We’ve all done it. We’ve given the players a fight we thought they could take, and then watched in horror as we realise we’ve vastly overestimated their abilities and now they’re going to get stepped on by an Iron Golem that they can’t even damage. So, what can you do to pull them out of a bad situation you created, whilst still maintaining challenge?
Whether by accident, misfortune, or not reading monster abilities properly before putting them in our games, every GM has probably at some point had to think of a way to pull the characters out of a terrible situation that could very well get them all killed by a random monster.
Whilst it may be tempting to suddenly, and without reason, reduce the monster’s armour class or damage, this is clumsy and will be noticed. It breaks immersion, it looks like you’re “letting them win”, and is entirely unsatisfying as a player. The same can be said of having their assailant suddenly retreat for no good reason.
The following are things I’ve used in the past to get players out of these sticky situations that are entirely my fault without (undue) fatalities, from my least favourite to the ones I’m particularly proud of.
Make huge tactical errors
GM: “Okay, the Troll follows up in a frenzy of claws and teeth, trying to push you up against the wall.”
Terrin Varius: “Wait, he’s standing right next to the campfire? I Bull Rush him!”
This is my least favourite not because I think it’s bad, but because it doesn’t always apply. To justify doing this, you often have to be portraying an incredibly stupid monster, or an intelligent foe that, for some reason, either isn’t minding their surroundings or doesn’t care. Furthermore, the players might not notice the errors, which puts you right back where you started.
Here comes the cavalry!
GM: “You hear the trumpeting sound of horns behind you, and arrows whizz by overhead, striking the Ogre in the chest!”
Having other characters arrive to save them is cliche, but it works, especially if you want to have them meet a specific NPC who happens to be combat capable. It can also work as an adventure hook – they owe these guys now!
Advise that they run
I think most parties forget that running away is an option – it’s often a very sensible one, in fact. Perhaps telling them they might want to consider retreat would allow them to pull themselves out of the hole they’re in.
Replace the fight with something more appropriate
GM: “As the Carrion Crawler rears up to strike you again, you hear a low, guttural growling noise from all around you. The beast pauses, turns around and skitters back into the dark. You see at least 3 pairs of eyes reflecting the dim cave light surrounding you…”
The best reason for a monster, especially a bestial one, to retreat when it’s obviously winning is the presence of other things it would rather not deal with as well as the adventurers right now, but may be easier to deal with than it (Above: 3 ghouls).
I quite like this one as it allows you to retool your original monster as a “boss” fight later, and the players will be more prepared – They’ll know the thing that nearly killed them is still out there, and should be paranoid!
Have the monster fall apart!
GM: “That last hit seemed to shake something loose in the golem’s structure. With a sudden ping, some of the rivets in its left arm give way, and the limb hangs loosely to one side. The golem as a whole, however, is still very functional, and whilst hindered by the loss of its left arm, it’s still healthy enough to try and crush you under its right! What’s your AC again?”
I love doing this. It’s dramatic, makes sense, and most importantly makes the players feel like they’ve done something right! It also gives the fight more of an arc, with the monster taking visible damage (and penalties) before dropping instead of simply suffering critical existence failure at zero hitpoints. Furthermore, they’ll remember this sort of thing and try and do it on purpose later. I once had a player throw alchemists fire into the wounded golem above by way of the hole in its left side. Anything that gives players more ideas and more scope to be creative and heroic is alright by me.
Just beat them – but don’t kill them
GM: “The bandit leader strikes you in the head with his sword pommel, and the world goes black. Hours later, you wake up, still outside the dungeon with your companions unconscious bodies around you. All your gold is missing, and it looks like someone rifled through your bags – there’s stuff all over the floor.”
My personal favourite. If they lose, then they lose! Impose consequences! There’s plenty of reasons that enemies wouldn’t outright murder them, and won’t steal everything they have – I think only the player characters think lugging around an entire Roman Legion’s worth of equipment is a good idea. Bandits will only take the valuable, easy to carry, easy to sell stuff – So probably not rare magic items that might take years to find someone rich enough to buy.