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Good afternoon, I'm about to start an RPG campaign where the system has very strong monsters, and it's not to reveal that to the players either.

I would like to know the following situation: What to do if a player persists fighting the monster.

I wanted how to solve this situation, I can't run away with the monster every time to leave players alive, and I can't keep killing players at little cost.

For any RPG system (D&D, GURPS, Pathfinder and others), what to do if the player persists against a strong monster?

Monsters are strong, players' health is low and health recovery is difficult, Restoring health doesn't happen very often.

(Optional Answer) And I wanted to clear this doubt for Dungeon Masters and for the players what they think about it. If possible leave an opinion.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think in this case the system is required as different systems have different expectations and responses to this kind of situation. When you say "very strong monsters" do you actually mean "effectively unkillable" i.e. that players cannot win? Or simply that it is unlikely that they will win? \$\endgroup\$
    – linksassin
    Mar 24, 2022 at 2:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is very system-dependent. Some games use failures to move the story forward. In some games the party just dies. Could you specify the game you're playing in the question? \$\endgroup\$
    – enkryptor
    Mar 24, 2022 at 8:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ I would also strongly urge you to update the question (not just the comments) with the game system. This is a question that depends on both the system and the genre, and Call of Cthulhu absolutely requires special treatment. \$\endgroup\$
    – Novak
    Mar 24, 2022 at 9:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ To add to what Someone_Evil is saying, there's also very different expectations between systems about how players are expected to deal with powerful foes. In D&D, where players will typically kill every monster they see (and any person that looks at them funny), the answer is "an epic battle". In Call of Cthulhu, which focuses on horror and investigation, a really smooth successful campaign will involve banishing or killing the monster using a hidden weakness without ever actually fighting it. In Kobolds Ate My Baby players just bring a stack of character sheets to every session. \$\endgroup\$
    – Oblivious Sage
    Mar 24, 2022 at 12:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ Rather than perpetual tag edits back and forth, I'll ask that we leave this without until the querent comes back and edits the question (if they so wish). \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil
    Mar 24, 2022 at 12:59

4 Answers 4

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The system/setting matters here.

CoC is horror, so the PCs for the most part have no idea what they are up against, especially early game. They would have no reason to research the monsters ahead of time, as they wouldn't even know the occult existed beforehand, and even if they were followers of the occult, chances are the myths they "know" about are all wrong (not true Cthulhu mythos). This makes a lot of strategies used in other settings, like researching what you are up against, more difficult, especially at first. Deaths in new parties are common.

I think a session 0 is in order here

Let your PCs know the expectations of the game. This is a survival horror game. As such, combat is not the primary goal. Players should react as normal people would in these situations, which normally involves running away when terrifying things show up, then researching them latter maybe. Solving puzzles and figure out how to survive and what is going on is the main goal. Combat will happen, and there are times when it's appropriate to fight, but even in the CoC core book it says fighting should not be the PCs' first option.

Maybe you can set up a starting adventure where death is not permanent

At least not starting out. I am in a CoC game right now, only 3 or 4 sessions in, and a PC died. We escaped the town full of fish people and humans with guns, only to find the train we got on is in a time loop and heading back to the same town. The PC that "died" is back alive on the train, but has lost some stats. This makes death something you still want to avoid, but it also means one lucky roll from a monster or NPC doesn't mean needing to reroll. I was honestly not expecting that, and I thought it was a nice twist.

Have players have backup character concepts handy

CoC is a more lethal game by its very nature. Unlike D&D, where magic healing and raise dead are common, death is often permanent and people are fragile (and it doesn't even take a monster, the PC in my game was killed with a single rifle bullet). Let PCs know in the session 0 that death is a very real possibility and to have multiple character ideas ready in case you need to reroll.

Let the PCs do things to even the odds

Another thing I noticed in my current CoC game is when we do fight, we have done things that made the fighting more advantageous to us. One of the first places we ended up was trapped on an island after a ship wreck with a lighthouse. We had split the party as some of the party was trying to fix the lighthouse/radio while the other half went to sheds around back to look for wood to board up a broken window. The group outside had fish people run at them (this was after we knew about their existence as we saw bodies earlier). We did the reasonable thing and ran. We didn't realize they had ranged spikes and they ran after us and fired. We decided that firing back at them over our shoulder as suppressing fire might make it harder for them to run us down. Our GM rewarded that action and allowed us to get to the lighthouse first after some rolls. We boarded the door, ran up to the room the other investigators were in, and used a workbench to block the stairs. We all waited for the fish people to try and get up through the desk, and we all 4 fired at them. All 4 of them died and we didn't take any damage. This is an example of using our environment to help us against foes that would have been much scarier if they were allowed to melee us. Encourage this. Allow your PCs to use their environment to make it harder for them. Explain that this is a thing you expect in your session 0. A well cordinated defense/attack is much more likely to work than just charging in guns blazing.

In other systems

My answer has been primarily about CoC, as that is what you are playing in and so I tailored my answer to that, but some general rules for most systems are: Research what you are up against when you can (this is sometimes possible even in CoC), prepare for likely encounters, use the environment to your advantage when possible (and flee if the environment is giving the monster's an advantage; its better to fight on your terms), always have a backup/escape plan if something goes wrong (teleportation effects, just run, use suppressive fire, magic to block the mosnters from getting to you like wall of stone or wall of force, etc.). If you do need to run, use what you learned about the monster to fight better/smarter next time, or avoid the monster until you are more powerful (this is more applicable to other systems, as CoC advancement is slow and often not much advances your combat capabilities, but in something like D&D, this might be a fair option), elect outside help if necessary (hirelings, maybe let a town know that the dragon is heading their way and you were unable to fight it off alone, but if you marshall the town's forces to help you, you are more likely to defeat it, etc.). In my experience in most TTRPGs, is creativity is to be rewarded. In other systems, like D&D, it is less expected to be put against monsters you cannot or are unlikely to be able to beat. If this is going to be a common thing, it should be mentioned in session 0.

Give hints

As others have explained here, give hints that the monster is above the PCs capabilities in a straight up fight. Have it kill NPCs in one hit, have an NPC blast it with a shotgun and it barely be phased. Set it up as something the PCs should avoid. If the PCs still try to fight it, give one last warning. Have it do something that shows how easily it could kill the PCs without actually kill them. If they still insist on a fight after all the hints, that's on the PCs. Don't pull punches. Death is a learning experience. As others have pointed out, you can even explain in session 0 that you will be giving hints if a monster is too powerful, and that players should look out for those hints. Explain if hints are ignored, player death is a likely outcome. You should also encourage roleplaying. As I said earlier, its probably not most people's first reaction to seeing an eldritch horror to try and fight it. This is again something that a session 0 can help with. Let your PCs know they are expected to roleplay their characters as real 1920s people (mechanics, archeologists, scientists, reporters, etc.) and that those people's first instincts would likely not be to try and fight the huge scary monster. My character served in the great war before the campaign started and was a private investigator, so he was used to fighting. Even his first reaction was to run seeing fish people, and they are some of the tamer monsters in the setting.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you gone into a CoC campaign as a DM with the plan to set them up against a monster above their pay grade? How did the players react? Is this something often done in CoC or is there another problem here? \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Mar 24, 2022 at 11:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ unfortunately my current CoC game is my first and I am a player, not a GM. My answer is based on mostly second hand information plus what I have experienced as a player. Second hand information is abound that CoC is typically a more gritty and brutal game. Deaths are more common. These are things that are well known about the system. My character, for example, has a pistol that does 1d10 damage, and I only have 7HP. Therefore some other regular guy like me can get lucky and one-shot me. We had been lucky so far with monsters missing us until the character death \$\endgroup\$ Mar 24, 2022 at 11:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ from what I've heard, yes. CoC monsters are hard. The particular game I'm in we have only faced cultists (usually with guns) and fish people. We are lucky and many of the PCs have good firearms skills, so the few time we have had to fight, we were able to kill the fish people without taking any damage, but I know that's not always the case \$\endgroup\$ Mar 24, 2022 at 11:46
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This is a common problem.

It has no single 'silver bullet' solution. One of the solutions is called the silver bullet, however.

  • Indicate. Show the players in some way that the monster is too powerful for them to deal with, so they hide or run or negotiate instead of fighting. Have it utterly demolish a skilled knight in a single swing, punch through a castle wall, or pick up and throw a car at them. Use impressive sounding adjectives - towering, corded muscle, terrifying, growl that shakes up through your boots, etc.
  • Luck. Protagonists in movies get lucky breaks all the time. The monster swings at them, you go oh dear, you roll again, and then you say 'it misses and hits the shelving behind you - a tide of boxes falls down, briefly burying it under twenty thousand plastic-wrapped issues of Women's Daily'. Players will assume you rolled poorly - you didn't, but. Their characters are protagonists, and thus get the luck of heroes at times. Letting them beat the monster via luck is not great, but letting protagonists escape after they realize (too late) that they can't win, is a good use of it.
  • Deus ex Machina. That macguffin they were carrying? It lights up when their blood spills on it, and the light repels the monster. S.P.O.K.A.N.E agents abseil through the roof, firing smgs. The monster suddenly screams, and runs away clutching its head. The aqueduct they are fighting on suddenly fails, breaking away and the monster falls into darkness roaring. Like Luck, this is something you put in place that helps out the PCs in a major way at an unlikely time. It works best if you add complications related to the deus ex machina - the SPOKANE agents arrest the PCs, the artifact is now vampirically feeding on a PC's soul, the monster isn't dead after the fall and it's now very angry, etc. It works better too if you lay some groundwork beforehand - the PCs know that SPOKANE is looking into the mystery, the macguffin is rumoured to be able to defeat the monster permanently somehow which is why they have it, the aqueduct has been creaking and bits falling off even when the PCs climbed it earlier, etc. What is also helpful is if the deus ex machina is hostile to both parties. SPOKANE sprays the whole area with bullets, meaning the PCs have to duck behind cover etc. It is a 'disaster' not 'help', but ends up helping the PCs more overall. An earthquake, the dam finally failing, automatic doors closing as the facility goes into lockdown, etc.
  • The Silver Bullet. Like deus ex machina, but it's done by the PCs. The Professor suddenly recalls that lycanthropes are allergic to silver, and one of the PCs' family heirloom gun has silver on the engravings, and instead of 'doing 1 extra damage' or whatever, the gun when wielded as a club burns the lycanthrope so heavily it screams and tries to flee. Any solution that you effectively hand the PCs, that has a powerful, outsized effect but is put into place and done by them.
  • Keep Them Alive. The enemy has an interest in capturing the PCs - to question them, use them as bait, keep them from rotting to eat later, to hire them, use them as components in its intergalactic portal machine, whatever. Works best with groundwork, where you've previously mentioned things such that it makes sense that they'd take the party prisoner instead of killing them. Then the party can try to escape later, when they are more laxly guarded or the tough enemies are called away.
  • Alter the Monster. The enemy is too tough? Not anymore! Players can't see enemy stats. If you've messed up and made the enemy too strong, alter them midfight. A clever player may notice that the monster is missing with rolls it hit with previously etc, but it's a bit impolite to call attention to that - if they do, simply say that it was stronger due to a temporary effect, or admit that you've altered the stats on the fly as it was a bit too strong for your liking and you didn't think the monster should have been that strong given the situation and its fluff.
  • Err on the Side of Caution. If your encounters are typically too strong and PCs die a lot, try making weaker encounters. Lower enemy stats, add fewer enemies, lower the effectiveness of enemy abilities. Maybe some encounters are pushovers afterwards, but you can slowly increase the difficulty until it sits at the right point.
  • Get A Balance Buddy. If you are consistently having problems balancing encounters, find someone who has more skill at that and ask them for assistance. This could be a player at the table who is good at stats/game flow, or it could be a friend who isn't in the game, or it could be a stranger online. Getting a second pair of eyes on a problem can often solve it.
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    \$\begingroup\$ One of my GMs had a philosophy not on this list: Keep killing the PCs until the players get better at the game. \$\endgroup\$
    – user56480
    Mar 24, 2022 at 9:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ I like this list! One thing you might want to add is something along the lines that the monster changes its mind or makes a mistake. A monster can reasonably mis-assess the tactics of a situation. PC is at death's door but manages a strong hit, and the monster gets spooked a hits the road. Obviously very situationally dependent. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    Mar 24, 2022 at 10:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ These all seem like some good suggestions, can you talk about use of them at a CoC table to make this directly relevant for OP and others? \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Mar 24, 2022 at 13:20
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You should reveal it to the players... sort of.

There's no universal way to determine how you should deal with the players trying to engage in physical conflict against overwhelming odds in an RPG. It varies from game to game depending on what the game designers believe about the place physical conflict should have in the story and the things it should be able to resolve.

For example, trying to deal with the problem of a mouse patrol that wants to kill a bear in Mouse Guard is very simple; it is literally against the rules for a mouse patrol to try to kill a bear. This is because part of Mouse Guard's philosophy is that the mice are lowly creatures in the natural order and only through coordination and innovation can they overcome their limitations. As a result mice in small numbers have caps on what their physical force can accomplish; it is simply not possible for a single patrol of mice to start a conflict to kill a bear or even to dissuade it through physical force.

If you want CoC7's philosophy on the topic, here's a pretty good summary:

The odds can easily be stacked against the players. There are no rules to limit what you can present the investigators with; if you decide that a host of dark young descend on the investigators while they are asleep, then there is little that the players can do to save their investigators. This would not make for a good game nor happy players. You must measure the threat and be aware that many of the monsters presented in this book are capable of wiping out a party of investigators. Usually, the best option open to the investigators is to flee and live to fight another day.

Fair Warning

Keepers should endeavor to provide players with the chance to avoid investigator death wherever possible. This is not to say that Keepers should diminish the abilities of monsters and villains in the game, or pull their punches when dealing out damage from attacks and other injuries. Rather, it is recommended that Keepers give players up to three chances to avoid certain death.

-- "Presenting the Terrors of the Mythos", CoC7e Keeper Rulebook, p. 209

Now, Call of Cthulhu isn't a dungeon crawler; the players aren't going to just boot down a warehouse door and, with absolutely no foreshadowing, encounter a 10' by 10' room with a shoggoth guarding a pie that man was not meant to eat. The players are investigators, and sometimes that means following up on strange stories and research, but sometimes also means following up on physical evidence.

You know, like an iron girder that currently resembles a party cracker, seized with a crushing grip and torn in half. (chance one)

Similarly, the creatures aren't dungeon crawler monsters. They don't have human-relatable intellects - and even when a dungeon crawler offers up what's supposed to be a completely alien intelligence, it often has human-relatable motivations like claiming territory or growing in power. Whatever motivation your creature has in the scene (and you should always know what motivation your creature should have when you place it in a scene) it isn't very likely to start out related to "get to the soft center of these weird meat things", though as the weird meat things start bothering it that may change.

You don't necessarily have to strike with the full strength of something if the damage expression is likely to wipe your PC hit points all in one blow. You can lead with a strike without the creature's full intention behind it, more likely to add up to a halfsies major wound than a full-power mortal blow. (and your players do know what damage dice you're rolling)

Now you've got someone who's fighting to stay conscious, and this thing wasn't even trying? (chance two)

And finally, your players should also be playing true to their own characters' motivations. They didn't just drop a dollar in the slot of a game machine and get a little electronic puppet. They're people with a past and hopes for a future. They lived in the world for years before the players started playing them. They may have connections with each other and care for each other.

A love tap left your friend fighting for breath, and the best course of action you can come up with is to try getting this thing to fight for real? Really? (chance three)

You shouldn't be coming at your players full blast with a fight to the death they should try to run from. Use evidence to foreshadow the power of the opposition, don't necessarily start fighting at full power, and remind players that their characters are likely to have more motivation than just physically destroying everything they don't approve of, whatever the cost.

And if they ignore those three chances to avoid certain death? Go hard.

But, do mention in the setup for the whole game that you're going to be giving those chances to avoid certain death. That the players are going to encounter creatures they couldn't stand up to in a physical confrontation, and you're not necessarily expecting them to try and take the stand anyway.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Fair enough, what you said makes a lot of sense, there was a little mistake but you got straight to the point. The mistake is that I wanted to know for any RPG system be it Cthulhu or D&D, but your answer is valid to use in other RPG's too. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 24, 2022 at 4:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ @WEBLastWolf Thank you for the feedback, but I'm afraid you're asking for something impossible; there isn't a pre-cooked answer for "any RPG system". I've added a small prelude to that effect. \$\endgroup\$
    – Glazius
    Mar 24, 2022 at 4:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think that prelude really makes the answer useful for me, thanks! \$\endgroup\$ Mar 24, 2022 at 11:45
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This is a very common problem in the system I am primarily playing at the moment, D&D 5e. There are several techniques you can use;

  1. Encourage information gathering. If the players can scout, research, study, and consult with NPCs then they can learn how strong the monster is and figure out how to beat it.
  2. Allow the PCs to initiate the fight. Once the players have gathered information, they can make a plan. If the monster randomly attacks them, then they can't enact that plan. I like to let players go to the monster, then they can set up their traps, attack the monster while it's asleep, do whatever clever ploy they have devised.
  3. Avoid lethal combat. Often as DMs we want to avoid hard combats because we're afraid that the player characters will all be killed and the game will end (or at least be very unfun). This can be avoided by using non-lethal failure states. For example if the party lost to goblins, maybe the goblins will steal their boots and rations. Bandits may take their gold, guards may throw them in the dungeon.
  4. Avoid fighting to the end. Have monsters attempt to run when injured - a wolf isn't going to stay to fight to the death if randomly attacked, it will flee. Most monsters have a great interest in staying alive, and little incentive to risk their lives. Most intelligent enemies are the same, but rather than fleeing they may surrender or try to bargain. In any case, almost every fight should end before one side is completely out.
  5. Introduce a purpose to combat. Often combats are set up with both sides trying to kill each other. Try to introduce some goals in combat - one side is trying to get to the door, or steal the artefact, or hold until reinforcements arrive. This moves the game from being about who has the best stats to who can come up with the best tactics on the fly.

It's important to remember that you don't need to use all of these all the time, sometimes the players can encounter a novel monster. Sometimes they can be ambushed. Sometimes fights can be to the death.

How to handle players that charge in anyway

And finally, remember that keeping the party alive is the players job, not yours. Be clear that the game has strong monsters, and they will need to play smart. Help them by creating situations that showcase all the options the players have - teach them about information gathering by having them overhear patrons at the tavern, teach them to ambush by having an old hunter give them some advice, teach them to avoid fighting to the end by having enemies flee from them.

But if they make bad decisions, that can lead to bad consequences, and that's completely fine.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This seems like good advice for 5e, but I suspect it is not good advice for Call of Cthulhu since that system has very different expectations for the role of monsters in the adventure. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dan B
    Mar 24, 2022 at 2:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DanB This isn't a question about CoC, it's a general TTRPG question and I provided a general answer with a note that in 5e communities this is a super common question. \$\endgroup\$
    – user73918
    Mar 24, 2022 at 3:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ What would improve this answer is how you would apply this advice to a vastly different system like Mouse Guard or Call of Cthulhu. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 24, 2022 at 11:48

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