The Four Kinds of Unfair Encounters

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

Sometimes things go wrong and the party all die horrible deaths. That ever present risk is an intrinsic part of gaming. After all, if there is no risk, the game is unlikely to be exciting or challenging. 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 character, in a horribly unfair encounter. To me, being English, that’s just not cricket. While my father would tell you, “Nothing’s fair in life”, and he’d be right, the point of gaming is to have fun. Unfair encounters—particularly repeatedly unfair encounters—rarely add to the fun. 

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 the party 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 dungeon only accessible through the lair of a monstrously tough dragon is a good example of this kind of encounter. 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 because if they don’t try to defeat the encounter there is no game.
  • 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. The hapless guard was never seen again. As another example of this kind of encounter (from the same GM’s game), a hill giant thief jumps out from behind a tree and kills a character with a sneak attack before anyone can react. You have to wonder how the entire party—in broad daylight— failed 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.

Keep in mind that on their own some of the encounter types above won’t end in disaster and/or hard feelings. Sometimes, trapping the party and forcing them to fight their way out can be the basis of an exciting and memorable encounter. However, pairing a “no retreat” situation with a monster which the characters have virtually no hope of defeating is asking for trouble. Such encounters are truly unfair and  are bound to irritate your players. 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!

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  • Karl Lembke on

    I recall an encounter as a member of a first-level party, against a werewolf. The party had no magic or silver weapons.
    The DM allowed that the Cleric would be allowed to have been carrying a silver collection plate, the mage was allowed to cast the cantrip firefinger unlimited times, doing one point of damage each time. Somehow, the werewolf was held down and unable to do serious damage to any of the party members during the whole, long encounter.
    So I took away the lesson that the party should never be pitted against a monster that cannot be damaged by the party, absent a very, very good reason.

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