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It is practically an old adage that D&D parties will never let a fight end in a loss (short of a TPK.) And that the game mechanics (especially later editions) encourage this thinking.

But sometimes, having the party "lose" an encounter, and the ensuing plot/relationship complications, is more thrilling/interesting than a simple victory.

D&D 4e introduced Skill Challenges that allow for a "failure" condition, that if handled correctly, can meet the goal of this question.

Are there other means of achieving an acceptable-to-players encounter defeat other than a Total-Party-Kill?

[This is an edition-neutral question.]

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A big part of this IMO is having alternate win conditions in play for combat. A straight win/loss scenario in combat really doesn't work well (at least not in 4e) as it takes a long time to kill characters, specially at higher levels. There are good ideas in these questions: How do I get players to assign alternate tactical goals? How do I signal that alternate tactical end states are possible? –  wax eagle Dec 6 '13 at 20:03
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Keep killing the players in your group off until they learn that running is a viable option. –  Colin D Dec 6 '13 at 20:20
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@ColinD "Make your game Not Fun until they learn to play things your way!" is not good advice. –  Alex P Dec 6 '13 at 21:34
    
He wants cross edition techniques. Give him cross edition techniques. –  mxyzplk Dec 8 '13 at 23:54
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@AlexP And yet, that is a valid method within a common, functional social contract that works for old-school editions of D&D, because the definition of "fun" you're using is not true for everyone. –  SevenSidedDie Dec 16 '13 at 19:09
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5 Answers

up vote 19 down vote accepted

Be consistent: make tactical retreat a normal and important part of play

First, Dungeons & Dragons, particularly later editions, has as the default assumption that a challenge put before players is intended to be one they can overcome, a combat they get in is one they can win. Particularly when that challenge or combat is perceived to be one the DM intended them to get involved in.

So that has to be mitigated, if not eliminated, in the first place. Players have to be used to the idea that tactical retreat is a part of the game and that they aren’t necessarily expected to win every combat. We have a lot of questions about this:

By having these be the “new norm” in your game, it allows you to set up a climactic failure at a pivotal point in the plot.

Supply lesser targets and opportunities for the players to cut their losses

Make sure the players are aware of opportunities to retreat, and also opportunities to mitigate the enemy victory that they cannot prevent. When faced with “our only hope is...” the players are likely to stick with the fight until they die, because there are no other options. The minute chance is better than none. But if it’s increasingly obvious that to continue would be meaninglessly throwing their lives away and there’s something more effective they could be doing, they are much more likely to do that.

Be prepared for deaths

If the moment is critical, it is a point where players are expected to put it all on the line for victory. This is normal and expected: player death is usually problematic, but in this case the death can be rewarding and epic. Even a total party kill could be salvageable here, especially combined with the above where those deaths are not in vain.

In other words, you are talking about a situation where players may choose to die, and that is a good thing.

It helps, in this case, to have as a general rule/suggestion for the game that players have alternate characters ready, or at least concepts for alternate characters. Even better are if there are NPCs that the players are interested/invested in, that they might take over, though that’s kind of rare.

Also, be prepared for an unexpected victory

To be interesting, the fight has to be at least somewhat close. The players have more brains to put together on the problem, and may be able to think of creative solutions you hadn’t considered, or they just may simply get very lucky. Be very careful about “encouraging” results because they are “better” for the plot. It is very easy for a DM to fall into the trap of transforming a game into a story with that line of thinking.

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I love the epic TPK as a conclusion to a story. The party sacrifices themselves to save the world, their deeds becoming the stuff of legend, inspiring generations to come. It's even better yet if the PCs' glorious deaths can be incorporated into a future campaign's back-story, with some of the same players encountering the exaggerated tales spun about their previous characters. –  GBorreson Dec 6 '13 at 22:20
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@GBorreson I agree, but it’s a very difficult thing to plan as a DM, I think. Sure, it’s easy to kill the party, but you have to kill them at just the right moment: if you do it too early, you now either have to accept the failure (they died for nothing, or for not enough), or you have to deus ex machina things so that it was sufficient, which most players will probably notice and feel is a bit cheap. On the other hand, do it too late and they might have already won without needing to die (and if you kill them then it just feels really lame, like the DM is spiteful that they won). –  KRyan Dec 6 '13 at 22:53
    
@KRyan All true, but there are tropes that can be invoked to set it up. One is to have death absolutely required for victory (Dragon Age: Origins). Another easy one is to set up a truly impossible battle, but one where the players never need to win, they need to buy time. In 300, which is loosely based on a real battle, the Spartans knew they had no chance at all of winning, but they didn't need to. They needed to give the rest of the Greeks time to organize and give the navy time to work. The Greeks then successfully drove back Xerxes later. –  TimothyAWiseman Jan 8 at 17:04
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1) Telegraph the danger of an overwhelming and impossible to beat situation

This involves closely tying quests w/combat. Quite often combat itself is not fought to the death, but rather till it is obvious to one side that it's losing and they decide to cut their losses and withdraw. To get your players to do this you might need to describe, not so subtle situations such as overwhelming odds, increasing danger from environmental issues (collapsing temple, sinking ship, etc.) or showing that the current enemy is just in a whole 'nother league (great for introducing the Main Villain).

2) Total defeat of the enemy forces =/= Victory

Players' default assumption is that if they just kill/knock-out everyone and everything that is hostile they will have won. By setting victory and defeat conditions unrelated to whether or not everyone is still standing you can move the stakes away from life and death in every combat. For example, the heroes/adventurers are trying to rescue the princess from the evil baron's forces before she can be forcibly wed to him. They ambush the transport caravan (the combat), but at the start one of the riders guarding her immediately leaves at full speed to bring reinforcements. Since the ultimate goal of the players is to rescue the princess, wasting time trying to kill everyone may mean the reinforcements get there and overwhelm them. Likewise, the enemy guards aren't there to die in the name of glory, but are trying to withdraw with the princess (otherwise they don't get paid).

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I was thinking of non-kill-em-all victory/failure conditions when I wrote my answer, but you’re very right to identify them explicitly as a common expectation that needs to be addressed for this to work. +1 for that. –  KRyan Dec 6 '13 at 21:38
    
+1 for #2. Sometimes all you need to do is defend the sect of M-U's long enough to cast the ritual and then it's Operation: GTFO. Also in an L5R campaign I showed them that not all enemies believed the cause and threw themselves on the party's swords (literally) to save their honor and took unnecessary raises to they would miss attacks. –  CatLord Dec 8 '13 at 13:55
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First, let players know what victory/failure looks like in a given scenario. It can be helpful to have list, I put together the Big List of Combat Stakes specifically with this in mind.

Second, make sure the opposition in the encounter also behaves in an appropriate fashion - outside of zombies, magical constructs, and the most fanatical of people, it's pretty rare anyone is going to fight to the death. Not only are creatures likely to retreat if they look like they're losing, they're also likely to retreat if the costs just look too high for what they're hoping to gain. Heck, some encounters might have the enemies winning then leave while winning - "We taught them a lesson they won't soon forget. We've got better things to do." etc.

Third, if you want an easy way to make the game less survival/PC death oriented, I use my Pulp Death rules:

If your hero is knocked to -10 hp, they’re dead. If they’re at 0 or less, they do not lose hitpoints each round, but instead stabilize and regain 1 hp per hour unconscious until they wake up at 0 hitpoints.

Obviously, you can adjust those numbers as fits your game, but the nice thing is that basically if the PC isn't at the magic negative number, isn't in a position to keep taking damage (on fire, drowning, etc.), the players can simply not worry about rushing to save them and focus on the enemies.

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+1 Having the opposition model fitting behavior is a great idea. –  Alex P Dec 7 '13 at 8:25
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Completely agree re: the opposition. The loss of morale tables in later editions of D&D was a huge change in the way the game worked. –  cr0m Dec 8 '13 at 0:33
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Combat doesn't need to be a simple group vs group contest of survival. It can have other objectives, and is often much more interesting if it does have these. Here are some examples:

  • You surprise an enemy scouting party. They attempt to flee to their army to warn of your presence, with some enemies engaging in delaying tactics to cover the escape of the runners. Victory is preventing the runners from escaping, while failure occurs if even one escapes.
  • You are tasked with escorting a merchant caravan through a goblin-infested mountain pass. Victory occurs if the caravan reaches its destination unmolested. A sliding scale of failure occurs depending on how much loss of life or cargo occurs along the way.
  • A group of cultists are engaged in a foul ritual, that involves spilling the blood of the abducted townsfolk upon a series of altars positioned around the clearing. Victory involves disrupting the ritual in time, but it would also be very nice to save as many of the townsfolk as possible. Failure involves a swarm of vrocks pouring forth, marauding the countryside.
  • You are tasked with capturing an enemy who has valuable information. Success involves disabling and restraining the target. Failure occurs if the target escapes or is killed. Both of those failures may have ways to mitigate the failure, either by pursuing and succeeding in a second attempt or finding a way to speak with the dead target.

I personally try to craft combat encounters to include elements of puzzle-solving and to have a sense of urgency, with multiple possible outcomes that may impact the story and with rewards for creative thinking. I also try to reveal significant amounts of story during combat, often dropping the big reveals through the results of a timely successful skill check from a creative idea, through description of a bizarre emerging development or through mid-combat dialog.

Some of these can be used to encourage the players to adjust tactics, perhaps including surrender, fleeing or some other course of action.

Some examples:

  • You have successfully tracked down your quarry and cornered him in the ruins. He triggers a series of traps and his minions ambush the party. Mid-way through the fight, which is starting to go quite badly for the PCs, dialog emerges, in which the quarry claims that he is innocent and that the nobleman who hired the party is not what he appears to be, for the real nobleman was murdered while out hunting two weeks ago. He seems to be telling the truth, but he is renowned for his skills at deception.
  • The cavern trembles and the bridge starts to give way, with great chunks of rock crashing down into the pool of lava below. Ser Hedric clings to the edge, his grip failing. "Leave me! You must get back to the town to warn the Guard!" he exclaims as one of the bugbears lines up a spear to knock him loose, a murderous gleam in its eye. At the far side of the cavern, something immense is emerging.

A great way to encourage your party to lay down their arms is to provide doubt that their enemy is actually their enemy. Another trick is revealing that the enemy has serious outside leverage that will be used against the party if not (e.g.: hostages who will die if the party does not surrender). Another is to promise a result that is non-disastrous for surrendering (e.g.: a promise to be allowed to leave unharmed if party hands over their ward; a promise of a fair trial; promise of release of a captive if the party takes his place).

You can encourage the party to flee by providing an objective that is attained by fleeing (e.g.: warning allies in time to prevent catastrophe; the party's ward flees the battlefield and will probably die without protection) or by providing a sense of impending doom if they do not (e.g.: the battlefield is becoming completely unsurvivable; a monster they have no ability to fight appears; wave upon increasingly-sized wave of enemy reinforcements arrive).

Even in cases where fleeing is the only real way to survive, it's more fun if there's still some variable outcome, where there are other (perhaps incredibly difficult) heroic deeds that can be accomplished along-route, like rescuing Ser Hedric from certain demise just before the bridge fully collapses.

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Although I agree that setting expectations about PC death is important, in recent versions of D&D, the main reason that players choose death before dishonor is that the reward system of those editions of D&D penalize retreat. In editions like 3.5e and 4e (IIRC), you get XP by defeating enemies. If you don't defeat them, you don't get XP, period.

Sure, there have always been "alternate" methods of awarding XP, but XP for killing bad guys is by far the most supported.

If you play an edition like B/X D&D, where you get XP for treasure (and a pittance for killing bad guys), suddenly retreat happens! Why would you risk wiping out your party for a few hundred XP, when avoiding the encounter (or picking the fight when victory is assured) nets you way more points?

Simply put: stop awarding XP for fighting. Then you'll get different behavior. I prefer the XP-for-treasure system, even though it's not "realistic", because it rewards players for "winning" D&D (ie survival and loot).

You could try awarding XP for surviving the session, for example. My guess is you'd suddenly see a lot more surrendering. Award XP for gaining an ally--suddenly players will want to parlay. Award XP for achieving in-game goals by any means necessary, etc.

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I don't award XP for fighting, but still see this behaviour. There is something else going on. –  F. Randall Farmer Dec 8 '13 at 6:48
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@F.RandallFarmer What do you award XP for? That's kind of important, and would be useful to mention in the question. It doesn't currently say anything about the reward structure that this behaviour is occurring in. –  SevenSidedDie Dec 8 '13 at 18:09
    
Though I think it is irrelevant to my question, I currently grant loot for quests (which are never "kill the xxx" quests>) and levels for campaign milestones. I have seen this behavior in all editions with and without high XP for kills RAW. –  F. Randall Farmer Dec 9 '13 at 15:18
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It may be a case of "when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail". D&D prioritizes dealing with problems via combat, simply by devoting so many rules and describing so many things in terms of hit point reduction. So your players might just enjoy combat and the system mastery it requires. –  cr0m Dec 10 '13 at 0:08
    
@F.RandallFarmer So what you're saying is that you structure games along story arcs. (Or at least, that's the structure the players can see.) That's probably important too: players will rarely choose to "fail" a challenge with anything less than death, if they think that overcoming this fight is the only mean to advance the storyline. Breaking a storyline is a worse fate than death, since death can be recovered from, but there's the perception than breaking a storyline can't be. –  SevenSidedDie Dec 16 '13 at 19:12
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