This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Twenty Two on 10th June 2020.
Ryu: Darn it! Every time! I fall for it every time!
ROSTRO: Please state the nature of the mathematical inquiry.
Lennon: Did you finnnd…I’ll see myself out.
Ryu: No! You stay right there.
Lennon: I’m too tired to deal with all the maths and the humming and stuff right now!
Ryu: Fine, then I’m just going to put the hat on. You know how much KayDee likes hanging out with ROSTRO.
Lennon: You’re evil.
Ryu: One costume change and I can be.
Lennon: Fine. So, ROSTRO, what mystery of the universe has Ostron decided you need to tackle this time.
ROSTRO: Tactically sound withdrawals.
Lennon: I’m all for them. Let’s go!
Ryu: Wait, no. You mean retreating? Why is that something that’s confusing?
Analysis of multiple observed and anecdotal accounts of combat encounters during games reveals numerous instances where an adventuring party is facing an obviously superior enemy. In such cases, a withdrawal from the conflict is clearly the optimal course of action.
Yeah, you’re assuming a lot there. First of all, years and years of either D&D, video games, or both have conditioned a lot of players into thinking all combats are winnable by default. “The DM would never throw an enemy at us that we can’t beat” is a common metagaming assumption.
To be fair, it’s not usually wrong. Nearly every combat encounter in an official D&D module is designed with the assumption that the characters can survive and/or win the combat. Now, as we’ve discussed, several modules get that wrong, particularly for combats with level 1 characters, but the way the module’s set up, the characters can’t progress in the story unless they win the combat, so clearly they aren’t supposed to die or run away.
However, if your DM is adjusting the module somewhat or if they’re playing with an entirely homebrew setting, it’s very possible there may be a combat where you are not guaranteed to win, and in fact it may not be possible for you to win even if you get particularly clever.
Your first instinct may be that this is unfair or it’s betraying the rules of the game, but remember the primary goal in D&D isn’t to win every encounter; it’s to tell a story with the DM, who is crafting the major plot points for you to explore. If you look to movies or TV shows, particularly ones involving superheroes or superhero teams, whoever is serving as the ultimate villain usually completely wipes the floor with the hero or heroes during their initial encounter. Bane breaks Batman’s back, Khan cripples the Enterprise, Vader cuts off Luke’s hand and inflicts chronic daddy issues, and so on. A crushing defeat or a fight that can’t be won is sometimes the lynchpin of a story.
Assuming players have internalized the possibility of a fight where withdrawal is the preferred course of action, recognizing such encounters presents the next challenge. In many cases, the possibility of retreat only occurs to players once several characters have been reduced to 0 hit points or otherwise incapacitated. By that point the probability of a lossless retreat will be invariably reduced and the characters may be faced with a decision between total defeat or sacrificing the lives of one or more characters. The difficulty of that decision may change depending on the utility of the characters who are in danger of imminent death.
Lennon: Hang on, did it just say people should leave characters to die if they aren’t useful?
Ryu: KayDee is definitely a bad influence here.
If I may continue. A preferable scenario is the one where the reality of an insurmountable opponent is recognized before expiration of participating characters becomes an issue. In some cases the disparity in capabilities between the opponents will be made obvious by the DM, such as the case where low level characters are faced with a confrontation by an ancient dragon or a numerous collection of Illithids.
However, in other cases the threat may be harder to figure out, especially if it’s a surprise reveal of a big bad. In those situations the DM will usually give the characters both an obvious clue to the person’s real power (like, for example, the formerly benevolent, gentle king suddenly killing the honorable captain of his guards in one attack), and they’ll leave the characters an obvious out (such as the characters are in a remote balcony watching this happen, not in the middle of the throne room.)
Other obvious “please leave” clues can be things like the sudden appearance of a 7+ level spell while characters are still in the single digit levels, manifestations of dangerous extraplanar creatures like greater demons or devils, or the previously mentioned Ancient dragon. I mean, to be fair, I wouldn’t automatically leave if a humongous dragon showed up, but if it was a chromatic dragon that started to eat and/or melt everyone I’d certainly give it a thought.
However, it’s still up to you to actually leave. These can present great roleplay opportunities; whenever there’s a group of people being shown up by a big bad there’s usually at least one hotheaded person that needs to be restrained by the more rational people lest they go on a suicidal charge, but you have to make sure the rational people are actually there to be rational. If the whole group jumps in and attacks you’re putting your fate in the DM’s hands more than usual.
At that point the outcome mostly depends on what kind of campaign you agreed to. If you all agreed that character death was going to be more commonplace and dictated mostly by straight die rolls and character decisions, staying and fighting will probably result in a few dead friends. If it’s more of a hero campaign, you’re probably going to get the “everyone is suddenly knocked unconscious” scenario or the “something environmental happens to prevent the fight” like the loyal guards suddenly rallying and creating a mass of fighting soldiers that prevents you from getting to the big bad. Or the dragon just flies away because, you know, they can do that.
In general, discourse between players and the Dungeon Master is critical to smoothly implementing and recognizing these situations. As stated, needing to retreat from a combat encounter rather than fighting through to the death is an infrequent occurrence in D&D, therefore newer players are unlikely to encounter them without being forewarned.
If players are frequently experiencing catastrophic defeats in combat and the Dungeon Master expresses disbelief at the party committing to hostile action, a notification to them about the opacity of their clues to the level of the threat may be in order.
In this case, it isn’t metagaming or unreasonable to ask the DM what clues the players missed about it being a really hard combat. If the DM was expecting you to make an arcana check or interrogate NPCs to figure out how much danger the party was in and that’s not something usually expected of the party in the campaign, it might be worth a discussion after the session.
However, if the skin suit falls off the grand vizier and reveals them to be a 500 year old lich able to summon an army of skeletons and you charge in anyway, that’s mostly on you.
Another note about the “surprise reveal”; if a massively powerful attack or a difficult trap is sprung on the party that you were not expecting (and you aren’t in a game run by the KDM), it is still reasonable to assume the DM isn’t trying to kill the party. There are very few circumstances where the death of the entire party serves anyone’s interests, so if you’re suddenly suffering from a lot of attacks that can’t miss and they’re doing massive amounts of damage to your characters, it’s likely the DM has left some sort of escape method other than defeating your attackers. You just have to find it.
ROSTRO: Will that information increase the likelihood of character groups withdrawing from otherwise fatally ill-advised combat encounters?
Lennon: Probably depends on whether the players are American or French.
Ryu: Okay, so I’m going to take you over to the scrying pool now and you can write apology notes to the listeners.
Lennon: Oh come on, the British ones are rolling on the floor at that.
Ryu: I’m sure. Speaking of rolling on the floor, ROSTRO?
ROSTRO: Shutdown procedure commencing presently.