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I want a house rule to make it easier for either side to run away from combat.

My main gripe with the standard rule is running away from combat devolving into:

  1. A dashes + moves away from B (provokes opportunity attack)
  2. B dashes + moves adjacent to A again
  3. A dashes + moves away from B (provokes opportunity attack)
  4. B dashes + moves adjacent to B again

or:

  1. A disengages + moves away from B
  2. B walks up to A and attacks
  3. A disengages + moves away from B
  4. B walks up to A and attacks

Making running away from a fight a realistic tactical option achieves a few goals:

  1. Make it easier for PCs to get themselves out of trouble without the DM having to pull punches to save them (therefore giving the DM "permissions" to use intelligent/dangerous NPCs/creatures without having to worry "will it be a party wipe if the PCs decide to engage in combat")
  2. Make it easier to run stories with recurring villains by making it easier to end combats with both sides still alive.
  3. Make combat more dynamic and increase the value of tactics such as grappling/restraining, flanking, blocking an obvious escape route, readying an action, battlefield control spells, etc. (If you don't want someone to be able to run away, do something tactical to prevent their retreat.)

I've considered two house rules which each might help:

  1. You only get an opportunity attack if an opponent both enters and exits a square in your range on the same turn. (So, generally, get an opportunity attack if someone runs past you, but not directly away from you.)

  2. After taking the Dash action, you cannot make opportunity attacks until your next turn.

Are there any hidden downsides to these two options? Are there other house rules that could achieve my goal more cleanly?

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4 Answers 4

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"Are there other house rules that could achieve my goal more cleanly?"

Chase Rules

I strongly encourage the Chase rules found in chapter 8 of the Dungeon Master's Guide

I have used these in almost every game I've played in the last few years, and while they took some getting used to for both myself and my players, they dramatically improved the running away system.

Essentially, whenever the party chooses to run away and speeds are relatively equal, I initiate a chase (assuming the enemies decide to make chase). This adds a lot of fun elements to the escape, such as the party having to deal with natural obstacles using their skills and quick thinking.

These rules also avoid the constant attacking issue (although usually I allow any chasers that are twice as fast as any other to make one attack per turn during the chase). Since everything in a chase is assumed to be simultaneous, you don't run into the opportunity attack issue.

Out of the Abyss

The adventure Out of the Abyss is a fantastic showcase of these Chase mechanics throughout the first act of the adventure (it also happens to be my favorite campaign module). Numerous times throughout the first act, the party finds themselves involved in a chase.

I encourage you to look through these events to see how the chases are handled (and also get access to a couple more rollable tables for the obstacles).

You could also checkout other modules, as point out by nitsua60 in the comments, for other chases including Tomb of Annihilation and Waterdeep: Dragon Heist.

How to Transition to a Chase

There were some questions posted in the comments about how to handle the transition between combat and chases, so I'll add a bit about how I handle it, but discuss with your table to decide on a method.

Typically, I finish the current combat round, and then switch to the Chase rules. I do this for two reasons:

  1. It prevents metagaming the timing of a Chase to after certain creatures have taken their turns but before others.
  2. The combat round is narratively happening simultaneously.

Then, if one group is fleeing, I start the Chase with new initiative. This is a new type of encounter, and the new initiative roll symbolizes (at my table) the capacity of each individual to react and start running, or start chasing.

Typically, how this happens in game is the party realizes mid-round (or I decide that the enemies will) that they are going to need to flee. Then there is this lovely tension as they hope that they can all survive to the end of the round.

While their tactics certainly change slightly knowing they are going to flee at the end of the combat round, I don't think this does a disservice to the narrative, as it is sensible to (for example), intercede between your foes and severely injured allies as the group prepares to flee.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +many for this: I've also used it since about year 2 of 5e, with much satisfaction. The moment one party to the combat's goal is no longer "do lethal harm" but "escape at any cost," we're no longer in combat, we're in a chase. IIRC Tomb of Annihilation (in the jungles of Chult) and WD:Dragon Heist (through the streets/across the rooftops of Waterdeep) also have good chase examples. \$\endgroup\$
    – nitsua60
    May 22, 2023 at 14:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AnneAunyme Players usually aren’t the ones doing calling for chase. Players call to run away, then DM begins chase. Or NPCs begin to run and DM begins chase. Either way, this is always a DM facing decision. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    May 22, 2023 at 15:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ Can you elaborate on how exactly you transition from a combat to a chase? Do you finish the current round of combat first, or do you immediately switch to the chase rules mid-round (and if so, does the round start over now that it's a chase)? Do you re-roll initiative for the chase or keep the same initiative from the combat? \$\endgroup\$ May 22, 2023 at 16:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PeterCordes I have been using them for years in many games. Everyone will have different experiences, but I have never had the same issues that SupergeekMike brings up. I don't narrate the chase as "dashing every round". I just assume that everyone is dashing until they deplete their exhaustion. The chase is more about clever ways to leverage the obstacles. I also profoundly enjoy the stealth element, as it reintroduces the exploration pillar of play that is always hard to implement as the party can now search for hiding spots or their target. \$\endgroup\$ May 23, 2023 at 6:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PeterCordes To add a bit about the dashing every round element, it lets the disparate speeds shine as every few rounds, the fastest characters get to save a dash, and do something every few rounds. I don't roll complications individually either, I roll 50 or so times (either before the session, or using an online tool), and go down the list. This dramatically increases speed of play for chases (which should feel fast paced) \$\endgroup\$ May 23, 2023 at 6:20
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What would break without those rules

Those "opportunity" rules are trying to fix problems that you need to keep addressed.

First, there need to be a cost of moving away or any penalty for being in someone's range is moot (like disadvantage on ranged attacks). In 3rd edition many more things are heavily punished by being done while staying in range, like casting a spell or drinking a potion.

In 5e most of this is gone but it still is a way to ensure some kind of balance between ranged and melee: ranged warrior can more easily switch between targets, and often can stay away from danger, but they can become disadvantaged if forced into melee. Ensuring this balance is one of the only remaining purposes of attacks of opportunity, so you need to keep that with your houserule.

You only get an opportunity attack if an opponent both enters and exits a square in your range on the same turn. (So, generally, get an opportunity attack if someone runs past you, but not directly away from you.)

This doesn't work for that: if an archer can simply move away every time they get into melee and continue firing arrows then there is no point into choosing melee over ranged.

Also it doesn't solve your issue if your opponent has reach (unless you add other specifications but then it becomes quite complicated for a 5e rule)

After taking the Dash action, you cannot make opportunity attacks until your next turn.

This would be a middle ground: it would make things slightly easier for ranged combatants but not by enough that it destroys balance. I think this one would be a fair rule in most situations. Of course you would need as a GM to know when to stop using combat rules and start rolling athletics checks if everyone was dashing every turn but it doesn't look that hard to pull out.

Maybe you'd need to add something so that characters with a bigger move speed can't abuse this if characters start using this rule to be able to kite at range without ever be attacked. It can be as radical as "to trigger this immunity to opportunity attacks you have to switch to 'runaway mode', in which you can't attack anymore until the scene is over", or a softer adjustment, like only preventing opportunity attacks if you used more than half your speed on the dash action. How much of those you need hugely depends on how your players are.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think the rule "After taking the Dash action, you cannot make opportunity attacks until your next turn" actually does destroy balance: if an archer has a faster movement rate than their opponent, even just five feet faster, then they can walk away every turn before shooting, and their opponent has no way to injure them. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dan B
    May 22, 2023 at 14:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DanB this is already true with the standard rules: if you run away faster and shoot once in a while when your opponent is far enough then you can't ever get hit. But anyway that's a valid point that will need to be addressed before having a good houserule. \$\endgroup\$ May 22, 2023 at 15:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ Anyway, I modified my last paragraph to take this remark into account \$\endgroup\$ May 22, 2023 at 15:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch This is an analysis of OP's proposed houserules. I surely can't see all the potential abuses of those rules but I certainly can see some of them, even without trying them. \$\endgroup\$ May 22, 2023 at 15:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DanB: The melee creature can dash and run past the archer. In an open field with no other creatures this doesn't help, but in a narrow street the archer would either have to run the other way (potentially back towards the melee creature's allies) or run fast the melee creature and either stop within range for it to move+attack next turn, or the archer has to dash this turn and not attack. But if they have higher speed, after a couple rounds of dashing to open a gap, yes they can kite anyone with lower speed (or equivalent factoring in bonus-action-dash) and attack once per few rounds. \$\endgroup\$ May 23, 2023 at 3:28
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The combat rules fundamentally can't handle this

To understand why tweaking them won't work, you have to go back to basic game design and think about what the combat system is designed to do.

Like any collection of game mechanics in an RPG, the D&D combat system is an abstraction of what's "really" going on in the story, designed to be simple enough to be playable. To do this, it has to simplify everything, but it doesn't do this equally: if something is unlikely to be relevant in situations the combat system is designed for, then they're made very simple.

Movement is one of those mechanics which have been extremely simplified, because it's not very important in the situations the combat system was designed to represent - i.e. battles between two small groups, each of which is trying to kill the other. Being able to move around a bit, and to give up your attack to move a bit more, is really all you need for that.

But if you want to simulate running away from a fight in detail, you'll need a lot more detail in your movement mechanics. For example, you'd want your move speeds to have elements of randomness, because otherwise the escape attempt is determined before it starts. You'd want to incorporate the athletics skill somehow into speed. You'd want to deal with characters getting tired and slowing down - if the characters' speeds are similar to the enemies' this would ultimately determine whether they escape or not. You'd want to deal with the possibility of tripping, or otherwise injuring yourself as you run. You'd want to do something to stop the rogue being able to run 1.5x as fast as everyone else via cunning action.

On the other hand, you wouldn't need most of the combat rules. There's no need for complicated positioning rules with attacks of opportunity, for example. Perhaps you can get rid of most of the action system. If you wanted, you could probably even get rid of attack rolls without breaking anything.

I'm not saying this because I think you should design a new system like this for running away. I'm saying it to explain why the 5e combat system is completely unsuitable for what you're trying to do. Making a couple of tweaks here and there, like the ones you suggested, won't make running away fun and will make normal combat less enjoyable. Instead, when the PCs try to run away, you should switch out of combat rules entirely.

So what should you use instead?

If you don't want to introduce a brand new system to handle running away in detail, I'd recommend dropping out of combat at the end of the round the PCs decide to run (see David Coffron's "How to transition to a chase" above to see why to wait until the end of the round), and using some very simple mechanic to handle the chase. For example, you and the enemies make opposed group athletics checks. Success means you get away; failure means the enemies get opportunity attacks on all of you and you have to roll again.

Alternatively, if you do decide you want to have a more detailed simulation of running away, I would recommend using the chase rules instead of coming up with your own mechanics. David Coffron gave a good explanation of them in his answer. I would only recommend doing this if running away is going to be a major part of your campaign, though. If the PCs will only be running once every couple of sessions, it's probably not worth the effort of learning the system.

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You probably don't need house rules

My main gripe...

The 5e rules are designed to make leaving an active battle difficult. I don't think you want to subvert the movement and opportunity attack rules to accomplish this or you risk trivializing combat. I think you just need to encourage more tactics and teamwork.

When is a fight over?

From Combat Step-By-Step

Repeat step 4 until the fighting stops.

In the situations you described in your gripe, fighting has not stopped.

Break the cycle

You have Disengage and Dash, but to break the cycle you mentioned, you're going to need something else, someone to defend the retreat or some sort of distraction or both. You can always interact with an object during your move, so if you're the last one out, close the door, knock over furniture, throw some gold or gems or something to hinder the pursuers. Once one or more members have gotten far enough away, you may want to prepare to block the exit or cover your tracks once everyone is out. Don't forget, you can ready movement, up to your speed. For those that can bonus action dash, it is a way to move up to your speed once circumstances are favorable, on top of already having moved your speed. If you let the spell caster(s) out first and defend their retreat, the options open wide up. Enemies are limited to one reaction, so you can ready movement, up to your speed, once the enemy has made an opportunity attack against your defender.

Parley

Arguably, this is the most common tactic players have used in my games. They try to barter with the enemy, offering money, information, horses or even try to reason with them.

Not everyone pursues

Also, as DM, you want to think about the motivations of the enemies. If they were fighting a pitched battle that wasn't decisive in their favor, they may not want to pursue. They may have a defensible position they don't want to leave. They may be guarding something they won't leave. They may be under orders as a sentry. If reinforcements arrive, the former combatants may try to send the reinforcements, or they may even lie, trying to protect themselves from being sent.

Chase

The Chase mechanics are fun and interesting, but they seem to be designed as a fun encounter, not as a way to exit a battle. If you switch from combat steps to chase mechanics, you are effectively house ruling that opportunity attacks no longer apply, with fewer limitations than your proposed house rules.

DM Fiat

without the DM having to pull punches to save them

This is a matter of DM style, but I would highly recommend not "pulling punches" or "fudging dice rolls". Why? Because they will catch on and eventually, they won't know whether they pulled off this great adventure or were helped along by the DM. Even when they don't know, you're still robbing them of the risk and reward! The death and dying rules are pretty generous and there's always Revivify. Then they can truly be gratified by their successes!

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Great point on the free object interaction, that's something I hadn't considered. "The 5e rules are designed to make leaving an active battle difficult." The thing is, I disagree with this design decision, so I'm intentionally trying to roll back the mechanics that reinforce it. I think it places disagreeable limitations on the GM's ability to create a world with verisimilitude ("what are the chances, yet another enemy that is just strong enough to challenge us but not strong enough to be a real threat!"), which makes suspension of disbelief harder (it makes the game more "game-y"). \$\endgroup\$
    – dreadhawk
    May 24, 2023 at 21:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ I mean, most retreats occur in one of two ways - people flee and get slaughtered, or they conduct a defended retreat, making it painful for the party to pursue. The later this decision is made, the more difficult it is. The other way I didn't mention, but it's worth mentioning surrender. \$\endgroup\$
    – Wyrmwood
    May 24, 2023 at 22:40

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