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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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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
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.
This

We are encoded to play by the rules, and the rules are not “escape-friendly“.

Opponents that are visibly too strong often have more speed than PCs. Players will know that and see flight as a futile endeavour.

Otherwise, adventurers could want to run away when things turn badly in a fight, but turning your back either means riskIng an attack of opportunity, or you could disengage and move, knowing the enemy will move and get into reach on its turn... Mechanically speaking, running away sucks (both for players and monsters).

I like to make it clear to my players that when someone say “I run away from this fight”, that person is no longer in combat, is no longer restrained by initiative and action economy, and speed is no longer calculated on a combat round basis. If the monsters want to chase the PCs, that’s what it becomes: a chase.
 

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Orius

Adventurer
People blame video games and 3e's CR approach to encounters, but I don't think they're the only factors here. I think railroading deserves a share of blame too, and that probably stretches things back to the later half of 1e when heavily plotted stories were being seen as a revolutionary and fresh approach to gaming, rather than restricting player agency. If the story requires the party to fight something, then it often twists the PCs' arms into doing so even if they'd rather be anywhere else. Eventually, some players probably started thinking every battle had to be fought, especially if random encounters were seen as primitive gaming.
 

Campbell

Legend
We just made a tactical retreat tonight in our Freebooters on the Frontier game tonight. We were not making much traction against this demon possessed bear thing. It brought faith down so our two remaining Clerics made a run for it with the Thief's body in toe.

The more fiction first rules of Freebooters really helped make the escape possible and memorable. Instead of movement rates the game focuses in on the details of how you make the escape. It even has a Lead the Retreat move.
 

I don't recall any group even trying.

Definitely not my current group. They would rather TPK.

This week they skated amazing close to the line, in fact. But for some good grenade work and some timely combat chems, it would have been game over.
 

R_Chance

Adventurer
I started with the original game in 1974. We were always ready to run away :) Characters were easy to make, but we wanted to live and keep the progress we had made. We were invested in our characters, and we were wargamers before D&D. Retreating is a thing for situations where you have little to no chance of winning. There were plenty of tactics to help that. Caltrops, oil (burning or just slippery), pepper to interfere with scent hunters, dropping goodies (treasure or food). We were ready to dump wight / valuables if it meant moving faster and escaping too. And sometimes somebody acted as the rear guard. I lost a 4th level Paladin holding the rear against giant scorpions (post the Greyhawk supplement). I was the slowest (the joy of plate armor) and had a 2 handed sword. So, I yelled for everybody else to run. Just me, a 10' hallway and some angry scorpions. Poison was save or die in those days. Killed one of the beasts. Fourth round in I failed a save. Well, it was a heroic death anyway. And everybody else got away. My next character was a Thief. No heroics for a while. Until they decided I should "scout ahead" :D

Tactics were a thing. We understood that any given encounter could be dangerous. We paid close attention to any clues in the environment. We worked to give ourselves all the advantages we could get. And, when needed, we ran away. I pretty much expect my players to do the same today.
 

TheAlkaizer

Game Designer
I've seen quite a few interesting replies in this thread.

However, I have a question. If your group is already used to every combat being winnable and will hardly entertain the idea of running; how do you break that? Whether it's your fault as a DM for encouraging that behavior or not, what options do you have to teach them a different behavior? The obvious answer seems to be a combat that's too hard for them with very obvious clues and foreshadowing. But will they really get the lesson and change their approach in the future?
 

I think sometimes it comes down to the power disparity between PCs and the world around them.

If a game is built in such a way that brute force is most often the best answer, running away or seeking other solutions will happen less often.
 

It's simply a matter of play style in my opinion. Edition has nothing to do with it. I play 3E, and my players know when to run away. The reason, is that I properly indicate when a monster is dangerous and possibly lethal. I have carefully woven the expectation into my campaign that not all fights are easily winnable, and that I show no mercy.

Your players need to know that there will be no hand holding, and that you are running your monsters with the intent for the monsters to win. To accomplish this, I roll in the open. I want my players to see that when one of their friends is at death's door, I roll fairly and try my best for that monster to kill them. I also straight up tell them that I raise the CR for a lot of the encounters to make every fight hard, but not unwinnable.
 
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I've seen quite a few interesting replies in this thread.

However, I have a question. If your group is already used to every combat being winnable and will hardly entertain the idea of running; how do you break that? Whether it's your fault as a DM for encouraging that behavior or not, what options do you have to teach them a different behavior? The obvious answer seems to be a combat that's too hard for them with very obvious clues and foreshadowing. But will they really get the lesson and change their approach in the future?

Firstly, I don't set out to teach anything. My players are grown men. Really stubborn grown men.

Secondly, just because they don't flee, doesn't mean they march blindly into each fight, either. They plan well, employ tactics admirably, and have yet to find a technique or ruse too underhanded, dishonorable, or demeaning to employ if it will even the odds.

I do not allow raise dead in any setting whatsoever, and all replacement PCs come in at level 1, regardless of the party level. If they choose to take risks, that's their business. I don't judge. Lord knows that's the least cringe-worthy aspect of their gaming habits.
 

Hussar

Legend
I always have to laugh when people try to pretend that this is something new or something that came in in 3e. It's not. No one ever ran away. There are MULTIPLE Dragon articles, go all the way back to the Strategic Review talking about this. No, CR wasn't invented in 3e. When I look at the covers of every single AD&D module, it states, For X characters Levels Y to Z. How could they possibly guess those levels and PC numbers? They were just magic.

Someone mentioned Morale rules. Morale rules only applied to NPC's. Never to PC's. So, that meant if you managed to smack a group down about half it's numbers, there was a very good chance that the rest would flee. Regardless of what you faced, you generally only needed to deal with about half of it, barring certain nasties like zombies that didn't flee.

It always cracks me up to see people paint their early D&D experience in such rosy colors. Oh, of course you ran away all the time... except, well, you almost never needed to. Sure, the random encounter tables in the DMG weren't level based, but the random tables in every single module certainly were.

Did people just completely ignore the DMG and advice when they made adventures back then?
 

ruemere

Explorer
Flee option for me is a part of social contract that grants me (the GM) the power.

This means that parlays, retreats or captivity are almost always on the table.

In return the PCs are expected not to be murder hobos.

Murder hobos, rabid dogs and other, irredeemable creatures are not subject to the social contract.

This made the Hunger Legion (Breaking ofnForstor Nagar, 13th Age) so scary - an organization of sentiments who cannot be reasoned with.
 


It always cracks me up to see people paint their early D&D experience in such rosy colors. Oh, of course you ran away all the time... except, well, you almost never needed to. Sure, the random encounter tables in the DMG weren't level based, but the random tables in every single module certainly were.

Did people just completely ignore the DMG and advice when they made adventures back then?

Truth be told, you are right. The times where my players have decided to flee, or even partially retreat, are few. It has happened, but rarely.
 

Sunsword

Adventurer
One of my groups avoids fights more often than not. I wasn't used to this so I had to adjust as the DM. Now I love it so my NPCs can be better-rounded since they are more than likely going to have time to share their goals.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
Some game styles lead to fight fight. And some Adventure League modules train you to fight. I playing a death cleric in a homebrew. We have one retired chap who is new to gaming. Mike has noticed the difference. In the modules most of my players FIGHT.
Since we are still getting our feet wet in the homebrew, we start most of the fights. I am the gamer with the most xp since I started in1E. The second senior gamer with most xp started in 3E. All the others are 5e babies who have a mixture of 70%AL 30% 5E homebrew. Mike did point out last night we started the fight. We did and I struck the match. But sitting at the table I was watching the second senior gamer, and one the 5E murderhobo just egg on the NPC. Now they surprise me by having the familiars up front scouting. But they did not want to listen to me or the new guy when we just wanted to scout and follow up their bad side. WE won but. I think if the saves when for the monsters one of two would been rolling new pcs.
TLDR
Yes training from modules and combats which match party power level have always lead to. Never retread Never surrender.
 


Longspeak

Explorer
I use it as GM instead. Players won't run? Well, last night, when they surprised the bad thing in the middle of doing a bad thing, it ran away! Now, that was how the encounter was planned, and if the party hadn't split, they might have intercepted the bad thing. But they were split. They stopped the bad thing from doing a bad thing, but it lived to bad thing another day.

So, yeah. If players won't run away, make the baddies run instead!
 

Lylandra

Adventurer
Interesting article. In our regular group, we had all of it, and almost never fought "for XP" or "for loot". Funnily, we are and were playing pretty much story-driven despite using modules, and were still cautious because our characters were seldom suicidial idiots. (and yes, we did have the occasional character death)

from what I recall:
- playing Planescape, we fled from a Balor at level 3. We were on an Indiana-esque mission in an ancient complex, botched a spot/listen check on our watch and missed our rival getting away with the macguffin - which also awakened the ancient fiend sleeping in the same complex.

- of course we ran away from a 100m high sentient, childlike contruct who wanted to play catch 'n run.

- we almost always use scouting before we do any kind of ambush/attack mission, especially in a warzone

- we often take prisoners and our DM sometimes makes them kill themselves "because they're fanatics" which is really annoying... He's afraid to hand out too much info I guess. The other motive is sometimes a genuine try to make the prisoners reconsider their side, especially in less "dem are evil" campaigns.
 

Sir Brennen

Adventurer
I find it odd people blame encounter balancing formulas as the culprit. As far as I can see, there’s still a “deadly” option when creating encounters in D&D editions of the current century.

Also, I clearly remember the “monsters by [dungeon] level” tables at the back of the books in 1E, which gave a rough balancing tool to the DM, as expected party level generally corresponded to dungeon level. Obviously outside the dungeon, possibly encounters varied much more, especially when randomly rolled, but that’s still pretty much the same today, especially if you play more sandboxy.

In my experience, scouting has always been a commonly used approach in every edition, across many different groups I’ve played with. In 5e, with the death of a familiar being much more consequence free than previous editions, parties are remiss not to use them whenever possible.

And while we still have sneaky rogues, I don’t miss the early edition scenarios where most of the party sat twiddling their thumbs for significant amounts of time while the rogue was off scouting (and as often as not, getting in trouble and/or raising the alarm). I’m not sure what to point to that’s changed that, but it does seem to happen much less since 3e for me.

[Mild Spoilers ahead]
In running Princes of the Apocalypse, my players have had to run away multiple times. The party decided that the Earth cult would be the first stronghold they investigated. As a somewhat sandbox adventure, this was a valid option. But it was definitely too tough for them. It took the group three separate incursions (and leveling up from side quests) before they successfully defeated the cult. They did employ scouting by both PC and familiar, as well as prisoner interrogation, and information from a semi-friendly ally they made in the temple.

It also took two attempts on the “pirate” stronghold of the water cult.

The Fire cult they defeated the primary human adversaries the first visit, but still bugged out rather than face the giant, rampaging fire elemental that had been let lose during the battle.

And now, in the underground temple of the Water cult, they’ve managed to find the hidden passage to deeper levels of the dungeon and have decided to explore It(which old school thinking would say, maybe wait till you gain a level or two). I foresee more retreats in the party’s future.

So, yeah, running away is alive and well in my games.
 
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Chaderick

Explorer
Players who say they don't run away because they would be caught, sound terribly unenterprising. With magic and magic items, you ought to be able to figure out a way to get away.

Of course, would all monsters pursue (in a reasonable world)? No, they're probably scared spitless just like the player characters are.

I respectfully disagree. If your magic items are some potions of healing and a magical sword, your only enterprising choice would be to try bribing a monster that--if you are thinking of running--probably feels pretty confident it can kill you and your stuff anyway. My players also prize role-playing items, like items the allow for forgery or divination or the like. The ability to make yourself look just like the guard on duty isn't going to get that displacer beast of your tail, and the ability to see what's going on across the city isn't going to keep the guard drakes off your scent.

With limited spell resources, in addition to limited spell selection each day, you have to build a spellcaster to be able to flee. It's not an option that comes along immediately. To me, this sounds like you're calling it a mistake to learn a spell like flaming sphere at third level, instead of a spell like web. But then, along that logic, it would be mistake to learn web, because that ice monster is going to kill half the party before torch damage reaches its maximum... Dimension Door and Teleport are some of the first spells to become available, and many games either take years to reach that point or never reach them at all. Even by 3.x standards, you're going to be halfway through the usual campaign length by the time those spells come into play.

I suppose you could make an argument that "players don't build characters who are designed to run away these days," but that very statement implies that players should be devoting a significant amount of resources towards the expectation of failure.

I'm not saying powerful--even powerful and fast--monsters shouldn't be used, but there is a way to do it that allows players to realize what they're getting into ahead of time, and might even allow them to escape if they make the wrong decision up front. But, it's difficult to do that often without feeling contrived.
 

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