Can You Run Away In D&D?
The other day I prepped for a single session excursion into the Abyss to kill off a minor Demon Lord. I knew I wanted it to be a deadly fight and adjusted the encounters to be a mix of semi-Medium difficulty to the final encounter being Deadly. I knew this last fight would be extremely tough, but I was confident in the player’s abilities and I knew from experience that I could throw something at them that is tough and they can handle it. I know that they’ll still have plenty of resources as I don’t often have 6 to 8 encounters per adventuring day that WotC prescribes too. Unfortunately, I made a mistake:
Me: “I thought Bob was making it tonight?”
Player: “Nope, he couldn’t make it.”
Me: “OK, let’s begin then.”
You might have notice it, but in case you didn’t… I started the game without doing any adjustments. I’m used to 5 players at my table, and I had designed my encounters for 5 characters. Unfortunately, there were only 4 players that night and I failed to process that. So we began, and everything was going fine. They breezed through the Medium encounters and we get to the final boss, a minor Demon Lord of Cockroaches. Due to some bad rolls from the players and some great rolls on my part, things were looking really bad for them.
Are You Guys Thinking of Running?
That was a question I asked the group during the fight. Of course they said no, and they kept fighting the monster like usual. It was here that I was beginning to think myself that running away just isn’t a factor in modern games. Players aren’t trained to know when to run, and the core books don’t really touch on it. Not even the official adventures touch on retreat. The closest anyone gets to retreating is casting Expeditious Retreat on themselves and running faster into combat.
Now that isn’t to say my players have never retreated, there was a nasty castle in Barovia that they ran away from, but rather it’s the culture that surrounds modern games. DMs are to create encounters that challenge the players, but that don’t end in a TPK, the Dungeon Master’s Guide for the past several editions has information on how to build a properly balanced encounter. The Monster Manual has information about how strong a creature is with their Challenge Rating.
And it’s not just Dungeons & Dragons, it comes to video games as well. How many times have you found yourself retreating from an enemy? How many times does “Hit it Harder” just become the strategy for winning combat? How many times have you heard about Big Damn Heroes retreating in the face of danger? Not very often, and then it’s only to build up tension and it’s written carefully by the writers to not make it too bad.
Just Kill Them
Which is always an option. Killing off the characters, either because they made a small mistake, rolled poorly or because you didn’t realize someone wasn’t going to make it that night is a valid option. Shit happens, and character death happens… but ending a session with a TPK isn’t really what DMs are shooting for when they design their story. The DM has even more invested in the game going well, they made the story arcs, they made the world and they put in hours outside of the game for the players. If they just end a session with a TPK, all that work outside of the game is kind of wasted. What’s the point in perfecting the BBEG’s motivation when the players never learn about it?
While my players may think I subsist solely on their grief, the truth couldn’t be further from it. I want them to succeed, I wrote this damn campaign for them and if they don’t finish it because they all got themselves killed… well… great, I’m glad I spent all those hours drawing crappy maps and practicing my two very different accents that sound completely different I swear!
So what is there to do when you inevitably find yourself looking down a possible TPK and your players refuse to retreat? You could just blame it on the players for not running away, but modern games are set up that the player’s are Big Damn Heroes and the adventures, core books and pop culture reinforces that player characters don’t run away. They win. Which is a very different culture than the early days and OSR games.
Well there are a few ways to avoid a TPK:
Just start monologue-ing. Not specifically you, the DM, but the enemy. The evil guy realizes they are winning against your players, and instead of attacking and just murdering, they begin gloating and maybe use a superfluous spell that doesn’t really do anything negative to your party but just feeds the ego of the evil dude.
Or you could have a one-last-save by a creature sent by the Gods… which opens up all sorts of quests and story plots for the future, and maybe opens up your campaign to a larger struggle between good and evil.
Or you kill off a character or two and leave the rest of the party alone letting them wallows in their sadness. Their enemy leaves them alive thinking that those characters are broken and will give up.
Or kidnap the players. Instead of lethal damage, make it non-lethal and have them try to escape from a prison. This can help you share valuable information with the party and they can learn more about the lair of the BBEG.
Or make them an offer they can’t refuse. They now have to work for their enemy so that they don’t die. This of course relies on them realizing the fight is lost, but opens up several storylines!
Total Party Kill
TPKs are always an option that you shouldn’t be afraid to utilize, but it should be used sparingly when there are no other options. If you can avoid a TPK, you can keep all the prep work you’ve done and your party can still feel like Big Damn Heroes.
But just like TPKs should be available for DMs, players should always remember that retreating is an option. Sometimes things aren’t as balanced as the game rules tell me they will be, looking at you Shadows! Sometimes crap roll after crap roll turns an Easy encounter to a Deadly encounter and the DM just can’t stop rolling those natural 20s. I’ve been on both sides of the screen for potential and actual TPKs and it’s not an awesome memory, but its memorable in its own way. I wanted to win as a player, and I wanted my players to win as a DM.
Before we end, my players were fighting for their life and many were going to die, but a celestial sent by the Gods was able to do just a little bit to help pull things in their favor… and while they may not realize it yet, they now owe a Deva a favor.