Question for maps & minis DMs

So you’re running a game with a significant tactical miniatures component and your players have charged into combat. Do you:

a) Try your hardest to defeat the characters?

b) Pull your punches?

(Assume highly intelligent opponents and a battle that’ll likely take an hour plus.)


Depends on the table - was the danger telegraphed, is there an expectation of balance, etc.

I’ve been part of a group, playing living Arcanis in 3.5e, where we rotated DMs and the combats demanded being right on the ball. One ground-hog day like thing against some Vrocks we had to do three times before we managed to knock the fiends down. Every +1 flanking, bless, etc counted!

If the party knew the risk and still charged in, gloves off.

it depends slightly on what defeat means too

are the highly intelligent going to outright kill the party? is their goal simply to get away? are they likely/willing to capture the party?

but usually gloves off, no pulled punches (maybe avoiding coupe de grâce style finishing off of characters, whatever that looks like in the corresponding system)

I’m not pulling my punches, so I’d have to say a).

However, being fair and players having fun is the most important aspect for me. Players who cannot do anything because their characters die early in the fight without a chance for resurrection or get paralyzed or stunned for multiple turns do not have fun.
Therefore I pull my punches when it comes to save-or-suck effects (such as by reducing their duration from one minute with repeated saves to one round) and I do not make use of certain spells or abilities listed in a statblock if I deem them to be unfair nor not fun for players - which of course depends on the party lineup too. Examples include:

  • Power Word Kill: I won’t use it if the party has no Revivify available, as it would mean the affected player becomes a spectator for the remainder of the battle. However, if they do have Revivify, it is fair game and if used right can be a great tool for dramatic moments in a battle.
  • Disintegrate: I generally do not use it unless I can be sure the character targeted by it survives either by having enough HP or by a Death Ward spell. A character killed by Disintegrate is out of the fight and can only be brought back by Reincarnate or True Resurrection, both of which cannot be used in combat due to their long casting time.
  • Hold Person: As a 2nd level spell, it is very cheap to use and to upcast for NPCs. Often it would be the most optimal tactic for an NPC to spam it, keeping characters with low Wisdom saves like barbarians or fighters out of the fight. However, it is not fun for anyone to be unable to do anything. Therefore, I only use it rarely.

Also, in my opinion it is important to keep the party line-.up in mind when building and playing out encounters as many parties have weaknesses that could lead to them being unable to do anything against certain monsters/in certain situations - such as when a party without ranged attackers is about to face a dragon, when a party without a “counterspeller” is about to face an evil wizard. In these cases, it is important to “pull punches” by adjusting the encounter to make it beatable.

Good interjection. Let’s assume that if the bad guys win the fight, at least some of the players are crumpling up their character sheets.

We may be looking at pulling punches in different ways. By a), I mean actually trying to win, using whatever you have at your disposal. Playing as you would if you were a player.

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as @Tersidian said, that depends on the group and what “defeat” means
also it depends on the enemy (are the smart, code of honor, …)

that being said,
main focus should be for the players enjoying a “tactical puzzle”

I dislike fights, who have basically no narrative purpose, anyway
in the same spirit of thoughts I also don’t like meaningless character deaths
(e.g. death by running against a tree, 'cause of rolling a 1 on your Survival roll and having low HP)

and “defeat” might not be the end …

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I’m of the old school “It is the DM’s job to be a neutral arbiter of the game. You should not side with either the players or the world.”

In this case, two questions:

  1. Is the encounter balanced fairly for their level and power?
  2. Did the players have any idea of what they were getting into?

if the answer to either question is yes, I would let the dice have their way. If they just happened down the wrong corridor and ran into 30 dragons in a formation, then I’d cut them some slack.

However! To be clear: I would advise the NPCs do their best to kill the players. Not the DM :slight_smile: A NPC involved in a battle has FAR more limited scope than we do. The PCs should automatically have the advantage in that their players are outside observers, where as the DM is not supposed to be playing one. So other random thoughts:

  1. The NPCs shouldn’t involve in perfect play. In real life, how many people actually optimize every day of their entire lives? Only maybe the head person should have every spell or items that they would actually want. Excessive overanalyzing and preparation is a privilege for the PCs
  2. A round is only 6 seconds. In 6 seconds, you can typically only concentrate on what’s in front of you. Even if you have a head person watching the battle, they can’t communicate with every person beneath them in 6 seconds. So most NPCs should be focused on immediately what they see. A sub-commander can be focused on a specific objective, but it should take multiple rounds for them to adjust their plans (if it takes 30 seconds to analyze, decide, then redirect, that’s 5 rounds!). And they shouldn’t be reacting to things on the other side of the battlefield for a long time. By nature of the game, the PCs should be able to adapt their strategy more efficiently than the NPCs.
  3. Most armies in history don’t fight to the last person. Most run away long before that, or pull back. By the same token, many don’t track down and kill their enemies to the last person, because in practice people actually get tired and/or don’t want to always want to risk their lives if they’re already bleeding from wounds. So if you’re worried about imbalance, give them a chance to escape. Make a rule for the NPCs that anyone 25% damaged or more loses movement/can’t chase, etc.

So, in summary, my vote: make sure the encounter is balanced, and the NPCs actually act within the world. Emphasize the natural advantage the PCs have being run by players. Then let the NPCs go all-out, within their understanding, and let the dice roll as they may.


I think I agree, but I’m not sure how this is supposed to work unless the whole thing is highly scripted in advance. Otherwise, with a lot of moving parts and the situation constantly evolving, the DM always has a finger on the scale. It might feel like a tactical puzzle (if the DM is good and going for that effect), but is it one?

Now I want to know the story behind this …


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For me the ‘tactical puzzle’ aspect is the terrain or the foe types:

Terrain in the sense that the foes are to be found in come ravines - unless the party puts in some scouting, scrying or other legwork, when they finally get in contact, they will be dealing with an uphill fight where the foe has tree cover. This can be solved either by getting above them to start or tactically in the fight (trickier)

Foe types - the bad guys have a good tactical mix - some shieldwall/blocker types, archers to support them and they use tactics better than ‘scream and charge’ - again can be solved through forcing the fight on favourable terrain, picking them off in ambush or with some tactical response like a tortoise formation.

Neither of those rob player agency, they reward those who scout and think and assume the bad guys aren’t fools. It does depend on your set up - that the players know they will face hard or impossible odds if they don’t act cleverly.

Yes. But how is that supposed to work in this situation? If I’m playing, say, chess against the players, I either make the move I think is best or I don’t.

I do like the concept of handicapping the DM, for instance with 6-second time limits for their actions or the like.


I don’t think we’re going to agree on this one. I think this is a really weird design tenet that narrows the scope of the puzzle.

Sure. What I’m trying to get at is the DM’s role in all this.

If the DM is playing to win, doesn’t that put the DM in an antagonistic position for too long?

If the DM isn’t, what exactly are we doing here?

I think the only thing the DM should be concerned with is reaching the npcs goal, smart npcs will know when to cut their losses and ignore their own goal in favor of survival (if that wasn’t their main goal to begin with)

the only reason to potentially hold back is when your npcs severely outclass the PCs, the combat was unavoidable, is basically inescapable and the NPCs goal is to kill the PCs

if escape is possible, and it looks like the PCs are going to be overwhelmed soon(ish) it might be prudent to remind them that attempting to escape is a possibility

The DM isn’t playing to win - the creatures the DM controls are playing to archive their objectives.
Which may or may not imply PC death, capture or distraction & misleading, but based on the NPCs knowledge and perspective.

This is the same thing, isn’t it?

yes and no
the objective might be the same, but the scope and the available information to work off from are different

Not at all! The DM has much more knowledge and control over the world. The NPCs can’t access such resources.

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Sure, you can - and should - add constraints or handicaps. But that’s just equivalent to additional rules. Ultimately, you’re still either playing to achieve whatever the objectives are or you aren’t.

e.g. a room with cumulative increasing lightning damage every time a pc steps on a ‘wrong’ tile
the tiles around that ‘wrong’ tia also suffer the same amount of lightning damage
and a fight against a creature with immunity against lightning damage (fleshgolem)

also I tell players that they can run away

well … looong time ago

I was at a game and another player played a woodelf :man_elf:

after a fight, where he got seperated (he flew and fell down), that woodelf was down to only 6 HP
and to find his way back to the rest to the group he had to make a check
which he fumbled

so the DM said, “you run against a tree and take d6 damage”
d6 = was 6 … and that woodelf was dead :skull:

agree with @Lux_Tenebraeque here
also the DM “knows” everything, the NPCs don’t

which leads to :point_down:

the DM is there to make the game fun for everyone
the enemies are there to be enemies

e.g. I think “what would my Malkavian snipers do considering what they know”

(I don’t get the ‘additional rules’ point - could you elaborate?)

My understanding is the DM is trying to build a bubble of a world around the players. The adversaries should be acting to the best of their knowledge and ability to achieve their objectives - which may switch from their schemes and goals to simple survival depending on how the battle goes.

Just killing PCs is easy, playing the NPCs to the fullness of their abilities with the knowledge they should have in-world, not the omniscient knowledge you the DM has, that is the craft.