Don’t Fight to the Death

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on January 4, 2012

Doesn’t it seem kind of dumb for monsters – or PCs for that matter – to fight until they reach their very last hit point? Don’t any of the combatants in D&D have any sort of survival instinct? What ever happened to the flight part of fight or flight? In most combat scenarios the PCs beat up on the monsters and the monsters don’t back down until they’re dead. Unless the monster has good reason to fight to the end, why would they? The simple answer is that they shouldn’t.

Eventually all battles should reach a point where one side either surrenders or flees. Fighting to the bitter end is just stupid. Yet this is how D&D works. The PCs fight the monsters until one side (most often the monsters) is decimated. In those very rare occurrences when one or two monsters manage to flee the players will often complain that the DM robbed them of a totally victory (at least that’s been my experience). I think that we need to introduce a little bit more common sense into D&D combat and I know just the way to do it.

As it stands the PCs won’t back down because a balanced encounter gives the PCs a very reasonable chance at success. It’s how the game is designed and I’m the first to admit that as a player, I like it this way. Worrying that you PC might die every time they went into battle would make for a very different type of combat system and it absolutely wouldn’t be the D&D we all know today. But what if we made combat a just a little bit more dangerous? And what if, at the same time, we gave more of the monsters the instinctual awareness that they shouldn’t stick around and fight to the death unless they have a really, really good reason to do so? Here’s how we do it.

When the DM creates an encounter he’s got a specific XP budget to work with. As long as he doesn’t exceed this budget, than the encounter is considered “balanced.” Usually this means an equal number of monsters of the same level as the PCs. So five level 6 PCs would face off against five level 6 monsters, more or less. But this assumes that the monsters will fight it out to the bitter end and by doing so they will force the PCs to expend appropriate resources. Therein lays the balance part. But if the monsters suddenly turn tail and run when they reach their bloodied value or when half of their numbers are killed, the party doesn’t expend the resources that the mechanics expect them to. It certainly makes for a more plausible encounter, but behind the scenes the party earns a victory without putting in the expected effort.

The challenge becomes finding some middle ground. Begin by creating a balanced encounter as described above. Then pump up the level of the monsters. Make them all 2-4 levels higher. The important thing to remember after taking this step is that the monsters will flee or surrender when they reach their bloodied value.

Let’s look at an example. We’ll make the encounter simple. Seeking shelter from the cold, the PCs spot a nearby cavern and decide to hole up there until the weather improves. When they enter the cavern they find five Ogres who had the same idea. The Ogres are not the sharing type so combat erupts. Assuming that the PCs are level 6, then these should be standard level 6 Ogres to keep things balanced. This puts their hit points at 90 each; their AC at 18; and their melee basic attack score at +11 doing 2d10+6 damage.

If this were to play out as normal the PCs would have to bring each Ogre down from 90 to 0 hit points in order to be victorious, and they would expend the appropriate resources as expected. However, if we pump up the Ogres to level 8 they will have 111 hit points, their attack scores go up to +13 and their damage becomes 2d10+8. However, these Ogres didn’t become bigger than their normal brethren by luck. They have a keen survival instinct (since they obviously don’t have a whole lot of intelligence). When they become bloodied, or when two of the five are killed, the remaining Ogres flee. It’s one thing to stay warm and dry during a storm, it’s another thing entirely to get killed for being dry.

Assuming that the Ogres will flee when bloodied the PCs now only have to eat through 55 hit points each, rather than the 90 in the original setup. The monsters are a little bit harder to hit and will likewise hit the PCs a little bit more often, but in the end the resource expenditure (including healing surges) should be about what they’d expect to use during a normal fight against five level 6 Ogres.

Even though these were level 8 monsters, the desired outcome is approximately the same as fighting level 6 monsters to the death. With that in mind, I’d award XP as if the party fought level 6 monsters. If the PCs decided to give chase and slaughter the Ogres even after it was clear they were running away, then I don’t see any reason to reward extra XP because they brought them down from 55 to 0 hit points. In fact I wouldn’t even bother playing it out since it would have little bearing on the bigger picture.

Where this kind of tweaking of the numbers and levels becomes a bit more complicated is when the PCs won’t let the monsters escape or surrender, or in circumstances where the monsters have a good reason to fight to the death.

Using the same set up, the Ogres would have no choice but to fight if the PCs blocked the only exit from the room or executed the first Ogre to surrender. If these Ogres were protecting their offspring it would certainly give even these dim-witted creatures motive to fight on and try to drive the PCs from the cave. In circumstances where the DM knows the monsters are more than likely going to fight to the death then he should leave things as they are and let the level 6 PCs fight level 6 monsters. But any good DM will realize that in most circumstances the monsters won’t have a good reason to fight to the bitter end and that tweaking the numbers encourages the PCs to let the fleeing monsters go.

Making the monsters just a couple of levels more powerful than the XP budget allows will certainly make the fights more challenging, but it should make them a lot shorter and will definitely add a level of realism sorely lacking in most D&D encounters. It won’t take long before the players realize that more and more of the monsters are surrendering or fleeing. One added bonus to having monsters surrender is that the PCs can talk to them. This could give some players the motivation they need to choose feats and powers that give them additional languages or better skill checks in Diplomacy or Insight.

Just because D&D usually includes excessive amounts of hack and slash doesn’t mean that it has to continue to be that way. Have your monsters behave as you’d behave in their pace. Monsters with intelligence will realize they’re outmatched and flee. Those that rely on instinct will often come to the same conclusion in the same circumstances. So don’t have the monsters fight to the death, have them do the sensible thing and cut their losses.

How often do monsters surrender or flee in your game? How often do the PCs surrender or flee? Should a party facing a tougher monster get the full XP, even though the DM intentionally had the monsters only fight until they were bloodied?

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1 symatt January 4, 2012 at 10:05 am

Its the same in any game. (other than CoC) getting PCs to run away is a pain in the butt.
Thanks for the read

2 Svafa January 4, 2012 at 10:24 am

I’ve been doing similar for years, and several of the players I play with have never known anything else (so I’ve rarely had any complaints). Having monsters flee or surrender is a common occurrence in our games and has led to some great stories. It gives the PCs more options to develop their characters, as they’re thrust into a position where they have to decide what to do with a surrendering enemy that they may not trust or may have sworn vengeance on.

On the other hand, while it doesn’t show up as often (and I think it should show up more), I do throw more enemies than the PCs can handle at them from time to time. I try to make sure I put them in the position of fleeing or surrendering from time to time. It doesn’t always work out that way (nothing ever works the way the DM plans), but I find them backing out for a breather or fleeing for their lives often enough for my tastes. I just don’t want them to get complacent and expect victory.

3 Pedro Rodrigues January 4, 2012 at 10:46 am

Having monsters flee also allow for re-appearances, with interesting effects: recently, had the bullywug chieftain from Reavers of Harkenwold (the adventure from the DM Kit) flee after giving a beating on the chars; the adventure has a follow-up encounter where the players fight another group of bullywugs, and i added the chieftain to the encounter; boy, did the players have a grudge towards it, no quarter was given to any of the monsters, and everyone was trying their best to hit the chieftain.

4 Megan January 4, 2012 at 10:58 am

My DM occasionally tries something similar, but we don’t always get the hint. Most recently, he threw a brute type at us, we were level 7 and I believe the brute was level 11. When reaching bloodied the brute got much more powerful and was supposed to try to run away. Unfortunately our Warlord managed to pin it in place, and we just whittled it down, only barely surviving in the process through lucky arrangement of terrain, sustained Wizard Daily attacks, my Paladin’s sanctions, and lucky application of a plot related weapon.

Afterward he made it clear that we really weren’t expected to kill it though I think this would be the common reaction from players. It’s become so expected that players will kill every last enemy, that when one tries to run they’re far more likely to chase than let it escape.

I agree it makes more sense, but the DM would have to find a way to make it clear that the monsters are expected to flee and that there’s no extra reward for chasing them down.

5 Raptorking January 4, 2012 at 11:00 am

It seems like you should be able to do this without altering the monsters’ level. As long as the players don’t know the monsters’ hp, you can have the first couple to run out of hit points drop, and have the remainder flee when they hit zero; while fleeing, the monsters become minions, so that a single attack from a spiteful PC drops them.

6 Sentack January 4, 2012 at 11:22 am

I was just thinking about this the other day and your proposal is actually a pretty good one. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out on the table.

That being said, the only concern I have are the spikes of using too many high level creatures. It’s always the issue of going +2 is that sometimes you get insane spikes that the players aren’t ready for. That being said, with the Bloody value equaling the end of the encounter, then the spikes shouldn’t be as major of a concern.

Still, one problem with resource drains is also trying to get players to burn daily powers, magic items and consumables as well. I routinely have problems where players blow daily powers on the bbeg and destroy him before he has a chance to act but you can’t force players to burn such resources so it sometimes just happens.

7 Shane January 4, 2012 at 11:33 am

I have been a big fan of retreating monsters and PCs ever since the “Fight or Flight” Unearthed Arcana article came out. I will throw monsters of unreasonable levels or in large numbers at my players, because they are smart enough to know when to flee.

8 Liz January 4, 2012 at 11:38 am

It does sound like a great idea – but I also think you need to take into account the party balance – at least if this were used in, for example, pathfinder (I am sad to admit my experience of 4th ed it quite lacking).

Although it was only an example, I will shamelessly use it myself regarding the cave and ogres! If the party only has one proper front-line fighter and say the rest were wizards or oracles or even inquisitors – a lot of hard hitting ogres that are of a significant level higher could be quite disastrous (especially if the PCs are quite inexperienced).

Similarly, they could all be front-line fighters but lacking a Cleric could suddenly have those hard-hitting ogres could cause quite a scare for the PCs who are not properly equipped.

Then again, I think as a GM it would be a good idea to know the party and realise what the party’s real strengths and weaknesses are – and work from there. Again sadly I am speaking from a pathfinder point of view really – as I sadly have no 4th edition experience really to speak of!

9 William January 4, 2012 at 11:47 am

I do like your system. I feel like especially when fighting things like city guards, bandits or even monstrous humanoids it would make encounters stand out a little bit more. It would make fighting things like Abberants or Undead more memorable because they wouldn’t break or retreat.

I would just like to take up a point you made earlier in the article. You say that:
“Worrying that you PC might die every time they went into battle would make for a very different type of combat system and it absolutely wouldn’t be the D&D we all know today.”
I absolutely disagree with that statement. When building encounters I won’t go out of my way to stack the odds against the players, but each time I tell them to roll for initiative there is the real threat of death. Adventurers are heroes. They do things that most mortals can only dream of. They go dangerous places, do dangerous things and come through it all. If there is no threat of defeat or death, then the actions are not heroic. A party of first level heroes delving into Kobald hall and saving Fallcrest from the Kobalds and Dragon below is a heroic act because they can fail. A group of level 21 heroes doing the same thing isn’t heroic. It’s a slaughter. Killing the defenseless is exactly what those same heroes should be against.

I agree that both heroes and monsters should consider retreat an option. But it should be because they are in danger or imminent death, not because they feel like they are expending too many resources.

10 James January 4, 2012 at 12:38 pm

I’ve tried this, but my players always chase the monsters, and then the interminable fight just becomes an interminable chase. So I’ve decided to interpret it differently. In Warhammer 40K, at least the early editions, the book said that a dead soldier wasn’t necessarily dead, just injured badly enough he couldn’t participate in the fight anymore. So I’m going to have monsters, especially when it fits the story, not necessarily die, just lie there semiconscious and moaning in agony. That way, they can be woken and interrogated, too!

11 Gargs454 January 4, 2012 at 12:44 pm

Heh, my players tend to make it a fight to the death for the monsters whether the monsters want it that way or not. I know that my players definitely see it as sort of stealing their victory if a monster manages to escape. I remember one player complaining once after a dragon flew away and saying “I realize that they are really intelligent but still, I REALLY hate it when a monster runs away.” The flip side to this is that most monsters that surrender to the players also end up dead. :p

As for my players, they almost never run away. In fact, I can’t recall the last time they ran away — at least as a group. There have been a couple of occasions where after three of the PCs had died, the remaining two PCs ran away, but I can’t recall my players ever deciding to run away as a group. Even when they clearly seemed out matched (which admittedly isn’t often). Part of this is, as discussed above, a reflection of the knowledge that in general, in a balanced encounter, the PCs should be ok. I think its sort of part of the social contract at the table that DM’s are expected, on the whole, to provide balanced encounters and that the fights should not (usually) be designed so in favor of the monsters that a tpk is likely. The problem with this thinking of course is that a couple of bad die rolls can quickly turn a balanced encounter into a slaughter. On top of that, much as we might not like to admit it, we as DMs do make mistakes from time to time and an encounter we thought was balanced may end up being not so balanced.

As for the idea of having monsters run away, I am actually all in favor of it. The problem tends to lie more with execution than anything. My group, for instance, has an elven pursuing avenger, which makes it very hard for most monsters to run away — especially with a great bow ranger in the group as well. I will say though that I am not usually a big fan of using higher level monsters against the PCs (though a couple levels higher is fine). Usually if I want to make a fight more difficult, I will simply add in more monsters at the PC’s level (or possibly a level below). This has the same effect of providing a greater challenge (and extra danger early on) while also keeping the to-hit and damage numbers pretty well in line. I do agree though that if you intend to have the monsters run away at bloodied value, then you should award XP based on the actual, expected challenge level. So in your example, I definitely would award XP based on a level 6 encounter (even if the PCs chased down the fleeing ogres).

One thought I have had with regard to encouraging players to allow the monsters to flee is to potentially set up a trap should the PCs pursue. The ogre patrol for instance flees back toward the main camp and if the players continue to pursue, they will suddenly find themselves facing the entire encampment. A DM would need to be careful doing this though as if its done too often its almost certain to eventually end in a tpk (assuming the players don’t learn).

12 Grokkit January 4, 2012 at 1:05 pm

I like this idea, but I’m not sure on the math.

Changing 5 Ogres from Lvl 6 to Lvl 8 changes the XP from 1,250 to 1,750. According to the DDI Encounter Builder a Hard Encounter for a Lvl 6 party of 5 starts at 1,750 but could go as high as 2,999. I’m not sure how much more challenging these Ogres would really be. My players are pretty good at getting through most Hard Encounters I throw at them, regardless if the critters retreat or not.

Maybe 2-4 levels isn’t enough? Perhaps this is even more true at higher tiers? Maybe DMs should instead try to target the end of the Hard Encounter XP Budget (in this case 2,999 i.e. 5-6 Lvl 10 Ogres) and have the enemy flee when bloodied or reduced to 1/2 their ranks.

13 tedluck January 4, 2012 at 1:11 pm

I think sometimes the players forget that running away is an option. Especially if you’re playing with a less experienced group. They may not realize that if the dice or fight is stacked against them, they can always attempt to retreat. Making sure they know that option is available might encourage them to flee if they’re taking a beating.

I like this idea of beefing up some monsters that are intended to run away every once in awhile, but I don’t think I could use it that often before it become expected or boring. A good mix of weak (We’re invincible!), balanced (That was tough!), and strong (Run away!) encounters make for great campaigns.

14 Arbanax January 4, 2012 at 1:12 pm

The think I’ve noticed here is that if you up the level of the monsters, and use the new rules for defences, the party miss a lot more! And this can drag a fight down time wise. So I’d say yes, but keep the defences level appropriate otherwise the party (especially if the dice are cold) can miss a lot and when you keep the attack bonus and damage of monsters 4 levels higher it really turns up the heat, but for my players it frustrates them…a lot.


15 Philo Pharynx January 4, 2012 at 2:12 pm

One encounter I had early in 4e was a great use of this.. The players had defeated most of the monsters, but had taken heavy damage. One of the PC’s was down at the moment and the healer was across the room. The leader of the kobolds shouted out, “You go. We go. No come back.” The fight could still go either way, but they warily had their truce and separated.

Knowing why your monsters are fighting helps to to figure out when (and if) they make the decision to surrender or flee. As you mentioned, protecting children is a strong enough motivation to override survival. Though some might negotiate for the children’s lives. That adds a moral dilemma to a battle. Other strong reasons to fight to the death are fanaticism, magical compulsion, or unthinking rage. For most other cases, people will consider survival. Some enemies will alwyas be looking for a way out. Mercenaries, goblins, kobolds and wererats all have reputations for looking out for themselves. If they have a strong leader who dies, they could easily all decide to advance to the rear. A smart commander might pull back his forces to a better location, or back towards reiforcements.

Ending the fight with surrender or flight has another advantage. 4e fights can be long and the endgame is often a foregone conclusion.

Another point to remember when increasing your forces is the threat level of your party. I often have to adjust threats because the party is well built and they synergize very well. If you add both modifications, it might no be the bad guys surrendering.

16 Matt January 4, 2012 at 6:43 pm

I’ve always felt this was an issue in D&D, especially 4e. I’ve dealt with it by just telling my PCs on the first session (after making PCs, setting up back story, etc.) that exp and treasure are won by ‘victory conditions’. This ususally never means total slaughter. Unless the monsters are undead. Even fanatical cultists flee, especially if their leader/summoned avatar/whatever is killed right in front of them.
Telling my PC’s that winning (and getting their fair share if XP/gold) can happen even if THEY are the ones who flee is always a part of my first session ‘lecture’, along with table rules, and if necessary, table etiquette.

17 Sunyaku January 4, 2012 at 7:31 pm

This is a good strategy. I also like to exceed the XP budget planning to have some monsters run away after their leader is killed, or a certain number of them are killed. IMHO, the only way to get players to REALLY fear anything (prior to combat or TPK) is with the power of the spoken word. The more detail you shine on an enemy at the start of the encounter, and with every action of the creature(s), the more it comes to life, and the more the players will feel threatened. Since it is the DM’s responsibility to “shine a light” on important aspects of the gaming world, increasing detail can be construed as a measure of importance. Importance creates a sense of surprise, investment, risk, and an eventual sense of accomplishment. So if you really want players to fear something, and even run away without drawing a sword, HAM IT UP!

18 benensky January 4, 2012 at 9:18 pm

Liked this post. On occasion my players weary of long battles and I have the monsters run away. They do not complain. Therefore, this will not be too big a break in their routine and go on unnoticed. In addition, if I could do this and it would reduce the overall encounter time that would be excellent. We are getting up in levels and some of my players have been complaining about encounter times. have you noticed if this cut down the encounter times significantly?

19 James Bryant January 5, 2012 at 12:24 am

Actually a great deal of the time my characters default to doing nonlethal damage for just those reasons. I do really like this article and I think bumping the monsters and then having them run away is a great way to deal with the ridiculously high death count. Although to be fair it is kind of fun to play a pc in which “You shall know us by the trail of the dead”

20 Johnny Fry January 5, 2012 at 1:33 am

On Saturday I took back the reigns of DMing my one of my groups, and I decided since my brother-in-law was going to be returning to playing his druid I’d first have him come back as a Changeling Assassin and lead them into a trap where his Bounty Hunting guildies were waiting. I spent time creating the Bounty Hunters to make them re-occurring characters, in addition to the Changeling Assassin I had a Drow Mage and her Bugbear Barbarian bodyguard. The party managed to kill the Changeling, I was saddened, and when the Drow Caster went unconsciece I had the Bugbear Barbarian run to her on his turnand pull out a medallion from her cloak and the two of them disappeared. It might have been cheap but I knew the fight was over and I really wanted to be able to bring them back at some point.

21 Jacob Y (@DelayedSession) January 5, 2012 at 5:21 am

The last encounter I ran, all the monsters but the minions and the elite turned tail when they were bloodied. And as usual, I had to listen to the moans and groans of “killsteals” and “I wanted to kill the bog hag.” It’s more than a little frustrating, since the way the monsters behaved was completely realistic.
In addition, I gave the party an easy out to end the encounter, and they refused to take it. Rather than steering their boat across the swamp to shore and leaving the aquatic menace behind, they instead insisted on taking out every single one of the monster’s 515 hp, dragging what should have been a 40 minute skirmish into an hour and fifty minute slug fest. On top of everything, their rolls were very low, and yet they insisted on flying in the face of good sense and tactics instead of leaving the monster behind to lick its considerable wounds.
Needless to say it was very irritating, and nobody had fun. I wish Players were more inclined to let monsters flee, or flee themselves when it makes sense. But their egos get in the way.
Such is the game, however, and so we press on. It’s just a little unfortunate.

*continuation: I should have, in hindsight, made the monster flee the combat when the party started ignoring the out. But it was possessed and ordered to fight the party, no matter the cost, so technically that solution wouldn’t have made sense at all. It’s tricky to weigh what is and isn’t believable, but I think my choice to keep the monster in the fight turned out to be a bad one.

22 nonox67 January 6, 2012 at 4:37 am

Let the monster flee is interesting to cut down the encounter time, according to the situation it can make sense . How do you deal with class features, powers which are triggered on monster death ? Don’t you feel it can be frustrating ?

23 blarg January 7, 2012 at 12:56 pm

DMs who design encounters that are supposed to make PCs flee are setting themselves up for disappointment. In my experience, they’re usually the railroad type DMs who put the goal on the other side of this monster and don’t outline any alternative paths, so from a player perspective, that’s the only path they have available to them. They’re also typically the kind of DM that waits for a player to say “I use my knowledge X skill!” instead of realising that the player would have a knowledge X skill and saying, oh, you know this this and this.

The problem with making an encounter that’s designed to make someone flee is that they are forgetting the psychology of the adventurers. Especially the type that are brought up that chase down fleeing goblins to massacre everything they see. They obviously think this titan of an encounter will just chase them down and murder them when their spells and effects wear out, so fleeing isn’t an option unless you give specific details as to why it would be (IE glowing runes that imprison the killer encounter in an area etc)

24 Justin Alexander January 7, 2012 at 3:03 pm

Easy solution.

(1) Use the morale systems that were removed from D&D.

(2) Abandon the false idol of the “perfectly balanced encounter” and use a superior and time-tested method of encounter design.

OD&D also notably included very specific mechanics for resolving flight and pursuit, which meant that fleeing from combat was actually mechanically supported. This has also been notably absent from D&D for a couple of decades.

25 Kilsek January 7, 2012 at 5:50 pm

A subject that’s near and dear to my heart, from my Leonine Roar D&D blog to the Faster Combat online GM course!

Although, a few new things struck me while reading this.

1) Of course some fights should be to the death! That’s fun too, after all. Dramatic. And, some monsters actually will die fighting – zealous ones, some mindless creatures or undead, and so on.

2) Combats are long in 4e compared to earlier editions. Much longer on average: 60 minutes! So of course we’re reaching for non-total-annihilation resolutions to combat more than we ever have. We always had them, but now, they’ve become even more featured, if not desired, for several reasons.

Oh that passionately desired balance of story and game, and never having enough time for it all!

26 Timm! January 7, 2012 at 11:13 pm

A way to avoid having to fiddle with the XP value of an encounter when doing this is to simply ignore xp. We’ve started doing this in our gaming groups recently and it works really really well for us. Essentially, the PCs level up when the GM tells them it’s time to level up. This frees the GM from having to painstakingly balance the xp rewards and focus on exciting encounters and cool stories. When the Gm has accomplished what they want at a given level, or things are getting stale, or they just feel it’s time everyone takes a break and levels up.

27 Norcross January 9, 2012 at 10:08 am

This is a great way to cut down on the “grind” (ie, the hour you spend finishing off the last HP in a combat you already know is won).

As for abilities triggered on monster death or bloodied, maybe you could redefine the HP cutoffs for these encounters? ie, 75% = bloodied, %50 = defeated (trigger “death” effects here, since they are defeated), and the rest is “bonus” HP the monster uses to survive while running away. That doesn’t add any complexity, and still allows characters to use their abilities normally (since you are effectively only using the first half of the monster’s HP in the encounter).

28 Philo Pharynx January 9, 2012 at 10:10 am

@Timm! – Right on. I’ve done this and it makes things much easier. Players level at dramatic moments. You don’t have to worry if they ignore side quests or if they follow too many side quests. You don’t have to feel guilty about bumping up the level of encounters to balance a particularly synergistic party.
It’s also one less thing you need to do at the end of combat.

@Justin Alexander – Fans of old-school D&D seem to latch on the “perfectly balanced encounter” as a huge disadvantage. People who actually run 4e (or have read the 4e books) know that this is a guideline on a spectrum. Players want a mix of encounters from easy to hard, and having some guidelines helps. It’s a lot easier than in previous editions that didn’t have an easy way to figure out how to challenge a party.

29 oregonpinkrose January 21, 2012 at 12:35 pm

What do people do with captured monsters?
I understand if they are human in a city you can turn them over to the authorities, but do you do with 4 Ogres in a cave? Do you let them go so they can kill others? What do you do when there are goblin mothers with children? Or plaguechanged creatures swarming the city?
How do explain surrendered creatures? Where do they go? Why would you let them surrender if your goal in life is clearing the Point of Light from unwanted Monsters?
Any suggestions would be appreciated.

30 zteccc January 21, 2012 at 1:53 pm

Adventures that I write typically include whether monsters will retreat or fight to the death in with the monster tactics. Included in that is whether intimidation skill checks will work (just try to intimidate any undead creature or a bbeg into surrendering).

What I’ve run into, however, is that if a creature surrenders, the party struggles with what to do with this beast. An adventuring party doesn’t really have any way to deal with a prisoner. Sure, they can talk and get information, but after that, they have to either kill or release their captive. In a dungeon setting, release isn’t really a viable option because the captive typically knows the dungeon better that the party and will likely find its way back to its allies. Once that happens, the dungeon is put on alert and it would only make sense for all future encounters to be harder or ambushes to be set up. Thus a captive is typically killed. Outdoors, this is a lesser problem, but still real. Surrendered captives don’t just evaporate.

In good aligned groups, this causes a moral problem. The characters are (mostly) good, but even though the creature may be evil, it is no longer a threat if it surrenders. Once that happens and the team has taken a captive, they are responsible for the captive’s well being, but do they have to choose to abandon their quest to take it back to the nearest town so that it can be incarcerated? What if the creature isn’t even evil, just unaligned? Does killing all these captives cause an alignment shift or anger a deity?

So far, I haven’t found a good general solution for the problems a captive causes. In some cases, I’ve simply punted on the issue or required dungeon dwelling creatures to fight to the death. Fleeing is almost always an option, but surrender has to be allowed with some sort of plan in place.

31 Philo Pharynx January 22, 2012 at 2:53 pm

If the players gain the favor of local nobility, they could be granted the power of low justice and be able to pass legal sentence on criminals (at least ones without noble blood). I could also see a ruling declaring a bounty on certain types of monsters so that anybody could kill them with legal backing if they are found a threat. This will handle some of the qualms, though not all of them.

32 zteccc January 22, 2012 at 6:07 pm

If a monster of any intelligence/wisdom surrenders, that monster is going to recognize that the party won’t have the resources necessary to keep the monster prisoner, nor can the party leave the monster at their backs. Regardless of the party’s moral standing or their justification for killing monsters (bounty/legal authority) and the supporting fiction of the adventure, the monster is still going to know (or at least assume) that surrender means death.

As such, a monster would have to choose to fight to the death over surrender. Fleeing may still be an option depending on the scenario, but surrender is rarely a smart move for a monster. The only exception would be if the fiction supports it. For example, if the party was supposed to bring back a falsely accused fugitive so they could be pardoned, then the monster could assume their own safety, but only if the party properly communicated their intent during combat (perhaps with a skill challenge during combat).

33 Philo Pharynx January 23, 2012 at 12:03 pm

If the creature has information, like of other valuables or of another enemy, they might parley that information for their lives. This is helped if the party is known for being honorable and if the enemy wasn’t an overwhelming threat. Also remember that in some case, the heroes attacked first. The enemy may not have been a threat.

In some of these case, it requires making a decision while the battle is still in question.

34 zteccc January 23, 2012 at 2:24 pm


Your post makes my point. If the fiction supports it (e.g. the creature has information, the party attacks first, etc.), then surrender can be viable, but consider this. If the party is known for being honorable, they probably gained that reputation not only by keeping their word, but by protecting the innocent. Does a party let a not-so-honorable creature go free to potentially pillage a nearby village? Even kobolds can be an overwhelming threat to the average nearby village. Does the honorable party trust the not-so-honorable creature to remain at their backs?

My point was and is that it all depends on the fiction. In a general case, monster surrender is difficult or impossible for the party and likely not a smart choice for the monsters. In any specific situation, a DM can write fiction to cover the scenario, but if the party is playing a published adventure, or if the DM didn’t write the fiction to support surrender (e.g. if the DM is not prepared for the consequences of surrender), then surrender can simply bog things down while the party and the DM have to figure out whether it harms their alignment, their nobility, whether it causes undue danger, etc. to kill the monster vs keeping the monster alive.

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