What’s a “have to win” fight? Well, the PCs are the heroes, so subconsciously we end up thinking that party victory is the only way a fight is allowed to end. Even “hard” GMs I’ve played with – the ones who dish out what feels like twice the recommended CR for your level – have ended up doing this. We’ll be in a fight scene that stopped being interesting 45 minutes ago, but it’s like there’s an attitude of, “This ain’t over til you win it, folks!”
I think the main reason for this is that the GM doesn’t want the characters to die. Nobody wants to be that GM. And even though PCs shouldn’t be invincible, if you’re doing a story campaign, it is unsatisfying for them to die in a mundane monster fight.
But there are more ways to keep the PCs alive than by making the fight safe! Here are some non-deathy “lose” outcomes to use if, like me, you want the party not to die but you don’t want to guarantee them a win either:
- They get rescued... by their worst enemy!
- They get captured and taken to the dungeon (which is inside the castle where they probably were trying to get into anyway).
- New Character: just as the party’s being overrun, they get rescued by an NPC (say, a high-level cleric or wizard). Now they have to do some sidequest story where they do something for him, or where they’re now “Wanted” by association whether they like it or not, or where he trains them to do better at their quest, etc.
- They get captured and taken to a slave camp or gladiator training (where they’ll likely have the opportunity to lead a rebellion)
- A party member is taken hostage and a surrender is demanded.
- The bad guy gets away.
- The enemies take something the party needed.
- An alarm is sounded.
- They take too long, and now an evil spell is cast.
- The fight turns around suddenly, the enemies withdraw, and it turns out this fight was a ruse to buy the bad guy some time.
- It turns out their attackers aren’t the real bad guys and the fight has been a misunderstanding.
...And it also makes the fight safe – in a good way! If the players lose, they know you have other outcomes in your pocket than killing them.
It turns out that making sure your fights have definite win/lose potential is a win/win for everybody involved.