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In one of my campaigns, it's possible that I'm going to have to pull off a Hopeless Boss Fight depending on the choices of my player (we're playing one-on-one). The gist is that they're interfering with the plans of a good-guy NPC who severely outclasses them, who needs to get an NPC away from them, and will respond to violent resistance with overwhelming but non-lethal force.

When players don't know that a fight is unwinnable, but it's a foregone conclusion because they're completely out of their league, how do I run the unwinnable fight in a way that's still fun for them? What are the anti-fun pitfalls or mistakes I should strive to avoid?

The opponent in question will not fight to kill (preferring knocking them unconscious over inflicting lasting injury) and will offer the player a chance to comply with their demands before the fight begins (allowing peaceful resolution of the encounter). My experience with my player has proven that my player doesn't mind things being railroaded for segments if they improve the story, so "cheating" my player out of winning is not considered an issue.

This question about preserving player agency when there's a predetermined outcome, but I'm looking how to make "a fight you can't win" as entertaining as possible. (After reading that question I have considered adding in different outcomes further down the line, depending on how well my player does.)

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    \$\begingroup\$ Participants in this question - I understand there are various opinions on this type of thing - keep it in your answers. Discussing/arguing in comments is not for RPG.SE - contribute your own answer and refine it based on others' viewpoints or provide specific feedback to improve existing answers. "Your random two cents" is not a valid comment type and will be deleted. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Jan 15 '15 at 18:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ I suggest reprogramming the Kobayashi Maru. \$\endgroup\$ – paqogomez Jan 16 '15 at 19:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ Is your player's character a good-guy, too? \$\endgroup\$ – Paŭlo Ebermann Jan 18 '15 at 13:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Paulo, yes, they are. \$\endgroup\$ – D-zap Jan 18 '15 at 18:38

12 Answers 12

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Here are some suggestions, won through hard experience:

Allow for Other Objectives To Be Achieved

I've found that engaging combat has more at stake than simple survival. Placing other objectives which are not "kill that enemy" are a good idea. If a player achieves their objectives without outright killing their enemies, they feel clever and may not mind the loss as much. Your players may even go so far as to paint the experience as their player attempting to go down in flames of glory.

A good example of "other objectives" is jumping into an irradiated control room to activate the control tubes to stop a nuclear reactor from overloading. In a fantasy setting, the unwinnable fight may be needed to strike a deal ("if you kill me, then spare the village").

Make Player Actions Matter

Even if your players recognize they're outclassed but still stubbornly attack anyways, their actions should matter. The consequences of their attack should follow them. Is the combat in a public place? Have people talk about it later on. Will they see this NPC again? Have the NPC respect them as courageous individuals, maybe taking precautions against the fight happening again.

In short, the un-winnable fight should have other effects on your story. If your players see how their efforts affect the story and the world, then your unwinnable fight is okay. Even a small (or big) scar on the NPC because of the player actions can be enough.

Information Gain

Yes, their characters may lose the fight, but if they survive to fight another day, the better have gained information about their opponent. What weapons/magic do they use? What works or does not work against them? Even if the players never fight that opponent again, what do they (or their characters) learn from that fight? Ideally, the information gained will help them advance the plot or defeat future enemies, maybe even including the person who won the unwinnable fight!

Some Anti-Fun Things in Unwinnable Situations:

  • Smug Opponents. This makes for so much hate. Some smugness on the winning side is okay, but too much sets up the winning side as bad or as a personal enemy to the player. Too much smugness on the winning side can make revenge the #1 priority of your players. Obviously, a such smugness is okay when you're casting the winning side as a clear enemy, but if you're not, it has the potential to de-rail the entire adventure.
  • Player actions being inconsequential. If you're using a system with HP, and their opponent looses HP, have that reflect in the story of the fight. Yes, the player may be outclassed, but outclassed does not mean that their actions don't do anything. If your NPC is straight invulnerable to your player's attacks, there should be a plausible explanation or valuable insight gained from this.
  • No Struggle. It has been my experience that players who cannot struggle against their opponents will not have fun. It invokes hate, which may land on the DM, the system, or gaming in general. Such hate is not fun. Sudden or Unexplained Character Death is the worst kind.
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'd like to comment that if revenge is the motivation you're trying to set up for your players, then "Smug Opponents" is an amazing tool, particularly for making a character that your players "love to hate." Obviously this takes some restraint still, but taunting and cockiness can give your villain lots of character if you do it right without pissing off your players OOCly too much. Players can get pissed off just enough to appreciate the fact that they've empathized with their character's feelings, but not enough to actually detriment your experience. At least that's how I feel quite often. \$\endgroup\$ – Lucas Leblanc Jan 13 '15 at 22:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ Additionally, some advice on that regard would be try to prevent outrageously dickish things like "instantly killing people" as a show of smugness. You might steal something that is mundane, but still important to the players, like food or money. That way, they don't feel compelled to undergo a sidequest to retrieve a stolen magic item (assuming you don't want that) but they feel slighted by the fact they were stolen from. Choice insults also work a treat. Other things include replacing random encounters with encounters involving him or his henchman, to achieve that "thorn in my side" feel. \$\endgroup\$ – Lucas Leblanc Jan 13 '15 at 22:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ About the Information Gain: If it's possible that the player will encounter this enemy again but have a chance at winning at that time, you can use this hopeless boss battle to foreshadow what the party needs to prepare for later and how the future boss battle will go down. \$\endgroup\$ – Kevin - Reinstate Monica Jan 14 '15 at 3:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ Great answer. The entire problem with unwinnable fights is that it completely removes the consequences of the players' choices. Giving those choices meaning again is key to keeping the fight entertaining. Otherwise it's just the GM showing off how they can beat you whenever they want. \$\endgroup\$ – Chris Hayes Jan 14 '15 at 3:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ @LucasLeblanc I warn of smugness because that can de-rail a whole adventure. Unless the DM intends to have the winner be the antagonist the whole time, avoid that smugness! \$\endgroup\$ – PipperChip Jan 14 '15 at 16:41
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Please note that this answer isn't intended to be globally applicable to all conflicts with unbeatable NPCs, but is specific to the scenario outlined in the question, which is to say that the following are true:

  • The opposing NPC is a GOOD NPC, and not intended to be (or to become) an enemy in the campaign.
  • The opposing (good) NPC intends to engage the PC in a dialogue and offer means to end the conflict peacefully.
  • Even in the event that a peacefully resolution cannot be reached, the NPC has no intent to inflict permanent harm on the PC.

With those points in mind, this does not sound like a combat encounter to me, but rather like a social encounter, or, perhaps a skill challenge where the reward for "winning" is, "you convince the NPC not to sucker-punch you and take the girl."

If you want to run this as a social encounter:

Have the unbeatable NPC tell the player that he is outclassed. You describe this NPC as a good guy; have him tell the player that he's a good guy, and explain his intentions. Offer the PC a chance to work together, towards common goals.

If the player attacks, it's entirely fair to have the NPC backhand him across the room, immediately knocking him out, or imprison him in a wall of invisible force, while continuing to monologue.

Have the NPC tell the player that he doesn't have time for this, take what he wants, and leave.

If you want to run this as a skill challenge:

Pose the scenario largely as above, but provide the player with an opportunity to convince the NPC that his goal is counter-productive, or secondary to [plot item], and that they should be worrying about more important things right now. Utilize the standard rules for a skill challenge of the PC's level, with diplomacy likely the most key skill here. I'd also allow for any knowledge skills relevant to [plot item]. If the player succeeds, he convinces the NPC to back down or join forces. If the player fails, the NPC takes what he wants and leaves. If the player attacks, as above, the NPC shrugs it off, takes what he wants and leaves.

If it must be run as a combat encounter

Don't waste your player's time by giving him false hope, or allow your player to accidentally commit suicide-by-dragon. This NPC is, as outlined, a good guy, who just happens to be in a disagreement with the PC and who severely outclasses him. Your player, as outlined, is unopposed to being railroaded occasionally to advance the plot. So again, I'd just have the NPC either shrug off the PC's attacks or incapacitate him as swiftly as possible (or perhaps one brutal attack which takes out 50% or more of the player's HP, followed by a, "are you sure you want to fight me? my quarrel isn't with you, boy."), take what he wants, and leave.

A full-blown combat is likely to leave the player highly frustrated almost no matter how you handle it, and the most likely result is going to be the misunderstanding that the NPC in question is a villain, rather than a good guy with a different agenda. Such plots are awesome, but are fragile and nuanced, which combats are not.

If an encounter is truly unwinnable, I believe that running it as a full-blown combat is a waste of time, and could possibly cause the player to feel antagonized either by you or the NPC who so brutally beat him. If, instead of a combat, it's run as a cinematic scene advancing the plot, the question isn't "how do I beat this jerk?" it's, "alright, that happened. what do I do next?"

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We occasionally have unwinnable encounters in my campaign, with mixed results. In general, our players do not enjoy being defeated. It is especially challenging in a one-on-one campaign to pull off unwinnable encounters without creating an unenjoyable GM-vs-the-player tone.

That said, there are a few things I recommend exploring with your encounter. (Forgive me referring to the players in the plural. I'm not often in a one-on-one scenario.)

Get in their heads

If your players don't have trusted NPC companions, then consider getting into their own heads. "The instant he draws his blade, your heart pauses. The way he moves... only master swordsmen move so gracefully and so deliberately. As your mind races to defend yourself, you desperately seek for a means to escape."

This kind of storytelling is honest. It grants your players agency, but warns them that fighting to the last drop of blood may cost them their lives, and it prompts them in the direction of seeking creative ways out.

Don't be the enemy

No one enjoys spending their weekend getting their butts handed to them by a smug and merciless game master. You may play the villains, but you don't have to be the villain yourself. If there's taunting, keep it in-character, and don't laugh at their misfortune. Instead, narrate up a sense of urgency or desperation.

If they must be defeated, rather than escape, then give them some sense of nobility or the greatest good. I'm thinking Boromir in the Lord of the Rings here, dying in a vain attempt to save the Hobbits.

If the encounter is truly unwinnable, take some creative license at some point of the encounter and fast-forward the story to after. Don't make them play a protracted encounter which you have no intention of letting them win.

Don't be mysterious

It is keenly frustrating to play with a game master who expects players to be mind-readers. Game masters who take on an attitude of "If you'd solve this the way I wanted you to, it would have been easier," are just plain no fun. Be creatively open and honest about challenging encounters. Don't just say, "You don't have a chance," but say "You'll need more than brawn to escape this unscathed." There's no shame in leading them on a little by the nose.

Victory in defeat

Don't ever run an encounter that is unwinnable and nothing else. Whether the character gains knowledge, new skills, access to a critical ally in the dungeons, or a unique opportunity to play for a session as a ghost, make certain that the defeat is tempered by some accomplishment.

What is next?

Transition quickly from the unwinnable encounter to the next thing. If your session ends with the unwinnable encounter, then finish with a compelling cliffhanger rather than crushing defeat.

"A moment before your eyes close you see a stranger in the crowd, clad in a dark robe, nod in grim approval and utter a word of power."

Or, "You awake, hands bound at the wrists, and head throbbing from a blow you cannot remember. Beside you, a woman in coarse clothing says harshly, "Good. You're awake. I need a hand with this grating if we're going to get out of here."

The idea is that you give the players the expectation that the next experience will be entirely more heroic, and they finish the session with a better flavor in their mouths.

Be prepared to be surprised

It never fails to astonish me how resourceful my players are. I've pitted them against a few unwinnable encounters that they subsequently went on to win. Even a lowly commoner with a table knife could feasibly assassinate a king were she resourceful and lucky enough.

As game master, plan your stories but avoid being too committed to a plan. If the player does something particular ingenious to thwart a foe, even if they could never win in an outright face to face bludgeoning match, accept it and grant them the satisfaction of the win rather than responding with an "Oh yeah! Well now I'm invincible and you're dead. So There!" Always let player enjoyment outweigh the encounter design.

Good luck!

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    \$\begingroup\$ That last paragraph is especially important. \$\endgroup\$ – Nigralbus Jan 15 '15 at 15:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ Exactly. +1 for the last paragraph. Being committed to your foregone conclusion is the worst thing you can do as a DM. It's the players' story. If you simply want to tell your own, regardless of anyone else's volition, why not just write a book? \$\endgroup\$ – asteri Jan 15 '15 at 15:59
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Do things which illustrate that the boss doesn't even need his full attention on the fight. Maybe he can have a casual conversation with the other NPC. This illustrates the hopelessness and entertains at the same time.

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Do a flashback or vignette: The Day that Party Died

I am not sure if this will work in your campaign, but a fun way to change up the campaign is a vignette. Basically, run a one-off adventure, perhaps with different characters, in a different location, or from a different time. But this adventure is not an isolated event; it is part of your broad story in the campaign.

For example, the mysterious cavern was discovered near the village centuries ago. Nobody knows what is down there, and nobody has visited since an adventuring party descended into it seventy-five years ago. They were never heard from again.

Now, if a player cannot attend, or if you just want a change, you can pause your main story line, and take a leisurely flashback to see just what happened to that party on that unfortunate day.

Players roll up new characters. Bored with your paladin? Try a necromancer. And so on. Let the players enjoy the change of pace. But the great thing is, everybody knows the outcome. This is a TPK adventure. The fun is in seeing how it played out. But you can connect this to your larger story. For example, you can drop a big clue or hint that helps the main party in the "present." Or you and the players can influence which magic items or artifacts were left in the dungeon. (Something helpful is to have the main party witness the flashback in-game, so that player knowledge can become character knowledge.)

Alternatively, you can keep the party the same, but somehow "jump" or "peer into" a parallel plane where the timeline evolved differently, and the party wound up getting itself killed. This may work better for your game, since your question focuses more on what to do with the primary party's decisions. The key (if this can fit in your game) is to communicate all of this before; otherwise it is just a big reset button, and that's no fun.

It's a hopeless adventure. It will end in a TPK. But there is plenty of opportunity for fun.

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Secondary Objectives

Have things gained that improve in value over time, like information they later realize is valuable, or rescuring a random captive who turns out to be the daughter of the king who gives them the key to the dwarven artifact vault containing the sword they need to defeat X.

Show the Villain's Power and Cruelty

Getting slapped around by some guy is terrible. Even if you describe him as amazing, still boring. Getting slapped around by a guy who just tore a frenemy dragon in half and hurled the pieces into the Worldforge is god-damn-terrifying.

Have NPCs be amazed and terrified at the power of this monstrous unwinnable fight

It makes the PCs feel less bad if the townsfolk have literally shat themselves, or they find a man trying to free his (dead) wife from the wreckage of his house after the cataclysmic attack the villain launched leveled half the town (and makes their survival/escape more of a victory).

Set up an expectation that the PCs might need to run away

Such as by turning a corner and seeing a Giant warband right there, mostly facing the other way. After struggling to kill a few giants. Cue benny hill music, etc. If PCs expect to fight and win every fight, they'll die trying to kill the villain and only run after most of them are too wounded to make it away.

Foreshadow a Deus Ex Machina

If you might need a Deus Ex Machina to get the PCs away (airship bursts through a wall firing cannons, etc) foreshadow the presence of the thing (or things) that will help the PCs later very heavily (have a story arc where the captain is the time travelling son of one of the PCs or whatever).

Milk the fight

Use it to portray the hopelessness of war, or to make the party really HATE that scumbag arrogant villain and his pet neutronium golem, or to have one of those 'magnitude of the task' moments, etc. Make it 'emotionally worth it', and you won't have to worry about the anticlimax of it. LotR and the Hobbit are great examples of 'running away milked for emotional pathos'.

Don't cheat

This should go without saying, but don't sit there fudging dice rolls to make the party lose but only by a narrow margin or something. If this dude is too powerful to fight, make him too powerful to fight. Not like, silly random googol numbers, not like cheating at dice rolls or just deciding the PCs miss. Big, tough, scary, but specific and measurable.

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From personal experience, don't spend any more time with the fight then absolutely necessary. Spending even half an hour rolling through a combat I can't win would just irritate me (and possibly others). Get right to the defeat and back to elements where the players choices have an effect. This is not to say it should be lackluster or boring, just quick. Several other responses elaborate well on keeping things from being boring.

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I think an appropriate way to handle this could be to have a 'winnable' fight wherein the NPC uses some fraction of his actual combat abilities. If the player should win this fight (i.e. achieving some damage threshold perhaps), the NPC can then admit that the player has exceeded his expectations and pay some degree of respect. NPC then pulls the old "But! I am not left-handed!" routine or whatever, and proceed to dispatch your player quickly in a non-lethal way. This can be an on-the-rails section or a continuation of the combat, but i agree with most everyone else that if this part is full-fledged combat it should be very quick and be very clear that there is only one possible winner here.

If the player succeeds in 'beating' the first form NPC, you grant some XP and perhaps the NPC will leave the player with some nice item 'as a token of his esteem.' This way, your 'unwinnable' fight is really a winnable fight with a pre-determined storyline outcome. Basically you end up with the NPC doing as your plot and his strength necessarily dictate, but the player has the chance to enjoy a good fight and a fair shot at some nice reward.

ETA: Another good reward I think would be that winning the initial combat could open up a side-quest later in the game featuring this NPC being impressed with your player's ability such that he is willing to take your player on as an apprentice, allow your player to gain some skill or power from the NPC.

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Introduce a third party

Random thug bursts in at just the right moment in a bungled burglary attempt, or whoever the boss beat up last regained consciousness got drunk and came back for revenge. Maybe someone else wants what the players have and is trying to get it before the boss does. This increases the complexity - can the players manipulate the interloper and boss to fight each other instead of both attacking the players? It lets the boss beat up someone other than the players, and lets the players win part of the fight before loosing.

Humor

Try a running gag. You hit the boss? Boss disarms you and throws your weapon in the corner. Someone else hits the boss? Their weapon is confiscated and also tossed into the corner. Shield bash? Shield goes next. Kick? Boss catches your boot and chucks that into the pile. Punch? Get ready to be thrown against the wall and flop onto the heap. If that doesn't KO you, look out for the rest of your party flying your way.

Novelty

Let the boss fight in an unconventional manner that your player hasn't fought against before. Perhaps they are using a weird weapon or an improvised one. Maybe they always grab whatever is closest to them and use it until it breaks, like a barstool, a mounted deer's head, and a chamberpot.

MacGuffin tricks

The boss is after a MacGuffin, in this case another NPC, right? Let the boss get what they want and loose it again to the players a few times. Turn it into a chase - either the boss chasing the players or the other way around.

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Under the assumption based on your question that physical conflict is inevitable, I propose to change the terms of the fight to make a portion of it winnable. Methods I would use are as follows:

  • Have him pull his punches. Have him deal less damage than the system dictates he should or find some other way for him to toy with them.

  • Do not tell them his stats. (You generally shouldn't, but it would really hurt your case here.)

  • Let them hit him a bit more often initially, so they are less likely to predict what is going to happen.

  • Set a threshold before he shows his true strength.

  • Be creative when determining the threshold.

  • Offer a reward of some sort for obtaining the threshold.

  • If you truly want to show his strength at the end, then finish them with non-lethal damage. Either way, he leaves after he's done, whatever partial victory he's obtained amidst the player's efforts.

Since he so severely outclasses them, he should not fight to his full potential until he reaches a threshold. Let them think they have a chance until he tires of it, or they have too good of a chance of taking him the way he's fighting, or until they have achieved a specific objective, then show his true strength.

It follows the trope of the multi-form villain (like Frieza) without the most literal expression of it or the prerequisite that he is a villain.

Please note that this does not mean that he has to kill them. Almost all systems have ways to deal non-lethal damage, and those that don't can hand-wave that aspect for the sake of the story. As long as he is able to quickly change the PC's opinion of his skill level, and thus start with a fight geared toward them, ending with them getting owned quickly and him knocking them unconscious, tying them up, using a flash-bang grenade to blind them and still achieve his objective that is appropriate to the setting and genre.

Always reward the players when they succeed, even if they don't feel like they succeeded. They should obtain some sort of benefit, or severely harm the NPC's effort, or both. Give them experience, gear/money, clues, and/or something else that they can salvage from the fight as a small victory in spite of defeat. Clues may be to the fact that they are not evil (and their relationship to the real evil), or to where to find the true evil, or how to find a way to foil the non-evil NPC's attempts, or basically anything else that will help progress the story. To give a 40's/50's noir game example that is common in investigations, the pack of matches from a specific club in town is a good hook to send the players there, thus continuing the storyline.

Word of warning, however, they may decide that next time they are going to take him down... when they think they are finally ready to. Depending on the style of game, they may decide that he's a villain (which could be good or bad depending on your goals). If you are concerned with this, then the means to find him again should prove he's not, or at least make them question whether he is or not.

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Banter and Monologuing

The one time I ran an unwinnable fight, I made sure that banter was an important part of the fight itself. In particular, all but one PC dropped rather quickly, but the party fighter actually managed to do a rather amazing job of not dying. The villain complimented them on their courage, and started answering their questions - it was a slightly silly campaign, so I explicitly paced it to a one-sentence answer to a question each round. In general, combat should provide a pacing that means you're not giving away too much, but it fits in well with the classic "monologuing villain" from comic books and cartoons :)

Reputation

I'd also suggest establishing the NPCs reputation as a powerful foe ahead of time - if they outclass the PCs to the point that this fight's outcome is a settled matter, they're probably powerful enough to have a reputation. When the PCs walked in to the fight I had for them, they had a pretty clear sense that they might not be walking away from it alive - although they still thought they had a chance.

Reputation potentially also applies to the PCs actions during the fight: do they fight dirty? Are they courageous even in the face of certain defeat? Do they act sensibly and accept defeat when it becomes clear that they can't win? Maybe the public can see the fight, as others suggested, or the villain returns. But given this is a powerful figure with his own reputation, the way the villain talks about the fight will probably also affect their reputation. "Lord Forthright said you fought with valor, and wouldn't accept defeat! You're exactly the sort of hero I need!"

Out of Character

Depending on the player, it might not hurt to just straight-up tell them that this is an unwinnable fight, or at least one where the odds are distinctly against them. Works well for villains who are reclusive enough not to have a reputation, or players who aren't prone to picking up on subtler hints.

It also lets you make it explicit what the PCs can gain from fighting: "If you can survive at least 3 rounds, he'll start monologuing" or "You're not expected to win this time, but if you pay attention to his tactics, it'll give you an advantage when you face him next time."

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Avoid making it not fun.

In general

Use alternate victory conditions. The goal is to develop the plot or characters, and there are many ways to do that. There should be other things at stake besides who beats who in a fight. Make it clear if they fight that there are other goals/rewards they can obtain if they take that risk. PCs may learn something or make the cost of victory high enough to achieve another goal. Even if the loss is a setback, make sure it puts them in a position to make progress in another regard (story?) and they can see it as the cost of that.

Outclassed?

PCs may be outclassed in power or tactically, but you shouldn't assume they're outclassed strategically. Perhaps defeating the PCs takes too much of a precious resource (time?) and it costs their adversary to do so. Make sure they consider the big picture and they may find a reason to fight anyway and still get something out of it (information?). If they consider the big picture and can't find a good reason to fight then they'll likely avoid it.

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