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GM Advice: Unfair Encounters

"Suddenly, the ceiling collapses without warning and you all die."


(Art: Maciej Zagorski [The Forge Studios])

Sometimes things go wrong and the party all die horrible deaths. That ever present risk is an intrinsic part of the gaming experience. While no one likes a TPK (total party kill) sometimes through bad luck or shockingly disastrous tactics they happen. Other times, a GM wipes out a party or kills a PC in a horribly unfair encounter. To me, being English, that's just not cricket.

There are four basic types of unfair encounters:

  • No Hope: Sometimes a GM puts a monster into a dungeon which the PCs have no realistic chance of defeating. Of course, knowing when to run away is a vital trait for a skilled player, but sometimes they must defeat the monster to continue. Encounters specifically designed to kill characters are an example of bad design. Such encounters are a completely different animal to those designed to challenge players. In such encounters, death can still occur but it is not the guaranteed outcome of the fight.

  • No Choice: In these encounters, the PCs have no choice but to face the creature (or whatever). A good example of this is the dungeon that is only accessible through the lair of a monstrously tough dragon or through a heavily defended entrance. With no other way in, the players must deal with the situation through violence or diplomacy. Alternatively, they abandon the module but the social contract of gaming often precludes that decision.

  • No Warning: In this kind of encounter, disaster strikes with no warning. Perhaps the ceiling caves in suddenly or something falls out of the sky and crushes a PC. I once heard a GM telling how he had a roc swoop down on a camp at night, grab the only guard and fly off without anyone realising what had happened. (In fact, somehow the guard failed to spot the gargantuan bird flying towards him). All the rest of the party found in the morning were the guard's shoes. He was never seen again. As another example of this, a hill giant jumped out from behind a tree and killed a character before he could react. You have to wonder how the entire party – in broad daylight – failed to spot that lurking hill giant.

  • No Retreat: In almost all encounters, the PCs have the option to retreat if things go badly. Removing that option, fundamentally changes the battle. When the option to retreat is paired with a monster the PCs have no hope of defeating things can go badly wrong very quickly.

Finally, truly unfair encounters mix two or more of the above elements together. Imagine a hill giant leaping out from behind a tree without warning and attacking a group of 2nd-level characters. As a player, how delighted would you be to deal with that “challenge?”

Have you suffered through an unfair encounter? Tell me what it was in the comments below and  remember you can download this – and every other advice article – for free at


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