I'm not sure if the question was worded in a coherent way, but I have recently played in a Pathfinder game and a 5e game and both times the DM (same one both times) gave us overpowered encounters.

In the Pathfinder game we were four level 5 characters and the main boss was a CR 9 with five other creatures no lower than CR 4. It was a TPK.

In the 5e game we were a party of three level 1 characters and we were up against nine CR 2 creatures. It was also a TPK.

There was no way out of either combat. The Pathfinder encounter was in a dungeon we were locked in and the CR 9 was invisible and wanted to eat us and the others were hidden. The 5e encounter we were going through a town and the enemies came out of hiding and surrounded us. No scouting or anything would have shown it unless we were to investigate every single building, crate and barrel.

The DM has been a DM for a few years and he didn't seem fazed about it and we did talk to him but he was focused on the individual creatures and not the combination of creatures.

How can I tell the DM he needs to back it down and use appropriate CR creatures?

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    I have added relevent information from your comments into your question because they are valuable information. In future please consider doing this yourself. Better questions get better answers! And comments are only temporary so anything that you (or others) think is important should be edited into the question. :) – Rubiksmoose Nov 20 at 19:03
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    Please do not answer in comments. – mxyzplk Nov 21 at 20:42

Talk to the DM

Give non-accusatory feedback

Express your point of view using neutral language and I statements. E.g. "When the encounter with 9 ogres ended in the death of all the characters, I felt helpless and it was not fun for me."

Ask for feedback.

Ask them if there were alternative endings they had in mind. It can take a while to get in sync with the other people's storytelling methods and ways of thinking about plots. Perhaps there was some secret or trick that they had expected the party to discover.

Discuss game expectations and desires with Players and GM

It sounds like your expectations for the game were not met. This may be the case for everyone involved. There are a number of ways to avoid or mitigate frustration in subsequent campaigns. Suggest doing a session 0 to facilitate this discussion.

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    This is the right answer, but I would also add asking the GM why they're presenting hard encounters. Is it a deliberate attempt to make the game gritty and challenging? Is it unintentional? Are they overestimating how powerful the party is? In my experience, the most common reason DMs present overpowered encounters is because of a misunderstanding of how CRs are calculated. I had known many DMs who thought a group of CR 1 monsters results in a CR 1 encounter. Understanding why the DM is doing this is very important when discussing this issue with them. – Cyrad Nov 20 at 16:51
  • Or the DM wanted to achieve a total party abduction (that's a decent way to start an adventure but I'd narrate it as it's not fun to play when the PCs can't do anything against it) and just forgot to offer "we'll let you live if you stop fighting and come with us" in the heat of the moment - or they said it but the players didn't catch it in the heat of the moment - that happens, especially to new DMs with groups they don't know well. – Sumyrda Nov 21 at 7:37
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    To add to this answer: Maybe suggest a tool like Kobold Fight Club. It gives an objective viewpoint of how hard your previous encounters were, and it can help your DM get a better view on what would be a fairer encounter. – Mortaza Nov 21 at 12:15

You can say something like: "I didn't have fun in this game because you gave us an encounter that was far too difficult and we all died." That's a fair criticism.

But, honestly, D&D is a game where you vote with your feet. The DM can narrate anything happening that they want; the players can leave the game and find a different DM if they're not having fun.

My own policy is that, if someone TPKs my group in this way, I thank them politely for their time, and then I leave the game. You might try doing the same.

Step 1: Discuss with the DM the Basic Rules on How to Build an Encounter.

This part of the answer is confined to D&D 5e.

Step 1a: share this answer with your DM, as your judgment dictates.

The Basic Rules have Encounter Building guidance on pages 165-167. Sit down with the DM and work through an encounter building exercise for level 1 characters. Build together an encounter for each difficulty: Easy, Medium, Hard, Deadly.

Step 2: Ask DM to run one of each (difficulty) encounter at the next session.

By running encounters at each difficulty level, the DM can get a rough idea about what this edition's encounter difficulty looks like.

Then ask the DM to build and run a hard encounter that is built for a party of characters 2 levels higher than your characters.

  • For example: if you are all now level 2, have him build and run one for a party of level 4 characters. That's about 2000 XP adjusted. Two yetis (1400 x 1.5 = 2100) is close enough. A Wight and four Zombies would work also. (About 1800 XP adjusted)

  • The DM may still prefer, and your group may prefer, encounters at the deadly and deadly-plus level. With the above approach, "how to turn the dials up and down" will be better appreciated, as will how out-of-whack the initial encounter was for your group of three level 1 characters.

    • The 9 CR 2 creatures versus a party of three characters calculates to (adjusted) 8,100 encounter XP. (450 X 9 X 2.5; Basic Rules, p. 165). That is between Hard and Deadly for a party of three 9th-level characters. (3 x 2800 = 8,400 deadly for three 9th-level characters).

See how it goes. There may still be a taste, at your table, for harder rather than easier encounters.

For time saving: using an online tool like Kobold Fight Club may make creating and adjusting encounter crafting easier. (Thanks @NautArch)

Step 3: ask the DM, "How's it going to be going forward?"

This is the "session 0" for your group. Lethality level is a matter of taste in RPGs. Your whole group needs to discuss this matter with the DM, once the lethality levels of varying degrees have been experienced by the group. This is a chance to grow together as a gaming group.

Vote to stay, or to go, based on the outcome of this process and the next few sessions.

No, this isn't the easy way.

But it might work. The DM might just need to get a "feel" for encounter building model for this edition. I did when I was starting out with 5e.

For Pathfinder

You can do something similar with the materials in the PFSRD, under the heading "Designing Encounters." The CR analysis and XP budgeting are similar, with the following caveat:

... Pathfinder - its CR system is pretty imprecise. I've seen a group of already battered, exhausted level 2 characters handle an EL 8 encounter with only one death, and I've seen the same players nearly TPK'd by an EL 8 encounter at level 7. There's a lot of variation even within a narrow CR range, depending on the players' and DM's respective tactics, the specific creatures and capabilities in play, and the whims of the dice. As a result, the stated guidelines tend to be fairly unhelpful for GMs looking to achieve a reasonable encounter difficulty @Brick the Toasted

There have been similar criticisms of 5e's encounter modeling tools, but it's a place to start.

  • I'm not sure I'd suggest this approach for Pathfinder - its CR system is pretty imprecise. I've seen a group of already battered, exhausted level 2 characters handle an EL 8 encounter with only one death, and I've seen the same players nearly TPK'd by an EL 8 encounter at level 7. There's a lot of variation even within a narrow CR range, depending on the players' and DM's respective tactics, the specific creatures and capabilities in play, and the whims of the dice. As a result, the stated guidelines tend to be fairly unhelpful for GMs looking to achieve a reasonable encounter difficulty. – Brick the Toasted Nov 20 at 23:07
  • @BricktheToasted Similar criticisms vis a vis 5e's CR based tools for encounter building. I added your caveat. – KorvinStarmast Nov 20 at 23:13
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    @BricktheToasted I'd say the encounters given show the DM needs help building encounters... they aren't even in the right ballpark. It's like throwing a baby to a pack of wolves. – TemporalWolf Nov 20 at 23:28

Start Running away!

Just run from every encounter (choose something fast). Avoid everything remotely risky. Eventually the GM will get the message.

Running away can actually be a really fun way to play a campaign. The mechanics can be pretty interesting, and it can be fun to just play a group that is so scared of everything that they run away.

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    But also let him know why you are running. Communication is important. – Ling Nov 20 at 16:02
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    I've downvoted this, because it sounds like "do something that won't be fun for anyone; eventually the other party will read your mind, figure out why you're doing this awful thing, and change their behavior without you ever needing to go to the effort of communication." – Dan B Nov 20 at 16:15
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    Yeah, this seems very passive aggressive. – Wibbs Nov 20 at 16:22
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    Running away may be the right option at times, especially in a "living world" setting that does not take player level into account. With that said, doing it consistently will only frustrate everyone rather than sending an easily understood message. – TimothyAWiseman Nov 20 at 19:38
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    Responding to in-game stimuli with in-game responses is an effective way of communicating between player and DM, perhaps the most authentic way. It's also worthwhile to discuss the kind of game you're interested in playing with your DM outside the actual play. Think about what your DM has described both in-game and outside the game for his intentions--are you missing something by expecting balanced encounters? It may well be that you want to play in a different style from how your DM wants to administer the game, but that's not yet clear to this reader. – Tuorg Nov 21 at 1:34

That encounter isn't for fighting

My first run as DM, I threw a beholder at a level 2 party. They were like "Nope, not gonna fight that". Which worked out well, because the beholder didn't want to fight the party either, he had other problems. Ones with synergy to the goals of a level 2 good-aligned party.

Obviously that was a quest progression encounter. That's exactly how you should treat impossible fights like this. But hold on.

Force protection is the first priority. It's better to miss the story opportunity than have a TPK searching for quest lore on the tips of their swords.

But (usually at least), the encounter wasn't "for no reason". The DM needs to be granted a reasonable opportunity for the purpose of the encounter to unfold. So that's the puzzle.

Now there's a tendency these days for folks to assume the other fellow is a moron. Easy to fall into. Don't. So "the DM sucks" may be the answer to the puzzle, but it's not the way to bet.

  • Good answer, and nicely framed as 'outside of the run of the mill response' ... I like answers like this. – KorvinStarmast Nov 21 at 19:41
  • double negative – Wyrmwood Nov 22 at 0:53
  • @Wyrmwood for flavor. Because I'm negating something, I need at least one. The statement sums up to positive, so it needs an even number. Come to think of it, what I'm negating is itself a negative notion, i.e. "For no reason". I enquoted it to make it clearer. – Harper Nov 22 at 1:30

You provide no information about the GM, so be in dubio pro reo and talk to him outside the game and start by assuming that you missed something.

As a GM, I never throw an impossible encounter to my characters unless we are playing Paranoia or Cthulhu. In the first case a TPK at least once an evening is expected and in the 2nd case running away is the default choice of any sane character anyways.

So it is quite possible that your GM had assumed that you would know the critters can be splashed with regular water and will panic. Or that you actually had that magic crossbow the bard always talks about. Or that the wizard would use all his spells in this encounter which clearly required full power, or, or, or.

Your first question could be if he expected you to win, lose or evade the encounter.

Since it sounds like you are not playing with this GM so often, check if maybe his regular group likes tough encounters. Or he is used to them using every tiny advantage in the rules so that he needs to turn up the monster levels to keep encounters a challenge.

Unless the GM is being deliberately unfair - which you should only conclude after examining other answers first - it appears that somewhere wrong assumptions were made. By you or by the GM. A discussion can clear that up, if nobody is pushed into defending themselves.

I can see you are struggling to find any fun, but remember that running from an encounter is ALWAYS an option.

Also, some encounters while seeming without hope could be avoided, or even won with a little thinking "outside the box", and if the GM responds to it, with actions that conform with the rule of cool.

But, all in all, running is always an option once you realize that you are out of your league. Most times running away to find another way to beat the boss makes for a really fun role playing, sometimes much better than struggling with creative thinking.

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    " running from an encounter is ALWAYS an option." - not if you are completely surrounded it isn't. – Martin Bonner Nov 22 at 15:27
  • Or imprisoned. "The Pathfinder encounter was in a dungeon we were locked in" – Blindy Nov 22 at 20:50
  • @MartinBonner If you are completely surrounded, either at least one of the players has made some wrong choices, or the GM deliberately wants to kill the party, then the other answers (Reason with him) are more to the point. – Fanfurlio Nov 23 at 17:31
  • @Blindy I read that as "in a room we were locked in", because you can actually run away from the encounter and not exit the dungeon, maybe hide in some other room or cave; then, locks can be picked. Again, I assume that the GM isn't actually genuinely trying to kill the party. – Fanfurlio Nov 23 at 17:38

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