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At the end of the homebrew campaign I'm running, I plan to have the characters face off against a big, scary monster. It's designed to be (almost) impervious to regular weapon attacks, but there will be various ways to either avoid or negate its attacks and 'defeat' it without killing it.

Through various choices made in the adventure so far, the party is actually well on their way to having it in fact be friendly towards them when they encounter it, though it will be dominated and/or controlled by the real enemies into trying to attack the party.

My party has proven to be relatively cautious so far. I would like to describe the creature as large and imposing, with very powerful attacks that would normally reduce anyone caught in them to very small pieces.

I'm afraid that when I describe the creature as super-powerful, my players will decide it is obviously way out of their league and (sensibly) refuse to enter the area, and miss many of the more interesting interactions they could have there. On the other hand, if I describe the creature as too wounded and weakened, it will not feel like the impressive, nail-biting end-of-adventure encounter I hope to give my players.

The players have discovered so far that the creature is a red dragon, though they don't know its age. They also know that it's being held against its will, though I don't think they realize yet how much it hates its captors.

In past encounters, they have reacted to various descriptions of enemies with realistic responses:

  • Their first combat encounter, described as a small handful of goblins and gnolls eating dinner and unaware of the party, had the party sneak into position, then attack with overwhelming force.
  • Their third combat encounter, where they thought that a horde of vicious beasts was about to descend on their position, had them retreat and take up defensive positions. (There was only a small horde of confused, weak, hungry creatures, but they didn't know that beforehand.)

This is my first time being a DM for this group (and in general) after being a player for many years, so I'm not sure whether the players have a feel for my 'DM'ing style' yet. During our session 0 I did promise not to maliciously put them in unwinnable situations, but I also promised to play the enemies as intelligent and as realistic as I could. So far this has meant using formations and running for help when losing a fight.

The party's caution so far is warranted by the situation. They are performing a raid behind enemy lines; just a three man party raiding the enemy HQ. They know that if they allow the alarm to be raised, which so far they have cleverly managed to avoid, things will get much harder for them. However, the captured red dragon is the enemy army's secret, war-winning superweapon that they have been tasked to disable, so unless they deal with it in some way, they cannot fulfill their assigned task.

How do I make it clear that, while dangerous, they have a multitude of options to deal with the creature?

Note: we're using D&D 5E, though I imagine this question could be applied across various systems.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ How much do the players/characters already know about this creature and its good will (or at least appreciation) of them? Could you give an example or two of descriptions you've used and how your players responded? Each group will respond differently (and differently per system/power level) so it may be hard to give guidance without more details \$\endgroup\$ – Ifusaso Feb 25 at 15:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Ifusaso: I've added some descriptions of the (few) encounters the party has had so far. I would prefer not to lock the boss room behind them because I believe that would take away their agency too much. So far, they've been an incredibly inventive and fun party and I would much rather give them more options instead of less. \$\endgroup\$ – Loid Thanead Feb 25 at 15:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Ifusaso Yes, the BBEG will be on-site and within weapon reach (with some effort). This is indeed one of the ways to resolve the encounter. \$\endgroup\$ – Loid Thanead Feb 25 at 15:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ Also, yes, there will be some disposable minions around, some of which will definitely be used to showcase the monster's power. \$\endgroup\$ – Loid Thanead Feb 25 at 16:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Upper_Case This is my first time DM'ing for this group, so I'm not sure they have a clear feel of my style. I've been a player for years now, however, and so far in (almost) all of our games we've refrained from excessively lethal encounters, keeping them reasonably level appropriate. \$\endgroup\$ – Loid Thanead Feb 25 at 21:47
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Showing That a Monster Is Dangerous

The most important thing to remember when trying to convince your players of a fact or emotion is to show, not tell. So, how to show that your monster is dangerous? You can invoke the oldest trick in the books: Surprisingly Sudden Death.

Have the group be accompanied by one or more relatively powerful NPCs. Then, in very a surprising turn of events, most or all of them die (or are incapacitated) by this monster. This can happen relatively easily within the mechanisms of any game, simply have the monster set up a trap or give it one or more free moves of powerful attacks.

Describe the horror in the NPCs' faces as they die one after the other in a few seconds. Surely, this will shake your group up.

Optional: If you're wondering why your group cannot help the dying NPCs, you can use different methods. For example, maybe this group of NPCs acts as a vanguard, and thus is a few hundred meters ahead of the group (but still in visible range). Another way would be to have the trap include some kind of temporary imprisonment of your PCs (e.g., a falling cage, a hole, etc.)


Showing That a Monster Is Vulnerable

But if a group of powerful NPCs just died that easily, then why would your PCs stay and fight? It's simple. One of the NPCs, moments before dying (or being incapacitated) managed to strike a powerful attack/spell on the monster.

This attack deeply wounded the monster giving it some kind of very clear disadvantage. Describe to your players how the monster is visibly in pain. Maybe it was super-fast before this but now has "normal" speed. Or, maybe it was able to attack multiple times in a turn before (that's how it killed all of the NPCs) but not anymore.

With this technique, not only you've just shown that the monster is vulnerable, but you've also created a once in a lifetime opportunity to kill/destroy/incapacitate this monster.

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    \$\begingroup\$ If you go with that approach for showing that the monster is vulnerable, you probably want to find a way of describing it such that the players aren't left with the impression that the NPCs did all the hard work and the PCs just handled the mopping up. (This may be as simple as making the rest of the fight sufficiently challenging. A lot depends on the players' personalities with this sort of thing.) \$\endgroup\$ – Ray Feb 26 at 2:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ You don't need to show that the NPCs even get a strike in on the monster - in the question, the OP says there is a way to defeat it without killing it. To drive home the scariness and threat of the monster, have a small group of NPCs (sleeper agents? A parallel infiltration group to the PCs, as putting everything on just the PCs is too risky? A group of the enemies who want to perform a coup?) try the non-fatal approach to defeating the monster, and fail. Thus you show: 1. there is a way to defeat it; 2. it is highly dangerous and they might still die anyway. \$\endgroup\$ – Logan Pickup Feb 26 at 6:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ "If it bleeds, we can kill it." \$\endgroup\$ – StuperUser Feb 26 at 10:26
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In a comment on this question, you've written:

Putting a strong emotional reason to fight still leaves them the option not to - and face losing the thing they care about. The game continues and they face the consequences.

It sounds to me like "the game continues and they face the consequences" is not going to be a fun outcome for the group.

It sounds to me like you're saying something like this: "I want to give my players a choice about this, because I don't want to be a railroader. But one of the possible choices they could make would lead to a game that would be less interesting and less fun, so I want to make sure they don't choose that one. How can I give them a choice but make sure they choose the thing I want?"

Here's my solution for that problem:

If you don't want the group to choose something, don't offer them that choice

If you're not prepared for the group to do something, don't present it to them as a realistic option.

If you are prepared for the group to do something, but you're expecting it to lead to a not-fun experience, and you're planning to disavow responsibility for the not-fun experience by telling them that this was the experience they chose -- you still shouldn't present that as a realistic option.

It sounds like you really, really want to offer the group this choice. If that's how you want to do things, you need to make sure you're prepared for any choice they make.

If you offer the group a choice, make sure that any decision they make will lead to fun

You've told the group that their mission, as a group of adventurers, is to deal with the dragon. Maybe that will be enough to motivate them. But, in case it's not, you need to think carefully about what they might do instead of fighting the dragon, and how you're going to make sure that that game path is fun.

If the group sees the dragon, and they see the control collar or whatever, and they decide to back down and run -- what happens next? Can they regroup and attack when everyone's sleeping, to get a better advantage? Is there some other backup plan?

You need to make sure that there's something here other than "the DM tells the group about all the awful consequences they suffer".


If you don't want the group to have the choice, there are easy ways to make that happen. You just have to put the group in a position where they can't run from the monster.

For example, maybe they're just coming out of a cave, and they look out and the monster is standing right there, and there are no other exits from the cave.

Maybe the dragon also breathes its fire breath directly into the cave every 30 seconds. The fire breath doesn't directly hit the characters, but the whole cave is slowly heating up, and if they stay here too long they'll be roasted.

If I were running this adventure, I'd add effects to make it really clear that the group doesn't have to fight the dragon directly. I'd have the dragon wearing a control collar with glowing runes on it, and I'd show the villain wearing a bracelet with the same runes, and I'd show the villain speaking commands directly into the bracelet and the dragon being forced to reluctantly obey. This should clue the group that they don't have to attack the dragon to win -- they just have to destroy the collar or the bracelet. That might make them feel better about doing the combat.


When I run a D&D game, here's what I usually do: I tell the group that their characters' job is to solve this problem. I don't explicitly tell them they have to fight a monster, but I do make it clear that solving this problem is what the game is about.

Most groups, by default, are in sort of a sandbox mentality: they control this character and they're trying to make decisions that will generate good outcomes for the character. By telling the group that dealing with this problem is their mission, I get them out of that mentality. As a result I usually don't have problems with groups deciding to run away.

You've told your group that their task includes dealing with this dragon, so maybe you won't have issues either.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure the first suggestion isn't railroading a bit too heavily. I'm looking for ways to help the party feel they can handle the encounter, not force them to fight no matter what. However, I like your second suggestion. Basically, clearly telegraph (some of) the potential ways to solve the encounter, right? \$\endgroup\$ – Loid Thanead Feb 25 at 17:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ @LoidThanead The point is well taken, though. Why does ANY hero face a dangerously powerful monster? It's because the lich has something they need, or the dragon is threatening something they value, or they literally can't escape from the rancor pit until the fight is over. Escape should simply not be an option, for either physical or emotional reasons. \$\endgroup\$ – Darth Pseudonym Feb 26 at 22:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DarthPseudonym I see what you mean. Though, I feel there is an important difference between those physical and emotional reasons. Physically forcing the issue leaves players no real choice. Either they fight, or the characters die and the game ends. Putting a strong emotional reason to fight still leaves them the option not to - and face losing the thing they care about. The game continues and they face the consequences. \$\endgroup\$ – Loid Thanead Feb 27 at 7:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ @LoidThanead Both options have their places. Sometimes "fight or die" is the correct answer; sometimes "fight or lose something" is fine. It depends on the scenario you want to build. If you do "fight or die" too often it can certainly become a railroad, and as characters level up they tend to develop more ways to escape that you can't reasonably block without being a jerk about it (such as Teleport spells), but there's nothing wrong with once in a while putting your players in Thunderdome. \$\endgroup\$ – Darth Pseudonym Feb 27 at 16:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ @LoidThanead I had some thoughts about your most recent comment, and I've updated my answer. Cheers! \$\endgroup\$ – Dan B Feb 27 at 18:12
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The easiest way to make the party engage with something they perceive as possibly beyond their league is to have the creature attacking a place and people the party cares about. Do they have a town with NPC's that they are fond of, place them in peril and the party is either forced to have them die or try and fend the beast off.

Alternatively if you do not wish for the fight to take place at a town or such you can always drop information in some way that the real evil enemy is controlling this monster and they need to stop them before things get even worse for the world around them.

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I'm afraid that when I describe the creature as super-powerful, my players will decide it is obviously way out of their league and (sensibly) refuse to enter the area, and miss many of the more interesting interactions they could have there.

If the palyers are unwilling to engange with a challenge, something is propably wrong with the challenge. Part of the GM job is to make certain challenges unavoidable.

The party's caution so far is warranted by the situation. They are performing a raid behind enemy lines; just a three man party raiding the enemy HQ. They know that if they allow the alarm to be raised, which so far they have cleverly managed to avoid, things will get much harder for them. However, the captured red dragon is the enemy army's secret, war-winning superweapon that they have been tasked to disable, so unless they deal with it in some way, they cannot fulfill their assigned task.

That is all the motivation they should need. As long as the Dragon is positioned to protect their Dominator and they are operating under time pressure at the moment, there is now way for them to avoid engaging it.

  • Their first combat encounter, described as a small handful of goblins and gnolls eating dinner and unaware of the party, had the party sneak into position, then attack with overwhelming force.
  • Their third combat encounter, where they thought that a horde of vicious beasts was about to descend on their position, had them retreat and take up defensive positions. (There was only a small horde of confused, weak, hungry creatures, but they didn't know that beforehand.)

That is just common sense. Nobody sane likes being in mortal danger. Heroes and Soldiers are people that learned to be okay with being in mortal dangers some times for really good reasons. But still do their damndest to come out alive. And especially on early levels, D&D is not a game Systems that allows mistakes.

The "behind the lines" and "do not raise alarm" constraints put extra emphasis on stealth. But the dragon is still their main goal. They have to defeat or free it to fullfill the adventure. That is usually the only "good reason" players need.

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