Monday, 23 April 2012

Metagaming the Metagamers: Unwinnable Encounters

Dominic Matte
This article is part of a series on metagaming and how to challenge or discourage it in your games.

Some players assume that their DM wouldn't give them a challenge they can't beat. This can mean combat encounters, skill challenges, puzzles -- whatever. This isn't a terrible assumption to make, but it can cause problems on both sides of the screen. The players can get themselves into an extremely dangerous situation and risk one or more character deaths, and the DM might lose control of a key scene or plot point.

How do you teach your players that some challenges can't be beaten? Give them a challenge they can't beat.

HUGE DISCLAIMER: an unbeatable challenge doesn't necessarily mean a completely unwinnable encounter. It could mean a situation that can't be resolved through combat, or that must be taken on later when the players are more powerful. Even if it is completely unwinnable, you need to have some kind of message or deliberate intention behind it, and do some work to make your players feel like there's a good reason they can't win. It should not mean that you hand the players their asses, wink, and say "can't win 'em all".

That said, I'll start off with an example. I'm currently running a Dark Sun game. As the players were creating their characters, and again in the first session, I stressed that the Dark Sun setting is a dangerous world, and impulsivity, pride, stubbornness, or ignorance could get you killed if you're not careful.

When the party arrived at the gates of the city-state Gulg, they ended up causing somewhat of a disturbance over a pay dispute. Unfortunately for them, two judagas (elite warriors and headhunters of Gulg) happened to be passing by, and demanded that the party surrender and enter the city, which they would not be allowed to leave. Not wanting to enter the city, the players prepared to fight, assuming that I wouldn't give them a fight that was impossible to win, and not considering the fact that maybe the sorcerer king's elite are too much to handle at level 1. Their extremely tough warforged warden, Egon, was knocked out in a single blow and they were thrown into the arena to fight for their lives. 

(I'll have another, more concrete example for you when my Dark Sun players clear their second dungeon. Not sure how long that will take, though.)

Nonlethal damage is potentially an extremely interesting way to run an unwinnable encounter: the party is left completely powerless and at the mercy of their captors. For example, maybe the party tries to take on a dragon they can't defeat. It toys with them for a while, then tires of the distraction and knocks them right out with an overwhelming display of force. When the party wakes up, the dragon now demands that the party complete a task for him. Depending on their actions, the party might gain a new employer, or a vengeful enemy (the latter of which would be terrifying after the dragon's display of force).

Of course, you can't resolve overwhelming combats with nonlethal damage every time, because some monsters just won't care. A hungry tyrannosaur won't politely bonk the players on the head and let them on their way, and a lich lord might prefer the party's service if they were a little less... living.

Another way to teach the players that some challenges are above them is to give them a benchmark for comparison -- if they're going to assume the game content is appropriately levelled, show them that it isn't. The party's employer tells them to stay away from the archmage because he's more than they can handle, but what the party understands is that defeating the archmage is their new objective. Let's say the party fights the expert bounty hunters Colson and Tholio in a friendly arena match. The mercenaries trounce the party, but they're impressed and become friends with the PCs.

Later, the players seek out the evil archmage, and don't stop to consider whether or not they even stand a chance. Colson and Tholio show up to help, and are burned to a crisp by the archmage with his pinky finger. Suddenly the players realize that these two bounty hunters (who have been established as well above the level of the party) are nothing to the archmage, and they'll seriously reconsider running away.

The harshest way to teach the players that they can't always win is by actually killing characters when they take on something too powerful. Don't do this without feeling out your players to some extent first -- making a gimmick out of character death could go over pretty badly. Make sure they're ready for the possibility of character death. If they ignore your warnings, it's on them, not on you. That won't necessarily prevent bad feelings, but it's much better than having your players feel like they were killed on a whim to prove a point.

There are a lot of ways you can do this. You could plan a party wipe as a plot point -- for example, run the first few adventures as a sort of prologue ending with the death of the party; reveal that the wipe was a premonition of the future; or have an NPC of some sort take extreme measures to resurrect the party as a one-time-only thing. The risk with using party death as a plot point is that it might not teach a lesson at all and simply go over as a plot point instead of a warning. Using the last example of the three could mitigate this if you strongly emphasize that resurrection will only happen once.

What's more likely to work is by telling the players that you're playing things by the dice and letting them die if it happens on its own. If the party tries to raid the hall of the goblin king and one or two of them die in combat (not drop, but actually die), they should at least consider retreating. If the whole party wipes, they might be upset, but at least you know they'll be more careful in the future.

At times, you might actually want to reveal (or hint at) some statistical information, sometimes as a last resort. If they're fighting a big solo, have spent all their encounters and dailies, and ask if it's almost dead yet, tell them no, it's not even close. That'll shock them. If you don't want to freely hand out information the characters shouldn't have, you could call for a knowledge check.
As another example, my Dark Sun players were travelling through the wilderness, and they were about to encounter an earth drake twenty levels above them. The perceptive characters noticed the ground shaking from its steps, and with a knowledge check that told them what the drake was and how powerful it was, warned the rest of the party that they should hide immediately (Egon failed his stealth roll, but fortunately, as an obsidian construct, the drake wasn't interested in eating him).

Unbeatable challenges can provide a huge boost to the mood of your adventure or campaign. If you're going for an atmosphere of despair or overwhelming odds, unwinnable encounters are the perfect way to demonstrate those concepts. Horror games in particular benefit from a feeling of oppression and inevitability, and you can use an extremely powerful but slow creature to scare your players into running.

But remember, don't use this trick too often, and if your players come up with a clever way of winning your unwinnable encounter, strongly consider letting them pull it off. It's generally no fun at all for the players to feel like there's nothing they can do, especially if that feeling comes up again and again. 

Also keep in mind that these encounters can make the players feel railroaded into what you want them to do, even if that's not your intent. When my Dark Sun players were forcibly taken into the city, they knew it's because I intended them to go into the city and hadn't anticipated that they'd risk starving to death to avoid the place (but since they're great cooperative players, even the ones not involved in the fight ended up getting involved for the sake of keeping the party together and advancing the plot).

How do you feel about unwinnable encounters? 
As a DM, have you successfully used them to teach your players something?
As a player, how do you / did you feel about playing an unwinnable encounter?

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