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.
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?
I’ve found this to be even more of a complex scenario when you have had adventures in the past where the characters were supposed to surrender/get captured, (complete with daring escape after) where the group may well go along with what they perceive as a “jailbreak adventure” when you really wanted them to go for more of a heroic last stand.
In a few games in the past I found it worked well if I wanted my players to fight against impossible odds I made sure to have them realize the alternative was an unheroic immediate death by execution if they did surrender, or the chances of escape even more remote then victory against all odds.
I’ve had much better luck however with simply placing the lives of a great many innocents (an orphanage, entire town or even planet) as forfeit if they don’t at least fight long enough to allow for an evacuation/the cavalry to arrive/or damage the enemy forces enough to make them have to regroup or otherwise pause in their advancement.
With such heroically high stakes my groups have always chosen to attempt to go out in a blaze of glory rather than submit to enemy forces. (and in such climactic battles failure is usually a real possibility in most of my campaigns since otherwise it’s not really a climactic battle.)
I tend to have the opposite problem, mostly due to our game being a high fantasy setting where the characters are pulling off impossible and wild stunts frequently. And because I encourage them to ham it up.
That said, I’ve thrown some battles at them that couldn’t be won. I normally try to make it clear in context, but when they’re primed to fight everything to the death that doesn’t always come across clearly. So, if the players don’t seem to be getting the message, or more likely, seem to be getting the wrong message, I pause the game long enough to state my intentions or correct a misconception.
And sometimes, if I find explaining my intentions or correcting a misconception would take too long (more than a minute) or be too confusing, then I change my plans and follow the lead of the players. More often I change my plans because they come up with something more awesome than I had in mind, so I run with it instead.
Changing plans on the fly is a great solution!
The current 3.5ed group I’m playing with has had some struggles in this area. We are playing in Faerun and doing the hard-back trilogy (Cormyr, Shadowdale, Anauroch). We are currently about 3/4 through the 2nd book. We’ve had couple character deaths already, and everyones been in the negative hit point zone more than thrice. One of the players a couple of sessions ago has threatened to quit if his character is killed. Jason (the DM, that really should be a player) is having a hard time with it, since he feels there are no real challenges. Either the group kills the BBEG in about 3.5 rounds (or less), or if it goes longer the tension is a bit too high and people are freaking out… yet, the group keeps meeting each week for more, lol.
One of my favorite D&D sessions involved brand new level 1 players. I wasn’t GMing at the time. We entered the dungeon, and on its first attack roll my first enemy got a crit and killed my character. My buddy, the only other PC that time, killed the baddie (he was the warrior) and carried my body to the nearest village to find a priest willing to rez. The GM at the time handled it brilliantly; the priest wanted a favor or two (easy plot hooks), he became a regular NPC for us, I got a rez, and the story went on. That was nearly 15 years ago now, but I’ve never forgot that lesson. In most of the games these days, especially high fantasy, there are ways around death- it doesn’t have to involve the character sheet going into the shredder. What do the rest of you think? How best to put that “death-aphobic” PC at ease so they can enjoy the game? (And Martin, thanks for already covering the high fantasy vs. low fantasy thing- with some games dead is dead).
As I mentioned, our situation worked out okay in the end, but we were definitely challenging genre conventions (though their play style has tended to be more “damn the odds!” in the past) and we certainly hadn’t talked about our expectations regarding “no-win” scenarios. Our genre (Shadowrun) certainly lends itself to actual no-win scenarios if they get out of control, though we have been playing together for so long (5 years with these characters!) that I would hope they would know I would not force an actual no-win situation as part of the overall plot.
I can’t complain too much, though, there was a lot of good, tense role-playing between characters / players who clearly believed it was a no-win scenario and didn’t want to die and felt the villain was making a good offer versus those who maybe thought it was “no-win” situation but were willing to go down doing the right thing anyway.
The approach to resolving the situation that I ended up leaning on most was to make either option viable. Most of my notes and prep were built around the idea that the players would balk at being employed by the villain that was the root of so much grief over the campaign, but I setup the scene such that the offer might at least be tempting to one or two of them. I assumed, based on my players and the play style they’ve had in the past, that they would never go for that option. I was wrong… but I’ve enough room to continue the campaign in an unexpected direction now!
Making either option viable is a great solution, too! That’s one I should have caught — I’m glad you brought it up.
And thanks again for the suggestion! This was a fun article to write.
This hasn’t proven to be too much of a problem yet with my current campaign, though oddly enough I was just expecting it to be a few days ago and now this article! We’re doing a superhero campaign with lots of that supervillian “The world will be mine and there’s nothing you can do to stop me!” sort of feel to it, so it’s critical that the PCs act like heroes. The only reason I expect this to be a problem is that two of my four players are new to playing a superhero campaign and one of them just moved in and is playing with us because he can’t find any other gaming groups in the area. (We’re doing a sort of side fantasy campaign on the side specifically for him.)
I was worried the genre conventions might not get across as well if they’re newer to the superhero genre, but as of yet it seems to be going okay. Those two players just follow the lead of the other two and they’re picking it up pretty well. I had the new guy who moved in trapped in what appeared to be a no escape situation to the PC. In the fantasy game when stuff like that happens he’s ready to play the “damsel in distress” style character and just sits there, but in our superhero game he fought his way out in a different way than I’d initially invisioned.
I’m glad you spelled out that what a party “should” do– rush into battle confident of finding victory, or enter fights cautiously lest a stronger or better prepared foe lay them waste– is a matter of genre conventions and assumptions as much as anything else. I’ve played with too many GMs over the years who consider it to be a simple obvious fact, one way or the other. That’s led to so many frustrating games.
In my own campaigns I prefer to play a style closer to “combat as war” than “combat as sport”. Knowing that this is against genre convention for many gamers, I lay it out on the table (so to speak) before the first roleplaying session. I talk candidly about gaming style and what the party’s power level is relative to the rest of the world. I’ll underscore this in the first session or two by including tough encounters. But I’ll make sure each offers an escape route after the party realizes they’ve totally gotten in over their heads. This helps them learn and adjust to “combat as war”.
I have a tendency to run similar style games, and I like that you try to include ‘escapes’ from situations if the players make the wrong choice (or a bad choice, however you want to phrase it). I have not generally gone with that option, usually I allow the group to succeed but at great cost, with severe consequences, usually to the environment/population around them (though that can affect them indirectly later on).
One thing I’ve found that works to really hammer home the ‘combat as war’ style, is to include a combat savvy NPC as an ally, and really have the party get to like him/her and even depend on him/her. Then, after a few session, I kill off the NPC while in combat. I don’t script it, I just make sure that s/he makes a choice that can get him/her killed, just like the same choice would get a PC killed.
The shock on the faces of the players is quite satisfying, they get the picture, and none of them had to die for it. They almost always are more careful from that point on.
(YMMV, if used too often, the players will start to recognize the ‘red shirt,’ and treat him/her accordingly. At that point, the NPC becomes invincible, and I pick out the player who noticed first, then target his/her character).
Another solution is to bring a strong character to near death, getting them quite scared, especially if the rest of the party can’t help right away and the player is just counting the rounds until the character slips over death’s door…