Should a DM Present Players With Impossible Situations?

Let me tell you a story about a game from about a decade ago. A group of friends were playing 2nd Edition AD&D and I was serving as the DM. During the course of the campaign, one of the players received a Deck of Many Things. I’m not a huge fan of the Deck of Many Things while I’m DMing. In my experience it has a tendency to completely grind the game to a halt since the players want to immediately draw from it. This is exactly what happened in this case, but it was already late in the session so we decided to draw from the deck and then wrap things up.

The player who received the deck was playing the Fighter in the group. The Fighter was your typical tank character just running around taking damage and dishing it back out. Because of this the player ran this Fighter like he was invincible. He proudly proclaimed that he was going to draw three cards from the deck. I like to use actual playing cards for the Deck of Many Things so I pulled out the appropriate cards and let him begin drawing.  First draw was the King of clubs. Disaster! The Void! The Fighter’s soul was sucked from him and placed in an object far away.

The group got together and decided that they needed to fix this situation. They hunted down a powerful Wizard who could cast a Wish spell for them to learn the location of the object. Eventually they learned that the object was being held on another plane of existence. They found the necessary means to travel to the object and attempt to bring their fallen Fighter back. When the party arrived on the other plane they found that it was barren and lifeless with the only feature being a lonely mountain. The heroes approached the mountain only to discover that the object was being guarded by a Tarrasque, a monster that they were clearly not a match for. Fearless to the end, the party charged headlong at the beast to wage a short, but ineffective battle before common sense convinced them to get out while the getting was good. We all had a good laugh and the players learned a valuable lesson about the limitations of their characters. The player with the Fighter rolled up another character and we continued on with the campaign.

Years later I shared this story on a website that was talking about the Tarrasque. I immediately started getting comments telling me what a shitty DM I was.  “Why would you put the players in a situation that there was no chance of them winning?” they asked. “If you didn’t want them to rescue the player’s soul, why did you even let them try?” “You just punished them because you couldn’t control the game!” Even though this was far from the only time I have been accused of being a bad DM, these comments started to get to me a little. Was I really a bad DM for putting the characters in an impossible situation?

I don’t think so. In my mind there is no obligation for a DM to only create winnable scenarios for the players especially when the scenario exists outside of the main adventure.  At the very least all parts of the game should be challenging for the players and there should be things that they are just not capable of overcoming even at high levels. This puts the players in situations where they have to be smart enough to know the limit of their characters and retreat or be killed.

I know what I think here, but I really want to hear from other people in the comments. Do you think the DM should make every scenario winnable for the players? Have you ever thrown something at a party that you knew they couldn’t beat?

17 thoughts on “Should a DM Present Players With Impossible Situations?”

  1. It doesn’t seem to have been wrong for your group. You say “We all had a good laugh and the players learned a valuable lesson about the limitations of their characters. The player with the Fighter rolled up another character and we continued on with the campaign.” If you interpreted your players’ attitudes correctly, they understood that death was a possibility, and that sometimes shit happens. It’s not right for every group, but it seems right for that group.

    Furthermore, the Tarrasque is a monster you didn’t create. If you’re guilty of putting your players into an impossible situation, so are the game designers who created the Tarrasque. If your players decide to charge an invincible monster headlong, instead of tricking it or distracting it, it’s also on them.

    1. There are always going to be monsters that a party can’t beat. A party of 1st level characters probably doesn’t stand a chance against a dragon, but they still exist in the world.

  2. The winnability of a situation should directly correlate with the cleverness of the group’s attempts to solve it. Striving, thinking and creativity should be rewarded.

    But yanno, you’ve gotta get a good read on your group. In the situation above, if the player was very attached to his character and not giving him or them even a chance to recover that character negatively impacts the fun he’s having, you can really fuck up the group’s night. If, on the other hand, you group regards their PCs as more or less disposable as you do, then it might not matter so much.

      1. I’m not disagreeing, I’m just saying that it varies by group.

        In the last game I ran, if I had let them waste hours of time (as it seems your group did) trying to cobble together a solution to the problem that was ultimately insoluble, nobody would have had fun and I would have gotten a pretty vicious tongue lashing. A lot of DMing questions come down to how well you know your friends.

  3. “How’d you like the books, Barry?”

    “They were alright, but at the end it all just seemed like one longass trol- I hate you.”

  4. A fine example of the Kobayashi Maru, where the situation they ended up in really has no win-able scenarios. I believe as it isn’t a forced situation where the players must deal with an impossible situation, it is great to throw in some challenges that force rethinking the problem or thinking outside of the box!

    1. I think that’s kind of the key thing here. A DM can’t present the group with an impossible scenario that they are required to solve in order to move forward in the adventure. That would be crap and not fun for anyone.

  5. I would say that a balance is necessary. if I present the players with an impossible situation, then I must also give them something else that they can do, or the tools to accomplish something else. I’m not going to tell the players “here is your goal, it is inside of this adamantine Box that no technology or magic can open, bang your head against it for five hours while I laugh,” unless there is something outside of the Box that they can do. I’d be fine giving the players the Box in, say, PARANOIA, where the players could trade out the Box with a secret society or frame the Box on one of their teammates. I’d also be fine with giving the players the Box in a Call of Cthulhu game, where they can look for the clues to understand it or just a way to escape the Box and survive. In a horror scenario, I’d be fine with survival or understanding to be Boxes in and of themselves, so long as I present the players with the illusion that they might possibly succeed and mini-goals that they can actually accomplish.

    That being said, the RPGs I’ve mentioned above aren’t combat-centric games. I’d be significantly more hesitant to present the players with a Box (okay, its not the best analogy I could have come up with, but it reads easier than writing “an impossible situation” over and over) in a combat focused game like D&D/Pathfinder. The unspoken contract between players and the DM in a D&D game is that the DM will present the PCs with ugly beasties and the PCs with hit them with sticks until one or the other stops moving. I would imagine that said contract is why your players rushed the Tarrasque-Box in spite of the severe power difference. Actually, I think that’s the crux of the issue right there: the understanding between players and DM. If my players understood, before we even started making characters, that combat would not be the only tool in their inventory and that some problems would not be possible to solve, then I would consider presenting them with a Box and see what they come up with to deal with it.

    1. I have to disagree on the unspoken contract between the players and the DM for D&D. In my opinion the DM’s responsibility is to provide a world for the players to interact with, not necessarily a world that they can become the master. There are going to be parts of that world that will always defeat the players whether they approach it through combat, cunning or skill. As long as those things do not prevent the PCs from completing the campaign then it should not be a problem.

      To take your box analogy (which I like, don’t change it) if the party finds a box that has absolutely nothing to do with the quest or adventure they are on then why does the DM have to ensure they are able to open it? Why can’t the players just accept that they have run into something that can’t be solved and move on in the adventure? Charging a Tarrasque is the same as trying to open an adamantine box by smashing your head against it. An intelligent player should see it as an impossible task and not waste their time on it.

      1. An intelligent player should probably recognize an impossible situation for what it is and move on, but a cynical player would likely ask why a DM would put a waste of time into their world. Furthermore, a cynical DM would hear you utter the phrase “an intelligent player” and immediately die of laughter.

        To answer your question “Why can’t the players just accept that they have run into something that can’t be solved and move on in the adventure?” I would reply “Because the adventure is what the players decide to do.” If the players find a Box (I am becoming rather fond of this term) and decide they want what’s inside, then the Box becomes the adventure. This does not mean it stops being a Box, mind. If I have placed a Box Monster in the player’s way, and I have let them know, either in-game or out, that the Box is a Box and the Box will not be opened, and they charge it anyway, I will feel no remorse when the campaign ends with four to six gravestones bearing the inscription “body never found.” That said, I do feel the DM has a responsibility to let the players know, or at least provide them opportunities to learn, that a Box is a Box and smashing your head against it will not end well.

      2. I feel a necessary question is why is “fill in the blank” in the game in the first place? This isn’t some random universe that the GM had no part in creating its his world, the GM’s creation. So, if there is a being that can’t be beat why is it there? Just like if there is a floating island that defies all reason why is it there? To add to the setting, to the scenery to describe and give a feeling that this is a magical place?

        How about this impossible creature to defeat, is it there to remind players that they are too weak and will never be strong enough to beat everything in the world? That’s fair enough since it adds to the world and setting. However, this box that’s impossible to open that’s exists only because GM says it’s there and if it can’t ever be open what’s the relevance?

        1. It’s a fair question, but not everything that you put into a game world has to have a grand purpose. Some things are just going to be set dressing. They are simply there to fill in the blank spaces in the world. There doesn’t have to be a relevance to everything.

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