Settle in, grab some snacks, and your favorite tavern brew, this is going to be a long one in multiple parts.
A perennial question among the users of DnD boards is “how do I run an encounter where the players cannot defeat the enemy in direct combat, without slaughtering the player’s characters?” It crops up from time to time like clockwork, and I’ve seen it many times on the various DnD sub-reddits. As a GM, the allure of such an encounter is obvious. It allows you to show off a powerful monster or boss villain, or highlight the need to exploit the enemies weaknesses, or both. Story-wise, it sets up the recurring villain that the heroes must grow stronger to face. In movies, books, and TV shows we see this trope used to the point of exhaustion. Unfortunately, for many many groups of players, running this type of encounter is a deathtrap for their characters. All too frequently players will not decide to retreat until long after the point of no return, where the boss will slay them should they try and flee. Mechanically, DnD also makes it difficult to flee with opportunity attacks and fixed combat speeds. None of which addresses the difficulties of attempting to retrieve and carry an unconscious comrade.
Two of the most common solutions to this problem are deeply unsatisfying as both GM & player. The monster holds back for no good reason, or fights to capture the PCs at the last minute. Having the PCs be captured in this way is just as much railroading as dropping them all into a sleep gas trap, and it poses the risk that one or more escape. If the monster holds back without a clear ulterior motive or objective, then there was no need to use such a strong monster at this point in the story, and the players may feel coddled.
Now, before we get into the real meat, a word on railroading & monster choice. If you choose to run a monster that cannot be defeated by conventional means at the player’s current level, you have already decided to use some rails. If the monster can only be defeated by exploiting a certain weakness or terrain, you have decided to use some rails. Both of these things are acceptable, done in moderation. Done in the service of the narrative or drama, these can still be satisfying encounters, but I wouldn’t use them frequently or for random wandering monsters. Monster choice is also important in these types of encounters because you want the players to feel like escaping or holding out long enough are options on the table. Most monsters are fine, but stay away from grabbers, grapplers, and monsters with a petrifying or paralyzing effect. Powers which might force the players to leave someone behind are going to make your encounter drastically more difficult, and more likely for the entire team to get killed in a rescue attempt.
A more satisfying way to run monsters which are “invincible” or grossly out level the players is to treat them more as puzzle encounters or terrain obstacles than straightforward battles. Doing so allows the GM to show off their monster, achieving their narrative goals, without inviting a party wipe. A critical element of this type of encounter is that the monster is the one who disengages, or that a clear escape route is presented before combat even begins. An encounter with these elements is low risk, one without them is much higher risk. So, without further ado, consider the following ways to run an “unwinnable” encounter next time you think you want to showcase your super monster.
- The Chained Monster
The invulnerable monster is tethered to a location. Like a guard dog chained to a fence post, this can be a literal chain in the most direct interpretation. Or it can be something more ephemeral that prevents the monster from leaving the room or two that it inhabits. If you’ve ever kited a monster into a doorway that it is too large to pass through in a video game, you have encountered a chained monster. The most common form of chained monsters are guardians who defend a passage or door. The active mechanism here is that if the PCs are far enough away, they are safe, but they must eventually pass by the monster to reach their goal. Should they fight the monster and fail, safety is only a move or two away, and dashing in to recover a fallen friend is a viable tactic.
A chained monster is an extremely direct use of the monster as a puzzle. The players can sneak past it, level up till they are ready to fight it, distract it, or otherwise devise a cunning plan to bypass the beast. This is one of the simplest ways to run a powerful monster because it gives the players a clearly visible path of escape.
Chained monsters come with a caveat though. It may be tempting to consider the monster’s lair as its tether, but unless the lair is extremely small, this is not an adequate leash. The Minotaur in his labyrinth may be chained there, and unable to leave the maze, but within the confines of the maze he is free to hound the players to their eventual deaths. A chained monster must inhabit a small space, no more than a room or two. This ensures the path of escape is both highly visible and reachable.
An excellent example of this trope in action is the Gate Guardian in the Shivering Isles from TES IV Oblivion. This creature is extremely powerful, but will only attack the player if they approach the gate too closely. If the player retreats, the Guardian resumes its patrol. It is even possible to attack the Guardian and retreat if he proves too strong for the player. There are a number of ways past the Guardian, but the player is always able to avoid the monster until they are ready. This monster follows the rules of a chained monster to a T. There is a clearly delineated area within which the monster will attack, and an easy path of escape.
A sample encounter in a game of DnD might look like this:
A group of 3rd level adventurers exploring an abandoned castle exit the current room and step out onto a balcony overlooking a great hall with double doors at each end. The bars on the doors are shattered and the western door is ajar. Pacing the hall below with grinding steps is a towering Iron Golem, easily as tall as three men. The Golem paces in a slow circuit of the room, its movements following the deep ruts carved into the stone by its centuries of pacing.
Notice the open doors providing an easy escape, and the great size of the monster preventing it from following anyone running through those doors. This encounter is overwhelming in combat, but can be circumvented by some clever puzzle solving. This is a low risk option.
- Sneaking is Better Than Fighting
Using the example of Smaug the Dragon from the Hobbit, sometimes the invincible monster is on display not to be fought, but as an obstacle to be avoided. When Smaug is first encountered, he is asleep, and Bilbo is able to sneak around him.
This type of encounter relies on several elements which the DM must provide. First, the inactive state of the monster, or the blind spot relative to it, must be clearly visible to the players. For example, if the frost giants are not sleeping, and are instead patrolling the cliff top, do not hide the ledge below from the players. Second, the alternative route must exist in the first place. If the players must pass directly by the monster, they are likely to fail. Lastly, the trigger conditions that will bring the monster down on the players and force them to fight or flee should be very clear. Making enough noise to waken the sleeping dragon is the classic example. A magic mouth spell visible on the wall behind the sleeping iron golem would be another.
In general, this is a low risk type of encounter. It does require the GM to allow some or all of the party an avenue for sneaking past, and good GM telegraphing that the monster is much more powerful than the players. If the player fail to sneak past, there should be a ready escape route. This type of encounter is good for guardians and lairs, where the players can regroup and seek an alternative route if they are spotted.
- Everyone Knows You’re on a Time Limit
If the monster does not possess the time to finish off the PCs and the players know it, you can run a much harder encounter. This is roughly the same mechanism used in many games where the player’s must hold off an overwhelming hoard for a set time limit.
The key element here is that the players are in some way aware of the time limit, and know that their job is to stall. If the monster is unbeatable at this time, but it cannot stay for long, or the PCs escape is about to arrive, then the players do not need to beat the monster directly.
For example, the werewolf stalking the players is invulnerable to non-silver weapons. The PCs are unable to harm it. However, it only catches up to them a few minutes before dawn. If the players can hold out until dawn, the sunlight will cause the werewolf to change back to human form were it must flee or may be defeated. Using the same werewolf, the battle could open with a recall horn blasting from the castle of the werewolf’s master. The werewolf acknowledges the horn, but ignores it at first. A few rounds later there is another blast and the werewolf breaks off the encounter with a traditional “next time heroes!” A third example would be a door with five locks. The party rouge picks the door, but only one lock opens per round. If the party can hold out for five rounds, the door will open and they can escape.
This encounter can also be run in reverse, where the monster is the one stalling. This could be to allow a weaker monster to escape, a portal to open, or any other event on a timer. When the timer is triggered, the monster retreats. This also good for summoned monster’s if the players have a good reason to know the spell duration. If the BBEG can only keep his summoned beastie around for a few rounds and the players know it, they can scheme around it.
Timed encounters are a low risk way to show off a strong monster. Whether the players learn the trigger conditions or not, the monster will break away after a set period of time. This type of encounter is good for introducing a recurring antagonist or powerful lieutenant monster.
- The Monster Arrives in a Moment of Weakness
This is the most risky option I will present in this post. It relies on the players to decide to flee instead of the monster retreating, or remaining static. It also demands an explanation for why KO’ed characters do not bleed out if some or all of the players are knocked down. Overall, very risky.
If the monster arrives in a moment when the player’s resources are already depleted, they will be more inclined to flee. This works best with an intelligent monster whose goal is to scare the players off like a Scooby Doo villain. The invincible monster must have a reason not to purse the players in this scenario. I would be most likely to use this option after the players have already decided to flee. A monster like Strahd might use this tactic to frighten the players with the knowledge that he is aware of their plans, or to steal a macguffin from them while they cannot fight back effectively.
This encounter can have its uses though, because it is an excellent vehicle for a villain monologue. Before or after defeating the party, the villain can attempt to show their superiority while inadvertently revealing parts of their plan. Even a simple, “I’m giving you a chance to leave,” reveals that while the adventurers may not be a threat to the monster directly, they are still capable of disrupting its plans.
A good example of this type of encounter is when a chatty lich or vampire shows up right in the middle of the party’s long rest and disrupts it. The monster has them at a disadvantage and they have already decided that their resources are too low to keep fighting. In this example, the monster only has to use enough force to deliver its threats or steal an object the PCs are guarding.
- Relentless, but Slow
Simple and direct. The monster in this scenario is unbeatable at this time, but it is extremely slow. The players can essentially flee at will. Allow the players a path of retreat when they find they can’t win, and let them escape.
The Terminator is the best example of this type of foe, and an excellent guide to how to use one. These monsters work extremely well for sessions where the players are supposed to fear the monster and be chased. These monsters smoothly slot into what I think of as the “Three U’s” progression, Unknown, Unstoppable, Under Prepared. At the first encounter, the monster is unknown to the players, either completely unseen, or its powers are hidden. As they fight the creature, the players discover that its powers, HP, or armor make it unstoppable, and they are forced to retreat. After some down time for the players to prepare, the monster returns, and the players are forced to confront the fact that their preparation may be inadequate. If it is, they can flee again and the cycle repeats.
The Terminator also presents several ways to expand on these monsters that make them easier to run and more satisfying to face down. First, the Terminator uses vehicles extensively. Reese and Sarah may not be able to defeat the machine itself at the beginning of the film, but they can destroy its transportation, hampering its already low speed. A mount which can be slain is a simple addition to any DnD monster. The Terminator also flings enemies away with its melee attacks quite often. This is an excellent type of attack for the GM to add to this type of monster, because it removes the player from the monster’s immediate reach, allowing them a free opportunity to flee.
Overall, I consider this one of the lower risk options for running a monster that greatly out levels the players. Good DnD examples of these types of monsters are a rusty iron golem that flings players but has even less move speed than normal, and an elderly dragon who uses a wing buffet attack to bowl the players over instead of his breath weapon.
- Hostage Situation
A common example of a chained monster is the mother monster defending her nest. She will not travel far from it under any circumstances. However, were the PCs to steal one of her eggs, a monster not normally likely to parley might be compelled to do so. This same opportunity can be presented to the players with any monster attached to something of great value. A red dragon known to covet a precious tome will not use his fiery breath weapon on the players if they manage to steal it and hold it hostage.
If you intend to present this avenue to the players they must be told somehow of the item, and its value to the monster. Then, scouting must reveal a path to the item so the final showdown can occur. This option is excellent if you intend to use the unbeatable monster as a recurring villain. Because the players have just made a terrible enemy as they make their escape. It is also excellent if you wish to run the encounter as a de-powered version of the monster. The red dragon above is a much more viable encounter without its breath weapon. Lastly, this is a wonderful option for use in any sort of heist scenario where the players have external pressure not to stick around very long. The monster can be both dangerous itself, and likely to raise the alarm if engaged. This encourages the players to grab the loot and get out instead of getting bogged down in a long battle.
This option can also apply to a place. If the players can force the confrontation to take place in a location the monster is unwilling to damage, it will likewise be weakened or forced to parley. The classic sci-fi example is that boarders do not use high powered weapons aboard space ships to avoid puncturing the hull. If you are considering this option, make sure to present both the location and a viable lure to the players. Alternately, if the creature is unwilling to destroy its own lair, let them know that and have a path to reach it.
This is a medium risk option, because it relies on the players to decide to run or having the strength to defeat the handicapped monster.
- You’ve Made one of the Classic Blunders
Sometimes, the unbeatable monster falls victim to a terrain hazard. This happens in Terminator One and Two to finish off the villains. Smart players, when presented with such a potential trap, can be allowed or encouraged to use it.
This one is also simple. Setup a hazard, and allow the players to knock the monster into it. A tall cliff, vat of acid, tank of sharks with lasers on their heads, the possibilities are endless. The main element is that the hazard is obvious and the players are not presented with a compelling reason to avoid using it. If the evil cult leader is carrying the macguffin, the players are not going to push him into the lava pit. A very satisfying way to use this trope, seen in many works of fiction, is for the villain to have put the hazard in place themselves. A great example of this is the battle between Smith and Neo in the Matrix, where Smith places them both in the path of the oncoming train. It is a hazard that leads to his temporary demise and creates a set back in his pursuit of Neo.
Ideally, this hazard will prevent the heroes from confirming the villains demise. Because as we all know, no one is truly dead until you see the body. I consider this option ideal for a recurring villain who survived by unlikely coincidence, conspiracy, deal with a devil, or similar. It is also extremely good for any variety of mad wizard or mad scientist who has their super weapon turned against themselves. Every necromancer eaten by a pack of their own zombies has fallen victim to this type of encounter. When Hades is thrown into the pit with the lost souls in Disney’s Hercules we see one of the most clear cut examples of defeat by your own hazard in fiction.
Cliffs, rope bridges, and tall battlements are all time honored choices in DnD and fiction for this type of situation. The players are unlikely to jump off themselves to confirm the villain’s death. However, the hazard can be as creative as you like. For example, the players confront a powerful pirate lord inside the shipyard where his flagship is maintained. The pirate lord uses his mobility to drag the players around, and eventually ends up in a room filled with the leaky barrels of tar and oil used to waterproof his ships. A torch or lantern thrown in there with him spells certain doom for him in the inferno.
Or does it…..?
- Let Them Fight
Another simple classic, with its name drawn from one of the recent Godzilla films. The invincible monster has a rival or a countermeasure exists. The players are able to awaken it to defeat or weaken the super monster. Godzilla and his many foes are the codifier for this trope. Releasing Godzilla, firing the super laser, and activating the shields are all examples of this type of encounter.
Using this in a game requires one of two things. The rival is near at hand when the PCs confront the “unwinnable” encounter. Or, they witness the invincible foe from a distance and have enough information to quest for the rival creature and bring it into the story. In the first case, use a timer or objective for the PCs to activate the rival. Spoilers: This is how TES4 Oblivion ends as you escort Martin to his last objective before becoming the avatar of Akatosh. Questing for a rival or monster defeating macguffin would be the entire premise of a campaign or story arc.
In general, this is a good type of encounter to run for colossal and god-like monsters. While many of these encounters are good for monsters stronger than the players, this type is for monsters completely out of their league, and exemplifies the encounter as puzzle arch type. The players are never meant to confront the monster directly in this encounter. They are meant to defeat the obstacles that are keeping them away from unleashing the monster’s rival, then watch events from a distance. The monster itself is essentially set dressing. It will harm the players if they get close, but its not where they should be focusing their attention.
In DnD, this might take the form of an encounter like this. The players are still tier one, first or second level, when a gargantuan ancient dragon attacks the city. The city has a famous guardian spirit that will ward off the dragon, but the characters must cross the city to reach it. Along the way they must navigate collapsed buildings, refugees, looters, and monsters scared up from the sewers and alleys. They sometimes have to avoid stray dragon breath, but it is never pointed at them.
They key elements here are that the players know the rival exists, and they have heard enough rumors and stories to consider it a viable solution.
This is a low risk encounter because the power difference is so wide that almost all players should see it easily, and you have dangled the plot hook into unleashing the rival openly in front of them.
- I’m Not Here for You
The last option I will present in this post, and another classic choice. The invincible monster has its own objective that does not involve the heroes directly. It will only defend itself from them. It fends off their attacks while it carries out its mission. The monster may be trying to reach a place of power, recover an item, or simply passing through. Regardless, the monster only uses enough of its power to force the PCs to cease their meddling.
Thanos kidnapping Gamora from the lair of the Collector is this type of encounter. He casually defeats the Guardians, but does not finish them off, because they were never his purpose in the first place. To him, fighting them directly would only be a waste of time.
In your DnD game, to deploy this kind of monster, make the monster’s objective easy to see for the players. When the demon lord shows up at the monastery, the monks run up to the players and tell them the demons are here for the artifact. The monster could also openly announce their goal if it is intelligent, demanding the players give up its goal or it will come in and get it, big bad wolf style.
Depending on your group, and the power difference between them and the monster, you can run this type of encounter two ways. First, you can allow them to make the failed defense. The monster kills its target, steals the macguffin, or otherwise succeeds despite their best efforts. This sets up a revenge arc for later. Alternately, if the players know they cannot face the creature at all, they can focus on helping others get out of the monster’s path. If you have a redemption paladin or other (semi)pacifist in your group, this can be an excellent moment for them to save the innocents.
Overall, this is a low risk option, unless you have extremely relentless players who keep attacking the monster long after they have depleted their resources, in which case it’s medium. It is also an excellent type of encounter for bystanders to rescue incapacitated players and have them wake up later in a sick bed. This provides a ready answer for why even the extremely determined and badly wounded players survive.
This brings part one to a close, and I hope it has provided you with some fun ideas for how to incorporate super powerful baddies into your campaign. I drew most of these from film and literature, and I encourage you to draw your own ideas from the same. Just remember, unlike a protagonist, you cannot control the players, and you cannot rely on them to get themselves out of a bad situation. You need to provide the exit strategy for them and the monster beforehand.
Next time, we’ll flesh out some additional ways to run these types of encounters including:
- The monster is out of ammo/ the field test
- The monster as tormentor, not killer
- The monster is a horde of low damage foes
- The monster as mentor / is delivering a lesson / is beating some sense into you
- The Demon is immortal, and will only be back stronger till you confront it on its home plane
- Minions! Get them!
- You’re not worth my time (included for completeness, though I hate this one)
- Predators want to eat, not fight
- Slavers, Spiders, and other monsters with a reputation for prisoner taking
- We are the Borg, and other monsters who get stronger as you fight them
- The Weakest Link
- How to Run Over-Leveled Bosses & Unbeatable Monsters Without Killing Your Players, Part 1
- How to Run Over-Leveled Bosses & Unbeatable Monsters Without Killing Your Players, Part 1
- How to Run Over-Leveled Bosses & Unbeatable Monsters Without Killing Your Players, Part 1
More about Dungeons & Dragons OnlinePost: "How to Run Over-Leveled Bosses & Unbeatable Monsters Without Killing Your Players, Part 1" specifically for the game Dungeons & Dragons Online. Other useful information about this game:
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