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The encounter table in the DMG has 4 listed difficulties; "easy", "medium", "hard" and "deadly". Because the difficulty is set based on the last threshold you passed, there is also an implicit 5th difficulty of "trivial" for an encounter not even reaching the easy threshold.

However, this means that "deadly" difficulty is open-ended. If my threshold for a deadly encounter is 400xp (for a first level party) then an encounter budget of 425xp would be deadly. So would 600xp. And so would a 36,500XP Ancient Red Dragon.

However, the description of "deadly" is that "A deadly encounter could be lethal for one or more player characters. Survival often requires good tactics and quick thinking, and the party risks defeat."

There comes a point where that simply isn't true anymore; the Red Dragon would slaughter the entire party in a single action 100% of the time.

Are there any guidelines on when you should expect "deadly" to become "instant death"; as a sort of upper bound for what a party simply cannot reasonably be expected to deal with at all?

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    \$\begingroup\$ I have to disagree on your Red Dragon example. It's instant death if the encounter goes: "Hello, lunch!" slurp! But what if it goes: "Hello, morsels. I'm looking for treasure. Which town is richest: Arabel, Highmoon, or Daerlun?" Not every encounter has to be "stab it until it stops moving". \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Apr 8 '17 at 19:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Brian: if it's not an encounter of the stabby kind, then the encounter difficulty doesn't matter. I need to know when I need to stop thinking of encounters as being solvable by blunt trauma. \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Apr 8 '17 at 20:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ "encounter of the stabby kind" Ahh... my favorite kinds of encounters :) \$\endgroup\$ – WernerCD Apr 9 '17 at 2:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ Is your question really about when encounters stop "being solvable by blunt trauma"? I have found that making encounters too difficult is not really a good way to accomplish that, because players often find a way to kill things they really want to kill. \$\endgroup\$ – Icyfire Apr 9 '17 at 6:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Erik -- it's very possible to have encounters where the party controls whether to make it stabby or not \$\endgroup\$ – Shalvenay Apr 9 '17 at 14:57
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There is no guideline for Deadly graduating to TPK

A TPK is usually not a planned scenario, and so no guidelines are available to show how to introduce one -- even for the "good-natured" purpose that you're asking for, which is to find the upper bound limit of where the party can expect Deadly encounters without all dying off.

I've ran two Invisible Stalkers (CR 9) against three level 5 PCs, only one of which had See Invisibility. These three players had excellent stats, but despite there best efforts, all three characters died. The challenge not only was rated Deadly, they also didn't have the ability to bypass the Disadvantage on attacks from these invisible creatures. However, they actually would have survived this encounter if they had a way of seeing invisible things -- they brought both Stalkers to nearly within an inch of their life before they were killed.

I've been wanting to run a Rakshasa as well, but this monster cannot be presented to a non-magical party or to a party that lacks a spellcaster without level 6 spells or higher. It has only a CR 13, so four level 10 PCs can treat it as a Hard encounter; but when it's immune to nonmagical weapons and spells 5th level or lower, a party may not be able to deal even a single point of damage to this creature.

The above two examples show that a party can die if the DM presents them with a monster they are not equipped to deal with, even if the CR is below Deadly (Rakshasa) or way above Deadly (two Invisible Stalkers).

Below I'll show some exceptions to any TPK-inducing guidelines we might be able to provide.


Exceptional Case 1: Low CR monsters that can induce a TPK to a high level party

Some monsters have been granted a low CR, and yet can actually kill a high level party. As such, many DMs introduce them later on in the game, when the party can handle it (a "rule" I totally break). And so, on paper, encounters with these monsters may be rated as Easy, but it will actually be really, really Deadly.

The Shadow (CR 1/2) comes to mind which, on a hit, reduces the target's Strength score by 1d4. The target dies if their Strength hits 0. This means 4 hits from a Shadow will kill a Str 10 character, on average.

There's also the Intellect Devourer (CR 2), which can force a DC 12 Int Save, subtracting 3d6 from a target's Int score. If it brings the stat to 0, the target is stunned until they gain back a point of Int; so short of Greater Restoration, they're vegetables. On an average roll, an Int 10 character loses this save. Then they can do an intelligence contest with the stunned character and, if they win, the target instantly dies.

The Harpy (CR 1) is another. They approach this differently, but Luring Song is a save-or-die ability when used deviously. In enough numbers, they could lead the party into lava, off 200-foot cliffs, underwater to drown, or into a Sphere of Annihilation (this last one is a bit overkill; but so are Shadows and Intellect Devourers).


Exceptional Case 2: Low CR intelligent foes that perform a Coup de grâce

A DM who uses smart enemies will ignore the tank and head straight for the squishies -- particularly the cleric, druid, or bard, as they have access to healing and resurrection spells. They attack the unconscious character to ensure death. Once the party is down a person, the XP budget is adjusted and a Medium encounter may become Hard or Deadly. Another round of attacks, granted they survive, may allow them to kill the Wizard or Sorcerer next.

While this seems like a dick move, if the DM introduced enough support and foreshadowing for this particular foe to act in this way, the DM could kill the party in this way.

Although, this particular case, I haven't really tried before as a DM. However, I've been on the end of many combats where my character fell unconscious, and had I died then and there for a lack of healing, a TPK would have been introduced. Fortunately my party brought me back. Had the DM focus fired on me, though, there wouldn't have been enough time to heal me. In that instance, when the party and DM was already speculating this was going to be a TPK, there was most likely no other direction we were heading in than a real TPK.


Exceptional Case 3: Using RP to bypass combat with High CR foes altogether

Even the deadliest opponent, as long as they can be reasoned with, can be dealt with via rational discussion. Or trickery. Your mileage may vary.

I've prevented a whole civil war in a game of mine with a single well-placed illusion spell. I did have to roleplay the scene to bring it to a convincing resolution. But the DM was foreshadowing the war for a few weeks, and I apologized after I'd done it. But I think it shows that you can avert almost any crisis with roleplaying.

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    \$\begingroup\$ New question on Manners.SE: "Should you apologize after preventing a civil war?" \$\endgroup\$ – Steve V. Apr 9 '17 at 2:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SteveV. Haha. I apologized to the DM because he'd been building up to it, and no doubt he had a lot of stuff prepared for how it would go down. \$\endgroup\$ – user27327 Apr 9 '17 at 3:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ You forgot to mention the ages old wisdom of Tucker's Kobolds - Even if old, they hold atruth GMs may forget sometimes: clever tactics can make monsters extremely deadly to TPK, as can seemingly weak monsters just by appearing in numbers due to action economy. media.wizards.com/2014/downloads/dnd/TuckersKobolds.pdf \$\endgroup\$ – Trish Apr 9 '17 at 11:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ This advice turned out to be right. The 4 skeletons were barely a threat, but the 3 Steam Mephits (both creatures being Challenge 1/4) would've caused a TPK if it weren't for the Half Orc's Relentless Endurance. \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Apr 18 '17 at 12:11
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The "Adventuring Day XP" table might help, at least for a lower bound.

DMG 84 has a table titled "Adventuring Day XP" with character levels and "Adjusted XP per day per character". The relevant text states,

This provides a rough estimate of the adjusted XP value for encounters the party can handle before the characters will need to take a long rest.

The values in that table are equivalent to 3 deadly encounters per day. That suggests a potential minimum threshold for your "instant death" category is an adjusted encounter XP more than 3x larger than the "deadly" threshold.

The "real" limit is probably much higher, and not well-defined

I have generally found that the guidelines in the DMG are easier on the players than I expect. In my experience, moderately-leveled players can take on far more difficult fights. For example, I have had a level 9 party of 4 (30k xp per day, according to the table) take on a Balor (22k xp) without any characters approaching death, and a level 7 party of 4 (20k xp per day) take down a Lich (33k XP) with some careful preparation and a few casualties.

Ultimately, once you start moving out to extremes, the usefulness of tables and math disappears, and you'll have to consider the interplays between character and monster abilities. For example, I have played a session where my party held off waves of high=level drow, but fell to a single iron golem because most of our damaging spells were light and fire based.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Do you have experience to back this up, or is it just a guess? It sounds too high; I doubt a party can engage even 2x the deadly budget without being quickly wiped out. \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Apr 8 '17 at 18:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, and I will edit that information into the answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Icyfire Apr 8 '17 at 18:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Erik no, it's totally doable. I once ran a stabby encounter for 4 5th levels (4400 deadly threshold) against a mixed cr encounter of 8250 adjusted xp, and they pulled throuvh without much incident. And this was after a full adventuring day \$\endgroup\$ – daze413 Apr 9 '17 at 2:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ @daze413 Even at 5th level, the dice can go cold. That's what we found to be a typical threshold from deadly to TPK territory. Cold dice, or hot NPC/Monster dice. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Apr 10 '17 at 16:09

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