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5e Starter Set spoilers below

I'm DMing the 5e starter set and my party made it to Thundertree. They met the Dragon Cultists there and went to go speak with the Dragon, which turned out to be a huge mistake on their part. Distracted by killing the cultists, the dragon didn't notice when the party's first 3 attacks completely bounced off of him and they started to run away. Now, the trick/trouble is that we're playing with a grid (which I know is not very 5e of us, but we like the visual aspect to the encounters) and at some point all of the characters got to the edge of the grid. They get there just as the dragon basically notices they're leaving.

How do I handle a retreat and/or pursuit in this case? I guess I could keep "shifting" the grid over so they never get to the end of the world so to speak, but how far would this dragon follow them? He is faster than them too, so likely he'd catch up fairly quick and turn them into mush. I'm a little bit of a soft DM for killing the characters (it's still our first campaign), so I just rolled an ol' d2 to see if he'd follow, and he got lazy. I'd like to know how to actually handle this in the future though.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I fixed up the spoiler block for you - feel free to revert. For future context, the markup for spoilers is >! at the start of the paragraph. \$\endgroup\$ – Miniman Oct 27 '14 at 23:10
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The adventure actually gives you a great rationale for the dragon staying put in or very near to his tower.

Venomfang does not want to give up such a promising lair... (p33).

This is basically all you need as a DM to know that the dragon doesn't really want or need to follow your PCs (you really don't even need this much, but it's a good hint). There is no reason for you as the DM to pursue a TPK here so if you need to justify it to your players, that's all you need to say "he likes his house, he's going to stick around there and guard it, but won't pursue grumpy neighbors past his property."

It's fairly easy to just decide that the Dragon doesn't attack or pursue enemies that leave Thundertree and that be that (ie once they're off the map, they're safe).

As far as "how to run away" in general, if your PCs decide to run away, that's probably what you want from the encounter. If it isn't then you get into a chase scenario. In this case I'd pull out a tool I learned from 4e and plan to import into 5e (5e sort of does this sometimes in an ad hoc sort of way). That is the skill challenge mechanic. The basics are that you describe the pursuit of your PCs and they describe what they are doing, then have them roll checks with them needing to succeed on a certain number of checks before they fail 3 of them (easy is 4). If they succeed with no failures, they get away, if they succeed with one or two failures, they can take a short rest before combat resumes, and if they fail, combat resumes.

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I'm pretty new to this sort of thing as well, and I've had to seriously consider this threat for thundertree (especially considering the damage the dragon can pull off with breath weapons).

If you don't want the dragon to follow them, just come up with a good role play reason for that reaction. Dragons are territorial, and maybe he doesn't want the cultists messing around in his house if he leaves. Maybe he is injured from a recent battle (which explains why he flees when he reaches 1/2 health), and doesn't want to pick a fight he doesn't have to. For "how far" he would follow, stick with the territorial idea. Doesn't want to venture too far from his treasure.

Personally, I don't think they did a good job of having "other options" for that encounter, but your word is law in the game. If the dragon doesn't follow them, and the players ask why, make them role some sort of Wisdom (insight) check and tell them mysteriously "You are uncertain why the dragon chose not to follow". They will come up with at least one reason per person on why it stayed put.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "Don't leave your hoard unguarded while there are adventurers about" is a lesson every dragon should be taught from birth. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Oct 28 '14 at 0:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ And for all the dragon knows the heroes fleeing could just be a distraction, to lure him into an ambush or a trap, or there could be a thief hiding near his treasure and stealing it, when he chases them. He is safe, they are merely insects - and if they are terrified and live to tell the tale of his invincibility, maybe others will fear him, too and won't pester him. \$\endgroup\$ – Falco Oct 28 '14 at 12:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for letting the party come up with ideas. They should be involved in the story-telling too! \$\endgroup\$ – aherocalledFrog Oct 28 '14 at 17:33
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You have two different sub-questions here.

  1. Using a battlemat, how mechanically do I handle fleeing off it? The 4e-type answers to that are at What happens when you step off the battle map?, the 5e answer is more "That is why God cursed the battlemat and sent it shrieking from 5th Edition." But if you want a mechanical solution to the scrolling grid problem, you can use one of the 4e grid-style solutions from that question or as more of a "skill challenge" approach you can use my chase rules (written for Pathfinder but should be 5e-compatible with minor tweaking to use Str(Athletics) and Dex(Acrobatics)) - short form is your movement roll is d20 + (2*(move/5)) - so a 30' move is d20 + 12 - and you move in/out range bands (close contact, short, medium, long, out of sight) for every 5 you beat or fail by. Sounds like they're starting at Medium range at least in this case. I've used these quickie rules in many a game and they help add randomness to the one fool thing they decided to not make random in D&D. Paizo made some chase rules too but they're more prep-heavy. I'd definitely suggest finding a mechanic you like here as I find the need for chases to come up somewhat frequently in play.

  2. What would cause an opponent to pursue or stop pursuing the heroes? Regardless of whether you're using a grid or theater of the mind, does the dragon chase them? This all has to do with the minds of the enemy in question. Do they have some good reason to kill the PCs rather than drive them off? Do they have anything else they'd rather be doing? In this case a) the dragon might specifically not be super aggressive, b) maybe he'd rather loot and eat the cultists and protect his stash rather than cruising off after any random person in the county (what if there's a third group that's going to sneak in and steal his stuff?!?), and c) you don't want him to (probably the most important), so you can have him chase for two rounds and flap angrily at the PCs so they soil their pantaloons and make his point and then head back to base.

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I've handled things like this in several ways. Once they reach the edge of the grid or their intent to flee is clear (and unanimous):

  1. You take control of the narrative and describe some suitably harrowing escape with the dragon circling and the characters scurrying from cover to cover until it goes away and they flee. Since they wanted to run away in the first place this technique isn't really robbing them of agency and control. This works well for players who are the "I attack, I roll to hit" types with little in-character elaboration. They wanted to run away, you told them how they ran away.

  2. Make a mini-game out of it with stealth checks to hide from the dragon. Even if you nerf it, the players won't know and think they outwitted the dragon. Maybe allow them a failure or two "The dragon circles close overhead, make a second stealth check...ok, he flys over your bush but keeps on going, phew!". This allows the players to play out the escape, assuming they are creative enough to hide and not just try to out run a dragon by running straight down the road in plain sight.

  3. Have the dragon deal non-lethal damage to who ever it catches with the message "go away and don't come back, tell all your friends!" The ease of dealing non-lethal damage in 5e is a very effective tool for the DM when PCs are failing in a fight. Just knock them unconscious, steal some stuff, and leave 'em in a ditch.

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5e is missing a retreat rule, like the early editions of dnd had. The chase rules wont help you in this scenario, because if the dragon is as fast, or faster than the players (and it is), the chase auto ends when the dragon catches up to them. I suggest implementing an abstract party retreat rule. Possibly something like the old OD&D retreat rule, or even something as simple as Group Con (Athletics - run awaaay!) or other relevant check, suffer 1 level of exhaustion, and done (maybe mix in a few str checks to carry away allies or stealth checks to hide, or random events from the chase wilderness complication table if you want to play it out more?).

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