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May be somewhat related to this question.

First, a word about the setting.

We are in a somewhat classic fantasy world with many references to Japanese mythology, culture, and traditions. We are playing Pathfinder, but that's irrelevant to the question.

In my next session, my players will witness a fight between two beings who are far stronger than them. (Namely, The Holy spirit of Autumn, Feïa, the gigantic celestial fox and a giant flying Oni)

Due to some pre-established plot (Feïa has been weakened), the odds are pretty even, with a slight advantage for the fox.

Here is my problem: if players where to charge the Oni, it would probably finish on a TPK pretty easily.

I don't want my players to have to sit around and watch the fight, as I figured it would be kind of boring for them, so I want them to have something to do.

I can't seem to think of any ideas about what to have them do. My ideas have either been totally unrelated (Go grab "random artifact" while one of your gods is fighting for the world's sake.) or it's very gamey and boring. (You need to destroy the three unguarded crystals behind the Oni to kill him.)

I am looking for a powerful experience, something that will make them feel involved in the action, something that they feel they must do. I feel there is so much I could exploit from that fight, but can't simply pinpoint the best thing to do.

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    \$\begingroup\$ By "sit around and watch the fight", do you mean that this fight between two NPCs will be simulated using more complex combat mechanics instead of just narration? \$\endgroup\$ – kviiri Feb 2 '17 at 15:55
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Is there, or could there be, a settlement nearby?

If so, you could have your players help the citizens endure the carnage. Try to evacuate the town while the two powerful entities - oblivious to the tiny meaningless creatures at their feet - lay ruin to it (think: Godzilla). People trapped in collapsed buildings, unwilling to leave all their possessions, paralyzed by what is going on, missing a loved one, fires that need to be put out...

Have them come dangerously close to the action, from time to time. Maybe they can even get an opportunity to contribute to the fight in some small way if they favor one of the combattants. Or maybe they need to distract the creatures from X to avoid Y.

Or in more general terms:

Don't make the fight the center of attention for your players, but something in its vicinity.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Even if there's not a village, the player characters themselves could be trying to avoid getting squished. \$\endgroup\$ – AceCalhoon Feb 2 '17 at 16:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ Indeed. And many of the same ideas apply. Only it's a PC that is trapped under a rock/tree. Or, failing a throw, is paralyzed. Or valuable possession is dropped, ends up in hard-to-reach place. Etc. Whether you want to focus on making your players feel their insignificance or give them some heroics to do, decides which variant has more potential. \$\endgroup\$ – TheNickOfTime Feb 2 '17 at 16:33
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Your main problem, if you choose not to allow the characters to participate in the fight or alter its outcome, is time management. The spotlight should largely be on the players. So you just need to find a way to make the fight short and simple for the players to understand.

A description of 6 to 10 sentences is usually more than enough to describe events like this. Since you seem comfortable excluding player input from the outcome, determine it ahead of time, by yourself, using your preferred method (coin flip, knucklebones, augury. etc). Describe an attack or two by each side and how their enemy staggers and reels, and then narrate the killing blow and death. A fight can be over in a matter of seconds, it needn't be a 20 minute slugfest as we see in the movies. You can get through this description in a minute or two. Keep it short and simple.

And then, with the characters standing shellshocked in the wreckage of a fight between gods you can ask them "What do you do now?"

I know the question was about how to engage the players, but I wanted to address the problem of "I cant narrate X because its boring". You can narrate these things! Just practice speedier narration and it becomes more natural.

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Have the Oni have some summoning powers... that cost it a degree of distraction. The oni doesn't want to turn their full attention to the party, because it's busy fighting a Great Spirit that's probably more powerful than it is, so it throws some minions at them to keep them busy while it gets its fight on. If they can defeat the minions fast enough, though, it'll have to let itself be distracted a bit more by summoning more minions. It's a somewhat unusual fight because the goal switches from "beat the enemy" to "beat the enemy as quickly as possible", and defeating the enemy doesn't mean the fight is over. The monsters can be a bit of a different challenge too - they're not there to kill the party, just slow it down (killing is bonus) which will change the enemy distribution/difficulty, but every time you beat a set, the next set is more challenging (as the Oni ups his opinion of the threat level of the party) and achieves more. (More challenging foes means the Oni is investing more into beating them back, and thus is more disadvantaged in his fight with the fox.)

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    \$\begingroup\$ I like this -- puts the PCs in a position to affect the battle, without just being stomped flat without a thought. \$\endgroup\$ – Zeiss Ikon Feb 2 '17 at 17:06
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Do you know what is really irritating? Flies. You're trying to get a job done - in this case, kill off a god - and these flies keep swarming in and annoying you. It breaks your focus, and though it's not hard to kill the flies, doing so leaves you open to some serious punishment.

Perhaps the oni has some minions - no one he cares about, but their suicidal rushes distract the other god enough that the oni will likely win. So, the PCs' job is to keep the weak, suicidal, annoying waves of mooks away from the fight; the more that are involved, the more difficult it will be for the good guys to win. If they can, the PCs can provide the same service - annoying the oni at the right moment, and distracting him - though obviously that can be quite costly, as the PCs aren't as suicidal as the mooks.

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Size isn't everything

The trick to this is to think of what these great and powerful combatants cant (or won't) do, but the player characters can (or will). You've got two huge things fighting. They're obviously very powerful, so to give the party something exciting to do, think of things where size might not help, or might actually be a hindrance. Think of things that the massive creatures aren't interested in doing, or lack the intelligence, skills, or intention to do.

Evacuate or protect bystanders

Think of what happens when Godzilla fights Mothra, or when the Transformers battle in a city, or alien whalemonsters come out of a wormhole above New York. The fight is huge, spectacular, and full of property destruction and general imperilment of civilians. While the big creatures duke it out, the party could be moving townsfolk to safe areas, deflecting falling rubble away from people or key structures, and generally doing what they can to limit the damage to life and livelihood. It may not seem like much while the fight is happening, but if played right it can be intense and challenging, and can make the difference between a city that falls to ruin in the aftermath and a city that recovers.

Tip the scales

Just because the party are smaller and less powerful doesn't mean they can't do anything useful in the fight. Perhaps there are ancient tomes describing a druidic ritual that might give Feïa a boost. A giant fox might have trouble getting into the archives of the Mages' College to find those tomes, and lacks the opposable thumbs necessary to turn the pages, but the party might be able to find them and use them to help Feïa out at a crucial moment. Perhaps the fight moves onto a bridge, and the party see that the bridge is strong enough to take the weight of these creatures, but if certain supports were knocked out, they could drop one (or both) of the giant creatures into the river - and the sorcerer knows fireball. Perhaps the Oni was drawn here by an evil cult, who are channeling their magic through crystals hidden in the sewers. Neither the Oni nor giant-fox Feïa can fit into those cramped tunnels, but the party can - and of course, those crystals will be guarded by cultists.

Join in

This is D&D, and being small doesn't necessarily mean being weak. Perhaps the wizard can throw a few disintegrate spells into the fray, or the cleric can conjure a spiritual weapon to distract the Oni and give Feïa an opening. Even the fighter could help if they can score a hit in just the right spot - take a longbow and aim for the eyes, or find a way to get around and cut the back of an ankle with a sword, that sort of thing. If they get hit, they're in trouble, but this isn't a stand-and-fight situation. In fact, it's not a fight - it's not about "how much damage", it's about "can you hit this one thing", and party members could help each other out to deliver that crucial blow. A fighter can lend the strength, a cleric can cast shield of faith on them or use War God's Blessing to help them land the hit, and the warlock can use dimension door to get them safely away afterwards.

Survive

If all that fails, have them stuck in the middle, and make it a challenge for them to survive the fight - falling buildings, wayward attacks, roads blocked, bridges fallen, stuff on fire or flooded etc. by the effects of this huge fight, and perhaps various people who are taking advantage of the situation, like thieves looting suddenly-unguarded treasuries, or violent criminals escaping from partly-destroyed prisons. At this point, it's mechanically similar to many dungeon crawls, full of traps, obstacles, hazards, and enemies, but it's all under a time limit and with your continual narration of their ringside view of the fight.

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Ask yourself the question: "What is the role of this fight in the PC's story?" Are they supposed to be able to have an influence on it? Are they supposed to just see the result and feel how useless they are? (that's not really what most of the stories are about, but why couldn't it happen?)

When the fight will be over, do you want them to be more like:

Good job, mates. The world is saved and it's completely thanks to us./The world is doomed because we failed!

or:

Ok, the god of goodness won, that's cool./The dark side won, now we will have more job.

For the latter, it's pretty easy: just describe the fight in background and give PC something else to do. (like fighting some evil lieutenant or rescuing endangered citizens)

For the former, you have to find a good reason for them to be useful. In a game I played we spent the previous scenario looking for a harpoon made of a piece of the evil god so we would be able to shoot it at the decisive moment of the battle. During said battle we had to defeat his first lieutenant who was trying to ruin the good god's backup plan. Maybe in yours the oni have a backup plan and the PCs are the only one who can take care of it (because the god of goodness is busy fighting and they are the only ones who noticed). Hopefully it will be more appropriate than charging the oni like a brave but stupid knight.

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First, you want to Telegraph it. Them being big is one thing, but bigness in many systems doesn't mean all that much.

Are there any foes that could be on either side that the players have fought? Monsters or whatever?

Use the easy defeat of ridiculous numbers of those monsters as a sign that this is out of scale.

Other things, like their blows causing large things to crumble -- mountains, cities, rivers, lakes, etc -- can also help. But direct comparison with something they struggled to defeat may be best.

The fight should be background to what the players are doing. Little is more boring than watching the DM narrate a combat you don't get to participate in. But treating the fight as a set of natural disasters that have to be delt with works.

You cited the unprotected crystals. But suppose there is something that can help the fox, but is somewhat fragile (prior to deployment). The fox, if it directly goes after it, would telegraph to the oni that it was important. On the other hand, if the insignificant insects go after it, the oni is busy focusing on the fox.

Or there can be something they value that is imperilled by the fight. Why is the fox fighting the oni? Is the fox defending a particular tree or grove of trees or somesuch? You typically force a foe to battle by threatening to do something they don't want you to do. Protecting it, or resuing it, becomes something the characters can do.

If the fight occurs over a period of time, you can have the oni and the fox fly into the sky. Thunderclouds roll in, and the fight occurs in, above and below the clouds. Often the two of them fly into a cloud and all you can see is flashes of light.

Only the short periods where they fly into view need narration. These can be spaced out between longer periods where the players are at the center of the action. This general idea, that the fight is obscured, can let you stretch it out and not have it keep the spotlight, without making it seem overly mundane.

Sometimes otherworldly beings have weaknesses due to their otherworldliness. Imagine that the oni can be warded off with magic circles or its true name. For example, the Oni could have a human Wizard ally who knows syllables of the Fox's true name; the Wizard is protected against the Oni by these syllables and the Wizard weakens the Fox. But the Wizard has no special protection against the players; in fact, the Wizard is distracted in helping the Oni beat the Fox.

The players might then be fighting the Wizard's guards (or trying to sneak up on him) and end up fighting a distracted Wizard. If the Wizard's concentration is broken, the Fox gets stronger.

The Oni could turn around and interfere (and may even try to do that), but then the Fox could respond by grappling the Oni (something the Fox had been reluctant to do, as the Oni is stronger but slower than the Fox), risking itself to give the heros a chance to defeat the Wizard.

This can be telegraphed earlier with the Oni getting its hands on the Fox and almost winning; then the Fox gets free, but is wounded. Be explicit in how this is a bad situation for the Fox (as you want to be brief).

Naturally wounds and the fate of the Fox should have immediate and obvious effects on the natural world. If it is fall, the fox getting hurt should cause trees to lose their leaves, and maybe even frost up immediately (as the death/end of autumn is winter).

The by-blows of the fight (not just wounding the Fox changing the world, but chips off the Oni's iron club, or one knocking the other to the ground, or mountains being smashed into active volcanos spewing globs of hot lava, earthquakes, storms, lighting, etc) can provide terrain for the scene the players are engaged in.

The "there is a wizard, kill him to save the world" bit is a bit telegraphed. If your players can be convinced to follow a given plot thread, you could expose that fact only after they first follow another plot. Saving civilians, themselves, or the like; and in doing so, they learn about the wizard.

If you want to avoid a railroad, you can make a matrix of options and consequences. This is like creating a dungeon map -- nodes and paths between nodes.

At each node, write out what the players see, describe some options, and put links to other nodes. Allow for players to walk this encounter graph. Provide meaningful information about what the consequences of each choice (usually meaningful) and have the choices result in different results.

Include "we just run away" and "we attack the Oni" and other seemingly ridiculous choices.

Use some mythic logic. Maybe the Oni's drops of blood turns into monsters. So if they attack the Oni and connect, a swarm of monsters appear. They have to deal with some of them, with the rest running off and wrecking havoc. The Fox meanwhile is trying to defeat the Oni without making the Oni bleed (after the Fox figures it out).

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I would build a party of enemies that have the goal of helping the Oni win and decide on their approach. Something like:

Minion A: Will use his perverted sorcery to cast protection spells that grant the Oni some form of resistance to the Fox's form of attack. Something like protection from energy and/or energy resistance, Ablative barrier etc.

Minion B: Will take a portion of damage inflicted to all the other minions and heal itself. Something like the life link revelation of life oracles or even shield other.

Minion C: Summons something and then uses spells and his summons to attack the Fox (or the party if they interfere). Treat like a summoner or monster tactician investigator.

Minion D: Will ignore the Fox but attack any other threat recklessly (most likely the party). A bloodrager with the abyssal or aberrant bloodline.

Not the party doesn't need to attack the Oni directly to tip the scales but they have several options: They could choose to kill the enemy minions as quick as possible or they could mimic some of their actions by buffing the Fox or debuffing the Oni.

Having a boss fight in which the characters have to help is often seen in video games but most only offer either goons buffing the BBEG or goons swarming the Good Guy. In both cases the players have to care about the goons and the battle is won. I'd make it more interesting by allowing the characters to directly interact with the Bosses.

Example: Without interference the fox will win after 10 rounds of combat (it deals 10% oni hp each round). If it lives long enough the oni will kill the fox after 15 rounds (it deals ~7% fox hp each round).

Minion A will prevent half of the damage the fox deals. Minion C will deal damage to the fox equal to 1% of its hp.

Now the party can either buff the Fox to take less and deal more damage or they can kill the minions quick enough or they can debuff the oni or deal damage to it directly. Just assign a certain benefit as you see fit to any direct intervention they make and count the rounds including buffs and debuffs.

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This answer might not work depending on lore, but this made me think of the Wheel of Time. Particularly the Battle of Falme at the end of "The Dragon Reborn." For those of not familiar with the Wheel of Time, in this battle, there were two fights. One in the sky between the hero of the story and one of the BBEGs, and the other on the ground between two armies. The fates of the two battles were intertwined. When the fight was going well for the hero against the BBEG, his allies were winning. If he started losing, then so did his allies.

If it can fit within your plot, you might want the same to happen here. Throw some archenemy against your heroes, and the more success your heroes have against this archenemy, the more success the Fox has, and the same in reverse. Obviously, this would depend largely on what kind of lore you are OK with and if you can find a reasoning to tie the two battles together, but this could allow the heroes to have a very direct influence on the fight without fearing that this Oni will kill them in a single blow.

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