How to make it clear to players that a fight is beyond their capabilities?


Advice

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Guilty. I'm one of those DMs who try to make sure every encounter I plan can be handled by the characters. I want my players to play as, and feel like heroes (or in some cases, anti-heroes). As such I never plan an encounter where the only way to survive is to run away. I plan encounters where it might take tactics, skill, or luck to win, buy they are winnable. I'm not trying to tell stories about brave Sir Robin.

An example of a difficult, but possible encounter, in the last game the party (three characters) were ambushed by a dozen bandits while the NPC they were traveling with was away. So, their fighting presence was reduced right off the bat. Bandits and party were all fifth level, and magic gear was almost non-existent. Eight of the bandits had shortbows, and were arranged in a staggered semi-circle, while four with paired shortblades approached on foot. They demanded specific plot related items be turned over or else. I wasn't sure the party could handle it if they decided to fight. Fight they did though. Through skillful use of a wall spell, and coordinated team work, they dispatched enough that the others fled. Only near casualty was the brawler, who ended up flanked (the twf sneak attacks added up quickly).

I did have one encounter where fleeing was the only survival option, but it was an optional encounter. One of the players opted for it. As for how they knew they were supposed to run, the creature was larger than the royal palace, had been in an advanced containment unit in an advanced facility under a mountain, had a terror aura with a range big enough to affect the entire continent, and was called the "ultimate weapon" by the ancients. That made things pretty clear. They did eventually return to face it, after five more levels and with around a dozen allies.

I'm curious though. Do those who say that level inappropriate encounters are required for a "living world" also have their high level players regularly beset by bands of basic goblins and packs of regular wolves, or is it always challenges above the party level? If the answer is "no, because having to trudge through wiping out lots of low level creatures that aren't even worth the xp isn't fun", then consider that for others having to regularly run from danger in a fantasy adventure game isn't fun either.


DrDeth wrote:
pennywit wrote:
If you want a living world, then sometimes you're going to encounter stuff that you ought to run away from very quickly,
... And if there the whole world is full of occasional high level monsters, why aren't all the peasants now monster-chow?

I've asked that very question many times about the Eberron Setting. It is especially apt there as the typical "heroic" good/neutral NPCs are often less than 6th level and rulers of kingdoms around 10th. How are the Five Kingdoms not already an annex of Droaam?

To the OP:
I think the easiest way is to have the PCs be witness to something of horrendous magnitude. Either from a safe distance in space or time. Seeing the aftermath of something fell is easier to work into the story but a "live action" event can be in-game plausible as well. Just remember that in the "live action" version PCs may be close enough and inclined to attempt an intervention (Paladins anyone?).


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I am sure those with the living world theory still hold back so their theory does not hold up. If I were to use tactics as if fantasy land was real, then the higher level bad guy would be hunting the PC's down in many cases. Then they would die before they were actually strong enough to fight him.
Another example that would fall by the wayside is fighting a group of people one on one. Once the PC's have caused a certain amount of trouble and killed certain other allies it is obvious they are powerful so instead of letting them kill all of your minions, and your mid-boss equivalent, you meet them with a good portion of your minions, and your right hand man with you. However the problem once again is that while this make sense the PC's will likely be dead.
You can have a living world without having the PC's "need" to run away. To me what makes a living world is one where the party's actions actually change the campaign world.


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Pathfinder Battles Case Subscriber; Pathfinder Companion, Maps, Starfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Maps, Starfinder Roleplaying Game, Starfinder Society Subscriber; Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber

One problem is that in many cases it is too late to run away once you enter combat with certain monsters. Many of the monsters that can massacre a low level party can also outrun them. In addition to showing the players that the monster is too tough for them to fight, you also need to give them a reason to believe that they can run away from it without it running them down and killing them anyway.


I'm confused by this. I was under the impression that every single creature or gang of creatures in the game universe, has a CR exactly matching the party's APL. When they level up, obviously the whole world levels up at the same time.. DUH...

Seriously, though, this is a very common problem, and can only be solved by:
1. A couple hints to run away
1.a. an obvious escape path
1.b. an ominous warning by a dying friendly NPC who had failed against said enemy.
2. Failure to take those hints results in some significant punishment
2.a. Character Death (not whole party - no learning there)
2.b. Level and/or ability drain

Once this happens with the same player group a couple times, they might start to assess risk better.


David knott 242 wrote:
One problem is that in many cases it is too late to run away once you enter combat with certain monsters. Many of the monsters that can massacre a low level party can also outrun them. In addition to showing the players that the monster is too tough for them to fight, you also need to give them a reason to believe that they can run away from it without it running them down and killing them anyway.

That's a problem with adventure design. If you are intending an enemy to be too powerful to defeat, it's your responsibility to provide a way of escape.


I once created an encounter in 3.x where the players were spying on 3 groups of bandits meeting together. I designed each group as something the players should be capable of beating. However, attacking all 3 groups at once was beyond their capability.

My idea was for the players to follow one group after the meeting ended and attack it. Instead they attacked all 3 groups and got owned. I adjusted by taking them prisoner where eventually the characters that got away rescued the captured members.

So it's probably best to inform the group that encounters aren't tailored specifically to their level, because a lot of players tend to use brawn over brains all the time.


Something about people calling out 3.5 design philosophy as no longer to relevant really rustles my jimmies.

Pathfinder is still a 3.x derivative, guys. Almost all 3.5's design philosophy is maintained in PF and thus perfectly valid. It has the same math assumptions. Heck, most of the core rule language is identical. Pathfinder essentially is 3.5, just with a fresh coat of paint.


My d/gm tried to curtail our party's lust for violence and encourage a more talky approach by having us encounter a higher level adventuring/mercenary group. To indicate their power he had the wizard cast a benign spell that we'd be able to identify as being rather beyond us. It worked up until our ninja put an exploding bolt in the wizard's spine.


I manage the problem by way of metagame. I give enough information that the players are able to figure out what the monster is. Like say a Litch and they come up with what to do out of that. Of course for this you need well informed players.


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Oi! Look at that deadly Chimera! Look at its strong jaws as it snaps the cattle bones and rips the flesh off as easily as taking a wrapper off a burger! Look at its huge claws and how easily it sinks into the cattles flesh like the flesh was made outta butter!.....

I'm gonna poke it with a stick!.......Ow s+$~! Its angry!!


dot


Pathfinder Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber

Before the session, mention how much you love Joss Whedon.

Then mention that there will be times where the smart thing to do is avoid a fight and that not all fights will be winnable by the characters.


I've been in games where the party has overestimated enemies and avoided combat with them, only to be later told by the GM that we totally could have stomped it. Or that we've heard from the locals that there's a frightful giant terrorising them, and it turns out to be half our CR.

Once you're around level 10+, it's hard to know if that 'terrifying beast with many heads, fangs and claws and terrible breath that lays waste to armies' is a deadly opponent or a pushover.


Elder Basilisk wrote:

but the Chimera is an actual encounter I wrote into a Living Greyhawk adventure and which characters starting at level 2 could have run into. I never heard about any PCs dying to it, so it seems that it worked out. Here's how:

1. The PCs were traveling and they ran into a group of NPCs driving a herd of cattle across a narrow bridge.
2. While the PCs were waiting, trying to convince the herdsmen to hurry up, or looking for a way around, a chimera swooped down to the bridge and started attacking the herd.
3. The survivors of the attack stampeded.

Now, at second level, the stampede was intended as the actual experience generating encounter. Never-the-less, it is an example of what I have in mind by suggesting that level 2 characters might encounter a chimera. The PCs do have the opportunity to attack it if they really want to (the NPC herdsmen would warn them, "are you crazy? That's a Chimera") but if they wanted to they could fight it. They would lose. But if they didn't want to fight it, all they had to do is hide or wait around until it left. If they did choose to fight it, it would quickly become clear that they were outmatched and some of the characters would probably die. But retreat is a real option despite it's 50' fly speed. A. There is only one chimera, so they can split up. B. They are outside and if they have horses, they are at least as fast. C. There was a nearby wood where they could hide. D. The chimera was primarily interested in eating the cows so unless they really ticked it off, it was not going to hunt them down one by one anyway.

But you see- they didnt really "encounter" that Chimera. It's just a set piece. It's liek a cut scene between actual play in a video game.

In any case:

A- at least one PC dies.


gnoams wrote:
TriOmegaZero wrote:
gnoams wrote:
One of the rules is the list of challenge ratings and appropriate encounters based on party level.
This is a misunderstanding of the rules, actually, as explained here.

That may be true for some other game published by some other company back 7 years ago, but misunderstanding or not, it is a common understanding. So if you intend to not adhere to it, I would suggest informing your players of said decision before the game.

If your players think they can kill everything, than something led them to that belief. It was either their previous experience with playing pathfinder, or their experience thus far with you as a GM.

Before I begin my rant, allow me a moment to ponder where you got the figure of "seven years." Seems to me what you're saying is that, before Pathfinder codified the CR guidelines, us old dudes might have gotten away with this sort of thing, but not now. But, the CR system showed up in 2000, with D&D 3.0. That was fifteen years ago. So if you're trying to prove that the current system weened a crop of gamers who won't put up with certain storytelling tropes, as did their predecessors, you're going to have to revise your figures. And you're going to have to do something more to prove it.

Begin rant.

It may be an "understanding" amongst certain groups, but you called CR a rule. And it is NOT a rule. CR is a guideline, but if you read what it actually represents, you can see a lot of room for adjustment, depending on the scenario. A GM does not need to adhere to a strict model of 20% resources/4 characters/4 times a day, and frankly, not only would I go crazy if I allowed myself to be forced into this model every single day of every single session, my players would probably eventually walk out on my boring butt, probably right after they killed me. It is perfectly acceptable, for instance, to throw the party a single encounter for the day, that uses up all their resources for that day. An extended fight with an invading army comes to mind.

That said, players don't need a reason to believe every encounter is winnable, beyond the simple metagaming mindset that "it is a game, therefore it MUST be winnable."

I can tell you, I have been a GM going on about 34 years now, and there has been at least one player in every single group, who could not separate his knowledge that he was playing a game, from his character's understanding of the world around him. (That's called metagaming, by the way, and it is also a no-no.) But in every single one of those gaming groups, there was always - ALWAYS - at least one player who was the calm voice of reason, warning the others not to metagame this, and approaching the possibility of a no-win encounter with much caution.

Two players currently fill this role in our group. One is my 14-year-old-son, so your subtle implication that only grognards understand that a game might have a rare unwinnable encounter is now on uncertain footing. The other player's name is Travis. Travis started playing with me when he was in his early 'twenties, about... hey! About six or seven years ago! Travis has NEVER tolerated metagaming. Travis is the first in the fight. But he's also the first to realize when the situation is unwinnable, and he's the first to say-so.

Your problem here is simple. You forget that not everything in the game world follows or must be ruled by the game mechanics. Some things are story elements, and an encounter with a big, highly intelligent, god-like being who could swat you like a fly, falls under that heading, and sorry, very sorry, is not only good drama, is not only good storytelling, but is absolutely within the scope of the GM's authority.


DominusMegadeus wrote:
Magda Luckbender wrote:

My players had a really fun encounter like this, once:

** spoiler omitted **

Was the Fighter forever cast into another plane (preferably one populated by demons) for her blatant disregard for the lives of her teammates?

If it was a goofy game, whatever, but any serious interaction with her after that should have been full of spite and regret and finger pointing. That wouldn't even fly in an Evil campaign.

I Think it sounds great. They know what they went in to and did it anyway. Why is that bad wrong fun?


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Cap. Darling wrote:
DominusMegadeus wrote:
Magda Luckbender wrote:

My players had a really fun encounter like this, once:

** spoiler omitted **

Was the Fighter forever cast into another plane (preferably one populated by demons) for her blatant disregard for the lives of her teammates?

If it was a goofy game, whatever, but any serious interaction with her after that should have been full of spite and regret and finger pointing. That wouldn't even fly in an Evil campaign.

I Think it sounds great. They know what they went in to and did it anyway. Why is that bad wrong fun?

I mean in-character. She led the group into certain death because "fighting is fun!!!" Two people died. Even for adventurers, you don't just laugh that off. Those people are dead, and I get the distinct feeling she didn't care except in how it affected their battle capabilities.


DominusMegadeus wrote:
Cap. Darling wrote:
DominusMegadeus wrote:
Magda Luckbender wrote:

My players had a really fun encounter like this, once:

** spoiler omitted **

Was the Fighter forever cast into another plane (preferably one populated by demons) for her blatant disregard for the lives of her teammates?

If it was a goofy game, whatever, but any serious interaction with her after that should have been full of spite and regret and finger pointing. That wouldn't even fly in an Evil campaign.

I Think it sounds great. They know what they went in to and did it anyway. Why is that bad wrong fun?
I mean in-character. She led the group into certain death because "fighting is fun!!!" Two people died. Even for adventurers, you don't just laugh that off. Those people are dead, and I get the distinct feeling she didn't care except in how it affected their battle capabilities.

She ditent force them, they all belived it was the way to go. She May have problems convincing the others to follow her plans in the future. But they all agreed to go. No one was forcing them, as far as i undestood.


She convinced them to go into it, knowing that it was a very vaulted fight and there was no reason to do it when the other route into the castle was safer.

I can't even begin to imagine what the actual excuse was she used to convince them, it's possible she even lied about their chances in order to ensure they agreed, I don't know.

What I do know is you don't get a free pass on accidents just because you're an idiot. Especially when you get people killed for your own amusement.


DominusMegadeus wrote:

She convinced them to go into it, knowing that it was a very vaulted fight and there was no reason to do it when the other route into the castle was safer.

I can't even begin to imagine what the actual excuse was she used to convince them, it's possible she even lied about their chances in order to ensure they agreed, I don't know.

What I do know is you don't get a free pass on accidents just because you're an idiot. Especially when you get people killed for your own amusement.

It seems to me like they were all a bit idiotic. We dont know how she convinced them and if she was alone in knowing stuff. But if you belive what you seem to belive. I can see your point.


What if they were able to Raise Dead later? Does that make it forgivable?

Scarab Sages

Personally I tell them upfront I will vary the CR's and it'll be up to them to decide if its worth the risk. Sometimes its level apropriate, sometimes its a breeze, somtimes its certain death (though not on overarching quest vital things there's always a way to complete those). Still my approach is your lvl 1, the tavern wanted notice is asking for help to take out a dragon raiding the fields if your dumb enough to take on the job and don't come up with a very creative way to beat it (still annoyed at the 19 charisma bard seducing that dragon but roll's are roll's) then you are part of the 4 out of 5 adventurers who don't make it past their first year.


Senko wrote:
Personally I tell them upfront I will vary the CR's and it'll be up to them to decide if its worth the risk. Sometimes its level apropriate, sometimes its a breeze, somtimes its certain death (though not on overarching quest vital things there's always a way to complete those). Still my approach is your lvl 1, the tavern wanted notice is asking for help to take out a dragon raiding the fields if your dumb enough to take on the job and don't come up with a very creative way to beat it (still annoyed at the 19 charisma bard seducing that dragon but roll's are roll's) then you are part of the 4 out of 5 adventurers who don't make it past their first year.

I wonder how much of my trouble with this approach is that I'm not interested in the "tavern wanted notice" approach to gaming.

Grand Lodge

Just a Mort wrote:

It's a little hard for me as I play PFS a lot where you're expected to finish the encounter. Also it might be a GM issue, but some GMs expect characters to act like heroes and not flee when presented with an encounter.

** spoiler omitted **

Urm for GMs, if you want to make it clear that fights are beyond the players capabilities, tell them at the start not everything can be fought, and some encounters they need to run away from. And if they choose to run away from encounters with a plausible plan, let them succeed, and do not force arbitary alignment changes etc.

I've played in one PFS scenario where the group of level 2 characters I was with could have, if they were exceedingly stupid, ended up fighting a CR 13 monster, albeit running away from it would have been extensively easy.

Although now I'm tempted to show a bit of scenery in the world by having the players witness a Dire Shark eat a bunyip after they finish fighting one.

Sczarni

Adventure Path Charter Subscriber; Pathfinder Adventure, Companion, Lost Omens Subscriber

I'm surprised no one has mentioned Ed kingmaker yet.... The random encounter tables for the first level adventure have a chimera and a few various Giants in it, and it gives advice on how to deal with this.... Since the pcs could explore hexes out of order and go to the level 20 hexes before finishing the level 1 ones

Sovereign Court

Elder Basilisk wrote:

but the Chimera is an actual encounter I wrote into a Living Greyhawk adventure and which characters starting at level 2 could have run into. I never heard about any PCs dying to it, so it seems that it worked out. Here's how:

1. The PCs were traveling and they ran into a group of NPCs driving a herd of cattle across a narrow bridge.
2. While the PCs were waiting, trying to convince the herdsmen to hurry up, or looking for a way around, a chimera swooped down to the bridge and started attacking the herd.
3. The survivors of the attack stampeded.

I would feign getting mad at you for that encounter, but I was the jerk who wrote in the vampire "archers" on the hill in an LG adventure, so it's all good.

I hear many an overconfident fighter/barbarian charging what they thought was just an archer got level drained when the "archer" dropped the bow and turned out to be a vampire monk.


N. Jolly wrote:
You want to say "Oh, it's a story" about this? It's a pretty crappy story for the party to run into a green dragon they couldn't possibly beat and get killed, great story of that time a green dragon killed some random scrubs and added some gold to its hoard.

No, I'm not a killer GM or a bully GM. I'm not going to set a party of 1st levelers against a great wyrm green dragon, but if I've got a valid story reason for them to encounter it (so to speak), they're going to encounter it. Perhaps it demands tribute from human villages, and they get to see it descend on the village to collect that tribute. Maybe it kills some livestock for good measure. Maybe they'll see it kill and eat a mastodon. I'm going to hit them with several clues that this is a very big monster, and they shouldn't try to mess with it. If they still choose to challenge it (especially after the frightful presence kicks in), then any TPK that results is on the players, not on the GM.

Yes, Pathfinder is a game. Part of the game is figuring out when to charge in, swords blazing. And part of the game is figuring out when discretion is the better part of valor.


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TOZ had it right at the beginning: you tell them.

It would sure be nice if players were cautious and thoughtful at all times, right? NOPE. That game is usually boring. Everything in the books is laid out so they can feel like the odds are stacked in their favor. It keeps things moving forward, instead of probing every inch of flagstone for a trigger plate.

A GM can and should shake this up a bit. But don't expect them to guess your intentions if it comes on the heels of years of coddling.

Kingmaker is a really good example, as Capt_Kristov mentioned. When I play Kingmaker I make certain all players understand the random encounter rules. I do not keep them secret. I make sure they understand the frequency, and the fact that some things on that table can easily kill them. But, because I don't want them to play over-cautiously, I remind them that an encounter never (or very very rarely) starts with the initiative roll, and if they realize it's four Trolls then the "encounter" is about surviving. And yes, they get XP for escaping a menace that could easily kill them.

This game is about communication of intent. There's literally nothing else to it. Without the communication, all you have is a bunch of ruleblooks. The people who have the worst gameplay experiences are typically the ones who think of the game as nothing more than a pile of rulebooks. They forget that this game is about talking to people.

As a GM, you can't expect people to know things you haven't said. You can try to lead people in the right direction, but this is so error prone that it is not worth using high stakes in any situation where the players might not piece it together.

TLDR; If you're going to start using encounters where the players probably cannot win, tell them this in explicit terms. Once you've been doing this for a while, you probably won't need to announce it anymore.

Silver Crusade

pennywit wrote:

No, I'm not a killer GM or a bully GM. I'm not going to set a party of 1st levelers against a great wyrm green dragon, but if I've got a valid story reason for them to encounter it (so to speak), they're going to encounter it. Perhaps it demands tribute from human villages, and they get to see it descend on the village to collect that tribute. Maybe it kills some livestock for good measure. Maybe they'll see it kill and eat a mastodon. I'm going to hit them with several clues that this is a very big monster, and they shouldn't try to mess with it. If they still choose to challenge it (especially after the frightful presence kicks in), then any TPK that results is on the players, not on the GM.

Yes, Pathfinder is a game. Part of the game is figuring out when to charge in, swords blazing. And part of the game is figuring out when discretion is the better part of valor.

Not sure you read all of my post...

N. Jolly wrote:

I think it's important to note the difference between an actual encounter and a possible encounter. The Chimera being suggested is either an actual encounter (it sees the party and dives towards them) or a possible encounter (it's attacking something else, the party spots it first, etc).

It's fine to throw in possible encounters, it shows that there's things in the world that the party isn't ready to deal with, which is fun. A possible encounter is also one they can talk their way out of (good luck with talking to a chimera), since it's not actual pitched combat.

An actual encounter is death, pure and simple. There's rarely ANYTHING that can beat the PCs that can't kill at least one of them due to their speed generally being faster than the party's (unless you have a LOT of full plate wearing halfings in your world), so actually putting the chimera dive bombing towards them is telling them "Your GM is disappointed in you, know death."

What you listed is a 'possible encounter', no one said you can't ever have the PCs be around something that something that's more powerful than them, but it's important to make sure they're aware of the fact that it is. You want to have them chill with a great wyrm dragon? Make sure they're aware that it's not just gonna haul off and kill them for being alive in front of it. That's not an actual combat encounter, that's a social encounter, and not really in the scope of what's being talked about here.

Don't give clues, just tell them. Clues are able to be misinterpreted, and you need to make sure they're aware this is no paper tiger. You may think your clues are entirely clear, but that's because you're the one who's aware of your intent, they're not, and can easily hear it as "You can win IF" instead of "PLEASE DON'T ATTACK THE SCOURGE OF THE DARK FEN!" As stated before, after a certain level, it's REALLY hard for visual cues to actually seem valid, since the party can achieve some pretty hardcore visuals themselves after a while.


I'm guilty of fudging in my Players favor in order to keep the story going along. I don't want them to lose because of bad rolls. If they lose (die) because of bad decisions, however, that's a different case.

Currently, my group has been on a break of about 3 months, and when we resumed the player who was normally the voice of reason had become less cautious and more "let's do this!" in his advocacy, at a time when they were (by design) facing a foe that - if attacked head on - would likely TPK. So I have been reading this post for guidance because I now suddenly have to more strongly suggest, somehow, that they might want to rethink their approach.

Encounter details:
They are facing a hive of Thri-kreen who share a telepathic link. Attack one, you attack all. Be spotted by one, you are spotted by all. My idea was that they would Diplomacy with them, only to discover that the Thri-Kreen are displaced from their home-world and have been trying to make over this new realm into one they can inhabit. The Players have the opportunity to assist the mantis creatures and help them relocate. I had hinted that Diplomacy was an option, but it wasn't picked up on - including the one PC who normally would have advocated going that route!

Not sure what else to do but meta: "If this turns into a combat, you're likely going to die."

Grand Lodge

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Pathfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber

One major component missing from all of this....

The player's perception of their GM. If the players tend to think of their GM as "Cruel But Fair", they're more likely to give pause from gestures intended to show the power of a monster.

If on the other hand, players think that a GM would never overchallenge them in an encounter, then you've got work ahead of you.


LazarX wrote:

One major component missing from all of this....

The player's perception of their GM. If the players tend to think of their GM as "Cruel But Fair", they're more likely to give pause from gestures intended to show the power of a monster.

If on the other hand, players think that a GM would never overchallenge them in an encounter, then you've got work ahead of you.

I'm not sure that's missing, but rather most of the discussion.

Another factor is what kind of game you're looking for: Gritty? Heroic?

Player's jumping into random fights with more powerful creatures they could just bypass with no consequences is one thing, but heroes fighting against the apparent odds for good causes is a staple of the genre and not something to be lightly tossed aside.

Most here seem to be talking about the former and intend all the overpowered encounters to be either just things seen in the distance or social encounters not combat ones. Too much emphasis on the risks can lead to players turtling and not being willing to take on anything they're not absolutely sure is beatable - regardless of the in character motivation.


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Quatar wrote:
How to make it clear to players that a fight is beyond their capabilities?

Kill them.

The players, I mean.
Nothing less will stop their PCs from barreling into combat like the idiotic egotistical Gastons that they are.


Pathfinder Adventure Subscriber

Of course, the other thing is to make sure the game is fun.

That's a large part of why I'm in favor of being explicit in saying "this creature that you have just found is too powerful for you". Because finding out the hard way, when half the party is already dead, is generally not fun.

In a game that I'm currently playing in (should wrap up in another session, I think), there is a huge CR range; we're 17, and there are enemies ranging from CR 3 or so up to 25. We were told that up front. Unfortunately, what it has resulted in is something I don't enjoy; specifically, the need to immediately determine for each encounter whether we can stomp it as-is, or we need to retreat, study, prepare, and ambush that enemy. That's especially frustrating in a game that has an implied time limit, and when playing a character who doesn't have a wide variety of mechanical options.

Of course, then we got a sphere of annihilation, and now there really isn't any combat left.

But it's frustrating, because it makes me feel like a character who is in over his head, and having to play very carefully and defensively, and I just don't particularly enjoy the tension that entails.

There's nothing wrong with unwinnable encounters (unless they're unwinnable by DM fiat rather than legitimate difficulty), as long as they're not forced. There's something too powerful for me out there, which I can avoid or run away from without major consequences? Fine. But follow the implications of the Three Clue Rule, namely that your players are oblivious and stupid, at least in the context of inferring or deducing the information you want them to. They're going to fail to find clue #1, they're going to misinterpret #2, and mostly misinterpret #3, but hopefully with all that they'll end up where they need to be. So just tell them flat out that whoever makes the knowledge check is pretty sure that, while he or she doesn't know much, he is confident this is too tough. Because otherwise, they're going to think this creature isn't nearly as powerful as it is, and they're not going to run away like you expect.

And, of course, don't make it a world full of nothing but too-powerful foes. That will just make the players quit the game when they feel like they can't accomplish anything.


Put me down as another one with the be open and honest upfront about how your run your campaign before they get into the encounters. I let my players know that some of the things they run into are random encounters and not scaled to the party, not every fight will be winnable, and if they do stupid things I will not pull my punches.

The fun part is that this works both ways. Sometimes the level 10 party gets all hyped up to fight something only to find out the random encounter was a group of 6 standard kobolds with a level 2 leader. Moments like that actually give them a chance to see how far their character have really come.


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Simple. Don't let them try it.

Don't call for initiative.
Don't bust out the battlemat and minis.
Don't touch the dice.
It's not a combat encounter, so don't frame it as one.

Scarab Sages

thejeff wrote:
Senko wrote:
Personally I tell them upfront I will vary the CR's and it'll be up to them to decide if its worth the risk. Sometimes its level apropriate, sometimes its a breeze, somtimes its certain death (though not on overarching quest vital things there's always a way to complete those). Still my approach is your lvl 1, the tavern wanted notice is asking for help to take out a dragon raiding the fields if your dumb enough to take on the job and don't come up with a very creative way to beat it (still annoyed at the 19 charisma bard seducing that dragon but roll's are roll's) then you are part of the 4 out of 5 adventurers who don't make it past their first year.

I wonder how much of my trouble with this approach is that I'm not interested in the "tavern wanted notice" approach to gaming.

It doesn't need to be a tavern wanted notice that was just an example.

Ex1) Whilst travelling through Hilderdale you hear rumour of a great dragon ravaging the nearby villages. When they investigate they find its really a wyvern and within their capabilities. If they just turn tail and run they miss out on the encounter and its rewards because they never investigated.

Ex2) The king sends you to investigate rumours of an evil cult worshiping a blind god resisding in his city. Searching the sewers you see (insert prominent being here either something that's obviously powerful or a well known local hero) being sacrificed by a high priest surrounded by lots of followers. Even without checks it should be obvious 4 1st level PC's can't take on dozens of cultists and a high priest who's casually sacrificing something that could wipe them all out. Now however they have a goal and they continue researching and developing throughout the campaign till they come up against the high priest in a final massive battle.

Ex3) You are exploring the Keep of the foul Mage Mrthgul as you slip through the chapel you see a great shadow outside the windows. Peering out you spot a great red dragon, (perception checks) Nikta the thief also notices that an engraved and slihgtly glowing collar circles its neck and has a slender chain leading to a nearby post before it shifts slightly and obscures it. Now they know there's a dragon in the courtyard but maybe its held their against its will and they can get an ally. Fail the perception checks and they still know there's a dragon in the courtyard and its probably best to avoid it.

Ex4) After several weeks crossing the southern forest and climbining the mountains of light you reach the great temple of Kiera to consult with the monks seeking seclusion here in the heights. As you search the monestary you find it empty and abandoned even though all the outside lanturns are lit and burning. The only hint of what happened here is a scrawled note in the grandmasters room "At night avoid large places keep to small." That night whoevers on watch here's a scratching sound and see's a monstrous shadow moving across the screen doors. They don't know what it is, they don't know what happened but they do know it was bad enough to empty out an entire temple and they have a hint on how to survive find a small room and hide there.

Sovereign Court

Pathfinder Lost Omens, Rulebook Subscriber

It depends of the situation, sometime players want to defy you, thinking that you are making empty threats. Epic Good Guy sometimes have this problem, yeah it's all nice and all to have a super powerful wizards sending players on quest, but if the players are being disrespectful and just thinking that they are exempt from punishment of the epic good guy, reminding them of their status might be a good idea.

But anyway, look at the encounter tables at the back of the bestiaries, some monsters are ridiculously higher level compared to the APL of your players. Some time as an adventurer with trial and errors, you learn what to avoid or take on.


I once had a situation where a player was going to attack something he couldn't possibly hit. I told him "you can roll if you want to." That got the message across.


Have their indirect action be almost too much for the party too handle, as well as warning them that there are "enemies" that can straight up kill them in the campaign world..

In a (non-Pathfinder) game, the PCs were trying to prevent Blackbeard's fleet from annihilating Florida - or rather, stall him so Florida could be evacuated. The only way he attacked them was by striking the ocean, sending massive waves to annihilate much of the coast. All three of them (uber-musclemen) could barely divert the waves by lifting a reef to block it.

Which brings me to my third tip: if possible, roll lots of a dice (Blackbeard rolled 5d8 when they were rolling 2d6 or 1d8 and 1d6 apiece). Often difficult in pathfinder, but getting out 15d6 when they're about to start a fight with a wizard they really shouldn't mess with should make an impact.

In conclusion: Make sure they know there are encounters that could eviscerate them. Give them a way to contest or directly witness some fraction of the opponent's power. Roll lots of dice.


Kobold Cleaver wrote:
Quatar wrote:
How to make it clear to players that a fight is beyond their capabilities?

Kill them.

The players, I mean.
Nothing less will stop their PCs from barreling into combat like the idiotic egotistical Gastons that they are.

Nobody kills an APL +10 monster like Gaston!


Mackenzie Kavanaugh wrote:
Kobold Cleaver wrote:
Quatar wrote:
How to make it clear to players that a fight is beyond their capabilities?

Kill them.

The players, I mean.
Nothing less will stop their PCs from barreling into combat like the idiotic egotistical Gastons that they are.
Nobody kills an APL +10 monster like Gaston!

Takes their stuff like Gaston!


I had thought an ominous, detailed description of a roaming unbeatable (to them at the time) would be the cue.

"A muscular man with barbed wire wrapped around his head and over parts of his body. He's dragging a large greatsword along."

Yes, silent hill brewed version of PH, minus P and add barbed wire.
Add he's got cold resistance 10 (sorceress of the party is deadly with snowball).

I didn't quite expect the monk to do what she did and draw an attack to save the others, thinking she'd survive. Double nat 20 with low-ish dmg rolls. They ran like hell.

Though if she'd be sliced in half, it would pose a funny twist for how to come back.


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GM Chyro wrote:

I had thought an ominous, detailed description of a roaming unbeatable (to them at the time) would be the cue.

"A muscular man with barbed wire wrapped around his head and over parts of his body. He's dragging a large greatsword along."

Yes, silent hill brewed version of PH, minus P and add barbed wire.
Add he's got cold resistance 10 (sorceress of the party is deadly with snowball).

I didn't quite expect the monk to do what she did and draw an attack to save the others, thinking she'd survive. Double nat 20 with low-ish dmg rolls. They ran like hell.

Though if she'd be sliced in half, it would pose a funny twist for how to come back.

Why would you think that?

It's a big guy with a big sword and weird fashion sense. Not the first one they've met. There's a good chance they've got one in the party.

Dark Archive

Optimizing opponents against the party is a pretty bad thing to do. It invalidates the players' choices.


Jadeite wrote:
Optimizing opponents against the party is a pretty bad thing to do. It invalidates the players' choices.

Disagree a bit. I think it's appropriate to change the bad guys a bit, depending on what the players do. If (for example) the PC wizard is 9th level and well-known for tossing fireballs around, an adversary who faces them is likely to come prepared with some kind of fire resistance.

Scarab Sages

thejeff wrote:
GM Chyro wrote:

I had thought an ominous, detailed description of a roaming unbeatable (to them at the time) would be the cue.

"A muscular man with barbed wire wrapped around his head and over parts of his body. He's dragging a large greatsword along."

Yes, silent hill brewed version of PH, minus P and add barbed wire.
Add he's got cold resistance 10 (sorceress of the party is deadly with snowball).

I didn't quite expect the monk to do what she did and draw an attack to save the others, thinking she'd survive. Double nat 20 with low-ish dmg rolls. They ran like hell.

Though if she'd be sliced in half, it would pose a funny twist for how to come back.

Why would you think that?

It's a big guy with a big sword and weird fashion sense. Not the first one they've met. There's a good chance they've got one in the party.

How about this then as you walk along you meet a bard singing "The man behind me is too strong for you, he can kill you all. He's 3.5 times your total party level and he's designed to fight you." Then they see a guy in armour come round the bend.

@jadeite
depends a bit on who's being optimized and why. A random encounter in a dungeon being designed to challenge the party is pretty ordinary. Same encounter being geared, equipped and trained specifically to counter their common tactics can go either way. If its every encounter I agree it does rather negate the party's choices as they can choose to pick the worst options and get the same challenge as picking the best or the ones they like. On the other hand an encounter set up like that by a recurring villain or one who's researched the heroes destroying his plans just makes sense. If all your plans for world domination were systimatically getting derailed by one group of meddling heroes wouldn't you try and put together a counter group specifically recruited to shut down their common tactics and weapons?


Senko wrote:
thejeff wrote:
GM Chyro wrote:

I had thought an ominous, detailed description of a roaming unbeatable (to them at the time) would be the cue.

"A muscular man with barbed wire wrapped around his head and over parts of his body. He's dragging a large greatsword along."

Yes, silent hill brewed version of PH, minus P and add barbed wire.
Add he's got cold resistance 10 (sorceress of the party is deadly with snowball).

I didn't quite expect the monk to do what she did and draw an attack to save the others, thinking she'd survive. Double nat 20 with low-ish dmg rolls. They ran like hell.

Though if she'd be sliced in half, it would pose a funny twist for how to come back.

Why would you think that?

It's a big guy with a big sword and weird fashion sense. Not the first one they've met. There's a good chance they've got one in the party.

How about this then as you walk along you meet a bard singing "The man behind me is too strong for you, he can kill you all. He's 3.5 times your total party level and he's designed to fight you." Then they see a guy in armour come round the bend.

I'm rolling Sense Motive. And then killing Sir Robin's bard. :)

I'm all for making the players aware they're getting in over their heads. I just didn't find the OP's example clear enough and I suspect that's a good part of the problem. GMs thinking they're being completely obvious and players completely missing it.
Much like the 3 clues thing for mystery plots.


I have to say, Magda Luckbender's story is great, and what I always hope to have when I play or GM a session. While it is lethal and makes for short campaigns, I personally quite like having a player death or two every couple of sessions. Keeps everyone on their toes.

I let people know that I like it that way, and so they can expect to find things that will kill people, and I expect that sort of thing to happen regularly when I play. But then, it just comes down to personal preference, I suppose.

However, I do understand that other people don't like needing a new character every few sessions. Usually I've found that trying to keep the monsters in character works pretty well without even needing to let players know that . Most animals, plants, vermin and magical beasts (or other low intelligence creatures) are typically more interested in killing PCs for food than active malice, so if they're causing too much hassle (either by getting them down to 90% of their HP or spending a few rounds running away) they might just retreat in search of easier prey, or just eat one of them. If it's not food, then it's usually because the PCs are in its territory and they want it out, or something has spooked it and you just need to get out of its way.
Oozes of course are more likely to attack simply because you're there, and once it can't sense you anymore you're safe. They could move erratically, or potentially not at all. Just because it has a movement speed doesn't mean it'll move.
Anything else, unless it's being actively malicious, is unlikely to want to actively kill the players. Once they're in the negatives, they'll probably ignore them and simply walk away, leaving them to bleed out. As DM, you're allowed to fudge the damage rolls a little so that they'll all survive unless they're quite unlucky. Alternatively, they can just try to deal non-lethal damage when they think they're likely to knock a player down, potentially trying to keep them prisoner.

It's only when things are actively malicious that things can start getting sticky. The sorts of things that actively coup de grace disabled characters, for example. A good start is to have them be puffed up and full of bravado. A couple of intimidate checks while letting the players pull out their best shots before ever even attacking is often a good option. Benefits the creature marginally, lets the PCs see what's what, and gives them a pretty good in character reason to bravely run away. Alternatively, fudge the rolls marginally so they survive the first hit or two, and then bring out the chase rules if there's a chance of the creature catching up. You should try to design it so that there are good ways to take advantage of the particular monster's weaknesses. e.g. Big creatures can't get into small places, Heavily armoured knights can't swim well, the sudden recollection that your trail rations have garlic bread in them...

There's a definite something to be said for encouraging realism though. Bring out the map and minis at random intervals. Get people to roll initiative in conversations. Don't always make it clear that combat's about to begin. When something looks powerful and agressive, or is acting like that, a party behaving realistically will be pretty cautious. Of course, ham it up if it really is way too tough for them.
One of my favourite instances of a party sticking with realism:
A large Ogre has charging towards the party. Battle map out, people in initiative. We decided to just ready actions until the ogre did something actively hostile. Turned out the Ogre was just enamoured with the party Bard and wanted to give her a flower. He walked away singing.

TL;DR - Don't tell them. Wipe the floor with them, but either fudge the numbers or stick in character to ensure that they survive.

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