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Wisdom of the Masters: Clear and Present Danger

This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Sixty Two on 21 April 2021.

Lennon: Really? You know I thought we were on the same page with this kind of thing but noooooo.
Ostron: Look, it’s like I said, the best information comes from experts and…well…
Killer DM: Aww, here I was hoping ROSTRO and I could get a little study session in but it’s just you two. I suppose I should have been suspicious when Ryu found the hat just sitting on her desk.
Ostron: Yeah, ROSTRO isn’t being used right now –
Killer DM: Of course not; I’m talking to you.
Ostron: What?
Killer DM: Never mind. So I assume you aren’t here to voluntarily donate kidneys?
Ostron: No, we wanted to consult you on something.
Lennon: No no no, you wanted to consult her on something.
Killer DM: Aww, you just wanted to see me for friendship’s sake? I knew we had a connection.
Lennon: That’s not –
Killer DM: Because otherwise I’d think you don’t like me very much, and that would mean I don’t like you either. You know what happens to people I don’t like?
Lennon: Wonderful to have you here, it’s the absolute highlight of my day.
Killer DM: That’s what I thought. So while I’m obviously more intelligent than either of you on any topic you can think of, what exactly did you want to talk to me about.
Ostron: Scaring players.
Killer DM: Oh well are you giving me a whole show? Actually I’m thinking three would cover it.
Lennon: We’ve got the short rest.
Killer DM (not amused): Really? You expect me to convey the depth of my knowledge in a mere couple of minutes?
Lennon: Or you could explain to RaeRae why we’re going to let her pool flood and soak into the floor.
Killer DM (sighing): Fine. Tell me what you want to talk about specifically. I’m guessing you don’t want the fun stuff like how to mail live scorpions to the player’s houses?
Ostron: Um, no.m

A common issue that sometimes faces Dungeon Masters in running a campaign is describing the actual danger of encounters without relying on game terms or metagaming. While it’s very possible for DMs to accidentally throw the characters into an encounter where they’re overmatched, either because the players started making unwise tactical decisions or because you believed CR actually meant something when you were putting an encounter together, we’re talking about the other situation; you’ve introduced a creature or character that you know perfectly well the adventurers can’t handle, and you’re trying to convince the players of that fact while maintaining roleplaying.

Even I don’t like to do the thing where I point at a creature and go “It’s CR is larger than your dice collection, go play with something else” because it ruins the fun for everyone. It immediately erases any dramatic tension, it takes away the players’ right to act like idiots, and it means there’s less of a chance of me killing them. What you need to do is instill a healthy amount of fear.

The first thing most people think of is having a bunch of NPCs hang around and tell them things like “the creature is far too strong” or “I don’t think your group can handle it,” or “Don’t go, you’ll die.” The problem is thanks to fantasy stories and myths throughout time, people saying things like that to the hero may as well be large flashing signs saying “you should definitely go do this”; after all, they’re the heroes, solving problems everyone else has been failing at is what they exist for. I mean, I always get a laugh out of it after a TPK because I can just go “well they said you were all going to die” but I’ve been told that’s…unsporting.

You may have slightly more success with that approach if you have an NPC that’s more like a mentor or an identified expert. If you have a small village wailing about the impossibility of dealing with a dragon it may not have much impact but if a renowned draconologist is with the party and says “Bloke’s chicken oriental. He’ll rip you a new one, smash you into a ruby, and go for a swift half a Nelson at the rub-a-dub” it might have more impact.

m
Killer DM: Or it would if anyone had the slightest clue what you just said.
Lennon: I can’t help it if you’re not proficient in British.
Ostron: Why is this expert British?
Lennon: All experts in exotic and esoteric knowledge are British. It’s just a thing.
m

Anyway, this is actually a good way to incorporate a character’s backstory or specialization if it’s applicable. If the characters are about to run into a den of mindflayers and someone in the party has been hunting or studying them as part of their history, you can covertly or explicitly tell them, based on their expertise, they don’t believe the party can handle whatever cavern or creature they’re up against. Assuming the character then tries to tell their comrades about their impressions, they become a second voice helping you describe the impending peril.

But what if none of your characters have studied oceanography and don’t know that a squid and a kraken are very much not the same thing? In this case the idea of “show, don’t tell” is sometimes effective. As the KDM said, heroes and adventurers are told “no one else has done or survived this” all the time. Visible evidence of what the creature or threat is capable of can make the threat more specific and more real.

For example, a townsperson saying “oh dear Moradin the creature kills everything” can be dismissed as hyperbole or hysterics. If the characters come upon a village that is literally burned to the ground with charred bodies everywhere, apart from being a horrific tableau in its own right, it will tell the characters that whatever the threat was, it was willing to and capable of destroying an entire village.

But let’s be real here, your standard villager gets killed by their own cow half the time so taking out a crowd of them is really not hard. Also, unless the village is built by dwarves all the houses are wood and straw. I mean, essentially old Henrietta in the barn is just as likely to burn down the village and kill everyone in it as a dragon.

If you want to really make an impression, you have to get more specific. As with so many situations in life, the best way to do this is to kill more things, and make it personal. Take a creature or a group that the characters can relate to or are familiar with. If they had a big fight with a fire giant that taxed their resources? Put three dead fire giants around for them to find on the way to the creature’s lair. Did they make friends with an adventuring party back in town? String their corpses up on the wall of whatever building the evil thing is living in. Again, while it makes for good ambiance regardless, those examples are specific enough that it should give the party something to think about. They know how much trouble they had taking down one giant, and now whatever they’re going to fight took out three? And you’ve gained how many levels in-between? That’s right, go back and play with the kobolds until you have your big boy abilities.

Another way to do something similar without immediately killing things –

m
Killer DM: Boooo-riiing
Lennon (sighing): I really just love how much your input adds to these little chats.
m

Anyway, another option for suggesting to the players that they may be out of their depth is giving the creature an entourage. This is usually more applicable if they’re dealing with a humanoid enemy but it can also apply to lairs out in the wilderness. The idea here is that rather than presenting them with a lot of corpses of very powerful creatures, living examples of the creatures are acting as subordinates or guards. In the cave the Killer DM mentioned earlier, have the fire giants act as sentries. Or if you’re in an urban setting, have the entrance to the mansion or underground lair be protected by skilled assassins that can pull off the “suddenly you’re surrounded by archers” trick.

Apart from being slightly less morbid, it also helps to reinforce the danger for the players more directly; if they decide to ignore the corpses, there’s really nothing that stops them from wandering in and fighting the impossibly hard enemy anyway. With the living guards, they end up in a fight that will probably severely tax their resources, which should make them hesitate in going to fight the dangerous creature for practical reasons even if they don’t make the mental connection that something commanding the respect of monsters that can give them a severe beatdown is probably even more deadly itself.

But you always have those players who are the “no surrender” types or the “the DM wouldn’t actually kill any of us” meta philosophers, or the “the cleric has diamonds; it’ll be fine” rationalizers. For these people or groups it probably wouldn’t matter if you just flat out told them the exact spells and attacks the creature would kill them with; they’d still try to make it work.

In those cases they’re like a shark with a blood scent; you have to smack them in the face with reality to get it through to them.

m
Killer DM: Oh Ostron I didn’t expect you to jump on board with my philosophy so quickly!
Ostron: No, that was metaphorical – I’m not advocating actually hauling off and hitting people.
Killer DM: And now we’re back to boring. Though it is you talking, so…
Ostron: If I can get through this…
m

In those cases it’s helpful, to take a cue from movies. In this case, Avengers: Age of Ultron is a good touchpoint. The first time the Avengers go to confront Ultron they end up split up, beaten down, and incapacitated because they underestimated the threat. It’s a good idea to make sure if the characters are hunting down the big bad at an ill-advised time, they’re doing it on the enemy’s home turf. That means you as the DM can possibly trap them and prevent them from confronting the threat directly, or at least make sure the fight doesn’t last very long before the villain escapes or removes the characters. Pit traps, impenetrable doors, and hidden teleportation runes are all helpful in that regard.

If you can literally pull off something like what happened in Age of Ultron, that’s even better; non-fatally incapacitating a character, dominating them and turning them against their allies, or generally rendering them unable to act in combat mathematically gives your side of the fight an even greater advantage because of action economy, and it usually creates a mild level of panic in the players as they suddenly have to refocus on saving their allies. Calling in extra help from the guards Lennon mentioned is another way to up the tension.

Or, you know, you could just start killing people.

The organ donor already pointed out that at the point where they’re fighting the big evil early you’re already dealing with at least one person whose idea of a subtle hint is someone screaming through a megaphone. The only way you’re going to get it through their head that the enemy’s too strong for them is to literally put something through their head. However, killing people is delicate business so you have to be smart about it. 

If there is one character more than the others that pushed their party into trying this nonsense, they’re private enemy number one.

m
Lennon: I think the saying is “public enemy number one?”
Killer DM: I never delegate my killing, darling, believe me it’s a very private matter. As I was saying, find the ringleader and target them first. I like to do it with an area effect to spread the pain around. It will help the rest of the characters realize that, yes, they were correct; they should not be having this fight.
m

After that it requires some thought. If the problematic character is someone you can’t kill quickly, like a rogue who keeps evading all your attacks or a barbarian that can just stand there and take hits like a boxer, keep up with the area attacks. Eventually you’ll reach the point where the instigator might be fine but the rest of the party is trying to remember what pain didn’t feel like. If you can effectively attack the king of bad decisions then switch to just punishing them until they’re lying on the floor at your feet.

And though it goes against my usual stance, don’t finish them off, and back off after you drop a few of the characters to zero. Every good villain knows that killing people creates worry, but maiming and scarring them creates first-hand witnesses that horrify everyone around.

Now some experienced DMs may be thinking “but what if they do that thing where they try to pool their resources all at once and end the fight right away by overwhelming the boss?” The point of this is that the creature should be a high enough level that it won’t matter if the characters completely unload on it; it’ll still be alive and mobile after the first volley. If the characters can kill it just by beating it in the initiative, then it wasn’t a threat they needed to avoid; it was just a regular threat. The advice above only needs to apply when the characters have no way of realistically surviving a fight with the creature and you as the DM are trying to warn them off because the alternative is a TPK.

So if or when you get to the point where a few of the characters are dying and the rest are in really bad shape, it’s time to end things. This is again where being in the villain’s lair comes in handy. They can escape through a secret or difficult exit (most characters will have difficulty following a dragon through an 80 foot vertical shaft).

And even if they do, what happens then? Congratulations you’re now one-on-one with a dragon in mid-air and your friends are back in the cave bleeding out.

Or, alternatively, the evil guy can stay in their own home and have the adventurers thrown out. One thing to remember is that there is a rule in D&D that melee attacks that reduce a creature to 0 can be used to render them unconscious. As long as you’re not obsessed with fireballing the party in question, you can cook them to a nice single digit hit point total and then either summon help or walk around smacking them in the face with a staff, then have the minions carry them out and dump them on the doorstep, or imprison them, or whatever.

With most groups, subjecting them to all of that, possibly including a near or actual character death, should be an indication to them that whatever threat they went up against is not something they should be handling until later. Whether that means doing quests to level up or finding some sort of MacGuffin that gives them an advantage over the enemy. Either way, they should be focusing on that for the time being, and letting the big evil creature alone for a bit.

m

Ostron: See? Everything was fine. Thank you for your help.
Killer DM: You’re welcome.
(kills Ostron)
Lennon: You know, usually I get indignant and ask why you did that, but at this point he brought it on himself.
Killer DM: See? I knew we were getting along better. Now I need you to put in a good word for me with RaeRae.
Lennon: What makes you think my recommendations carry any weight with her?
Killer DM: Ugh. Fine. I’ll go put the hat back, I suppose. Are you going to find Gath or do you need to borrow my mop?
Lennon: I don’t want to read all those listener responses myself so definitely cleric time.

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