Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Lost Art of Running Away

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.


Cinderella Man said...

Well said. A sentiment I echoed here: I think MMORPGs and 'adventure paths' have had a big impact in players' minds as to what is fair and challenging. Maybe we need to introduce more players to classic Call of Cthulhu? That should get them running. :)

Bonemaster said...

I agree, I think there is a fine line between fighting and running away that we have lost as gamers. Hell, it's not even good story telling.

The classic bit is for the heroes to face an enemy they can not defeat. The heroes fall back, find out some weakness of the enemy the didn't know about, then they go on a quest to find something that will harm the enemy, and finally they are fight the enemy and win.

In several games I've play as of late, running away never seemed an option. Even it it made the most sense. One thing I can say about Rolemaster, was the critical charts made you run if the combat wasn't going your way.

This of course is not all the players' fault. Some of it is the GMs. If the GM doesn't allow running away to be a viable option then players are not going to take it.

In the end, it's a balancing act that both the players and the GM have to perform.

@Cinderella Man - Yeah, I think people forget that sometimes things are not fair. If it was fair, then I would have not gotten my orbital socket cracked and the suspect getting away when I attempted to arrest a guy for trying to steal a car radio. Life isn't fair and Games are not aways fair. I think that why I hate it when people bring up play balance. OK, time to turn off the rant. I think people get my point.

Zachary The First said...

@CM: Thanks for the link! "Fair" is an absolute killer expectation, I think. The adjudication should be fair, the setting itself not necessarily so.

Zachary The First said...

@Bonemaster: It's amazing how many things come back to the simple idea of "balance"...

Stuart said...

Playing video games with my son I notice that sometimes he gets nervous of the "scary" enemies and wants to make his character run away from them. This seems to always be a bad idea in a videogame - you just end up losing. The game wants you to always push forward.

I'm not sure if that's a factor or not for older players who've spend more time playing videogames recently compared to pen + paper and boardgames, but it wouldn't surprise me if it was.

Zachary The First said...

@Stuart: That's an excellent point, and definitely food for thought.

TarlSS said...

It's the fact that you're playing a fantasy game, and you're playing heroes.

In the fantasy/medieval genre, characters AREN'T supposed to run away. Quite frankly, because this is an absolutely terrible combat decision. Most Medieval battles in real life were determined by the morale of the enemy soldiers and the willingness to stay fighting for long periods of time. 100 untrained peasants COULD defeat knights if they were crazed, mindless,selfless murderers. Well, at that point they'd be cultists, not peasants.

Try a modern or Sci-Fi approach. Characters are much more willing to run, and retreating is much more acceptable.

That, or use a lot more artillery or overwhelming numbers. Generally there are 4 things that makes an infantry man flee: heavy artillery, being vastly outnumbered,being surprised or being surrounded.

Being 'outmatched' in terms of skill is generally nebulous, because quite frankly people are generally unwilling to accept 'they're not as good' until they've been beaten. In combat, that means death. So try not to do something like 'scare' your players with a single high level opponent, because that in itself is not terrible scary.

Carl said...

One big "Hell Yes" for the merits of running away. I know that my entire Mutant Future group would have perished many times over if they had not figured out that discretion was the better part of valor and all that.

Balance as a guiding principle of RPGs seems to be a way to placate everyone (but I want my wizard to be just as useful in combat as that fighter!) while simultaneously removing most hints of actual danger, quite possibly also removing the "game" from RPG!

Anonymous said...

Some people aren't into role-playing games for the entertaining story: they want to stand characters up against foes and bang on them until the foe is beat. All that other nonsense like thinking and using the imagination is a bore.

The idea of a rust monster makes some people cringe in horror because ("Save me, Lucy! It'll turn my stuff to rust!") They've never stripped a character to undies and beat the poor helpless rust monster to death. Or leashed it up, kept it happy with items taken off defeated foes, then sicked it on the bad guy. Just because it's called a monster doesn't mean it can't be used to kick the butts of other creatures you meet...

That requires intelligence and imagination. Much like going into a cave with a troll who could whip the butts off your 1st level nobodies. Except, you have rope, nets, a plan, and lots of fire wood and oil. The troll is defeated without anyone getting hurt. Just requires a brain.

Some people enjoy RPGs because every situation is a way to have fun. Other clinically analyze the numbers and run in fear of anything outside their number range. They squeeze the fun out until really all they should be playing is chess.

1d30 said...

Players need to be able to gauge how tough the enemy is in order to make good combat decisions. Use your best expendable resources? Use the normal durable ones? Flee?

In the pre-encounter stage, the players are either nervous or bold about their environment. Imagine the difference between a well-lit street or a dark alley, or a plain versus a dense jungle. This includes their ability to flee - if they cannot easily flee they will be more afraid but less likely to try because it might fail.

At the start of the encounter the players see signposts about the enemy. Is it a bunch of normal-looking orcs? Or a twelve-headed hydra rearing up out of the swamp? The problem here is usually that the DM doesn't describe the monster properly, or the monster has different powers that the player is unaware of. But if the creature's toughness level is pretty obvious, players should be able to make good decisions.

Then you have first contact with the enemy. The warriors see how difficult it is to hit, and whether they're doing damage. The spellcasters try their spells and see if it's affected. Everyone notices how easily the monster hits them and how much damage they take, and whether it has unknown special powers.

At this point they re-evaulate their position and might decide to ramp up their attacks, or scale back to regular attacks, or perhaps flee entirely.

After a few exchanges of combat, if the fight is obviously too difficult and they have used their best attacks, the players should really decide to flee.

There are many places here where problems could crop up. But I think the sentiment above is that the problem lies with players who refuse to re-evaluate and change tactics during combat. And that players have a sense that the world revolves around them and they will encounter only level-appropriate challenges. The first is a lack of tactical skill, the second is lazy metagaming.

So perhaps the way to avoid this in your players in the first case is to encourage a quick tactical re-evaluation at the start of every round, and in the second to stop scaling encounters to their level. Just roll the dice and see what happens. Tough monsters will be rare anyway. You may find the problem with rolling randomly is that they encounter mostly things that are too easy.

TheRPGProspector said...

First off, thanks for the Rolemaster article. We almost nevr see that in the ol' Blogosphere!

I think players today have been weaned on level-appropriate encounters through video and dice RPGs. This is just a side effect of that--I think they hate to think outside the box.

Look, even Batman retreats to the Batcave now and then.

Stuart said...

"In the fantasy/medieval genre, characters AREN'T supposed to run away. "
There are *tons* of examples from film, tv, literature, comics, etc. that have characters in a fantasy/medieval genre running away.

Carpe Guitarrem said...

I think it's definitely a "lost art", but it also boils down to one simple thing.

XP. From what I've heard of games other than D&D, there's a lot more running and waiting to fight another day. And I think there's a very simple reason for this. In other games, running away to fight later or to find another way has only one consequence: you forfeit victory over the enemy, and that victory may or may not be important. It's certainly, by this point, not as important as keeping the players alive.

In games like D&D, however, all that's been changed. Not only do you forfeit victory over the enemy, you also forfeit that delicious XP from beating that enemy...which wouldn't be so bad, if not for the fact that XP is the currency of gameplay, really. To an extent, especially in later editions, the players expect to be rewarded for fighting, so if the DM puts them in a possible situation, they expend precious resources for no gain.

It's basic economics. Resources expended + no gain = unhappy adventurers. This happens because D&D, at its heart, is a game of economic advancement. Maybe not in terms of money, but certainly in terms of character resources. It's not focused nearly as much on storytelling.

That's also one of the big things I dislike about it, and at the same time enjoy, in the B-movie fashion. It's not focused on storytelling, but on conquering monsters.

Jeff said...

I'm sick to death of games run for precious snowflakes that expect everything to be a domino for the GM to set up so they can gloriously knock it down.

I like the threat of violence to be scary...much less violence. Violence means they PCs could die...or run away.

The best novels of sci-fi and fantasy are filled to the gills of the protagonists running away when outclassed and bad things happening when they stay. They don't go in and win every battle. not every battle needs to be to the death.

I think of morale in every RPG fight: at some point self-preservation kicks in. It varies for everyone (and everything).

Zombies...yeah, they fight to the death. Fanatics...fight to the death...most everything else will cut and run when things turn badly.

This should be true for PCs and NPCs.

Otherwise we might as well set up some sort of mechanical save function so we can only fight things we can beat. Fail? Re-do it until we win!

Life isn't fair. Sometimes we get a handful of kobolds...sometimes the dragon. Sometimes stormtroopers...sometimes frigging Darth Vader.

Stuart said...

Sometimes stormtroopers...sometimes frigging Darth Vader.

It's worth noting that the Heroes in Star Wars run away AND surrender during the course of the original films.

I haven't seen all the prequels yet... do they still do that?

Anonymous said...

When I run a game, I don't throw in encounters on purpose that PC's should be running away. For example, I'm not the type of GM that in order for the PC's to succeed in their quest, they have to get past the red dragon in the middle of the ruin. Now, I will put in the red dragon, but the PC's will have a choice of being able to bypass the dragon or if they feel lucky...take it on. Good luck.

Also, if I put an Uber-NPC, my intentions are for the PC's to talk and negotiate. Now my players are fairly clever in knowing to take my cue in that encounter is designed for roleplaying and that other encounters are designed for hack-n-slash. However, if negotiations break down and/or the PC's want to duke it out, then so be it.

I do believe in providing the players a reasonable chance of knowing risk/reward. If the players decide to chance it with the dragon, they know the reward is great, but so is the risk. If they want to play it "safe", then encounters are tailored for their level.

I think it's a matter of poor taste on the GM's part to purposely put in encounters that will slaughter PC's just because he's the GM. It really is a waste of my time to design such encounters and a waste on the players' time to run through the gauntlet to satisfy ego.

Now, if there is an encounter where the PC's are having a bit of bad luck or were poorly prepared and the battle is clearly going against them, they should think about running to regroup, but if they don't, then that's fine with me.

anarkeith said...

As Carpe Guitarrem said, I do think it boils down to XP economics. To encourage players to consider the option to run away, a GM must provide rewards for their solution to the problem.

Stuart cited video games, and the notion of always pushing forward. Of course in most video games your character respawns, or you reload a saved game. Easy. On the tabletop, you'd hope that players would be a bit more cautious with their PCs, since the story is advancing for those PCs that survive the encounter. Immersion is lost, if dead PCs have to be retconned back in.

Failure is a part of good stories. It's what creates tension. Good games should feature rewards for failure (a learning experience) as well as success (an advancing experience.)

Carpe Guitarrem said...

Here's something really bizarre that I happened to stumble upon in my internetting...

It's the page for an RPG in development by one guy...but something that caught my eye (see the FAQ section) was something that he's got planned for the leveling system: you gain more XP from losing a fight than from winning it.

You heard that right. You don't get as much XP from winning a fight as you do from losing it. In exchange, losing fights leaves you heavily injured, less capable to fight, period. So that's why you don't constantly want to lose fights, just to get more experienced.

And I realized, by golly, it makes so much sense, as counter-intuitive as it first sounds. Think, for a second, of all those fighting movies, or of that iconic scene in The Matrix, when Morpheus, teaching Neo to access his martial arts, keeps beating him up, again and again. It's not through winning that we learn best. It's through losing. When we see the mistakes we've made, when we see how we went wrong, that's one of the most valuable lessons possible.

That, and it really feeds into a sense of drama to have the hero learning more every time he gets beaten up.

On the counter-swing, not only is it potentially very bad for a hero to get constantly beaten, game-wise, but it probably also means that they miss out on treasure/other rewards. What this would do, then, is shift the entire economy of the game. Traditionally, all the rewards have been on the same side: it's an endless cycle of XP + treasure -> more XP + treasure, etc., etc.

What if we took the whole idea that everything has a cost, and put it in? That when you learn, you give up some good, shiny stuff...and that when you go for the good, shiny stuff, you don't learn as much.

Holy cow. I think this has utterly turned my take on XP in RPGs upside-down. Expect a blog post on this topic in a few days.....


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