Victories and No Defeats in D&D


In The Hobbit, the party of dwarves seems to lose more fights than it wins.

The dwarves are taken prisoner by the trolls.
The dwarves flee from the giants in the Misty Mountains.
The dwarves are taken prisoner by the goblins of the Misty Mountains.
The dwarves are treed by a group of worgs and wolves.
The dwarves are trapped in webs by giant spiders.
The dwarves are imprisoned by wood elves.

Conan wins fights in his stories, but he also loses quite a few, including some big ones. He is enslaved several times.

We could go on and on regarding fictional heroes and the victories and defeats of their stories.

Yet D&D tends not to have victories and defeats from combat results, only victories. Capture either happens because it was a railroad (you are automatically captured) or you failed and its game over. Part of this is because we're used to modules/organized play that don't list options such as running away from a fight, being captured, etc. because the module assumes that the PCs always win.


I've been captured quite a few times. The thing is that it is possibly more emasculating than just dying. But breaking out, killing your captors, and raising holy hell? Epic.


Gotta keep in mind, those "losses" were mostly story points, so sure, in a heavily narrated game it's reasonable to include losses. Likewise it should be taken into consideration the scale of some of those battles, not just in numbers, but in types of enemies and their comparative power-levels to the protagonists.

In The Hobbit the protagonists often lost as a result of going against overwhelming numbers and odds. And remember, noone really died until the very end, which is how most epic adventures go.

In the average D&D game, not every battle is going to be an epic battle against evil and tyranny, sometimes it's just beating up the bandits who tried to jump you in the woods.

But for those epic battles, I do think loss should be a very real possibility. As it was pointed out, I don't favor capture given it's "take the control out of the hands of the players" issues, so the serious battles really will come down to "do or die", but they're the battles that your party will be remembered for.
But most of those are story losses. The character is railroaded into a protected environment until they can recover or escape.
But in D&D, losses are the end as the loser is not protected. Mama Dire Bear does not take prisoners. Mama Dire Bear mauls faces off then snacks on giant bee honey.

D&D does account for loses through.

Blessed is the Heavenly Revolving Door.

Savage Wombat

As a DM, I'm always more comfortable with a nasty, overpowered monster if I know what will happen to the campaign should the party lose. I had one villain recently who I knew would want to imprison the party for questioning, and raise them if need be, so unloading on them wasn't an issue.
The problem with D&D is that it doesn't have many good ways to lose without a TPK. If the characters defeat all their enemies, but two characters die, it is still a win. Retreat is generally rather hard and can be a murky area in the rules. Capture is a possibility, but the rules as a whole tend to assume enemies are trying to kill the PCs, so any capture situation runs the risk of it feeling like the DM just went easy on the players. Similarly, it is hard for the enemies to escape, so having the enemies run away when the PCs need to defeat them isn't easy to pull off. The lack of a good gray area between "defeated" and "dead" doesn't help any of these very much...

There is no doubt that a good group can overcome a lot of this through some creativity, but it would help if the rules didn't assume so readily that any given fight will involve both sides fighting until one side is completely defeated. Better rules for disengaging from a fight and widening the gap between "defeated at 0 HP" and "dead" would help a lot.
That's one of the differences between a game and a work of fiction - one relies on the actions of the players judged by the DM (and usually random chance), while the other is completely controlled by the author.

With that said, it's perfectly okay for a DM to turn a TPK into simply being captured, IMHO.

And in some cases, like being surrounded by hundreds of elves, it's probably not the best idea to fight (then again, most players don't like being railroaded like that)


But most of those are story losses. The character is railroaded into a protected environment until they can recover or escape.
But in D&D, losses are the end as the loser is not protected. Mama Dire Bear does not take prisoners. Mama Dire Bear mauls faces off then snacks on giant bee honey.

D&D does account for loses through.

Blessed is the Heavenly Revolving Door.
So true. Many groups will fight to the last man standing rather than admit defeat.


Perhaps this is a lesson for DMs and players alike. And it speaks to the notion of hit points as combat capability.

Player1: "We lost our first fighter? Oh no! Run away!! Head down that hallway!"
Player2: "Oh crap, they brought reinforcements..."
Player3: (to DM) "What're you trying to do? Kill us?"
Player4: "We can't escape, fight to the last...*urk*"
Player5 (the aforementioned fighter, 3 rounds later): "Well, that encounter led to a TPK. So, who's ready to make new characters?"

DM: "Not so fast. Regdar, the blackness lifts from your eyes as you find yourself coming to consciousness. From the pounding in your head and the soreness in your limbs, you guess you've lying on this floor for hours. Your armor is missing and your sword is nowhere to be seen. Mialee, Tordek, Jozan and Lidda are lying unconscious in the same cell. They all look pretty beaten up. What do you do?"

Why did the goblins take our heroes captive? A good question. The players in this game have LOST, but they don't have to die. Intelligent foes might take you prisoner. The giant spiders might wrap you in cocoons for later. Other monsters might be scared off...or just wander away without eating you. Heck, even the undead might just walk on by once you're no longer a threat.

Of course, if hit points are meat, you're going to die. But if instead they simply represent combat capability, then 0 hp means "unconscious" not dead. You could wake up hours later, bereft of equipment and left for dead. And really, really itching to get even.

Is that DM fudging? Sure, maybe. But who would complain?


I have turned a couple TPKs into prisoner situations in my years as DM, but only if it matched the story.

On the other hand, fighting creatures with SoDs often meant either a TPK or breaking suspension of disbelief . . . I came to use those kinds of creatures less and less.


Is that DM fudging? Sure, maybe. But who would complain?
As people have said, prisoner situations aren't always a better option to death and I can certainly think of some players in my games/games I've played who would complain about not getting KOed.

I may put a lot of effort into my characters, but if it was a fair death I don't really have any issue making a new one. Character creation is enjoyable for me(provided that the rules aren't too restrictive).


Great example JohnSnow (can't xp you yet). I also like what Savage Wombat said.

It is important to think about foes and build into the encounter what will happen if the PCs lose. Also, what will happen if the PCs kill the leader of the group quickly, or if there is only 1 or 2 foes left, or if the PCs look like they are going to fall. In some encounters, the foes could offer terms of surrender, or just leave the group for dead. They may need to get somewhere else in a hurry so once they defeat the party, they just move on like a horde on the march.

One thing I like about Skill Challenges (I know they are probably gone in 5e - replaced by Complex Skill Checks most likely), is that often, my players would fail them, so I would have to narrate the story differently to add a complication to the story. I really liked that. Sometimes it really helped make the story more interesting and more like the fictional stories we love. For example, when the party could not convince a paranoid mayor of a plague infested town that they could help the town, the mayor sent them away and made them prove themselves. They ended up killing an Orc leader from a raiding party that was badgering the town, and they cut off the Orc leader's head and brought it back to the mayor as evidence of their commitment. None of that was scripted, but because they failed the skill challenge, that's what evolved.

I guess, failed combats could also lead to plot twists other than TPK - Start Again.


Registered Ninja
Another solution is for the fight to be about something more than just survival. Maybe its stopping on NPC from escaping with the MacGuffin. Even if they slay everybody else, if the MacGuffin gets away, they still lose.

(And on a side note, I just reread the Hobbit, and man are those dwarves useless).


Well, that was fun
Staff member
How many times can an entire party of killers be defeated an captured before it becomes silly?

And they can kill a million opponents, but they can only be killed once.

I think it's just mathematics. You can capture them occasionally (but players tend to find that unfun and the "hah! you were only unconscious! bazinga!" thing is gonna get old pretty quick) and you can kill them once.
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If the characters defeat all their enemies, but two characters die, it is still a win.
I think this sentence highlights a problem with the players (and DM's) perspective rather than with the game itself.

Why is killing the monsters but losing 1-2 PCs is a win?
On the other hand...
Why is fleeing the battle a loss?

The answer depends on how the DM has decided what the encounter means in the story: if the purpose is exactly to kill the BBEG, you "win" if you kill it no matter how many PC die, and you "lose" if you don't kill it.

But there are alternatives. Not every encounter is a BBEG. Not every encounter is a "blocker" for the story (in fact, if you think about it, MOST encounters don't really block anything if you fail to kill them all).

Fleeing the battle is a "win" if the purpose is staying alive. If you think this is lame, then ask yourself if Indiana Jones movies have all been lame, because in those movies Indy very rarely actually "wins" a fight by killing or incapacitating someone, he almost always flees from confrontation or he's helped by circumstances and luck (how many times the evil guys in Indy's movies fall into their own traps, are caught up into a hazard or just practically kill themselves by doing something silly?).

In our games we had characters death, and we have been captured many times. But I think we have been fleeing too rarely :p I would actually like to see that happen more often!


Early in a campaign, winning and fleeing are often the only possible outcomes where the party doesn't die. Later in the adventurers' career if they are rulers of domains it becomes easier to justify capture. Pretty much any intelligent enemy will be interested in a king's ransom.

If in-combat healing was rarer, I think retreat would become a clearer option. As is, healing makes it difficult to gauge how close you actually are to defeat.


Part of the reason PCs don't flee is that many DMs have all or most monsters fight to the death (even intelligent ones), and chase a fleeing party even if the monsters are badly injured. Many players perceive fleeing as riskier than fighting onward, because they are likely to keep getting attacked.
To a large extent, this is just a game style issue. If the players will always fight to the last man, you'll either get "victory" or "game over!"; they need to be willing to flee or surrender for there to be anything else.

Conversely, a great many DMs will likewise either eliminate other options (by making retreat impossible, or having enemies who cannot be negotiated with), or will design their game so that every encounter can be won (even to the extent of fudging to ensure this).

IMO, there should be some recalibration of suggested encounter design. The 3e DMG had this largely about right, suggesting that most fights should be routine or challenging, but that some 5% should be overwhelming. Unfortunately, this fell by the wayside as soon as "Forge of Fury" (the second 3.0e module) was released, and the Roper encounter became infamous.

The game is almost certainly most satisfying if the PCs win the majority of encounters (about 70%) on the first attempt, but they have some reversals. That way, if they can retreat, regroup, and replan, they get even greater satisfaction from beating the Big Boss on the second attempt - finally, they have managed what was previously impossible.

But beyond suggesting that recalibration, there's really not anything more the rules can do. If the players persist in fighting to the death, or DMs persist in cutting off the retreat (or ignore the advice, such that there's always a win possible), then that's their prerogative. And, really, if they're having fun...