Greatest Hits 2012: Don’t Fight to the Death

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on December 31, 2012

While the Dungeon’s Master team enjoys some well-deserved vacation time, we’re breaking out the greatest hits and shining a spotlight on a few of our favourite articles from 2011. We’ve searched for hidden gems that our newer readers might have missed and our long-time readers will enjoy reading again. Enjoy a second look at these greatest hits from Dungeon’s Master.

When PCs get hurt in combat you have two options for staying alive: heal or flee. Monsters don’t usually have the option to heal. They can’t use their second wind like PCs and very few monsters have powers or magic items that will allow them to heal. So when a monster is bloodied and approaching 0 hit points what do you think it’s going to do? Logically the answer should be flee, but if you’re a hardcore gamer you expect it to fight until it’s dead-dead.

This has always been one of those aspects of D&D that seems to make sense initially but makes less sense the longer you play. After all, if the objective of a combat encounter is to kill the monster why would the DM have it try to run away? How can I win if I don’t kill it? But as you play more D&D you start to realize that it doesn’t make sense that every single monster, especially those with high intelligence, would fight to the death.

I guess what it really comes down to is the kind of game you and your DM want to play. If you see combat as a zero sum game where the victors are the only ones left standing than keep fighting every monster until it’s down for good. But if you see victory as one side overpowering the other it doesn’t have to mean all of the other side is completely destroyed. Leaving opponents alive or letting them flee can create new problems down the road but it will add a certain amount of realism that is missing from a lot of games.

From January 4, 2012, Dungeon’s Master once again presents: Don’t Fight to the Death.

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 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Wendy McLaren January 7, 2013 at 10:12 am

By using a combination of these tactics, the players in my last game didn’t figure out which were the minions until the fight was nearly over. This made combat very exciting and I think my players pulled out their best tactical maneuvers to defeat the undead attacking them.

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