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.