A common belief among many D&D players is that if the party is balanced and the DM is doing his job properly, every encounter is beatable. This kind of thinking among players instills within them with a sense of invulnerability – an invulnerability that they do not in fact possess. However, with the way that the 4e D&D mechanics work, more often than not players should have a pretty reasonable chance of overcoming a balanced encounter. Thus players continue believing that they’re capable of defeating everything they face. It never even occurs to them that in some instances they’ll face an opponent they can’t beat.
Sometime, however, you’re fortunate enough to play with a group that doesn’t mistakenly believe that they can overcome every encounter put before them. When this kind of party senses that they’re in over their head they will consider retreat as a viable option. It’s not something that will come up very often, but when it does it can have a really dramatic effect on the game.
Twice in the past week I’ve had parties toy with the idea of retreat; once during a level 1 game and the other during a level 16 game. I have to admit that I was very surprised at how differently the two groups rationalized the situation and made their choices.
The level 1 party – In the face of overwhelming odds, retreat
The level 1 party was made up of completely new players. They didn’t have a lot of the bad habits that many experienced gamers bring to a typical gaming table. During this adventure I took it easy on them and ran them through a couple of really easy combat encounters while they learned how combat works. I made a special point of really emphasizing the role-playing at the same time. I tried to be clear that D&D is not just about rolling dice and killing monsters. They were really getting into the role-playing as well as the combat.
During the third encounter the village started getting overrun with zombies. At first they attacked and killed a few (the monsters were minions so they dropped pretty easily). The players were doing a great job of role-playing the fear in their inexperienced character’s eyes. So I took a chance as the DM.
Rather than keep the encounter balanced, as was my original intent, I decided to have more and more zombies shuffle towards the party. As I expected, the party quickly realized that things could get very ugly very quickly. They quickly ushered the surviving villagers away from the zombies and everyone ran away. It may not seem heroic, but it made perfect sense for the story. All of the characters survived and they managed to save lives, which was their goal in the fist place.
When they realized that the odds weren’t in their favour they retreated. None of the players even considered standing there and fighting the monsters, even though all of them up until that point had been minions. They saw the undead as scary and dangerous, and not just as monsters to be defeated. They did what was right for the story and what was right for the role-playing. I found it particularly refreshing to have players role-play their characters like real people and do what any of us would do in that same situation – run like hell!
The level 16 party – Stick to the plan, ignore needless fighting
The level 16 party was made up of hard-core, long-term gamers. Our mission was to enter a centuries-old tomb, retrieve an artifact and keep it out of the hands of the evil necromancer following us. As we explored the tomb it was apparent that some rooms were built decades after the initial construction. Since we were looking for an item that belonged to one of the original creatures entombed, we surmised that the newer sections of the tomb shouldn’t have anything in them that was relevant to our quest.
The DM, knowing us as well as he does, was counting on our greed to drive us into these other rooms. For the first time in a long time we actually decided not explore every single room as we crawled through this dungeon. It made sense to skip the newer wing and just keep looking for the artifact since the necromancer was hot on our heels. However, this was not typical behaviour for this party or these players.
We took a few minutes to discus why we should or shouldn’t explore these other areas and we decided against it. The DM decided to bait the hook and had everyone roll Perception checks. A few party members herd movement and low moaning coming from the newer wing.
This was when we, the players, realize that the DM had actually put a lot of work into the encounter that was to take place in the newer rooms. By deciding to ignore it we were essentially throwing all of the DM’s hard work out the window. For this reason the players decided that we should at least check things out before proceeding. We let our real-life guilt move us closer to a fight that we knew these characters should avoid.
One of the PCs moved silently into the room and scouted it out. He returned and confirmed that there were undead in the chamber. He didn’t see anything that looked like a tomb so this was likely not the area where we’d find the artifact. We eventually decided to move away from the room with the undead as quickly and quietly as possible, despite the DM’s obvious frustration.
The DM eventually had some of those undead we bypassed join a later combat, making things more difficult for us. But the party agreed that we did the right thing from a story perspective. There was no immediate need to battle those monsters. However, we almost fought the monsters just because the DM had the encounter planned out. As players we actually felt guilty that we choose to ignore the encounter by running away, and our guilt almost led us into an unnecessary encounter.
There are many good reasons to engage in combat at any level of D&D, but fighting monsters simply because they’re there shouldn’t be one of those reasons. Yet even as experienced players we almost defaulted to that very reason and charged in.
Discretion is the better part of valor
It’s been year since I’d witnessed a party retreat from anything, yet I saw it happen twice in one week. The groups handled their retreat differently but in the end it was the decisions that made the most sense for that situation. In both cases they let the role-playing decided their fate.
I extend my compliments to both groups on resisting the urge to engage in combat especially when there were excellent reasons not to. By retreating you made both of those D&D experiences better. Maybe this is a new trend and I’ll keep seeing players retreat from combat because it makes sense to the story. I doubt it, but I guy can dream.
When was the last time you retreated from combat? Is it something that happens often or do you find that most D&D parties subscribe to the invulnerability theory and believe they can defeat every encounter?