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In 99% of the D&D games I've played/DM'd across almost all editions (never did 1st and 4th though), the party is completely unwilling to surrender or let themselves be captured. The 1% accounts for a Dark Sun adventure where we had to infiltrate a gladiatorial stable and everyone had zero gear worth keeping anyway (whatever we would equip in the arena would be an upgrade).

So the party always fight like each and every fight is their last stand. It leads to several issues, like the 15-minute workday but never considering surrender or defeat. It would be equivalent to a TPK.

But in fiction stories, the main characters get captured all the time. Like in Sword of Shannara novels where they escape only to be caught by another party five minutes later (sometimes literally).

In what ways can I challenge this misconception, and make surrender or capture upon defeat a not-ragequit type of outcome for the players?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Honest Question: When you're the DM, do you have the PCs' opposition surrender? When you're a player, does your PC ever ask the opposition to surrender? \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Jul 2 '17 at 7:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ Related: How can I make my PCs flee? \$\endgroup\$ – adonies Jul 2 '17 at 7:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan following the "one question per post", I was in the way of asking just that in my next question. But I have to search for possible dupes first. \$\endgroup\$ – Mindwin Jul 2 '17 at 7:19
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Vary the opposition by using merciless opponents sparingly

Nobody's gonna surrender to Cthulhu. Being captured by the biblical Lucifer means a fate worse than death. A terminator doesn't want you alive—it's in its name! Against such foes, surrendering or being captured means the PC's story ends… so use such foes sparingly. PCs should be made to realize when they're up against an especially merciless foe and behave accordingly: fight to the death or flee if they must. But if PCs believe most foes to be unrelentingly merciless, then the few who aren't will be treated as if they were anyway. For surrender or a capture to be an option, the PCs need that option to be preferable to death or damnation!

Have the opposition occasionally surrender conditionally

If the players see NPCs doing something, they are more likely to try it themselves. Rather than sending waves of mindless or suicidal minions to fight to the death against the party, have intelligent enemies that—once the battle's outcome is clear and not to their liking—parley with the PCs, negotiating their surrender.

This goes hand in hand with point one. For example, Diablo, Lord of Terror, who's hellbent on subjugating the Material Plane lest he face another eternity of imprisonment and torture, is unlikely to be amenable to surrender, but low-paid bugbear bandits working for a ruthless, I-murder-my-minions-to-make-my-points ogre mage? Once those guys take a light beating, they should throw down their spears, agree to most terms, and sing like canaries about their boss.

And if the PCs decide to murder foes that've already surrendered anyway, you should talk to the players about the harsh consequences reaped by a PC with such a reputation, the value of jurisprudence, and your expectations for the game. Hopefully that won't happen, though.

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Option 1. Create the conditions for these decisions to emerge organically during play

In one instance that I recall, where our group willingly allowed to be imprisoned, we were all 1st level characters. We were in an inn, surrounded by the guard of a deranged baron. We knew that confronting them would almost certainly lead to a TPK, so when he ordered them to throw us in the cell, we didn't resist.

First and foremost, expectations need to be set. On the one hand, this means ensuring that the players' understanding of the rules is sufficient, so that they can judge for themselves when the odds against them are insurmountable. On the other hand, it's about making assumptions of "what adventurers are supposed to do in a combat scenario in this game/story" explicit. It's frequent that players go into D&D with the assumption that combat is rarely about whether they win, but how quickly and efficiently they win. Dying heroically is seen as a valid outcome, but retreating/being captured is seen as something that's not fun or doesn't fit the genre. The best way to address that is before sitting down at the table to play. Valadil's reply in this question offers a good example of how to do this:

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.

You mentioned that you'd like to "make surrender or capture upon defeat" a viable option. I think that by adding the "upon defeat" caveat, you run the risk of damping down combat and robbing it of what makes it truthful, and exciting: "oh you lost? that's fine, you just got captured". When expectations are set beforehand, this allows players to make tactical decisions based on these expectations.

Option 2. Explicitly address the players, rather than the characters: offer the players a meaningful choice.

Bryce Lynch (of tenfootpole.org) often talks about the benefits of figuring out how to motivate players to do something: it results in a more functional way to design adventures. The same principle applies here - in the dark sun game example the players were motivated to take that route. In some cases, it's a carrot (the gear in the dark sun example, or the chance to find out a secret in your enemy's lair etc). In other cases, it could be choosing the short stick now (surrender), rather than risk the longer stick later (e.g. you, your friends and allies will seriously get hurt).

Hard choices are meaningful choices

Earlier we talked about the binary win/lose mode that we often fall into in D&D combats. It sounds like you're looking for a way to break this predictable pattern, and exchange it with a more narrative approach. This is one of the positive traits of "Powered by the Apocalypse" games. In this engine, challenging situations have three types of outcomes: successes, partial successes / hard choices, and the GM escalating things in some shape or form.

To port that over to your game, you can do the following: for certain types of enemies (ones that are known to not kill prisoners of war), give the players a choice to surrender. This is similar to option 1 (where you clarify expectations before the game, and leave it to the players to decide offering only subtle narrative prompts in-game). In option 2, it's explicit and much more direct. It treats the game more like a dialogue between the GM and the players.

Here's Robin Laws talking about doing this (in a different game system).

The scene in which the hero is taken prisoner by adversaries is as deep a staple of adventure fiction as you could ask for. In roleplaying this basic scene has always acted as bugaboo. Players cling vehemently to their characters’ agency. Some would rather have their characters killed than tossed in a cell.

If we think about these sequences in movies and fiction, they always afford the hero a way forward, after a suitable period of frustration. The hero learns something about the antagonist, gleans some other key bit of information, or makes a key alliance that drives the story forward.

...

When you think your player’s Cthulhu Confidential detective ought to be knocked on the head, as happens from time to time to any self-respecting noir hero, offer this Problem card:


When You Regain Consciousness Problem

You are knocked out and will wake up in the foe’s clutches. When you either escape, or gain a core clue while in custody, discard this card plus any one other non-Continuity Problem card you can justify to the GM.

Tell them that they can accept the card and forgo a Challenge to avoid being knocked out. Or they can take their chances on the Challenge, which might still wind up with imprisonment, plus one if not two worse Problem cards.

This signals to the player that,

a) absolutely, there will be a way out of the imprisonment,

b) interesting things will happen during the imprisonment and

c) here’s a nice extra bribe for you.

This turns a situation in which the player fears loss of agency to one in which she has a choice and can feel in control of a temporary loss of control. As paradoxical as that may sound.

In D&D terms, if they don't go along with it, then that's a choice in itself. They are clear at what the stakes are.

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This is an issue of trust, expectations, and consent

... not of writing or campaign design.

Dungeons & Dragons runs on a social contract between the players and the DM. In my experience, one of the most (if not the most) common sources of table issues is simply expectation mismatches. Each player in a campaign (including the DM) comes to the table with a different set of unspoken expectations, and in many cases this is not a problem, but in times like this, it very clearly is.

One of the more important concepts in ttrpgs like D&D is "player agency." That is, the idea that the players gain narrative power over the game through their characters and those characters' interactions with the world. While the DM controls the world, the players control the party, and in cases where that assumption is broken down in a way that someone didn't expect, it causes problems. The rules exist to support this, by giving players clear and accessible ways of interacting with the world, and giving DMs the same ways of interacting with the PCs.

Make sure expectations are clear

Because of this potential for conflict of expectations, it's incredibly important to make sure that you know the players' outlooks on a given concept, and that they know your outlook on that concept. Whether or not you agree with respects to that outlook is another matter, but without being clear on these things, there's no way to even begin fixing the problem.

In this case, the scenario seems to be two differing (and opposing) points of view:

1. "If we lose an encounter, our characters basically die and the game ends. We may as well just fight to the death or play extremely conservatively."
2. "If the party loses an encounter, then that's just another way for the game and story to continue in an interesting way."

I would hazard a guess that your group's outlook comes from some bad experiences with DMs who had that expectation, burning them on the concept of surrender as a result. If not, it may simply be a misconception. Regardless, I suggest the same course of action.

Get on the same page

Talk to your players about this, either before the game, after the game, or at another time. If possible, it may be helpful to use something like the Same Page Tool as part of this conversation (my group recently had a mismatch of expectations that led to a pair of unfun sessions for part of the party, and that's what we used to help clear things up).

When discussing this, hear them out about what they expect and what they want out of the game, and ideally, they should do the same for you. After all, you are all peers in the same goal: collaboratively having a fun game and making a fun story.

During this discussion, your goal should be not to convince them of your way, but simply to, as a group, get on the same page about what people have been expecting, so that everyone can then get on the same page about what they should expect in the future.

Finding common ground

If you can convince the group to adjust their expectations, then all should be well, and your job then is to simply not betray the trust invested in the DM seat by the rest of the players. If the group won't move on things, be it because they don't trust you enough, are uncomfortable with the idea, or still aren't clear on what's being discussed, talking it out some more may help. In an extreme case, the mismatch of expectations and playstyles may mean that the group is simply incompatible in that way, which would be a shame. But I think that it should hopefully be a fruitful discussion, because...

In this game, trust and consent are everything

I would like to challenge the frame of this question slightly, expanding it to a more broad topic of player–DM trust and the idea of willingly giving up agency.

My example for this will be the Horror genre and horror campaigns. There's a lot of material out there on how to do "horror" games, scary monsters, sanity mechanics, and brutal, punishing campaigns, but none of those things are, in the end, what makes a horror campaign scary (in fact they might detract from it, but that's a different issue entirely).

In the end, what matters is that agency is in a sacred mental box, something that the DM should not touch without explicit permission to do so. This is part of why rust monsters and similar creatures are so hated: thanks to D&D having such an emphasis on items, rust monsters can (and often do) outright remove a player's ability to have an effect on the game. In D&D 3.5 or 4e, a fighter whose sword has been rusted away may as well no longer be playing, because the game is simply too punishing without the proper gear.

But horror, as a genre, is heavily rooted in the loss of agency. A person can watch a horror movie and critique the cheesy effects, bemoan the hammy acting and action, and mock the "rules" of horror movies, and they won't be scared, because while it's a horror movie, it's not scary unless you allow yourself to be scared. People who enjoy horror movies go into the film willingly putting aside their thoughts that would reduce the horror. When a horror fan watches a horror movie, they want to be scared, and allow the film to scare them. They have, in a way, given the movie permission to scare them. A promise that they won't overthink or pick apart the plot to make it no longer scary, and in the end, they get a fun experience out of having willingly surrendered their agency to let the film take them for a ride.

A horror game is the exact same thing, only it's slightly more complex thanks to people having different expectations and lines they do not want to cross. Players willingly take less agency than normal, and allow the DM to throw them into situations where they are not in control.

The DM's job in a horror campaign is above all else, being aware of these lines and expectations, and being cognizant of the emotional states and comfort of the players. It's fun to be scared, but when "scary" turns to "emotionally-traumatic," things have gone too far, and the game needs to be adjusted (or halted in order to cool down, discuss, and fix). Any of the players (including the DM) can at any time withdraw that consent if something in the horror campaign gets uncomfortable, and making sure that people stay happy and on-board with the game is the first task of that sort of campaign.

With that said, how does that apply here?

When the party fights to the death and dies, that's something that happens on their terms, out of character. The rules state that certain things work in certain ways, the players are aware of it, and no agency has been lost (most of the time. Sometimes agency has been lost simply by starting combat, in cases like "and then a level 20 lich teleports in and kills all your characters without warning," which I have regrettably seen happen).

Surrender, on the other hand, by definition means handing their characters' fates to the DM. It's no longer something the players control, but something the DM is in charge of. "The party arbitrarily wakes up in a jail cell" plots have this issue, because it can be seen as representing a misstep on the DM's part, overriding the players' right to interact with the world through the characters and rules.

Like playing a horror game, PCs surrendering to their foes requires, at least in some way, willingly giving up agency. If they do not trust you to take good care of that agency and then give it back to them to continue the game, then they will not surrender (and if forced to surrender, will likely be frustrated by that turn of events). In contrast, if they trust you to do so, they will likely surrender more often because they know you're going to make it fun for them.

So in conclusion

Talk to your players about expectation, and work to garner a healthy, trusting set of player–DM relationships. Make sure you know the lines people don't want to cross and how much agency they are willing to hand over to you for the sake of supporting your planned plot developments. Once you do that, then I think this issue should disappear.

Overall, the biggest thing is just being on the same page with respects to what people expect out of the game.

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Start by recognizing that RPGs are not novels, novels are not history, and history isn't an RPG. None of these things are the same as any of the others.

  • RPGs are not novels: Capture is an "option" in a novel only for the writer, not for the characters, because nothing is an option for the characters in a novel. In RPGs, player agency is everything.

  • RPGs are not history: Even when they are in historical settings, some various rough edges are almost always shaved off and smoothed over. And frankly, the history of "prisoners of war" isn't all that great anyway, involving, as it often did at various times and places, lifelong slavery, religious sacrifice, summary execution, or extended periods of doing nothing. (And the latter, while a better fate than death, is not useful to an RPG.)

That said, several factors need to be in place for the players and for the characters for this to be viable

  • There needs to be a strong-- a very strong-- understanding that fights are not always to the death, that capture rather than death is a protected option, and that it might lead to some eventuality that is preferable to death for the characters. This might be a strong culture of prisoner exchange and ransoming, such as exists in Europe after the Peace of Westphalia... at least for some. If the characters are in a social or religious class protected from execution and this ban is widely respected that solves some of your problem. Alternately, if the individual characters have some particular script immunity, that might work, too.

    But remember, the PCs need to be playing by these rules, too.

  • If you want every fight to have a surrender option, that really rather limits your choice of opposition to these civilized people who are willing to capture rather than kill. This tends to percolate both up and down: It limits your prime-mover bad guys, their minions and shock troops, and even random dungeon crawl monsters.

  • Or, if not, it needs to be awfully clear when these protections are going to work and when they aren't. No one wants to hear, "Oh, the Earl of Infamy? Yeah, he doesn't play by those rules. He executes Clara the Cutpurse with his own sword before Percy Polymath can even explain that."

These are potentially solvable issues on the game/background design side. I am in one game, although not D&D, where there is an unrealistically strong culture of capture, ransom and release. There is a reason for it. It took a long time, in-game, for the GM to really get that idea across. I think it is fair to say that in general, this is something best established early in a game, very likely including both inclusion in the pre-game info dump for a homebrew setting (or list of changes to an established setting) as well as early objects lessons where the PCs witness a capture, and/or take part in one (on either side.)

  • Beyond that, there needs to be something interesting for the PCs to do after capture. This strikes me as the far more difficult challenge, while maintaining basic common sense and credibility in the game world. Basically the characters need to be able to escape (in which case, if escape is that easy, why is capture a policy?) or need to be released quickly (again, why?) or they need to be held for a long time which time period is presumably glossed over quickly, but need to be able to immediately get back to doing interesting things again.

This is not an insoluble problem-- genre conventions are genre conventions-- but it is most definitely a problem that needs to be solved before you can implement this desired policy.

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Create a basis of trust with the players as a GM!

I have captured my players, made them surrender willingly and taken all gear from them with some complaint but no stand down to death, beacuse my players trust in me as a game master to treat them fairly, when they play along (and do not act too stupidly or provocatively) and that I will arrange for them sooner or later to retrieve their possessions and make their sacrifices worthwhile.

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Precedent. As the many examples below will show, there's an organic world in which you can have player characters wandering around, and seeing how NPCs are treated. If they are dismembered and devoured or executed every session, the players will conclude every fight is a fight to the death. If they see people captured in long chain gangs being marched by despots and hobgoblins to some other place, it presents the opportunity in the minds of the players that they could get captured rather than killed, and that's OK, because they then have opportunities to escape.

You could run something like Dark Sun for a session or two, base it on the Spartacus Blood & Sand tv shows, where the player characters all start off as prisoners, and then work in pits. You could have them standing around all sorts of scenes and stories about how so and so was captured, and how that led to the life of a servant, a warrior, a cook, etc. Depending on the maturity of your audience, you could introduce other content where capture leads to interesting roles of manipulation, seduction, jealousy, and betrayal.

Having the PCs start an adventure where they are hired by someone close to the prison guards, and walk by the prisons, where they have prisoners come in, that sort of thing, helps set the groundwork for a society where combat that goes poorly doesn't always lead to death.

Rumor. You have a rumor mill about various villains, the duke of this and duchess of that. They have a tower, where they do all sorts of horrible things to their people. Or alternatively, get locked away and sold into slavery. But the rumors don't stop there, oh no. They go into details. Someone says the poor sod had to wait six months for his execution because the Duchess couldn't find the right dress for the occasion. Talk about a famous thief who escaped, or have the PC's introduced to that very rogue and boast of it with a large flagon of ale. Have him solicit the players for money enough to refill his mug, and he'll tell them how he did it.

Talk about the consequences of being sold to the highest bidder, using rumors of gladiator pits, of cup bearers, and drow mines. Present multiple instances in which the players may conclude that if captured, they are worth more alive than dead, and will be treated as commodities with roleplaying opportunites to free themselves.

Have a few Lawful Lawfuls, or Lawful Stupids, or Lawful Evil judges complete with the curly powdered wigs. Make it a spectacle that people go to watch. Have a few lawyers set up, perhaps even one with a certain contract with a certain devil that either went badly, or went all too well to be believed. You could have a session that runs like an episode of Better Call Saul.

Make the sheriffs and prison laborers and transport more obvious in advance. Like rumors of a goblin army that captures towns and sells the people to Trolls or Ogres for food and labor, then have a big expose about how the poor slaves get marched for days, or even weeks through the Terrible Mountains of Terror (fifty miles east of the Horrible Mountains of Horror).

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There is a lot of talk about trust in the GM here, and I agree with that. It's really really important. But if that kind of trust is lacking--and it seems it is--then there is another important way to get your players to accept surrender:

Make sure that capture is the better option.

There are several ways of doing this, but there are two things you need to establish to make it happen:

  1. The characters (and the players) must know that they will be captured and not killed.
  2. The characters (and the players) must know that the alternative to getting captured has a steep cost.

The first point can be done by letting the leader clearly shout to the guards/thugs/minions that they need to capture the PC:s and that they are not to be harmed permanently. You can also start off the encounter by letting the leader ask the PC:s to come peacefully and give them ample opportunity during the fight to give up.

The second point can be harder, especially if your PC:s don't have any connections to people they care about. If they do, let them know that not giving up will be harmful to friends and family. If the PC:s still refuse, let them win the fight and then carry out the threat. Kill an important contact. Chop off an arm of a sister. Ravage their home village. Make it hurt and make sure the PC:s understand that the enemy isn't just giving out empty threats.

If the PC:s have nothing to lose they will have a harder time surrendering. So make sure there is still something to lose after the threat is executed. "Hey, I hear your sister still has one arm and both legs left. Are you ready to come with us this time?" Naturally, if the PC:s have nothing to lose to begin with you're in a pickle, but if you play around with motivations you can almost always find a way.

I once played a deeply egoistical character, with no care about the other party members and no ambition in life other than to kill a certain baron (to my character, it was self defence). The character, however, developed a bond with the daughter of one of the PC:s since she always treated him nicely and was the only person ever to care for him in any way. When she was suddenly put in danger he changed his priorities completely in order to help her. Another way of nudging my character would have been to let him know that a certain course of action would have helped the baron. "Surrender now and I won't tell the baron where you are." would have worked, as would "Surrender now and I'll help you get rid of the baron." Find the PC:s weak points and poke them.

In addition to this, everything the others have said about playstyle consensus and trust between player and GM holds true. If the players expect each fight to be to the death they will fight to the death. And sometimes that's OK. But if there is an option for the PC:s, you have to make sure the PC:s (and the players) know about it. Transparency before, during and after gameplay is key to successful adventures.

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Capture them and demonstrate it.

D&D 5e has a built in mechanic to allow capture - a melee attack that reduces a creature to 0hp can, at the attacker's whim, make them unconscious instead of dying.

Build encounters that will be TPKs, have the adversaries capture them and show the players some positive outcomes: "Da boss wants to see ya" says the ogre. The players fight the lose only to find that the 'boss' makes them an offer - maybe one they can refuse but greatly to their benefit.

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    \$\begingroup\$ It can be done ingame, but the main issue is player feeling. Sometimes they just walk out of the building upon character "death". \$\endgroup\$ – Mindwin Jul 2 '17 at 7:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Mindwin Right. As they go direct them to a hardware store for some concrete so they can harden up \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Jul 6 '17 at 7:26

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