I got an email the other day (by way of our Suggestion Pot) from Gnome Stew reader BishopOfBattle asking a great question:

How do the Gnomes approach and deal with the (planned) “no-win” scenario?

Recently my players were faced with such a scenario during the BBEG reveal, they were asked to side with him or face “certain” death. In this case, it was presented to them as a no-win scenario to the characters, but was not intended to actually be so, with opportunities for the players to exploit and heroically escape the situation. It went ok in the end, but I had a lot of difficulty balancing the “you” as characters should feel like you are trapped but “you” as players should feel encouraged to act heroically in the face of overwhelming odds without feeling like you will be punished for it.

I’ve struggled with this as a GM and as a player, and it’s an interesting topic (thanks for the suggestion, Bishop!).

As a GM, I’ve put forward in-game situations nearly identical to what BishopOfBattle described, sometimes just assuming my players would understand that it wasn’t actually a no-win scenario, sometimes crossing my fingers that I’d made it clear — wink wink, nudge nudge — that they should fight the good fight despite the odds. My results were mixed, though at the time I probably couldn’t have articulated why they were mixed.

As a player, it’s much easier to articulate: When I find myself debating, either internally or aloud with the other players, whether we’re facing an actual no-win scenario or a “no-win” scenario, it’s always been because I’m fuzzy on whether I expect the same things from the game as the GM, and often fuzzy on whether we’ve ever actually spelled out what either of us (GM or players) should be expecting from the game. For me, this has happened most frequently with D&D 3.x and D&D 4e, systems where the default assumption is combat as sport, not combat as war.

It all comes back to assumptions, shared and unshared; genre conventions; communication; and social contracts. We talk a lot about social contracts here on the Stew, so I’m mostly going to set that one aside and look at the other items in that list. (Here’s a good starting-point article on social contracts, with several others linked within it.)

Assumptions, shared and unshared

Whenever you game, regardless of the situation (long-running home game, convention one-shot, with strangers at your FLGS) and game, everyone at the table — GM and players — has assumptions about how the game is working, will work, and should work. (By “work,” I mean mostly “play, in an all-encompassing way” that includes everything from the structure of sessions to how the group, say, interprets the relationship between hit points and taking wounds.) If not everyone at the table has the same assumptions — and they often don’t, to varying degrees — then there will be moments of friction whenever conflicting assumptions rub up against each other.

BishopOfBattle’s situation, a battle that should appear futile to the PCs but which the players are supposed to understand isn’t actually futile, is a perfect example of a potential point of friction. If everyone at the gaming table understands that in this game the PCs should tackle impossible odds because, as in many action movies, those odds aren’t actually impossible, then everything will go fine. If not, then it’ll be a bit of a muddle.

Which is where genre conventions come in.

Genre conventions

The conventions of a particular genre are great shortcuts to avoiding mismatched assumptions. The same is true for games based on licensed properties, but there the shortcuts are even better.

If you’re playing a high fantasy RPG, then the PCs would never surrender; they’d fight on, and damn the torpedoes. And everyone at the table would probably understand that, even if you never actually discussed it beforehand. If you’re playing a low fantasy game, the opposite would be true: If the PCs appear to be fucked, they probably are; running away/giving up is in order.

Most games are strongly rooted in one or more genres, but in the lovely interplay of game, actual play, and the quirks of your particular GM, players, and table, sometimes things aren’t that cut and dried. Maybe the game shifts fluidly between genres or styles, or embodies more than one genre to the extent that a no-win situation can’t immediately be parsed through a genre-based lens.

If that’s the case, communication is critical.


At the end of the day, like most social contract issues, BishopOfBattle’s situation boils down to communication. Reading between the lines, I’m willing to bet his group hadn’t talked about this sort of thing beforehand — which isn’t a dig at them, and certainly isn’t uncommon. If they had, then the players would have understood the “no-win” situation and proceeded accordingly without any hiccups.

But if you’ve planned this sort of scenario and you realize that your group isn’t sure what to do, or you’re pretty sure they’re drawing a conclusion that won’t lead to a fun evening for anyone (when the opposite conclusion likely would be fun for the whole group), you do have some options. I’ve seen these four work out well in play:

  • Pause the game and just talk about it openly. This won’t be for everyone, but for some groups it’s a fine approach. Ask the players if they think the PCs have a shot, explain what you had in mind, and give them a reason to push on despite the (apparent) odds. It takes the group out of the game, which may not be a plus for you, but it wards off a potentially un-fun situation with no other consequences.
  • Pause and ask them to take stock of the situation. This is usually a sign that the players might have missed something, and it gives you the opportunity to suggest that they should ignore the odds without actually coming out and saying it. I appreciate this approach on both sides of the screen.
  • Use body language to explain things without explaining them. “There’s nooooooo waaaaaaay you’re coming out of this alive,” followed by a hammy wink or two, should do it for most groups. Don’t be subtle unless you know your players will pick up on it; they have a lot to think about, and picking up on subtlety is hard in those situations.
  • Provide in-game clues that they have a shot. Use NPCs, skill checks, or other tools of the system or fiction to shine the light a bit more brightly on the situation. Again, I wouldn’t be too subtle, but this is the most subtle approach on this list.

To sum up, then, the short answer to BishopOfBattle’s question is, “Make sure that the whole group knows they’re playing the sort of game where the PCs should act heroically despite the odds because the outcome will be, or at least has the potential to be, satisfying for everyone involved.” Which is a bit flip, as answers go, if you find yourself in that spot and haven’t already had that talk with your group — hence the article!

If you can talk this sort of thing over early on, when the game is starting up (a key component of the approach to campaign management covered in Gnome Stew’s most recent book, Odyssey), then that’s by far the best approach. If you can’t, or didn’t, then assess the situation on the spot and take your best shot at clearing things up before the session dissolves into chaos or tedium. Your best shot may not be one of the four options I proposed — those are just the four I’ve seen work best.

And this being Gnome Stew, I’m sure our readers have other ideas — and I’d love to hear them! What do you do in this situation, and what approaches do you appreciate as a player?