Content of the article: "A DM’s Perspective, playing a PC: being on the wrong side of an Unwinnable Battle"
It is not rare for new or conflicted DMs to come around this kind of sub and ask things like "Is it okay if I prepare an encounter my players can't win?". From here on, I'll refer to these as "unwinnable battles". Because that's what they're made for. They're encounters purposefully being built so that the players are not able to win them.
Today, I, as a player, as on the wrong side of one. I'll narrate it briefly to get to my point. I'll exchange some names around for reasons.
Our party has been counteracting a being we only know as Dorivexx. They have been basically attacking nature and causing chaos. Diverting a river here, unleashing a curse there, that sort of thing.
After a lot of chasing shadows around, we get a solid lead. We go into the frosty area of our campaign, tracking a bunch of Dorivexx's men to figure out and stop whatever they're doing there.
After a preliminary assault on their encampment, we got a few more leads that took us to an orc village closely tied to a Magic Ice Tree – the bad guys' target – and how their shaman is key to destroying said Tree. Their shaman is missing, probably taken by the bad guys. We cooperate. Husband of shaman and warrior leader of the village takes us to the Magic Ice Tree. We set up an ambush.
Our group is lvl 6 (keep this in mind), so AoEs are enough to go around. We're able to take down the mooks quickly and isolate their boss so that we can knock him out and deliver them to the village for them to apply their justice in his case, which was part of our deal. We also find and rescue the shaman, which reunites with her husband.
Group takes a short rest as some took a few hits, and…
AS WE'RE ABOUT TO LEAVE (ever hear this phrase from a DM? Does it ever mean anything good for the party?)
Flash. Mysterious Robed Stranger (TM) appears. Casts a spell. <– Most DMs will know what is happening here, already.
9th level Cone of Cold. (Remember the party level up there?)
Half the party goes down. Villain enters monologue, reveals themselves as Dorivexx (shocker). Does a "come at me bro" at the remainder of a 6th level party with only a short rest taken in their name after a "boss fight". Remainder of the party obliges. Though they manage do deal some damage, it does not matter (another shocker). Villain goes:
"I GROW TIRED OF THIS" (another DM phrase that never bodes well). And casts… Time Stop.
During their turns, Dorivexx builds a double Wall of Force (hardly matters at this point if they can or not) and begins an arcane ritual. Shaman is pulled into the air, husband clings on, both of them are pushed into the Magic Ice Tree and held there with magic. Then…
Dorivexx turns into an Elder Red Dragon, and breathes fire on them and the Tree, incinerating the whole thing and leaving. That's where the session ends.
POINT: We spent a whole session prepping for and playing a fight that ultimately was useless. If we lost then to the mini-boss or on the Unwinnable Battle, the result would be the same. Whatever we decided to do with the mini-boss had ZERO impact. If we had decided to flee instead of fight (even if half the party hadn't gone down), ZERO difference. The only way this encounter was 'winnable' is if a lvl 6 party with depleted resources somehow managed to obliterate an Elder Red Dragon in 1 round or less, before it acted.
THAT is why, when people ask "Should I prep an encounter my party can't win?", you get such resounding no's. It's not fun for the group. The end of the session wil probably be a deafening silence from your players. An experienced DM will spot that shenanigan from 10 miles away. And they most likely won't find it amusing.
Just don't do it.
- Encounter Advice – How to build an exciting “race-against-the-clock” encounter?
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