[RPG] How to make an unwinnable fight fun


In one of my campaigns, it's possible that I'm going to have to pull off a Hopeless Boss Fight depending on the choices of my player (we're playing one-on-one). The gist is that they're interfering with the plans of a good-guy NPC who severely outclasses them, who needs to get an NPC away from them, and will respond to violent resistance with overwhelming but non-lethal force.

When players don't know that a fight is unwinnable, but it's a foregone conclusion because they're completely out of their league, how do I run the unwinnable fight in a way that's still fun for them? What are the anti-fun pitfalls or mistakes I should strive to avoid?

The opponent in question will not fight to kill (preferring knocking them unconscious over inflicting lasting injury) and will offer the player a chance to comply with their demands before the fight begins (allowing peaceful resolution of the encounter). My experience with my player has proven that my player doesn't mind things being railroaded for segments if they improve the story, so "cheating" my player out of winning is not considered an issue.

This question about preserving player agency when there's a predetermined outcome, but I'm looking how to make "a fight you can't win" as entertaining as possible. (After reading that question I have considered adding in different outcomes further down the line, depending on how well my player does.)

Best Answer

Here are some suggestions, won through hard experience:

Allow for Other Objectives To Be Achieved

I've found that engaging combat has more at stake than simple survival. Placing other objectives which are not "kill that enemy" are a good idea. If a player achieves their objectives without outright killing their enemies, they feel clever and may not mind the loss as much. Your players may even go so far as to paint the experience as their player attempting to go down in flames of glory.

A good example of "other objectives" is jumping into an irradiated control room to activate the control tubes to stop a nuclear reactor from overloading. In a fantasy setting, the unwinnable fight may be needed to strike a deal ("if you kill me, then spare the village").

Make Player Actions Matter

Even if your players recognize they're outclassed but still stubbornly attack anyways, their actions should matter. The consequences of their attack should follow them. Is the combat in a public place? Have people talk about it later on. Will they see this NPC again? Have the NPC respect them as courageous individuals, maybe taking precautions against the fight happening again.

In short, the un-winnable fight should have other effects on your story. If your players see how their efforts affect the story and the world, then your unwinnable fight is okay. Even a small (or big) scar on the NPC because of the player actions can be enough.

Information Gain

Yes, their characters may lose the fight, but if they survive to fight another day, the better have gained information about their opponent. What weapons/magic do they use? What works or does not work against them? Even if the players never fight that opponent again, what do they (or their characters) learn from that fight? Ideally, the information gained will help them advance the plot or defeat future enemies, maybe even including the person who won the unwinnable fight!

Some Anti-Fun Things in Unwinnable Situations:

  • Smug Opponents. This makes for so much hate. Some smugness on the winning side is okay, but too much sets up the winning side as bad or as a personal enemy to the player. Too much smugness on the winning side can make revenge the #1 priority of your players. Obviously, a such smugness is okay when you're casting the winning side as a clear enemy, but if you're not, it has the potential to de-rail the entire adventure.
  • Player actions being inconsequential. If you're using a system with HP, and their opponent looses HP, have that reflect in the story of the fight. Yes, the player may be outclassed, but outclassed does not mean that their actions don't do anything. If your NPC is straight invulnerable to your player's attacks, there should be a plausible explanation or valuable insight gained from this.
  • No Struggle. It has been my experience that players who cannot struggle against their opponents will not have fun. It invokes hate, which may land on the DM, the system, or gaming in general. Such hate is not fun. Sudden or Unexplained Character Death is the worst kind.
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