Page 1 of the Dungeons & Dragons strategy book The Monsters Know What They’re Doing sets a 100% true principle that usually makes running fun games harder for dungeon masters.
Author Keith Ammann writes, “With only a small number of exceptions (mostly constructs and undead), every creature wants, first and foremost, to survive. Seriously wounded creatures will try to flee, unless they’re fanatics or intelligent beings who believe they’ll be hunted down and killed if they do flee.” Plenty of other writers see the value of surviving. Game Designer Robert Schwalb writes, “I can imagine most monsters, once they’ve lost about half their numbers, will say screw it and run away. It just makes sense. Evil doesn’t usually place a lot of stock in honor and fighting to protect their fellows.”
When monsters run, players almost always chase them. Rob Schwalb writes, “Even when fleeing seems like a good thing to do, I’m reluctant to have that happen since I know my players will chase down the offending humanoids and put them to the sword.”
Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea says, “Players hate it when the monsters run away. When a monster gets away, it’s a big downward beat.”
While fleeing makes perfect sense for most creatures facing adventurers, monsters that run away or surrender can make D&D less fun. I wish that wasn’t so, but fights to the death usually play better. Still, with the right techniques, DMs can cope with monsters that retreat or surrender. Sometimes these answers even lead to a better game.
The D&D rules handle retreat badly. Unless monsters can fly, pass through walls, or otherwise go places the characters can’t follow, running from a D&D fight just means getting killed without a chance to attack back. This stems from how D&D divides 6 seconds into turns. When a fleeing creature’s turn ends, any pursuers can catch up and sometimes even attack. Then if the fleeing creature continues running, it suffers opportunity attacks. The pattern repeats until everyone running dies. Even speedy creatures rarely outpace rogues with their cunning actions. Such chases just prolong battles the players have already won.
To give retreat some chance of success, switch out of strict initiative and use some other method to resolve the escape. The Dungeon Master’s Guide includes chase rules, but in these situations, I favor a house rule from Merric Blackman. “In a pursuit situation, movement occurs simultaneously at the beginning of the round. If a creature or vehicle wishes to spend its action dashing or some other maneuver that affects movement, then those actions are resolved before any further action.”
Such house rules clearly help monsters escape, and that means players may protest. The house rule feels like the DM favors the monsters—at least until the rare fight the party chooses to flee.
Players chasing monsters can get characters killed. In a dungeon or stronghold, letting monsters escape poses a grave risk because even a single escaping goblin can rally defenders to prepare for intruders. “The retreating goblins will go get help and turn what was a manageable fight into a TPK,” Rob Schwalb writes.
Players know the risk of total party kills too, so such situations raise questions that add tension. Can the monsters reach help? Should the characters dare to chase blindly into the dungeon and toward whatever threats wait? When players face dilemmas like these, it leads to excitement. But as a DM, consider the chance of luring the characters into more trouble than they can overcome. Don’t be too careful. Players can run too. Please remind them of your generous house rule for retreat.
Retreat and surrender makes running dungeons harder. When fleeing monsters bring reinforcements, an extra burden lands on the DM. Typically DMs can run dungeons without remembering the details of every room because usually only the delve’s current location matters. That one-location focus makes dungeons easy for DMs. But a fleeing monster raises questions that demand a broad mastery of the dungeon. Justin Alexander lists a sampling of those questions: “Where are they running to? What are they going to do there? If they’re looking for help or trying to summon reinforcements, where are the other enemies located? If they reach those enemies, what do those enemies do?” As word of intruders ripples through the stronghold, the DM suddenly needs to know every room.
To prepare for these situations, make a copy of the dungeon map and write the number of monsters in each location. Now you can see where fleeing monsters will reach allies and how the reinforcements might react to intruders. See To Run a Great Dungeon, Write All Over the Map.
If you lack such preparation, call for a break and take a few minutes to review the dungeon. A monster’s escape creates a tense moment that offers an excellent cliffhanger.
A surrender can also test a DM’s memory of the whole dungeon. Players will question captives about treasure, traps, and foes. If the captives talk, the DM needs to provide answers, and a marked up dungeon map can help. If the captives refuse to talk, the situation creates ugly new problems.
Captives lead to troubling scenes of torture and murder. In my games, I consider torture scenes off limits. Author Oren Ashkenazi agrees. “Deliberately inflicting pain on someone who’s at your mercy is a horrible thing, and it’s not something we should be doing around the RPG table, for our own mental health if nothing else.” I typically make captives cooperative because they’re typically evil and willing to betray their allies.
After the questioning, comes the dreary dispute over killing helpless captives. Typically, during the paladin’s bathroom break, the rogue murders the prisoners. I like moral dilemmas that reveal character, but disputes over murdering helpless captives are best skipped. To avoid such scenes, have NPCs around who can take captives to proper authorities. How convenient!
Chases and surrenders can still drag the game. Despite these techniques for making the best of fleeing and surrendering monsters, monsters who fight to the death often make for a quicker game and fewer hassles.
Why would monsters fight to the end?
- Adventurers bring such a reputation for blood lust that monsters choose to die fighting.
- In D&D worlds, the plain truth of gods and the afterlife inspires foes and leads them to seek their god’s approval in death.
- Supernatural evil or chaos drives monsters to behave differently than natural, evolved creatures in our world.
D&D asks gamers to accept some outrageously unrealistic assumptions that make the game more fun. Those premises include hit points and the notion that characters can get 8 hours of restful sleep anywhere, anytime. Add the uncanny courage of monsters to that list.
“disputes over murdering helpless captives are best skipped. To avoid such scenes, have NPCs around who can take captives to proper authorities. How convenient!”
Doesn’t this just extend the “moral dilemma” for the PC’s when the inevitable question of “why, so the ‘proper authorities” can kill them? And meanwhile we lose the help of the NPC when we might need them?”
I understand and agree with your “torture scenes off limits” rule. Does a “fade to black” type resolution fit the need? Captive dead, PCs are told what (if anything) was learned, and the game moves on. (And possibly the consequences of what happened in the “fade to black” scene may come back to haunt the PCs…
Just a thought.
I was thinking if there are “proper authorities available” in the area why haven’t the PCs enlisted 2 or 3 as aid in the task at hand. As for gaining information that doesn’t always mean torture. It could be debate or Starring at them until they get psyched out. What I would likely do in the case of physical interrogation is say “how for are you willing to go… Ok roll this” and then explain the info. Thing is depending on your group they may enjoy exploring different parts of their psych in a way that does no real harm. It can also drum up drama if people are into that.
As for surrender, I’ve had people hold captives for day before getting to a city to turn them in for bounty. Heck, not everyone even wants info.
A metagame solution is a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ between the players and DM: “If you defeat the monsters and they surrender, you’ve won. You’ve beat the encounter. If left to flee, they will leave the dungeon and not return.”
Again, as the DM, only have the monsters flee if it serves a greater reason. If you don’t want to bring the whole goblin warren down on the PCs, don’t have the goblin flee.
And this is a perfect example of the toxic effect of games structured this way.
RPGs can be a lot of fun, and challenging, and wondrous, and adventurous, also when run with a humane attitude. Where actions have consequences. When you treat people as people, instead of wet sacks of XP.
Reinforcing the idea that a whole category of sentient beings is “evil” and therefore it is ok to murder and rob them, and that you can do this with little or no consequence, is EXACTLY what leads Players and GMs toward “light-hearted” make-believe rape and torture and casual murder.
Don’t like those things?
Then address their root cause honestly.
Those characters are no heroes.
Those characters are the ones who should be hunted down by the fantasy society they live in.
“It’s just a game”… True… But then why is game cruelty bothering you at all then?
For that kind of Players (and GMs) I would like to run a special game. A reverse dungeon crawl.
First, let them do their usual heinous “adventuring” while taking notes on what they do and how.
Then organise a special game where a team of NPCs built just like the PCs secretly assault the PCs home, stronghold, whatever.
Have the Players play as the random inhabitants and guards of the place. Only using their real PCs as boss fights… Individually. Because they were not expecting the assault, each PC will be alone, minding their own usual business. Unless someone escapes and rises some alarm.
But then, the invaders are behaving just like the PCs, so, fat chance of there being survivors.
But this is a revenge fantasy.
It’s not much better than the shit the group pulls.
A less convoluted and gruesome way to change things is to quietly but consistently show all creatures as people.
Give every goblin a name. Friends. Hobbies. Family.
SHOW glimpses of these things to the “heroic” party. Have later NPCs reference the previous ones (looking for their missing brother, writing a conciliatory letter to parent they argued with, saving coins for a gift for their child… Before the PCs murdered them all).
Build better villains! You know, the ones that do what they do because they believe it’s the right thing to do. Their goals and methods misguided, but their motivators relatable. It’s easy. Just pick any random social problem or injustice and “solve it” like a 4 years child would
Have other NPCs act aghast and horrified at the PCs deeds… They were supposed to find the Jade Monkey, not to bathe in the blood of a town’s worth of people!
Have people (humans, goblins, anyone) spread songs and tales about these monsters that are terrorising the land, these dark characters committing horrible acts of evil… See how the players like to hear songs (maybe exaggerated and distorted, as they usually are) about THEIR PCs.
Have law enforcement DO SOMETHING when inevitably this kind of murder-hobos fuck up within a more civilized context.
Have the Cleric and Paladin pay a divine price for their party’s misdeeds. Bathroom breaks might fool a (conniving) PC, but not a God 😛
Stop bringing real-world paralellism to fantasy worlds.
Depending on the world yes, there are races that are evil, beings that are born with instinct to dominate, rule and abuse other beings, period. If you don’t like it is okey, but stop forcing your “not all orks”, “not all demons”, “not all dark elves” in other peoples make-believe worlds.
The only good goblin is a dead goblin.
PS: Not only “evil races” are setting dependent. Also “morals” are not modern bleeding heart socialite cosmopolitan morals but golden-age / medieval / renaissance morals.
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Great read. I deal with this in a few different ways. Sometimes it’s “The remaining creatures drop their weapons and scatter, fleeing for their lives.” Combat is over. The players know that this means the fleeing foes are gone forever, out of the adventure; any treasure that they had is either dropped or on the foes that fell in battle. Attacks of opportunity are allowed, and successful hits drop the fleeing foe.
Sometimes fleeing is impossible, which can lead to surrender; but only when it makes sense AND I feel comfortable with handling any interrogations the players may have in mind for their captive(s). In my D&D worlds, any amount of torture causes the victim to *immediately* pass out (“for 1d4 hours”). I make it clear to the that torture never works.
If flight or surrender are not good options, sometimes I will “call it” – “The creatures fight to the death but you emerge victorious.” Hand-wavey? Sure. But sometimes it comes in handy, and my players are good with that.
I always award XP for foes who flee or surrender, of course. Defeat is defeat. Fleeing creatures have no treasure.
Finally, sometimes a foe retreats, and I am careful to draw a distinction from “fleeing.” (For example, keeping their weapons, specifically describing their actions and staying in combat order, etc.) In those situations, the players know that letting the foe escape has consequences…but so does pursuit of said foe.
Absolutely LOVE Michael’s “Torture = pass out” solution. Allows “non-torture” attempts at information gathering (that’s what the Intimidation check is for, right?) without going beyond the pale for a friendly TTRPG session.
Not sure about “if they flee, they will never come back” solution, as (depending on how you define “never come back”). If there will not be an IMMEDIATE “counter-attack”, that’s different from “they were minions/lieutenants of the BBEG, and will return to ‘the boss’ to report, so the next attack (which may include those that fled) is better planned/armed/etc. I would not want to rule that out. I would even have some concerns about the players’ assumption that they never should follow up on those that flee kills the tactic of the bad guys “falling back so the opponents follow into a prepared ambush”, etc. Of course, I used to play with cadets at West Point – tactics of all sorts were important parts of the game. 🙂
As always – some coverage of this concept during Session 0 should help with some unfortunate surprises if the issue comes up in game for the first time with differing expectations.
I’m sorry, but not coping with retreating or surrendering means you are not a game player. These are perfectly valid tactics that the players must be able to cope with, and that the GM should be able to run. I contend that lots of new D&D players are not game players but are wannabe actors. Wanting to be an actor is fine, and I did lots of amateur acting when I was young, but it is not game playing, and I want D&D to be game playing that rewards skillful game play. I realize many don’t want this, and that is their right, but I get to register my vote as well. Gameplay, not acting!
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When you’re calling everything that happens after the opponents start to run as “dragging on”, you’re cutting a big chunk of the D&D experience, namely the world responsiveness to player actions. Maybe it’s okay for you and your players but it strikes me as dumbing down. Firstly, they don’t run but drop their weapons and surrender? Secondly, why not cut the reaction out then? That chance of making a combat encounter a social one is just “dragging on”. Why not just make the dungeon a straight line between the fights then? Surely exploration, puzzle solving and all the rest are “dragging on”, too. If we’re talking about 5E here, then it’s just one more step towards playing a board game.
About the torture. The game always had a mechanism for dealing with that, it’s called alignment. I’m told 5E butchered the whole concept but in my OSRIC game all the PCs must be good and therefore simplified torture is allowed only for the neutral druid and in rare circumstances. You can roleplay the alignment change instead, sure, but then the player would have to have a very good explanation for the fact that they were “good” all their life up until that very moment they decided to randomly torture captives. And I would point out to the other players that their PCs do not feel good at all about their comrade torturing someone. If the PCs were evil from the start, I’d be much more permissive.
“Typically, during the paladin’s bathroom break, the rogue murders the prisoners. ”
That is just plain silly. DM should not allow something like that because the paladin PC is still there. Thief would have to wait until the paladin comes back. My own experience is that mixed alignment parties simply don’t work. There inevitably comes that moment when the evil thief wants to slit some defenseless throats and the paladin is reeeeeally not okay with that. And at that point the game is destroyed or moving to it.