GM Advice: The 4 Types of Unfair Encounters

“Suddenly, the ceiling collapses without warning and you all die.”

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)

 

Sometimes things go wrong and the party all die horrible deaths. That ever present risk is an intrinsic part of the gaming experience. While no one likes a TPK (total party kill) sometimes through bad luck or shockingly disastrous tactics they happen. Other times, a GM wipes out a party or kills a PC in a horribly unfair encounter. To me, being English, that’s just not cricket.

There are four basic types of unfair encounters:

  • No Hope: Sometimes a GM puts a monster into a dungeon which the PCs have no realistic chance of defeating. Of course, knowing when to run away is a vital trait for a skilled player, but sometimes they must defeat the monster to continue (or have no idea they can’t kill it). Encounters specifically designed to kill characters are an example of bad (or vindictive) design. Such encounters are a completely different animal to those designed to challenge players. In such encounters, death can still occur but it is not the guaranteed outcome of the fight.
  • No Choice: In these encounters, the PCs have no choice but to face the creature (or whatever). A good example of this is the dungeon that is only accessible through the lair of a monstrously tough dragon or through a heavily defended entrance. With no other option, the players must deal with the situation through violence or diplomacy. This often results in multiple forays into the same encounter, which turns into a grinding slog. Alternatively, the players abandon the module, but the social contract of gaming often precludes that decision.
  • No Warning: In this kind of encounter, disaster strikes with no warning. Perhaps the ceiling caves in suddenly or something falls out of the sky and crushes a PC. I once heard a GM telling how he had a roc swoop down on a camp at night, grab the only guard and fly off without anyone realising what had happened. (In fact, somehow the guard failed to spot the gargantuan bird flying towards him). All the rest of the party found in the morning were the guard’s shoes. He was never seen again. As another example of this, a hill giant jumps out from behind a tree and kills a character before anyone can react. You have to wonder how the entire party – in broad daylight – could fail to spot that lurking hill giant.
  • No Retreat: In almost all encounters, the PCs have the option to retreat if things go badly. Removing that option, fundamentally changes the battle. When the option to retreat is paired with a monster the PCs have no hope of defeating things can go badly wrong very quickly.

Finally, truly unfair encounters mix two or more of the above elements. Imagine a hill giant leaping out from behind a tree without warning and attacking a group of 2nd-level characters. As a player, how delighted would you be to deal with that “challenge?”

Help Fellow GMs

Have you suffered through an unfair encounter? Tell us what it was in the comments below and  help GMs everywhere to design fair encounters!

Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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39 thoughts on “GM Advice: The 4 Types of Unfair Encounters

  1. I take exception to “No Retreat” being unfair. Sometimes “no retreat” happens….usually because a random encounter traps the party in a dead end, sometimes because the party flees into that dead end.

    Personally, I have little problem with “no warning” either, so long as it isn’t followed by “and no choice” or “and no hope”. If the PCs are in an area with rocs, and they post a solitary guard, and rocs hunt at night, that guard may will simply disappear. Especially if an NPC….consider it fair warning. A PC should get a chance, but in a game with surprise mechanics, there is no guarantee that you will not be surprised.

    Personally, as GM or player, I would much rather play in a game where the consequences of action were played out in the game world, than in a game where I knew that the monsters would always be beatable, unexpected danger would never leap out of the dark, and there would always be a way to retreat.

    YMMV.

  2. This is precisely the reason I almost never got to play and had to DM all the time with my previous offline group. The only other player who was willing to step up to DM constantly put the group up against encounters they had no chance of defeating. I tried to gently advise him against it, but he would not listen. He was the one and only DM I have ever left the table of in 30 years of gaming, and the game was at my house, lol!

  3. Yeah. Only ‘No Hope’ is legit in my book. No retreat? There’s always retreat. You just have to find it. And be willing to retreat. Something I don’t often findnin a player.
    No warning? Really? In 1e that happened about 1/2 the time based on a d6 roll. Thats why you carry your weapons at the ready and have your armor on when you’re in a dungeon. Some Hill Giants might have a level in thief, or ranks in hide… pay better attention or hire a scout.
    No choice… well, I supposed if its a shooter on rails. But then it probably doesnt matter because a player staying in that game likely wouldn’t recognize the better part of valor.
    No hope… well, there are dragons on the random encounter tabpes for a reason. It happens. Don’t charge in swords ringing. Duh. It’s not a video game. But, hey. Yeah it sucks to be part of the legion of adventures who have gone before never to be heard from again. But without those experiences I find the joy of victory rather hollow.

  4. I have had to change encounters mid-fight because of bad dice rolls on the player side of the screen. Bad decisions are one thing (yeah, I can tank that ogre at 2nd level!) but if I am rolling a metric ton of awesome attacks and damage and they are fumbling near every one I will make on the fly adjustments to the adventure an off the shelf adventure or even ones I have created.

    I have fudged my own dice rolls to have the goblin chief kill one or two of his men who were “in his way of getting to the PC’s” to make it a little more manageable (or have a neutral monster stumble upon the fight and the party sees it as an exit, etc.), I admit to it without pause or regret. At the end of the day, it is not about your ego as a GM and killing the party, it is about them having fun and wanting to be a part of the world you create or moderate.

    -e

      • You modify the game, encounters and such as you see fit. A fudged roll here and there won’t ruin a campaign, but a long string of botched rolls can kill it in a heart beat. DMs must be able to use good judgement.

  5. I just ran into something similar. In the Horde of the Dragon Queen (D&D5e) book, we were given a boss to challenge-fight. It was totally ridiculous. He was obviously of higher level, and no matter what we did, our challenger was expected to lose. And, lose ignominiously. For what reason. Oh, foreshadowing. There was no chance to win, but it was meant to show that the bad guy was a mean SOB and a dick. NO STORY ADVANCEMENT.

  6. “Bad dice rolls” exactly. But even there should always be an avenue for the party or PC to prevail.

    I made the mistake of ending a PC’s sdventuring career in The Temple of Elemental Evil. He decided to go exploring solo, failed a save versus a cleric’s Command spell (Die!), waking to find himself bound, gagged and then sacrificed. I was new to DMing and realized all too late that there should have been a way to initiated some sort of escape.

    On the other hand, stating a movement that crosses the path of a lightning bolt should result as the die roll is cast.

    • there should always be an avenue for the party or PC to prevail

      I would change this from “prevail” to “survive”. It isn’t necessary to come out on top, as long as it’s not a literal dead end and there are other options for moving forward. Defeating each encounter is not usually the goal; avoiding (or exploring and abandoning) bad paths is an acceptable outcome to me.

  7. I have suffered what I think of as unfair encounters but not in the manner you define.

    I have been restricted to die rolls when playing my character, and been rejected for involving myself in the game. I remember one instance when I thought the description of the NPCs suggested to me nymphs of dryads (which turned out to be a succubus demon thing) but the table of player were opposed to my using my “player skill” or intuition and looked upon my questioning the GM as an unnecessary drawn out travail rather than, from my perception, part of the game.

    I recall one time, with another GM in 3.5, when the game ended with my character/me fleeing a horde of zombies, separating myself from the party, only to resume the game the next session with myself trapped inside a boathouse and being rescued by the other party members much to my disbelief as player.

    I remember playing a 3.5 lawful evil assassin (using a Ranger character record to disguise my character, also having the in-game appearance of Ranger but being a 5th level Rogue/assassin). In this game, while I proceeded with my own character generation apace with everyone else’s process of character generation) I found myself surrounded by players who had opted to play lawful good Paladins. So I relished the opportunity to turn and complicate the Paladins who role-playing sophistry – especially with the awakened consciousness of the Warforged Paladins.

    I was summarily executed by the GM and uninvited to further play.

    In all those cases two definitions of trouble arose: 1) a separation between the GM getting to know me as the player over me playing the character sheet; and 2) the GM could not be bothered with either a style of play or a situation in-game that required more from them than rolling some dice.

    And I do not fun that way. I like to be engrossed personally and interpersonally at a tabletop RPG.

    In the manner you define as problems resulting in unfair encounters, particularly as I perceive such problems from a rules light point of view, I see the crux of the problem to be players not knowing each other as individuals first. Computer game players who form a raiding party on a World of Warcraft band together because they possess the necessary system statistics on the equivalent of their character sheet; and the sole consideration of the individuals as persons tethered to the other side of the monitor is whether they can play in a common language; make the commitment to play; and are proficient with the system. This sort of job-like process is anathema to my social leisure time.

    A GM that treats the player first, rather than the character sheet, can avoid the scenarios that demonstrate the No Hope, No Choice, and No Warning problems you identify. The No Retreat problem is to overcome with for experience, IMHO. Not everyone has read Sun Tzu after all. This will cure itself over time unless the players find creating new stagnant (or “static” on paper) characters the fun of RPG.

  8. the only module I ever had no retreat issues with was Pyramid of Shadow which locked the players in an extra dimensional prison there by isolating the players from any outside resources, vendors: Equipment, Potions Etc…

  9. Recent example of this was one of the new season 6 Pathfinder Society scenarios designed to introduce you to the new technological terrors prevalent in this season. With a 1st-2nd level party, put the group up against a robot with hardness 10, and only one realistic way for most parties to even damage it (a “convenient” adamantine dagger). Unless you have specific types of characters, that’s a no hope/no win situation in most instances.

    Next character, Kobiyashi Maru.

  10. The world is unfair from time to time. If your players are pure simulationists they will want to have unfair (but believable, internally consistent and verisimilitudinous) encounters from time to time.

    Most players are not pure simulationists.

  11. I’ve suffered from all of these scenario’s in the past, and indeed been guilty of them myself when I was learning the DM’s art. I know there are some here that argue that options always exist, and that it’s up to the players to find them, but having both sides of things I would suggest that it is up to the GM to ensure that these options not only exist, but are also ‘visible’ to the players, generally by being properly described to the party.

    More than once I’ve been the victim of a dreadful trap puzzle the DM insisted was easy to solve. Needless to say, each time it is very easy – if you know the answer. When you’re on stone platforms, too far away from the only apparent way of escape from the lava rising up around you, taking smoke and heat damage each turn, it isn’t actually obvious that the lever you need to pull to create some more platforms to reach the escape route is on the underside of the platform you’re standing on. It is never described that there is even an ‘underside’ to examine, even to players who looked down to see what’s there. The BBEG who apparently created this trap can neither fly nor has immunity to fire damage, so why would he ever put it there anyway?

    Oh, and by the way Creighton, the roc you gave in an example is now an adult white dragon. To complete the story for the majority of people who aren’t familiar with the story, this was a wandering monster encounter. Only a single spot check (this was 3.5) was allowed to see the attack coming, and the player was never given the opportunity to scream for help, or to escape from the grab. Without any opportunity to take action, the player was carried away several miles distant, dropped, and then breathed on until he died. And was then eaten, with all of his gear added to the dragons hoard. All because of a single failed spot check…

    And someone argued that this might be in any way fair?!?

  12. you never address in this article why it’s good to be fair or bad to be unfair. as long as you’re telling an interesting story and it fits into the context of the world i don’t think ‘fair’ is something that really enters into roleplaying or stoytelling at all…

    • Interesting story come out of cooperation with players. The death(s) involved may indeed advance the story and create an interesting story for the GM, but what of the players?

      Are they willing? Is it meaningful? Does it advance the players sense of achievement?

      Most players I know would rather never have a character die, but it were to happen they want it to be meaningful. To be a hero and to die badly is no death at all and just a waste.

  13. My least favorite type of “Unfair” encounter includes one or more of the following:

    1) A “Legion of Doom” encounter, where a bunch of enemies that have no business being together form an enemy party because each monster has some sort of thing that is specifically geared to defeat a specific PC, and then, for no clear reason, the enemies happen to know just who to go after. The enemy intel and composition should at least make _some_ sense! Plus, there should be some clues as to why such enemies might be working together and a chance to find out that information via social skills and intel gathering on the part of the PCs, especially if they’ve dumped a fair bit of points in those kinds of skills and feats instead of raw combat might. This is also really bad if the party isn’t heavily optimized and the enemy party is!

    2) No Resources (a variation on the “No Choice” example above)- this is where the clock is ticking and therefore the party has no chance to rearm, resupply, or craft much of anything, yet the encounter specifically requires items the party just doesn’t have available (and/ or have no way of knowing they needed until after the fact). They might if they had a chance to resupply, but for whatever reason (trapped far behind enemy lines or the massive villain invasion happens tomorrow at moon-rise or whatnot) the players aren’t given that chance. This especially stinks if one or more members of the party spent some of their valuable skill points on crafting skills! I mean, I am okay if it’s meant to be a challenge and it is supposed to deplete the PCs resources some, but don’t build an encounter around specific spells, potions, or things like alchemist’s fire, then give the party no chance to obtain such items and/ or no time to make them, especially if earlier encounters were also designed for depleting those same resources.

    • You touch on optimisation in your comment. I hate optimisation–mainly because I think it’s pretty pointless in home games (which are the only kind I play). So you optimise your character. The GM optimises his monsters. You then make your character even better. The GM then makes his monsters even better. It’s pointless. Just relax and have fun!

      Rant over.

  14. I have been in all these scenarios, but the most common I’ve seen is the No Hope scenario. Many GM’s put together an encounter several CR’s above the party’s powers. After asking my last GM why he would always deplete all of our resources in the first encounter, he told us that otherwise it wouldn’t have been an interesting challenge. So it continued, until I decided to GM for a while and came up with the idea of challenging the party with CR equal or under of that of the party. My creatures used terrain and tactics, and I’ve put them under hard times even with a CR 1 to 3 levels below of them. This requires more tinkering around the encounters. My previous GM told me it was fun, but could never put it to practice and continued to use overpowered creatures. I left the group.

  15. I would suggest there is also an ‘unfair adventure’.

    It has elements of several of the unfair encounters, but the big determinant to me is that there is no more than one way through. It doesn’t matter to me how balanced the encounters are, I feel robbed when I have to follow a script to get through. It’s even worse when not only is the route planned, but the outcome of various incidents along the way.

  16. I’ve seen all four, and all combinations of all four. The party, with lanterns lit, descending into the tunnel flooded with methane. (No warning) The group of four 5th level characters, with the able assistance of a dozen 2nd level NPCs – no magic items in the party at all, not even potions – vs a full grown purple worm. (No hope) The party of six 3rd level characters, no magic items at all, vs a party of levelled quicklings. (No retreat, PLUS No hope) And my personal fave, party of seventh level adventurers, brewed, out of everything, the wiz (my char) w no spells left at all, spellbook gone (cast every offensive spell I had out of it after running out of spells-per-day) coming out of the dungeon, loaded up with literally everything the party can carry because there is nowhere to rest in there, the GM having started the session whining about how much stuff we were bringing back – vs the ancient red dragon who just happened to be overflying the area. dragonfear hits, we literally cannot make the save – drop everything, run back into certain death. Yeah, good times. NOT.

  17. I just realized something else, though: sometimes unfair is the point.

    Even setting aside Call of Cthulhu, which is totally about the unfair and uncaring universe, and Paranoia, which dooms everyone out of amusement, consider DCC funnels.

    Each player starts with three or four fledging PCs with no real hope. You have no skills. You might be armed with a bucket and a pruning fork. You have d4 hit points. If you’re lucky you have a cow as a ‘trade good’ (which is incidentally tougher than any several PCs you might point at and is wonderful at drawing fire so you don’t have to). These proto-adventurers get used up quickly, to the point you might be fortunate to have enough left at the end of the adventure to make one per player a first-level character.

    And honestly? As much as DCC has some good stuff later, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t find this to be some of the most fun of a DCC campaign.

  18. I once had a werewolf scenario in a city based adventure when the party was level 1. My thought was that the party would discover it’s existence, prepare a suitable response and set a trap for it or possibly just report to the authorities if they really didn’t feel capable. Unfortunately the first time they set eyes on it was just two characters in a farmhouse seeing it prowling about the hen-house outside. One player decided that as it hadn’t seen the duo they could get it in surprise and leaped to the attack. Both characters quickly died and the initiating player began to berate me for killing his character with an invincible foe. I responded to him “if you knew it was invincible and it hadn’t seen you why did you attack it?” The player was utterly dumbfounded, he quickly admitted that he was so used to hack & slash adventures that the possibility of such a scene had never occurred to him but he had the maturity to accept that his death was of his own making on this occasion. The other player who lost her character is now my wife so I hope I am forgiven for that death 😉

  19. You missed the disobeying the laws of physics/fantasy convention. Falling rocks that magically move sideways or wild bears that show no fear of fire, indeed rush through the campfire to the rend the hapless adventurer limb from limb, or mythical creatures that don’t obey the world stereotype norms of behavior without warning. Bitter, no! Let’s just say the GMs are reminded of these lapses on a regular basis.

    On the other hand I do like the no warning to be part of the game. A secret perception roll so as not to alert the players to the encounter (bearing mind the above). I also like the mystery missing/presumed dead character as a plot device. Although, I think you would need to either do it to the NPC or give the player an NPC to play whilst their PC was trapped in a Roc nest or whatever.

  20. One time our party were sat in the corner of a room full of corrupt priests that didn’t realise we’d figured out how corrupt they were. I quietly advised the group that we should leave because one of these priests had attacked us elsewhere in the chapel and we’d killed him, and we should go before anyone realises because we’re horribly outnumbered.
    So when we got up to leave we were pushed back into the room and ordered to stay longer. We tried to insist, but so did they. Then we were conveniently placed in the middle of 20 or so enemies and told to roll initiative. We couldn’t get to the door because it was blocked by loads of priests, so when we smashed a window and climbed to escape the priests all conveniently pulled out crossbows that seemed to come from out their asses and started shooting at us.
    The whole encounter felt horrendously unfair, especially when our whole group rolled higher initiatives and when we announced we wanted to run past the priests and out the door we would take attacks of opportunity from them all despite it being the first round meaning they were flat footed and couldn’t do so because (in our DM’s words) ‘That rule is stupid’
    Needless to say, we weren’t very happy. We had no chance of winning that fight, no way to retreat and no way to avoid the fight in the first place. Fills 3 of your 4 types of unfair encounters.

  21. the worst ones are not from bad luck or the gm’s doing. when your own party members pick a fight that you shouldn’t win, those are the ones that annoy me.

  22. An example that I use of an unfair encounter is where you have three doors, one has nothing in front of it and the other two have chimeras, or bugbears or something that will cause the PCs to go to the first door. The reason being is that the DM wants you to go to the first door. No matter how hard you try you will not be able to get past doors two and three. Personally, I put it off to inexperience and lack of imagination myself, but I’ve seen it happen a few times, not necessarily verbatim like the example above but close to it…