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I made a homebrew creature that's supposed to be impossible for them to fight at the moment as that creature is the BBEG. I wanted to show the strength gap between the pcs start and how strong they will have gotten at the end, but I doubt that they will back away from fighting the creature.

How do I introduce my BBEG's power without my pcs rushing in to fight them?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Some details about your BBEG and where he is to be encountered would be helpful to tailoring answers to your specific situation. \$\endgroup\$ – Thomas Markov Jan 27 at 15:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ Related: How can I make my PCs flee?, How can DMs effectively telegraph specific dangers in D&D?, Dealing with "fearless" players (see also more linked questions on all of those) \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil Jan 27 at 15:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'd meant that, if the PCs can't win but fight him anyways, one possible outcome is that the BBEG wins the fight but doesn't kill the PCs. That shows the BBEG's power and that the PCs can't (or can't easily) defeat him. But I don't know how important it is to your story that the fight not happen at this point, so I wanted to clarify that. \$\endgroup\$ – Upper_Case Jan 27 at 15:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ Is it necessary that they encounter and witness the BBEG and its power themselves, directly? Do they need to be present at the time the BBEG does its thing, or could they discover the carnage afterward once the BBEG is long gone? \$\endgroup\$ – Stop Being Evil Jan 27 at 20:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm going to leave a gentle reminder to answerers that they should support their answer. The method you suggest should be tested, and that testing should give you expertise to say when it worked and any drawbacks or limitations it may have. This also goes to voters, please look for answers that show experience. Many ideas sound good until you try it and realize you forgot about X thing. \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil Jan 29 at 15:54
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There are lots of options here:

  • Have the creature kill something in front of them. Preferably something they know is tough. And don't do it cinematically, roll dice, so they know the power is real. Don't play out an entire encounter in front of them. Just show that it can kill that knight with 18 AC and 50 HP in one turn. Just after the PCs spend 3 rounds trying to kill him, all together. (If you use a screen, it doesn't really matter what you roll, just let that creature die fast)
  • Similar to the first, have a useful, but unlikeable person follow the PCs for a fight or two. Give one of the players control of him. He is 1 level above the players. Later when they are split off from him, they see the creature slaughter him. If he is too likeable the players might decide to try and recover the body for resurrection, so be careful with that. Again, roll the actual dice.
  • Have a powerful patron of the party warn them about the creature earlier.
  • Have a clear path to escape. This one is not enough on its' own. But if they players don't think they can run, they might try to fight.
  • Let them attack with a group of people, let the group be slaughtered around them. Include in the group someone who has the means to let the party escape. Preferably you have set this up beforehand, like a paranoid wizard who always have a scroll of teleportation. (If he just pulls it out mid-combat, without fore-shadowing, it might feel like you are deus ex machina saving their butts, and future challenges will feel less dangerous)
  • If your players are experienced enough, have him or one of his henchmen cast a high level spell. If he is not a spellcaster himself. Have him murder someone, and then tell his minion to disintegrate the remains to prevent resurrection. (Nothing says power like having a minion throw around 6th level spells). This does require the PCs to have an idea how powerful the magic actually is though.
  • Sometimes there is a compelling reason to keep the PCs alive despite a loss. This really depends on your story, and your PCs, but perhaps one of them is from a rich family, and the BBEG captures them and ransoms them back to the family. Perhaps one of them is of a special birth that makes them a valuable hostage (until they perform their daring escape of course).
  • Foreshadowing. Try if you can avoid just dumping in the BBEG without any idea what he is. Rumors and stories about him. Depends on the nature of your BBEG, but think about who knows about him, who would warn about him. Who serves him? almost dying to his servant, then finding out the servant is just a small cog in the wheels of this giant machine where BBEG sits at the top.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ thanks, I have more ideas than just hoping they leave or dues ex machina cause they already made a thing they can't fight (well think they cant and forgot I that was still around) \$\endgroup\$ – anonymous Jan 27 at 15:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ Just to add I don't like the rolling of dice in NPC Vs NPC fights, and most players I know would get bored watching the DM do this and try to intervene just so that had something to do. A DM gets involved in everything so don't take spotlight away from players, they already have to split their table time amongst themselves. \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Jan 27 at 22:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri this does depend on the fight, I had player witness Tiamat attacking illusions of an army (all of a deck of illusion) it was one breath weapon and I rolled it so the players could see it do 300+ damage, so they knew at level 11 they had no chance. That did not take long. \$\endgroup\$ – John Jan 27 at 23:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ @John That is exactly what I meant, you want to let the players know the damage is real, that it isn't just a description. DMs will naturally try to make a lot of things sounds dangerous, so it feels more awesome to have defeated it. The clear way to know this time is different, is when you see it dealing more damage than you have HP in a single turn. \$\endgroup\$ – Peter Rasmussen Jan 28 at 14:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you tried any (or all) of these options? Adding experience based (or textual) support would substantially improve this answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil Jan 29 at 15:56
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So you need to to give the party a demonstration of the BBEG's power, yet prevent them from immediately engaging it in combat?

Show them the aftermath.

It takes a little setup:

  • First, let them become familiar with a powerful NPC, someone already beyond their own capabilities. It could be an ally they've been working with (or under), some peacekeeper in an otherwise neutral zone, or even an enemy they can't get close to because their lieutenants (or even their minions) are enough trouble as it is. The key here is that the party would be completely outmatched against this NPC, and they know it.
  • Next, let your BBEG overcome said NPC, offscreen. (Overcoming will usually end up being killing, but I don't know your BBEG well enough to be sure.)
  • Finally, let your party come across what's left, some time after the BBEG has departed. Include a lot of environmental details related to the struggle. Be generous with them. Provide enough that anyone paying attention would have a fairly good idea of what had happened here and how. The exact nature of those details is going to be heavily dependent on who/what your BBEG and sacrificial NPC are, and the nature of the conflict itself.

This tactic has its roots in the horror genre, where the intent is to hide the BBEG completely from sight (which also removes it as a target), although more modern takes on it do something like putting the BBEG behind unbreakable glass with a victim and letting you helplessly watch the carnage.

Two examples from my games:

  • The party responds to an elven ranger (the new PC) bringing news of catastrophe at her master's grove. The party goes and meets with said master, who happens to be a high level druid, whose grove has been pushed back to maybe thirty square feet and whose students have gone in number from fifteen to two (the PC and one other student). The druid was occupied by protecting what little of his grove was left, but was able to give some details on who attacked and just how scared he was that it would all be destroyed.
  • The party invades a kobold warren, coming across a passage through which they can't move, but can hear the leader on the other side, confiding in a subordinate that she's nervous about the next demand 'the queen' will make. They found out elsewhere that 'the queen' was an undead black dragon, and promptly got pretty paranoid about everything having the dragon behind it.
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Here are a few options:

  • See the BBEG through divination such as scrying so the players can't interfere. Also works if they're in a far off location and can see the chaos the creature sows.

I've used this to give characters with spying and social networking skills a way to get useful and plot focused information.

  • Introduce the BBEG in a setting where etiquette, personal codes, etc. are the problem.

Notable mentions are court sessions in L5R or Sidhe realms of 7th Sea. A territory can have binding rules that are as soft or hard as you like and prevent characters from diving in. This can be as mundane as a formal ball and not wanting to lose royal favor, as metaphysical as Geas or losing a protective magic like being invisible, or as literal as a fight causing a cave in.

  • If the creature is intelligent, allow them to bargain the players away for now.

Bribery and being told of a bigger threat (for now) could deter the players. In a recent game, the players had to decide if the lord hosting their stay was lying about a curse on the land, and decided to take a simple task from him for his aid until they could learn more.

  • If it's a "Good" party, they shouldn't be murder hobos and won't just attack something for existing.

The older I get, the more even my most warrior based tables try to avoid a fight. Naturally, once it's on they don't hold back, but it's useful that they want an actual reason to kill something. I've also posed a moral dilemma to a paladin about whether or not they should kill a hatchling black dragon. It's an evil creature, but it also hasn't committed any crimes yet.

  • Put the initial encounter when the party is ragged from the rest of the dungeon/encounter/scene. No special abilities and low health should make them unlikely to attack something they don't know

This is one I've done in war campaigns. The players are just at the end of a battle and they could take this foe on now, but they are simply out of gas and need to pull back if they don't want to whip out the big eraser. It created for a fun tug of war mechanic because they would take an area but have to return to a base camp to recover, which not only gave them glimpses to the next threat, but me time to plan it better.

  • Competing interests are always valid. If the players have to bring the MacGuffin back unharmed, and the create is a cut scene in their path they'll keep walking.

Part of the socially binding limits, collateral damage is always a factor. Sometimes the creature needs to be let go and continue its rampage because it takes it away from the town. I've also had a campaign where players were in house that was collapsing from being dilapidated. They were in there to recover a family heirloom, which was a painting, and thus easily damaged if they got into a fight. They also didn't want to risk a TPK by staying somewhere unstable.

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