Part 1: What To Do If You Made It Too Difficult

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1073

RPT GM Kristen emailed me this worry:

Hi Johnn,

I used to fudge dice rolls. I’ve definitely changed my perspective on that from stuff you’ve said and other DMs that talk about this.

I think what made me want to fudge things is that I’m afraid what I’ve made is too difficult for my players due to being a fairly new and inexperienced DM rather than their choices.

Or when my inexperience makes for a lackluster (or quick) boss combat encounter, that was built up to be epic, not their creativity and good choices.

What do you think about things like adding 50 HP because the baddies go down too quickly? One of my players actually said I should have done that rather than letting the encounter flop.

Thanks for the email, Kristen.

There’s two questions I want to answer.

Today I’ll dig into, “So what can we do if we have made a combat encounter too difficult?”

And then, in a future Musing, I’ll share tips on, “What To Do If It’s Too Easy?”

Ok. What are our options if a melee turns out to be too hard?

Kick Butt and Take Prisoners

Many GMs dream of taking PC prisoners to run a jailbreak adventure.

What happens, though, is players would sooner see a TPK than be chained to a grimy dungeon wall.

I don’t blame them. Losing control in real life is scary. Why do that when you’re trying to have fun in a game?

But I look at it the other way. A captured prisoner scene or jailbreak encounter offers interesting new situations to play out. It’s up to us to show that such a situation isn’t the end of the world and can be fun.

Some game systems have built-in mechanics for doing non-lethal damage. D&D 5E does it quite well by allowing combatants to choose lethal or non-lethal at the time of damage allocation. This make is easy and seamless to capture PCs.

If your system does not have such an option, consider making a house rule for it and getting player agreement before introducing it. Note that such a rule should go both ways — it would make taking foes prisoner much easier too, which means more NPC screentime!

A Boon Event

I have a fear. I fear that dropping a “random” event in combat to change the fight’s dynamic will ruin sense of disbelief and that players will call me on it.

“Johnn’s throwing us a bone here, guys. I guess we screwed up again!”

That’s actually happened, pretty much verbatim.

But everyone laughed and went with it. TPK averted.

The fear I have is groundless. Our players know we’re making stuff up. Feeling embarrassed because they see behind the curtain once in awhile is just your inner critic rolling well against you.

However, instances like these taught me a valuable lesson.

Any time you take the reins like that — GM fiat, intervention, deus ex machina — you can make it work without that moment of disconnect by sewing the seeds for such an intervention in advance.

For example, you could make a table of random events that trigger in combats ongoing. Then, when an encounter turns deadly, dropping an event to help the PCs or hinder their foes will not seem unusual.

As another great approach, you could provide believable context for a boon that helps the PCs.

“In the middle of combat, the side door suddenly crashes open. A squad of surly hobgoblins pour in.

“Their leader growls, ‘What’s all this noise then? Looks like we’ve got dinner tonight!’ They look at your foes and then look at you, deciding who they hate more….”

At this point you’ve set up a wonderful roleplaying opportunity. Leave the hint as is, or be direct:

“….Does anyone try to sway their decision before they pick who to attack first?”

It’s believable that sounds of combat would draw others in, even if they were not part of your initial plans. Immersion preserved.

Bad Choices

Based on foe stats and description, have them behave in a realistic manner. This means making bad choices sometimes that gives characters an edge.

If people can make dumb decisions while driving, surely foes will make bad choices during the heat of combat?

If a foe has low intelligence, they make a dumb mistake. If they have low wisdom, they make an unwise decision. If they’re an animal, they might flee when wounded. If they fear fire, magic, and other crazy effects the party brings about, foes will make fearful choices.

Consistency is key here. If you start roleplaying critters mid-combat for the first time, it’ll seem suspicious. But if you keep roleplaying foes often, then a bad choice that gives characters relief or advantage will seem like your regular great GMing.

Reverse Missions

Player characters need not be the only ones with an agenda.

Give the enemy their own mission, which the characters have interrupted.

Smart foes will shepherd their resources too.

Why keep fighting and jeopardize the mission by spending further resources, risking a lucky shot, or losing momentum?

Instead, foes will call for surrender, parley, or simply trust that the severely wounded PCs will not pursue, and then go on their merry way to completing their mission.


Saving my favourite for last, have foes be their own worst enemy.

The logic becomes clear if foes have two or more factions in their midst:

“We’ve got these interlopers on the back foot. Now is the perfect time to surprise Grog and his crew with some Bloodfang vengeance, heh heh. For Garrrrrry!”

Intraparty fighting amongst foes brings roleplay to the fore again. Smart players will take advantage of these moments, and learn to sew seeds of dissent as a viable combat tactic if you allow it.

If you use this approach to save characters from an encounter you’ve made too difficult, give each faction a clear motive.

D6 Foe Motives

  1. Greed They compete for the same prize
  2. Revenge One faction wants to punish the other for a prior offence
  3. Dominance There can only be one
  4. Weakness Take advantage of an opportunity
  5. Evil Because it’s what they’d do
  6. Job They’ve been hired to sabotage the other side

It’s Not You

A quick callout on making encounters too difficult.

This is a lot of pressure to put on yourself.

Put it on the players instead. Don’t beat yourself up. Avoid stress and set up better potential gameplay by not tuning encounters too fine.

A key to great encounters is the set up, which you might think of as The Offer.

We give players a choice before triggering the encounter. Some clue, sign, or direct information alerts players about danger ahead.

This now relieves you of having to create a so-called balanced encounter.

Armed now with a heads-up, the players must decide whether to scout, charge in blind, attempt subterfuge, bypass the encounter, or use some other tactic.

It’s in the party’s hands now. You are absolved.

Making every encounter balanced is a fool’s errand. Too many variables will sabotage your effort and waste your time.

For example, an easy encounter on paper can go sideways in the first round because the fighter’s player couldn’t make the session, the party’s used up 75% of their resources in previous encounters, the wizard’s on a bad luck streak, and the party has terrible tactics and no cohesion tonight.

So much is out of your control that any encounter can become lethal.

Therefore, I suggest my approach to encounter design. Create an interesting situation and let players decide what to do.

Your players know luck comes into play often. With your warning, they know trouble awaits. It’s up to them to decide.

Don’t worry about the fiddly bits of encounter design. Create interesting options instead, and let players use this rope as they see fit.

Now, you asked me about encounters that turn out too easy, Kristen. The other side of the coin. I have some GM tips for you on this next time. Stay tuned, and thanks again for the question.