As a GM, my personal philosophy regarding player actions is “Do as you please (in character), but accept, or at least, be prepared to deal with the consequences.”
However, there are situations in which player choice will inevitably lead to a situation in which they are, for less of better word, fucked. With enough failed Perception, Sense Motive, and Knowledge checks, or simply through player/character stupidity, there will be moment in which the party find themselves trapped within their own personal Red Wedding or Kobayashi Maru, whether they are aware of it or not.
The questions I pose to the tabletop community is: would you ever allow that to happen? Would you subtly try to prevent it? Would you perform some Dungeon Master ex machina? Have you ever put a party through such an event? And if so, how did the players react?
I remember when my players got to around level 3 I threw them into a druidic city built on top of an ancient druid god’s corpse. Secret was that the God was still mentally alive, and cultists were trying to convert his 90 kilometre body into a giant death monster. And the end of a gigantic battle, those cultists were scripted to fail when my players heard shouting and evil laughter from the main room, at which point they’d barge in and save the day. I even had a friendly druid wander toward the room to make it evident.
My players decided to sneak, instead of just being normal and approaching this nice NPC they already knew. And the druid failed his perception check.
So him standing in front of the door, paralysed because of magic that my players were supposed to discover, I had the yelling and evil laughter start. And my players? They decided to wait because they were stalking the otherwise friendly druid, for some reason.
So the cultists succeeded. We stood there 10 minutes and they just let it happen. The entire country shook, one of the main villains walked out all prideful, and I ex-machina’d some teleportation and gods so the players didn’t die.
And in that particular case, fixing a no-win scenario had pros and cons that I was confident I could fix.
Fast forward to level 8 with the players being sent into the dungeon-like remains of the druid city to go blow up the then-sleeping druid god’s heart. It was a culminating event of them simply rolling with the consequences and cleaning up their mess. They were capable of beating everything in the dungeon. All except one enemy.
A cyborg/undead dragon that showed up every now and then who wrecked shop and was an obvious high-level main villain. He was pulling all the other bad guy’s strings, I was making that clear with each time the dragon intervened. And here he was, in the druid city, putting an army in front of the players and killing an old-friend NPC. Just meant to drive the story forward.
The dragon was then going to teleport away and piss off my players. Typical bad guy stuff.
But then one of my players makes fun of the dragon and specifically says he wants to intimidate it into challenging them in single combat. And proceeds to roll a 20. So of course I have to abide by the dice and let him stroke the dragon’s ego.
That level 18 dragon killed all of my players in ten minutes. There was no realistic backing-out of that, no intervening. No extra help I could give them. That was the end of that campaign. And they learned their lesson in the process.
So putting the players in a no-win scenario sometimes happens as a surprise, and in that case you gotta do your job and keep the game going. But then sometimes your players are flat-out stupid, and you gotta bring the hammer down.
There’s no real right answer. It’s up to the situation, and the creativity of the DM.
To answer the question simply, yes.
The best part of D&D is that not every situation is meant to be won through brute force. If the party is exploring the ruins of an ancient city and stumbles upon a sealed cave and decides the best course of action is to open it and a Beholder or a Lich or something even worse wakes up because of their meddling then that isn’t exactly a planned for encounter. This encounter can happen at any point of a campaign, level 1 – level 20. Maybe the party is ready to fight such a creature, maybe not. What you as a Dm can do is to give them options when coming across a creature like this.
Talk to the Creature: Maybe the creature isn’t hostile. Maybe you have such amazing speechcraft that you can persuade it to go back to sleep. Maybe you have to make a deal and work for it for a while.
RUN: Simply that… run for your damn life. It amazes me after playing D&D with the same group of people for the most part over the last 8 years that this doesn’t happen as often as it should. When running Curse of Strahd they came across a group of Wraiths that were clearly more than the standard Wraith, and while I understand the urge to fight evil, It was clear that these were dangerous. The party lost three members before common sense took over and the rest of the party fled.
Bribery: Who knows, maybe you have something it wants.
Other: You as players or the Dm are playing a game where anything can happen. Be inventive and try and solve the problem. If you can’t do it then the answer is probably above. If fighting happens and you see that the party is going to wipe have the combat stop and have the creature or whatever it is, tell the adventures to surrender. This will open up new possibilities of adventure, throw them in a cell, a pit, etc. Take all of their weapon and armor and see what they do.
No win situations exist in games like D&D. It’s up to the players to become more inventive and the DM to challenge them with things like this. Beating your head into the skulls of your enemies gets dull for everyone. Throw a Lich at the party when this happens and have him/her be very talkative.
It depends on what is meant by “No-Win Situation.” I’ve got fewer problems with the Kobayashi Maru than the Red Wedding. TPKs don’t make for good stories or fun games. At the same time, consequences and difficult decisions are exactly what makes for good stories and fun, memorable games. Letting the players stick themselves in between a rock & a hard place I’m all for, but Tolkien didn’t mind letting those Eagles fly in and pull the characters out to fight another day, and neither do I, so long as it doesn’t actually solve their problems.