It’s been a while since we talked about the need to retreat. The trouble is that the need is rarely obvious. That’s because there’s a funky metagame element going on with very-deadly-encounters.

“Yeah, I saw the red dragon fly by overhead. It nearly dropped that half-a-cow on us, remember? But it’s probably a social encounter. What kind of jerk GM springs an ancient wyrm on a third-level party?”

*cue burning and screaming SFX*

The problem is that some GMs follow our hypothetical player’s line of thinking as well. Every encounter is level-appropriate. Every situation is winnable. That’s not bad or wrong, but the existence of these two competing styles — Gygaxian Naturalism vs. level-appropriate design — sets up a weird interaction that I think of as “The Forest of Doom.” You’ve probably heard of it. Rumors of that fell wood abound in all the inns and ale houses of the kingdom.

“To set foot within the Forest of Doom is death!”

“That’s a cursed place, and no mistake! Those who venture beneath its boughs are never seen again.”

“I’ve head that even that shadow of the trees can kill. Beware, adventurer. Beware the Forest of Doom!”

Meanwhile I’m sitting there like, Holy shit you guys! I bet there’s all kinds of treasure in there! That’s because all those fun, fluffy rumors are typical quest text. NPCs are expected to play up the dangers of local dungeons, making me feel like a big damn hero when I stride boldly forth. But if the Forest of Doom is in fact a straight-up death trap, and if it’s a DC 25 save to avoid insta-death every round you’re in there, then we’ve got a set of competing expectations at play.

Ideally, players show proper caution. The respond appropriately to the dire warnings. They note the dead woodland creatures that ring the edges of the Forest of Doom, and realize from context clues that, “Oh. This isn’t a proper dungeon. It’s a setting element meant to show us that the ancient Hex War left an indelible scar on the land. Let’s maybe not go in there.”

But sometimes GMs rely too broadly on hints. Flirting with danger begins to resemble flirting in high school, and GMs are left just as frustrated as their cheerleader counterparts: “I gave him sustained eye contact. I laughed at his jokes. I even flipped my hair! Why won’t he realize that touching the gilded skull will cause him to explode without a save?” In those situations, I tend to fall back on the same advice for GMs and high school sweethearts: If all else fails, don’t be afraid to just be honest. Tell him that you like him… alive and un-vaporized. Explain your GM philosophy up front (preferably in Session Zero), and be explicit when your dangers are too dangerous.

So how about it, guys? Have you ever fallen victim to the Forest of Doom? And if you’re a GM, have you even been surprised when your players ignored all your dire warnings and did the “obviously stupid thing?” Sound off with your tales of very-deadly dangers and missed warning signs down in the comments!


EARN BONUS LOOT! Check out the The Handbook of Heroes Patreon. We’ve got a sketch feed full of Laurel’s original concept art. We’ve got early access to comics. There’s physical schwag, personalized art, and a monthly vote to see which class gets featured in the comic next. And perhaps my personal favorite, we’ve been hard at work bringing a bimonthly NSFW Handbook of Erotic Fantasy comic to the world! So come one come all. Hurry while supplies of hot elf chicks lasts!