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Brendan E. asks:
How do I teach my players how strong a monster/enemy/creature is? When you look at video games, there are a lot of ways to show players the difference in power levels, but the favored method is always: “well, if they get in over their head kill them.” I’ve tried to recreate the non-lethal lessons but ultimately my party just isn’t learning, they have never run from a fight, nor do I expect them to try anytime soon. What are some solid methods for helping my party discover the gap in power level, without PKing them every time?
How do I stop these idiots from trying to fight things that are vastly more powerful than they are?
First of all, you’re all over the f$&%ing place, Brendan. You give me a one paragraph question that is “how do you communicate how powerful enemies are to players?” Fine. Easy enough. But then you include a TL;DR as if I can’t comprehend a single paragraph. And THEN, your TL;DR is a completely different question. And THEN, you fill the e-mail with a whole bunch of stuff that “didn’t work for you.” And THEN, you tell me about the campaign you’re running. And, incidentally, that little bit is important.
This is my first campaign, I’m playing 5E, we are very focused on combat and exploration. I put them on a mysterious island and tasked them with exploring it, mostly so I can avoid NPCs and junk like shopping around town. But this is where a lot of the problems come in, the Island itself has a huge variety in power levels, and it’s sometimes difficult to keep the players from getting in WAY over their heads, because I let them go where they want.
Now, I’m going to let you off the hook because at the heart of your question is something that is pretty screwed up. But that’s not your fault because (a) you’re new to this and (b) lots of GMs have this warped, screwed up thing in their head. I just don’t understand why.
This whole “how do I make my players run away from encounters that are too powerful for them” is something that comes up a lot. A LOT. And I don’t f$&%ing get it. So, let’s start there. WHY do you want encounters so powerful that the players either have to run away from them or get slaughtered by them? Seriously, I’m not being facetious here. This isn’t me being funny. Seriously. WHY? What the hell does it add to the game? How does it make the game EITHER fun OR satisfying? I mean, I’ve gone on record before as saying not every moment of the game has to be fun. That’s a terrible goal. But you want the game to ultimately be rewarding to play. So what valuable thing does a monster too strong to beat, whose only option is running away, what does that add?
Now, let me say this: it’s okay to have the occasional escape scene. I’ve done it myself. I had my players fleeing through tunnels one time from a giant, aberrant worm monster that was basically a terraforming cthuluhoid from the Far Realm. They were fleeing through a labyrinth of worm tunnels. And they knew, as they ran, they were getting themselves hopelessly lost deep in enemy territory. And they also knew they couldn’t escape unless they found ways to slow the creature down or to split up or to use the terrain. And, ultimately, they did escape. Except for one of them. Oh well.
THAT was a cool scene. But those scenes are the rare exception. You design that crap as an encounter in itself. You don’t just assume that it’s a standard consequence if the PCs wander too far into the wrong monster’s territory. Because most chases are pretty f$&%ing boring. It’s just “compare movement speeds” and occasionally “make a Constitution check to not pass out from exhaustion” and every few rounds “a thing is coming, make a saving throw to jump or dodge the thing.”
Moreover, most evasion scenes come down to this:
GM: “As you come over the hill, you see a thing you have to run away from.”
Players: “Can we fight the thing?”
GM: “If you do, you will die.”
Players: “We turn around and run away.”
GM: “The thing starts to chase, but it gives up as you run away. You ran away.”
Players: “What a heroic victory!”
First of all, there is no interesting choice involved in “if you engage this, you’ll lose no matter what.” And a role-playing game is a matter of choice. Notice the subtle use of sarcasm in my previous example to point out that the GM is basically telling the players “now, stop being heroes and run away from this thing because that is your only choice.” How is that fun? Engaging? Interesting? Satisfying? Rewarding?
I mean, it can be interesting if – as above – it leads into a chase encounter with decision points and a dramatic question and ways to win or lose and strategies the players can employ. But most of the time, it isn’t. And even if it DOES, those are only fun some of the time. After a while, the “evasive maneuvers encounter” gets stale and overdone.
And it can be interesting to have a monster that is too powerful to beat in an outright fight. One that you have to deal with in some other way. Like diplomacy, trickery, stealth, using the environment, drawing into a trap, or something else. Those are also fun encounters occasionally. And, again, they have to be carefully designed to create an alternative type of encounter.
But that isn’t what you’re talking about anyway. You’re not talking about the players stumbling onto a monster and then realizing it’s too strong and then going off and doing something else instead. And that sucks. It’s basically saying “here’s something interesting in the world, but if you interact with it, it will kill you. Now go away.”
The insidious thing is that you’re actually railroading your players when you do that. What I mean is that you’re robbing them of their agency. You’re basically putting a thing that cannot be dealt with in anyway except to turn and walk away. If you did that in any other kind of encounter, half the shrieking elitist auteur GMs on the internet would smarm at you about how terrible you are as a railroader and shun you. But when it comes to the ultra-powerful monster, they will applaud you for doing that.
“Oh look,” they will croon. “Look, how realistic your world is because it doesn’t level with the PCs. If the PCs walk in the wrong direction, they will find something they can’t deal with and then they have to run away. What a brilliant way to build a world.”
Have you considered that the reason your players don’t run away from things is that it isn’t a hell of a lot of fun to run away from things? I mean, considering the campaign you built. You basically removed everything except combat and exploration because you and your players find that s$&% fun. Good for you. You focused on what’s fun for your group. So, if the party wants to explore and fight, why would you ever want to chase them away with a too-powerful monster? “Here’s a world of things to fight and places to explore!” “Yay!” “Oops, you took a wrong turn. Stop fighting and go back the other way.” See? By putting a too-hard monster and forcing the players to run, you’re basically taking away both the fighting and the exploring.
In general, players resist running away because running away isn’t fun. And it isn’t what they are in the game to do.
Okay, so let’s say you do actually have some crazy reason for wanting to just put monsters somewhere that are too powerful for the PCs to handle. And you expect them to run away. And let’s say this reason is a better reason than “it’s realistic that way,” which is the usual bulls$&% reason GMs use to justify it. It’s entirely possible you DO have a good reason for it. How do you do it?
The first most important thing to do is JUST F$&%ING TELL YOUR PLAYERS OUTRIGHT. Stop trying to send mysterious signals. Stop trying to beat around the bush. Stop trying to be subtle. Subtlety kills players. Trust me. Explain it to your players.
“Now, players,” you say, “understand that this entire mysterious island that you are exploring is meant to provide many, many sessions of fun adventure over many months. And that means it is meant to work at many different experience levels. Some areas are more dangerous than others. And some areas are so dangerous that you will die if you are not strong enough. And you need to recognize the signs and back the f$&% out and come back when you have some more levels. Part of the game is making yourself powerful enough to deal with the most dangerous parts of the island. And I will not keep you alive if you ignore the warning signs and try to go toe-to-toe with something super powerful. But it IS possible to escape from super-powerful encounters, no matter what your Speed seems to indicate.”
Look, the thing is, it’s totally find to do the open world thing if that’s what you want to do. But you can’t expect your players to read your f$%&ing mind. Tell them that is how the game works. Tell them. Just. F%&$ing. Tell. Them. There are parts of the world that you have to be a bad enough dude or dudette to explore.
And that means you also have to be ready for their creativity. If you want to make a giant-ass island worthy of that kind of structure, that’s cool. But make sure that more powerful areas have more powerful rewards. The Desert of Terror and the Barrows of Being Torn Apart by Ghouls should have more powerful treasures than the Forest of Mostly Harmless Critters and the Plains of Just a Bunch of Wildebeasts. And that also means if the players want to try to sneak across the Barrows of Being Torn Apart by Ghouls and try to find rare and powerful treasures, you should be open to that creativity. If they cast “invisibility to undead” and sneak into a tomb and come up with some clever plans, let them have the Rod of Being Pretty Awesome in the mummy crypt.
And, see, this is where I question the whole structure of your campaign. I mean, I don’t want to be harsh. I recognize this is your first campaign and I also recognize you gave me the one paragraph elevator pitch. So don’t take this criticism the wrong way. My question is “what’s the whole point?” Is your campaign really just an island full of stuff to kill? Like Theodore Roosevelt’s attempts to kill two of every last f$&%ing thing in Africa like a psychopathic Noah? You said it’s about combat AND exploration. What, exactly, is the exploration aspect? Is the goal just to map the whole f$&%ing thing? Or are there interesting things to find?
See, by removing everything except “map the whole island and kill all the things,” you’ve robbed yourself of a lot of ways to give your game any structure. So, the players have nothing to guide them to any goal. It’s just “wander and kill.” And when you tell the players that sometimes they have to stop killing and head back, you’ve taken everything away.
If you look at those interminable open world games like Skyrim and Skyrim 40K or whatever the one that happens after the Nuclear War is called, they are just big open areas with lots of stuff to explore. But there are dungeons and quests and all sorts of odd little storylines to discover. There are little elements of structure that give you little goals here and there. Nothing too fancy or too pressing, sure. Skyrim doesn’t care whether you kill that evil dragon. Skyrum 40K doesn’t care if you kill that baby that got stolen from you at the beginning. Those are just excuses to point you in a direction. And then you discover other excuses to do other things. And all the little things are extrinsically and intrinsically rewarding.
Moreover, those little things – quests and NPCs and stuff – also provide the GM a way to say things like “the terrible Canyons of Deepening Death? Yeah, that’s way dangerous… I wouldn’t adventure there myself unless I was oh, say, 12th level.” I mean, not in those exact words. But they provided a way for the players to learn about the world OTHER THAN blundering around it getting killed by the too powerful things they had no way of knowing were around the corner.
So, here’s the thing: if you really are running an “explore the world, kill the things, take the treasure” type game, what you’re actually running is a very old school form of D&D dungeon crawler. In those, there was a big ole underground complex filled with monsters, traps, and treasure. The GM was constantly adding more rooms and monsters and traps and treasure, staying ahead of the PCs. And the PCs kept plundering deeper and deeper into the dungeon. And that’s cool. That’s a fine, fun way to play and run the game. I’m all for it.
The dungeon was kind of important to that. The walls and halls and rooms and everything? They provided structure and constraints. The party could search in any direction where there was a hall or room or whatever, but they couldn’t just start moving through walls. And the players understood – because it was part of the game assumptions – that the deeper one traveled into the dungeon, the more powerful and dangerous the monsters became. They couldn’t stumble too deep into too powerful an area without transitioning through some areas that felt “kind of tough” and “okay, things are getting really strong” first.
With a wide open landscape, you don’t have that sort of structure to signal to the players when things are getting too powerful. Which means, the players have no way of recognizing transitions from one power level to another. I mean, you can do it. You just have to be smarter about it.
So, you draw your map of your big ole island. And instead of making a big blank map with features, think of it like a patchwork of different terrains. You have the Plains of Just Starting Out. North of there, the Forest of Slightly Tougher Stuff and south of there the Hills of Haunted Tombs Perfect for Novice Adventurers. Beyond the forest, there’s the Swamp of Pretty Dangerous Stuff. And so on. Basically, make your map a patchwork of geographical regions. Then, assign each region a level of challenge. Or a range. And then make sure that no region borders any region that is more than one power level above or below it. So, the Plains are Level 1-2. The bordering Hills and Forest are level 2-3 or 3-4. Whatever. The swamp beyond the Forest is level 5-6. That way, the heroes can’t transition across too many power levels without things ramping up.
In addition, the difficulty of traversing the terrain should match up with the level of challenge. The deserts and mountain peaks should be high levels. Plains, meadows, and light forests should be low levels. Hills and swamps and badlands should be somewhere in between. Dense jungle should be even higher. That way, the terrain obstacles and challenges level up along with the monsters. The Swamp of Terrible Things will have level 5-6 monsters and quicksand that can threaten level 5 characters and an ancient ruined temple with level 6 monsters and traps and it will have treasure appropriate to level 5-6 characters.
If you combine that patchwork leveled approach with a few NPC settlements, maps, clues, and other quests, you can point the PCs to quests of their level in specific regions. Or they can explore on their own and you can rest assured that the difficulty won’t ever shock them to the point where they have to die to get the point that they should turn around.
The thing is, many GMs assume that the self-paced sandbox gets them off the hook for structure. But EVERY game needs structure if it’s going to work. The self-paced sandbox just means the structure is less overt and more hidden. And that means it actually takes MORE work for the GM.
Now, I realize I haven’t really answered your actual question: how do you get your PCs to run away. Instead, I got distracted by telling you how you should have structured your whole campaign if you insist on trying to force your PCs to run away and questioning whether them running away is really worth anything anyway. Teaching the players to run away involves, first and foremost, telling them flat out you expect that they will have to run away sometimes or you will f$&%ing kill them and tell them it’s their own damned fault.
But once you do that, you need ways to help the players tell the difference between something they should run away from and something they shouldn’t. And that depends on how you want to play the whole thing. Frankly, when I give the flavor text, I like to say flat-out that the monster is f$&%ing powerful. Like, I go over the top. “The thing is huge, with rippling muscles. It’s clear it could rip any of you apart with its bare hands. And its thick scales look like they could turn aside the sharpest blades. I mean, the thing looks like it would wreck you.” I mean, hell, if you’re willing to create an encounter where the players’ only choice is to run away, you might as well tell them flat out. Anything less is just outright killing them.
See, here’s the problem with D&D. It’s pretty unforgiving when the players face something can’t beat. A monster even a few levels above the party can seriously destroy a PC in a single round. So, D&D doesn’t really lend itself to a “feeling it out” approach. And D&D also doesn’t have a lot of good ways to retreat. Especially when you are trying to drag away the corpse of a fallen comrade. So, again, if you’re willing to let the players blunder into too-strong encounters, if you don’t just tell them flat out that the encounter is too strong, you’re murdering a PC. And then the other players get to play the game of “leaving a fallen comrade to die.” Which is not a game players like to play.
The end result is this: unless you’re willing to restructure your campaign and build it around the idea of patchwork exploration with some elements that allow you to fiddle with the structure OR just cram it in a giant dungeon, the only option you really have is just to tell your players “run away or someone will die.” Flat out. That’s just how it is. And then you’re going to have to figure out how to handle the retreat because D&D doesn’t even consider Evasion and Retreat to be a thing anymore. Or just stop throwing encounters at the party they can’t beat. That’s probably the easiest fix. Just let them kill things and take their stuff. That seems to be what they want.
Just don’t get disheartened. Keep running games. At least you have me. I didn’t have me and I had to spend years figuring this s$&% out. You lucky bastard.