What To Do When Retreat Is The Kiss Of Death

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1076

Have foes negotiate, retreat, or flee to end fights early.

This new article by Daniel J. Mello offers great ideas about adding morale to make skirmishes faster and grittier, as well.

However, while some games make retreats easy, in systems like D&D extricating oneself from combat is the kiss of death. After opportunity attacks, control spells, and speedy characters have their moment, most foes have been cut down.

And if foes do manage to withdraw, characters just close the gap on their turn, meaning foes cannot escape and they sacrificed a round to learn that deadly truth.

Our poor villains have it especially hard. When a villain tries to flee, it’s like the final level on a zany video game where the whole screen turns into a mushroom cloud of player special effects.

What can we do to help our favourite foes live to fight another day?

Here are three GM tactics.

1. Collapse the Roof

We need clear separation. Deny those pesky PCs their free hacks, Slow spells, and other foe misfortunes.

Fleeing doesn’t work if your game’s rules prevent quick and easy separation.

We must instead turn to the combat environment.

One of the coolest Aha! moments I received while creating Faster Combat was to think holistically.

Fights do not just equal the foes.

Fantastic fights = Foes + Environment + Mission.

It’s all about the design. And great combat design has a good GM orchestrating terrain with foe selection and tactics guided by a story-filled purpose.

So tailor environments to allow hasty retreats.

Make hazards and terrain support clear separation between our poor foes and the nasty PCs.

d6 Terrain Separation Ideas

  1. Collapse the Roof Debris blocks characters from easy pursuit.
  2. Break the Bridge Foes disable what spans a gap between them and their enemy.
  3. Magic Transpo A keyed teleport circle or other mystical means of getting away.
  4. Secret Passage Loop routes, chutes, and hidden corridors.
  5. Locked and Barred Foes put up a barrier that blocks or delays PCs.
  6. Shifting Floor Instead of the foes moving, the combat location moves instead!

2. Create a Diversion

“Hey look, what’s that over there?!”

As the characters glance over their shoulders our clever foes make an escape.

If only it were that easy.

Still, a good diversion works. While the PCs chase after the red herring or wrong target, key foes get away.

d6 Diversion Ideas

  1. Second Wave More foes join the fray, causing player indecision.
  2. Fake Leader Great for villain escapes.
  3. Jeopardize the Treasure Force players to make a tough choice.
  4. Victims in Jeopardy Another tough choice.
  5. Hazard Use terrain effects like exploding lava to make players lose focus.
  6. Illusion Turn any of the above into a magical feint.

3. Weaken the Party

Cunning GMs know a dirty secret.

We don’t need actual force to scare players. We just need a show of force.

Perception is reality. And when we present a strong front, players lose confidence. When players lose confidence, their greed and aggression fades, allowing a better chance for foes to escape.

Use the tactics in Collapse the Roof and Create a Diversion above to change player perceptions about the strength of their position. Here are some additional ideas:

d6 Ways to Weaken the Party

  1. Split the Party Especially effective when players rely on teamwork.
  2. Target One PC Focus fire that drops a character fast creates FUD fast.
  3. Area Damage Damaging many PCs at once makes all players nervous.
  4. Conditions Use your environment plus foe design to apply conditions that hamper multiple PCs.
  5. Magic Add spellcasting or magical hazards to bypass normal PC defences.
  6. Trap Eliminate PC retreat, hinder forward progress, confine the characters.

Remember that our goal is to scare the players so they make mistakes and lose the lust to hunt down retreating foes.

We need not turn encounters lethal to weaken the party. We can target player emotions and end fights just as effectively.

Retreat Is An Option

I love it when foes escape. This means recurring NPCs!

And watch table energy when your players engage with a foe who escaped their grasp. Instant motivation for our bloodthirsty friends.

Try the three tactics above: Collapse the Roof, Create a Diversion, and Weaken the Party. Give these tactics a bit of forethought so you can design combats to put foes in the best position possible to survive.

Use your GM Toolbox of foe selection, environment design, and mission-based play to help the party’s enemies live to fight another day.