# How can I run an open-world game with vast power differences, without resulting in constant TPKs?

I would like to run a game with an open world, where the party can explore unconstrained. I would like to do it in D&D 5E, but the power differences are very stark between levels. How can I make the world realistic, without scaling everything up as the players advance their levels (so, first only goblins everywhere, then suddenly orcs, etc.). On the other hand, I don't want a TPK every other session, just because the players misjudged the danger.

I am familiar with making open world campaigns in other games, where the differences in power level are less stark (and you can decrease the power gap by smart, tailored tactics and planning), but I am vexed as to achieve this in level-heavy game as D&D.

• Historical note: This style of campaign was supported by several earlier editions of Dungeons & Dragons, thanks partly to the "hexcrawl" format of certain published adventures. – GMJoe Nov 23 '19 at 23:17
• "the power differences are very stark between levels." -- clarification requested. What are the other games that you are familiar with that are leading you to this characterization? – Roger Nov 25 '19 at 0:53
• @Roger I mostly played nWoD. There are differences in power level there (regular mage vs master, neonate vs elder), but I was able to have open games and very clearly signal the power levels (the title of the NPC is sufficient to give the party understanding of their power level), as well as allow players to fight stronger opponents successfully if they are properly prepared. – gruszczy Nov 25 '19 at 1:38
• @Roger I just recalled: one more game I played a lot was WFRP, which had the save mechanic built in (fate points). If the party misjudged the threat, got over their head and got their butts kicked, they would just burn a fate point to survive. Losing this resource hurt, but allowed a lot of freedom in pursuing dangers. – gruszczy Nov 26 '19 at 0:44

The way I've been on the receiving end of campaigns like this, it starts from the central conceit that home base is safe—i.e., no combat.

Then you scale encounters by distance to home base. You tell your players from the outset that they will run into trouble the further they push, but the rewards are also sweeter. You can sprinkle the odd higher level encounter in the starting zone, but make sure to "warn" the PCs.

It is not an easy job, and what you might want is to only flesh out certain specific encounters, and then create an encounter table like so to generate the rest:

(2d6)
2|Wolves |2d4
3-5|Goblins|1d4 archers, 1d6 regulars
...


and so on, noting that this table is weighted towards the middle.

Taking inspiration from Tomb of Annihilation might give you a quicker start, by the way.

• I really like the approach of scaling by distance and I think it works great for exploration of the wild, with vast distances and travel. I definitely will try it out. It also nicely fits into things becoming more dangerous, the farer you are from civilization (here be dragons). What I struggle with is having similar approach towards campaigns within a City (e.g. if I would like to run an open campaign in Waterdeep or in Sharn). The distance there is very small, so scaling by distance doesn't work the same way. – gruszczy Nov 24 '19 at 4:14
• For that you define the good, the medium and the bad neighbourhoods. You create zones in the city controlled by factions. – JeKaWo Nov 25 '19 at 3:58
• That is not a bad idea - I wonder if you have some examples or experience you want to share? I wish there were some modules that explored this :-/ – gruszczy Nov 25 '19 at 4:21
• Honestly this tracks with "standard lore" too. It's assumed the countryside is wild and untamed and villages and cities are safe. It reasons that the further our the less patrols that kill off nasty monsters there are so there are more and bigger baddies. – Captain Man Nov 25 '19 at 18:45
• If you're having a problem scaling within the city, it seems to me that cities are generally stratigraphic by nature (especially older defensive cities, less so US-style gridcities). So, for politicians and other rogue archetypes, the harder foes will be towards the top of the city, while for those enforcing the law rather than writing or subverting it, the harder battles will be in the underbelly of the city: in Ankh Morpork, the Shades are where the watchmen fear to tread. – Dewi Morgan Nov 26 '19 at 19:51

# In game, make it clear that they won't always win

The cause of your problems isn't open world, the problem is the preconception that PCs can always solve the problems in front of them with combat.

When a level 1 PC sees a dragon, the correct reaction should be to run. That much is obvious. But what about when they are asked to track down and kill a certain wizard. Why should they be careful?

## Help the players understand that they will not always win

The first issue is having your players aware that danger exists. Often DMs in D&D drip feed their players combat at appropriate challenge ratings. This gives the PCs the idea that no matter the foe, victory is always possible. This idea is your first enemy.

There are a few classic ways that game designers pull this off:

1. Have them fight something and lose, only to be saved by someone else. Eg, have a dragon beat the snot out of them, then have a friendly wizard teleport them to safety, consuming some magic item to signify that they got lucky this time.
2. Have them struggle to beat something, only to have that same thing beaten easily by something stronger. Eg have the players fight a bandit captain, the fight is close, it seems like the players may just win, but then the bandit captain drinks a potion and heals up completely. All is lost, but then a dragon shows up and swallows the bandit captain. The PCs should now understand that dragons are way above them

## Give the players an out

Especially at the beginning of the game, the players may not understand how to disengage from a fight. You will need to teach them that it is ok to run away. Eventually you will want them to not fight at all if something is stronger than them, but it can be difficult to judge the power of enemies.

If they do get into a sticky situation, they need to be able to get out of it without winning the combat. They need to retreat, lick their wounds, train, level up, and prepare to fight again.

1. Give them an explicit out. The city watch shows up, attracted by the fighting, and says they will hold off the foe while the players escape.
2. Give them a mechanism to escape. The party is fighting in a dungeon, each room is separated by heavy wooden doors. Previously the party tried to break one down so they know how tough they are. If they can just retreat to the next room, they can bar the door.
3. Make them afraid to continue fighting. One goblin runs to a big gong and starts banging on it. The players hear a distant gong answer. Within a turn or two they can hear footsteps and warcries, a goblin host is approaching.

## Give the players a means to scout, and help them learn to use them

Because combat is often drip fed at "appropriate" levels, players don't feel a lot of need to scout. Why do we need to research the enemy wizard? Whatever he can do, we can beat him. Why do we need to look in to the abilities of the creature we are going to fight? It's nothing we can't handle.

Once the players know they can't beat every foe, they need to be able to figure out what they can beat.

1. Encourage the players to talk to NPCs. Have an NPC volunteer some information about a foe. Oh you are going to the marsh? Beware the goliath toads, the city guard has to deploy an entire regiment to fight even a single one.
2. Encourage your players to do good old fashion detective work. Your NPCs should be doing things. The bandit captain leads their bandits in a raid, giving the PCs an opportunity to see them fighting the city guard. The PCs can clearly see the captain's power. They could also sneakily scout the bandit camp and use various abilities to observe them up close, and their equipment.
3. Give them a helping hand while they get used to it. Limited charge items that can be used to scry or detect magic or be used to scout are great to help the party until they get into the swing of doing legwork themselves.

For all these points, have NPCs do the same. Have them be afraid of other NPCs. Have them run when the fight gets bad. Have them scout and investigate before a fight. Players learn fast by copying NPCs.

## Once the players understand that this is not a safe world, they can take steps to avoid a TPK

Ultimately it is up to your players to actively prevent a TPK. If they do not learn to do their homework before fighting, and have preparations in order to escape, then they will get themselves into bad situations. They need to learn that the GM isn't there to hand wave their bad decisions.

But, so long as they have the tools and support from the GM they can choose when to enter encounters, they can take the necessary steps to avoid a TPK.

## A note about teaching players

One way to teach players is to introduce the mechanic to the players before the first encounter. For example have an NPC at the tavern tell the party "goblins are cowardly but cunning, they will seem to run at the first sign of trouble, but don't turn your back because they will be waiting just out of sight with an arrow nocked"

The have the players encounter this situation in a fairly safe way, play it straight. Have the party encounter a goblin scout, when the goblin sees them it will run. If they leave it be, it will put an arrow in them. Now it's up to the party to figure out what to do next. How can they chase away this goblin? Can they hurt it? How can they deal with it?

After that, give the party novel situations that expand the concept of stealthy goblins that avoid direct confrontation. Have the party ambushed at night, allow the party a chance to turn the tables and be stealthy, have a party of goblin raiders use stealth proactively and aggressively.

Finally after the players have mastered the situation they may feel comfortable to fight the final boss. How will the handle defeating the notorious Shadow Gobbbler, a goblin famed for their stealth and underhand tactics?

Once this "mechanical arc" is complete, your players will hopefully remember stealth and how it works, and apply it to other situations. In this way you can drip feed your players if you feel they aren't up to the challenge yet. Remember that even in an open world, the DM has a certain responsibility to the players. You need to teach your players so they can have expectations about the way the world functions.

• #1 under the scouting head can be used to add atmosphere to the game. The NPC can be a crusty old fart in the tavern who's missing a limb or two but has seen everything twice. And whatever he says always turns out to be right. – EvilSnack Nov 24 '19 at 12:51
• I am not a fan of scouting, in my experience it doesn't work well in a group. There is usually one scout who is specialized in stealth/perception, while the rest of the group is significantly weaker. As a result, it's a one-actor spectacle. I don't think it's fair for other players and at least some of them expressed the same opinion. – gruszczy Nov 24 '19 at 19:45
• @gruszczy D&D is set up so that every character has their own specialities. A normal game should be a string of each character taking turn. Perhaps you are making the scouting sections take too long, or you aren't giving other people things to do while the scout works? – jgn Nov 24 '19 at 22:39
• Great answer! One suggestion I would make is to preserve player agency where possible. For example "about to barely defeat a bandit captain before he heals to full and is eaten by a dragon" can have the same message with "barely defeat the bandit captain when they spot another one, which is promptly eaten by a dragon". – Cireo Nov 25 '19 at 7:16
• @Cireo I did consider it, but then it raises the question if the second bandit captain was as strong as the first. I'm not suggesting having the DM do an ass pull, have the bandit captain set up an escape/ace beforehand. Put the potion on their belt, establish some legitimate tactic. – jgn Nov 25 '19 at 7:19

My own 5e campaign world is "unconstrained," as you put it, but the players seldom get in over their heads and certainly not to the point of TPK. High-level dangers may exist in the world, but whether and how the adventurers are exposed to them is a different matter:

## The Boss Monsters Are Busy

High CR monsters and NPCs generally have more important things to do than fend off parties of low-level adventurers. That's why they have minions. Mr. Big only gets in the game when the help isn't cutting it, which should mean that the party is powerful enough to take him on.

## You Must Be This Tall to Ride

Adventurers at a given level tend to be presented with challenges at an appropriate level because of their reputation. The owner of a copper mine might well hire a party of first or second-level nobodies to drive off a band of goblins that is interfering with his operation, but an Archmage who wants an arcane tome from the lair of an adult Blue Dragon will only recruit heroes (or ruffians) whose reputation indicates that they might be up to the job.

## You Can Judge a PC by His Enemies

As the player characters achieve success, they naturally tend to make progressively more powerful enemies. The adventurers who thwart a kidnapping perpetrated by a couple of Yuan-Ti Purebloods will most likely find themselves to be the target of a hit by the local snake cult. A dozen or so dead Cultists later and the Cult Leader calls in a torpedo. Things escalate -- but not faster than the party gains levels.

## You Knew the Job Was Dangerous When You Took It

Surely there are many perils in the world, but the ones that can cause a TPK should carry FDA warnings. If a party of third-level adventurers are about to chase off after a werewolf with nary a magic or silvered weapon among them, a cautionary tale from a hunter who swears that his arrows were on the mark yet bounced harmlessly off the beast's hide should send them off on a preliminary quest for the right equipment for the job. If it doesn't -- well, the players will probably be more cautious with their next characters.

• I like this idea because it is allowing you to scale the monsters, but in a realistic way. The only differing opinion is the boss monsters being busy. It is not unreasonable that no matter what level the party is, there is a dragon slumbering in a cave. They can all go there at level 2, or can go at level 16 and it's the same dragon. Or even go there at level 2, realize this thing is pretty powerful, then knowingly come back later at higher levels. Your idea makes sense for a bandit chieftain or cult leader however. – J. Wagner Nov 24 '19 at 13:23
• @J.Wagnersure the ancient dragon is there, but the level 2 party is going to be kindly shown the door by whatever Half-Dragon guard-creature the chief dragon has put in place to make sure those scrubs don't stroll into his lair and interrupt his work, because he's too busy to be bothered himself. – Erik Nov 24 '19 at 20:27

# Putting out fires mechanic

Imagine your party has 3 different issues that are all presented to them in differing parts of your world.

One is a necromancer problem to the east, a werewolf problem to the north, and political friction at the border to the south.

Putting out one "fire" gives the others time to grow. Whatever they decide to tackle early is a low key issue, but the others grow in severity with time as does the strength of the party. You have choices, but letting a werewolf problem escalate means instead of tracking down one werewolf there are now many and/or less guards to help. The necromancer starts off as small time, gathering more bodies and followers, eventually obtaining an artifact of power and a full blown cult later. A political issue at the border can be as small as tracking down a missing prince or settling some skirmishes from a neighbouring tribe and can escalate to full blown war if left unchecked.

Hope this helps.

## Don't keep secrets

Your players have to be in a position to make informed decisions at the relevant time.

If the swamp is home to an Ancient Green Dragon, then the players need to know this before they encounter the dragon. Ideally, they should know this when, or shortly after, they become aware of the swamp and definitely before they start to explore the swamp.

This holds for all major threats in the world. That way, the players can make an informed decision about what threats they are willing to face. At level 1 they can choose to explore Kobold Hills rather than Demon Valley. After all, Westley knew what the three terrors of the Fire Swamp were.

That said, it doesn't mean that the players' decisions can't force them into a choice between two dangers, neither of which they want to face.

## Players forget things

Playing an RPG is a small part of the players' lives - lives in which they have jobs/school, relationships, illnesses, and TV shows. Don't punish them if they don't remember that you told them about the dragon 4 sessions ago.

You need to tell them. And tell them again. And again. It takes many, many repetitions before most people remember something.

## What do the monsters want?

Monsters have motivations and that informs how they interact with the PCs. It may not be in the monster's interest to fight the PCs. If they do fight, it might not be in the monster's interest to kill the PCs - defeat doesn't have to equal death. Intelligent foes often have a use for defeated enemies.

• Slavery. They may sell the PCs or keep them as forced labor or as gladiators or whatever: new situations and new choices for the players.

• Ransom: They may ransom the PCs back to their nearest and dearest. This works the other way too - PCs can ransom the monsters.

• Very much appreciate the importance of information coupled with the importance of repetition. In my LARP, we have the rule of 3 for information and if you haven't said it at least 3 times to the players, then it may as well have not been said. – Pyrotechnical Nov 26 '19 at 20:23

There's a lot of good advice in the other answers about how to make a fight with an overpowered enemy non-fatal. However, another significant thing to keep in mind is that not every encounter needs to be a fight.

Not every monster in the world wants to kill your characters. Many monsters that are far more powerful might simply dismiss or ignore them, or even find uses for them, such as getting them to deal with other lesser creatures or situations that annoy them but aren't worth their time. I'm far more powerful than the mice that sneak into my home but I don't hunt them down and fight them unless they attack me directly, which they don't do because there's rarely a good reason for it and they know they won't win. So I get a cat, a less powerful creature with nothing better to do. Or I set traps...

The trick is not to try to manage the power level of the creatures relative to your PCs from the perspective of a straight-up fight. That feels contrived and unrealistic because the world levels up with them and revolves around them. However, you can easily and believably control your NPC creatures motivations, who they consider a threat, and what they are likely to do when they encounter weaker creatures. After all, if they killed every weaker creature they encountered, then eventually some group of weaker creatures would either gang up on them or pay something even stronger to eliminate them. So if there are very powerful things in your world, they know how to exist with their environment in a way that doesn't turn the world against them, but instead makes use of it.

Likewise, your PCs shouldn't be expected to kill everything they encounter when seeking their objectives. If you've been playing a lot of dungeon-crawls and your primary style of play involves killing monsters because that's how you get to the treasure, then you and you players may need to talk a little bit about other interactions they could have with creatures in your world. There's a lot of subtle elements to this:

1. Not every monster should be an obstacle that must be removed for your PCs to progress in their current objectives. Sometimes they're a source of information, or a resource that can be persuaded/bribed/deceived into clearing or revealing a safe path forward. They may even be just a curiosity when first encountered. But later, when the PCs become a threat, that relationship might change and future encounters could go very differently.
2. Even "good" and "evil" creatures don't just kill each other on sight. If you want to build an open or "sand-box" world, you'll need to build in enough politics so that the whole world isn't just a giant arena fight. Creatures work together, make compromises, and coexist even when they have opposing ideologies. There may be laws in certain territories where the trolls can't kill people unless they come onto their clearly-marked land, or cross their bridges without paying. Well thought-out social structures create artificial, but very real barriers that prevent high-powered creatures from running rough-shod over your PCs.
3. Also, there are lots of challenging things that need to be done in the world that don't involve killing anyone: making deliveries of dangerous materials or through difficult terrain, mapping out strange and unknown territories, investigating disappearances or unexplained phenomena, etc. Once your characters are in a particular story thread, then you have more control over what they encounter. The 5e rules for skill and ability checks will provide the dice game fodder to round out those session where you're not getting a lot of combat in.

You might want to look through some of the online resources regarding non-combat challenges to give you some ideas on how to populate your world with survivable encounters at any level. Here's a few links to get you started:

• "Many monsters that are far more powerful might simply dismiss or ignore them." My preferred mechanic for this situation is to have two hidden stats for powerful antagonists -- ie ones big enough to be in charge of a lair, dungeon, city, etc. "Disdain" measures how far below their own level a threat can be and not be worth its time, and "Irritation" is how much of a thorn in their side your party specifically has become. It can counter Disdain. If your party's average level + Irritation + Disdain < the monster's level, they won't cause trouble for you. Otherwise, look out! – Mason Wheeler Nov 26 '19 at 17:32

The advice above about scaling by distance is similar to what I do in my open world game - but with a caveat.

The first thing was OOC, in the briefing I make it clear:

I say "basically as you go south things get more dangerous" (East/west are power level neutral and north is an ocean in this setting).

I also though say "anything that takes effort to reach or has warning signs may be more dangerous than the other things in that area".

So if you travel south, things get a bit tougher. If you find a locked and barred door (from this side!) at the back of a cave having only just by the skin of your teeth defeated the elementals guarding the cave.... you probably don't want to open that door just yet. The sealed tower on the plains, the 300' high plateau 100 miles south, the ruined tower on the top of a headland with the bridge washed away, the cave with massive tracks in the ground outside. All places to be careful.

The second thing was IC, in one of the first few missions they get hired to go and find out what happened to some scouts that went missing.

They find the aftermath of a...well fight is a bit strong. The scouts got mauled, huge trees uprooted, massive bear tracks. They follow the tracks and find one scout barely alive hiding at the back of a narrow crevice in a cliff face... and an owl bear cub.

The cub is a level appropriate threat, but the parents are out there somewhere and if they return the party will get massacred so they rescued the scout and ran for it. NPCs rewarded them for rescuing the scout and placed a bounty on the owl bears - encouraging them to go back prepared in a few levels.

I'm stealing this from AngryDM (I think-- I'm sure it wasn't my original idea), but you can gate content by resource availability.

If you place a specific dungeon such that it takes X days of overland travel to reach, requiring Y supplies (rations, suitable mounts, packhorses, etc.), and those supplies cost Z gold, then that dungeon is really only reachable by parties that have Z gold to invest in reaching it. Then, of course, players should receive a positive return on their investment from rewards in said dungeon, providing funds for their next adventure.

So players can go anywhere, but they can't necessarily reach a given location at a given time. This requires a tight leash on how much money and treasure they earn from adventuring, and carries the potential for inspiring creative ways to access dungeons before players are strictly ready. But it can do a lot to make sure that players don't stumble into a challenge that they have no realistic chance of facing.

I've tried this in my own games, but have had mixed success. It gates content well, but my players don't like the bookkeeping style of play that makes it work best. They don't like tracking rations, ammunition, or general encumbrance, and so the value of gold is more abstract for them because these realistic costs are ignored.

In that situation, the high costs of accessing certain areas seem to them like a plot element rather than a gameplay element, and so they have expected plot events to cover the costs for them. It still works to keep them away from the dungeon before time, but I think that with the optional rules for cost of living, hunger, depletable adventuring supplies, and so on, it would be even more effective and feel much more natural as well.

• I'm curious, since your players have specifically pushed back against the bookkeeping of rations and ammunition and such, if you've tried abstracting that into "The cost of mounting an expedition is X gold per mile of wilderness" or some similar method. – Mark Wells Nov 25 '19 at 22:47
• @MarkWells I haven't, but that group also hasn't done much wilderness travel yet. That is a good idea to work in travel costs though, and I likely will try it out. – Upper_Case Nov 26 '19 at 16:28

Given the dangerous nature of this world, and the importance of preventing a TPK (for play reasons)...

## Give everyone a tavernrune necklace - with 2 charges

Some innkeeper at your home base had these made as a promotional item; but they have a critical bug that makes most people not want them.

The whole party (alive or dead, and the animals and stuff they left home with) is instantly snapped back to safe/home base. Only the person who activates it uses a charge. Loot acquired since last leaving home doesn't come back but stays where it was.

• Big damn inconvenience. Have to spend days traveling back out there.
• Not for mundane transport since loot stays behind. Encourages leaving caches before entering a fight; hopefully goblins don't find them.
• If one member has too itchy a trigger finger, that problem takes care of itself on second use.
• It's clear this is a finite resource and the party needs to get good at not needing it.
• Did you try this in your own games? – enkryptor Nov 25 '19 at 9:13

The overall pattern to the answers here is one of communication that takes place for the DM to clue in players to things that they do not know.

There is one potential source where this communication can come from where I haven't seen it yet in existing answers, which is from the player's character itself.

Granted, this usually comes out in a form that is a "last resort" scenario. The first resort is typically attempted through the DM's storytelling or plot setup.

The first attempt might be something like when a goblin arrives who is twice as large as the others, and has three times as many battle scars as he does bad teeth (which are many and look very sharp), and all the other goblins who were so brash and outspoken before are suddenly uncomfortable and trying not to draw undue attention.

While some role-play happens from this point, if you don't feel the threat was adequately covered you might let the cleric in on some information with his high passive insight. (You could have him roll insight, but I would consider it just a passive check myself; 10+bonuses) - "Seeing the state of [your party], and the power and confidence of the new goblin chief, you know your party would go down easily under the might of the goblins in a straight fight."

You don't necessarily have to play to insight either. Any character with a knowledge of lore or history may have heard of this goblin, or the combat-focused characters might just tell from how the goblin holds himself, or the goblin himself could do an intimidate "check" that, described with enough emphasis, can easily portray just how badly he can mess the party up. There doesn't even have to be an explanation of how the party knows - you could just say they can all tell this... even the raging barbarian party member... (or not the barb, that might be fun too as characters have a split on what action to take)

Stepping away from the immediate encounter; you could hold the same strategy for a party wanting to attack, say, a keep.

"As the party gains sight of the keep in the far distance, the sheer size and number of forces makes them realize the impossibility of a straight assault"

"Hearing about the dragon, you know them to be monsters hunted only by the strongest legends, and even most of those have died from the attempt."

The way this is handled in computer games might be something to do in yours, too: make death not suck.

Whether it's free rezzes (back at home base) or whatever, make learning-by-losing (which in RPGs is often learning-by-dying) not suck too much. If a TPK happens, given them an "out". Maybe not lots of outs: just a few outs.

Within a few sessions, they should have figured out the rules of your scaling, so you can remove the training wheels; the wizzard who was casting the spell gets slain (or kidnapped to further the plot), they use up the last charge on the charm of anti-TPK, or whatever. Ideally have this lined up and signposted as something that's likely to happen for the players from the start, though, so they don't feel gimped when their safety net is taken away.

So all that leaves is a way to learnable scaling. Scaling-by-distance has been suggested already, though another thing that computer RPGs do that could be stolen, is telegraphing power in a consistent way.

So perhaps, if there's a couple of guards outside the tower, then it's level 2; if there's a dozen, it's level 12. Or, "This cave has a couple of human skulls on spikes outside" - level 2 dungeon. "This cave has a mountain of countless human skulls outside, and the very ground vibrates with the beat of hammers from the weaponforges below" - so high level you've lost count. Probably has tarrasques as guard-dogs.

• This is something I observed in WFRP with fate points, basically allowing you to survive death and it works well. However, I think it's important for them to be a limited, otherwise it sort of cheapens death and allows reckless action too. – gruszczy Nov 26 '19 at 21:21