Retreat Is Always An Option, At Least It Should Be

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on January 25, 2011

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?

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1 Blinkey January 25, 2011 at 10:09 am

The first campaign I ever played (KotS) the party planned and rolled badly and Irontooth beat us up. We had to retreat or we were dead. It was amazing that all 4 party members basically came to the conclusion at the same time. Odds were against us, another solid hit and we’re down, run! In the vein of role playing, the wizard landed ‘sleep’ and the boss failed its save so we ran. As players we ‘should’ have just let the coup de grace’s fly but running felt more in character. As new players we were genuinely afraid our PCs would die. I agree it’s something you lose as you get more experience with the 4E system.

Now that I DM my group’s current campaign I’ve made it clear that they cannot beat everything all the time. I’ve told them that there’s a chance that they will simply come across something much bigger and scarier than them. They all agreed this was fine in concept and accepted that I’d warned them. The situation hasn’t come up yet but I look forward to the reactions when they put themselves somewhere they shouldn’t be. Situations like this are really DM’s preference. I can entirely understand a player implying that they should never be put into an impossible fight like that. I guess it comes down to knowing your group and how far you can push them.

I have to applaud your paragon tier group for avoiding a fight. My group is split and there’s one or two who look for fights and avoid role play where possible. While I acknowledge that as DM, if you prepped an encounter you want to be able to run it, I’m all for promoting player choice and freedom. Most weeks I’ve prepped an encounter or two that doesn’t get used or get bypassed. This avoids railroading and places the players in control of a story’s direction. I find it helps after a session (or at the point where it can’t influence anything) to tell them how they avoided a fight, or bypassed on by doing this. The trade-off is that they need some kind of reward or incentive to run from the exp boost but the knowledge that the path isn’t fixed usually makes my players feel good.

Another great article.


Blinkey 😉

2 AceDrummer January 25, 2011 at 10:58 am

I agree, retreat is sometimes the most effective strategy. A new campaign just begun by our party has us chasing down a very unusual series of constructs. Their actions don’t follow what we think a villain should be doing, but as a hired party we are to go, discover and protect. In one encounter the party (4 characters – 1st level) needed to climb down a 30 foot ladder into an obviously dug out area. The area was huge and well lit easily seen and scouted from above but mostly outside our ranged powers and weapons. The main villain was there and taunted us to “come and get him”. He spoke a few commands and three huge piles of of what we thought were wood and debris turned into massive constructs. We were already wounded and tired, so the dragonborn knight cries out to go back up the ladder. Retreat. We figured to bar the door, rest, get reinforcements and then try again.

This turned out to be the best choice since the constructs couldn’t climb. Once we realized this we changed tactics and just started dropping things down on them without exposing ourselves to harm.

Retreat turned into a complete rethinking of our strategy and altered the combat situation in such a way as to give us complete advantage. We defeated the constructs easily and used the threat of fire and smoke in the enclosed area to convince the villain to surrender without a fight.

For the party this was a powerful lesson, we were willing to retreat and once we did, new options opened up that we would not have considered.

3 Jess January 25, 2011 at 12:53 pm

I definitely understand the desire to run the encounters that I’ve worked hard on and see the players enjoy them. But I agree that not every encounter needs to be run. If the PCs can come up with a creative and innovative way around an encounter, then I’m all for it. It’s fun for me to see them work their way out of situations and keeps me on my toes so I don’t get into a rut designing encounters.

I’ve had groups push their luck before and try to complete one encounter too many, or simply start falling due to a string of bad rolls on their part and good ones on mine. Fudging dice can only go so far. I’ve also had encounters, when I was younger as a DM, where I miscalculated and had to have monsters run away before I thought they should.

All of that being said, I’ve also been a part of groups that have eked out a victory over something that should have been far above us through sheer moxie and tactical brilliance.

My point is that we never really know when an encounter is balanced or not. The tools give us a rough estimate, but whether it’s actually balanced is actually a contextual thing. And can only really be judged in the moment. Unless we’re assuming that they’ve always just woken up from an extended rest. And so retreat needs to always be an option, unless we’re purposely designing encounters that are below where we think the group can handle.

The second thing I want to comment is that retreat can also be tactical in nature. It’s not that they intend to pull a Sir Robin, just that they need to back up, find a defensible position and rethink strategy. I had a group of players do exactly this, on purpose even. They got in over their heads, or so I thought. And then proceeded to withdraw backwards. The Paladin took up the rear guard and I thought I was going to be able to drop him, except they had enough healing. In reality, they were retreating back to a better position where they could funnel the enemies through an archway and control how many had access to them, while giving the Paladin’s divine challenge better use. They set up a meat thresher for the enemies to walk into. It didn’t last long after that.

4 square January 25, 2011 at 3:45 pm

the first session i ever DMed forced the PCs to retreat from a city that was overwhelmed by an attacking army. as soon as the PC realized that the army had taken out most of the city guard they ran. i think it’s important to make sure that your players know that if they do something dumb (like try to take on an entire army @ lvl 1) they’re gonna die.

5 Debora January 25, 2011 at 5:58 pm

I learned the value of retreat years ago in a play-by-email game. I was a total newbie to the gaming system the GM was using, so my character was kind of clueless. The first time she came face-to-face with the “supermonster” she could not have been beaten more thoroughly. Later she confronted him again with a bit more experience under her belt and a lot more backup and…things went differently.

That ended up being my all-time favorite campaign. I’m actually in the process of serializing it into a weekly column in story format over at Ideology of Madness, so if you’re interested you can read about that first ill-fated confrontation there.
(Content warning for violence and disturbing imagery. If you like Part 1 you can click on the “Tuesday Tales” icon and see how it turned out.)

6 Sunyaku January 25, 2011 at 11:40 pm

The last time our party retreated from combat, I almost died because of it! One of the party members triggered a series of traps and some nasty golems came to life. The party was on a mission to activate a portal to the Shadowfell, but now we needed to as a means of escape, not just transport. Unfortunately, my level 14 Sorcerer had a terrible initiative roll. The other party members opened the portal and ran through, leaving me in the dust. The golems didn’t attack me on their initiative (thankfully, other players were still around for them to beat on), but every golem I was forced to run past on my way to the portal nailed me. I went from full health to 4 hit points. (>.>)

And on the other side of the portal? Oh look, FRIGGIN DRAGON.

7 Matt January 26, 2011 at 10:50 am

One of my favorite things to do as the GM is put my players up against what should be obvious to them as a not fair fight. I design certain situations to REQUIRE them to flee. It instantly changed the dynamic of our game. After a couple of these fights, and a couple of player deaths; they learned that just because a bad guy is standing there, you don’t have to fight him. I then started trying to work in a dynamic were their alignment was important to their ability to stay in the party. If someone kills a defenseless enemy that is trying to surrender, they drop an alignment level. After a couple of murders, the NPCs they encounter know of the evilness of this character, and pretty soon the rest of the party either has to become evil or rebuke the evil party member. It also lets me give people a little bonus XP for doing the right thing and trying to make decisions for their character that actually reflect the characters values, instead of their own. Additionally, it revealed that one of our group members is a bit depraved.

8 Matt January 26, 2011 at 10:58 am

And just another little side note.

I’m designing my games to be difficult. If the party decides that it isn’t in character for them to get into a fight that I spent a lot of time planning, and instead sneak around the whole game avoiding the encounters that I’ve created…I usually reward them.

One of my favorite things as a GM is a party that thinks so far outside the box that an adventure that I’ve been planning for a week is completely scrapped and I have to make things up as I go along. These have been some of my best game sessions.

9 Dixon Trimline January 27, 2011 at 9:56 am

An excellent article, and a valuable reminder to us players that there is another option. I particularly enjoyed your two examples, the low-level newbies and the high-level professionals.

In the last big game I ran, the party fell victim to the invulnerability fallacy, believing there must be SOMETHING of interest in that gigantic ant nest, so they kept pushing inside, despite all my STOP NO TURN BACK YOU’LL DIE hints. They didn’t turn back and they did die.

10 Ameron January 28, 2011 at 1:29 pm

I think your approach is the right one. As long as the players know, or are reminded, that sometimes retreat will be necessary then you leave it to them to make that call. Without the occasional reminder the PCs will develop “invulnerability syndrome” and assume that every fight is beatable. As you said, this shouldn’t be something that happens very regularly, but when it does the PCs should have a good inkling that perhaps they’re outmatched.

As for avoiding fights, some players want to take on everything simply to get the maximum XP. I’ve found that providing some kind of reward for doing the smart thing can curb back this practice.

As a DM I’m learning the value of a staggered rollout. In the first few rounds I only show a couple of monsters. Then a few of rounds later, a couple more show up, and so on. If the PCs used similar tactics they’d often be better served. Go in, see what’s up, fight a bit and then pull back. If the monsters don’t follow, then take what you learned from the initial rounds and figure out the best course of action. Use retreat as part of your strategy. I think they’ll find that in many cases they’ll learn something valuable from the attempt, just like your party that fled up the ladder.

At first I wanted the article to just be a reminder to players that retreat is an option, but as you’ve described in a lot of cases it’s actually a sound tactical decision as well.

You’re absolutely right that in some cases bad dice rolls or just overestimating the party’s remaining resources can result in defeated despite everyone’s expectations. This unexpected turn of events is when many players will be most open to accepting the value of a strategic retreat.

Convincing the players that fleeing is the right move and that fighting overwhelming odds is dumb can be a very difficult task for any DM. But I’ve found that killing a few PCs really helps emphasize that point.

I think your experience really illustrates that value a newer player can bring to any game. Because newbies often have no preconceptions they tend to act like real people would in dangerous situations. At low levels nothing demonstrates survival instincts like running form a more powerful opponent.

Thanks for the link. I’ll certainly check it out.

Sounds like your DM was out to get the party no matter what you did. Did anyone make it past the dragon or was it a TPK?

As mentioned in one of the previous comments, I have no issues with putting the PCs into situations where they either shouldn’t fight at all or they should know that they’re going to be outmatched. The caveat is that you as the DM need to give the players a heads up that this is part of your game mechanic. As long as they’re informed then have at it.

You’d think after one PC died they’d realize that sometimes retreat is the best course of action. I’m really surprised to hear that it took multiple deaths to hammer the message home. I guess every group is different and some are more receptive to that kind of message than others. 🙂

Regarding alignment and senseless killing, in one of my ongoing games we faced unexpected problems when our enemies kept surrendering. We couldn’t just kill them (that would be wrong) but after every fight we ended up with more and more prisoners. Suddenly the game of exploration became a game of guard the prisoners.

@Dixon Trimline
Red Herrings are a staple in my campaigns. After a few instances where the party wasted time on what turned out to be nothing relevant they finally learned that just because it’s there doesn’t mean it’s relevant or important. They’re finally learning this about monsters too.

11 Helltank February 5, 2011 at 1:51 am

Hi, I’m new to this site! I’ve been lurking for about 2 days but I’ve decided to post a comment now.

This is a great article, and yes, I’ve seen epic tier players thinking they’re indestructible and boldly walking into a dragon’s nest while cutting their nails.

But remember, some players fight FOR the sake of role playing. I vaguely remember this player who made a very interesting fighter class character. His PC was a little like Johnny the Homicidal Maniac-he had voices telling him to kill, kill and kill. This eventually landed him in deep soup but we congratulated him on sticking to his “kill everything” RPG style, even though all logic said he shouldn’t.

12 Ryan May 30, 2012 at 2:17 pm

When I ran KotS my party got overwelmed by Hobgoblins. Two of six players were left standing against at least eight opponents.

One character left was a Changeling Psion, the other was a Wilden Druid.

Both characters were within sprinting distance of escape. The Psion had a plan forming I could see it. He declared he was going to run when the Druid character called him a coward for doing so.

In the end they manged to take out two more Hobgoblins before being dropped themselves.

If they had retreated the Psion could have easily disguised himself as one of the Hobgoblins and quite possibly rescued the players. His character was designed to fight at a distance and with his abilities retreating could have actually given him the edge.

13 Michael July 9, 2012 at 7:56 pm

When I first started playing, I had the opposite problem–I didn’t know how to judge the difficulty of encounters and so tended to avoid them! Probably not too bad an idea when you’re in a party with much more experienced characters, but it did grate on people’s nerves after a while.

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