Welcome to this week’s installment of “Only On Tuesday’s!” This week we will be discussing why putting your players into “impossible” scenarios can actually be a really good thing for your game, and can really raise the tension of any session.
This style of DMing can be a more dangerous one. Putting your players into impossible situations with no expectations of what will occur can potentially lead to Total Party Kills (TPK’s). If you are going to run a session in this fashion, be prepared for the possibility of anything happening. However, I do want to say that a session successfully ran in this fashion, can easily become one of your best sessions to date. Now that this disclaimer is out of the way, let’s get onto the post!
One of the most satisfying things that I can do as a DM is to have a situation that is considered insurmountable, with all of the odds and numbers saying that the players have no chance of success, and then watch as my players defy these expectations and defeat an encounter with minimal to no losses. By setting up an encounter that should be unwinnable, I make it so that victory is much more sweeter. Impossible scenarios are a special little tool of mine, that when used correctly, can make for amazing sessions that your players will talk about for years to come.
Now at this point, I should probably detail what an impossible scenario is. An impossible scenario is an encounter that by the book is considered too strong. Pitting a CR 20 monster against a group of level 10’s is one example of what would be considered an impossible scenario. Now I know that many of you are scoffing right now. Who in their right mind would put that powerful of a monster, against a group of level 10’s?! Well, the answer is a crazy Dungeon Master, and I actually put two of them against the players, so I guess that makes me extra crazy. And the best part is, the session ran beautifully! The players were not only able to defeat both of these monsters but also suffered 0 casualties! Just because the book says something should be impossible, does not mean it is.
A word of caution. My players were able to survive both of these encounters due to a large amount of luck, skill, and preparation. They fought their way to victory and deserved to defeat both of these monsters. However, things could have turned just as fast. If their rolls were poor that night or had they not came up with the clever solutions they had, I could have easily lost characters. You have to be very careful when choosing to run an impossible situation, and you have to be prepared to accept the consequences. If you are not prepared to accept the possibility of a TPK, then I do not recommend this method of DMing. But for those of you who want to elevate the tension of your games, and create a more satisfying experience for all involved, then by all means, through your players through the impossible.
Framing the Impossible
Deciding to put your players through an impossible session is not one that you should take lightly. A session ran in this manner should be one that is reserved for the times when you need the stakes risen the most. Suitable times to use an impossible scenario include the ending of story arcs and campaigns. This is a time when the stakes should be at their highest, and victory should be something that is not easily obtained. Getting to this situation takes some foresight, however. You cannot simply spring an impossible scenario with no forewarning as this will remove player agency, one of the key things that make the impossible scenario successful.
Player Agency Is Key
In order to have an impossible scenario be successful, everyone has to be on board. The players have to know what they are getting into, otherwise, this kind of encounter will turn out badly. The players have to be willing to put their characters into danger, knowing full well the consequences of what will happen if they fail. Once your players are aware of the scenario placed before them, they will then have time to prepare themselves for what they are going to face. In the case that one or more players die in this kind of scenario, your players will have known that it was their fault, and not you trying to get them. Another thing to note is that in Dnd, especially in 5th edition if the players have recently rested, then they should be able to fight things far above their level. This only scales higher and higher as the players level up. Just be sure to keep in mind that if the players take on the impossible scenario while fully rested, they should be able to take on far more than what the books say.
When creating the actual encounter itself, you do not want to pull any punches. If this is the final fight with the evil mastermind than it should be a fight that is worthy of that mastermind. If a dangerous threat has been looming over the entire campaign, then do not be afraid to make a situation where people can die. Nothing will raise the stakes higher than the potential for death, and you want to make it as spectacular as possible. This is the stage where you can let your inner evil DM loose, and you can cackle at all the potential ways your party will suffer and perish. Just be sure to let the players know what they are up against. If they just randomly walk into a room and die, that is not a good way to end the campaign. If they know however that in that room is the final fight then they will be far more prepared for whatever lurks within.
When preparing the final encounter keep the following words in mind. “If it has stats, we can kill it”. This is normally a quote said by murderhobo’s out to ruin your campaign, but this can actually serve us quite well. The reason we do not want to pull any punches is that of the potential for the players to just steamroll it. Once you put stats on a character, it now has the possibility of being killed. And your players should be very skilled in the art of killing things at this point in the campaign.
Ready for Anything
Now after you have set up this room of death, or the final encounter with the bad guy, many DM’s will want to go back and give some out’s. They are afraid that the players may end up getting overwhelmed, and will need a way to win. This, otherwise known as Deus Ex Machina
, is a terrible idea. By including situations where your players will succeed, without any input from the players themselves, is a very easy way to cheapen your game, and undermine the whole point of the impossible scenario. By planning outs for the players, you are undermining everything that they prepared for that led up to this moment. This also means letting the dice fall where they will. If you fudge any dice that your players can clearly see, that can be considered an act of Deus Ex Machina.
However, the opposite thing can happen as well. The players could very well walk into your impossible scenario and it will be a complete steamroll. Rather than trying to stop your players as they plow through your encounter, instead just let it happen. Years later your players will recall that one time where they absolutely destroyed that Demon you let loose on them. If you had tried to stop them and make things more “balanced” it may end up with the players feeling cheated, as everything they did up until now would, again, be compromised.
In other words, once you have prepared your impossible scenario and what is contained within it, plan no further than that. If you start planning out how things will go down in the encounter, you risk it becoming railroady and no fun for anyone involved. (For tips on how to avoid railroading check out my post about that here
). You as the DM have to be prepared for anything to happen. Ideally, the encounter will be narrowly close as the players eventually claw themselves to victory, with few hitpoints remaining. And there are a few ways that we can influence this, without the encounter leaning too heavily in one direction or the other.
Be a Fan of the Players
After you have set up the encounter, and let your players know what they are going to face, they are now prepared to enter the evil chamber of death that you have gleefully created. Now is the time where you as the DM need to switch gears. If the players walk into that room and you still have your inner evil DM out, players are sure to perish. If you want to give your players a hope of succeeding it is now a time to Become a Fan of the Players.
Becoming a Fan of the Players is a concept that comes from the RPG Dungeon World. In that RPG they state the following. “Think of the players’ characters as protagonists in a story you might see on TV. Cheer for their victories and lament their defeats. You’re not here to push them in any particular direction, merely to participate in fiction that features them and their action.” This advice is not only solid for the impossible scenario, but for all aspects of the game. But I find it especially pertinent to the impossible scenario because it very clearly explains what your role is in the final encounter. You have set the stage, but now you are the audience. At this point in time, you want your players to succeed. You are not a part of this, you are merely the audience watching the party take down this evil threat.
However, you still are the DM. Your role in this encounter is not diminished in any way. But by becoming a fan of the players your mentality may change. This is the time where you start to allow your players to do more awesome things in the name of the Rule of Cool.
This is the time where their crazy elaborate plans have a chance of succeeding. The reason for this is because if these plans don’t succeed, then the players are very likely to not succeed. However, you still have to allow for failure, otherwise, there is no point to the encounter. Just be sure to be more open to ideas from your players. They may just surprise you with their creativity.
Your role in this is to also keep things moving. Now is the time where you can sort of balance the fight mid combat. You are pitting them against a powerful threat, and without proper balancing could easily result in a TPK. There are a few ways to go about this. First, you can change how you are targeting the players. If they are doing exceptionally well in the fight, target the weakest player and knock him/her unconscious. (If you are especially evil, keep on targeting them while they are down). Now, time and resources are being diverted from damage in order to save the fellow party member. If things are going poorly you can always spread out the damage among the players making sure no one outright drops, but where most of them will be very low on HP. You can also adjust numbers behind the screen, making the monster have a little more HP’s, or a little less in order to better suit the encounter. As long as your players don’t know you are doing these things you are golden! Just make sure that it is not only in character, but also fair. An unfair fight can quickly become an unfun one, and we want the climax to be as satisfying as possible.
Running an impossible encounter can be a very challenging experience. Carefully balancing things so that the players struggle but are still able to succeed can be a very hard, but very satisfying thing to do. When putting your players through an impossible scenario, your players first have to be prepared for the fight. This gives them a chance to get ready and prepare themselves for what is to come. When designing and running the encounter, you also need to make sure you do not incorporate any elements of Deus Ex Machina, else you cheapen the whole experience. Finally, when the players finally are ready to take on the impossible scenario, you must become a fan of the players. In doing so you are giving your players the best chance to succeed, without cheapening the experience as a whole. Tweak as necessary throughout the fight and be ready to learn that impossible in Dnd means absolutely nothing.
This is how I personally like to end a campaign. It plays a lot off of the concept of Chandler’s Law
and makes for a fun session full of unexpected twists and surprises. I do understand that this type of session is not for every DM and Player, so please take what I say in consideration of your group and their needs. If you disagree with me on this matter, please discuss it in the comments below! I’d love to hear what you guys think of this idea, and how you would improve upon it if you ran it yourself. This is just a style that I have been able to successfully use several times now, and consider an important part of my toolbox.
Thank you for reading my post! This one was very long, and has a lot of depth to it, that I hope that I was able to convey. If you have any questions about this method of DMing feel free to ask. As for now, have a great week and an amazing Tuesday!