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Why don’t players surrender... would we want them too?

TheSword

Legend
Supporter
So I’ve noticed a disconnect between what happens in tabletop and fiction...

The players are down to single digit hp, any successful attack will likely drop them, one fireball would mean a TPK. The cleric is on 0 hp and there are no more healing words left. More monsters are behind so it’s risky to retreat.

In this situation most players that I see would either fight to the bitter end and TPK, or attempt some extremely risky/unlikely escape with their comrades bodies or attempt to flee leaving a player behind. What I never see is the players say...“we surrender, take us to your leader.”

In fiction this happens all the time, getting captured, and then escaping inside the stronghold, getting captured and negotiating with your enemies, getting captured and discovering something useful from within your cell. Yet in my experience players would rather die than have this happen.

The only time I actually see this happen is when the DM either makes an explicit overture or demand “drop your weapons or I kill the princess.”(They’d still probably try and free the princess with a quickened spell or some other risky strategy). Or if the DM TPKs the party but decides by fiat they were captured instead and didn’t die. That seems a shame. Particularly as in general it is very difficult to capture an entire party without reducing them all to 0 hp.

Ironically as GM I would see this as an absolute gift for RP or a creative break out scene. It seems most dungeons have a set of cells or a secure area for keeping prisoners. Fiction is full of situation where this happens and the disadvantage is reversed so why does it never happen? It isnt as if resourceful PCs would’t have a good chance of breaking out of most cells.
  • Do DMs give the impression that surrender would result in death anyway?
  • Do players resent the loss of agency?
  • Do DMs make cells too strong to the point that escape would seem impossible?
  • Do players despise the idea of not having their stuff, even for a short time?
Can anything be done about this and would we want to?
 

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Derren

Hero
Loss of agency and being at someones mercy is certainly a factor. In older editions the loss of equipment certainly also plays part in it.
Also the PCs are often fighting very evil beings or downright mosters where surrender is either no option at all or a death sentence.

If you want the PCs to surrender they should know that they have a chance of survival beyond the James Bond trope of escaping and recovering everything they had which, while a trope, is a pretty silly thing to expect when you decide to surrender.

So make it clear that ransoming is actually a thing in your world and pretty common (and the PCs being eligible) or that otherwise that at least the enemy they are fighting the most does not kill or torture their captives but does something else with them. Then you might see more surrenders, but it will still be rare as, thanks to "never surrender" tropes in modern media, it is seen as a worse defeat than death (of a fictional character).
 

Doug McCrae

Legend
Do players resent the loss of agency?
Yes, I think so. They may fear a period of extended GM narration of their characters' suffering, perhaps involving humiliation, enslavement or torture, with little or no opportunity to do anything about it.

Also many players seem to have a conception of their characters as proud and honourable. "Death before dishonour." A noble death is perceived as preferable to the dishonour of surrender.

In the first session of a 3.5e pirates game our PCs surrendered and were enslaved for the next several hours of game time, which I didn't enjoy very much. The GM always takes a lot of glee in any scene of PC humiliation. I know that part of it is that he wants the players to really hate the NPCs responsible, to motivate them to seek revenge, but that kind of thing doesn't work for me as a player.
 
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TheSword

Legend
Supporter
Loss of agency and being at someones mercy is certainly a factor. In older editions the loss of equipment certainly also plays part in it.
Also the PCs are often fighting very evil beings or downright mosters where surrender is either no option at all or a death sentence.

If you want the PCs to surrender they should know that they have a chance of survival beyond the James Bond trope of escaping and recovering everything they had which, while a trope, is a pretty silly thing to expect when you decide to surrender.

So make it clear that ransoming is actually a thing in your world and pretty common (and the PCs being eligible) or that otherwise that at least the enemy they are fighting the most does not kill or torture their captives but does something else with them. Then you might see more surrenders, but it will still be rare as, thanks to "never surrender" tropes in modern media, it is seen as a worse defeat than death (of a fictional character).
Do you think it is silly to expect PCs to get their equipment back? If the enemies aren’t attacked why would consumable items be lost and why would permanent items leave the site... unless there is a good reason.

I like the idea of ransom. That could easily be established as a function in the world. A task to guard ransom money and ensure it reached its destination etc.

Not sure how a DM would get a player to realize that their won’t be lost without capturing them and not doing it. Unless the tradition of ransom is with all belonging.

If ransom is a tradition it makes those that break it more wicked. Kind of like Walder Frey.
 

Derren

Hero
Do you think it is silly to expect PCs to get their equipment back? If the enemies aren’t attacked why would consumable items be lost and why would permanent items leave the site... unless there is a good reason.

I like the idea of ransom. That could easily be established as a function in the world. A task to guard ransom money and ensure it reached its destination etc.

Not sure how a DM would get a player to realize that their won’t be lost without capturing them and not doing it. Unless the tradition of ransom is with all belonging.

If ransom is a tradition it makes those that break it more wicked. Kind of like Walder Frey.

Why would the captors give back the equipment instead of them using it themselves? The PCs are not the only one who would loot stuff. So either the PCs were for some reason given back their very powerful and expensive magical items (they probably don't care about mundane stuff) or they would need to search out and defeat the new owners while they are escaping.
But yes, the trope is that all their gear will be stored together right next to where they are held prisoner without any guards. Still I don't think the PCs should expect tropes to be followed...

Ransoming was rather common in the real world, at least when it comes to nobles so there was an expectation that surrendering nobles would be ransomed and treated well during their imprisonment. Lower ranks/common soldiers were not that lucky unless the enemy knew that someone would pay for them (like a guild or mercenary company). Although different people handled it differently. Slaver cultures usually enslaved the common prisoner instead of ransoming them back. And sometimes someone wanted to send a message which happened for examples when the enemy had a different religion, and had all captives killed.

So if you want PCs to surrender the players must at least have a good idea what the enemy will do to them.

Also many players seem to have a conception of their characters as proud and honourable. "Death before dishonour." A noble death is perceived as preferable to the dishonour of surrender.

Mostly in the modern/hollywood media type of honour though. In history, especially on ships surrendering when you are beaten was considered the honourable thing to do to spare your crew for example.
 
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TheSword

Legend
Supporter
Why would the captors give back the equipment instead of them using it themselves? The PCs are not the only one who would loot stuff. So either the PCs were for some reason given back their very powerful and expensive magical items (they probably don't care about mundane stuff) or they would need to search out and defeat the new owners while they are escaping.

But yes, the trope is that all their gear will be stored together right next to where they are held prisoner without any guards. Still I don't think the PCs should expect tropes to be followed...

Ahhh, I wasn’t suggesting they give it back willingly 😅

I think having to get their precious magic sword back from the commander of the garrison probably makes the lair more interesting.

I think a lot of things would be kept for study or to sell, which wouldn’t be an immediate thing.
 

If I see a TPK happening, I use the 'render unconscious' rule to capture the PCs - only if it makes sense. Bandits will capture and ransom while Ghouls will feast.

Most cases, PCs see defeat as death or humiliation and since there are rarely pre-established societal rules as to what happens to prisoners, they probably assume it'll be a death sentence anyways.

Usually, if they get captured, I give them a chance to try to escape and get their stuff back. It's fun to sneak around gathering your gear.
 

You certainly see player surrender in games that mechanically support it. With Fate's concession rule (where you explicitly avoid the worst of your fate, and get bonus Fate points to be awesome later) you can have PCs who act like their fictional counterparts--getting captured, imprisoned in their foes fortress and breaking out and wrecking things.

You also see player surrender in games that explicitly call it out as a normal thing that is done in the setting--Runequest combat is deadly, but this is mitigated by the fact in many contexts, you can expect to be ransomed. Also it can be more rewarding and less risky to accept your foe's surrender, so you see how this works when people surrender to you. This isn't theorycrafting, its something that's been happening in RQ games for decades.

It's really D&D style murder processing games, with their endless stream of "carefully balanced eccounters" where you end up with space invader "kill or be killed" dynamics. Of course D&D is so popular that its default mindset warps the rest of the hobby.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
So, there's another thread around here which discusses prisoners... and in many cases folks are saying that prisoners or folks who surrender are summarily executed, or forcibly questioned for relevant information, and then executed.

So, if the PCs aren't treating prisoners well, we wouldn't expect them to surrender themselves...

It thus follows - if as a GM you are making taking prisoners into a major ethical dilemma, or if prisoners regularly break parole, and so on, then you shouldn't expect taking prisoners to be a thing.

If you want surrender to be a normal option, you probably have to set is as a cultural norm within the lands the PCs inhabit.
 

Doug McCrae

Legend
If you want surrender to be a normal option, you probably have to set is as a cultural norm within the lands the PCs inhabit.
You're absolutely right from a what-makes-sense-in-the-game-world perspective.

I think there's a couple of perspectives where a lopsided approach - PCs never take prisoners but can be captured themselves - does make sense:

1) Genre convention. The protagonists in adventure fiction are very frequently captured but rarely take prisoners. Some examples from Appendix N: The Hobbit (dwarves captured by goblins), The Two Towers (Merry and Pippin by orcs), The Roaring Trumpet (Harold Shea imprisoned in the fire giant stronghold with trolls as his jailers), Tarzan at the Earth's Core (Jason Gridley imprisoned by lizard-men).

2) Player convenience. The prison escape can work as a form of adventure that's a bit different to the usual, but as you say problems can arise when the PCs have to deal with captives.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
You're absolutely right from a what-makes-sense-in-the-game-world perspective.

Not just that. More in a second....

I think there's a couple of perspectives where a lopsided approach - PCs never take prisoners but can be captured themselves - does make sense:

1) Genre convention....

2) Player convenience...

I agree that the lopsided approach, as a practical matter for running a game, can make loads of sense.

But, those are also metagame considerations. How do you intend to communicate them to your players? And, what do you want to do with players who don't want to be making metagame-driven decisions?

If you make it an in-game cultural tradition, then the antagonists can surrender and don't have to fight to the last person. Then, seeing it, the players can understand that you won't utterly hose them, and allows them to be able to make the decision to take prisoners or surrender without making it a metagame thing.

Even if you tell them this explicitly, reinforcing it in play and game world helps people remember the point.
 

First off, these are great observations! Good thread. Thanks TheSword.
Do DMs give the impression that surrender would result in death anyway?
I think there are a lot of times that characters are fighting a creature, so death would be the end result. That purple worm isn't going to walk away from a meal that big. :) But, when it comes to other humanoids, I feel like it's the DM's territory (and obligation if they have murder hobos in the group that ruin things for others) to show how wrong it is to take a life of something not "creature-like."
Do players resent the loss of agency?
I think when they trust the DM and have good chemistry, it doesn't matter. They understand, regardless of the outcome, that the DM was being impartial and leaning on the player's side.
Do DMs make cells too strong to the point that escape would seem impossible?
Goes back to that trust. Most of my players know if they are captured, that there will be a chance for them to redeem themselves. Either through a trial (roleplay) or skill challenges or combat.
Do players despise the idea of not having their stuff, even for a short time?
Yes. Yes. A million times, yes.

On a side note, I will often incorporate backgrounds to help show the negative consequences of just "killing a guard." It takes proper setup. And it can't be used all the time. But, if the character is about to get arrested, the town knows it, and they see their sister and mom and dad standing there looking at them with pleading eyes, asking why. They are much more inclined to not create a bloodbath. I think it goes back to reminding players to play their characters, not their whims. I mean, would a chaotic good thief really just start slaughtering guards to escape with his loving mom right there. Probably not. But again. It needs to be setup correctly and not used a lot.
 

Asisreo

Archdevil's Advocate
Most of the characters my players run into aren't blatant murders until they see their fellow man die.

If you've been merciful throughout the encounter, the enemies will be inclined to show you mercy as well, to a limit. The same goes with being intent to kill. Some won't kill no matter what while some will always try to kill.

Usually, though, fights won't immediately start as a matter of the NPC's life or death unless fighting evil or nonsentient creatures since that type of escalation isn't usually desirable.
 

MGibster

Legend
  • Do DMs give the impression that surrender would result in death anyway?
  • Do players resent the loss of agency?
  • Do DMs make cells too strong to the point that escape would seem impossible?
  • Do players despise the idea of not having their stuff, even for a short time?
  1. Yes. In most RPGs, defeated foes are killed. This is most likely because nobody really wants to deal with the complications inherent in keeping prisoners. But this turns every encounter into a life or death situation.
  2. Yes. In my experience, many PCs would rather have their character killed than be forced into doing something they don't want to do.
  3. I don't know. PCs don't tend to get captured very often in my experience.
  4. Yes. As with #2, many players would rather their character dies than to lose access to magic items or special equipment.
Can anything be done about this and would we want to?

If a DM wants to do something about it, he or she should start having NPCs surrender or run away when it becomes obvious they're going to lose. And maybe have the occasional NPC willing to help the PCs in some way. Heck, having a PC say "I'm in charge now!" might be interesting.
 

Griffon Lore Games

Publishing Content for 5E and Pathfinder1E
Two things going on here:

1) Players don't want to explore the surrender option because the game was too easy, and now that the game is really hard, they wonder how the DM cheated. Show me a table with multiple PC deaths and difficult encounters, and I bet you the players will take the surrender option in hopes of keeping their new favorite alive.

2) Ever been in line where a customer orders a coffee drink that takes minutes instead of seconds? That's not because that's what they really want, it's because they have so little control and agency in their lives they try to gain some of it back, anyway they can.

Some people don't want to play a game and have that sinking feeling that they've lost control of yet another situation. They would rather have their avatar die, and I don't blame them at all.
 


Nytmare

David Jose
It really depends on the game system. In most flavors of D&D, yeah. But most of what I've been playing over the last 6 or 7 years have some sort of gradation in place so that the end of every fight is not measured in terms of "the losers are all dead."
 

TheSword

Legend
Supporter
Play Call of Cthulhu. Players surrender and run away plenty!
I’ve not played the game, what do you think it is about it that encourages this? Unequal threats? @Griffon Lore Games seems to be suggesting something similar if that is the case. Or is there something unique to CoC

To be clear I’m more interested in surrender. Running away happens all the time in our games.
 

My players have preferred TPKs over dishonor in the past.

And generally, they are facing foes who would not take prisoners, or if they did, would do so for the simple purpose of recreational torture and execution.
 

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