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Worlds of Design: The Lost Art of Running Away

How often does an adventuring party avoid an encounter, even run away from one? This used to be common in earlier versions of the game, but less so now. What changed?

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.
Run away, run away!” King Arthur, fleeing the carnivorous rabbit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Do you ever have your character run away in video games? In most video games, because there's the "save game" mode, there's no incentive to run away. Try to beat the enemy, and if that doesn't work, respawn and either try again or wait until you're stronger. You can't do that as easily in tabletop role-playing games, where if you die, you die. (Well, most of the time . . .)

On the other hand, players from my campaign have been struck by how seldom other gaming groups actually gather intelligence, or run away. They'd learned not to fight every fight, not to jump on every random encounter, not to push beyond their limits while relying on the GM to bail them out. Fighting every encounter becomes habit with some players, to the point that they may characterize a too-tough encounter a GM failure, not their failure to recognize when they should bail out (or not even start a fight).

This is exacerbated by GMs who, if players won't take on an encounter NOW, will not let them take it on later when they're better prepared. In my opinion, this encourages foolish choices in a tactical-style game. It's OK when you play a storytelling game, where characters aren't really in danger unless the story requires it.

Perhaps another reason why running away is uncommon, is that there's work involved. Avoiding a too-tough encounter requires good scouting as well as good intelligence-gathering (such as interrogating prisoners). But poor scouting is not confined to RPGs; it was a characteristic of many ancient and medieval armies. Entire armies could be ambushed because of poor scouting (as Romans at Lake Trasimene by Hannibal). Roman and Macedonian armies at the Battle of Cynoscephalae marched along with a ridge in between, unaware of their immediate proximity despite earlier skirmishes near Pherae, until someone went atop the ridge and spotted the enemy.

I think part of succeeding, in military terms especially, should be knowing when NOT to fight. Think about combat odds from "Always tell me the Odds." If you recognize how dangerous combat can be, and avoid the most dangerous when you can ("run away"), you're actually helping out your GM, who has the difficult task of making combat feel dangerous without making it too dangerous!

Of course, in earlier editions of the game, one of the most exciting adventures was where you got lost. Then it's extra smart to avoid fighting. Perhaps if parties got lost more often, they’d be less in the habit of fighting everything. So what can a GM do to encourage players to avoid fighting what they should not?
  • Emphasize the mission. A random encounter along the way may be worth avoiding simply because it doesn't move the mission forward. Which brings us to...
  • Give mission-based XP rather than XP for "monsters" killed. If you give XP for every encounter regardless of relevance to the mission, many players are going to fight every encounter just for the XP.
  • Let interrogation yield useful information. Not every time, of course, but often enough that players will take prisoners, and even organize cutting-out expeditions to capture someone, in order to gather information. If interrogation never works, who's going to bother with prisoners?
  • Don't let adventure publisher control how you GM the adventure. Modules tend to assume the party will fight whatever it encounters. You don't need to do it that way.
  • Or at worst, let the party get their butts well and truly kicked a few times, and they might decide to pick and choose their battles.
My question to readers: how often does the party run away in your campaign?
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

We are 80 some sessions into my sandbox campaign and the players run away or tactically withdraw to regroup, a fair amount. Maybe once every 10 combats.

A lot of times they use hit and run tactics to weaken the enemy, but other times they get into a encounter that goes bad and the realize the can"t win or the price of winning is too high.

Obviously in sandbox play it is easy to get in overones head. In my players guide i gave them before the campaign one of the big pieces of advice was to know when to flee.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
Hahaha haah haa Use to be common. Ha ha ha. The only time back in 1E I saw half the party run away was when the sphere of annihilation came out the wall and we were 3rd or lower. Actually is was just a black balloon and the dm had thrown a real sphere at the gaming group the week before killing his best friend’s pc. So the DM was playing us not the pc. Half the games I played in before 3 E laughed at danger because a new pc was only five minutes and a bath room break away.

In 3E I got the group to run away about 3 times. One was Forge of Fury and I critical a pc and killed with the dragon’s first attack round. They did come back to lair a week later to kill the cheeky bugger. But it had moved and left half it treasure behind.

Currently I just run Adventure League. So with some builds, AL encounters become cakewalks in Tier 3+. But Skully 3 has 85 names on it. That is high for 235 sessions but I have a few gamers not care if they die.

1. Emphasize the mission. Running AL so I will not address this.
2. Mission based xp. AKA milestones is what AL is doing.
3.Interrogation. It works in some AL modules not others.
4. Modules suggest. DMs rule.
5. Be known to TPK. I only have 2. But see below.

I have had groups retreat during the hard covers, and run away occasionally in modules.
1. Roll in the open. Sorry Terrance I know you only show up every 3 months but that is the third crit I rolled on you.
2. Monsters can scout too. Or hear the dying of their friends. Play monsters smart but not super genius. My default on a zeroed out PC is roll an intelligence check. Roll at or below Int. I may swing on a KO PC.
3. The Players decide the tactics. Sometimes all it takes is one grunt, or well like and tactical player to change the odds.
4. While homebrewing I do agree with you. Let the party run away and regroup. But the monsters can do too. Let them take a short rest. The monsters can do too. I have when running a hard cover have a villain flee if the group took a rest before the boss fight. Or if we running late and up against the store closure.
During session 0 or when you have new players; let the players know you allow running away. I tell people, I will not kill their pc but the dice and their bad tactics will.
 

werecorpse

Adventurer
Crucial that the GM keeps running away as an option that isn’t a serious failure. Like the party is trapped in a dungeon (So running is literally not an option), or the bad guy is about to commit some horrendous act unless they stop it (So if they run their village or whatever will be wiped out). If this is done I find the players often try and avoid combat - provided they can see another way to reach their goals.

But of course many games (D&D included) are designed so playing out a combat is fun so that can’t be underestimated as a reason why players get into fights.
 

lewpuls

Adventurer
Interesting. Tactically in many games it's mechanically hard to escape. Plus in history running away lead to much massacre. PCs seem pretty good at not fighting in the first place / avoiding the conflict, but can't recall the last time I was in a party that ran away!
Yes, running away in a normal battle, after battle has been joined, can result in heavy casualties. I was thinking in terms of running away immediately, no battle. But with magic-equipped adventurers, who are much tougher than ordinary soldiers, running away after battle has been joined is still much better than fighting to the death when you're outmatched.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
It all comes down to play experience. While we speak about "staying in character" and making choices like your character would, that is driven by a desire to get a good play experience out of it.

What's the play experience of gathering intelligence? If you, the GM, don't make that interesting, or even more importantly - useful, then players won't do it. Spending a couple of hours rolling stealth and observation to get small amounts of information that don't really change outcomes is not a good play experience.

Taking prisoners and interrogating them is an activity used by people who are members of large organizations with resources to deal with prisoners - police, military, and intelligence organizations take prisoners. For a group of five or so vigilante do-gooders, taking prisoners and interrogating them leaves them with practical/ethical issues afterwards. If you game is not set up for the PCs to have a way to deal with prisoners, don't expect them to do so.

The play experience point is relevant to running away as well. In fiction, writers use defeat as the basis for change in dramatic tension and direction. If you, the GM are not skilled at using it for such, to the players... it is just a downer. It is just losing. If you don't use it, running away is not a positive play experience - it is merely avoidance of the even more negative play experience of TPK.

Just avoiding an encounter entirely... if it is simple, why did you have the encounter at all?
 

Tun Kai Poh

Adventurer
Depends on the genre! A successful Call of Cthulhu campaign is full of running away! In Star Wars, you're going to be running away from the Empire a lot, especially early on.

Out of the 8 scores executed in my Blades in the Dark campaign so far, 5 of them ended with our crew running away to get away with their ill-gotten objective! Fleeing a collapsing warehouse full of screaming ghosts, jumping from balcony to balcony to escape the police, being the target of a steamship stern chase on the high seas, or dragging a VIP out of a faction lair through a ghost door...
 


TwoSix

Unserious gamer
Supporter
I mean, I've certainly set up encounters that I don't expect the characters to fight and win. An army of demons, the tarrasque when the party is only level 9. But I telegraph to the players pretty obviously that this is a encounter to drive plot and gather information, not one I'm setting up for them to fight.

I definitely don't set up encounters where the characters discover that the enemies simply overmatch them and they need to do a fighting retreat. That just wastes valuable session time on something that doesn't advance either the character or the plot. I'd rather they just lose than retreat, if they lose I can give consequences and do a hard reframe of the story.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Depends on the genre!

Correct. Mine was an answer for fairly typical D&D, the game lewpuls here is implicitly addressing (with, "earlier editions of the game" where the name of the game is not mentioned).

Out of the 8 scores executed in my Blades in the Dark campaign so far, 5 of them ended with our crew running away to get away with their ill-gotten objective!

In effect, the characters had already succeeded in their goals - the escape is mostly denouement.
 

reemul

Explorer
Later D&D versions got players used to only seeing level-appropriate opponents. Encounters became a resource management problem rather than a real threat, tracking healing and spell slots before deciding to continue for the fight. Yawn.

Early D&D wandering monster charts included everything likely to show up in the region, no matter the level, and you needed to be willing to run/bribe/grovel if you encountered a foe too tough to fight. If there was a famously deadly hag in the swamp, you could find her the first night if you were unlucky - everyone knew she lived there, be warned. A big damn dragon living on a mountain isn’t just waiting for the prophesied opponent to be ready, he’s got wings and a ridiculous range, he could appear in the sky above you a hundred miles from their supposed lair. Careful parties watched, and studied, and consulted experts. And they still got unlucky and had to run for their lives.

Knowing all the stats and point values of the enemies at a glance might be handy for a small unit wargame, but a real RPG should have a little wonder, every now and then.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
Yes, running away in a normal battle, after battle has been joined, can result in heavy casualties. I was thinking in terms of running away immediately, no battle. But with magic-equipped adventurers, who are much tougher than ordinary soldiers, running away after battle has been joined is still much better than fighting to the death when you're outmatched.
Okay Not engaging with enemy IS a different thing. While homebrewing yes this is was a rarely used but it was use tactic. To show a new group I meant business, I would throw an near Instant death encounter at them when they left the city. Then kill the first food ... um fool who attacked. I think if you are wanting examples of DO NOT Engage, you need to rewrite the title and some of the article.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
The CR system and official adventures that follow it have contributed to this change in play style. But I will say that Curse of Strahd was refreshing in that it was easy for PCs to get in over their head.

I'm currently running Rappan Athuk, a massive megadungeon, heavily influenced by old school play. It is easy for players to get in over their head. It is a giant, deadly sandbox. That effected play in that my very experienced group of players were very cautious early on. Once the magic user go to where he could cast wall of force and teleportation circle, they became a bit bolder but noped out of situations a lot.

Another thing that contributes to running away versus standing your ground is that in original D&D you got experience for the treasure your extracted from the dungeon. This is also how I run my current game. Actually, in my current game you only get XP from extracted treasure and some milestones. That changes the incentives. But not exactly how I thought it would. I thought it would lead to more stealth-based character builds and heist-style play. But that hasn't been the case. The main difference I see is that if players run into or learn about a dangerous encounter, they'll avoid it if there doesn't seem to be any pay off or strong in-game story reason to go after it.

When players no longer see monsters as bags of XP, it changes the incentives and does a better job encouraging all approaches to encounters. Using GP for XP is an easy way to change the incentives without the headache of calculating non-combat encounter XP or going to full milestone leveling (which I find unsatisfying).
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
Knowing all the stats and point values of the enemies at a glance might be handy for a small unit wargame, but a real RPG should have a little wonder, every now and then.

I'm trying to get better as a DM about this.

First, I've been reading the excellent book "The Monsters Know What They Are Doing". For more powerful monsters, there haven't been too many revelations but the book is really helping me run lower-level intelligence monsters and NPCs more tactically, in lore-appropriate ways.

As for "lore appropriate", it can be fun for the DM and a challenge and surprise for players if you play monsters and NPCs against stereotype. But I find the novelty wears off if you do it too much.

I think it is important that where you have groups of intelligent humanoids that you have a mix of power levels and specialties. I have a lot of fun playing the goblins in Rappan Athuk because Greznek feels more like living, functional goblin city. You can't assume all goblins are fodder.
 

Arilyn

Hero
Attacks of opportunity make it really hard to run away successfully. Many monsters are faster than PCs, so that makes it hard too. Encounters tend to be balanced more in modern games, meaning players usually don't have to run. Players will assume they can probably handle the encounter. If the dice say otherwise, it may very well be more dangerous to attempt escape.

And, as Umbran mentioned, it can be a downer for players.
 

lewpuls

Adventurer
When players no longer see monsters as bags of XP, it changes the incentives and does a better job encouraging all approaches to encounters. Using GP for XP is an easy way to change the incentives without the headache of calculating non-combat encounter XP or going to full milestone leveling (which I find unsatisfying).
Yes. I give only mission XP, not XP for treasure or for killing. Makes a big difference in player behavior. Subject of a future column.
 

Superchunk77

Explorer
I like how running away is handled in Forbidden Lands. You get stuck in a bad situation and you can make a MOVE roll to vamoose. The difficulty depends on how engaged you are in the fight. It's simple, works well, and lets the player decide how to narrate the event.
 

John Dallman

Explorer
Yes. I give only mission XP, not XP for treasure or for killing. Makes a big difference in player behavior. Subject of a future column.
For a while, I gave XP according to how stressed the players had got in a session. Since triumph over adversity is one of the main rewards of an RPG, this worked quite well until they figured it out and started a new level of acting.
 

Chaderick

Explorer
Many monsters are faster than PCs, so that makes it hard too.

This is the first thing that came to my mind.

I've had this conversation with my players over the years, when an article makes me look back wistfully on the "olden days." But what they have invariably pointed out to me was that the creature that ate half the party could have outrun them and eaten them tired, from their rear Armor Classes, or they could stand, face it, and go down fighting.

What I noticed, also, is that my players are more willing to have their characters escape after they have a means to do so. After they got teleport, they would either teleport to safety, or send someone to get help. One of our most memorable encounters in a fifteen year campaign took place under Fox Ridge in the Forgotten Realms setting, where the heroes fought a lich. They got in over their heads and one PC teleported home to get help. He woke up two other PCs, who grabbed what they could in a round or two while the battle raged halfway across the world, and then they teleported back. Two PCs died in that battle, one of whom was the wizard who brought the help, but ALL of them would have died if he hadn't made that choice to go.

In other instances, the teleporting wizards just gathered up everyone and took them to safety.

The most horrifying things to ever happen to them were the Amber Family wizards using teleport tracers and then showing up a minute after the PCs thought they had escaped, to carry on the fight for revenge after the PCs had invaded their ancestral home. It wasn't something I repeated, but it was something that really opened their eyes to the possibilities of the game world...
 

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