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So, I have run Curse of Strahd sometimes, but every time I run it I find a new problem in my DM'ing haha.

I will try to make it answerable without specifically CoS experience and keep it spoiler free.

Strahd, a powerful Vampire, is the main villain of the adventure, and, as the book describes, he is not a villain that will only show up for the final encounter. Strahd will, certainly, appear many times during the adventure, either to probe the characters, to scare them, or generally to play with them. In the many times I have run the adventure, I never had any problem with this encounter until now.

Recently, in one of the tables I am running, for reasons I am still unsure, my players felt very frustrated with this encounter. Let me tell how the encounter went:

The party met Ireena, helped with her request, and stayed a little bit too long in the Town. Long enough for Strahd's spies to inform him about Ireena leaving her house in company of the characters (they insisted) and, well, pay a visit to the characters when they were returning from the Tavern to the Burgomaster mansion. Strahd had no intention of actually harming the characters or even getting Ireena here - it was just to, well, make an introduction and... be Strahd.

However, the party has a very beautiful Half-Elf with 16 Cha who grabbed the attention of Strahd. He proceeded to Charm her and Bite her, just as a sign of "affection" - again, no intention of harming, I was not even rolling damage here, I only made the character in question roll the Wisdom Saving Throw and told her to "role play as if she was charmed by a vampire" when she failed - the player was fine with it and joined the role play nicely.

The other two players, however, tried many things. They tried to enter an abandoned house hoping that he wouldn't enter without invitation, or "talking the charm out" - all to no avail.

From one point, I can understand their frustration: they felt powerless. On the other, that is... kinda one of the points. At this point in the adventure, they are powerless against Strahd. He presents himself as an unbeatable encounter, who is there for his own amusing.

Other than that, there were many points - most sadly missed by them due to they worrying about how unfair the encounter was - in that encounter, which I tried to convey at the best of my abilities. These will be listed in the spoiler below as they are part of the Curse of Strahd adventure, but essentially, it was a nice opportunity to give some hints about the relationship of Strahd and Ireena, as well as introduce some Vampire Features to them.

I made Strahd constantly call Ireena "my beloved", while, even the high charisma half-elf, he only would call by "my lady" or stuff like that, never using anything resembling "love", since his love is only for Tatyana.

I used it as an opportunity to present some of the features and spells from Strahd, so the players will be better prepared when they actually face him. That's the main reason I used his Charm, a Ray of Frost and the Bite action on the PC.

Speaking of the Bite action, it was also my way to introduce them to the idea that just biting a character is not enough to transform them in a Vampire or Vampire Spawn. Until then, the players (and the characters) believed being bitten by a vampire would lead to immediate transformation.

One of my players also believed Silver would scare Vampires, but there is no such trope in 5e vampires. Sadly, he did not try out that, but it was the opportunity for him to find out that it does not work.

So, overall, I think there are many reasons for the encounter to happen, both from an in-game perspective, and simply to provide some useful information to the players and characters. However, they felt powerless, that the encounter was unfair and generally frustrated, even asking me "what is the point of this encounter?" in the middle of the encounter.

So, how can I present such an encounter, which is essentially unbeatable at this point, without frustrating them? I am asking because I plan to have them meet Strahd after the events in Vallaki again, and actually have a little bit of a combat this time, depending on how they behave, but I don't want it to end up being a "again this unfair fight? There is nothing we can do at this stage please stop throwing him at us".

Some things: First, I do not want to tell them "Don't worry he won't kill you" - they should be scared. And he will kill them, depending on how they act, and how bored he becomes with them. And I also would prefer to not disclose the spoiler'd reasons for the encounter, I would prefer them to find out by themselves that those were clues. I also think, even without them, there is enough in-game motivation for the encounter to happen from Strahd's perspective, and he is a character that I want to develop as well.

PS: I should note that this was fairly soon after the Shambling Mound encounter in the Death House, where they also felt powerless because they couldn't beat the monster in combat (and two characters actually died there - the players were back in this session with new characters).

PPS: I should also mention that, while Strahd himself was unbeatable, they had a feasible goal in sight: run to the Burgomaster mansion, where Strahd would not enter uninvited - which they understood quite quickly and managed to accomplish. That is to say that they had an objective in the encounter and even successfully managed to complete it, but obviously it lacked some sense of reward for them.

System agnostic answers get extra internet points.

Related questions:

How can I best invoke the trope of a foe who radically outclasses the heroes in Fate without compromising player agency? - but this is specific for FATE and the answers are very system-specific.

How can I present an "unsolvable right now" puzzle without frustrating my players? - Same thing, but instead of an enemy NPC, it's a puzzle.

How do I add a recurring fantasy villain without frustrating the players?

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how can I present such an encounter, which is essentially unbeatable at this point, without frustrating them?

Not every encounter has to be "winnable"

There will always be encounters in games that are not beatable in the traditional meaning. Maybe characters encounter a god, or an enemy AI that they cannot fight against, an enormous alien swarm they cannot hope to beat or just a huge rock they cannot move with their current equipment. Maybe they encounter something that is important later in the adventure and they cannot beat it for meta reasons.

And that's okay. Many books and movies have those scenes where the heroes encounter odds or powers that aren't beatable.

But do not try to fake agency

A game is all about making decisions and have those decisions influence the outcome. And sometimes you cannot make meaningful decisions. That is okay. But do not fake it. Do not let players make decisions that you ignore on purpose. That is super frustrating. If the range of meaningful decisions is small, that is okay, just tell the players.

For example: if the players are to be captured by the city guards and there is no way the players can beat the odds, you can ask if they want to fight or surrender, but if they pick fight, don't have them roll dice for 90 minutes when the outcome is already fixed. Just make it a cutscene, tell them they fought heroically but there were just too many of the guards and they where overwhelmed.

For example: if the big rock blocks the road for meta reasons because they are not supposed to move the cart up the road at this point in the adventure, don't let them try all the different methods for a real-life hour. Tell them that their characters tried their best for half a day and then came to the conclusion that the rock is not currently movable. Maybe drop a hint to try again with better tools or more people of after the rain or whatever the adventure uses to justify that it can be moved later. But as frustrating as the blocking rock is for the characters, there is no reason to spent 60 minutes of real time frustrating the players.

So for your example: if they cannot beat the vampire, they can try a few tricks. Like the house or silver. But there is no reason to play that out. Rolling initiative to see if they get to the door, rolling dexterity to grab the silver, if that's meaningless and the dice rolls don't matter anyway, skip them. Take the idea, tell them what happens. Yes, on the surface they lost some of their agency if they cannot control their characters turn-by-turn, but in the end, if they never had the agency to begin with, this scene should be as short as possible so they are not stuck in this no-agency mode, but can move on to their old decision making selves as soon as possible.

TL;DR:

If the outcome of the encounter is fixed, tell them. Get it over with. Make it a cutscene like in the movies, where the protagonist is surrounded and the next scene they are in chains with deep cuts and bruises. No need to bore people with the full extended directors cut, move on to the interesting parts of the story, where the protagonist can act meaningful.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Just to clarify: the only dice roll was the wisdom saving throw (which did matter - if she succeeded, she was not going to be charmed). Other than that, I did not roll for initiative, for attacks or damage. But this answer gives an insight that what may have been frustrating was not the encounter itself but the failed attempts to do anything - if I didn't let them try, funnily, maybe they would feel less bad about it just listening to the scene, as you mentioned. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 25 at 13:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think this is the crux of the problem: the players are still trying to 'win' D&D and expect that any obstacle they encounter can already be beaten as they are, right there and then. \$\endgroup\$ – Cronax Jun 25 at 13:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ as an example: In the other table I have been playing CoS (yeah I am running 3 at the same time! I like the adventure lol), when Strahd paid this visit, he had minions - which the party killed - and, after getting bored, simply cast Fireball at the party, dropping everyone but the Druid to 0 HP, and left saying "Meh, I thought you would be more entertaining. See me again when you can handle a puny spell like this" and left. I thought this was going to be way worse in terms of complaints and feedback, but the party actually enjoyed this encounter. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 25 at 13:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ The major difference, I believe, was that the party had a minor, rewarding goal which was killing the minions to stop them from devouring an important NPC, and when the encounter was finally with Strahd himself, it was basically a cutscene - Fireball, provoking statement, leaves. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 25 at 14:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think this answer somewhat assumes that victory is the only goal for PCs. With that mindset, if no victory can be achieved then no agency exists. However, let's not forget that if your goal isn't victory, then there is still plenty of agency even when you cannot defeat the enemy. HellSaint even gave some examples of this in the question; learning about Ireena, learning about Strahd's tactics, learning about supposed weaknesses, etc. This is all valuable information that is a direct result of player agency. I would try to eliminate this idea that victory is everything, it's not. \$\endgroup\$ – user-63873687 Jun 26 at 0:59
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It's ok to be frustrated

You hit the nail on the head, "that's kind of the point".

In many stories it's common to have the protagonists face off against an enemy they cannot possibly beat at their current level of skill and ability. This leaves them feeling defeated, humiliated, frustrated, but it should also leave them feeling driven, hungry for revenge, and with a desire to become stronger.

Desire is good, but a plan is better

If your players are feeling the former, but not the latter, then perhaps it is because they are not seeing a clear path to improve. In D&D it can be difficult to find this path because to get stronger, you need to level up. The answer is either to progress the story-line (milestone) or just go kill a bunch of stuff (xp). I don't think you can tell your DM "ok we are going to go grind on wolves in the forest until we are level X", nor can you say "ok let's go advance the story asap to level up".

In CoS there are various items that can be found which level up the party, and help them to defeat Strahd. While I'm not sure if the leveling up part is broadcast to the players, tracking down anything that will help them should be a clear goal. I don't know if your players are aware of these items at this stage, but that should be their immediate goal. When possible, try to emphasise these milestones which will lead to the party becoming more powerful, and eventually defeating Strahd.

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    \$\begingroup\$ They are not yet aware of the 3 items. They know the leveling system is through milestones, and right now they are set in moving Ireena to Vallaki - with a small break on Tser Pool on the way, where they will get their card readings and learn about the items. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 25 at 4:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ @HellSaint I think the problem will work itself out then. Let them feel powerless for a while, once they find out about them it will be a revelation, finally a ray of hope! \$\endgroup\$ – user-63873687 Jun 25 at 4:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ It is ok for the characters to be frustrated, but not the players. It seems the players don't see the way forward you are suggesting. \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Jun 25 at 13:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri It's ok for the players to be frustrated too. It's ok for players to feel emotions besides "enjoyment". They can be sad when their favorite NPC dies, they can be elated when they beat the boss, and yes, they can be frustrated when facing a foe they can't beat at their current level. The players don't see the way forward yet, but they will over time. \$\endgroup\$ – user-63873687 Jun 26 at 0:52
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I would have a talk with your players around expectations

The key line I read in your post was that they tried "talking the charm out" of a character charmed by a high level vampire.

This tells me they don't full understand the situation they are in, or the rules of the game. I too have players who expect that magic can be overcome in similar ways and it is a conflict of how they expect 'cool things' to trump balanced mechanics.

Your players need to be made to understand how magic works, how you rule their cool attempts at doing things that by the rules are never going to work, and in a meta sense, what kind of adventure they are in. I think they expect to be able to 'win' every encounter and if they don't have the tools in their character sheets, they expect the tools in their mind will work instead.

This isn't the case in D&D in general usually, and especially in situations like you describe. Once expectations are aligned it will probably improve and they will be able to appreciate the character frustration and powerlessness, without actually feeling it in person.

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It's largely about expectations

"Unwinnable" encounters are annoying in games-- there's no way around it. The nature of D&D is that it's a game, and it is a game largely about the player party defeating opponents even when doing so is challenging. The alternative is usually described along the lines of "losing" or "failure". It's a significant inversion of that pattern to have a fight be unwinnable, and it will always be annoying to some degree.

In my experience the biggest issue is that players tend to sharply distinguish between combat and roleplaying. If you present an encounter that seems like combat, players will expect to fight and (at least be able to) win, because that's the pattern the game itself suggests and presents over and over again. They are more likely to view anything that happens in combat as a combat-mechanical issue rather than a story issue.

In that spirit I have found unwinnable combats to be a poor focus for delivering plot information, especially when the point of that combat is to convey that the fight is unwinnable. The inability to win can make the fight feel like a waste of time, and every idea the players have is destined to fail.

My approach to unwinnable combats is governed by the following ideas. It's definitely not a perfect list, but I have found these useful:

  1. Use unwinnable encounters as infrequently as possible

    "As possible" is of course a relative idea, and CoS strongly suggests that Strahd appear to the players somewhat often, and is effectively unbeatable each time. So generically using fewer such combats may be a good idea, but isn't really available in CoS. Nonetheless, generally, if something is bound to annoy players a decent approach is to do that thing less often.

  2. If possible, make something other than combat obviously the point of the enemy's appearance

    As outlined above, games like D&D carry an overriding suggestion that combats are meant to be winnable by the players. Presenting an encounter as only combat enhances that idea. If the enemy instead has some other purpose for appearing it might seem like less of a fight, and more of a situation in which a fight might break out. It ably demonstrates that the enemy is unbeatable if they appear, essentially ignore the characters as threats, and casually outfights them if the players actually do force a fight, but because the situation isn't presented as a fight there is less mismatch with expectations.

    In more generic campaigns it might be similarly effective to have the enemy appear as an illusion or something similar-- also unbeatable, but not really the enemy themselves. That model doesn't work well with CoS, as a significant reason for Strahd's personal appearances center the players in the plot and demonstrate his unchallenged power in his domain.

  3. Make it clear, early, that the fight cannot be won

    This applies both to a specific fight as well as a recurring character that cannot be beaten each time they appear. Lots of things can demonstrate that a fight isn't winnable before the party has expended all of their limited-use class features, spell slots, and so on. If the party had trouble fighting some monsters, Strahd appearing and being attacked by one of those monsters and casually dispatching it shows the disparity in power. PCs hearing legends about him being impervious to harm may not be literally true, but might be effectively true when they try to fight him, and now they have some reason to think that further fighting won't help.

    Importantly, these fights should not appear to place the party in mortal danger (at least, not often). If they think they'll die either way, they'll probably go down fighting thinking that it's their only shot. If the party has a safe area they'd like to reach (as yours did), that's OK because the fight is no longer win-or-die, it's get-to-safety-or-die (winning is, in that case, surviving).

    Once you've established that the players can't really win, and that the enemy won't launch into combat every time they appear to the party, you can have the enemy appear more often for plot reasons (such as messing with the players). As long as they perceive it as distinct from combat, it becomes a roleplaying scene.

  4. Time such encounters carefully

    For example, being forced into such a fight immediately after leveling up is undesirable. Players that get new abilities and tactical options will be excited to use them, and it's very discouraging for your new powers to be totally worthless when you were eager to try them out. Conversely, placing such an encounter shortly before leveling up might have the opposite effect for your players-- the defeat still stings, but now that they've got new tricks enemies had better watch out!

  5. Make the point of each encounter clear, and don't linger too long afterwards

    If Strahd is appearing to the party just to mess with them, he should have some sort of plan to do that (other than just letting them wear themselves out attacking him, at least not every time). He can appear, do what he came there to do, and then depart. You'll get the effect of his appearance but not spend much time dangling pointless combat in front of the players. Fighting them at any given time is not very important to an unbeatable foe.

    That fits Strahd in particular pretty well: he's so powerful that he'll never lose (or so he thinks...), so he won't fear combat with the players; he's immortal, so he can choose to deal with the characters whenever he feels like it; he'll never be happy or satisfied, so his investment in each encounter with the players won't be very high; and the Dark Powers move around him for inscrutable reasons, so the PCs are at most a curiosity to him (until later in the adventure). If he wants to defeat the PCs, killing them or not, he's certain that he can. He isn't going to appear just to fight them in an exhibition match-- he'll have some other goal, even if fighting is a part of his method to achieve that goal.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Good points. Also: I think having a session zero where the DM establishes the likelihood of such encounters is critical. That's something I did when I ran CoS for a group. I simply told them up front that Barovia is non-linear and dangerous AF. The party may find themselves in encounters they are not prepared for, where the smart move is to talk or run, not fight. One of the things I did to blue the line between combat and non-combat was roll initiative at the end of a rest only. That way, they wouldn't think initiative = "time to fight" and stop thinking about other solutions to an encounter. \$\endgroup\$ – Rykara Jun 25 at 15:28
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Your NPCs and Knowledge checks are your tools, Use Them

I think what might be the cause for a lingering sense of frustration for your players is a lack of realization regarding the useful gains the encounter provided. You set out with the goal for the players to learn a little about what Strahd can do, but they don't know that's why you did that.

In the scenario you described, the aftermath needs to include discussion by the players regarding what they learned. If the players do not initiate that discussion themselves, you have Ireena to start the discussion. You do not need to guide the discussion to the key points you mentioned, you just need to get the discussion focused upon Strahd's abilities.

For example, Ireena could comment about Strahd walking into the house without an invitation. Much of Barovia lives under Strahd's iron fist, they probably know that the list of places he can enter is a lot longer than where he can't.

If that window has been missed, you can re-open it the next time the players have a discussion with any NPC about Strahd by just making that character inquisitive about what Strahd did.

As an aside, don't be afraid mid-encounter to take advantage of impromptu knowledge checks for characters. You have to remember that you know everything and the players know what they think they know and what you tell them. If an encounter appears to be going sour due to frustration, much of the frustration can be alleviated by appropriate knowledge checks which convey the information you need it to.

For example:

  • Knowledge Arcana - Gain some useful information regarding the strength and impacts of the Ray of Frost.
  • Knowledge Religion - Gain some useful information regarding vampire charm and bite.
  • Medicine - Learn that the bite the half-elf took is not festering and not likely to cause her to degrade into vampirism.
  • Knowledge History - Convey that silver was once thought to be a means to combat vampires, but that information was proven to be categorically false when we look at the story of the insert random heroic figure who engaged in event against random vampire with a silvered sword and failed spectacularly.
  • Insight - Help convey that Strahd was specific in the way he addressed Ireena versus the party's half-elf.
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It ultimately comes down to how your players react. If they're the kind of players that need that instant gratification of winning rather than building up to defeating the guy that's been taunting them, maybe have Strahd send a few weaker minions at them, or give them an event like saving people from buildings he set on fire.

If you really want to show that he's just playing with them, have him fight them at "half strength". If his attack does 4d6, maybe it does 2 or 1d6 instead. If his AC is 18, make it 14. Give him a "health pool" that they have to meet until the encounter ends. But play it off as him just sparring. Then at the end of the encounter have him give them an item, say a line about them needing to grow, and vanish. Keep an eye on their health and if one is getting low, have him charm them and kick them out of the fight because they're "no fun anymore".

In encounters that they can't win, they should get something out of it. Even if it's just story. But make sure that they actually get the story information. Even if it's an NPC telling them. If they need something more physical, then give them items that will eventually help them be able to fight him or items that will give them access to his lair.

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I have used the unwinnable combat before as a GM. It's an interesting tool to set up a villain and teach a lesson in humility, but you need to be careful to not make it too frustrating. A couple guidelines I found which work pretty well for me are:

  • Make it very obvious that it's an unbeatable encounter. The players should not have any illusion that they could have won this encounter if they had had more luck or did use a smarter strategy.
  • Make it short. Don't waste too much time on it. Not only does it reduce frustration if you don't let the PCs suffer too long from anticipating their inevitable defeat, it also establishes the villain as more powerful if they can deliver a sudden defeat.
  • Do not punish the PCs for losing this encounter. They didn't do anything wrong, so the consequences for losing that battle should be as small as possible. Especially don't kill off any PCs, unless they can get revived immediately. If you want to establish that the villain is able and willing to kill, let them kill an NPC. This is especially effective it its an NPC which was established as above the power level of the PCs (TVTropes calls such a sacrificial lamb a World Expert at Getting Killed)
  • Immediately after the encoutner, offer encouragement. For example by an NPC pointing out that the villain was far too powerful and there was nothing the PCs could have done.
  • Give them hope for a more fair rematch later. Like dropping a good lead for how to acquire the MacGuffin which they will need to defeat the villain later.
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Don't make it an encounter

If you need to expose the player characters to an NPC that's out of their league, make sure the NPC never has a motive to attack the players.

By "attack", here, I mean both attempting to kill them, and also attempting to embarrass them in a way that would make them want to fight. You've written that Strahd made a bite attack against a PC, and it sounds like in this case that was too much.


I don't have direct experience with Curse of Strahd, but I have run a similar module (Expedition to Castle Ravenloft) several times. In that module, the adventure pack emphasizes that Strahd doesn't want to offend the player characters -- in fact, he wants to befriend them and give them quests. Strahd does not become hostile until the player characters start taking his stuff and interfering with his plans.

When I arrange for an early-game encounter with Strahd, I still want to make it clear that he's powerful and evil. What I do is I arrange for him to do something mean (but generally not fatal) to an NPC. This lets him show off his combat abilities, but it doesn't make the player characters want to fight him.

In the meantime, when Strahd interacts with the player characters, he's apparently-friendly but, at the same time, deeply disturbing. Sample quotes:

  • "My friends! Welcome to Barovia! It happens that I have a small quest for some fledgling adventurers such as yourselves. (Name), the love of my life, spurns my affections! She hides in her home whenever I visit, and though I would dearly love to speak with her, I do not feel right about breaking in to her house. Could you intercede with her on my behalf? Perhaps if I wished to share a dinner with her, here at the local inn, you could undertake to make sure that she arrived?

  • (Name), you are beautiful and alluring, but what intrigues me even more is the power you hold within. I can tell that you are strong, and you will grow stronger yet. But I must ask: why do you adventure with (other name)? They are weak, and incompetent, and thoroughly unworthy of an adventuring companion such as yourself. Without them weighing you down, I am certain that you could realize your true destiny. Perhaps we could be partners, you and I...

  • My five friends, I wish to reward you for dealing with (incident)! Please come visit me in my castle tomorrow evening. I have made a study of the ways of true power, and I wish to share a portion of my knowledge with you. After dinner, tomorrow evening, I will offer the strongest four of you a small taste of true power...

I suppose it's possible that a group might take Strahd up on this, but every time I've done this the group has said "holy wow that's terrifying" and smiled-and-nodded through the conversation and then tried very hard to never interact with Strahd again. (And that's the outcome I wanted.)

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    \$\begingroup\$ Just to be clear the player who had her character bitten was the only one not complaining hahah \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 25 at 23:13

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