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Avoid Predetermined Overwhelming Combat Encounters

by Mike on 6 June 2022

Avoid designing and running combat encounters intended to defeat the characters.

It’s common for DMs to have ideas for stories they want to see take place in their D&D adventures. D&D adventures don’t work like that. DMs don’t tell stories to the players. We watch stories unfold at the table. Those stories can’t unfold if we force the story in only one direction.

Worse, forcing the characters’ defeat is the worst of downward beats and likely follows a whole series of downward beats as the characters get pounded into the ground round after round.

Worse still, it take a long time to defeat a group of determined characters, even with an overwhelming force of monsters.

So now you’ve forced the story into one direction, done so by taking agency away from the characters, shoved them into a forced defeat, and took a long time at the table to do it. There are a few bad quest models we might find ourselves gravitating towards when we have a story to tell but this is one of the worst.

This doesn’t mean the characters won’t face deadly encounters during our games. The world doesn't conform to their level. If they do face deadly foes, it should be a matter of circumstance, not a forced direction in the story. If the characters are likely to face a deadly situation, warn them and let them make choices about what to do about it. If the characters are 2nd level and go down to the ninth level of our Gygaxian megadungeon, they should expect to face foes outside of their capabilities.

Whenever the characters face enemies, they often have a few choices about how to deal with them. Can they sneak around or otherwise physically avoid them? Can they talk to them? Can they defeat them in combat? If we’re taking choices away, as we do when the characters face an insurmountable foe, it helps if we offer new choices somewhere else. Surrender and supplication doesn’t count.

If you absolutely must force the story into a situation of defeat, skip the combat and go right to the conclusion. If the whole theme of a campaign or adventure is the capture of the characters, begin with them captured. If they have to die, start them off in the charnel pit. Your players will still protest but at least it's fast. Think about how Out of the Abyss starts. Some may not like beginning imprisoned by drow slavers but its better than being beaten to a pulp with no chance for success.

Always consider the agency of the players when choosing the challenges they face. Think hard before removing agency to move the story down one particular path. Instead, build situations and let the story unfold at the table.

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