About ten years ago, I was playing a cleric in a D&D 3.5E campaign – an adapted version of Greyhawk Ruins. I was the oldest player there, with most of the other players being 10-15 years younger than me and fairly new to the game. As we explored one of the passages, we came across a large party of hobgoblins wearing plate armour. The other players made some initial moves to engage. I took one look at the situation and began running, calling for my friends to follow me. After one or two of their attacks bounced off the armour, they got the idea and followed. We cast a few spells to hamper pursuit, and we escaped, avoiding the TPK on offer. (Total Party Kill).
About a year later, I was DMing a game where a low-level party encountered an ettin. One of the party moved forward to engage it, while everyone else attacked with missile weapons to little effect, as they weren’t skilled in shooting into melee. The ettin crushed the party member in melee with him… and one by one, each of the other characters ran into melee while the rest stayed behind, still firing missiles uselessly. This continued until only one character was left… who then ran into melee and was killed. It’s one of the more bizarre TPKs I’ve seen.
One of the skills that newer players tend to lack is an appreciation of when it is appropriate to run away from a fight. Of course, it doesn’t help when adventure designs often make running away difficult, or the DM isn’t quite sure how to handle it. In addition, monsters tend not to run away in modern games either, making every battle a fight to the death. I consider retreating from battle to be a key skill of good D&D play, so in this article, I’m going to look at a few issues surrounding it.
Obviously, you need to identify when to retreat! It’s not always obvious. When I play D&D, I pay a lot of attention to how the DM describes the monsters. Much of the time the DM gives clues in his or her descriptions as to how difficult the fight could be. If the party is outnumbered, I get very wary, especially when we’re outnumbered by monsters I’m unfamiliar with. I also get very worried when the monsters start hitting us for a lot of damage while not being significantly hurt by our blows. At that point, I quickly start pulling away from the combat.
You need to keep your retreat path open. D&D 5E’s initiative system has a little quirk: it’s easy for one member of the party to charge into combat (expecting the other PCs to follow), but become trapped because the monsters act next in the initiative order and surround the PC. In AD&D, with group initiative, all the fighters would enter combat together – not letting one character be cut off. There are lots of good features about how 5E handle initiative, but it does segment movement unrealistically at times. Be aware of how it works, and try to avoid being cut off and surrounded.
I often prefer to stay by the door, to launch missile weapons at the enemy, and make them come to me. Although this is a much better strategy against melee combatants, it has obvious drawbacks against foes able to cast lightning bolt! Really, there isn’t one best solution, but you do need to make certain you can get away if the battle goes poorly.
At the point when you do actually choose to retreat, can the monsters catch you? A group trying to run away with a 25 foot movement speed is going to have trouble running away from 40 foot speed monsters. You need techniques to make them stop following you. As early game of D&D often had the party retreating from combat, a number of suggested methods were compiled in the AD&D books. I repeat here those helpful suggestions for discouraging pursuit:
- Spiking doors shut. After you run through a door, use an iron spike to prevent the door from being easily opened. As a rule of thumb, I’d set a DC of 15 or 20 to open a spiked door with a Strength check.
- Using burning oil. Pour lamp oil on the ground behind you, then set it alight. PHB 152 has the rules – it burns for 2 rounds, dealing 5 damage to those following.
- Scatter caltrops behind you. Rules for them are in the PHB, page 151. They cover a 5 foot square section of ground, so in a 10-foot-wide corridor, two bags would be necessary (preferably from different characters).
- Dropping food. Low-intelligence creatures like wolves and rats have a chance of stopping to consume it and let you go. (In AD&D, the DM rolled 1d10 *10 to work out the percentage chance the monsters would consume it, with the chance going up 10% per point of Intelligence below 5.)
- Dropping treasure. Intelligent creatures like goblins and orcs would stop the pursuit to gather it! Chances as for dropping food, except that more valuable treasure increased chances of success – or lots of items for not-that-intelligent monsters. (Ooh! Shiny!)
- Using magic. Wall of Ice, for instance!
Getting out of sight of the pursuers and going down one of multiple passages also offers the potential they might go the wrong way. Be careful there: some DMs (like me) won’t allow you to consult your map when you’re running for your life. You did make a map, right?
All of this gets a lot more difficult in the wilderness. It’s hard getting away from faster pursuers – most of the techniques won’t work. It’s one reason why horses are so good. Yes, for extended rides they’re not that much faster than humans, but for short sprints away from danger? They’re almost as fast as dwarves!
There are rules for chases in the DMG (page 254), but they tend towards the cinematic (and planned) rather than the impromptu “let’s get away from this fight” kind. Still, they’re worth having a look at if you’re the DM.
AD&D’s method of determining if a group could evade pursuers was to make a percentage check to see if pursuit was avoided. If the check failed and the pursuers faster than the pursued, they were caught. Otherwise, another check was made every hour until the evasion succeeded or the pursued dropped from exhaustion. The base chance was 80% to evade, with additional modifiers as follows:
- +10% if pursued are faster, -20% if pursuers are faster
- -50% in plains and desert, +10% in scrub, rough, hills or marsh, +30% in forest or mountains
- +10% for 1-5 creatures fleeing, -20% for 12-50 creatures fleeing; -20% for 1-11 creatures pursuing, +10% for 24 or more creatures pursuing
- -30% in full daylight, -10% in twilight, +0% in moonlight, +20% in starlight, +50% in darkness
As you can see, evading in open terrain was pretty much impossible during the day… find a forest! The AD&D wilderness was a place for high-level characters to go… low-level characters found it much safer in the dungeon.
When evasion is impossible, does every situation have to come down to a fight to the death? Hopefully not – otherwise there will be a lot of dead characters. Surrender, by both PCs and monsters, should be an option against intelligent opponents. An opponent who surrenders needs to offer something for his life and future freedom, and often a ransom would be appropriate. Holding noble prisoners for ransom was a good way of getting money in Middle-Ages money, and adventurers tend to be rich and able to pay their ransoms! Then too, slavery is often also present in many D&D worlds, especially amongst humanoid creatures such as orcs and hobgoblins.
Things get worse for PCs when fighting against unintelligent monsters. Is the Tyrannosaurus you’ve run into going to accept your surrender? It seems unlikely. These are the most dangerous of situations: when the opponent has no reason to keep you alive. Perhaps your only hope of survival is to run faster than the knight in plate mail…
The early editions of D&D used morale checks to see how long opponents wanted to fight. Fighting to the death? That should be moderately rare. The 5E DMG gives suggestions for morale rules (page 273), but I prefer to use this modified version of the Moldvay/Cook morale system:
- A group of monsters makes a morale check when the first of their group falls, and when half their number is dead. A single opponent checks when they’ve taken 25% and 50% of their hit points.
- A monster succeeds at a morale check if it rolls 2d6 equal to or under its Morale Rating. If it fails, it runs or surrenders, as appropriate.
- Weak, timid monsters (such as goblins and kobolds) have a Morale of 6. Regular combatants (orcs, gnolls) have a Morale of 7. Elite combatants trained in fighting (Hobgoblins) have a Morale of 8. Some monsters (such as Golems and Zombies) are without fear and never fail morale checks. Some exceptional combatants may have Morale Ratings of less than 6 or more than 8, but they’re rare.
All these checks I then adjust according to the situation; they’re a useful guide, but I’m happy to override the check if it’s appropriate. Most intelligent creatures like surviving, and will only fight to the death if they have a compelling reason (such as the PCs never accepting the surrender of their opponents…)
The basic idea I’d like you to get out of this article is that fighting to the death isn’t the only way combats can end. Running away can keep you alive, and it helps when you have techniques to discourage pursuit. If you can’t run, hope that you can surrender. Failing that, having someone come for your body with resurrection magic might be the only way to keep your character.