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You can't win this encounter

TheSword

Legend
Hiya!

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.



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!".

That is an excellent description of a scene. The problem is, it can also be used to describe a CR 1/2 skeleton or a CR 1 wight as well as a CR21 lich. Every skeletal undead is described as having glowing eyes.

The length of the introduction is detailed descriptive text, evocative and interesting... and giving no indication at all that the encounter will be out of their pay grade.

Unless of course you train your players to associate long descriptions with peril. I’m not sure that’s an association I’m comfortable making. Sometimes a long description may denote importance, or a busy scene. Not impending disaster.
 

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TheSword

Legend
Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. If I present threats beyond the PCs capabilities at the table (more than as the occasional curiosity) then I expect my players to change their behaviour.

I’m concerned that when PCs regularly encounter creatures out of their expected range they are more likely to hedge bets, play extremely cautiously, expect to go into every game fresh and over-optimize characters.

I’m not sure this is the kind of game I want to encourage.
 

pming

Hero
Hiya!
That is an excellent description of a scene. The problem is, it can also be used to describe a CR 1/2 skeleton or a CR 1 wight as well as a CR21 lich. Every skeletal undead is described as having glowing eyes.
...and this is why the DM needs to be consistent. As the group plays, session after session, they will all develop their own "style" of playing; this will include being able to 'read' the DM and the DM being able to 'read' his/her Players.

Aside from that, yeah, it could be a skeleton, wight or lich. I don't see the problem though. The PC's will see just what was described; the Players should then react, in character, to what they know of the "campaign setting". But I guess that's one of the reasons why the OP posted; he's not sure how to "vibe" the danger to the Players.

My suggestion was sound (ime at any rate! :) ). Description and pacing. Playing with the same DM over time, with a consistent DM, will naturally result in the Players being able to REALLY "know" what their PC's are experiencing.

The length of the introduction is detailed descriptive text, evocative and interesting... and giving no indication at all that the encounter will be out of their pay grade.

Unless of course you train your players to associate long descriptions with peril. I’m not sure that’s an association I’m comfortable making. Sometimes a long description may denote importance, or a busy scene. Not impending disaster.

I think you missed the part about "pacing". ;) It's not about the length of the description per se, it's about the delivery of the words. There is no way to easily describe it in text. Like acting. You can read the lines, but until you hear an actor act them out, you might have a completely different take on them.

But yes...the DM does have to take care to not fall into the "Oh..the DM just described the hinges and door handle; it's trapped. Watch out!" thing. ;) Consistency. That's the key.

^_^

Paul L. Ming
 

uzirath

Adventurer
I tend to avoid leveled game systems, but in most games, there might be threats that are beyond the capabilities of the PCs. I would certainly let them come up with a clever plan to defeat the mafia boss, but I wouldn't expect it. I typically telegraph this sort of thing with plenty of foreshadowing. In a dungeon crawl, for example, there might be evidence of fallen characters who seem to command similar resources as the PCs. I also think about what makes sense from the skill-set of the PCs (rather than their players). For example, if one of the PCs is ostensibly a grizzled veteran soldier, I would probably just say, straight up, "this fight looks like one to avoid." Conversely, in a GURPS game where that PC has the Overconfidence disadvantage, I might be more circumspect. (That does beg the question of how they became a grizzled veteran without something to compensate for their overconfidence; we would address that during character design.)
 


TheSword

Legend
Hiya!

...and this is why the DM needs to be consistent. As the group plays, session after session, they will all develop their own "style" of playing; this will include being able to 'read' the DM and the DM being able to 'read' his/her Players.

Aside from that, yeah, it could be a skeleton, wight or lich. I don't see the problem though. The PC's will see just what was described; the Players should then react, in character, to what they know of the "campaign setting". But I guess that's one of the reasons why the OP posted; he's not sure how to "vibe" the danger to the Players.

My suggestion was sound (ime at any rate! :) ). Description and pacing. Playing with the same DM over time, with a consistent DM, will naturally result in the Players being able to REALLY "know" what their PC's are experiencing.



I think you missed the part about "pacing". ;) It's not about the length of the description per se, it's about the delivery of the words. There is no way to easily describe it in text. Like acting. You can read the lines, but until you hear an actor act them out, you might have a completely different take on them.

But yes...the DM does have to take care to not fall into the "Oh..the DM just described the hinges and door handle; it's trapped. Watch out!" thing. ;) Consistency. That's the key.

^_^

Paul L. Ming
I think that you’re right. I’m lucky enough to have been a player in the games of a great DM over the last 15 years or so. You’re right there is a way they convey information that makes no doubt that something dramatic and potential deadly is about to happen. He ran us through a decent chunk of Rappan Athuk and delivered it excellently.

I’m just not sure how to describe it. I don’t think it’s just pacing and description though you are right they have an impact. Maybe it is that flair for the dramatic, the framing, the tone of voice, the looking us in the eye, the way he says ‘roll initiative’.
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
Instead of finding a place to lay low the pilot continued to engage the Tie Fighters until they were blown out of the sky.
So, he won?

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.
What kind of goblin horde doesn't try to ransom their captured PCs, in the process giving the PCs a long (short?) term goal of getting that ransom money back?

. . . 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?
Somehow, a big dragon isn't an obvious clue. I think it's pretty common that the PCs need saving from themselves, but that's not entirely their fault. In D&D anyway, the indicator of how dangerous you are isn't how big or strong you are. It's not even how skilled you are. It's how many hit points you have, and those don't translate into anything empirical. So players don't have any measure of whether they should be running away besides, "I'm down to 8 hit points."

My preferred way to say, "it's time to run away, PCs," is to make their NPC allies run away, to describe the opponent(s) after two or three rounds of combat as still fresh, or to show a respectable combatant as dropping easily to the unbeatable foe(s). But then, I don't usually use D&D, so I can rely on size, strength, and skill to convey the difficulty of a fight.
 

Going back to the GM I mentioned before with his 3/2/1 unwinnable/barely-manageable/winnable formula, he said outside the table he didn't understand why the party fled from every encounter. Well, when the descriptions don't vary between the encounters, you've trained the players in that game that there's a 50% chance you will be flat-out making a new character.

This was a campaign where the GM complained no one was engaging in his 'oceans of plot', to any degree, and a friend who was playing flat-out told him, with the group there to back it up, that while there was an ocean of plot (again, he was using his campaign to write his Great Novel), the PCs were trapped inside a train on a rail that passed over that ocean. They could see the ocean but there was no meaningful way to interact with anything, and even if they had a chance, his NPCs stole the spotlight.

He was also, then, a GM who was trying to run a mystery session of Vampire set in London where we couldn't research anything historical. When one PC made a great roll to find something on the microfiche, it was blurred when we'd enlarge it, and also we couldn't find a magnifying glass or anything way to enlarge it IN LONDON PROPER. Now, we're Americans (he was too) - maybe that's how England works? ;)
 

Mistwell

Legend
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?
The problem with "the party should run" is frequently the party cannot run. As in they can run, but the foe can run as fast as they can, or faster. Like your Dragon example. How do you run from a dragon? They fly 80 feet in a single move. The party can run away at 60 feet a round taking no attacks, while the Dragon can keep ahead of the party while still making attacks. So...it's worse than staying and fighting. They cannot actually run away if the dragon wants to pursue...and why wouldn't the dragon want to pursue someone who just tried to kill them and who is on the ropes?
 

pming

Hero
Hiya!
I think that you’re right. I’m lucky enough to have been a player in the games of a great DM over the last 15 years or so. You’re right there is a way they convey information that makes no doubt that something dramatic and potential deadly is about to happen. He ran us through a decent chunk of Rappan Athuk and delivered it excellently.

I’m just not sure how to describe it. I don’t think it’s just pacing and description though you are right they have an impact. Maybe it is that flair for the dramatic, the framing, the tone of voice, the looking us in the eye, the way he says ‘roll initiative’.

Yup...that's why I said "pacing" (quotation marks) and not pacing (no quotation marks). ;) As I said...there's more to it than just length of description, and it's not something you can just "read up on and do it that way". Tips, tricks and listen to experienced DM's run a game...then try and emulate that and you'll eventually get to figure out that whole "pacing" thing. :)

It's also the time the group has spent together; trying to do "pacing" in a pick up game at the FLGS is...difficult, to say the least (unless everyone knows everyone, then maybe not so bad).

^_^

Paul L. Ming
 

corwyn77

Explorer
The problem with "the party should run" is frequently the party cannot run. As in they can run, but the foe can run as fast as they can, or faster. Like your Dragon example. How do you run from a dragon? They fly 80 feet in a single move. The party can run away at 60 feet a round taking no attacks, while the Dragon can keep ahead of the party while still making attacks. So...it's worse than staying and fighting. They cannot actually run away if the dragon wants to pursue...and why wouldn't the dragon want to pursue someone who just tried to kill them and who is on the ropes?

I've played a lot of games and I don't know of any off the top of my head where fleeing is a valid tactic for a typical encounter, especially at a point where you know you should be fleeing. I've had a few GURPS characters who could do it, but the rest of the party would still be screwed. The one exception is most supers games, depending on the characters.
 

The problem with "the party should run" is frequently the party cannot run. As in they can run, but the foe can run as fast as they can, or faster.

Or the party doesn't want to run, or the party thinks the opponent will catch up to them, or the party thinks they can beat the foe, or the party thinks there will be dire consequences if they flee.

All of these are reasonable thoughts for the party to have. I think designing an encounter where the party 'must do x' is flawed thinking, and likely to result in disaster. D&D is a game that is all about choices. As the DM you are their window to the world, they know only what you tell them. So it is up to you as a DM to provide enough information so that they can make informed choices.

As a DM, I consider it my duty to present my players with a diverse set of challenges and options, not solutions. I don't throw them into a situation where they 'must run away from the Balrog', because if I did, I might as well be playing the game by myself. Fighting the Balrog should also be an option. And maybe avoiding the Balrog is an option too. I simply frame the scene, while presuming no specific course of action on the part of my players. The design philosophy of 'You must do X to not die' does not fit in D&D in my opinion.

So although my players can run into a very VERY tough opponent that is not level appropriate, I will never make the fight unbeatable. Who knows? Perhaps the players come up with a clever strategy that turns the odds in their favor. And speaking from experience, my players do this ALL the time!
 

Emerikol

Adventurer
My groups over the years have developed a high degree of paranoia. They tend to be cautious and well prepared. I find a lot of my groups can take encounters considered too high for them. Part of that is they are experienced and work well as a team but the other is that I don't overplay dumb monsters. I've had low level villains who are smart vex my groups far more than a big bad dumb monster ever has. Intelligence is underrated and I play the intelligence of the monster.

I give warnings if the group is actually trying to find warning and they exist to be found which often they do but not every single time. My groups are always looking.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
The problem with "the party should run" is frequently the party cannot run. As in they can run, but the foe can run as fast as they can, or faster. Like your Dragon example. How do you run from a dragon? They fly 80 feet in a single move. The party can run away at 60 feet a round taking no attacks, while the Dragon can keep ahead of the party while still making attacks. So...it's worse than staying and fighting. They cannot actually run away if the dragon wants to pursue...and why wouldn't the dragon want to pursue someone who just tried to kill them and who is on the ropes?
This shouldn't be a problem in an actual game - if as a DM I am putting non-level-appropriate encounters to low to mid level characters (before they get ability to get away via items or magic), I'm going to make sure they have a way to get away. A dragon's flight speed means nothing there's a narrow set of caves. A monster might be defending a nest, or have other reason why it doesn't want to give chase. Or maybe a dragon can be bribed with a service.

Don't turn monsters into murderhobos who will all mindlessly pursue and fight to the death unless it make sense - many will only kill when there is a reason, and a retreating foe satisfies their goals. Thew dragon may want to leave them alive simply to spread the word of "Don't go there! It's a dragon's domain".
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
I've played a lot of games and I don't know of any off the top of my head where fleeing is a valid tactic for a typical encounter, especially at a point where you know you should be fleeing. I've had a few GURPS characters who could do it, but the rest of the party would still be screwed. The one exception is most supers games, depending on the characters.
But we're not talking typical encounter, we're talking about non-level-specific encounters that will crush the players.

If you tell me that you have DMs intentionally set up encounters that you should not engage, didn't signal it to the players so they attacked, and then provide no method to flee, then I'll tell you that you have poor DMs in that aspect. Not that the concept that not everything is there to fight is wrong.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
All of these are reasonable thoughts for the party to have. I think designing an encounter where the party 'must do x' is flawed thinking, and likely to result in disaster. D&D is a game that is all about choices. As the DM you are their window to the world, they know only what you tell them. So it is up to you as a DM to provide enough information so that they can make informed choices.
There's a world of difference between "the party must not do X" and "the party must fight it, not retreat, and die".

Often non-level-specific encounters are signalled by the DM's description, lore, etc. So you can avoid. If you don't want to avoid you can try a non-combat approach - RP, stealth, bribery, offer to do a mission if they give you what you need, etc.

The idea that everything is there to fight is what's tripping up here. Once the players have chosen that route they have, though their own choice and actions, closed off a number of successful routes. That's not the DM at all planning 'the party must do X'. And even then, if fighting doesn't work and fleeing doesn't work, try surrendering.

Remember, failure that doesn't involve a TPK is just another branch of the story.
 

MarkB

Legend
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.
The Hobbit?
 

Emerikol

Adventurer
There's a world of difference between "the party must not do X" and "the party must fight it, not retreat, and die".

Often non-level-specific encounters are signalled by the DM's description, lore, etc. So you can avoid. If you don't want to avoid you can try a non-combat approach - RP, stealth, bribery, offer to do a mission if they give you what you need, etc.

The idea that everything is there to fight is what's tripping up here. Once the players have chosen that route they have, though their own choice and actions, closed off a number of successful routes. That's not the DM at all planning 'the party must do X'. And even then, if fighting doesn't work and fleeing doesn't work, try surrendering.

Remember, failure that doesn't involve a TPK is just another branch of the story.
Just to add to what you said. Oftentimes, the party will engage an enemy they think they can beat and on many occasions they might beat it. For whatever reason, this time they are losing. They will likely have done a lot of damage to the enemy. In some cases, that enemy is going to let them go and thank the gods they lived through it themselves. But even in pursuit, like you mentioned there are often many avenues the PCs can take.

The monsters don't always have the morale that PCs do, a morale that honestly probably is unbelievable but it is a game. These humans who are heavily armored and hit hard are not the sort of enemy you just want to chase off into the woods. What's the upside for you? Maybe you'll hang back and take a sling shot at one if you get the chance but lead the charge into the woods? Nah.
 

There's a world of difference between "the party must not do X" and "the party must fight it, not retreat, and die".

Oh absolutely. But the example I'm thinking of, is where a DM may have a cinematic escape in mind, but is then stumped when the players choose not to flee. Often when a DM only presents one solution, the players will do the unexpected.
 

rmcoen

Explorer
At 1st level, when they encountered an ogre, I described the 9' tall thousand-pound mass of muscle (and fat) bearing down on them, swinging a ceiling support beam as a weapon. In the last encounter - PCs now 4th level - I mentioned the dozen goblins, the two ogres, but then I described the new ogres: one with 80 pounds of dwarven mining-platform chain wrapped around its fist and arm, one carrying a light ballista like a crossbow, struggling to pull the string back, and one carrying a howdah-like contraption on its back. Ogre CR2, Ogre Chain Brute CR3. They had a moment where the ballista ogre fired and missed where they could have run back into the tunnels they just exited, avoiding the fight; they had the same (slightly more limited) opportunity throughout the fight, knowing that 90' back down the tunnel was a rope bridge that the ogres couldn't pass. They fought to the end, the battlemaster and bard were KO'd, the spellcasters were out of spells; the rogue was unharmed. They were victorious, with three goblins and a shaman having fled.

Earlier, they snuck up on a suspected ogre-and-goblin camp, and through careful scouting discovered a hill giant supporting the camp, and almost double the number of foes expected. They snuck away. The only "clue" I gave was that the cooking fires seemed a little too numerous for just the foes they had seen.

I have gotten in the habit of having stat sheets ready for any encounter, because I don't know what the PCs will do - or how effective they will be! But I do try to provide descriptions of "out of the ordinary" details or potential threat. I will also generally give "Lore" style checks for new creatures encountered, or lean into class or character backgrounds. "Ranger, you've seen X before... but not one carrying a Y!" "Cleric, your studies of the undead make you very familiar with these foes; you don't know what this creature is, but you know that incorporeal foes are always much more dangerous!" "Wizard - this is clearly a demon. You don't know the type [failed Arcana check], but the power required to summon such things is currently quite a bit beyond you." "Military Scholar, your recent studies in the Wizards' Library have reminded you that warlocks that throw multiple bolts of eldritch power at a time are threat to a regiment, not just a squad..."

Rarely I will foreshadow with environmental effects or "you see a big X in the distance", but I do it occasionally. In the case of the upgraded ogres above, the party had come across walls and doors simply bashed down instead of opened...
 

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