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My players never run away or avoid conflict. Ever. I throw them ridiculous encounters, they will stay and fight. If I tell them, "You know you're not gonna make it, just run," they stay and fight and blame me, the GM, for the casualties. They complain my encounter was too hard etc. When I tell them they should simply flee if they get into something too powerful, they accuse me of railroading them. They once went to attack a dragon even though I told them that it's common knowledge that dragons are way above their level. They expect me to adjust the environment to their level. I don't. I think if you go in hell to attack a Balrog, he shouldn't be a level 1 encounter.

So how do you make the PCs run?

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You're asking about two separate things here: (a) How do I make PCs run away? (b) Your group thinks it's the GM's job to give them completely beatable encounters and never kill them, and if they get an encounter they can't beat or you die, you're GMing wrong. You should ask both separately. You should definitely ask how to deal with your group. The answer almost certainly involves sitting down with them and talking with them about the fact that it is not the GM's job to give them encounters they can always beat, and you're totally allowed to kill a player and it's their problem if you do. –  doppelgreener Sep 13 '12 at 23:42
I find it ironic that they're complaining that telling them to run is "railroading", when the only reason for them to believe that every encounter should be designed so they can beat it is if they expect and want a perfectly-straight railroad… –  SevenSidedDie Sep 14 '12 at 23:43
related: rpg.stackexchange.com/q/7074/4089 –  LitheOhm Nov 11 '13 at 4:00
Throw a Balrog at them and have the powerful NPC wizard tell them to run. –  Zibbobz Aug 20 '14 at 14:01

15 Answers 15

up vote 48 down vote accepted

Give them options, or a hiding place perhaps. Trying to tell them out of game to run is (unfortunately) well into the realm of railroading. On that note, there is one option: Show them in-game that running is their best option. This can be accomplished by having a known-powerful NPC friend defeated by said baddie, or an appropriate knowledge check about them lacking the proper tools, or even displaying it's strength against buildings or other foes clearly more powerful than the PCs.

Blaming the GM for stupid casualties isn't a roleplay problem, that's a game dynamic problem. They need to learn, just like my players had to learn, that their characters (while special) are not unique, and not gods. Another option to this is consequences. If they face impossible odds and someone dies, that's part of the story. Also related to this part of the problem is an out-of-game discussion. Tell them that sometimes you just need to put in big encounters like that which are currently insurmountable but won't be for the whole campaign. Things like "you know that dragon that destroyed the town you all ran from? Now you're strong enough to take him down." Seems they want to play through combat to combat with little room for flexible plot on your end, and this is the problem you should address out-of-game.

By trying to get you to conform to their unrealistic standards on combat difficulty, they are in essence railroading you.

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Okay so here's your problems:

  1. Most games are terrible at presenting threat levels. Absent direct GM comment, most games have absolutely no mechanics at all for judging how tough a foe is! Think of how amazingly dumb that is in a game where a bearded old man in a robe runs the gamut of possibilities from harmless old coot to literal god.
  2. Most RPG mechanics don't make running at all viable. In a game with monsters/aliens/whatevers, most of what you fight will be faster than you and outnumber you, so retreat doesn't really work. Honestly this makes some sense from a game balance perspective, since if the PCs were faster than the bad guys, they could kite anything without a ranged weapon in complete safety. If you've got a setting-appropriate way of effectively fleeing (Get to the car/wizard/transporter room), then you can play that up as an available option.
  3. In many games, a downed PC can be revived or recovered after being defeated. So even if a PC falls, there's a good case (and a fair amount of social pressure around the table) to 'leave no man behind'.

So #1 means that if you fight at all, you'll end up in fights with things that outclass you unless your system tailors encounters to PC capacity. #2 means that if you suddenly find out you're outclassed, you can't actually get away. #3 means that if one guy goes down, the whole group has every incentive to buckle down and try and fight harder (hey maybe it was just an unlucky break that downed their buddy) to stay in the battle and win the encounter. Put them all together and everybody's fighting to the death all the time. If you want your PCs to flee, make sure that none of those are what's informing their decisions.

I think if you go in hell to attack a Balrog, he shouldn't be a level 1 encounter.

So if they're level 1, why are they in hell? People playing a game want to well... play the game, and if your game's mechanics are almost entirely combat-oriented, they're going to try to fight things wherever they go, especially if there's monsters there.

There's another side to this that's important to consider. In real life, people get horrifically injured in fights, so aside from the profoundly stupid, people avoid fights. The people who can't avoid fights, like the military, try to mitigate danger through intelligence gathering, planning, training, and trying to get temporary numerical/positional advantages over their enemies at critical times.

All of those things take a lot of time and actual work. If you build your game around the kind of encounter environment where that kind of work is necessary to succeed, then you're going to have a lot more sessions spent evaluating the hypothetical ways people might do X than sessions spent actually doing X. If that floats everybody's boat, then more power to you, but from what your described, that kind of play is going to leave your group's boat at the bottom of the ocean. This is why for example Shadowrun is a game with a fantastic and interesting setting that almost nobody plays because ops planning boring but necessary.

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I'm having a hard time figuring out what your actual advice is. This entire thing seems to boil down to "you're playing the game wrong, stop being a bad GM." There's not much patience for One True Wayism 'round here, so hopefully that's not the point you meant to make. –  SevenSidedDie Sep 14 '12 at 23:47
His three points are useful because they illustrate reasons WHY players might not want to flee, or be excited at doing so. –  Vesuvium Sep 15 '12 at 16:02
Agreeing with the OP that there is a problem is not answering his question –  DCShannon May 21 '14 at 16:42

First don't start encounters by having them roll initiative. Present a monster as an obstacle in the way of their goal in the encounter. Their goal is "get through the maze of passages," but the umber hulks are only one reason the passages are hard. There are traps, the maze is hard to navigate, and so forth. If they're smart they will realize sneaking past the umber hulks will save them dailies and surges.

Second, make running away possible. In most editions of d&d including fourth, running away isn't really possible, and fighting through is usually easier than running away. Think about this, if you shift and run, you move 1 (shift) plus speed plus 2 (run) away, and grant CA. Your opponent can move and charge gaining +1 to hit from charging and CA because you ran. So to run away, there needs to be a house rule about it, or you need to give them wondrous items that help, like an ever-smoking bottle, or emergency teleport items, etc.

Third, give them easy encounters for crying out loud. If they're fighting on-level battles, and then encounter a level+4 solo brute, it is going to do twice as much damage than the last thing they fought. That first hit is going to shake them. "Did you say FORTY damage?" "Are you already bloodied?" "Bloodied? I'm almost DEAD."

Fourth, sounds like they're having a lot of fun. Keep from presenting the, with gates to the Balor's living room, and let them take on whatever they want. Remember this: hard enemies aren't necessarily higher level. The hardest enemies are proactive opponents who create time pressure situations. That dragon will be more dangerous when it burns a village every night. When the pcs come for the dragon, some villagers explain this. They explain that they think their village is next. That the dragon's Orc minions kill them if they leave the village, and his fire burns the village so there is no escape. They explain that they will give them 1000gp if they kill the dragon before nightfall. Oh, and it's already two in the afternoon, and dusk is at seven. The dragon cave is an hour away. That leaves four hours, no rest, countless orcs, and one badass dragon. Good luck doing all that in four hours without avoiding at least a few encounters.

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First, inhabit your gaming universe by other heroes and adventuring groups. Give your PCs new of these groups and heroes and sometimes let them meet each other and eventually fight in friendly contests. State that barehand wrestling contests have a big tradition in your game world, or let them fight in any other way where death is not at stake. Since most of these other heroes are stronger (some a lot stronger) than PCs in the beginning, the players will find out that they are not invincible. This is also a good ingame measure of development of PC's system stats - NPCs don't get levels so fast, so they will eventually beat someone who was too strong few levels before, but still it should be clear that some enemies are just too strong. If you really don't want players to fight someone (e.g. a dragon), let the monster wipe out a party led by Conan the Invincible who have recently beatten whole party by himself.

Still, some players wouldn't believe you will kill the PCs in real fight. This was my problem for some time - the PCs were regularly winning for too long. Fortunatelly, there were many friendly NPCs, with whom players had some relationships through year or two of gaming. Killing half of PC's favourite badass henchmen (heavily injuring most PCs was a detail) was excellent start of the best "hunted prey" scene in my campaign. Of course, you can't make this regularly, but it's the best way to make players slow down if they get too overconfident through long campaign.

This is apparently not your case, so you will need to hurt the PCs in other weak points. Still, life of a PC is not the best price of failure. An orcish warband might capture overconfident PCs and take their stuff. Give them opportunity to escape, and to retake their equipment, but let them know (in metagame level too) that sneaking and not brute force leads to success. If they will prefer killing as many orcs as possible, fine, but they will be cought again. Next opportunity to escape will be after the PCs will be sold as slaves to slavers' caravan. Then they will work in mines or on galleys, and if they won't manage to escape for the third time, you are free to kill them.

GrandmasterB's answer is good too - if system doesn't grant most XPs for dead enemies, it's OK, otherwise you should somehow explicitely state that running away is worth as many XP as a heroic battle would.

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If your players are completely unable to recognize and respond to subtlety, then you might need to find new players. Otherwise, a fun way to show them that it's time to flee is by showing them other things fleeing. Say the party is trekking through the mountains to find the dragon's lair. Villagers on the way can tell the party that they're headed for certain death. They might encounter orcs on the road that don't stop to fight- they just shoulder past the party & keep running away. Then bigger & more powerful monsters, all headed AWAY from wherever the party is going. Then show them the remains of past victims: munched and burned bodies, mangled, shredded pieces of armor, broken weapons, ghosts of former heroes, etc. If the party is headed towards their own deaths, make it explicitly clear that death is the only thing they can expect.

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In theory, fleeing should be something they do naturally. But if your players are seasoned veterans, they may have been conditioned to assume that any combat is balanced according to the rules. Even if they're willing to flee, they might consider it a loss.

To deal with this, I flat out tell them to flee. Before one of my campaigns I told the players that there were two types of encounters. There were combats and escape scenes. The win condition for a combat was defeating your foes. The win condition for escape was getting off the map.

The players accepted this and had a grand ole time getting chased across the city. I told them when they were in chase scenes at first, then I let them figure it out for themselves. Eventually they decided their cause was important enough that they went after a foe that had previously been part of an escape scene. It was actually a powerful moment from my POV to see them deliberately risk their lives at this point, something that's lost in a standard game, and everything that followed was pretty much the grand finale of the campaign.

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It's possible that they don't want to miss out on the metagame rewards, like XPs. Ask them if that's the case, and if so, make sure such rewards are available for surviving their foes as well as defeating them. Make the encounter not about "slaying the Balrog" but about "not encountering the Balrog at all", and hint at all kinds of in-character and metagame rewards if they succeed. It is already clear that failure is a quick fiery death.

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Allowing them to make a choice between running away and dying isn't railroading. In a well-run game, all actions have consequences and sometimes that consequence is death. If they aren't prepared to accept that one of the possibilities of fighting a battle is getting killed then they shouldn't be fighting.

You should also talk with your group and see if you are playing with the same genre expectations. If you're playing a fantasy game, people can have different approaches to what that means with regards to fights. Ask them if they expect to win every fight. When they say "yes", ask them where the challenge in that is. If they still argue for winning every fight, then you could make every fight for two sessions simple and easy to beat without them breaking a sweat. Then ask them if this is how they wanted it and if they're bored. If the answer is "no" and they are enjoying it, maybe you've got different expectations about the game and should talk to the group about how that play style bores you as a DM. The style should be halfway and they aren't listening to you. As a player, if a DM said to me, "You can run away," I would read this as "I'm going to throw stuff at you that you can't beat and the consequences will be grim." I'd pick my fights carefully and watch what I said around powerful NPCs.

If my players pick a fight with someone way more powerful than them, I give them a "meta-slap" (for example, one player is hit once, down and bleeding). If they don't change their approach when presented by evidence, that's the same as saying, "I decide not to move out of the path of the oncoming train." They've made the choice. Now they have to live with it.

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Problem there is that when one player's character is down, they have to save him or else the player's outgame feelings might get hurt for being left behind. - So to do avoid that problem make the body fly back really far towards the players, so they can pick him up and flee. –  Julix Jan 10 '14 at 20:26

My old DM used these methods when he wanted to show that a power was overwhelming:

  1. Have the enemy appear in overwhelming numbers, e.g. hundreds of anhkegs, a dragon with eleven more dragons circling in the sky above, an entire army approaching from the distance. Or, use a single enemy who is clearly unstoppable, like a great wyrm or epic level creature.
  2. Ask for a skill check to reveal the enemy's strength—Sense Motive, Knowledge (arcana) or whatever is relevant. Success reveals that the enemy is way out of your league.
  3. If the PCs still refuse to flee, have the enemy defeat them, but captured alive. They may have to escape, or be forced into some quest. This will teach them that they can't win every fight without a TPK they weren't expecting. The second time they make the same mistake, they've had their warning, so don't be so merciful.

Some other advice:

  • From The Strategemata: "Scipio Africanus used to say that a road not only ought to be afforded the enemy for flight, but that it ought even to be paved." Give your PCs a clear opportunity to flee unharmed and continue the adventure by another path.
  • Make fleeing the encounter a challenge in its own right. The encounter is now about flight, not combat. The PCs may have only to reach some safe house (think Left 4 Dead):
    • Undead can't enter a consecrated place.
    • Vampires can't cross running water.
    • Huge creatures like dragons can't fit through a small dungeon entrance.
    • An army may be unable to cross a national border or enter a city.
    • The PCs only need to hold out or hide for a fixed time, e.g. until reinforcements arrive, or until sunlight forces the undead to retreat.
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I appreciate the sentiment, but the issue isn't that players aren't aware of their mortality. They seem to expect immortality. The "one time as a warning" / "skill roll to see you're out of depth" has already been tried without having to bring the world down on top of specifically the party via the "Everyone knows dragons are out of your current league without question" caveat. –  CatLord Sep 15 '12 at 20:43

You should give them a reason to run besides their own safety. They clearly don't respond well to the classic "that monster's too big, you can't fight it" situation.

For instance: They've got a time limit to reach some other important objective. Example: They're trying to defuse a bomb or stop a magic ritual.

Or present them with reasons to run that can't be fought directly or quantified as a monster, at least not easily. Forest fire, tidal wave, a swarm of a trillion army ants, volcano, meteor falling, lava flowing, earthquake opening a chasm, etc. If you want monsters involved, well, put monsters there too, and then you've got your chase scene!

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One means, in addition to some of the excellent ideas already mentioned, is to separate XP from combat all together. Grant XP in blocks, by your descretion, for the characters succeeding in their adventures. This removes any concern they might have that they are losing out on XP if they run. ie, remove any game mechanics that are in the way.

This of course assumes one is open to house rules. I know some groups will only play by the book.

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The methods I recommend using are the following:

  1. Ticking Clock
    • Informant is only able to talk for one specific hour in a day
    • Baron Von Good needs an antidote
    • At high tide the road is flooded
  2. Escort / Courier
    • Baron Von Evil wants to kidnap the Baron Von Good's youngest son on his trip between cities and doesn't care about the players
    • Baron Von Good's battle strategies need to get to the front line before the enemy attack
  3. Both
    • Duchess Benevolent is a werewolf trying to get to her sanctuary before she changes; Baron Von Evil tries to assassinate her en route
    • Keep the possessed sword away from Henchman Rude until it is disenchanted/exorcised

Using one or both of these should hopefully wake your players up. The objective has nothing to do with killing to get the rewards and thus the "retreat XP" suggestions above can apply. The party gets no reward if they bumble it up and it could even make matters worse.

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I agree strongly with LitheOhm, but to add a couple of things on:

Make sure they understand fleeing is actually an option. If you are facing an opponent that really wants to kill you and is faster than you or has good ranged attacks, you might be best off staying and fighting even if they are much more powerful. Then you have a (slim) chance and at least you'll die on your feet with a weapon in your hand. So, if you want them to flee they need to know that either:

  1. The enemy doesn't actually care about them and will leave them alone if they retreat (or distracted, etc)
  2. The enemy is much slower and has limited ranged options.
  3. The players have some effective deception techniques (illusion spells, smoke bombs, etc.) that will actually work on this enemy.

You can also reward appropriate retreating beyond survival. Appropriate retreating is a correct role playing choice and could be rewarded with XP and other adventurers agreeing they did the right thing.

They could also see more conventional gaurdsmen and militaries being praised for proper strategic retreat that enabled a later major victory.

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Rewarding retreating is a fascinating idea and much more realistic. Failures in real life are usually better learning experiences than successes. –  Mark Rogers Sep 20 '12 at 18:14
@MarkRogers True, but its worth remember that not all retreats are failures. Hit-and-run, Defense-in-Depth, and scouting missions all involve at least limited retreating planned from the beginning. As do certain forms of luring forces into traps. An unplanned tactical retreat can be seen as a failure in a sense, but when it is the right call it can preserve forces for later maneuvers and permit a later success. –  TimothyAWiseman Sep 20 '12 at 18:30
I award xp in my games for defeating obstacles. Turning all the ghouls is overcoming the obstacle. Avoiding the ambush is overcoming the obstacle. Going round an opponent shows clever players and good learning - have some xp! This has worked well so far... –  Dakeyras Nov 21 '12 at 20:24

I have the exact same problem. One idea is to throw an under-powered encounter at the PC-s. The enemy flees, effectively, as they may be weak, but not stupid and reckless and have left themselves a backdoor.

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Apply the morale rules to player characters, too.

For example, the old D&D 2d6 morale check. Use the morale listed in the racial entries. (Dwarf, Elf, Halfling=10 if leader alive, 8 otherwise; man 6-11). In the case of human PC's, let them pick in that 6 to 11 range.

And then just apply the rules to PC's as well as NPCs.

Not so Simple

Convince them that head-on fight-to-the-death leads to dead PC's. start with just simply outnumbering them, and/or giving them a few fights that they simply can't win. After a few TPK's, they'll start to learn.

Or they'll get peeved and quit.

It helps to give a full XP award when they decide to flee an encounter. Also, if it was the right choice, a good RP award.

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+1 for full XP for making the correct choice to flee. I would add that fleeing needs to be suitably interesting (there's a few questions on chase scenes) but leaving combat is the correct answer sometimes. –  IgneusJotunn Sep 14 '12 at 2:06
+1 Full XP for bypassing an encounter. –  F. Randall Farmer Sep 14 '12 at 2:12
Except for D&D, I find that most games do XP on a session-based standard regardless of threats so players can do social as well as physical. –  CatLord Sep 14 '12 at 2:32
Full XP for fleeing seems a crazy rule. By all means give XP appropriate for the challenge when the players flee but not the full XP for the creature which is (if it's not beatable) way over what the players should be getting for normal advancement at that level. Set the fights up so fleeing is possible without one player having to valiantly stay behind and reward them for the risk they took. Just don't give them full XP, watch them level off it then be surprised when they come back a few days later to collect on the XP a second time by winning the fight now they've run away from a few things. –  Haegin Jan 17 '14 at 9:06

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