Combating fights to the death

dnd4vr

Adventurer
Our DM is taking a break, so we are starting a new campaign and yours truly is in charge! MWAHAHAHA! :lol:

I get to add my own flare and tastes as the reigning DM and am looking for options on combating "normal" fights to the death. I have been thinking about tactics such as grappling, knocking prone, etc. because I find the endless fight after fight where they typically end in every creature on one side being killed as a bit... well... ridiculous. I understand DND is a fantasy game, and combat can be a vital part of it, but even an experienced party of characters suddenly confronted by a band of orcs and outnumbered 4-1 or worse should consider fleeing or surrender.

So, I am looking for options on how to play out combat encounters. I want the players to think more about getting into a fight and not just rush in confident that the battle of attrition will end in their favor. Any advice?
 

DEFCON 1

Legend
Rather than creatures falling unconscious at 0 HP, they instead break and run away full speed never to come back. And attackers do not get to make AoOs against them as they run off, the creature just bolts and gets away.

This includes PCs by the way. As soon as they hit 0 HP their morale breaks and they make a run for it. Now if you want to allow them the chance to return to help their friends then I might allow it... but I'd keep the "three failed saves equals death" in place. If the PC get hits while at 0 HP they fail a death save, and if they fail three (IE get hit three times) they die.

Doing this teaches everyone that the survival instinct is strong in every creature and fights to the death are rare. People run off if they know they are in trouble and possibly dying.
 

Fenris-77

Explorer
Or you could run encounters where there are goals and combat is just one of the options to meet that goal. Not fighting to the bitter end could also be an explicit part of your encounter design. You could also run combats where you leave lots of room to narrate morale related stuff and make sure the players know that they have options.

If players are stubborn and fight to their own deaths thats on them, but its on the GM to run a game where the options other than combat, and other than combat to the bitter end are made pretty clear. Taking full afvantage of the rules grappling, knocking prone, and knocking unconscious can help too, obviously.
 

Larnievc

Explorer
Adventurers are used to killing things. If you want to change that have them go up against other ‘adventurer’ class enemies.

The orcs they are after are a most renowned seasoned mercenary company with power comparable to their own.

And never forget the law of Conservation of Ninjitsu. Your players will have an instinctual awareness of CoN so use it to foreshadow the difficulty of the encounter. Adventurers will never run for 40 mooks but 6 or 7 individually described orcs wearing matching (but specialised) armour might give them pause.

Foreshadow how the baddies are honourable and will accept surrender helps, as does making the baddies likeable so the PC don’t resent being beaten by them.
 
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Odysseus

Explorer
Simplest answer: Tell the players you're doing this.
I'd agree with this.
Part of the issue is trust. The players have to trust you. They have to feel that if they surrender, or get captured you won't just kill or do worse to their characters. So be open and honest with them.
And have the monsters surrender and run away at times.
Also look out why the combat is taking place. What are motivations for the combatants? Is combat the best way to get what they want?
Another alternative is do something with crits and fumbles to make combat a bit more deadly and random.
 

Stalker0

Adventurer
Defcons morale break is a solid mechanic if you want that to be the default in your campaign.

If you want it to be more “here and there”, the key is:

1) different goal other than killing. It’s getting the item, saving a person, etc

2) excessive time pressure. Sure the party will win, but it will weaken them for the next thing, and they don’t have time to rest. Now they seriously debate if engaging in the next fight is worth it
 

Draegn

Explorer
I treat my players the same way that they treat various groups of foes. If they murder hobo, no mercy. If they take prisoners and ransom captives then that.
 

Laurefindel

Explorer
Rather than creatures falling unconscious at 0 HP, they instead break and run away full speed never to come back.
This is a good suggestion. I’m a big fan of 0 hp = defeat, which may mean death, unconsciousness, morale break, loosing the face, or whatever concequence that makes sense to the stakes that were set at the beginning of the fight.
 

bedir than

Explorer
If you give equal/greater reward for the Party achieving their goals through means other than killing they will likely use means other than killing.

Give the exact same xP for an encounter that's "won" via social means and even by avoiding it all together (exploration).
 

vincegetorix

Jewel of the North
I usually reverse the ''non-lethal damage'' rule: if I want a game with more grey areas, I ask my players to declare when their character actually aims to kill with its attack. If not, creatures at 0 hp are merely defeated, unconscious or broken: they wont fight anymore. A player that keep declaring attacks to kill will eventually have to justify its actions to the rest of the party, and may even warrant an alignment shift.
 

Satyrn

Villager
Our DM is taking a break, so we are starting a new campaign and yours truly is in charge! MWAHAHAHA! :lol:

I get to add my own flare and tastes as the reigning DM and am looking for options on combating "normal" fights to the death. I have been thinking about tactics such as grappling, knocking prone, etc. because I find the endless fight after fight where they typically end in every creature on one side being killed as a bit... well... ridiculous. I understand DND is a fantasy game, and combat can be a vital part of it, but even an experienced party of characters suddenly confronted by a band of orcs and outnumbered 4-1 or worse should consider fleeing or surrender.

So, I am looking for options on how to play out combat encounters. I want the players to think more about getting into a fight and not just rush in confident that the battle of attrition will end in their favor. Any advice?
Do you mean trying to get the players to the flee more often, or trying to get the players to not kill everything in sight?

If it's the first, use tougher monsters, but make sure you have those monsters not chase after the PCs. Then they'll know that some fights really are too tough to fight through and will seek alternate means of they need to get past. But you have to make sure the players feel like they can escape a fight going south, or they'll just keep pounding away until they or the enemy is dead.

If it's the other, when monsters flee, don't ever have them return with reinforcements.
 

MarkB

Hero
Simplest answer: Tell the players you're doing this.
Better still: Tell them you want to do this. Just because you're not liking the standard combat experience, that doesn't mean your players are bored of it, or eager to try something else.
 

Psikerlord#

Explorer
In order to get players to fear for their PCs lives, I suggest either (i) double the number of foes you usually use, (ii) use much higher power monsters, or (iii) change the death & dying rules to make the game genuinely dangerous.
 

Kurotowa

Explorer
If you give equal/greater reward for the Party achieving their goals through means other than killing they will likely use means other than killing.

Give the exact same xP for an encounter that's "won" via social means and even by avoiding it all together (exploration).
This is excellent advice and a good intro to the core of the issue: Make sure your incentives are structured correctly. If you only award XP for kills your players will try to rack up the highest body count possible. If your monsters ignore attempts at parley, fight to the death, and pursue a group attempting to make an orderly retreat then your players will learn not to waste actions with anything but attacks. If taking prisoners turns into a tactical headache and moral quagmire that costs party resources rather than rewarding bounties or ransoms, your players will try to avoid leaving survivors to trouble themselves with. And remember, your players aren't blank slates. They're coming to your campaign with the habits of every previous game they've played. Breaking them of old habits takes time and reinforcement.

There's an interesting Let's Read thread over on RPGnet going through the AD&D 1e DMG right now, and it's really illustrating for me what an interconnected web some of those old rules were. Sure, the Random Encounter tables could throw out encounters that it would be suicidal for the PCs to tackle head on. But there were rules for surprise and encounter distance that meant the party had a chance to notice the enemies at a safe range and avoid them, or vise versa. There were Reaction rolls that allowed for results besides Attacks On Sight. Movement scales were such that retreat was possible, and one poster recounted his group having drop bags of food or coin to throw open and bait pursuers into giving up in favor of the easy reward. Every monster had a Morale score that gave their own chance of breaking and fleeing combat, and groups of monsters would check under various conditions like having lost enough group members or the group leader falling. Heck, even the fact that PCs usually ran with a posse of henchmen and hirelings in the back who could secure prisoners and leave the PCs free to do PC things.

So here's the steps you need to go through. First you need to figure out how to make options like retreat or surrender better options than fighting to the death. Then you need to clearly communicate to your players how and why these options not only exist but are worth taking. Then you need to show them being better in action, probably with some adventure scenarios scripted to deliberately highlight them.
 
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Shiroiken

Adventurer
On the DM side of things:

Most low intelligence monsters are not going to suicidally throw themselves at enemies. Everything has a motivation, and most monsters are simply hungry (or just cruel). Once the hungry ones down a PC, have them start to drag it off to be eaten. Once they take a lot of damage, they'll flee (taking the withdraw action most of the time), especially the cruel ones (better to live and get revenge). Some creatures WILL fight to the death, however, such as when defending their young and/or lair. NPCs and intelligent monsters will have various goals and motivations that can be met without killing the PCs, or are not worth risking life and limb over. Those might simply surrender if they think the PCs will abide by it, and consider having the NPCs accept surrender from the PCs.

On the Player side of things:

Tell your players that you are not creating balanced encounters, but are designing the adventures based on the needs of the world and story, not combat. This means that enemies will summon reinforcements, or they may just be more powerful at the outset. This makes combat the least preferred solution, because they never know how bad it might get (unless they take suitable precautions). If they continue to rush in head-first, they'll hopefully change after the 1st TPK. Once you have the reputation of a "killer DM," the players will always consider flight as an option (I suggest you allow it to happen, unless the story demands otherwise).
 

77IM

Explorer!!!
Simplest answer: Tell the players you're doing this.
Don't tell, show (well, do tell, but also show):

1. Have enemies flee or surrender, a LOT. Only a few kinds monsters should fight to the death (undead, constructs, summoned creatures); for the rest, they should stop fighting when they are reduced to half strength or so. You can make a formal morale rule for this if you want, but as a DM I usually just eyeball it, and that works fine.

Important: give full XP for enemies that flee or surrender (if you're doing monster XP). Losing XP is what players fear most about allowing monsters to get away.

2. Have monsters demand the PCs surrender, and have them treat the captured PCs well. You should do this a few times early-on in the adventure when the PCs are easy to scare. Half-way through the goblin encounter, a dozen hobgoblins show up, with some ogres! After they capture the PCs, they take all their gold and jewels and food, but then turn them loose with all their equipment.

Important: don't have enemies take the PC's magic items, because this is what players fear most about surrender. It's worse than losing gold or even losing levels because magic items are unique and "irreplaceable." Story-wise, the monster group that's powerful enough to defeat the PCs probably has no need for their paltry magic items. (You can make an exception if the PCs have a plot item that everyone is after, but you should telegraph that. Also, it can be fun to have your gear stolen, and then kill the enemies in revenge and take it back, but be careful with this; it's easy to overdo it.)

3. Have some enemies call for parley before combat starts. The parties size each other up and the one that thinks its stronger calls for tribute from the one that's weaker. The classic "we are bandits charging a reasonable toll" works well for this. The side that receives the tribute should also offer some kind of minor favor in return, to make it seem fair. "Pay us and we won't kill you, plus we'll tell you how to get past the room with the fire trap" is a more palatable deal for the players.

Important: Let the players know whether the other side in the parley can be trusted to keep their end of the bargain. Tell them explicitly. Because if the other side betrays the deal, the players will be discouraged from making future deals. But, not every NPC can be trusted, so call for Wisdom (Insight) checks. If the players decide how to deal with the untrustworthy NPCs, the parley remains a fun encounter (but of a somewhat different kind, and possibly erupting into combat).

4. Put the PCs into conflict with NPCs that they are better off not killing. The City Guard is a good example. Another might be an NPC who knows an important clue, or whose cooperation makes things a lot easier. Or have an NPC that is an enemy to some PCs and an ally to others. This is the most tricky of my suggestions because it's really difficult to predict what kinds of things will motivate the players to keep "enemy" NPCs alive.

Important: Plan for the NPC to die anyway. Because the players might not realize the benefit of keeping them alive, or may just be in the mood to slaughter somebody. So don't encourage the PCs into combat with a plot-essential NPC. (Really, don't have plot-essential NPCs.)


None of this will work if your players are dedicated murder-hobos. But if they're willing to try this play-style, moves like this can help them get into character.
 

Fenris-77

Explorer
If you give equal/greater reward for the Party achieving their goals through means other than killing they will likely use means other than killing.

Give the exact same xP for an encounter that's "won" via social means and even by avoiding it all together (exploration).
You need to be careful with this. I'm happy to give out full XP for encounters where the encounter goal is achieved by means other than combat. However, I don't give out full XP when the encounter is simply avoided. My standard for awarding XP is meeting the goals of the encounter. Whether the PCs use combat or not is up to them, avoidance isn't the same as meeting the goal using no-combat methods. Exactly how this is applied is obviously on a GM by GM basis because it's based on encounter design, which can be very different from GM to GM.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Thinking of the overall situation and challenge instead of thinking of it solely as a combat challenge may help you build into the scene elements that encourage the players to try other things. Alternate goals for the monsters and PCs other than reducing enemies to 0 hit points, plus aligning your rewards accordingly help a great deal with this.

Feel free to check out some of my short-form scenarios for examples of challenges that involve more than one pillar. In particular, "How to Defeat the Forum Troll" involves elements of combat, exploration, and social interaction to win the day.
 

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