Friday Favourite: Retreat Is Always An Option, At Least It Should Be

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on May 23, 2014

On Friday we comb through our extensive archives to find an older article that we feel deserves another look. From January 5, 2011, Dungeon’s Master once again presents: Retreat Is Always An Option, At Least It Should Be.

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 Dan May 23, 2014 at 9:45 am

I am currently involved in 2 games: encounters and a 3.5 home campaign. In encounters, I haven’t really felt challenged in combat until this season (not counting certain boss fights). When our party does face cased where more foes join the fray, the original ones are almost all dead anyway, so we only worry about retreat if we start getting too beat up. We are not prone to fight unnecessarily (unless we’ve had a frustrating week out of game and just want to kill things), and usually try to find creative solutions, like forming an alliance, taking an alternate route, or setting traps and ambushes.
This week, we actually did skirt combat with a group of undead, deciding that it would be too risky to waste resources on them. After all, we are in the DOOM Vault…
Later in the same session, we considered retreat in the face of overwhelming odds (the 7 Otyughs), but by the time we reached that conclusion, we had used a lot of resources and 90% of the party was grappled. By the time the heavy hitters actually got free, and tried to help the others, we were in pretty bad shape. We should have known that 7 Otyughs would prove very difficult to overcome, and that discretion would be the better part of valor, but we did fall into the trap of expecting the encounter to be balanced, and our characters almost paid the ultimate price.
In our 3.5 game, we do talk our way our of things regularly. However, we had a character who was boastful and felt a need for his strength to be recognized. A week’s session was not complete until he challenged someone to a duel, and it got to a point where we could remember what happened in a week by remembering which person he dueled. He was formidable, and we never has reason to retreat. But now that he can no longer make it to our games, we are discovering that our party may need to retreat more often.
I have seen both sides, and I think it comes down a lot of the time to when the odds seem overwhelming. Personally, I tend to play characters who choose fight over flight unless they have no chance.

2 Rwaluchow May 23, 2014 at 10:44 am

I play in a Mega-Dungeon campaign using the Rules Cyclopedia. We retreat ALOT. Even if we don’t run away in a given situation, it is always a point of debate; we are too low level and combat is too damn dangerous.

When playing using a harsh unforgiving system, tactical retreat is plentiful and necessary. It is the notion that everything you come across is tailored as an appropriate challenge (and overly forgiving rules) that has removed it from players’ thinking in a lot of modern games like 4e.

3 Brian Criswell May 23, 2014 at 11:42 am

Yay! Friday Favorites are back!

We just had a “retreat” two days ago. My table is running Age of Worms in D&D Next and they were investigating where the missing Land skeletons had gone off two. After doing not much of anything in the tavern for a while, our Tiefling mage decided to pick a fight with Kullen on his own. He tossed the severed arm on the bar counter and said, “Skutch says ‘Hello’!” Then he fired magic missiles in Kullen’s face. Everyone rolled initiative, and Kullen’s mage took the party mage down with Melf’s Acid Arrow. The combat started going downhill from there, until the cleric, who is secretely the bastard son of Kullen’s boss, decided to try to stop the fight.

He kneels down next to the fallen mage, pulls back his helmet so that Kullen sees who he is and tells him to stop, the mage had been impulsive. I had him roll a persuade at disadvantage. He rolled a 2 with no modifiers. Kullen rolled a 2 for his opposed check…and had a -1 Wisdom modifier. The cleric stopped the fight with a 2, and the party was able to get the information they needed.

4 Liack May 23, 2014 at 1:09 pm

Sadly, there are cases when retreat is not available. We are currently in a campaign where our PCs are in an arms race against an extraplanar invading army. Sure, you could argue and say “well, we flee and live to fight another day”, but in terms of “score”, we are currently losing 2 or 3 to 1 (and it wasn’t by previous defeat or retreat, it was scenario based, their first being stolen from our vault, and the “while you got your one, the opposition got two”).

There are 6 objects to be collected, for each item the opposite side collect, they grow stronger. If a side collects 5 of the 6 items, that side wins.

This create tension, a sense of urgency, a rivalry, and the feeling that the time we spend figuring out our next move has some impact. As such, retreat means losing, in a scenario where the deck is stacked against the players and not leaving quite a lot of room for movement…

5 Kristy Horton June 4, 2014 at 5:02 pm

I’m running a D&D 3.5 game for a group of less experienced players, using a WoTC adventure module. At first they had a tendency to be really reckless, which lead to them getting involved in an encounter that was a bit more difficult than what they should’ve been facing at their level (1st level at the time). After three of the five party members dropped (only one of whom didn’t end up dying), the other two retreated and came back to check for survivors later. That was the first time they had retreated from a battle, but it hasn’t been the last. The experience seems to have taught them to be a bit more cautious and not think they will always be able to come through every encounter unscathed. 🙂

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