Having tracked the true culprit to her evil lair of evil, Team Bounty Hunter now find themselves locked in a bullshit boss fight! This is what happens when you let the Handbook watch too much classic Trek. It may sound like a neat idea in theory, but as any GM who’s ever tried to implement a supposed-to-lose encounter can tell you, translating the Kobayashi Maru to the tabletop takes work. 

I’ve seen it done four times in my career, all with varying degrees of success. Here’s the rundown for each encounter.

  • Dragon Kings — Our band of Exalted heroes were tramping about the ruins of a dragon king temple. We soon found a door marked “nursery,” and in our infinite wisdom decided to try and pry it open. This was not a good idea. For those of you unfamiliar with dragon kings, these scaly humanoids don’t develop sentience until they fully mature. Before that they’re little more than bloodthirsty prehistoric predators. So when our ST described “several hundred shrieking monsters climbing the nursery walls like xenomorphs,” it was clearly not the time to stand and fight. A chase scene ensued. And as he later confessed, that was exactly what our ST had planned. I’ve often wondered since: What would have happened if we tried to enter combat? The encounter worked out fine, but only because the “you’re supposed to run” vibes were broadcast so hard.
  • Expert Piloting — This was a skill challenge rather than a combat encounter, but the principle of supposed-to-lose was very much present. Longtime readers may recall our Savage Worlds Firefly crew getting marooned on a Reaver-infested space station. It turned out to be one of my all-time favorite sci-fi horror sessions, but getting there was a little rough. On paper it was a solid setup:  sudden explosion, flying debris on a collision trajectory, and a critically damaged hero ship. We would have no choice but to dock with the partially-exploded station, search for replacement parts, and try to escape with our lives. Unfortunately, our pilot aced all of her rolls. “Exploding dice to dodge that chunk of bulkhead! Many degrees of success to reverse course! What do you mean we’re damaged anyway?” The rolls had been exceptional, but the phrase our hapless GM used to save his adventure was, “That’s just barely enough!” We could smell a rat, and quickly deduced that the outcome would have been the same no matter the roll. It was an important lesson for me as a GM: If your premise requires X to happen, don’t ask for a roll. Just narrate X happening.
  • Fae Ex Machina — I introduced you guys to Anomander a few comics ago, but my fae trickster is relevant here as well. That’s because he turned out to be one of my biggest gaming regrets. It was the end of a long Exalted campaign, and it was finally time for the boss fight. The party used the craziest vehicle I’ve ever encountered to blitz the Juggernaut, provoke The Mask of Winters, and attempt to rescue their allied NPC from the clutches of evil. Turns out that Deathlords are crazy powerful though, and the fight was not going well. Happily, my GM senses had warned me that a TPK was imminent, and so I’d prepared for the contingency. All campaign long I’d hinted that one of the PCs was a living gateway to the Wyld. When the Mask of Winters landed what would have been a killing stroke on him, I described the PC’s head ripping open FLCL style and a nonsense army of fair folk coming through. “You forced our hand!” chirped the triumphant Anomander. “Can’t have you dying before we invade reality now, can we?” It was every bit as deus ex machina as it sounds, and completely undermined my players’ agency. I proceeded to narrate the fae-vs-deathlord fight going on in the background while the party rescued their friend. The momentum had gone out of things, and an otherwise successful campaign ended on a sour note. In retrospect, it should have been an honest TPK, or at least a “you’ve been captured” scenario.
  • Strahd — You may have run into this one yourselves. The Curse of Strahd adventure over in 5e features a number of supposed-to-lose encounters, as the eponymous vampire loves nothing better than toying with PCs. He appears seemingly at random, taunts you like the smug jerk he is, and then (at least in our case) rips off your fighter’s arm before flouncing into the night. It works well because of villain psychology. Here, losing doesn’t mean the end of the adventure. It just means mustache twirling, a bit of villainous character development, and PCs with an even stronger motivation to level up into proper Van Helsings. This was a successful one from my perspective, but I suspect that a certain one-armed fighter has other feelings on the matter.

All things considered, I intend to be very, very careful next time I’m tempted to Kobayashi Maru my players. It can be dramatic and engaging when well-implemented, but as the examples show, the pitfalls are numerous.

Therefore, I now turn to the rest of you for our daily discussion! Have you ever found yourselves in a supposed-to-lose scenario? Did it play well, or did you walk away feeling like you’d lost your agency to a GM’s pre-written plot? Tell us all about your own brushes with unbeatable bosses down in the comments!


EVENT: The Handbook is heading out for Southern Fried Gaming Expo!

We’ve got our table set up at the Marriott Renaissance Waverly in Atlanta, GA. Both the writer & illustrator of this here Handbook of Heroes will be there Friday, Aug  20 – Sunday, Aug 22. We’re always down to talk shop in person, and we’d love to meet any and all of you guys out there in meat space.

So come on down! Win some free merch! We’ll sign your favorite d20!


ARE YOU THE KIND OF DRAGON THAT HOARDS ART? Then you’ll want to check out the “Epic Hero” reward level on our Handbook of Heroes Patreon. Like the proper fire-breathing tyrant you are, you’ll get to demand a monthly offerings suited to your tastes! Submit a request, and you’ll have a personalized original art card to add to your hoard. Trust us. This is the sort of one-of-a-kind treasure suitable to a wyrm of your magnificence.