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?