Dungeons & Dragons Online

I tried to make up a combat on the spot last week and almost wiped my party, luckily we had to break halfway through. How can I pull them out of this, but not make it feel cheap?

Apologies for the wall of text, Anku, Sora, Flex or Galbek stay away.

Essentially last time we played, I had a few plans for what they might do and did my usual planning for those plans. There were a couple different routes they could take to the next adventure location, so I planned some travel and some wilderness encounters for that. When planning the fights that were coming up, I paid special attention to CR, action economy etc, and felt that I had a good set of plans to challenge them but get them to where they need to go.

Instead, they decided to take a bit of a detour to one of the major cities in the area they are in. And it kind of threw me off. I should have also planned for this, though, because they are currently fleeing a horde taking over this territory, and the city they are going to is the first/only big walled city, where the first major defense battle is going to take place. Because of some of their earlier exploits, a rich old NPC in the session before gave them a keep and some advice on running it, and they have a couple other "side-plot" things to deal with there. However, there is something evil and violent brewing to the north, and I thought that would be enough to send them north first. It wasn't.

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Now, they also faced a situation early in the campaign where they were captured by this horde, and in order to "prove" their loyalty, they had to execute another prisoner, a guide who they were captured with. This guide's protege was with them, however, and saw. She now hates them, and I planned to have her as a recurring villain who tries to come through and capture the halfling who did the execution periodically.

When the party decided to head towards the city, I didn't have any encounters ready, and this is supposed to be a plain overrun by a goblin horde, so I thought a regular "after a few days of travel you get there" scenario wouldn't make sense or be fun, so on the fly I decided to throw this NPC at them. However, we had all had a few drinks, and I wasn't paying too close attention to what I was doing, and accidentally picked out the warlock of the fiend statblock (which I think is the hardest one?!), and added 5(FIVE?!) swashbucklers as well as a few bandits to the fight. This is an absolutely insane thing to throw at 4 8 level PCs, and they are, predictably in bad shape.

The halfling is about to make his first death save, and the rest of the group have 13 (life cleric), 16 (shepherd druid), and 47 (samurai fighter) HP left. They all have an extra 12 temp HP from the shepherd druid's totem. They are surrounded by 3 swashbucklers, the other 2 and 2 surviving bandits are shooting them from range, and the warlock is also ranged attacking them. I'm not sure how to get out of this, but absolutely do not want to TPK a party because I didn't pay attention and made something wayyyyy too hard up on the fly.

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Since the NPC warlock will want the halfling alive to pay him back, I was thinking maybe have the three swashbucklers surrounding them avoid fighting and try to grapple him/ move him away, giving the others a chance to heal and attack them? I was also thinking of maybe having a band of bandit goblins get chased through the fight by some knights on horseback, and then once they got away the knights might stop chasing them to help the party? Or I was having another NPC, who is really a horde spy disguised as a traveling sorceress show up and help them out of this bind with a mind towards endearing herself to them.

Anyway I'm wondering if any of you have some good ideas for how I can re-set this fight a bit so that it's not super clear I'm deciding they don't die here, and it still feels satisfying? I'm generally not afraid to kill PCs, and have before in this campaign, but I think there's a huge difference in killing a PC because they haven't planned yet/ they are ignoring danger and killing them because I messed up the balance of a fight and slapped something together. This isn't their fault, they couldn't have done anything differently, except for maybe a few combat moves, but even then, really not their fault.

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