"This foe is beyond any of you . . .RUN!" (out-of-tier threats vs. Heroic PCs)

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So I've had some success running PCs against out-of-tier threats before. My campaigns tend to be overwhelmingly mid- to high-Heroic level (like 5 to 9) but from time to time I like to throw something truly horrendous and overpowered at my PCs, always with an 'out' or 'equalizer' to give them a chance.

I'm one who prefers not to down-level monsters (i.e. I don't take a level 20 monster, put it in the engine, and reduce it's stats to make it level 6 or 7). If the Manual says it's a level 20, I 'trust the ecology' as it were.

Like, I'm thinking of running a campaign in an abandoned dwarven city quite similar to Moria. Naturally, the deepest levels contain a level-27 Balor tromping around.

I'd like my 5th-level PCs to *have* to go down there to advance the story (and get somewhere else). I don't, of course, expect them to fight and win. What I plan to do is have then run for their lives across rubble and an unstable floor (and, of course, narrow bridge) while this thing chases them. Thus, "combat" with this thing consists of a skill challenge.

Here's the thing, though: These guys are going to *try* and fight this thing, I just know they are. And they'll be dead in 2 rounds. Any ideas how to convince them not to?
If the mine was collapsing before they ran into this thing, perhaps they would be more inclined to run FASTER instead of fighting it. The balor would just be another obstacle they face while trying to escape with their lives.
I often run games similar to that. For one, I always warn players before the campaign starts that not everything is scaled to their level so if they insist on taking on every threat they encounter they are going to die.

Next, you have to provide some sort of cue that this is way beyond their abilities. Some players memorize the MM, if you have any of those types they might pick this up right away. If they have an expendable NPC, have the monster one-shot him in a very graphic manner (preferably an NPC with respectable combat ability, it isn't very terrifying for a beast to slay the farmer's 14 year-old daughter). Also, if it has an attack that is strong enough to really hurt the PCs without one-shotting them, have it use that to give them the hint (if the power is close, like might kill them on a crit, just be sure to fudge the dice on that first attack). If it has a power that can bloody them in one hit, they'll get the picture. If it's an area power, even better. Then have it make an off-hand comment like "Did that hurt? Good, because I'm just getting warmed up..."
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Dead in two rounds? More like the Balor's first freakin' turn...

Hate to say it, but what you're trying to do just does not work, and I highly doubt that these out of tier attempts you've made in the past are as successful as you'd like to believe they are. Levels and bonuses work like they do because PCs have a really hard time hitting anything five or more levels above their own level, and they don't do enough damage to really take out a high level solo quickly in the first place. Combat drags on forever, and even epic tier level 30 characters can be pushed to the limit when faced against a good level 35 monster as part of an encounter. Even if you do something to scale back damage and defenses on the monster, you're just leveling the monster down without actually leveling it down. To this, if you do put them up against this Balor, and you know they are going to try and fight it, they will do it, and they will die. End of story. Nothing short of DM fiat saying "you know you can't fight this thing, so you're not going to even try" will keep them from doing it, and that's just boring as all get out.

instead, why not put them up against a level 9 enemy with the same idea? It's easier to run for actual combat if they do try to fight it, and it won't slaughter them all in one turn. Nothing wrong with giving the PCs a challenge that is actually appropriate for their levels. Why be a hero if you can't be heroic and fight the monster instead of running away like a sissy? There's no merit to throwing them up against an enemy they have no earth chance at all of beating aside from your own personal amusement on the matter...
If the PCs have no chance of overcoming the obstacle in combat, then it is not a combat encounter.  Do not dress it as one.

Do not roll initiative.  Do not get out the maps and minis.  Don't let players make attack rolls.  When they declare their intent to attack, narrate the monster as avoiding or shrugging off the attack and then backhanding the PC and sending him sprawling like he was a bothersome insect.
Another day, another three or four entries to my Ignore List.
If you don't intend the PCs to murder it, don't put it in the dungeon.
I think it's all about your social contract with your players.  If they, as many of the posters here, believe that their characters should never encounter anything that completely overshadows them, they will be upset at this plan.  If you all agree that high level monsters don't suddenly appear as their characters gain levels, and that they might encounter creatures they can't kill yet, they might be a bit more cautious.  The secret is making sure you're all on the same page, and then finding a way to signal them when such an event occurs. 

To put a literary spin on it, Strider, Frodo and the hobbits encountered the Nazgul very early on, and clearly stood no chance against them.  They fled (a skill challenge?) and survived.  Later, Merry helped Eowyn kill the Witch King.  I think it was more satisfying and significant because of their earlier meeting.
If you don't intend the PCs to murder it, don't put it in the dungeon.

I would amend that as, "If you aren't prepared for the PCs to murder it, don't put it in the dungeon."

Just because they can doesn't mean they should, but just because they shouldn't, doesn't mean they won't. The DM should always allow of the possibility that the party will kill whatever he throws at them, as long as it has combat stats. As they say, "if it has stats, we can kill it."

The exception is when you have stat-less entities or deities against non-epic PCs. These, you don't have to worry about the party killing, because they literally can't.

Standard Answer to all 5E rules questions: "Ask your DM."

Look the players in the eyes. Tell them: "You cannot hurt this thing. Not even on a 20. It can kill you without rolling if you engage it in battle. What are you going to do?"

The first person to move closer to it, dies. Instantly. No rolls.

That'll set the tone for the rest of the time they're playing with you. You could give them a second warning, of course. Don't make it "Are you sure you want to do that?". Make it a very clear "If you do this, your character dies. No dice will be rolled."

If it's not a combat encounter, it's not a combat encounter.
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The first person to move closer to it, dies. Instantly. No rolls.

And suddenly it's 1977 again.

Hardly. It's not a case of "You did something reasonable, but I'm still going to kill you."

A Heroic Tier character willingly engaging with an Epic level Balor that has only seconds ago been described as "you cannot possibly hope to even give it a papercut and it will murder you in an instant" is on par with "You see a pool of lava" -> "I take a refreshing dive".
Epic Dungeon Master

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Your Kingdom awaits!
Update 5th Sep 2011: Added a sample kingdom, as well as sample of play.
I do this sort of thing occasionally, sometimes with great results.  The key is to be willing to accept the consequences as a DM.  When I introduce a Death Knight in a scene with a 2nd level party I am fully prepared for a TPK if the players are foolish enough to fight it.  I will try to find story based ways of not killing the whoile party, for instance the Death Knight melted the clerics holy symbol with a Shatter spell (this was 2e D&D), and rode away laughing.  If that fails to deter the party however, I am fully prepared for a TPK, and either end the campaign or search for some way of continuing after the fact.  I have in the past killed the party and started a new campaign where the villain from the previous campaign had successfully achieved his goals, and the world was a very different place.  Show you are willing to do this, and warn your players about it ahead of time, and I doubt you'll see as much foolhearty behavior in the future.

Kalex the Omen 
Dungeonmaster Extraordinaire

My experience with these encounter types stems form video games like Yggdrasil Labyrinth/Etrian Odyssey and Final Fantasy XII, wherein there is always some sign before you are attacked that this is no ordinary monster and wherein escape, tho' not always easy, is always possible (tho' one-hit-kills pose less finality when you control an entire party and you have means to revive members later).

The narrator should NOT interrupt play to tell the players straightly, "you'll die if you fight this"; instead let the game SHOW their characters what the beast is BEFORE the choice arises. Similarly, AVOID beating them over the bean with it; they should feel somewhat clever for correctly interpreting your hints/warnings. If they die, they earned it.

One recommendation is to have a tough, nasty monster the party has encountered before, and defeated with difficulty, fleeing in horror before the beast (as in the LotR movie). Perhaps the beast decimates the previously nasty monster using the same move it will use against the party if given the chance. Preferably one hit would reduce characters to 1 hp rather than killing them; THAT is their "Are you sure?"

Encountering the same monster later in the campaign and having a chance against it would show them how much they've grown.

In fact, there is a nigh-20-minute video on this aspect of game philosophy complete with examples, humor, and frequent swearing here. It uses video games, but it applies here as well.
The narrator should NOT interrupt play to tell the players straightly, "you'll die if you fight this"; instead let the game SHOW their characters what the beast is BEFORE the choice arises. Similarly, AVOID beating them over the bean with it; they should feel somewhat clever for correctly interpreting your hints/warnings. If they die, they earned it.

I agree with this. As they say in regards good storytelling, "show, don't tell."

I've put an "unbeatable" enemy in front of my party before. It was Raz'Thel, the lord of all demons, who is, in D&D terms, essentially a god. He can't be touched by anything from characters below level 21 (the party was level 9), and can never be killed under any cercumstances. The party KNOWS this, and still chose to fight for a full round so that the NPCs they were rescuing could get away. They got pretty wrecked for it, but no one died because even Raz'Thel can't one-shot them. Plus, Invokers are crazy-good at getting the party into full retreat mode.

Standard Answer to all 5E rules questions: "Ask your DM."

I agree with what Salla says earlier.  If the PCs really have no chance against the threat in combat, then it's not a combat encounter.  I wouldn't present it as one.

Instead, how about a skill challenge?  The PCs might be able to negotiate (if they're lucky ;)).  Most likely, they'll run away (and get chased).

I think about the Millenium Falcon vs. Star Destroyer.  Han didn't really consider going toe-to-toe, instead he chose to essentially duck and cover.  Han wasn't as lucky as he thought however, Bobba Fett had seen that trick before . . . ;).
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to be fair, i think that it's silly to arbitrate that the players can't engage things too powerful for them to deal with in a combat encounter. Combat is fighting, not winning, i see this as being run as a combat encounter with a not-kill-the-monster objective.

Consider this for a combat encounter:

The Players are leaving "Moria" and the balor's tailing them on the way out, only sadly, this group ain't got no gandalf to deal with the problem. Instead, the creature is inherenty slow, and has been edited to not have any powerful ranged attacks (maybe the city is it's prison, and it's powers are restricted within). Meanwhile rubble is falling and the entire area is breaking down into carnage from the collateral damage this thing's presence/raging ambience is causing.

The objective of the players is to reach the exit before the super powerful entity catches up with them, of course if this is anything like Moria from LOTR, then the balor isn't the only thing living here, other more appropriate level creatures are here, many of which are fleeing as well, or going mad in the chaos- those behind the players that find themselves in the creature's path are examples of what happens when it catches up with them, those in front serve as obstacles for the players to deal with as quickly as possible so they can keep moving. Rocks can appear randomly each round/turn/whatever to emphasize the fact that they're falling, you might even let small chunks fall on players for a little damage, regardless the terrain should gradually be getting more difficult to navigate with every passing moment.

oh and the rocks don't hinder the great lumbering entity at all, you describe him effortlessly smashing his way through them as the players continue to scrabble over and around them. The entity can launch ranged attacks, but these are weaker than they should be, equivalent to the strikes of a strong monster of their own level. Make sure you show the players why, that the power is withering as it crosses the space between them, that the wards on the walls are flashing with the strain of absorbing as much power from the spells as possible- before they get the wrong idea. heck maybe the ranged strikes are stronger the closer he gets, increasing the sense of urgency to get away from him.

Running this, the most important thing to remember is to identify their objective very clearly, you could have an NPC shout at them to run, describe the exit as being the group's only hope, and try to make it represent life and freedom. give them a feeling of dread that out does anything they've ever faced, makes them tremble with wild-eyed fear. contrary to what people here believe, the narration can make it clear enough what they're supposed to be doing for the players to make an informed judgement on their course of action. if they decide to run in headfirst, gung ho anyway?

not your fault they ignored your very clear narration of the situation


I have players very similar to what it sounds like you are describing, in the fact that they will put their head down, windmill their fists, and charge, sometimes before I get the villanous monologue (a beloved tradition around our table.. DMs have been awarded prizes for good ones!) over with.

And even THEY would get the hint, when I showed them the picture of the Balrog, then said something like...

"The creature roars mightly, lashing a scourge of hellfire. In it's other fist is gripped what appears to be solid bolt of lightning, which crackles and hisses. The stench of ozone and sulfer fills the air, and the very air around the hell born nightmare ignites and burns, small flames licking across your armor, even at this distance. Closing to melee range with this creature would no doubt char the skin from your bones.

What are you doing?"

ANd hey... if they didn't, I assume that is their subconcious vote to change characters and campaigns!
So many PCs, so little time...
Adding to The-Magic-Sword's description, perhaps the main thing slowing it down is a wrapping of eldritch chains it trails from its prison deep below. One actions a PC could take is to magically charge the chain or spike the end of one of its chains to ephemerally slow its advance.
Combat is fighting

Exactly.  This isn't a fight, it's a slaughter.
Another day, another three or four entries to my Ignore List.
I agree that it shouldn't be presented as an encounter.  I've had success with these types of situations in the past by presenting them as skill challenges.  Ideally, the group will use their skills and abilities to escape from the situation.  If they decide to stand and fight, you can have the monster counter-attack (no roll necessary) and drain a healing surge or something.  They'll get the hint pretty quickly.  But even if they go toe-to-toe with the monster for a while, that's not the end of the world, either: just have their successes in combat erase one of their failures to escape.  It's like a covering action, you know?  Everyone's doing their damnedest to get away, but one character turns and squares off against the monster, determined to keep its attention, if only for a minute.
Speaking as a player, I can say that I would be almost insulted if you didn't present this as an encounter - the amount of molly-coddling in this thread is quite astonishing; most players I've met would much rather fail to take a subtle(ish) hint than succeed after being told outright that I have no chance. Give your players some credit for their intelligence.

As a DM I would agree. For a start, it breaks immersion for an encounter with a hostile beast to be considered different to another. Don't let your campaign catch video-gameitis. Your campaign should feel like a living breathing world, and that means that sometimes the creatures met will not be level-appropriate, nor will you have any indication that they aren't apart from the fact that it's a gargantuan fiery beast shrugging off falling boulders; i.e, an in universe reason. 
When you let them know they're in for a fight, it's surprising what your PC's can do. My two wizards actually sent up our two defenders using their invisibility daily powers, putting in place the heavy hitters with our control wizard following not far beyond. With two heavy hitters in place the control wizard cast Icy Rays on the foe, paralyzing it for the heavy hitters to get some good strike in and for everyone else to get in place. I was rather impressed.

I've also given terrain advantages in the past. In a fight against a cadaver collector for example, there was a balcony which could give them protection against its physical attacks... if they could to it, anyway.

Though I think the real trick is letting them know in game. I prefaced this campaign by letting them know they may come across enemies that could kill them rather easily and that it's not always, if ever, wise to just charge headlong with your axe. Though often I'll do it with description of the enemy. I trust my PC's enough to know they probably ought not take on a "towering arch-demon, wielding a sword of bromstone and a whip of fire that booms of thunder with each mighty crack."
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If they try to engage it in combat, run the combat.  But...  as it approaches them, have it break big, hard-to-break things - smashes a mighty stone wall with an easy sweep of its lightning-sword, its flame-whip melts a massive iron statue with the barest touch, its every step leaves the rock under it soft and red-hot, etc.  And, yeah - if you have an expendable NPC nearby (or even better, some other monsters the PCs have been fighting), they can die first to really show what sort of business this is.
In my last game I included a monster above my players' level. When I described it, I made sure I emphasized that it was powerful enough that they couldn't harm it. My players were smart enough to realize it was a plot device and quietly snuck away. Had they ignored my warning, combat would have commenced, one or more characters would have been bloodied in the first round and they'd probably attempt to flee. Which I would make an easy DC.
The game isn't only about combat. It's what your players enjoy. If they only enjoy combat then make sure every encounter has a combat option. If they enjoy thrilling chase scene style skill challenges put some of those in.
You wanna frighten your players, beat them to within an inch of their life.  Because if you kill them there's nothing to be afraid of anymore.

If the monster's tough enough it's likely to one-shot a player.  Just pull its punches.  If your players see something that's rampaging towards them deflecting blows and tearing pieces out of your players like they were kit kat bars their self preservation should kick in.

I've ran encounters against players where their chances of survival were reduced to absolute zero if they stuck around to continue to fight.  They decided to break contact, and withdraw to a safer place beyond the reach of the monsters where they fortified and rested.

Have faith that your players want to keep playing the game and will likely avoid death. 

Failing that, give them an out.  If you really want this monster around and want to drive the point that it's beyond them.  When they see it describe overwhelming sensations of doom, some kind of dark aura pulsating towards them.  Once, when I presented a party with something that very well could end them I described it as such:
One player says "What do I feel when I look at this thing?"
I say "As it meets your gaze you feel its eyes as if they are looking through you, and the hairs on the back of your neck are standing straight up."
1p (who can be a little slow on the uptake) says: "What?"
Other player says "Dude, it doesn't even care about you, and you feel terrified of it."
1p : "Oh..."

In geek terms, "Your spider-sense is tingling!"

Have them take a few hits (don't kill anybody, maybe at the most drop someone to 0 have them make death saves, then the thrashing monster collapses the tunnel between itself and the players.  When it happens the monster immediately begins slamming at the debris, clawing for a way through.  Roaring.  Give the players time to help the "dying" player as a tentacle, claw, tendril, snout, pokes through the rubble.  If one of them makes a swing at an exposed appendage then the creature only seems enraged by the attack, burrowing faster and faster.

If this doesn't drive the point home then tell them to prepare for a final stand because they're going out like a spartan.

But, have faith in your players.  As long as they're not denser than asphalt, chances are they'll make the "right" choice.  (Right in regards to how you want to progress this.)
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