Ask Angry: Protecting PCs from Your Mistakes

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Do you have a question for The Angry GM! Well, because people can’t get it right, I had to set up a separate page with instructions. About how to send a f$&%ing e-mail. Ready How to Ask Angry to learn how to submit a question.

Jonathon D. asks:

Angry, I know that someone of your boundless intellect could never make a mistake, but if you do, and you think it made your players have a worse time, would you tell them about it? “Pull back the screen” so to speak, and say “Hey guys, I accidentally made a fight too hard, sorry about that”. If you do make a mistake like this, do you make a change while GMing to try and fix it?

Hello Jonathon D.! Thanks for the straightforward e-mail with a new, brief question and a simple attribution. Yes, I know I keep harping on this, but there’s an important f$&%ing point here. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve now got so many questions, it would take over year of doing this column five times a week to work through them all. Because everyone wants a piece of my genius. And people keep asking me why I haven’t answered their question yet or why I choose the questions I do. Well, one of my criteria is “can I highlight a single paragraph and hit cut-and-paste?” Seriously. If you want your question answered, give me a simple attribution and a short, simple question.

And that’s why you win, JonnyD. Can I call you that?

This question is actually very interesting to me because it SEEMS straightforward and simple enough and the answer SEEMS obvious and I COULD answer it in one paragraph if I didn’t stop to think through the implications about combat and difficulty and the way GMs handle things and whose responsibility it is to do what at the game. So, first, I’m going to answer the actual question you tried to ask. And then, I’m going to answer the problem in your brain (and every GM’s brain) that is creating the need for the question.

First of all, JD, how do you handle a mistake. Everyone except me makes mistakes. And some people make a LOT of mistakes. And how you handle mistakes in your game says a lot about how you prioritize the different aspects of the game. Once upon a time, I was a thespian. I did some drama in high school and college. And every so often, while you were doing a play, someone would f$&% up a line or miss a cue or something. And THAT is when you got tested. See, the audience doesn’t KNOW you f$&%ed up unless they either (a) have the show memorized, which most of them don’t or (b) everyone on stage freezes up or stammers and stutters or says something stupid like “didn’t you mean to say something about coffee being for closers?” You learned to cover up for each other’s mistakes. Like, maybe you realize that your actor pal forgot to yell at the dude getting the coffee so you say loudly, “hey, Jack Lemmon, can you grab me a cup of coffee while you’re there?” And that suddenly reminds Kevin Spacey that he’s supposed to be yelling about coffee.

That hides the mistake from the audience. And if you’re good at thinking on your feet, you can do it. As a GM, you’re going to have to eventually get good at thinking on your feet, even if you’re sitting down, so you might as well learn to hide your mistakes.

But that assumes the most important thing in your game is a good narrative. See, you can bury lots of mistakes “behind the screen” as it were. If the wrong NPC is involved in a scene or you forget to give the PCs information, you can change things in the background. Come up with a reason for the NPC to be there and change their role in future scenes. Have the PCs gain the information in some other way. Whatever. Even mechanical failures can be buried “behind the screen.” You can fudge hit points on a creature, change stats, or invent entire mechanical effects out of thin air. “Oh, yeah, you didn’t get the bonus there because those creatures negate divine magic because of the curses they emanate. It wasn’t just me f$&%ing up, nosiree. In point of fact, sometimes, those mistakes lead to interesting new ideas.”

But, that’s on the narrative side. That’s keeping the game moving and keeping everyone in the game. That’s not letting them see the seams in the world or the zippers in the costumes. That’s treating the players like an audience.

The flip side though is that your players are also players. They aren’t just an audience. And they make decisions based on everything you do. So, they might stop using divine magic in the presence of those creatures or they might not realize that they shouldn’t drink coffee in front of Kevin Spacey. They will assume they can one-shot the Pterodactylions of Felinosaurial Peak because you reduced their hit points to cover a major problem. And when things STOP working that way the next time because you were just covering a f$&% up, you’re going to break the strategic, tactical, and figuring-things-out parts of their brains. And that isn’t JUST about combat mechanics. Because, remember, they are building up a view of how the world works in ALL respects based on what happens. Kevin Spacey’s personality traits are as much a part of their strategic planning as the hit points of bizarre flying lizard cats.

The gamey side of the RPG benefits from you NOT hiding your mistakes. From saying, flat out, “I f$&%ed up how that spell works” OR “those pterodactylions are too powerful and I need to rework their stats.” But doing that pulls a drag chute on your game and reminds the players that you can f$&% up anything and the world is really a bunch of fuzzy felt bits stitched together.

So, there’s no one BEST APPROACH to handling mistakes. Can the world handle the mistake if the mistake becomes a permanent part of the world? Can you cover the mistake without breaking anything? Is the mistake going to change the way the game works or the way the players make decisions to an intolerable degree? And the one question every GM forgets: does this mistake actually matter?

See, whether you fix the mistake by hiding it behind the screen or whether you stop the game and fix it, you’re still slamming the breaks on the game and f$&%ing things up. It’s just a matter of whether you’re doing it to yourself or to the players. And a lot of mistakes don’t really matter. Players get trained by repetition. If you screw something up a little bit one time, it probably isn’t worth doing ANYTHING about it. Just let it go. If the design of your creature is a little off, you can tweak it next time and players probably won’t notice a slight change in AC or attack bonuses. Always consider whether the mistake is noticeable and how much of an impact it has on the game before you start worrying about it. A LOT of mistakes can be ignored, fixed later, and never get noticed.

So, now let’s talk about the controversial part. See, Jay Dizzle, you chose a very interesting example. “What if the GM makes a combat too hard; how do you fix that?” There’s this really interesting assumption at the heart of that that says “it is the responsible of the GM to never make an encounter too difficult for the PCs to handle.” And there’s a LOT bound up in that issue that isn’t immediately obvious.

Okay, so let’s start with the idea of balanced encounters. D&D gives a lot of guidelines for exactly what level of threat is okay to throw at PCs. And it presents them as “that is the way you make an adventure.” But, what’s funny is that it represents a major tonal shift in D&D. And that it’s actually, when you get down to it, a little bit railroady. And “railroady” is a term that I am personally very careful about throwing around. Most GMs and players use the world “railroad” like a comma. Not me. Because I want it to mean something.

So, you have a combat scene in your game, right? You design it and you expect your players to fight it and win. Nothing wrong with that expectation, right? Combat is fun. And losing combat means all the PCs die and the game is over, right? So what else is there? You can’t set the PCs up to LOSE a combat. You have to build combats they can WIN. Or else they end up dead.

But in that little paragraph – the one that SEEMS perfectly logical – there’s a very interesting assumption being made. One that didn’t USED TO get made. There is an assumption that because you – the GM – have decided there shall be a combat, a combat there shall be. The battle isn’t optional. And even if you think “well, if the players come up with something clever to avoid the fight, I’d let that work,” your brain is still dodging a pretty serious issue. Because your mindset is “this is a fight. If the players somehow cleverly avoid the fight, I will allow them to do so. But otherwise, they have to win the fight. The consequences for losing are death.”

Now, I agree that if you get into a battle, it’s a life or death situation. But the battle itself isn’t optional unless the players somehow break the rules. The thing is that combat – battle – is a method of resolving a conflict. The PCs want one thing, the enemy wants something else, and they settle it with violence. But it is only one method. Avoidance, negotiation, bribery, intimidation, reasoning, ambush, and assassination are all equally valid methods of resolving a conflict.

But something sort of odd happened. Somewhere late in AD&D 2E, the idea that combat was a TYPE of encounter and not a method for resolving any encounter, got sort of ingrained in the game. When you designed an encounter, you designed it as a combat encounter. And so, a fight would break out. And the players would have the fight. And once that became a decision the GM or adventure designer made and not one the players made, it became necessary to create all these rules about game balance. The GM had to be able to tell the difference between a fight the players could win and one they couldn’t. And the GM sure as hell better stick only to the ones they could win.

Now, you might say “but the players never run away or surrender or negotiate or flee anyway, so giving the option is pointless.” But the problem is, if you exclusively present them with fights that are just about an even match for them (with some variance for difficulty), you train them to fight every battle you present them with. Basically, you teach the players that combat isn’t optional. And so they never take the option to flee or surrender or reason or anything else. And then you conclude that, because they never exercise those options, those options are unnecessary. It becomes a weird self-perpetuating problem.

Now, what’s really interesting is that there is a lot more to this tonal shift than just “the players are never going to run so balance every combat and here’s how that works.” For example, in earlier editions of D&D, there were a couple of explicit mechanics that have gradually vanished.

First of all, there was this idea of reaction rolls. When the PCs blundered on some creature in the wild or in a dungeon or whatever, assuming there was no EXPLICIT reason for it to become a battle, the GM could use a reaction roll to determine how the creature started off the encounter. Maybe it WOULD just leap at the PCs and try to kill them. Or it might be cautious. Or it might be threatening without being hostile. Or it might be scared. Or it might even be friendly. Or it might just flee.

Second of all, there was a morale system built into the game. That is, creatures generally didn’t fight to the death. Once things went to s$&%, a lot of creatures would turn their thoughts to survival. They might flee, they might surrender, they might retreat, they might beg, they might give up, whatever. But when their morale broke, they switched from murder to survival.

By that same token, there were also rules built into the game for evasion and pursuit. And this is a big one to lose. A good GM can handle reactions and morale if he’s making smart choices for his creatures based on what those creatures would actually do. That stuff can be driven by the GM simply role-playing the creatures and understanding their motives. But evasion and pursuit gave guidelines for how PCs and creatures could escape from one another or chase one another. The problem with modern D&D is that there is just no good way to handle retreat, evasion, and pursuit. If you keep the game in the tactical timeframe and work with movement speeds, it is literally impossible to retreat from a fight ever. And even if you do manage to clear the battlefield, everything comes down to a simple speed comparison. And since the speeds in D&D are pretty granular and almost everything moves at exactly the same speed (30’), it’s sort of useless. And if you are wearing armor, you’re never getting away.

But so what? So what if the assumption is that all combats are winnable and therefore players fight all the fights so you therefore only design fights that are an even match for the PCs? Combat is fun. Winning is fun. Why would the players ever want to avoid a combat or surrender or retreat?

Now, right here is when some dips$&%s like to fall back on the “realism” thing. This is where morons shriek about a world that levels up with the characters and only presents them obstacles they can beat is “unrealistic” and “breaks immersion.” And I’m not going to do any of that. Because that’s all bulls$&%. It’s not a good reason to do something or not do something in a game. It’s vapid drivel. Because there’s no reason the game can’t work that way. The game is not about realism and immersion is a word that people need to throat-punched for using because they don’t know what it means.

But there are some actual real reasons to fear that whole “combat will happen when the GM says it will and every combat is ‘winnable’ within acceptable difficulty tolerances.” It sets a really precedent.

First of all, it leads to questions like “if I fail to balance a monster or combat properly, how do I save the lives of my PCs from my stupid mistake.” See, the REAL assumption at the core of that question is the same assumption that makes bike helmet laws and seatbelt laws kind of stupid. Those laws are designed to protect people who are too dumb to protect their own lives. What that question REALLY translates to is “if I screw up balancing a monster or combat, my players are dumb enough to fight to the death if I don’t stop them somehow; how do I stop them?” And THAT is a sign of a major agency problem. Because your game has become one of those old Zelda dungeon rooms that locks all the doors until you kill all the monsters. Except the doors are psychological. And you recognize it. You know the PCs will not preserve themselves until the situation is SO DIRE that they no longer have the option to save themselves. If even then. Because, paradoxically, the worse a fight goes, the more resolved the players become NOT to retreat.

As soon as someone goes down – even if the players are not at a level where resurrection is a viable option – the players generally think “well, NOW we have to win!”

The players are behaving as if they don’t have agency because they have learned that they don’t, even if they do. And when the game takes agency from the players, that’s a railroad. It’s just a subtle, sneaky, invisible railroad.

The second problem though, the worse one, comes from the fact that just because a fight is winnable, that doesn’t mean the PCs will win. In the end, a battle is a combination of dozens of decisions and die rolls. A few too many bad decisions and die rolls in the mix can spell disaster. And that’s not even considering the fact that the PCs usually go through several battles with gradually depleting resources. Figure that in, and a few too many bad dice rolls and bad decisions at 8 AM in fight one can kill the PCs at 2 PM in fight number four.

But because the players are metaphorically locked into each battle by all of these subtle assumptions and machinations, they won’t retreat even then. They just won’t. They don’t sensibly switch to self-preservation. They don’t live to fight another die.

Now, I know none of this is what you asked about. But it’s a good thing to think about because you ARE taking responsible for saving the lives of PCs too stupid to save themselves. Sure, when you screw up, it sure feels like you should save them. But why aren’t they saving themselves. After all, inside the game, they can’t tell whether YOU screwed up or THEY screwed up. The difference between “the GM f$&%ed up the combat balance” and “the PCs f$&%ed up the resource management” and “the dice sure hate us today” is invisible to the players. They can’t tell the difference between any of those. So jumping in and saving them from ONE THIRD of those situations is asking them to sit around waiting for a rescue that isn’t going to come the rest of the time.

My advice: first of all, don’t train your players to assume all combats are mandatory and balanced. Right off the bat, put them in an escapable situation that will kill them if they try to beat it. And tell, very clearly, with your narrator powers that that is what’s happening. “The creature hits you, hard! You survive that blow, but another one could kill you.” “You manage to graze the creature, but it seems unphased by your attack. You’re clearly outmatched.” “The creature is fast and it seems tireless. You’re wearing out. This thing is far more powerful than you and your allies.” Keep working s$&% into the narration that tells the players they are f$&%ed if they don’t get out. And then let them get out. ONE situation like that is usually enough to teach them to be smart. Then, maybe they come back with more power. Or maybe they find another way around. Or maybe they ignore the threat. Make it an optional threat, by the way.

Once you break them of that habit, then you don’t have to protect them when you screw up. You screw up, let it stand, and let the players get themselves out. Sure, you might have made a too-powerful foe, but that’s the world. The players have to figure out a way around it. It’s not your problem.

In addition, combat becomes a choice. And then you can do interesting things with that choice. What happens when the PCs are attacked by a group of, say, normal human bandits trying to feed themselves who are very obviously no match for the PCs? Do the PCs murder the bandits? How do the PCs get past that very high level threat that stands between them and their goals if a straight-up fight will get them killed? Even if ninety percent of your fights are winnable and balanced, that other ten percent makes combat a choice. And that’s what an RPG is all about.

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30 thoughts on “Ask Angry: Protecting PCs from Your Mistakes

  1. Well, thank you for answering my question so well. I do tend to make fights that are balanced for the players, and the assumption is that they will fight the monsters. There is a lot more that I can do if I don’t balance some encounters, and tell the players that the monster(s) are too tough/weak.

    Actually, my players were exploring some mountains, and they came across a stone giant, who proceeded to throw a rock to warn them away. The players ignored that, and got the stuffing knocked out of them before they hurt the giant enough to make it run away. Of course, he came back with a buddy and they wound up fleeing down a mountain as the giants used them for target practice.

    Anyways, thanks for explaining the concepts behind my question, Angry.

  2. Well said as always, Angry. I’m working on a Changeling Chronicle, and one thing I hope to impress on my players is that sometimes the monster has combat stats of “Ha, ha, no. Run. Just run.” It’s a horror game, after all. That reminds me: Review the rules on chases.

  3. This is definitely something I need to work on teaching my players. Thanks for another good article!

    On an unrelated note, is there any chance of you imparting some knowledge on how you deal with evasion, pursuit, and “reaction rolls” now that they no longer exist in the core rules?

    • The 5e DMG has rules for ‘Chases’ on page 252. Where players can take dash actions equal to their constitution modifier. I’ll have to re-read it, because it wouldn’t be the first time Angry was right while the DMG was wrong.

  4. “the same assumption that makes bike helmet laws and seatbelt laws kind of stupid. Those laws are designed to protect people who are too dumb to protect their own lives.”

    I had always thought that the emergency and medical, and biohazard cleanup efforts meant that the injuries/fatalities prevented by those measures meant that money/effort was saved vs. non using those safety measures resulting in a net positive for everyone else, irrespective of the benefit to the person using them.A crash you can walk away from is a lot less effort for a lot of people than one in which you’re ejected from the vehicle.

    Good article, I liked it a lot… that part just bugged me for some reason. I may be completely wrong too.. now I have to go search.

    • He means that people should KNOW to put on bike helmets and seatbelts. The fact it needed to be made a LAW is the thing that is stupid.

      Hence the law needing to protect dumb people from themselves (IE, they don’t put on seatbelts without having to be told), relating to GMs needing to coddle their players with fights they can’t lose (where they don’t need a ‘seatbelt’)

      And yes, you could say “But I’m a good driver, I don’t need a seatbelt”, but the guy who is drunk and smashes into you at an intersection doesn’t care if you’re a good driver. And the Gigantic Pain Monster of Blargwarg doesn’t care if you’re only Level 4, he’s hungry.

  5. I enjoyed tha you referenced the rules that were in older editions of D&D having to do with morale and reactions. These are things that I still consider (though not always in a numerical or mechanical way) when the party is fighting enemies. I think it has to do with always keeping in my mind why these enemies are fighting in the first place. And if the consequences of running from the fight become less important than the consequences of possibly getting killed, the enemies will consider fleeing the fight.

    I also enjoyed that you brought up the whole point of “everything is a fight, right?” mindset that many (not all) players (and many, not all DMs as well) have when it comes to encounters. I remember playing D&D when I was 11 (when I first learned) and it was “cool” to just turn the page of the Monster Manual and let the characters fight what came next. But, as I played more, I realized that there was a lot more potential to just “hack and slash” as it was so often called. I think as D&D progressed, there became a focus on combat mechanics and the assumption that if they are there, they must be used. All the time. Which isn’t true at all. I run a 4E D&D game, which arguably has the greatest focus on combat mechanics of all D&D editions so far, but I know that I don’t have to use those mechanics in every single encounter in the game.

    Anyway, thanks again for a great article that talks about many of the pitfalls of running an RPG. I actually enjoyed the fact that you went from an essentially simple question and expanded out to not only explain your answer, but explain much of the underlying reasons for the answer you gave.

  6. @Draken50
    “A crash you can walk away from is a lot less effort for a lot of people than one in which you’re ejected from the vehicle”

    Nah, not really, in most cases you’ll have authorities or help called anyway, and it should be that way – helmets and seatbelts don’t make you more likely to walk away, they make you more likely to NOT DIE – there’s still a good chance of getting majorly messed up. Airbags cause a lot of broken ribcages and noses, and concussions, they’re just preferrable to foreheads smashed open on the dashboard and necks broken by whiplash. Same for seatbelts – a lot of chest and neck injuries, less so when coupled with airbags. Honestly when an incident happens it’s still a holdup for everyone involved, regardless of the injuries sustained.

  7. I had a discussion very similar to this with a fellow DM the other day.

    He put a damage ‘gate’ into his game to clearly show the players that they couldn’t go that way. One player went that way, despite it being really stupid, then complained that there was a challenge that couldn’t be beaten.

    I told him that the player deserved no special treatment, he was being an idiot, but maybe this was the thing that will make the party question the gates in future. The battle they couldn’t win. Maybe one PC needs to get killed before the people playing the game realise that sometimes, the game ISN’T fair 🙂

    • I remember a game I went to (it was hosted by someone during an anime convention) We were low levels, DM said that we see a sleeping White Dragon guarding a corridor, it knows that we are here, but considers us to be too weak to be of any threat and therefore continued with its sleep. Party’s barbarian decided that he’ll prove the dragon wrong and charged at the dragon, we got wiped. Since we had someone who would sometimes have prophetic dreams, the DM told us that’s what that player saw in her dreams. Next time we got to the dragon, the party’s sorcerer decides to wake it up with a fire bolt. You’ll never guess what happened! We got wiped again. This sort of idiocy happened 2 more times until the DM said f$&$ it, and changed the story, and the dragon guarding the corridor became a massive locked gate with huge spikes (which the barbarian decides to charge at and attempt to break it down via a tackle, he rolled a 1, and managed to impale himself.) The rest of the party were blaming the DM for making the encounters too hard, I was apologizing to the DM for them being idiots

  8. Ah it warms my heart to hear terms like “morale” and “Reaction”…. That stuff is still my bread and butter. It’s basically a great and simple mechanical way to make sure an encounter is never just a “combat” encounter… Those little rules can really build great scenes as long as you know when it’s time to take the reigns and start making your own descisions… One of my favourite things about making PCs have to flee the odd encounter is the fact that players can get lost if they aren’t with a guide or don’t have a map… A good flight scene can set the stage for the rest of a night of gaming… Not to mention the tension of PCs knowing whatever they ran away from is still out there somewhere! Thanks again Angry, I was having a day wherein I felt discouraged and as if I wasn’t ready for this weekends session. But I’m always really motivated to get back behind the screen when you lay down a little wisdom.

  9. Welp, since I couldn’t remember any rules for “Evasion and Pursuit” in either Mentzer Red Box or AD&D1, I dug up a copy of Moldvay Basic, and lo and behold, there is a section for it. And here’s basically what it says:

    If you want to avoid an encounter, you can try to run away. If you do this, check and see if you are faster. If you are faster, you get away as long as you have somewhere to run to. If you’re not faster, basically make a reaction roll for the monsters and see if they chase you. Monsters are $%^$%ing dumb, and will only chase you as long as they can see you, so if you go around a corner, you are automatically safe. If you drop food or treasure, unintelligent/intelligent monsters, respectively, will stop to pick it up 50% of the time. Oh, yeah, and here is where the old “cover your escape with burning oil because lamp oil is totally kerosene and will burst into violent flame if you pour it on the ground and throw a torch on it, and not just some sort of semi-liquid animal fat like you’d actually expect from a game whose vague technology level is about 400 years prior to the invention of kerosene, and so would actually only smoulder and get smokey” trope comes from.

    Well, at least I know where all of those crazy ideas the OSR guys have about how to shake off pursuit in a game where everyone moves at pretty much the same speed and it basically comes down to a couple of nonsensical “flip a coin” clauses. Given that this is, quite literally, the HIGHEST POINT in the HISTORY of D&D for “rules on how to not die horribly if you run away” I think the obvious reason why PCs never run away is because they never have any reason to believe they will survive doing so.

    • Lamp oil could just as easily be olive oil, or a similar vegetable-based combustible. Historically, vegetable fats were much preferred for such applications, because they burn better and are easier to pour into the lamp.

    • As a player I have frequently made tactical withdrawals sans burning oil. As a DM my players have done the same thing. In fact, on occasion we have run massive battles where the only way for the party to survive was to use a strategy of attack, retreat, use whatever healing mechanic was available, and then attack again before the enemy could call reinforcements. And this was done strictly applying movement rules, with retreats accomplished by skilful use of cover/concealment and positioning.

      My monsters frequently run for reinforcements, and the PCs are not always able to stop them, again, with the monsters using nothing but the movement rules, cover/concealment and positioning. At which point reinforcements arrive, and it is the PCs’ turn to retreat…

      BTW, in 1e there was no random element to pursuit whatsoever. The pursued was deemed to have lost the pursuer when it achieved a specified distance between it and the pursuer (which distance varied dependant on relative speed and whether the pursued was in sight or not), or if pursuit had gone on for 10 rounds with no appreciable gain by the pursuers. Again, this depended on movement rules and cover/concealment.

      Not to say you can’t resolve the issue using skill checks, but we enjoy a tactical game.

    • Check the Rules Cyclopedia as well. Pretty comprehensive rules based on moral, the size of the parties chasing/evading, and creatures getting tierd after so many turns. It’s not perfect, but it’s on there.

    • For AD&D 2nd Edition there’s this part in the Time and Movement chapter:

      “It is also certainly possible for a character to jog or run–an especially useful thing when being chased by creatures tougher than he cares to meet. The simplest method for handling these cases is to roll an initiative die. If the fleeing character wins, he increases the distance between himself and his pursuers by 10 times the difference in the two dice (in feet or yards, whichever the DM feels is most appropriate). This is repeated each turn until the character escapes or is captured. (If this seems unrealistic, remember that fear and adrenaline can do amazing things!)”

      That’s also followed by a more in-depth Optional Rule sidebar entitled, appropriately, Jogging and Running.

  10. I’m consolidating my usernames. I used to to go by SteveS on here I think. Anyhow…

    I’ve played my fair share of games, and D20 is the only one that sticks out in my mind as having the, “All combats must be balanced and winnable” clause. Even though the game theoretically starts at level 1 and there are monster we know that will challenge a level 20, for some reason there is this idea that the players are the Heros (instead of whelps who could be crushed by your average innkeeper). The world also conforms to the players instead of presenting a reality where they might be able to gauge how powerful a town guard or your average soldier might be.

    Problem number 1 is that everyone thinks they are special. Your smuggler must be Han Solo and have plot armor because you are a player, right? Problem number 2 is that the game is confirming the dumb shit you let them think in number 1! Sure experiance is a thing, but so is mortality. A blaster bolt should always be just as able to kill you. A goblin with a knife can stab you to death or slit your throat. If the game bothered to keep that mentality the players would have a strong basis for judging lethality and would act accordingly.

    Instead you get super Heros with swords and spells taking on giant creatures and super villains and wonder why you game ends up running like crap. Well, it’s because super Heros get taken prisoner and almost always have a chance to escape. Death is almost never on the line, because they aren’t mortal. Losing effects the world and the people around you instead of resulting in death. The best part about this? Angry knows it.

    He’s talked about the tiers of play and how they feel. D&D is a game in motion. It starts out gritty where you watch your step because a single hit could be your last. Then it changes. It does so several times but forgets to make that small tone adjustment even fourth edition saw coming. At a certain point you are demigods. People of folklore who cheat death and do the impossible. Did 4th edition put that in the right level bracket? Shit if I know.

    • And on a related note, I’m still catching up with 5E, since Pathfinder has been my go-to system, so I’m not sure if there’s a similar mechanic, but the attack of opportunity seems a particularly heinous offender in penalizing attempts to retreat.

      • The Disengage action pretty much gives you carte blanche to run away, you don’t even have to be engaged with an enemy to take it. Uniform speed and lack of evasion rules are definite issues, though, and I’ve seen a lot of escapes have to rely on DM fiat because the creature you accidentally startled has a slightly faster footspeed than the armored dwarf in your party.

  11. First off, I’d like to say I agree wholeheartedly with the bulk of this answer. Combat is not the only route forward, and death of one side or the other is not the only way for combat to end. Diplomacy and retreat should be options the players can take.

    That said, I think this answer does miss one way of framing the original question. The players make decisions based on the information that the DM is providing. If they go into a fight, it’s because they think they can win. If they choose to stay and fight instead of fleeing, then it’s because they think it’s a better option than fleeing. If they choose to flee, it’s because they think they can make it and won’t get slaughtered on the way to the exit.

    Given that, it’s possible that a DM can fail to give the players the correct information, so they make valid decisions based on bad information and go into fights they can’t win thinking that they can. I’m curious to know if you have any tips for fixing the scenario where you realise you’ve thrown your players into a Kobayashi Maru? My general strategy is to tell the players explicitly something like “you realise you underestimated the dragon’s strength – your attacks barely seem to bother it” and then make sure that there are exits available. If necessary, I’ll bend things to make sure they don’t get massacred – lucky turns in the weather, fortunate coincidences with guard patrols or wandering monsters, that sort of thing. Anything the players can use as leverage to extract themselves from the situation. Getting the players out of a scenario that I unfairly put them into is the only time I’ll tip the scales for them; my policy is that it’s totally ok for the players to fail sometimes, but they should always have the opportunity to succeed. Bad decisions, bad tactics, lack of preparation, bad dice rolls; all these things can kill characters, and that’s ok. DM’s mistakes, however, should not. That doesn’t stop me from pretending I planned for it to go that way, though; it can make for a great hook and build anticipation for a rematch when the players are more ready for it.

  12. A while ago I was running a game of 5E in which the PCs were in a sewer being swarmed by angry duergar, and I had made the encounter deliberately very hard from a pure combat point of view – not impossible but near the upper limit of difficulty for the PCs. My assumption was that the PCs would either defeat the dwarves, realise they were losing and successfully retreat, or realise they were losing and surrender. They could also have negotiated or snuck around and not had the fight in the first place. I knew what would happen from there in any of those cases. But after a couple of bad decisions and/or bad dicerolls it was looking grim for the PCs, and one of the players flat out asked me “is this fight winnable like a normal fight or is it going to keep going until we do something else, like are we supposed to retreat or what?” He was essentially asking if I had put them in one of those Zelda locked door monster rooms.

    I found the whole experience sort of troubling. I had tried to create an encounter that could end in any one of several ways and even I wouldn’t know which one, because that is what excites me about RPGs, but the players seemed to actively want it to be a binary, all or nothing, death or glory situation. I don’t think all players think like that, but some definitely do.

    So although I really liked this article and I really like Angry’s idea here of combat as an approach to an encounter rather than a type of encounter, I think your policy on it should be something you discuss with the players in the group as part of the larger task of getting everyone on the same page. The metagame again, in other word.

    • The other point here is that the reason that player asked me if it was a Zelda room or not was because he is the kind of player – and was role playing the kind of character – who loves to fight and hates to lose, and felt he wouldn’t be being true to his character if he didn’t fight to the bitter end. What he wanted was an assurance that that wasn’t suicidal in that case. Again, I found it troubling because I think part of the gameplay is weighing up your options and choosing the best one, without necessarily having all the relevant information to do so. In fact that’s arguably the entirety of the gameplay.

      But again, not all players see it that way.

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