Out of time constraints (my group can generally only meet for 3-4 hours every other week), as a GM I frequently find myself prematurely "killing" off monsters when it seems clear to me that the players have swung the battle to their advantage. To a certain extent this feels like a cheap move, and terribly obvious. Does this lessen the win for players? Having every enemy surrender or flee seems like it would be just as bad. What sorts of techniques do GMs employ when it just seems like combat has gone on long enough?
Consider other "Combat Outs"
Dave "The Game" Chalker has written pretty extensively on his blog about The Combat Out - alternative endings to combat encounters when the result is a forgone conclusion.
The Combat out is:
In a given fight, have alternate means for the combat to end beyond the D&D default “one side is dead.”
- The elven brigands want an item from the PCs, and will focus on the PC with the item. If they can steal it, they’ll run away from the fight with it.
- The bad guys are a mercenary company. If too many of them are bloodied or killed, they’ll stage a tactical retreat. Alternatively, they respond well to offers of gold pieces.
- The orc is bossing around the goblins and getting them to fight. If the orc drops, the goblins take parting shots, grab their payment from the orc’s body, and get out of there.
- The hobgoblins operate as a brave unified fighting force- until there’s only one of them left. Then he pleads for his life to fight another day.
- The crazed wizard has summoned a group of elementals to help him fight. They are bound to his life force, so if he is killed, they’re banished back to the Elemental Chaos where they came from.
- The only thing keeping the zombie horde controlled is the will of the vampire necromancer. Stake him, and they begin to attack randomly.
- Caiphon, the Whisperer in Dreams, destroys the dream world around the PCs. They can’t fight him, they can only hope to escape through the portal… which is being guarded by ravenous beasts.
- The summoned primordial is bound to a powerful artifact. By severing it from its wielder, the primordial returns to slumber.
- The demon queen draws her power from multiple portals to abyssal planes. By closing those portals, much of her power is cut off.
- The flight of dragons is only interested in hit and run tactics. They will not stand and fight, but instead engage, deal out some damage, then fly away.
- The homunculi are all armed with self-destruct spells, in case their gnomish master is killed.
I use the "summoner dies" pattern all the time. It makes the combat more interesting, especially when your players know you do it - they start to get all tactical about shortening the combat - and you, as DM, have to adapt. For example, make sure your summoner has cover (see My necromancer keeps dying (and can't raise himself)!)
F. Randall Farmer's answer is great. One thing that isn't addressed is the concept of 'prematurely "killing" off monsters'.
Let's take a close look at what this does:
- The combat is shorter
- The PCs spend less resources on the fight - they will have more HP / Healing surges.
- Discourages PCs from Focus Firing as much - if the PC's don't need to kill every enemy, then they might start only half-focus firing, or using more AoE effects.
- Is inconsistent - remember, 5 HP and 500 HP have the exact same abilities (except for bloodied effects).
Suggest a Trade
So here is my suggestion: Leave it up to the players. You are basically saying, "This is done, and is just cleanup", why not ask the players if they want to play it out? You could even turn this into a tactical choice: by putting a cost, say "2 healing surges from the group's total number of healing surges", the players get to decide if it is better to expend those healing surges and win instantly for sure, or risk fighting longer and possibly saving, or losing, more.
Either way, make it clear that the entire point of skipping the remaining battle is to get to the more interesting story or tactical elements (depending on your type of players), that by skipping you are trying to optimize the amount of enjoyable content in the session, as well as keep your pacing sane.
I disagree about not letting the enemies surrender/flee. If you do it right, it can be a good way to speed up combat without fiddling the dice. There's two main reasons that players may not want the monsters to surrender: Mechanics and Roleplaying.
Why players want to kill the monsters
[Mechanics] Experience points. In a lot of cases, players want the experience points above all, because it is the one guaranteed source of power they will always have. If you rule that fleeing or surrendering enemies are defeated and therefore give exp, the players will be more amenable to letting them go.
[Mechanics] Loot. Dead enemies are easier to search and loot, and fleeing enemies might be taking valuables away with them. You can get around this by making surrendering enemies promise a good ransom from their family/clan, and making fleeing foes drop their weapons, armour and valuables to run quicker.
[Roleplaying] The players want to win. In a lot of cases, players can decide it's not a real victory (or just less fun) unless they leave nothing but scorched earth. If you can get them to accept that watching enemies flee before them or bow down in surrender is just as satisfying as watching them die, they'll tend to be happier with this version of events.
[Roleplaying] The character(s) want to kill the enemies for in-game reasons. An example of this would be a paladin wanting to kill all the goblins because they are evil and have killed innocent travelers, and may do so again, or a cleric not wanting to leave any followers of an evil god alive. This is harder to stop but will generally not apply to all situations. In some cases, the enemies might 'convert' - meaning anything from literally changing their god to simply deciding to lay down their weapons and become farmers/herders. Allow the PCs to enforce this by (for instance) cutting off a hand to stop them wielding weapons again, or allowing the local villagers to keep them as indentured servants for a few months and they should be happy - especially if the grateful people then offer them a reward!
Why the monsters surrender/flee
It's also important to explain to your players why the enemies are giving up. If the players think it's a tactical move to attack again later, they'll ruthlessly hunt down and slaughter them. If the foes are clearly terrified or are joyous at being released from the control of the BBEG, it's a lot easier for the PCs to accept. This will save time and make your sessions provide more plot/storyline.
"The goblins turn and run away" and "The goblins fling down their weapons and flee haphazardly, gibbering in terror" convey two very different impressions.
A key thing to note is that killing everything was definitely not the norm in the middle ages - the family/friends of the deceased would not be happy, and the companions of such bloodthirsty fellows would be shocked to see such things. In a fantasy game, suspension of real-world facts that hamper enjoyment is natural, but sometimes this can be useful to bring back.
I'm in much the same situation. I run a bi-weekly game of PF that lasts between 2 and 3 hours. I find that sometimes prematurely ending a long slog combat is necessary, and killing the enemies is usually the best way to do that. Options like fleeing and surrender often interfere with suspension of disbelief and can create more problems. Fleeing can cause a chase scene as the PCs seek to finish off their kill, and surrender can take up hours as the PC's interrogate their prisoner, decide what to do with it, and eventually turn it into a pet ... A story for another time
The trick to killing the enemies off quickly is to dress it up nicely for the players, with narrative. If you say:
Ok, you kill the remaining wolves and move on
the players will be justifiably disappointed. On the other hand if you say:
You ruthlessly slaughter the two last wolves, leaving their corpses steaming in the bloody snow.
The point is to still give the players credit for the cleanup, and to make them awesome in their victory. They usually won't complain. It's also important to give them the rewards just as if they had played through killing the enemies. Players will spend hours killing sheep for 2xp...
Our gaming group also runs into fairly consistent time constraints. What we have done, that has pretty much resolved them, is basically doubled damage. We double the number of dice rolled for any attack. So a rogue that would normally be rolling 2d6+ dex +2d6 sneak attack is rolling 4d6 + dex + 4d6 sneak attack. The enemies' damage is doubled in the same way, but healing is NOT. Combat is more brutal, and shorter, but overall depletes the same amount of resources, only in half the time. Using tricksy combat outs is great, occasionally. If this is a consistent problem, you may want to consider this houserule to shorten encounter times and remove the need entirely.
You have some excellent answers on how to "wrap up" combat. I just want to take a step back here: the fundamental problem here is that the monsters are there to provide fun and that is not happening when combat becomes a grind.
I suggest you avoid the grind in the first place.
- Use minions. This is why they exist. Hordes of mooks for player to mow down.
- Use high-damage, low-hitpoint monsters. Ranged attackers are ideal.
- Specifically avoid the Soldier class of monsters - they are very grindy.
I highly recommend this classic anti-grind advice from Stalker0 on Enworld.
As a player in a similar circumstance (i.e. my group plays once every week or two for 3-4 hours) we find ourselves in that situation more often than not. I personally do not like the, they run away and we get loot/exp as I think it does lessen the victory. That said, there are definitely things that can be done to speed up game play. Our GM will occasionally have the monster with the most hit points left (assuming it is an intelligent being) try to do some task to bring about the end of the encounter instead of wasting player's time attacking and rolling dice, etc. This might mean he's trying to destroy some equipment or lift a gate or summon a portal or whatever else. This has two advantages. One the players know that targeting him is generally useless so we'll focus fire the remaining guys. Second, we save 10+ attacks worth of time in hit points. Plus turns go quicker as there are less things for the GM to do on his turn and less time is spent on the player's side with strategy. Lastly, he can usually incorporate that monster's action into the story for roleplaying purposes.