Setting The PCs Up To Fail

June 23, 2010

Initially, I wasn’t going to get involved in this whole blog carnival folderol. Sure, it seemed like a fun idea at first. But I quickly realized that (a) it is not in my nature to engage in polite debate when a screaming rant is an option and (b) I really wasn’t sure that I had anything worth saying. And yet, here I am and I will try to be civil.

Basically, the whole thing began when ThadeousC (writer of “This Is My Game“, a very enjoyable D&D 4E blog and also just a generally fun guy to follow on Twitter) made the following observation on Twitter: “In OD&D running from monsters is often a valid option over fighting, does it ever happen in your 4e game?” In the ensuing discussion, it became clear that the real question was whether or not DMs felt it was appropriate to put encounters into their game so far above the PCs levels that the only valid tactical option was to flee lest your PC get a tour of the digestive tract of a very disgruntled aberration ten levels their senior. Lines were immediately drawn, people took up banners, and there was much bloodshed on Twitter that day.

Well, not really. Instead, a spirited debate ensued that ultimately ended with the realization that a debate at 140 characters a pop was not really going to cut it. Thus began the blog carnival. Since ThadeousC originally posted a defense of his position, several others have weighed in and the topic has broadened into a discussion of campaign styles and realism in the gaming world. Now, I am not going to rehash all of the points that have been made and I’m really not interested in a debate about sandbox style play vs. safety rails style play because, as far as I’m concerned, that’s all subjective. No one style is superior and as long as your players keep coming back for more, you’re doing it right. Instead, I want to defend the opinion I voiced on Twitter and respond more directly to ThadeousC.

But first, the rules, as originally laid out by ThadeousC:

  1. Your post must be on topic.
  2. The first person in the list of bloggers who are participating who replies to each post will be responsible for writing the next piece. (Don’t reply if you are not ready to write it with in the next 24 hours.)
  3. You must ad a link to all of the previous authors carnival posts at the end of your post.
  4. No name calling.

Second, check out the original post by ThadeousC: Never Fear: Sandbox vs. Safety Rails.

Just to be clear, I am only tackling a very narrow question: if the campaign allows the PCs enough freedom to choose where to go and what to do, should the DM allow the party to end up in a hopeless situation where victory is simply not possible or is he required to ensure that the party only faces things they can beat? And just to give some definition, we’ll use a more solid hypothetical example:

You, as the DM, have spent weeks working on your new campaign. The campaign begins in the Valley of Tir’Hero’ic. There is a nice big city in the middle to serve as a home base and there are encounter areas and plot hooks scattered all over the map. The Valley contains enough adventure to get the party up to 11th level, but you aren’t going to guide the party through the valley. Instead, you will make sure that they know about at least a few of the adventure sites and they have a map of the valley. Some of the sites will have clues to further adventure sites. For the most part, though, the party is self-guided.

So, first night of the campaign, you present the party with the setting and set up a few of the hooks. But, the party doesn’t take any of the hooks. Instead, they look at the Cave of the Beast With A Dozen Levels and decide they want to explore that. Unfortunately, The Beast With a Dozen Levels is a level 10 solo (he lies about his levels because he is insecure) at the center of a level 10 swamp cave filled with trogoldytes and death traps. The first level party is going to be toast if they go there.

At this point, you (the hypothetical DM) have three options. You can run the cave as written and hope your party is smart enough to run away before they die. You can call for a bathroom break and hastily rewrite the cave under the assumption that The Beast With a Dozen Levels is actually a kobold carpenter-cultist who believes that when the world’s shelves are balanced, the world will be balanced as well and he has all of the tools he needs to bring about his dream. Or you can tell the party: “no, you’re going to die.”

Now, I personally feel that the best choice is “none of the above” because I simply don’t design my campaigns this way. And I don’t design my campaigns precisely because of this problem. But if you forced me to choose, I would choose the rewrite. Let me explain why.

The third option is obviously just a bad choice. As soon as you do this, you are negating the whole point of all that freedom you tried to bring to the game. You might as well have not even labeled the lair on the map if you’re just going to tell the party “no, you’re going to die.”

So, let’s assume you go with the first choice. Of course, you ask the party if they are sure. You drop clues along the way that tell the party that this is a bad idea. People living in the vicinity of the cave warn them about the previous adventurers who have died there. Outside of the cave, they find an adventurer’s journal and the last entry reads “boy, were we stupid to venture into that cave instead of getting up to at least level eight first.”  And so on.

At this point, the party might take the hint. They might just turn around and pick some other adventure, something they can take on. But this is really no different than telling the party “no, you can’t.” Sure, you hid it in the narrative and the flavor of the world, but it amounts to the same thing. And then you are right back to the question of why you bothered to give the party the freedom to choose anyway.

But, more importantly, you’ve lost something: time. You’ve wasted an hour of the game session not having fun, not on an adventure, but wandering through increasingly insistent warnings that they are going the wrong way.

Now, let’s suppose your party is particularly dense and they don’t heed the warnings. They storm brazenly into the cave and into the first encounter: a level eight guard post of stinking trogolodytes. At this point, I could run through the same scenario: you try to warn the party about how fierce and terrible the trogolodytes are and how outmatched they know they are. You can be their inner voice of reason. But, its still the same song and the same result: you’re trying to tell the party no.

If the party insists on fighting, its going to be a disaster. That much is a given. Hopefully, it will only take a round or two before they realize they have to run. Even in that span of time, someone could end up very dead and their body may not be recoverable. At low levels, there aren’t too many options to undo dead anyway. And, if they try to stick it out too long, they could all end up dead.  TPK.

The end result is this: either you manage to finally tell the party “no” and they listen or they end up dead. In the meanwhile, the party has just spent an entire session learning that if they go the wrong way or wander into the wrong area, they are going to die. Either way, the truth is laid bare: all of the freedom you tried to give them was an illusion. They really can’t go anywhere or do anything. They can go only to the places you’ve designed for them to tackle. And you can console yourself by saying its their own damned fault for not realizing the world has monsters stronger than them and they should have paid attention, but it doesn’t matter much at that point. They’ve learned the hard way that your campaign doesn’t have any safety rails, but it does have rails. And they may resent you for what looks like a setup.

After that, your players will learn to stop ignoring your warnings. They will respect the world and they won’t wander too far afield. Assuming they’ve learned their lesson, they will only take the hooks you give them and they will carefully assess the power level of each adversary before they take on a mission. At that point, the game world is leveling with the party, just as it would in a so-called “safety rails” campaign. The only difference is that the party could still make a mistake at some point and end up running for their lives again.

I hope that no one takes this to be a perjorative. I have nothing against a campaign with rails. Most campaigns have them: its almost impossible not to short of improvising every second of the game. I’m just saying that the moment you choose not to adapt the game to the players’ whims, you’re just hiding the rails. Except that, if the party ever does wander off the rails, you are forced to remind them that they are there. I would argue that there is less of an illusion of choice in this sort of game precisely because the rails occasionally rise up out of the background and attack the players.

That being said, there is absolutely nothing inherently wrong with this style of play. I’ve played the older editions, I remember exactly this sort of thing coming up, particularly whenever we tried to descend a set of stairs in a Basic D&D dungeon crawl. Assuming your players go along with it and that they understand the game you’re running, it is a perfectly valid play style. The only time it becomes wrong is when you are running your game this way in spite of your players.

Speaking as an occasional player, though, if the situation I described came up in a game, I’m not sure I’d enjoy it. Wasting a session of game play on discovering that I really don’t have as much freedom as I was promised and being forced to run away from a too-powerful monster? That’s not fun. My time is valuable, my gaming time especially so. I don’t like it being wasted on an object lesson about respecting the world and going where I’m told to go.

I don’t think I am in the minority here. I say that because of the behavior I’ve observed in players over twenty years of gaming: there is nothing harder than getting the party to run away, even when they are getting their asses handed to them. They just don’t do it. Even back in Basic and 2nd Edition, players in my groups always hung around well past the point when an ordered retreat was possible. Just two weeks ago, I watched the two survivors of a difficult (but level appropriate) battle get slaughtered because they refused to run. The fact that very few players seem to view retreat as a viable tactic suggests to me that, just like me, most people don’t want to run away. They’d rather go down swinging because that’s the action hero way. Fleeing isn’t fun. If you find that your players are very reluctant to run away, even when all signs say they should, you should ask yourself why you are so intent on making them do something they don’t want to do.

Now, speaking from a DMs perspective, the style of game I described is time consuming to write. At the very least, you need to create enough information about the local region to decide what the party runs into in any direction. It is far easier to string adventures together as you go along or write a vague plan and come up with adventures to stay just ahead of the players. If I am going to invest that design time, I need to know that I’m adding something to the game. Unfortunately, here, I don’t see the gain.

Some have said it is a more realistic approach; that it dispels the myth that the world levels with the characters. Well, I question even that. Because in my world, my PCs know that there are creatures more powerful than them. The world does not level with my PCs and I don’t have to prove it to them. And frankly, I’m still hazy on the notion of realism as a desirable goal. That’s a whole different post though.

Some have pointed out that this style of play more closely models literature and movies. It is true that in the typical movie, the heroes often lose battles many times and evade the bad guys at least a few times before they finally manage to win. But, again, I’m not sure whether that is a good model for a D&D game. The dirty little secret about books like the Lord of the Rings Trilogy is that nothing is uncertain. Everything will happen exactly as it is designed to. Nothing happens by chance. Everything leads to the ending and every character behaves exactly the way they are scripted. The heroes will win if they are supposed to. And, in most media, they do.

D&D just isn’t like that. There is no preordained story and failure is an option. So is death. The random chance and the rules of the game see to that. A first level party is perfectly capable of losing to a first level encounter through a combination of bad luck and poor decisions. In a movie, the protagonists need to fail a few times to create dramatic tension, so that we believe that victory really isn’t assured or, at least, we become more interested in the question of how they will win than whether they will win. In D&D, the tension comes from random chance and uncertainty.

Finally, some have said that this style of play gives the PCs something to shoot for. They become much more invested in defeating a foe if they have lost to a foe first. While I will admit that this is true, this style isn’t the only way to acheive that. For one thing, the party will occasionally lose to a foe on their own without any help from you. It might not be in combat, of course. The foe might simply complete some nefarious scheme that the party failed to stop.

And again, once the party has learned to respect the hidden rails in the game, they will do everything they can to ensure they don’t take on a more powerful foe until they are ready. Which means that, except for the first mistake when the party learns, they won’t engage superior foes so the possibility of creating that drive is lost in fear of the world.

At the end of the day, I hope no one takes this as an attack against someone else’s gaming style. And I further hope that my humor style doesn’t make it appear as if I am poking fun at any style of play. Like ThadeousC, who wanted to defend his stance on Twitter, I want to defend mine. And my stance is only that I don’t see the benefits of this style of play, but I fear the costs. Ultimately, though, I have to admit that it doesn’t matter. Once the party has learned the lesson, the question probably won’t come up again, unless the PCs are particularly dense. And the game will go on.

Other Blog Carnival Posts

Never Fear: Sandbox vs. Safety Rails by ThadeousC
Taking the Safety Padding Away from D&D4E by WolfSamurai
Sandbox vs. Safety Rails by Obsidian Crane
Safety Padding or Just an Illusion by dkarr
D&D: Sandbox vs. Safety Rails by Adam Dray
Know When to Fold’em by Tracy H.
Sandbox vs. Safety Rails: A Mini Blog Carnival by Deadorcs
Blog Carnival: Deliberately Overpowered Encounters by Brian Engard
As the World Scales by NewbieDM
Overpowered Sandboxes and Just-Right Rails by DM Samuel

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27 Responses to Setting The PCs Up To Fail

  1. ThadeousC on June 24, 2010 at 12:52 am

    First I have to say this is a really well written response. It is also very funny. I enjoy the weaving of humor into your points. I think many if not all of your points are valid, as are mine, to a degree. I guess what it all really comes down to is the group. Does the group want the option to fail in other ways than just losing to a level appropriate encounter? Do they feel that losing isn’t in some way fun and only winning is? Do they feel tasked when they have spent time searching only to come to a dead end? I have in some groups felt like dead ends ruined a whole night of play, while in others an amazing amount of fun was had even if no progress was actually made. A good DM would look at both of our sides then look at his/her group and decide whats best from there.

    Again great post!

  2. […] Setting up the player to fail by The Angry DM […]

  3. justaguy on June 24, 2010 at 1:06 am

    Not to post a “Me too!” style post but… I wanted to say that your post is awesome. You pretty well cover my thoughts on the matter, as I’ve often found the “Realistic Sandbox” argument as something that falls flat for me.

  4. Rob Sanderson on June 25, 2010 at 11:16 am
  5. Beneath the Raven’s Wing on June 28, 2010 at 5:14 pm

    […] Engard As the World Scales by NewbieDM Overpowered Sandboxes and Just-Right Rails by DM Samuel Setting The PCs Up to Fail by the Angry DM Sandbox v Safety Rails by Colmarr Unwinnable Encounters by […]

  6. Alexander on July 21, 2010 at 5:56 pm

    Hello, I thought your post was a cogent response against sandboxes, but I think you don’t fully prove your point on a few areas:

    “At this point, the party might take the hint. They might just turn around and pick some other adventure, something they can take on. But this is really no different than telling the party “no, you can’t.” Sure, you hid it in the narrative and the flavor of the world, but it amounts to the same thing. And then you are right back to the question of why you bothered to give the party the freedom to choose anyway.”

    Telling the party they can NOT do something and allowing them to discover that doing something is a bad idea seem to me to be entirely different things. One is compulsory and the other is advisory.

    “But, more importantly, you’ve lost something: time. You’ve wasted an hour of the game session not having fun, not on an adventure, but wandering through increasingly insistent warnings that they are going the wrong way.”

    If you start with the assumption that gameplay = level-appropriate encounters, sure. But that’s a false assumption for a sandbox. It falsely assumes that exploration, interacting with NPCs, and learning about the world is not “fun” and not part of the game. In our sandbox campaign, we call those things reconaissance” and they are part of the game. Time spent learning the challenge level of an area is not time wasted at all.

    “The end result is this: either you manage to finally tell the party “no” and they listen or they end up dead. In the meanwhile, the party has just spent an entire session learning that if they go the wrong way or wander into the wrong area, they are going to die. Either way, the truth is laid bare: all of the freedom you tried to give them was an illusion.”

    If exercising freedom leads to death, that doesn’t mean the freedom was an illusion, it means it was used to make poor choices. Indeed, I’d respond that the freedom to fail and die is the most important freedom of all. The possibility of dying from your bad choices demonstrates that the PC’s freedom was real and not illusionary. I have written on this topic at length, more than I can share here, but see

    Cheers and thanks for writing a cogent piece. Hopefully I’ve given you equal food for thought.

  7. The Angry DM on July 21, 2010 at 9:26 pm

    Alexander, thank you for taking the time to post your response and to provide a link to your excellent column. While I have been a fan of some of the Escapist’s features and columns, I was not aware of yours. I look forward to becoming a regular reader.

    Before I respond to your comment, I’d like to be clear that this article was written as a rebuttal to @ThadousC’s excellent post and I encourage you to follow the link to his site and to the others who have weighed in on this issue. Most importantly, I’d like to point out that this was a response to a very precise situation. This is not a condemnation of sandbox style play in general unless you feel that the sandbox style MUST include the possibility of blundering into a death trap.

    That being said, I think the situation speaks to a point you made in your article. You noted that the rules of the game provide a method by which players can assess situations and that the dice prevent the rules from creating “foregone conclusions.” It is important to avoid a foregone conclusion because it removes an important source of tension in the game (the chance to fail) as well as removing the ability of players to make meaningful choices in the game world.

    I very much agree with you that tension, a chance to fail, and the ability to make meaningful choices are important factors in whether or not the game is fun.

    The trouble with this particular situation (that of a cripplingly powerful combat encounter) is that it is actually a foregone conclusion. The question posed was whether a GM should create a situation in which victory is simply not possible and, if the party attempts to engage it in any way, they must retreat quickly or die. And I argue that, for most groups, this is not a fun situation for precisely the reasons that you argue against fudging dice in your piece.

    There truly is no choice involved because no player would choose to have their character to walk into a situation in which death was assured and there was no chance to succeed. And, keep in mind, that this specific situation is not one in which the party can acheive anything by way of a noble sacrifice. This is akin to the party throwing themselves into a volcano.

    Once you start arguing that a chance to fail is important to the game (and I agree – it is vital), it is equally important that the party be given a chance to succeed. This situation provides neither. If the party engages and dies, they haven’t really failed because there was no other possible outcome. Likewise, the situation provides no chance to succeed.

    You can argue, of course, that the party has a responsibility to gather intelligence to ensure they are making the best choices. Again, I don’t disagree. But the gathering of intelligence in this situation does nothing to turn this into a meaningful choice – it is the same non-choice (walk away or die).

    On the other hand, if the gathering of intelligence revealed a particular weakness of the beast, one which had any chance of success (even if it is very small) or revealed that the creature posed a danger to innocents and could not be ignored or revealed that a noble sacrifice could defeat the monster, then I would call it a meaningful choice and well worth the party’s time and consideration.

    But once again, I will assert that putting an unwinnable situation into your game and allowing the party to blunder into it (foolishly or not) is like putting up an electric fence. They will either blunder into it and die or they will see it coming and avoid it, but there is no real choice or tension involved in either outcome.

    And like you, I will end with the disclaimer that I don’t have any secret formula for the One True Way to Be a GM. Anything that people enjoy is just fine. The only thing I present here is the reasons why I don’t run my game this way.

  8. […] Setting up the player to fail by The Angry DM […]

  9. Justin Alexander on September 22, 2010 at 10:55 pm

    You’ve made a few poor assumptions here.

    (1) That the outcome of an encounter which is “too tough” is automatically death.

    It may not be. I’ve seen PCs get lucky; employ superior tactics; contact allies; and even raise entire armies in order to overcome opponents who are “too tough” for them. In my experience, these are the moment that make campaigns live in our memories. And you take those moments away if you carefully prepackage everything into child-proofed “level appropriate” packages.

    (2) That foes who are (a) too tough, (b) known to the PCs, and (c) have perhaps even kicked the PCs’ ass in the past serve no positive purpose in the campaign.

    In my experience, this isn’t true. These provide long-term goals for the campaign. And the villains that the players hate the most — the ones who they really, really, really want to destroy? They’re the ones who kicked their ass or who acted from positions of secure power while the PCs were forced to struggle with their minions.

    (You address this slightly and dismissively at the end, but ultimately it betrays the fact that you have no respect for the player’s ability to have any impact over the outcome of an encounter. If the encounter is statistically difficult, then there’s nothing the players can do to achieve that goal. This is a very limited and, IME, inaccurate view of how gaming can work.)

    (3) Defeat = Death.

    (4) PC Death = Unforgivable sin that must be avoided at all costs.

    (‘Nuff said on those too, I think.)

    (5) That “freedom to make any choice” means that one should be free from the consequences of that choice.

    If you give the PCs a loaded pistol and say, “You’re free to do whatever you want with it.” And their response is to put it in the mouth and pull the trigger, the fact that they died as a result of shooting themselves in the head doesn’t meant they weren’t free to do it. Quite the opposite in fact.

    I also think it’s disingenuous to say, “You’re free to go anywhere and do anything you want… but I’m going to simply rewrite the material wherever you go until you’re doing something that I feel is appropriate.” That’s not actually freedom. That’s the definition of an invisible railroad.

    Re: Viability of retreat in general. OD&D had actual rules for governing the success or failure of retreat tactics. (Things like, “If the PCs try to distract the monsters by dropping food or treasure, here’s the percentile chance that it works.”) I think this plays a large role in why retreat seems to be considered a more viable option in OD&D: Without rules governing the process, resorting to retreat in later editions is effectively throwing yourself prostrate on the altar of GM Fiat. The player has to sacrifice their control over the situation and rely on the GM to decide whether they live or die.

    And players really, really, really hate to lose control over their characters.

  10. The Angry DM on September 24, 2010 at 11:03 pm

    Justin, thanks for coming back.

    First of all, I’d like to remind you that my assumptions are not my own. Rather, this was a response to a specific question posed by a fellow blogger and friend. The question was, as I noted, whether a DM should rewrite or run as written an encounter in which defeat is assured. My response is based on that assumption.

    As for the question of whether defeat equals death, realistically speaking, in a combat encounter run under fair 4th Edition rules as written, assuming the encounter is so powerful compared to the PCs that victory is impossible, death for some or all of the PCs is a very likely outcome. I did specifically note in my last response that the moment you offer any possibility of a victory, it changes the situation and my opinion, but that’s outside the scope of this response.

    While I appreciate your points and certainly think they are valid points, ultimately, you’re ignoring the context and I apologize if I made that unclear. However, I really have nothing further to add in defense of my stance because, as I also noted, this specific debate (and the many different ways it can be approached based on player and DM expectations) is one of the reasons why I don’t struture my campaigns like this at all. So, I really can’t discuss any of the larger style issues. I can only clarify my response given within this specific context.

  11. Toastgoblin on October 5, 2010 at 1:42 am

    Hi Angry,
    I can see where you’re coming from, and I’m not saying I wouldn’t do the same if I felt the situation called for it. However, I don’t entirely agree with your analysis. This paragraph is what particularly jumped out at me:

    The end result is this: either you manage to finally tell the party “no” and they listen or they end up dead. In the meanwhile, the party has just spent an entire session learning that if they go the wrong way or wander into the wrong area, they are going to die. Either way, the truth is laid bare: all of the freedom you tried to give them was an illusion. They really can’t go anywhere or do anything. They can go only to the places you’ve designed for them to tackle. And you can console yourself by saying its their own damned fault for not realizing the world has monsters stronger than them and they should have paid attention, but it doesn’t matter much at that point. They’ve learned the hard way that your campaign doesn’t have any safety rails, but it does have rails. And they may resent you for what looks like a setup.

    Alexander’s covered most of it already, so I’m just going to tag on an example. A real person (call them a well-meaning citizen or a cop or whatever) might aim to tackle minor crime, or deal with some minor social issue in their town. There’s a reasonable chance they’ll succeed. That same person has no realistic chance of single-handedly bringing down a mafia boss or ending drug abuse in their country. Does that mean the real world is an invisible railroad? Well no, it means there’s some things you can’t do on your own with limited resources in real life, and it’s reasonable to assume that’s the same in-game too. I can theoretically go anywhere and do anything (limited only by law, money, time, competence etc.) but quite a lot of those things will get me horribly mangled. But you can know that those big challenges are out there, and sometimes a person decides to take on one of them and gather the resources they need, and maybe changes the world a bit.

    I’d say the important coda to that is, make it obvious what kind of challenge they’re facing and make sure they know it’s not a big safe level-appropriate playground. Apart from anything else, the PCs would know that some things are beyond them. If knowing all that, they still want to take on the dragon empress and her frost giant minions at 1st level, well, who am I to stop them? On the other hand, if the party manages to beat them at 1st level, what’s the point of playing into higher levels? So I’d go with letting them go, with all the probable incredulity of NPCs they meet, make sure the journey and exploration are interesting in themselves, and keep the exits clear. Fundamentally, it’s not hugely different from how I’d respond if they wanted to suddenly start smacking the king around in his own palace – it’s a blatantly bad idea and you will suffer for it, so don’t be daft. That’s not a setup – a setup would be letting them enter the lair of the Flu-stricken Kobold Bankers and be devoured by beholders.

    But I think it’s so bound up in norms of the campaign that there’s no one answer, to be honest.

  12. The Angry DM on October 5, 2010 at 8:17 pm

    Hello Toastgoblin,

    I really think this topic is being talked to death at this point, given the context, but there are a few points you raised that deserve to be addressed.

    Once again, remember, that the question I am answering (posed by another blogger) assumes that survival is not an option. If the party attempts to tackle the challenge, some or all of the PCs will end up dead.

    I do not accept the premise that campaign design should attempt to mirror real life. The real world has nothing to do with the structure of a campaign. In fact, in many ways, real life provides a very poor example of how to construct a narrative or a game. I admit that my argument does not apply to reality, but the same can be said for many things in a role-playing game.

    Several of the other folks involved in the original argument have raised the point that you have to allow the players the opportunity to inadvertantly wander to their deaths because it is realistic. To quote another blogger, the world should not level with the players because it is unrealistic. The assumption there is that nothing in the world exists until the DM writes it down and stats it up. And that’s just absurd.

    The fact that I do not stat out a cave of creatures so powerful they they will destroy my first level party does not mean such things do not exist in the world. Of course they do. The Monster Manual is filled with all sorts of powerful and terrible beasts that are roaming the world somewhere. The Nine Hells and the Abyss are chocked full of terrible infernal and demonic forces that would tear my first level party apart. These things exist in the world, whether the party wanders there or not.

    What it really comes down to is this: I consider my time (and that of my players) to be valuable. It is certainly not infinite. The idea of wasting five hours of a play session letting my players wander to their doom with no meaningful outcome is just a waste of time. It was a waste of my time when I statted the whole thing up knowing it would destroy the party and it is a waste of time playing it. And, for those players who have to generate new characters as a result, it is a further waste of time.

    I am not saying I don’t see the value of having things in the world that the party needs to build up to and, as was suggested, I am not suggesting that the PC’s defeat does not have value in the plot. What I am saying is that this particular scenario with no meaningful choice and no uncertainty in the outcome is just a waste of my time so that the party can learn that there are things stronger than them in the world and they aren’t protected from them by magical plot armor.

    And again, I will reiterate, the existence of things that the party can’t beat doesn’t really increase freedom at all. This style of play is no less restrictive than the much-maligned “safety rails.” Freedom – real freedom – is about being able to make meaningful choices and to alter the game world. There is no meaningful choice to be made in this scenario and there is no real change brought upon the game world other than the fact that some terribly deadly monsters have their hunger sated and a few PCs have departed the world.

  13. Toastgoblin on October 7, 2010 at 6:14 pm

    I’m not looking for a huge discussion either, so I’ll try to keep this brief. Generally speaking I agree with your points. I also don’t preplan campaigns that way, so I’m not advocating it so much as looking at the issues involved. And apologies if you feel my previous response was outside the confines of your post; it wasn’t deliberate.

    First, to clarify: I’m not trying to suggest that campaigns should mirror real life, just using real-life examples to argue that the existence of challenges outside your current ability is not a set of rails. Sorry if that wasn’t clear.

    I don’t support allowing PCs to stumble into arbitrary death, or pointless TPKs by misunderstanding, or timewasting. Nor do I think a GM needs to plan out the whole world and place all the challenges on it. However, if something powerful gets invented during the campaign (say, an ancient dragon up in the mountains) and the PCs then insist on starting a fight with it, it’s a bit trickier.

    Regarding the three choices, I think they’re a bit more complicated than that. Here’s why.

    As you said, if the Cave is just some ordinary adventure, warning the PCs off and wasting time just drains some fun. If it’s going to be a significant plot point, finding out how dangerous it is can be part of the plot arc and useful.

    On the third point, you aren’t restricted to “You’re going to die”. There’s also “If you try to do that like this right now you’re going to die”. Charging in headfirst isn’t always best, and this is just a broader case of strategy than usual. Optionally, you could turn this into part of an arc where they prepare for the mission and use sidequests to weaken the enemy first. At this point I’m basically merging the three options, though.

    The rewrite option really depends on the type of challenge. Some things you can literally scale down and call it rumour or exaggeration – how terrible IS the cave monster? Others you can cut down – there IS a huge bandit lair, but when you attacked they were mostly out banditing. And others are pretty much impossible to adjust, like the ancient dragon or the Demon King of Sum-Ware. If you’ve presented it honestly as an immense threat, probably because you didn’t expect them to fight it yet, deflating it could just weaken the game and devalue achievements all round.

    I think part of the problem here is, the Cave is (meta-gamingly) there for the PCs to explore. There are many things low-level PCs can’t do yet, like casting high-level spells or jumping safely from high mountains or attacking the king; but players probably won’t assume that they can do those. I’m not convinced that adding another thing to that list (defeating the Cave) impinges on their freedom in a different way. However, you do tend to assume that if you hear of an Adventure, and it’s within your physical reach, it’s something you can take on. Best not to create that situation, as you said.

    On to theory…

    On hidden rails: you said that warning the party off this time will lead to them assessing later missions for level-suitability, and they won’t tackle superior foes. Effectively, the world then levels with the party. I don’t believe this is significantly different from your option: not warning them off, and altering the level of the missions they choose, so the world effectively levels with the party. In either case, missions are level-appropriate, and the only exceptions are if you either conceal the true threat, or choose not to weaken a particular foe. In both cases, the GM basically controls the danger. The main difference is, in the first case the party has actual choice but physical limitations, whereas in the second, they have illusory choice but no real limitations.

    I don’t think the existence (in general) of things the party can’t beat increases their freedom; but I also don’t think it decreases it, just alters the circumstances in which that freedom can be exercised. But that’s different from making this specific adventure beatable or not.

    Also, I’m not entirely convinced that your concept of freedom is supported by rewriting the adventure so the players’ intention can be fulfilled. This will be an extreme example, but: what do you do if the players decide to take on the local despot or evil god with their low-level party? If you make it impossible, however indirectly, you’re basically saying “No”. If you give them a sporting chance with a rewrite, it’s really hard to explain that in character. It also risks turning meaningful choice into a string of arbitrary decisions: which ultimate evil shall we crush next? If there’s nothing you can’t do, doing it doesn’t mean much. But I appreciate that’s a way off the example you give here, it’s just a point of the theory.

    Finally, despite all that, I’d still do whatever seemed necessary to avert wasting all our time and ruining the fun.

  14. The Angry DM on October 7, 2010 at 6:28 pm

    Hey again, Toast.

    All that you wrote is valid and worth considering and that’s why I keep bringing up the limited scope of the question I was responding to when I wrote this. The situation can be very complicated and DMs can deal with it any number of ways. Any of us could write an entire book about campaign structure and the various pros and cons of each approach. I am glad to have sparked so much thought and discussion on the topic though.

  15. Toastgoblin on October 8, 2010 at 12:49 am

    agreed, and you’re probably right that it’s been talked to death now. I’d like to quickly apologise for going beyond the scope again towards the end there – I blame late nights and working for philosophers. Overall I would probably agree that in the exact example you posted, a rewrite is least likely to sap the life out of things. I’ll leave it at that.

  16. The Angry DM on October 8, 2010 at 7:03 pm

    Hey now, no need to apologize. You raised valid points (everyone here has) that I’m sure will be very helpful to DMs trying to answer such questions for themselves. I appreciate everyone who takes the time to read and respond.

  17. Sandbox vs Safety Rails « Daily Encounter on October 14, 2010 at 4:41 am

    […] Eleventh Post by TheAngryDM: D&D 4e Advice with Attitude […]

  18. Nick on November 11, 2010 at 7:59 am

    One of the most memorable moments in my AD&D2e Temple of Elemental Evil game was when the dwarf PC attacked an earth elemental and rolled a Nat 20, but he didn’t have a +1 or greater weapon and thus was incapable of damaging it. As I described how the blow was awesome and mighty but was stopped cold and the dwarf’s arm now hurt, a look of pleased terror (oxymoron maybe?) crossed his face. With a surprised laugh, the player made his next action to be “flee in terror”.

    Now in a different game, same player, this time D&D 3e, it did not go over so well when he, a level one character, found himself fighting a level 4 fighter after indiscriminately killing town watchmen.

    So I guess my point is that it works, sometimes.

  19. VC on November 11, 2010 at 5:14 pm

    I agree. SOme of the most fun I’ve had playing D&D is when we got our ass handed to us and had to run like babies, only to eventually work our way up several levels and come back for revenge.

  20. […] Angry DM – Setting The PCs Up To Fail […]

  21. S'mon on June 21, 2011 at 3:24 am

    I hate this approach, and I think it’s stupid advice. It should be easy for the 1st level PCs to know the Beast With A Dozen Levels is out of their league, just as the King’s Citadel is out of their league. A bit of Streetwise etc and I’d tell them eg it’s believed to be a Paragon monster, or close. It should be common knowledge that Troglodytes are a high-Heroic threat. But this is not railroading, and it’s execrable DMing to conflate this with actual railroading.

    In the status-quo sandbox, player choice involves a determination of when to attack the Beast – maybe a keen group might think they’re good enough at 7th, others more cautious might wait to Paragon – with knock-on effects if the Beast is active in the milieu. Likewise the starting PCs should have reasonable choices such as do we attack the Orc lair now, or wait until 3rd? 5th level PCs may decide not to bother with the Goblins as they’re likely not to have any treasure worth taking. But if they insist on attacking the lair of the Elder Red Dragon, of course they’re going to die, just as if they’d attacked the King’s Citadel. There’s no rails there.

  22. S'mon on June 21, 2011 at 3:38 am

    The idea that encountering an unbeatable foe is ‘not fun’ does not tally with my experience of my 4e Vault of Larin Karr game. Low-level PCs have twice encountered a Roper – and nobody died, though it was close the first time. They’ve run away from Crushed Skull Orcs, they’ve had a PC dragged off by gargoyles, they once had a near-TPK when another group of Orcs, the White Fist, turned out just a little too tough. And I’ve not had any complaints; the game was advertised as a status-quo sandbox where PCs would sometimes need to retreat, and the players play it on that basis. And it was very satisfying for them recently when they returned for a rematch with the Crushed Skulls and wiped them out.

  23. chad on December 15, 2011 at 12:00 pm

    Reading through these posts I have come to discover that I prefer the open/sandbox setting–thanks for the discovery folks, and the work laying out all these thoughts

  24. Lucas the Fighter on September 29, 2013 at 6:45 pm

    One thing. Although you’re right about Monsters that are too high too fight for me (Fighter, Human, Lv. 1), but you can BLOCK OFF THE ENCOUNTER WITH SOMETHING THAT CAN BE OPENED WHEN THEY REACH A HIGH ENOUGH LEVEL! So if you have Orcus around the PCs, Put a door with a lock, and put the key where you expect to see the PCs go once they reach the optimum level.

  25. B Cobb on October 1, 2014 at 3:04 pm

    I’m a fairly new DM (only about 6 months under my belt), and myself and all of my players are new to the game. We all decided to play because we’d all wanted to and had never been given the opportunity. You are my secret DM advice; you’ve been my secret weapon, and I love finding things that you do that I also do. And this is one of those cases. I’ve rewritten monster stats mid-combat to try and keep my players from getting mercilessly slaughtered. I’m not opposed to simply letting a PC die, by any stretch, but no one has any fun being treated like a rag doll in combat, and fun is my number one priority.

    Since I’m actually leaving a goddamn comment, Mr Angry DM, sir, thanks for all the great advice. Everything you say makes sense, is logically presented and explained, and I actually giggle when I read your work. I need you. I love you. I’m in love with you.

    Wait, let me back up and just shorten that to a “thanks”.


  26. Frank on October 28, 2014 at 3:00 pm

    I am of two minds on this. One if players are told upfront that there will be fights they are not going to be able to handle and they will need to run away then yes getting slaughtered is there own fault.

    However as a DM I never design sandbox things like this to be handled in only one way. In this example right off the top of my head I can think of about 4 different ways that players could handle this (even though it obviously outside of there league combat wise.) none of it requiring me to rewrite the adventure as I would have written these into it.

    1. Opening trade with the Trogg village. With successful negotiations and diplomacy the players can “defeat the troggs” by opening a new trade route with them for goods that Troggs are good at making.

    2. Troggs need someone that can investigate and deal with something that is affecting the troggs negatively and the troggs do now want to risk a full scale attack on the village by having their warriors deal with the situation and leaving it undefended. What better than hapless adventures who stumbled into the wrong area at the wrong time. (Que up level appropriate encounter for the PC’s)

    3. Players just need to scout the village, never need to actually get in combat for the main town to see if the troggs are getting ready to cause a major issue.

    4. Captured by the Troggs, (3 and 4 can actually work together) they get interrogated and tortured a bit before the Troggs finally let them go deeming them to be not be a threat while there they learn of issues and other things that will help them in the future against the Troggs.

    To many DM’s unfortunately design things like this to only be resolved by killing everything in site and frankly this is a disservice not only to you but to your players and it stifles player creativity and encourages them to never think outside of the box.

  27. Vyden on January 28, 2015 at 2:28 pm

    It puzzled me to read that “fleeing is not fun” and some players are like either we win, or we go down swinging.

    I came to think about a specific scenario many years ago now, my players in Earth Dawn were exploring the depths below a kaer in search of some magical artifacts or lore or perhaps both. It had been a higly elaborate dungeon with many clues and details. At some point they enter the elemental caverns of fire, and went carefully into the sizzling heat. Then, very slowly arising from the magma came something that I guess would make the Balrog of Mordor look like a puppy. Before I was done describing the creature (very lively that is), the PC’s were already running out of the caverns.. they could easily do that, cause the demon was too big to follow them out of the grotto and into the corridors beyond. The scene sparked a good RP interaction between the characters, being out of breath and basically saying stuff like “what in the nine hells is that thing in there?!” For a second one of the players started discussing whether he would try to shoot arrows at it from the small opening, but wisely chose not to.

    The PC’s eventually backed out of that particular encounter and returned to the surface with a lot of loot from a great adventure through the dungeon. Their mission was successful, and they actually got what they came for. However, I could tell from the players that that final cavern they now knew existed was intruiging them and came like a fresh breeze, in a sense. They talked about coming back when at higher level, better prepared and after doing research on what kind of demon that was and how to kill it. They suddenly had some new motivation for getting gold and subsequently better equipment, and it sparked some idea of a future epic encounter.

    I’m guilty of not having thought well through where I’m going with this as I’m typing, but I think a rule of never “forcing” the characters to flee can feel one-tracked and rail-roaded at some point. Especially if it leaves them a reasonable choice. Also, why must areas have a single difficulty setting, instead of sending the characters crying after seeing the gate guards? Can’t they loot the upper levels of the goblin caverns and return home with some intelligence on what’s going on down there finding that the stuff down there is overhwelming to them? Perhaps they will wait a level, hire mercenaries, decipher that mighty spell scroll, gathering ingredients for a ton of fire flasks or whatever they might think of before going head on..
    In my opinion “never to flee” removes one possible dimension from the drama, and I know that me as a player enjoys making rational decisions like that. To me, it somehow makes the world feel like a bigger place when you’re not putting a lid on every place you go.

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