Monday, May 2, 2011

Why doesn’t anyone run away?

Building on the last post - Why doesn’t anyone ever run away? I’ve touched on this before, but how many times have good guys or bad guys run away when in a FRPG battle? The problem is that without games geared to players acting defensively, it is usually suicide to back off. I know a lot of game systems that hand the aggressor a free shot (often undefended) if the enemy retreats. Think about the comic book villains. If they couldn’t retreat without hero whacking them for free, well, a lot of story lines would be different.
I think this is most glaring when you think of larger scale wars. If wars were fought like FRPGs then they would last about an hour. Once everyone was there, they would whack each other until one side was dead, or more likely both sides were dead. There’s none of this - retreat because of bad positioning. There’s no battle and withdraw and battle and withdraw. By FRPG standards Lee was an idiot during the Civil War, though Grant does seem to have been playing.
I really think that one of the major reasons this stuff doesn’t happen is that GMs don’t have time to properly prepare maps and scenes. If the GM fully knew what the terrain looked like, then either side might decide after a couple of bow shots that they were going to get shanked and high tail it out of there. Who has the high ground? Who has cover? Are there any places to hide? Dips? Ditches? Boulders?
Look, I get it. Especially having grown up in the flat lands, I don’t put culverts and hills into my maps, because they are tough to manage. We don’t sell mapped out locations, but maybe we should. Maybe it’s worth buying a fully detailed map of a place, so you can better run the area. Maybe just zooming in on Google Earth will get you there too.


  1. The recent news about the death of Bin Laden kind of shores up your point:

    20-25 SEALs took about 40 minutes to kill 4-5 targets.

    In DnD terms, that would be... what... 2 dozen lvl 20s, killing an elite and a couple minions, and it took 200 turns?

    One thing that no RPG models well is the psychology of killing. Most humans are incredibly resistant to killing another person. "On Killing" by Grossman is a great book to read to get a better understanding of why every real battle isn't an RPG massacre.

  2. I was fortunate enough as a DM to have two different gaming groups retreat from combat within a week. It really emphasized how rare retreat is in D&D (and in most RPGs) as well as how valuable it can be to weaving an excellent story. Check out Retreat Is Always An Option, At Least It Should Be.

  3. Have a look at the Gumshoe games, like Esoterrorists, Fear Itself and Trail of Cthulhu. They all have a 'Fleeing' stat, and in many cases it is advisable to run rather than fight.

  4. Interesting points all around. I had often bemoaned the PCs "addiction" to fighting it out to the bitter end, but hadn't considered the ramifications of the system punishing either side for retreating as being the determining factor in this.

    If one were to alter D20 D&D for instance to realign combats to run more like a real world battle, what would you suggest changing to bring about a more realistic dynamic?

  5. Perhaps it happens because many highly melee based rpgs tend to reflect that when you are face to face with somebody with a sword you will tend to die.

    I can't imagine many fights where two moderately skilled swordmen could not kill the one who retreats, unless they have a good strategy or planned exit. The modern example using seals and guns does not translate through 100% to a broadsword wielding warrior. At melee with moderate armour a sword is a brutal and simple weapon.

    I do like however the idea that retreat should be incorporated into games, and perhaps the idea is to change the "victory conditions" of the scenarios. Don't expect a melee heavy group to retreat unless the threat is obviously overpowered and an esxape route is presented. Most rpg players will fight on.

    We could introduce the concept of a forced surrender, akin to a morale check. The players have a fear type test and route. If the route can't leave they surrender without additional conflict. It should only work against combatants which could offer those terms.

    eg. A town footman patrol would offer and accept surrender readily, but a zombie outbreak would not.

    Perhaps its a set of meta-guidelines for the mindset of the NPCs and the PCs which is resolved per combat round to see what affect the battle will have on their overall strategy.

  6. Maybe it's a game-group thing? My players will often retreat if things look dicey, particularly if somebody goes down; sometimes I seem to have more trouble convincing them that they're up to the task than preventing them from fighting to the death. For my NPCs, I use morale checks.

    I will say that it's pretty rare for them to flee just based on an assessment of the the position, but we don't tend to play with battle mats and the like. Much more common is for them to weigh the numbers and relative strength of the combatants before the fight, and whether anybody is badly injured or killed during it.

  7. Rather than add a new entry, we figured we’d just try to keep this conversation going:
    In Legend Quest, you can “free walk” - usually just a couple of feet (ave. would be 5-6’). This is to simulate the fact that people do not stay rooted to the floor during a melee. You can also walk backwards at a minor modifier. With your shield up and walking backwards, you can reposition based on terrain. Then your attacker needs to determine if he’s willing to follow you by walking along with you. If you’re all alone in an open filed, walking backwards doesn’t help. If you can draw your opponent into the field of fire of your archers - well, then it matters. The opponent could of course just chuck his weapon at you (much better idea if that weapon is a spear and not a flail, but such is life). You can’t run backwards, so if you need to run, you have to stop defending, but depending on what is going on, running can be a defense (dodging). You wouldn’t be able to dodge the guy you’re in melee with, but if you’re running away from his friends, this could still be a very sound strategy.
    I always thought that it was our defensive actions (base parry, dodge, fending, shields, etc) that made all this possible, and to a point they do. The more I write here, I think it’s the four different styles of movement: free walk, walk, run, sprint.
    I’m not pretending that Legend Quest, as much as I love it, is a true simulation of battle, but I think we come closer than most games. I think that’s why our reviewers keep using terms like “gritty” - though they usually say that about the bleeding to death rules.
    I have to admit that the coolness under fire rules play into this too. Morale checks and a misunderstanding of the enemy matter. If you think the enemy is bigger and tougher, you’ll want to flee. If the enemy surprises you, do you flee in order to get a chance to figure out what’s attacking you or do you simply stand up and start fighting an unknown opponent (because you know that your GM will have scaled the encounter to be a fair fight). Some of this has to be player fun vs. player frustration, but players over the age of 14 like some realism too.
    The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that the issue is in the movement. Morale checks and such are role-playing decisions (putting yourself in the mindset of this character, what would he/she do?). The movement rules for the game will allow the characters to get into or out of the conflict if they need to.