GM Advice - Unwinnable Encounters


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Scarab Sages

To preface - I have a party of 5 that are essentially glass cannons. They have been able to put out enough damage quickly enough that they have not been super threatened even in large encounters with me not pulling punches. that begin said they have no AC, as most of them spent a large sum on good weapons, and even less hit points, offering them to roll or take the PFS advancement has resulted in lots of 1's being rolled for HP.

So I am working on an encounter that I actively want them to run from. I want to use it as a lead in to a dungeon crawl session and would like to progress something like the watcher in the water encounter to force the party to organically flee into a mine/crypt/dungeon area.

Are there any suggestions out there how to present this encounter to a party who have become over confident in their damage dealing ability? Would you suggest it to them or make it appear as if their weapons have no affect?

The Concordance RPG Superstar 2008 Top 32

Incorporeal opponents? A massive spell blast that starts the encounter? ("Make a reflex save... before initiative?") Things with hardness (animate objects?) Things that are many and mobile (quicklings, jinxkin, ...)

What CR are we targeting?


You want to be careful with no-selling PC abilities. If they feel like you're arbitrarily denying the characters they've (presumably) spent many hours building up, I think they'd be a bit upset.

There are, however, a few things you can do to make it clear that certain things are not beaten so easily. For example, you could let them hear some rumors about abnormally dangerous creatures that have foiled even experienced extermination teams, or have it launch "artillery" in the form of magical blasts that rain down on them. (The first few should only hit near them, and you can say they're able to see more in the sky coming down or something.) If Fireballs are going off around them and the attacker's location isn't close, they might elect to run.

Sovereign Court

What about a leveled-up variant of the good old burning skeleton? Does damage if you stand next to it, explodes if you kill it. Players might think they're increasing the distance to be able to kill them safely, but in reality they're walking into your dungeon.


Artillary is good, combine it with something to limit their range of vision and disposable infantry like summoned creatures.

For instance, the party wanders into an area of permanent solid fog, inside of it they run into a maze of walls of force impeding their progress. From up on a hill, outside of their line of sight, a cult of mages begins to harass them from a distance with ranged evocation aoe spells that do not require LoS and sending in summoned monsters as fodder. Fill the area with blood stains, have the mages jabbering about fresh meat, etc etc

Basically, for an unwinnable you gotta make it VERY apparent you do not want them going this way.

If you need to chase them, use the summoned monsters or a hoard of golems.

Liberty's Edge

Are any of them good at Knowledges? If so, it's pretty easy just by making the encounter really high CR. Like 6-8 higher than APL.

Do that and one of two things happens, as a rule:

#1: They get a good enough Knowledge check result to know about the critter (or critters). You tell them the CR of what they're facing. They run, or alternately die, but they were warned. I mean "You're outnumbered by creatures with a CR each higher than your APL." is the sorta thing that causes PCs to flee.

#2: They get a good enough Knowledge check that they should know about the creature if it were of a remotely reasonable CR. You tell them they know nothing, and mention how CR goes into calculating DCs on this. Perhaps telling them the minimum CR they couldn't know anything about. This isn't as big an issue if using a mob of critters.

The third possibility is they roll terribly, and know nothing, but aren't concerned because, well, they didn't expect much on that roll. This isn't likely if there are more than one with good Knowledge skills in the area in question. So pick a category of creature multiple PCs might do well on checks about to avoid this third option.

In the case of option #3, you can fall back on some other plan. I have a couple ideas:

#1: Pick a creature with an area attack and a save for half damage, but no way to eliminate it. Preferably one with stealth, so it opens with that. Given their glass cannon status, this might well reduce them to low enough hit points to flee in terror. This is particularly effective if done by a whole group of creatures.

A group of 5 Barbed Devils (probably 3 or 4 before they summon their friends, and thus a CR 14-15 encounter or so) all doing Unholy Blight on the PCs averages something like 112 damage if all saves are failed, 56 even if you make them all. That's halved for Neutral people, but if the party's mostly Chaotic they can do Order's Hammer instead. And then add in that anyone attacking them in melee takes 1d8+6 per attack (when already wounded, remember)...most mid level groups will run before they even attack these guys. They're pretty tough, too, meaning most will get the chance to do the wave of area effects again. Especially if the PCs are in an enclosed area and can't escape. You'll need to explain why they don't follow the PCs, but if they're Planar Bound that's pretty easy to do.

#2: Pick something with a defense they can't do anything about. An invisible stalker when they lack an way to see invisible things, or whatever. This one may not work depending on how well their bases are covered, but it's plenty scary if available.


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I would probably abandon the idea all together to be honest. Usually in these situations it becomes obvious to the players that the GM is railroading the PCs into a certain area.

Grand Lodge RPG Superstar 2015 Top 32, RPG Superstar 2012 Top 32

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Schuyler Atkinson wrote:

So I am working on an encounter that I actively want them to run from.

...to force the party to organically flee...

One of the most foundational elements of becoming a good GM is to abandon the idea of planning (or even knowing) how something is going to play out. As long as you're crafting your encounters with a mindset of "I want them to X" or "to force them to Y", you're holding yourself back from becoming the kind of GM that people will excitedly tell stories about playing with.

Scarab Sages

Thanks for all the great ideas. Please keep them coming.

Torm - I will not disagree with the railroading but I would like to make it feel more like an organic barrier. Not that they cannot ever defeat the threat but that to do so now is beyond their abilities. When they get through the dungeon if they wish to return to defeat the enemies that pushed them there that will be a choice on the table.

Sovereign Court

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Another thing that works well against glass cannons: lots of enemies. Many glass cannon builds are all about hitting one enemy for a lot of damage, but they get into trouble with three enemies with a third the hp of the original. They lack actions to attack many enemies.


Schuyler Atkinson wrote:
Torm - I will not disagree with the railroading but I would like to make it feel more like an organic barrier. Not that they cannot ever defeat the threat but that to do so now is beyond their abilities. When they get through the dungeon if they wish to return to defeat the enemies that pushed them there that will be a choice on the table.

I understand your intent, I'm just cautioning you that it is nearly impossible to pull off effectively.

What I would suggest is the PCs come under attack from something that is obviously overpowered, and then allow entering the dungeon as one way to escape the threat. But don't make it the only way.

If you absolutely must have them enter the dungeon, then it is better to put something in the dungeon that they want, and then have them learn about it. Then they can choose to go try to acquire it.


Another suggestion is what I call the "Balrog effect"

Have the party come across a high level wizard fighting a ferocious monster, as the party approaches have the Wizard warn them away "Fly you fools" while casting something in the spell level 7-9 range.

Have the wizard then get shrecked and either die or be forced to run, and the beast turn its attention to the party.


I was going to suggest incorporeal opponents with spring attack that walk through the wall, attack, and walk through the other wall.

Ghosts do this well too, but energy drain while doing this feels like cheating.

Many enemies with readied actions can really ruin their day. Sometimes lots and lots of minions is simply the way to go.

However, the best thing to do in the future is simply to refuse to let them get the gear they want easily. Usually half of the power of a character is a good build, the other half is gear. Start making it difficult (nearly impossible) for them to find any gear that's an improvement.

They might decide they want to start crafting? That's reasonable, but you don't have to let them. Rarely do written Adventure Paths allow for any significant crafting time during the campaign. You're always off on one mission to the next, don't give them more than a day to rest between some mission they need to be on. If they choose to ignore it for a couple days, make repercussions. This is a living world. You ignore the danger, it gets worse. Bad things happen. Not necessarily to the PCs. But to the innocent towns people. The bad guys can get stronger. They can get even bigger deadlier armies.

Controlling magic items is a good way to take back control of a run away campaign/party.


ShroudedInLight wrote:

Another suggestion is what I call the "Balrog effect"

Have the party come across a high level wizard fighting a ferocious monster, as the party approaches have the Wizard warn them away "Fly you fools" while casting something in the spell level 7-9 range.

Have the wizard then get shrecked and either die or be forced to run, and the beast turn its attention to the party.

This can be a good tactic to use. You let someone/something else get torn up by "the Threat" as a demonstration/warning.

But you still run the risk of some PC's (mistakenly) thinking they can tackle it as a group. In which case, are you willing to kill a PC or two to make it clear they are not invulnerable?


What kind of glass cannons do you have?
*For most just limiting their vision is enough through Darkness, Obscuring mist or smoke sticks.
*Spell Resistance is a pain for casters.
*Monsters with auras generally stomp players
*Bait out their good abilities and spells with throw away monsters like stirges or swarms, then follow up with the harder hitting things.

If you really want to be mean, use Seugathi...
http://www.d20pfsrd.com/bestiary/monster-listings/aberrations/seugathi


Deadalready wrote:

If you really want to be mean, use Seugathi...

http://www.d20pfsrd.com/bestiary/monster-listings/aberrations/seugathi

Oooooh... I haven't come across one of those before... I have a level 9 party, but this guy - with the combination Aura of Confusion, Mind Fog and Phantasmal Killer SLA's could be a real pain in the butt for them, even if he is just a CR6...

hmm.. Darn.. I think I have already reached the upper limit for party members being killed off (back to back weeks of PC fatalities).. I should tread lightly or risk a table revolt.


One thing to consider, is even if you're trying to telegraph that they will die if they fight its nearly certain players will try, and thus combat is going to be engaged. You have to issues to consider - how to keep the monster(s) alive -and- how to not TPK the players before they realize they need to run.

So set the stage where the monster(s) encountered can easily withstand the PC's first couple rounds of blasting w/o going down or even appearing moderately injured. you can do that with high HPs, resistances (potions/devices/natural DR/elemental resistance/immunity) - you know what your players go-to initial attack sequence is by now, so plan accordingly. In addition, a large dose of hubris on the monster(s) part will help establish the tone. The monster just chuckles after the smoke/dust/etc clears, casually wipes the dust off his sleeves and says, "you all are about to enter a world of pain." - think of how someone like Juggernaut from X-men would just take the hit w/o even trying to get out of the way. Its an advantage to have the monsters be intelligent/plotting in this type of situation vs ooze/plant/animal.

The other half of the equation is putting some hits on the group - enough to scare them, w/o killing someone. IMO this is where a little GM 'meta-gaming' can be handy. you know how many Hps they each have and can drop them to where ever you think is appropriate or put someone below 0 in first hit/strike and then the monsters let them go because its not worth their time. Or the group uses some control spells to give them a chance to escape, etc. Its the kind of thing you also probably need to think about possible ways for the party to disengage before hand - they may come up with things you didn't think of but if you don't want to murder them there needs to be some ways to escape/run if they start combat.

Of course the downside to this is the group may feel railroaded. However, its also a good lesson we all could use from time to time - you can't win every fight. the trouble is by the time you realize you should have run, its potentially too late and the GM either has to let you get away or TPK the group. Kind of a catch-22.

Normally, I like death to be a possible outcome and try to let the dice fall where they will. however, in this type of encounter I would really avoid outright killing someone since its just GMurdering.

good luck.


Otherwhere wrote:
ShroudedInLight wrote:

Another suggestion is what I call the "Balrog effect"

Have the party come across a high level wizard fighting a ferocious monster, as the party approaches have the Wizard warn them away "Fly you fools" while casting something in the spell level 7-9 range.

Have the wizard then get shrecked and either die or be forced to run, and the beast turn its attention to the party.

This can be a good tactic to use. You let someone/something else get torn up by "the Threat" as a demonstration/warning.

But you still run the risk of some PC's (mistakenly) thinking they can tackle it as a group. In which case, are you willing to kill a PC or two to make it clear they are not invulnerable?

something with a nasty reputation that they already have heard about, so when they come across it they don't have any delusions of fighting it and living. If they do anything it should be to allow them to run (control/obscuration etc spells).


GM 1990 wrote:
Otherwhere wrote:
ShroudedInLight wrote:

Another suggestion is what I call the "Balrog effect"

Have the party come across a high level wizard fighting a ferocious monster, as the party approaches have the Wizard warn them away "Fly you fools" while casting something in the spell level 7-9 range.

Have the wizard then get shrecked and either die or be forced to run, and the beast turn its attention to the party.

This can be a good tactic to use. You let someone/something else get torn up by "the Threat" as a demonstration/warning.

But you still run the risk of some PC's (mistakenly) thinking they can tackle it as a group. In which case, are you willing to kill a PC or two to make it clear they are not invulnerable?

something with a nasty reputation that they already have heard about, so when they come across it they don't have any delusions of fighting it and living. If they do anything it should be to allow them to run (control/obscuration etc spells).

It can also be helpful to use iconic monsters for this type of encounter. Classic demons, devils, and even dragons if your players are savvy enough to recognize the size and color to CR standards for them, have been around the game forever and most players already know the relative power level of those monsters. Using an obscure monster can lead to a TPK if the players don't realize how powerful it actually it; but a Vvrock swooping down on them is a known commodity and experienced players will know whether they can handle it or not.

There was actually a great example of this in the early days of D&D 3.0. They published a series of loosely connected adventures that were supposed to take characters through their career, like an AP with less connection between volumes. In the second adventure, for 3rd - 5th level characters, the author put a Beholder in an isolated spot in the dungeon as a rattlesnake encounter (to teach players that not every inch of every map needs to be explored, I guess). The editors for some reason changed the Beholder to a Roper for publication, and many TPKs were the unfortunate result.


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Hmm, here's something I haven't seen explicitly stated yet, despite the fact that it's really important.

Whatever you choose, you need to ask how are your PCs going to survive even if they do run?

Disengaging from combat in Pathfinder is ridiculously difficult without abilities like long range teleportation. Trying to bail from a fight on foot will get you chased down and killed within a very short amount of time. Anything that can't chase you down has a serious risk of getting turned into a chump by just kiting or skirmishing with them. There is also practically no chance of saving a PC if they go down. Anything that beats the PCs in a straight fight will murderize them if they screw around trying to drag away downed allies. It is possible to set up a fight so that it is both unbeatable and forgiving, but that is unforgiving on the GM instead because screwing it up could kill PCs, and if the PCs screw up too it could easily become a TPK.

Jiggy wrote:
Schuyler Atkinson wrote:

So I am working on an encounter that I actively want them to run from.

...to force the party to organically flee...
One of the most foundational elements of becoming a good GM is to abandon the idea of planning (or even knowing) how something is going to play out. As long as you're crafting your encounters with a mindset of "I want them to X" or "to force them to Y", you're holding yourself back from becoming the kind of GM that people will excitedly tell stories about playing with.

This is an excellent piece of advice. I can't count the number of times I have figured or assumed that a scenario would go a certain way, only to be proven horribly, horribly wrong. Luckily, I try to follow a lot of The Alexandrian's advice, so my campaign can usually hold up even if my expectations are in tatters.

In your case, you could easily find yourself in the position where the PCs retreat the way they came and lock themselves out of the rest of the session's content. Even worse, only some of them might head the way you want, forcibly separating the party with an undefeatable threat. And all of that being generous, considering that the party might either lose half their members or get lucky and defeat the "undefeatable" encounter if you don't get it exactly right. You also need to concern yourselves with PC "tricks" like invisibility, flight or even something as simple as a decent move speed, all of which have the potential of destroying a carefully crafted railroad undefeatable encounter.


Crushing ceiling trap and/or giant boulder trap - that will get them running!


I once setup an adventure where the party was supposed to stop an enemy army. I setup an encounter where the party was spying on the army as it got together. My plan was that the party would watch the army and attack a segment as it broke apart.

The PCs instead decided to attack the whole army (PCs are trained to think that all encounters are winnable by game design). Needless to say they lost.

So because of game design, you probably have to make it glaringly obvious that they won't win.


How about they run into a group of orc's or such. As they approach they hear horns, 6 to 8 of them advancing. You could make this an army that wants to invade the dungeon but the party by entering blocks the way.


In fairness, most people don't play games thinking "Oh boy, I want to lose."

(Unless they're in Rappan Athuk or something, in which case they'll either expect to die or learn real fast.)

In other words, they don't want to roleplay being powerless. That's why I like having hints in town. If something's presented from the start as an encounter that should be avoided, maybe with a plot hook for how to beat it later on, that's usually more accepted by the PCs.


Obstacles to overcome for the party to be able to successfully run away:

They must identify that the enemy is a threat they cannot defeat by normal means.

They must identify that the enemy is not one that can be defeated by some clever tactic that the GM is expecting them to think of. "All you had to do was destroy the glowing crystal on the altar!"

They must identify this before any of them are killed.

They must identify this before they get in a position where they cannot escape; no unconscious PCs who can't be carried, or characters who will die from an AoO if they move, and so on.

They must be able to move faster than the pursuing enemy. Since many PCs have 20-foot movement, there are very few enemies like that. Even a fast PC is going to have trouble outrunning a determined dragon or ghost. This can be mitigated with magic or by sacrificing someone (usually an animal companion) or through some contrived bit of scenery that allows them to destroy a convenient rickety bridge and flee.

The player whose initiative it is must make the decision that he is going to be the first one to make a break for it, which always looks cowardly.

They must be willing to swallow their pride. It's not easy to go on a quest to defeat the dark lord and then when you meet him, just give up and go home because you were never capable of achieving your goal in the first place. It helps if they had some other goal they can achieve by escaping.


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Matthew Downie wrote:
They must be able to move faster than the pursuing enemy. Since many PCs have 20-foot movement, there are very few enemies like that.

A large swarm of fine constructs with hardness. Call them clockwork locusts or something. Alternatively you could give them a type of Devil, Fiendish, or something like that.

Swarms tend to move slow enough that most groups should be able to move faster. Swarms don't tend to run. They are obvious, and really tough to kill. A large enough swarm should cause the characters to run -- especially if you are giving it hardness.

The best advice is still re-think your strategy. This is if you are determined to rail-road your players and want a monster that they should run away from.


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You can also use the flood technique to make them feel heroic, but ultimately destined for failure. Give them an amazing story to come away with, but no end in sight to the battle.

You see (goblins/orcs/skeletons/something else nobody minds killing droves of or questions seeing in droves but is just strong enough that they can be dangerous in large groups at this parties level) pouring from the woodworks. At first glance, you describe a small band approaching from the trees to the parties right. About 15 should be reasonable, right? They can handle this no problem. Might even have dealt with worse a level ago. But by the time the first three go down, perception checks notice more. There's 30. Wait, that's 40. Every round you're adding 1d4, until it looks like they might win, then you're adding 1d4 every time they kill one, then you start adding 2d4... hundreds of (imps/smaller oozes/plague zombies) are swarming from the woods, more have started arriving from the woods on the left side and the party is running out of spells, out of health, out of luck... You've slain hundreds, the bodies of your foes litter the ground around you in a brutal kill zone that your enemy never expected to be claimed as your own so staunchly, but ultimately with no end in sight you stop giving them numbers of enemies left, and only grim looks as you describe the way the trees can no longer be seen over the war banners of the living, enraged hordes of their pursuers.

It's clearly a TPK, but it's a TPK that can easily be avoided by retreat long before it becomes an inescapable situation. These minions should be a horrifying force expected to destroy entire kingdoms in a locust swarm of death and mayhem, and while you've ultimately failed to stop their march the players should be rewarded by finding out that they've forced the enemy to delay long enough for a town ahead of them to evacuate. They should later have the decisive victory of being able to dethrone the driving force behind this formidable army, scattering it into bands small enough for town guards to stand a chance of defending against. It looks like a plot hook to get them into the tunnels because it is. But later on they realize it was a plot hook to drive them into a second, larger adventure that pushes them into the ranks of kingdom-wide known heroes and beyond. If your players don't have a moment of playing the "I got 22, how many did you clean?" then you didn't do this right. If they seem to be getting bored, or aren't taking the hint, push the swarm in harder and faster to make it clear sooner that they can't win no matter how many they stay to defeat.

You can't do this more than once a campaign, in fact it rarely works as well again in any number of campaigns, so make sure it's memorable and done well. Make this a moment the players and characters remember (fondly for players, with a deep sense of gratitude for survival by the characters) for a long, long time.


As another layer to the "inescapable wave of minions" make them less threatening in combat but all have an effect on death. Something like a Burning Skeleton, but without the aura of burning because hoards of overlapping auras is lame.

Constructs are great for this and you can always scale this up based on the level of the PCs. Low level, constructs explode for 1d4 damage and you can just keep raising the dice level.

Heck, you can do this during the encounter if you wanted to.

I did a variant of this once with a variant of undead farmers who had a +0 to hit with their clubs or pitchforks, but were found in swarms and released a nasty paralytic poison upon death. My encounter was meant to be overcome, but its easy to scale it up to the point where they have to run.


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Schuyler Atkinson wrote:

To preface - I have a party of 5 that are essentially glass cannons. They have been able to put out enough damage quickly enough that they have not been super threatened even in large encounters with me not pulling punches. that begin said they have no AC, as most of them spent a large sum on good weapons, and even less hit points, offering them to roll or take the PFS advancement has resulted in lots of 1's being rolled for HP.

So I am working on an encounter that I actively want them to run from. I want to use it as a lead in to a dungeon crawl session and would like to progress something like the watcher in the water encounter to force the party to organically flee into a mine/crypt/dungeon area.

Are there any suggestions out there how to present this encounter to a party who have become over confident in their damage dealing ability? Would you suggest it to them or make it appear as if their weapons have no affect?

If your players are not the type to run away you may want to forshadow this.


You know, I like the high level wizard casting 7-9 level spells. Show that the wizard is getting whipped by the creature, and they are obviously losing.

I then differ from others on these boards. That's the opportunity for the party to flee. If they fail to flee, and then the wizard flees or dies...OR they decide to go an attack the monster that was defeating the wizard...

For being that foolish and ignoring the obvious clues...a TPK is in order.

IF they get killed by their own foolishness of ignoring the obvious...who am I, even as a GM...to deny their deathwishes?

NOW, if I am feeling generous and not wanting to totally destroy them...have them wake up in the lair with the creature or something pre-occupied, and the adventurers waking with something like 1HP, having been knocked unconscious by the encounter.

Hopefully after having lost the first time with better health, they'd take the clue and flee or find a way out.

If they attack it a second time...I figure they are either suicidal, or are sick of the campaign.


Schuyler Atkinson wrote:
Are there any suggestions out there how to present this encounter to a party who have become over confident in their damage dealing ability? Would you suggest it to them or make it appear as if their weapons have no affect?

There are a few ways to do this that don't end with the characters being done. One: there is an Aeon that can cast Raise Dead and Restoration as SLAs, which means it doesn't pay material component costs. Just have something that is part of the big bad band or whatever villains you're using stomp the PCs into the ground.

The setup for this:
The PCs get offered the job by the major or whatever of a tiny village they happen to travel by. You can assume at least one person in town is somewhere around level 7. Have him offer them payment roughly around 1/2 their collective WBL from their current level to next: this is usually enough to get them motivated.

For the oncoming content, treat it exactly as if it were normal CR appropriate content, and build it to be appropriate. Somewhere in the dungeon, have the PCs encounter someone who is leagues ahead of them. Have this intelligent campaign villain mercilessly massacre the party in the most effective and logical way possible.

Your players will be angry.

Then, some days later they wake up, one by one, to find your Big Good helping them out in some sort of way, perhaps these Aeons owe him something, or perhaps he isn't even there, but instead, the aeons have a bone to pick with the PCs' killer.

Either way, ensure that the guy who killed them somehow knows that they are alive. Perhaps some sort of psychic or magical connection that lets them know that he knows they are alive. Ensure they know he is coming for them when he gets the free time to go murder a bunch of lower level people for having the audacity to come back to life—I mean, really, who does that?

The PCs have two choices: they tell Mr. Bad Guy that they're willing to work for him if he doesn't kill them or they get stronger to keep him from killing them. There are other choices, sure, but this bad guy has a reputation on the line!

One scenario I played out for my players was to have a group of lvl 2 PCs fight their way through an undead infested forest that turned dungeon mid-way through. They fought loads of normal skeletons and zombies, a few skeletal champions and even a ghoul. Eventually, they walk into a chamber that has a fairly well armored undead in the room who is, of all the sundry things he could be doing, reading a book.
Regardless of how the PCs get his attention, he mocks them for coming into his domain and curses them for destroying the minions he had protecting the place from "idiots like them." Sooner or later, one of the PCs will attack this undead character, and the attack is likely to be completely negated by the lvl 14 Anti-paladin lich's DR. From this point onward, he doesn't actively try to kill them, but instead paralyze them with his lich touch.

When the entire party was down, I had them go through a nightmare hellscape where they were basically being fed on by creatures from Leng—they, and the other prisoners like them, were a feast provided as payment for services rendered to this particular sect of Whispering Way liches, so long as the prisoners didn't die.—

Eventually, the PCs are rescued after an indeterminate amount of time only to find out from their saviors that it was been years. Their saviors are at war with the beings that imprisoned the PCs and could use all the help they could get.

The point is: don't be afraid of killing your players' PCs. Just have some sort of contingency plan for bringing them back even if it isn't in the same body.

My favorite is to go the Dark Souls route: give them all artifacts in the form of Ioun Stones that have been implanted in the PCs' heads. These artifacts have plenty of goals, but currently the PCs are aligning with them without knowing it. Ensure that each Artifact is set up with the "Casts true resurrection on the wielder a month after death" to ensure that people will return. Try to aim for TPKs to avoid pesky survivors.

Liberty's Edge RPG Superstar 2015 Top 16, RPG Superstar 2013 Top 16

Man, there is some candy in this thread. Sometimes you fight stuff that is above your CR. Sometimes you make a bad decision not to run away. Sometimes you die. Welcome to adventuring: it's dangerous and you don't always win.

I think the key is to give them the opportunity to run away if that's what you are shooting for. Spring Attacking ghosts, e.g. can pursue you indefinitely and essentially nothing can stop them. Conversely, a very big creature may not be able to squeeze into a dungeon entrance into which Medium PCs can easily flee.

Being very descriptive helps ramp up the perceived difficulty of the encounter. "The giant swings a hammer the size of a house at you. It misses, but the ground is cratered where it hit next to you. That could have been your head... or your all of you."

Providing free divination effects can be a handy way to clue your players in to the lethality of an encounter. A friendly cleric augurs "woe" if they meet the Great Playereater monster, for instance.

The Exchange

I don't think you should go down this route because to me railroading = bad.

Also you might cause players to not bite plot hooks in the future, because, once bitten, twice shy, you know?

There's something to be said about players going leeroy jenkins into every encounter, but if you get them too cautious, nothing ever gets done.

There's really no in game way for a character to know that the thing is over his CR. Failed a knowledge check? Could mean you just rolled low/have no knowledge skills(highly probable if you're trying to go max dmg output route), which makes it unfair.

If you really want to do this, you should tell them at the start of the campaign - Not everything you run into will be in your CR. It's up to you to know when to run and when to fight. And don't pull alignment bullcrap(saying their alignment shouldn't let them retreat) if they run from a fight after.


Taku Ooka Nin wrote:

Have this intelligent campaign villain mercilessly massacre the party in the most effective and logical way possible.

Your players will be angry.

Then, some days later they wake up, one by one, to find your Big Good helping them out in some sort of way, perhaps these Aeons owe him something, or perhaps he isn't even there, but instead, the aeons have a bone to pick with the PCs' killer.

This isn't bad as narrative, but it doesn't work too well when you think of it as a game. "I have decided that you are going to die in this battle. I have decided that you are all going to magically come back to life."

It - potentially - undermines any actual struggle for survival in the game. Instead of learning to run away when facing a battle they can't win, they learn the lesson that it doesn't matter what they do, because TPKs are no big deal and the GM has already decided the outcome. (You can lessen this problem by foreshadowing their resurrection in some way - some kind of special item or pact? - or simply by telling them afterwards, "This won't happen again.")

And suppose, for example, one of the PCs dies on the way to this fatal encounter due to a bad crit and the party decides to retreat and recruit a replacement? Do you tell them not to? Do you bring both characters back to life?


Why make this a combat encounter at all? My least favorite memories of all RPG's are "combat encounters" that spend lots of player time when it's a false encounter with a forgone conclusion. Worse, what do you do if they win?

Your party members are Legolas and Frodo, not Gandalf. You'll note what got them to flee the Balrog was being told by an immortal wizard they needed to flee, not swatting at the Balrog.

Have them enter the mine for a McGuffin. When they are 200 feet in, blow the entrance. If they have mining tools and skills and want to spend 10 days, let them dig out.

Giving the players unwinnable situations is story. Giving them unwinnable encounters is a problem. Once you say, "roll initiative", you are activating books and books of rules for solving a technical puzzle. The player assumption is that the puzzle is worth solving, meant to be solved and rewarding to solve.


Maye you should intruduce them to the idea of running away slowly. A will o wisp with sorcerer levels gets ridicolous armor. Start with 26, 2 more for having class levels, then 8 with mage armor and shield. Here you have ridicolous ac of 36. A high touch attack. And low damage of 2d8.

And plant the idea that running away is a good option by making that encounter take place at some special site and the wisp telling them to "leave" over and over again.

Now i admit that is not a remorable encounter that will make for good campsite stories. But now your players have learned that just turning around and leaving is an option.


If you're giving them an unbeatable encounter, the first thing is that it ought to look unbeatable. I find golems and aberrations to be rather inherently intimidating when the time comes.
Now give your monster a ton of defenses. High saves, good AC (including touch AC), lots of immunities and resistances, regeneration is always nice, lots of hp... anything to make it difficult to hurt. SR and DR are both a must.
Now trap it. Have it be in a slowly failing temporal stasis spell or something, so that your PCs get several rounds to begin attacking it. They'll figure out that they cannot harm it, and they'll also figure out that - once at full power - this monster can probably one-shot any of them.
They can now choose any number of ways to flee, but it's a fairly safe bet they're not going to hang around.

However, a stick is not going to be enough to get them into your dungeon. It will get them moving. To get them to move into the dungeon, you need a carrot. Judging by the fact that they're all glass cannons, you'll probably want some sort of uber-weapon to be hidden in the dungeon. This could be something that is super-effective against the monster that forced them in, allowing your PCs to come back and 'finish' the encounter.
You could also give them a longer-term reward, such as a magical device that can put any one creature in temporal stasis without a saving throw, but only affects one creature at a time, and that creature automatically knows who trapped them. The PCs will probably use this to re-trap the monster at the entrance, allowing them to escape, but at high levels, they can take the risk of being hunted down by it to use the device on someone else.


Pathfinder Starfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

as for having the PCs effectively gat away, you either want it to be really close, and in that case the pcs should be clear that it is close i.e. "the glowing wards seem to repulse the creature" although that runs the risk of them trying to sit within the wards and an snipe the creature.
If you want them to run a little bit more then build a chase. if you are ok being railroad just drop them into the chase when the monster shows up, (there is a PFS scenario that dose this, level 1-5 players have to run from a T-Rex) if you want it to be more organic then you should write the chase and use it when the PCs decide to run.


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Pathfinder Card Game Subscriber

The second encounter from 7-17, Thralls of Shattered God, scenario.

monster:
DEMONIC MIMIC CR 11

Nasty buggers

Liberty's Edge

Mob of Rust Monsters


I think considering Creatures for an 'Unwinnable Encounter' is folly, especially to a glass cannon party, who prides themselves on being able to kill things fast.

How does a Volcano sound?


To echoe Jiggy's point. Someone wiser than me said "Good Adventure writers create worlds not stories."

Don't try and railroad your PCs. By all means put them up against something tougher than they are but design an out for them, a means of escape. Ideally if it is a heroic means of escape like Indiana Jones' minecart ride even better.

One method is to have an NPC that challenges a PC to single combat and then if beaten agrees to serve the PC. Run a duel that will demonstrate how tough that NPC is in a non-lethal way.

When the party comes up against the enemy you want them to run from have the enemy wipe the NPC off the board in one round. This is particularly effective if they like the NPC so running away is both necessary but also a wrench. Then give them the tools to overcome the enemy with preparation/planning etc.

Grand Lodge Contributor

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Duncan7291 wrote:

The second encounter from 7-17, Thralls of Shattered God, scenario. ** spoiler omitted **

Nasty buggers

Oh, c'mon. It's totally winnable! Just... win initiative.


Matthew Downie wrote:
Taku Ooka Nin wrote:

Have this intelligent campaign villain mercilessly massacre the party in the most effective and logical way possible.

Your players will be angry.

Then, some days later they wake up, one by one, to find your Big Good helping them out in some sort of way, perhaps these Aeons owe him something, or perhaps he isn't even there, but instead, the aeons have a bone to pick with the PCs' killer.

This isn't bad as narrative, but it doesn't work too well when you think of it as a game. "I have decided that you are going to die in this battle. I have decided that you are all going to magically come back to life."

It - potentially - undermines any actual struggle for survival in the game. Instead of learning to run away when facing a battle they can't win, they learn the lesson that it doesn't matter what they do, because TPKs are no big deal and the GM has already decided the outcome. (You can lessen this problem by foreshadowing their resurrection in some way - some kind of special item or pact? - or simply by telling them afterwards, "This won't happen again.")

And suppose, for example, one of the PCs dies on the way to this fatal encounter due to a bad crit and the party decides to retreat and recruit a replacement? Do you tell them not to? Do you bring both characters back to life?

You basically have to fudge everything to keep the PCs alive until the massacre.

The Aeons can be waved away with the fact that there are higher level clerics and wizard who don't like doing their own dirty work. Hell, if the Wizard is at least level 11 he could have the true name of an Akhana aeon to do the work for him.

Quest/Geas could keep the PCs going if we have a higher level Cleric/Wizard pulling the strings. It is entirely possible that the Wizard's pet only uses raise dead instead of the restorations. This still puts a penalty on the PCs for death, but it enables you to ignore scripted deaths if there is something that is just inevitable.

Perhaps the PCs accrue revives (or "lives" if we're looking at a game perspective) from the Ahkana, cleric or wizard.

All you have to do is find some sort of way to connect mechanics with narratives.


If the ultimate goal of what you're trying to do is get them to explore this ruin/crypt then why not go with any of the possible classic hooks:
-PCs find a map in loot
-PCs asked to retrieve an item
-PCs stumble across the ruins moving between locations
etc

Then if you want that "Entrance to Moria" feel, you can toss the undefeatable encounter at them when they arrive at or near the entrance to the crypt/ruins. Especially if they have to either find a secret entry or solve a riddle/method of opening it. Now it can be anything from hordes of beasts, to a tornado or fire that is going to obviously kill them if they don't get inside and secure the door.

if you work it like that at least the PCs feel like they decided on their own to expore the ruin in the first place and you can much easily control the pace of damage, etc for the unwinnable encounter so you don't have a TPK. Even if a PC goes down, and they can drag them inside before barring the door/blocking it with a spell, collapsing the entrance, etc.

As for the group rolling over everything and getting overconfident. Mix up the challenges. Add monsters with ranged or area attacks, poison, spells, paralyzation, ranged grapple (giant dire frog). If you're roughly following the CR to APL formula you should be able to get something close that'll significantly challenge them encounter after encounter. If needed, toss in the Advanced Monster template (+2 hit/damage, +4AC, and bonus HPs). Toss in use of terrain, or hindering effects like forest/water/lose sand etc.

Once you established different challenge tactics for the monsters if hubris on the players side is creating problems, just don't pull any punches. I like to roll in the open as much as possible if a max-damage crit kills a PC, it may quickly change their attitude about their abilities. But keep in mind it isn't GM vs the PCs, your job is to create that tension of live or die for their PCs by coming up with challenging encounters, traps, etc. you shouldn't feel good about a PC death since its going to have an affect on the actual player who is likely a friend of yours.


Tormsskull wrote:
I would probably abandon the idea all together to be honest. Usually in these situations it becomes obvious to the players that the GM is railroading the PCs into a certain area.

I agree completely. Now you can run encounters tough and then let them realize maybe they should retreat. In some cases a smart party will retreat depending on the situation. In a dungeon crawl I have had players leave to rest and restock knowing the dungeon could refill with bad guys.

Something I do is give monsters max HP. I tend to up the CR by one then add templates. Next consider the monster and it's treasure. A smart monster will use magic if it can. A Ring of Invisibility in the hands of some monsters is brutal. Traps are worth XP and if the group is unprepared for them in serious trouble. Have read several versions of D&D and Pathfinder regarding making a dungeon and they all recommend traps as replacements for monsters.
Look at the monsters you are using themselves. I have used Driders to lethal effect against my players because they are smart spell casters using their abilities and spells. Regarding a monsters spells change them I do. I have seen far too often a monster picking spells that are useless to it for whatever reasons. I get that it's a balance issue at times and me and a fellow GM thinks it's crap. The Drider I have used has been hidden having a high Stealth on the ceiling using it's innate Spider Climb. It hold's it's action until the party is mostly in the room then uses a fireball. Not cheating just a smart monster being played that way. It continues to use it spells staying high on the ceiling or wall preventing the melee damage dealers from getting to it.
The fight in every case has been tough the party eventually beating the Drider but I inflicted casualties on the PCs. They needed healing and rest. In every case the PCs didn't feel screwed rather relieved they survived. Using a monster just because it has lots of HP isn't always the best idea. Some monsters I have thrown at PCs have been actually lower CR but in certain cases devastating to them.


If it is above ground how about a "War Machine" type thing. Some kind of tank like device that moves very slowly 15' a round maybe... but has a bunch of ranged attackers inside. They will have no way to stay in range of it without being showered with arrows.

They would probably soon realize they need siege engines to defeat it, but since they don't usually carry some with them they would be out of luck.

I found once PCs as a group have to retreat a few times, it gets easier for them in other situations.


If you want to force the players to run why not use the in game mechanism to do so - a Fear spell - assuming they haven't all got good will saves.

Perhaps have them ambush a bunch of minions and after they attack the boss appears out of hiding/invisibility and casts fear. If the party regularly uses Haste fudge his initiative to be just after the haste is cast so they can run away faster. Make sure there is something stopping those who make their saves from attacking the one casting fear (which could be from a wand or a staff). Then have the caster seal them in with a wall spell.

Expect them to try to find out more about the caster when they get out of the dungeon.

The Exchange

Attacks don't have to inflict damage, of course. Having a high CR monster fling the PCs about with a few combat maneuvers (and maybe 'accidentally' mumbling the ridiculously high totals the monster's getting for the attack rolls) can be cinematic without instantly killing off PCs or fudging the monster's damage to be weaker than it really is (which would probably produce the opposite reaction to what you're going for). Grapple 'em and try to pull 'em into the water, just like your LotR inspiration... or just toss 'em bodily into the dungeon.

On the other hand, it's probably easier to get your average PCs to enter a place by having them make some Perception rolls, shuffling through your GM notes, then announcing that they've spotted a door...


Tormsskull wrote:
I would probably abandon the idea all together to be honest. Usually in these situations it becomes obvious to the players that the GM is railroading the PCs into a certain area.

At times, that's exactly what is required, of course, especially if the players have proven tonedeaf to hints.

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