A couple of sessions ago, as my players sensibly fled from a tomb guarded by animated whirling bits of sharp metal and stone, I idly chewed on my pen and thought that the art of fleeing has been largely lost in RPGs.
It seems to me that players today seem much less likely to admit there’s something they can’t beat. While I applaud this attitude in a sense, I think there’s lesser utility of skills and abilities to avoid combat, or to even frame things outside of melee encounter—aspects of RPGs which I really appreciate. I’m sure part of the thinking has to be, “what sort of sick bastard would put (or allow the generation of) an encounter that we, the Precious Snowflake Players, cannot vanquish in accordance with our current level”?
On one hand, I can’t blame them. My 2nd-Worst GM Ever had us fleeing from everything, but that’s because it seemed like we never faced anything that wasn’t a Godling, Vampire Lord, High-Level Demon, or Invincible Pet NPC. That gets tiresome after a while, because we all know that we want to hit stuff with our swords, staves, and spells. And most people don’t see what’s heroic in running away from a fight you think you can’t win. If this were the Alamo, I’d agree with you. But if you’re playing in a sandbox/exploration/dungeon crawl, the goal isn’t to bravely die on the 4th level of a dungeon fighting bugbears who will eat your corpse as soon as you drop. It’s to survive, become more powerful, and get out with what loot you can while avoiding any more potentially lethal situations than are strictly necessary.
Look, the world does not adjust levels to suit you. The entire point of adventuring is that there’s crap out there that can’t be beaten, at least not easily. That’s why they call it “Adventuring”, and not “Encounter-Appropriate Jaunt That Adjusts To My Level Of Ability”. You do your homework, scout things out, and pray to St. Cuthbert with your running shoes on, just in case.
I think, in a way, running to fight another day is important. One of the most exciting parts of the entire Lord of the Rings Trilogy for me was the party fleeing from the Nazgul. Now, what makes exciting literature does not always make exciting gameplay, but I think the uncertainty of running, the possibility of returning down the road to re-face your fears, and the idea can be a heroic thing, if not strictly a part of the Hero’s Journey itself.
In the end, it probably depends on what sort of game you’re playing. If you’re playing a game with lots of charts for treasure and/or dungeon exploration, running away will likely seem more an intrinsic part of game play. If you’re playing a game largely centered around only what you can do in melee, it will seem like a denial of why you’re there in the first place. But if you’re finding yourself back in a game based on something at least 25-30 years old in gaming, you’d better be ready to run like hell at some point.