Friday, 25 June 2010

Carnival: Unwinnable Encounters?

This post is part of a Blog Carnival, started by @ThadeousC. Please see the end for the rules and links to the other posts.

The question posed was whether it was allowable for a DM to put in encounters that forced the party to run away.  Essentially this means encounters that the party has no chance of overcoming; expressed in function of monsters that would take an incredibly improbably amount of luck to kill before they killed the party.  This is a slight rewording as it is mathematically possible for any party to survive any encounter, as the party could roll critical hits every attack and the monsters could either fail to hit or do so little damage as to be healable during the encounter.  Of course, this is much like New Zealand's chances were of winning the World Cup: any encounter over 8 levels higher than the party level is highly likely to be a TPK (total party kill).

There has been a great deal of debate on these points, to which I add my own thoughts.  To summarise, I am strongly against putting in unwinnable encounters that are not obviously a death trap, and do not have an obvious way to avoid them.  This is for three reasons:
  • The idea of a social contract at the heart of the game
  • That the question can be reduced to the issue of character death
  • And that the question is a symptom of the issue of free will

Social Contract

I strongly believe that the basis of any enjoyable tabletop roleplaying game is an implicit social contract between the players and the DM. The players tacitly agree not to do things to intentionally make the game unenjoyable or act in such a way as to make it impossible to continue to play.  For example, players that kill other characters, act in essentially random ways, try to break the flow of the story at every turn, or otherwise are disruptive in or out of character are in breach of the social contract.  Most DMs would be extremely displeased with players that behaved in this way.

The DM's side of the contract is the same as the players'. They should not act to intentionally make the game unenjoyable, and should not act in such a way that makes it impossible to continue to play the game.  Assuming that it is unenjoyable to have your character killed by an impossible-to-beat foe, then the DM should not do that. Equally, it is impossible or at least very hard to continue after killing every single character in the game, and this should thus be avoided.

If you agree with the premise of the social contract, it seems that the answer is very plain that DMs should never put in encounters that cannot be beaten.  However, so long as the encounter is obviously unable to be beaten, and there is a way to avoid the situation while still acting in an in character fashion and advancing rather than destroying the story, then this can be enjoyable and the game can continue.  Hence the two are not mutually exclusive, so long as those two conditions hold.

Character Death

The reason that the question has generated so much attention is that is a derivative of the most perplexing issue in roleplaying: character death.  The question can be reduced, in essence, to whether or not the DM should kill characters.  If the encounter is designed to be unwinnable, then the characters will certainly die... unless the players can see that it is unwinnable and can escape without compromising their in character personae.

My view is that characters should be only killed when the player makes it unavoidable through stupidity, and conversely that characters should not be killed due to bad dice rolls, if possible.  This is consistent with the conditions above, as if the players ignore the obviously unwinnable nature, then their own complete stupidity caused the outcome.

However this means that the overpowering difficulty needs to be as obvious as possible, as players can be distracted or simply not be thinking about the plot in the same way as the DM who knows all the variables.  Is it bravado on the part of the monster, or is it really going to kill and eat them all?  Are those bones everywhere the bones of previous, higher level adventurers or is it just a cool setting?  Is this a big young dragon, or a small ancient wyrm lord?

As the party may still not notice the difficulty after all of the clues, there must be a way for them to escape once it becomes obvious that they will otherwise all die.  The monster thus cannot move faster than them or have better modes of movement, must be somehow unable to chase them, or have some very good reason to not chase them.  Simply letting the party get away is not sufficient, this leaves a very bitter taste and looks like the DM is toying with them, as this is how the DM's monster is behaving.

There must also be a way planned in advance for the party to recover dead or unconcious party members.  Character death in this case is bad, especially if you agree with the social contract, but complete character loss because the corpse could not be recovered is much much worse.

If, given all of this information and the possibility to escape without permanently losing characters, the party decides to continue to the inevitably bitter end, then they are either throwing away the social contract out of frustration, or incredibly stupid and deserve to be rolling up new, hopefully smarter, characters.

Unless you belive that the DM should never kill characters, this means that a well designed overpowering encounter is still possible. However the stress must be on the design aspects; it is not sufficient to simply throw in a super monster and expect everything to come out for the best.  3rd ed players may remember a certain Roper encounter, in which the low level party should NOT attack the monster, instead skirt around it ... however the map was drawn incorrectly meaning that there wasn't a way to avoid it, nor any reason for unknowledgable characters or players to do so.

Free Will

Finally, the issue can be thought of in terms of free will.

As a philosophical primer, determinism is the idea that every action is caused by prior actions and conditions.  That every action is the effect or some prior cause, and hence there cannot be free will as one action leads inevitably to the next, which leads to the next, ad infinitum.  For more information, the  Wikipedia and Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy pages on the subject are very informative.

The reason that players do not like being railroaded into a particular course of action is that the DM is enforcing the most rigid definition of Determinism, when there are obviously other factors that mean the characters should have more free will to behave differently.  No one, in game or in real life, likes to believe that they do not have free will, and railroading is shoving unwarranted determinism in the faces of the players.

This is compounded by the fact that character determinism is demonstrably false.  There are always at least two outside factors that affect the choices and behaviour of characters: the player and the dice.  The player has knowledge and experience that the character does not have, and will bring this to bear, especially on unwinnable encounters. And the converse is true, even the most immersive player cannot really know how a character would act in any situations. Secondly, failing a skill check or attack roll due to the inherent randomness of the system is something that defeats a deterministic world view.  These actions should be predictable, yet are not even if complete knowledge of the state of the world was available.

Complete free will is also antithetical in the roleplaying context, as it is a breach of the social contract, or detracts from the story if you prefer to think of it in that way.  Complete free will would be the ability to make a decision or take an action with no causal factors.  Essentially this is acting randomly which will make the game meaningless.

So by playing in the game, the social contract allows for some free will, but not complete free will.  By enforcing a lack of free will the DM is in breach, but the player is in breach by taking the opposite extreme.

The Sandbox style of running is, in my opinion, the answer to this question, and can be thought of as Soft Determinism or Compatibilism. Players who are enjoying the game and have sufficient information about the situation will trend towards predictability.  This is part of the social contract -- that the players will not actively disrupt the game.  If there are reasonable and obvious next steps, they will normally be taken.

To then apply this to the question, we have the same position as the previous approaches.  If there is sufficient information for the players to make a good decision, then they likely will, and at the same time will continue to believe that they have as much free will as ever within the context of the game.  The same way that the party makes the decision to attack the evil, and killable, monsters, they will make the decision to escape from the unkillable one.  They could stay until the end, but they made the choice not to.

The free will issue is the most likely to generate breaches of the social contract, as the players will become quickly frustrated that their actions have no bearing on the game, and they have only one option remaining: mass suicide.  A particularly horrific adventure in the Deadlands setting was published in the box set for The City of Lost Angels.  To cut a terrible story short, the climax of the adventure had no less than three NPCs who were so powerful as to not have published statistics.  The writers obviously believed that the players would recognise them from background to the setting, and run away.  Our characters however had no idea who high priest was, or that the demon in the cathedral would be eating our souls for breakfast given half a chance.  So on then running into the baddest bad ass in the setting, Stone, we decided that the GM was already in breach of the social contract and that the best resolution was to continue to attack the unkillable, undead, magical gunslinger until every. last. character. had fanned their last hammer.

If you put in unwinnable situations, at least Don't Be That DM.

Carnival Rules and Posts
  1. Your post must be on topic.
  2. If you wish to participate in this blog carnival, please post a comment saying so and you will have 24 hours to write and post your response.
  3. You must add a link to all of the previous authors carnival posts at the end of your post.
  4. Be respectful.  No name calling.
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  1. Great Insights - I like the philosophical tone that you placed on the topic. Great contribution to the blog carnival!


  2. Thanks Sam :) Have to put that humanities PhD to some use ;)

  3. RAD BLOG!!!111!

    Player's will not run. You're only going to kill all of them. Gauging the difficulty level of an encounter is not a mechanic in DnD, thus there's no reason to expect the players to run. Actually, the one thing the game does assume is that the players'll not run from adventure.

  4. Your blog's going on my RSS feed!

  5. Thanks Trey :) Monster knowledge checks can be used to find out information about the creatures, including approximate level I guess. But agreed that it's very much not in recent D&D culture to run away from a fight, which amounts to refusing XP.

  6. As the Monster Knowledge check rule reads, they do not allow the PCs to know the level of the monster.

    Simply, PCs should never come upon an unbeatable challenge.

    If the DM is looking to create a scene where the PCs are running away, the key is in framing the conflict with in the scene. The DM should say flat out, I want the next scene to be a chase scene. If no one objects, frame the scene and ask for some skill checks. No need to waste everyone's time by rolling up some high level monster and killing everyone.


    All that said, there are ways to gauge power in the narrative. Say the party just took on monster A, and it almost killed the party. Now they want to go to the next room where there's four of monster A. I feel that's a sad way to play.

  7. I don't agree with your opinion that players should be killed only through stupidity. Heroic sacrifice against impossible odds is a common feature in the heroic stories D&D and other RPGs recreate so that option should be there if you are creating an unwinable situation.

    It also touches on your issue of free will and railroads. If staying to fight an unwinable fight seems pointless in that all that will happen is you will die then their really is no option but to run away. If however staying to fight will win enough time for X to happen, or allow many more civilians to get to safety. Then the player has a real choice, run and keep his character or stay and die a heroes death.

    We played a Star Trek adventure once where the final mission of the campaign was billed as likely suicide mission into Borg Space, volunteers only. All but one of the characters agreed to go. That one character survived, reassigned to another ship before the mission even started. The player was given an NPC to play for that adventure. The rest we don't know, last that was heard of them they were about to collapse a wormhole to the Alpha quadrant to stop a Borg cube getting through. It was assumed the ship was lost with all hands.

    I agree character death from bad dice rolls isn't particularly fun, but neither is no death. Giving the player the opportunity to select the time of a characters death and giving that death meaning, can I think be more enjoyable than just having an adventure end with the character 'retiring' or his story not being finished because the campaign collapses for one reason or another.

  8. David, I agree with you on most of your points.

    THEY DIED WITH HONOR! love it.

    If there's an encounter in the game that's unwindable, it should not be presented as a challenge- for obvious reasons- but an axiom every player takes about the game. It should be a mechanic in the game, like COC's 1d4 investigators die.

  9. Dave,

    Good point! Yes, it should be possible to have a heroic and meaningful death when that is the choice of the player/character. Especially in Cthulhu, buying time is an incredibly important factor for the survival of other characters, or even the world.

    Let me rephrase my character death discussion to:

    Characters should only be killed through stupidity or willingness to die, rather than unlucky dice rolls.

  10. Inspired by your post to add to the carnival. See

  11. Trey, I'm not looking to get in an argument but I always try to avoid absolutes. Saying something should never happen is a really good way to lock out many fun options. My players ran last night in the face of an oncoming army of undead. They ended up in a really fun encounter and we all had a great time. If I NEVER put my players in a situation like that the fun we had that night would not have happened.

    I think part of being a good DM is trying not to say things like no and never, or at least trying to say them less.