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Occasionally one of my PC's wanders off and gets himself into a battle he simply cannot win. I know the player wants to play out the battle to see if they can somehow pull it out, but it's boring for the five other people at the table.

Is there a way I can cut short a battle that ends with the player characters defeat/death without making it seem pointless?

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Easiest sollution. Tell them the fight is on hold, and you will continue it with them in a one on one setting. Then work with the rest of the group. 'Meanwhile, back on the ranch..." –  GMNoob Aug 22 '11 at 8:43
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9 Answers

up vote 30 down vote accepted

Truths to Work Into A Solution:

  • No one likes to be killed/defeated by fiat if they think they could have won
  • It's possible he's doing this to get attention
  • The other players should get something to do too

Result: I would play it out, but alternate spotlight time with the rest of the group, giving them more.

The other players are doing something while this PC is in their own world, right? Cut back to them and have them do whatever (with a sharp eye against the metagaming of "Uh, I suddenly decide to go for a run to find Julio"). Give them plenty of time. Then cut back to the combat for a couple rounds, and back.

This has the result of being fair to the solo combatant (and really, shouldn't D&D let people have solo combats from time to time?) and lets the others have equal spotlight time. Giving them a bit more helps dissuade him from doing this if he just wants attention.

Although, does he fade into the back in group situations? It may be a fair allocation of spotlight time already. I know sometimes I get frustrated when I am playing a PC who wants to do solo combats, honorably challenge a specific foe, or whatnot and my party is always kill-stealing.

I had a situation like this in my Reavers campaign recently. The monk went in and fought a whole installation of pirates without the rest of the party. On the one hand, he got beaten and captured, but on the other hand, he killed half the pirates so that when the rest of the PCs came they could mop up more easily (though he did then get used as a hostage...). The story outcome was entertaining enough, and I studiously swapped time back and forth between him and the others, so all was well in our eyes.

Also, there's only so long it could take, right, if it's a sure-lose situation? If it goes on very long, then by definition they have a chance to pull it out, escape, etc.

Oh, one other suggestion I've used from time to time - give the PCs some of the bad guys to play. This reduces your work, gives them something to do, and makes the opposition a lot more effective.

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That's how Ericson tells his stories: each chapter is several stories, told at the same time. This solution is GREAT for the group, as they get to think and discuss their next move, while the spotlight is off. –  Vorac Oct 24 '13 at 10:13
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I would use this as a perfect time to build suspense. "Your character walks down the ally and... Tim your turn, your still sitting at the bar and...". When characters wonder off, its probably NOT a good idea to broadcast right away what happens to them. That way the character may come back and be used as a antagonist, a person needing rescued, etc.

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If I don't want to kill the character outright, I would do one or two rounds then have something big and loud happen near by that puts all the combatants at risk. I like large explosions, or a spontaneous gang war will do in a pinch. It has to be something large enough to warrant them investigating immediately. Then switch back to the party and see if they react to it. If they don't, switch back and have the lone character overwhelmed and killed if they don't try and escape.

If they do take a 5 minute break and take your errant player aside. Without rolling, talk with your player that you want to set up an epic scene where the party shows up just before their character is going to be killed. I usually frame it like

You're lucky I was looking for a way to introduce this plot, otherwise your character would be dead now. I want the party to show up in just the nick of time. For tension I want some sort of ticking clock. So how about this, they will have 3 rounds to reach you before you are taken out of the fight, then another say 4 rounds before your character dies. What resources would your character have used up by now, I want this to be a heroic last stand if the party can't make it to you in time, so go all out

Even if you didn't intend for this new twist on your plot, the player doesn't need to know that and you might get a good side quest out of it. If the character dies, then the players have a good story. If they succeed in their rescue, the player now has to deal with a combat where they are almost tapped out, limiting his involvement. And the errant player gets a bit of spotlight, which is probably why they went off on their own in the first place, but the actual deciders of the outcome are the rest of the party.

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In your other comments, you noted that the player is a "Paladin in full plate in Pathfinder." I am going to assume that part of the problem is a protracted stalemate.

I am not sure about Pathfinder, but in GURPS there is a fatigue mechanic. A long fight in heavy plate will very quickly drain a warrior (especially on a hot day, or on rough footing, etc).

If there isn't a provision for combat fatigue built in, you could certainly improv one by requiring will rolls (or constitution, fortitude - whatever they are called in the relevant system). As time goes on, these checks will get progressively more difficult. The player will be forced to retreat or succumb to exhaustion - and hopefully before the party gets bored.

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Unless there's a pressing reason to know what the result of the battle immediately, I'd push it off till the end of the session (simply because I'd rather bore one player than five).

If there's a need to know immediately, I'd run everything in sync. If the party is in a library, a quick knowledge check will kill five-plus minutes (meaning that they can't help). If someone pulls a "I'm going to go look for Bob", I'd put them in initiative order to ensure they don't get there faster than they should. If you're feeling particularly mean (or want to punish players for using "spideysense" they don't have), make them roll checks to find their buddy (at appropriate penalties for how fast they're running).

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I think the first thing is to figure out exactly what is going on. Maybe you have an action player in a talking group. If that's the case, throw him some plot-cookies. Maybe in the middle of long and dreary roleplaying scene in a tavern, have bandits attack the tavern (like that coffee shop scene in Pulp Fiction).

Also, how does he start side-fights? Is he walking up to (perceived) bad-guys and start throwing punches? Does he wander off and the bad guys pounce on abandoned-good-guy? Why don't you let him to wander around town "looking for trouble" and finding absolutely none?

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Out of game: Mention to the player that his actions put his character in vast danger (read: you will do horrible things to the character). Because of the individual time it would take to run all encounters, you will cut it short so everyone playing gets (more or less) equal screen time. Ask the player why he does this? Is he bored? Does he feel that he does not get enough screen time by himself?

In game: Defeat does not necessarily mean death. The character can get stunned, knocked out, his weapon (even the nice magical one) can be smashed, his will shattered, and countless other things. If you determine what the opposition would be willing to do and how this combat will further their goals, then you should come up with something. For example: the character is knocked out and a mind controlling bug is implanted into him. From time to time, the opposition will now take control. The character may not even remember what he does during those times. Now, it is up to the rest of the party to rescue him. I other words, be creative with the consequences of the battle.

Another idea: Why not give the opponents to play to the other players? Let them come up with tactics, ideas, and improvisation against that one character. Be warned, that will most likely result in character death.

However, avoid at all cost deus ex machina. There is no good there.

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Having the other players play the opponents is a great idea. Nobody is bored, Mr Lone Wolf gets his solo combat, and if he dies the blood isn't on your hands. :) –  cr0m Aug 23 '11 at 4:48
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Don't know about letting other players control the opponents. This may be detrimental to the party dynamics during other parts of the game. If the player gets pissed at the other player and his character becomes uncooperative, the campaign may be doomed. –  Eugene Katz Aug 25 '11 at 2:12
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@Eugene: if they are so immature, the campaign is doomed anyway. –  Lohoris Aug 28 '11 at 8:27
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If the main group is in an encounter of their own, this is splitting the party and I play both combats out as if they were a combined, single encounter. Add the (new) monsters engaging the lone-PC to the initiative list. That way everything stays in step, and combat remains as smooth as ever. The lone-wolf will die soon enough.

If the main group is not in combat when this side-skirmish starts, give them a 15 minute break while you resolve it. Set a timer and let the PC know that if he doesn't defeat the monsters, force them to retreat, or retreat himself, in the allotted time when he's bloodied/captured/etc., he's out. Give him time limit for each combat round of 60 seconds to state his actions and roll.

Honestly, it shouldn't take more than 15 minutes to incapacitate a lone character. The classic encounter size of 5x provides every DM the rare ability to enthusiastically overwhelm a PC.

The reason to always play an an encounter like this out is to teach the classic lesson "never split the party." This should only happen, at most, once to a party - the side quests of rescuing/resurrecting/replacing the character of the player with wanderlust will help the party keep them in line in the future. Or they/you will replace the player.

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Really like your answer, especially the hard time limit! –  C. Ross Aug 22 '11 at 16:41
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I think your best option is to not resolve it as a full combat, but instead to use a role-played approximation. There's one player against one or more enemies, so it should be fairly easy to tell who would win. It's fair game to tell the player "you've got 20% odds on this fight, so either tell me something imaginative on how you'd win or roll the dice and see if you get lucky". If the player keeps insisting on playing out the battle to see what happens, then at that point he's being antisocial and an out-of-game one-on-one discussion may be warranted.

Alternatively, you could tell him that you won't resolve his small battle until the rest of the group wants to take a break, and gently alter immediate events so that his character can't affect anything for a while.

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