When my group plays, we adventure about under the basic assumption that the GM has scaled all the challenges to our characters’ power level. Some encounters might be easy, some might be really challenging, but they all should be winnable. Should an encounter prove is impossible, we hope our GM would indicate that in some obvious way before a TPK. This hope is likely a dangerous assumption.

In my latest game our DM surprised us by throwing a black dragon into the encounter. Our characters took it in stride and started attacking it. Even after we loosed daily after daily on it and it wasn’t bloodied, like heroes, we persevered despite all rationality. After all, she wouldn’t have put a dragon into the encounter unless we could defeat it… right? Thankfully we were able to subdue our foe, but it came close. In hindsight there was no good in-game reason to stay and fight. But our Standard Operating Procedure is: we haven’t died yet so we must be invincible.

The only way this attitude makes sense is in the meta-game: we rely on the DM to move the plot forward and make encounters winnable. I think the role-playing purists out there would be unkind to me for this behavior, and I wouldn’t disagree. As role-players we should be playing the role of our characters and try to think as they would.  This failure of imagination isn’t the worst part! The bigger issue is that we’re relying on convention for our character’s survival, there’s nothing to prevent the DM from seriously outmatching us. The only thing stopping her is fear of whining players or slowing down the rest of the game as the survivors proceed over-cautiously through the rest of the dungeon.

So… against all my instincts and advice, I guess we’ll keep doing it until it bites us in the ass. GMs if you’re reading… if your party does this, give them one or two over-powered encounters with an easy out so I learn your serious without dire consequences. And if they still don’t listen, then go in for the kill >:-).


4 thoughts on “Meta-metagaming

  1. Yeah, the encounter was meant to be challenging but winnable and you guys handled it pretty well. I also wanted it to be fun and a little scary, hence upgrading to a MM3-styled version. But I wasn’t going for a TPK. I hope you enjoyed it in the end. 🙂

  2. It sounds to me like your GM had the right approach, when she created a difficult but not unwinnable encounter, that you seem to advocate.
    Many combat-systems does not really allow for the players to escape from combat. Either you stay and fight, or you’re chopped down trying to flee. So when you create an unwinnable encounter you often leave the players in a bind, since they can’t really escape the encounter.
    To me it also adds an extra complication, since the players will usually have to guess, that this is a surprise encounter, where the correct action is to flee. But how do you guess that? How do a player identify unwinnable encounters?
    And finally I am generally in doubt as to the reasons of using unwinnable encounters? Hard encounters yes, encounters that are close to TPK, sure, but creating an encounter with the sole purpose of showing the players, that you can create a basicly unbalanced encounter? Not me.

  3. @Morten Greis,

    I guess the idea is that the players would know they shouldn’t be in that encounter, long before they find themselves wrapped up in it. Of course, sometimes the players bring the encounter down on themselves. For example: causing a rucus and choosing between fighting 40 guards or surrendering. The GM usually wants to RP the capture, trial, imprisonment, etc whereas the players usually just try to fight to the death.

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