Dungeons & Dragons Online

Effectively Forewarning Danger; Or, Why Your Level 3 Party Attacked the Ancient Archmage

I think every DM, at some point or another, has tried to introduce something the party can't really beat. Whether it be a dungeon the DM wanted the players to come back to, a zone that is far beyond the player's skill, or the classic I-want-my-players-to-run-from-the-BBEG scenario that I constantly see asked for advice. For good reason – Danger in DnD is incredibly hard to forewarn if you don't know how to do it.

Why Players Ignore Signs of Danger

There are two reasons for this: The first is narrative, the second is mechanical.

Narratively, players run towards danger because that's what their characters do. The one joint feature that is shared by virtually every adventure is that, for whatever reason, they see a sign that says "Warning: Dragon" as an invitation. And that's good. We as DMs want that, because it's what lets players easily engage with the story. But this also means that for the players, there is little to no difference between a warning that is meant to build up tension and one that is meant to legitimately warn them they are in over their heads.

Mechanically, players are under the assumption that you will run a game that is largely full of balanced encounters. By and large, they are relying on you to put quests in front of them that they have a chance of completing. This is not an unfair assumption, as often they know very little of the specifics. If a town guard gives them a quest to kill a troll clan, the players are not supposed to know that they were just asked to go kill a group of CR 5+ monsters.

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These two aspects work together to generate a large sense of trust in the DM and that you know what you are doing. It is that sense of trust that makes players go: "We are in a heroic fantasy game and this dragon is attacking the town. Clearly, we are meant to defeat it.

How To Warn Differently

Knowing this, there are several ways to tell your table "this fight is beyond you".

An Authority Figure that is know to be much stronger than the party warning against a specific thing is the easiest way. The Fellowship is all down to fight the goblins in Moria, but when the Balrog roars and Gandalf, the DMPC says "This foe is beyond any of you. Run!" the table gets the message. That was you telling the players they can not defeat this enemy.

Defeat a Challenging Enemy with this new threat. If the players recently struggled against some yetis, and then witness a dragon kill a group of yetis without breaking a sweat, then the narrative becomes clear to the players. You can also do this by having the yetis visibly scared of the approach of a dragon. Importantly, this only works with enemies that were tough for the players to beat within the last session or two. Players have the memory of goldfish.

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Provide Alternative Victory that does not involve directly taking on the enemy. It doesn't matter how much the world seems to tell them not to, if the players have only one plot hook, and are aware of only one way to complete it, they will kick down that door because they see no other way to progress the story. To use a LOTR example again, Bilbo and the dwarves' mission is never kill Smaug, but rather to steal from him. Because the mission is to recover wealth, the presence of a dragon becomes an obstacle, rather than an enemy.

Use Big Numbers with your opponent's first round. Big damage dice, big spells, big model. One of the reasons I love dragons in DnD is that they so clearly translate their level narratively, as no party of level 2's are going to tangle with a dragon 10x their size. And if they choose to (or if you have your enemy attacking somewhere), have it attack a neutral party with it's biggest attack, and let the party know what you rolled. If the players witness a dragon incinerate someone with 55 fire damage, they're going to very quickly look at their 20-35 health pool and decide that discretion is definitely the better part of valour.

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All this being said, their are parties that, for whatever reason, will always want to fight the enemies you throw in front of them. Not all of these techniques work for every party. Test and experiment, and remember that their are a dozen ways to build up a challenge without having the players encountering it directly.

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