. This is how you can "hint" at something very dangerous up ahead. Description, description length, and tone of voice.

In the first example, it is described with the Players being "horrified", but not "surprised"; meaning they are FAR more likely to react in a manner appropriate to the danger; they will think more carefully and have more time to assess the potential danger...given all the other potential hints at who...or what... lairs in this dungeon/ruin, they are more apt to say "Yup! That's a Lich! RUN!". But if the second description is used, IME, Players will tend to react 'instinctively'...and, for many adventurers, this is "Get it before it can do something!", and not fully appreciate the situation for what it is.

So...as I said. "Pacing" of your descriptions. This is the BEST way that I have found to help "hint" (if you can call it that) that something overly-dangerous is up ahead.

^_^

Paul L. Ming
 

I never present my players with encounters where they have to run. Because presuming an action on the part of the players is likely to result in the opposite.

Instead, I foreshadow the difficulty of an encounter, so they can make their own choice. After all, just because an encounter is hard, does not mean they are guaranteed to lose.

If an encounter proves too tough, fleeing is always an option. But I never presume that my players will do as I intended.

In my sandbox play style, most encounters will be level appropriate, or appropriate in regards to the strength of the party. Challenge Ratings can only get you so far. I mostly rely on my knowledge of previous battles and how the players handled them. In my designs for battles, I also try to include alternate strategic options that can improve their chances. Simply playing smart can make even the toughest fights a little easier.

However, it is possible for my players to run into opponents that are too strong. Too strong in this case, means likely to result in a casualty or two, or a severely wounded party, but never unbeatable. I try to drop enough hints in regards to the difficulty of the challenge, so the players can make an informed decission.

The best way I've found to teach my players when to run, is to show early on that some opponents can be lethal. In our very first session, I had a crocodile rip a poor npc ro shreds while the level 1 party watched. They learned right away to be mindful of their hp pool, and they kept their distance from this foe. They also learned the value of seeking out alternate strategies, when their druid befriended a crocodile and turned it against their foes.

As a DM I cannot stress enough just how important it is to reward your players for clever strategies. Start doing it right from the very first session and you'll teach them to do it more often.
 
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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
So, you do nothing. The Players will figure it out...or not. Either way, it's not your problem and certainly not your "job" to help them not die.

With respect, the GM is the only window the players have on the fictional world. If the GM does not make the information available, there's nothing to "figure out". They cannot figure it out until you tell them.

So, "do nothing" taken literally is is actually "they will not be able to make choices about whether to engage until it is too late".
 

Odysseus

Explorer
My answer would be very table specific. My current players don't ask alot of questions and do more things by the seat of their pants. So i'm not throwing unwinnable encounters at them.
But with other groups I have been able to foreshadow encounters.And also make sure there is an obvious out. So the players can see if a monster is clearly defending something,they can retreat without being chased for example.
Or there is the big pile of minis technique. The players are get nervous if they see I have a large number of monsters prepped, and become more cautious .
 

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