I'm wondering if there is an official way of dealing with "fish-in-a-barrel" type combat, and if so, what is it?

Examples:

Some examples might include:

  • Monster in a cage and the PCs want to stab/shoot it
  • Monsters in a pit and the PCs want to shoot them from above
  • Monster hanging helpless in a rope trap

Basically any situation where the PCs have a way of attacking the monsters without fear of retribution (or vice-versa).

Initiative or no?

My big question revolves around whether or not I would ask for initiative rolls. Would we go through initiative order and when it is the trapped player's turn they are just unable to do anything to fight back, but continue going through combat order until they are killed? Or would I avoid initiative and just let the PCs kill without actual combat?

Specific scenario:

This question has come from a scenario I'm planning in an upcoming one shot. The room is intended to be a test of resourcefulness, and it will have a large pit that needs to be crossed that contains poisonous snakes. But I was thinking of including access to a secret room that the PCs wouldn't discover unless they climb down into the pit and dispatch of the snakes.

And so I wonder: Are there any game mechanics in place that could prevent my PCs from just standing on the edge of the pit and shooting all the snakes with arrows?

  • Neither the question or the answers are specific to DnD-5e. Could we drop the tag here? It could be useful for people filtering this tag. – aloisdg Oct 18 at 8:05
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    The answers might not be 5e specific, but I would argue my question is. I included the 5e tag because I was specifically wanting to know if there are 5e rules with regards to no-risk combat, in the same vein as how 5e has specific rules for surprise with regards to initiative, etc. – Rouge_Luigi Oct 18 at 13:31
  • To your scenario, I would likely say that this "fish in barrel" situation would only apply to most of the snakes - once there are only a few left, they will have enough space in the pit to dodge your arrows. – TheHansinator Oct 19 at 3:44
up vote 72 down vote accepted

I’m going to fall back on the same advice I offer for skill challenges, which is to say, I am going to suggest checking out Angry GM’s 5 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenaged Skill System (warning: mild, censored swearing of the $^#% variety):

Only roll when

  1. There is a chance of success

  2. There is a chance of failure

  3. There is a cost to failure

This is a situation where there is no chance of failure. That’s the entire premise of the question. Oh, sure, there’s a chance of failure on any individual roll, plus there’s a question of “how much success?” in damage rolls, but none of that matters here because they can, and presumably will, just keep trying until they succeed. That means there is no chance of failure here, in a vacuum.

The only question here is time, which leads me to a huge important takeaway from Angry’s suggestion: lost time is only a cost if time is clearly and obviously crucial. If the mad cultist has chained up some beast for sacrifice in some horrible ritual, and the players seek to thwart him by putting the beast out of its misery first, then it’s a race between the players trying to kill it and the cultist trying to get the ritual completed (or at least up to the point where the players killing it would just complete the ritual). Then time matters. Other scenarios might have time matter.

But most situations, time doesn’t matter, or matters only in abstract or distant ways. And if the player characters don’t know about the time pressure, then it doesn’t count either—they don’t know so they should have no reason to let that affect their decisions. And if they aren’t making decisions, they aren’t roleplaying, which in a roleplaying game, means they aren’t playing the game. They’re playing “roll the dice and tally the numbers,” which really isn’t the game.

(Conceivably, ammunition could matter too, but most of the above also applies to ammunition—in most games, most of the time, mundane ammunition is plentiful and not worth worrying about as a limited resource.)

Don’t spend game time on not playing, as much as you can help it.

So no, in these situations, when the players announce their intention to do so (and how they’re going to do so, in cases where it takes some cleverness), just say it happens. It’s a foregone conclusion. Describe it narratively as appropriate, and move on with the game.

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    As an addendum to this (very good) answer, I would also point out that XP is awarded for overcoming challenges, which means that any time you decide something is enough of a foregone conclusion that there's no point rolling, you should also consider whether it was enough of a challenge that it's worthy of XP. If it was a foregone conclusion because the players did something brave or clever, then sure, give them XP for it. If not, then don't. I don't care how high CR those snakes are; if all the party has to do is shoot arrows into a pit until nothing is left moving, they don't get XP for it. – anaximander Oct 17 at 15:44
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    They’re playing “roll the dice and tally the numbers,” which really isn’t the game For some reason I want to play Yahtzee now... – Tezra Oct 17 at 17:15
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    @Tezra Please do not use code formatting for non-code text. Quotation marks or (in questions or answers) quote boxes are the accepted way to render quotes. Bold or italics can be used if you insist. But code formatting used for non-code is bad for the site’s accessibility, and must not be so abused. See this meta discussion for details. – KRyan Oct 17 at 17:17
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    @KRyan How do you do quote boxes in comments? Can't use " " because the quote uses them. – Tezra Oct 17 at 17:19
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    @Tezra You cannot use quote boxes in comments. You can, however, use double and single quotes—the standard is to use single quotes for quotes inside of a quotation. So “They’re playing ‘roll the dice and tally the numbers,’ which isn’t really the game,” would be a quotation of my text with quotation marks in them. Or use italics or bold if you want. For that matter, since I use curly quotes, if you use simple straight quotes it would be clear how the nesting works, and really even if we both used the same context would clarify. So whatever you like—so long as you don’t misuse code formatting. – KRyan Oct 17 at 17:25

Try not to engineer situations like that

Generally, such a thing is not a challenge and the players would only be motivated to do such a thing to farm XP. You could declare that because it's not a challenge, they will not get XP for it, although if they are removing a hazard (i.e. in your pit of snakes example, if there was a key or some other McGuffin they needed) then awarding no XP for finding a way to progress would not be such a good idea.

However, in your specific example, it doesn't need to be a fish-in-a-barrel situation. Consider including tiny holes in the walls at the bottom of the pit that the snakes could rush into if they are attacked with no way to defend themselves; that way, the PCs can't kill all of them from up there, and the only way to "continue combat" is (for at least one of them) to go down there, at which points the snakes can actually attack someone.

If this needs to be justified by combat rules, you can say that the snakes have readied an action to "run" (slither?) and hide in those holes, the trigger being if they are attacked.

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    So this is one of those frame challenges that I find not particularly helpful—I think it’s probably completely obvious to everyone reading this that such situations are not ideal and should be avoided. While this is a clever idea for avoiding it in this particular situation, ultimately the question is what to do when it does happen, whether you wanted to or not. Maybe the PCs thought of some safe strategy you didn’t. Maybe it’s just, narratively, what should be there. And this answer doesn’t help when it comes up, which is the whole point of the question. And the XP advice is poor, I think – KRyan Oct 17 at 14:20
  • Fair enough. I think your answer says far more concisely the sort of thing I was going for, which is that fish-in-a-barrel isn't a challenge and is therefore a waste of time, although you emphasised the "time" aspect, whereas I did not. So at this point, the best thing I can do is upvote your answer and leave this here as a second opinion... – NathanS Oct 17 at 14:23
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    I remember when if something wasn't an actual challenge for the PCs they didn't get any xp. I don't recall if that is still a thing or they went full MMO mode on that in 5E. – Slagmoth Oct 17 at 15:00
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    @Slagmoth: I seem to recall that anything under the "easy" encounter threshold was considered "trivial" and DMs were advised not to award XP for such encounters in the DMG, but I may be mistaken. – sharur Oct 17 at 16:01
  • @sharur: While that'd make sense, I'm skimming the DMG encounter building guidelines and seeing no such statement. (Though Easy is already described as "An easy encounter doesn’t tax the characters’ resources or put them in serious peril. They might lose a few hit points, but victory is pretty much guaranteed." So easier than "Easy" seems even less meaningful.) – V2Blast Oct 18 at 0:07

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