tl;dr how not to do an invincible NPC, and how to signal it to the players tl;dr
Hello fellow DMs,
Recently, I've been at a table for 2 sessions as a player, and it gave me insight on a mechanic and how to do it right by seeing it done wrong, and I wanted to share my insight on this.
So, we were tasked to go in the desert and kill some bandits. We track them, we find them, we stealth them, we make some traps and we get ready to kill them. We were warned that they were strong bandits and dangerous, but nothing special there. If they were easy to kill, they wouldn't offer us gold to do it, and we took it as it usually is : something to create suspense.
So, we start combat, and about after an hour of fighting, the DM out of game says to us : huh, guys, you were supposed to run away, you cannot kill their boss, she still has ¾ of her health left.
At this point, we had killed all the other ennemies except one that hanged back on his mount out of range and the boss. Said boss is mounted, making escaping very hard, and we were doing good damage on her while she made us fear for our lives a little bit. We killed her mount, but the other guy that hanged in the back came to spawn a new mount from nowhere (either I really misunderstood this, or they were both mounted « because ». Since the DM wasn’t in full control, I’d bet that winning wasn’t an option in her mind, so mounts spawning from nowhere makes sense). The boss did have some abilities that could hurt, but I was playing a life cleric and was happy to finally have to opportunity to heal people from the dead (because combat was very easy up until then and the DM didn't really understood daily xp and it's importance).
So, how did we escaped from that terrifying encounter that we couldn't possibly win ? The boss just let us go. She didn't pursue us, she didn't tried to run away during combat, so the combat ended in a very shitty way. It just… kinda stopped, and the BBEG we were supposed to run from vanished. Not by magic, but by DM handwaving. She literally could have TPKed us by herself, and we couldn’t have all escaped from her, making player death a very near absolute conclusion. By design.
This is how NOT to do an impossible ennemy. You could point out how we were warned about it being dangerous, but everything's dangerous when you're an adventurer. It needs to be more specific than this. Let's take the very same situation, and change one thing : showing us how powerful this ennemy is without us being in combat against her.
Same desert, same contract. But this time, instead of just having the bandits to contend with (which really doesn't work with a system designed to have multiple encounters per long rest), we meet a giant Sand Worm. We fight, it's a medium or even hard encounter, and we win with bruises. Then, you repeat it with either the same monster or another one of the same kind : alone, and powerful. The goal here is to show us that THIS THING HERE is something that you cannot simply wave away. You must fight with your resources to win healthy.
THEN, when we meet up with the bandits, to show of how dangerous this bandit is, you make her and her band kill one of thoses monsters, easily. Do not even bother with actual dice roll, simply state : ok, so she cuts off it's head in one swipe. Or in any other way, show that you do not fuck with this person like with any common bandit, she can destroy something you had to fight hard to kill.
It's perfectly fine to make an ennemy that you cannot kill with straight-on combat, as long as you warn your players in advance, preferably ingame. Then, you can give choices and/or tools to the players on how to deal with this situation. Be very careful about putting them with a wall to their back and something unkillable at their front unless you railroad them to safety (which could be hard to make fun).
For example, once we find out how toff this one is, we could have planned around this : kill their mounts first to garantee they won't chase us if shit hits the fan, plan more traps and guerillas tactics, simply forget about the mission and go yell at the quest giver about sending us to our death, etc. You can have fun around this premice, and it creates a recurring NPC that we fear, a BBEG. You can make her appear from time to time to create tension, use her as what she is, a useful DM tool for danger.
And not, you know, say after an hour of combat : you cannot kill her, so let’s say we all leave on good terms for no good reason.
It's a bit like the beginning of Terminator 2 (SPOILERS for this 30 years old movie). We see Arnold kick an entire bar of bikers easily. Then, we see the other terminator kick Arnold's ass easily. Because we know how toff Arnold is, we can guess that the second terminator is even tougher BECAUSE he kicked Arnold in the schnolls. Everything that Arnold did up until the first confrontation is useful to show us how toff the opponent is.
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