Players running away in D&D is something that will happen in most campaigns. The problem is that most DMs don’t consider how to handle this, and make terrible decisions.
Players running away in D&D can be dealt with in a few ways. You can give an out, make it obvious, or depend on players. Even then there can be issues.
Players running away in D&D can come from many different situations as well. They can run when things go south, or run before a bad fight begins. Here are some reasons to run, and how to react when players try to run.
Why do you have players running away in D&D? The answer is usually when a fight goes south, but this is only a last-minute ‘oh crap’ response that is generally too late.
If your players are trying to run in combat, it is generally too late. Players are knocked out, things are going south, and if they get out it is likely that a player will, or should, die.
This is very important to keep in mind. If you ever get to this stage, the players realistically cannot get out of the situation most of the time and you will panic. Panic is never good as a DM, and it will not end well for your players running away in D&D.
There can be situations where you pre-plan for your players to run away. In these situations you have an out for your players and expect them to take it because the villain is obviously too powerful. That, or a monster. The problem is that your players are players. Logic doesn’t apply and this might be viewed as a challenge rather than a warning! Why kill the bad guy later when you can kill him now?
The idea that the players can’t kill a creature or villain doesn’t always enter their heads. Players are made to think of how to ‘win’ in any situation possible. They try to come up with crazy ideas, hope for the best, and sometimes win. This encourages players to not run and can be a problem.
When your players do not run it can result in a TPK where your entire party dies in an unfortunate encounter. So what should you do in order to make the players run away?
In any encounter there are similarities. There are ways to make your players realize they should run, but the results will vary on the situation. For example, if you have a pompous villain who was set up beforehand to make the players run away, that pride will work differently than if a villain just started to show how pompous they are when they are winning a fight.
But should your players even run? How will you get them to run away, and can you even make them run away?
Why aren’t my players running?
Your players running away in D&D should happen as a new DM, and it can be a problem for experienced DMs. This can be because you didn’t give them enough warning that the foe they face is too powerful. It also could be because you didn’t balance an encounter properly or for a bunch of other reasons.
But should your players actually run away?
The truth of the matter is that it is up to your players to decide if they should run or not. Even if it is a bad idea, they need to come to that conclusion. Not you!
This is the hardest part for most DMs to accept. They have no real control over the situation, and that is why there are the 3 different ways of reacting to a situation that has gotten out of hand.
The times when your players should run is when they are obviously outclassed, or the fight is going badly. You need to plan for your players to run before the encounter starts for most players to even consider running away as an option.
It needs to be obvious that your players are outclassed for them to even consider running away. If they are not obviously outclassed or seem to have done well for a portion of the fight, they will not run.
Sometimes as DMs we want to introduce our BBEG (big bad evil guy) with some flair. This flair usually involves them attacking the party and making a joke out of the group. The players have to run, because if the villain gets serious the players will die. After all, at this stage they are nothing but ants to the BBEG.
This opens up so many opportunities for your players to die it isn’t even funny.
Think about it as a player. They see an awesome villain that they will probably have to take out later. Why not take him/her out now? Why not murder! After all, you might get lucky!
Unfortunately, players might get lucky or they will continue to pester the villain until they are annoyed enough to squish the ants. Anything can go wrong in these situations and usually does. I would highly never recommend introducing a BBEG to your party in combat just for them to run away. Not unless the BBEG is invulnerable, all-powerful, and unable to die even to 10 nat 20’s in a row. See Strahd from the Curse of Strahd module for a good example of such a villain.
The other common type of pre-planned encounter which DMs expect players running away in D&D is with monsters.
If you as a DM introduce a monster that the players cannot kill, they should not be able to kill it and know that. There should be proper foreshadowing about how not to approach this monster (or even BBEG, but mostly this works for monsters). The players should learn about how the monster is practically invincible and the only way they should be able to kill it is through some magic mcguffin.
Either that or your players will need to kill it. So what if it is Cr17 and we are level 10s. That just means it will be a challenge!
That is the common player mentality. They embody these crazy adventurers who have a death wish, and it rubs off on their decision making. You have to make the players know it isn’t possible to beat the monster before they start fighting it for them to run away on their own accord, but what if you just screwed up?
Giving an out
A monster is too powerful and you didn’t plan for it. You thought the CR would be okay for the party, but it turns out that was a lie! Just like how CR is a lie! Your players might not have a fight with a giant creature but instead made a bad decision. They decided to spit at the king, in his castle, surrounded by guards. Why they as a group wanted to do this without a plan is beyond you, but they are sticking to it!
In these situations you need to give an out.
You can give an out in a few ways. You may:
- Let the players be captured.
- Give OBVIOUS escape routes.
- Let the players come up with something.
For players getting captured, that scenario works once per group. Instead of TPKing they are captured by a BBEG and forced to work for him/her. You don’t want to use this often, but it is the ultimate last resort for your players to not all die. This makes the players have to find a new way to run away after they are bound in some way to server the BBEG, and that can be a whole arc by itself.
The most often thought of solution is to provide obvious escape routes to your players. Unfortunately, players running away in D&D doesn’t happen often. Not unfortunate for the game, but unfortunate for you in this situation. It makes players not see the giant red arrows pointing to an escape path. This is why you need to make it the player’s idea.
If you have them roll a wisdom roll and tell them that there is an escape path, they will never take it. That takes away player agency after all, and that is the worst thing that can happen. Instead, have them roll to find a weakness and realize just how powerful the monster is. Now the player might try to escape with the new information that they have gained.
It doesn’t have to be a roll, but the players need to come to this conclusion to escape themselves. If you do not, then the players may not have any desire to escape.
In order to make this work, the hints need to be obvious. Use descriptors to make sure the players know they are not winning the fight and then provide a clear path of escape when they look for it.
Your players can surprise you at times, so you don’t have to do all the work.
Once the players decide to run, they may come up with…… interesting solutions. Players running away in D&D can come up with the most bizarre ideas, but they can work.
For example, a player decides to polymorph while everyone else has a strange way to escape on their own. Polymorph x2, wild shape, invisibility, etc.
If a player plan is stupid like trying to turn into a mouse in plain sight and hide in the BBEG’s pocket, it should just fail. Actions need to have consequences, but allow an out. Let the player notice they are caught and provide an opening like we described in the section above. Give an out if needed, but it isn’t always necissary.
Players are interesting and creative creatures. They may not make the most intelligent plan to get out of a situation, but it is most of the time effective.
The golden rule with player plans for escape is to let them succeed as long as they aren’t too stupid. It lets the players feel clever and become more cautious about who/what they take on, and not dwell on the fact that they have plot armor.
This is all fine and great, but what do you do if the players don’t run away?
When players don’t run
The players see the BBEG and want to take him/her down now! A reasonable idea, but impossible to carry out. Despite this, the players still won’t run away and demand to fight to the death! There are 3 ways that you can deal with this.
You may either let the situation play out naturally, make the player efforts not matter, or just change the monster a little bit. All 3 of these are options that can work, but they have different conditions to work successfully.
These are options to be used when players don’t run even though they should. Just to help you avoid a dreaded TPK.
Letting the situation play out naturally
This is a situation where you have complete faith in your players. You might have discussed death in session 0 and how it is a possibility. The players know the risks, and have to get out of this situation on their own. It could be by players running away in D&D, but it might not. Remember, ‘if your players are trying to run in combat it is generally too late.’
Despite this, you let the situation play out naturally since the players must deal with the consequences of their actions. If they don’t, then they don’t have any agency and the players learn that they are protected by plot armor. This ruins the experience and lets the players know that nothing they do matters.
If you look at it this way, it can be fine. Your players could come out on top or they might be fine with dying, but everything must be perfectly laid out beforehand.
If your players are not okay with dying here, this solution will not work. When your players are new or not that creative yet, this solution will not work. Most importantly, if you didn’t give them enough information to know this might be a deathtrap, this solution will not work!
You need to have experienced players okay with dying who fully understand what they are getting into to make this solution work. If you do not have either of these then you cannot just let the situation play out naturally.
Luckily, there are other ways to handle players who do not run.
Making the player efforts not matter
We just talked about how important player agency is. They need to feel like what they do matters or there is not point in the game. This still holds true, but the world is a big place. Your players are the center of their adventure, but not the center of reality. Other beings exist and those beings might be more powerful than them.
For these types of beings, nothing the players do will matter. It should be made blatantly obvious. Strahd in the Curse of Strahd is a great example. We already talked about how Strahd is invulnerable and a great example for a pre-planned encounter, but you can apply this to other encounters if you are quick enough.
The main condition for this to work is making your players’ efforts not work right away!
If you didn’t pre-plan the encounter, you can still tell if something bad is going to happen. The players wanted to go fight the boss at half HP with 0 spell slots left and expect success. This should be impossible, and your party should lose. They obviously don’t think that, but it is the truth.
In this situation, you can make a few adjustments.
You can make the boss have an overwhelming amount of minions, obvious magical items like different color braziers, and more. Adding extra elements to a fight will make the players re-consider if they can scout beforehand. Let them scout and realize that their efforts will not matter yet.
On the other hand, your BBEG could get a buff to not kill your players. They might not even know the players exist and thus are wrapped up in more important issues. Make the players seem like flies and have your BBEG deal with more pressing issues elsewhere.
The BBEG can have a cocky attitude if they deserve it, but what if you are already in a fight?
Changing the monster
Your attempts to get your players running away in D&D have failed. The players didn’t see any of your hints, don’t think escape is an option, and if you tell them then you are instructing them on what to do in their story.
You don’t want to let the situation play out naturally since it will result in a TPK, and that is the last thing you want! So, you decide to make the players win by changing the monster just a little bit.
When you change a monster, what you can change depends on how long the players have been exposed to said monster. If they know the creatures AC, DO NOT CHANGE THE AC! At least, not without just cause.
The oldest and usually worst trick in the book is to change monster stats. If your players catch on they can lose all care, agency, or if your lucky, will give you a one time pass.
Your players won’t like it if they discover you have changed a monster’s stats, so make sure they don’t know.
If your players attack the creature and have not hit below the monster’s AC to your new number, you can change the AC. For example, if your monster’s AC is 17 you can change it to 15 if the players have not rolled a 15 or 16. A 17 doesn’t matter too much, but if a 15 or 16 suddenly starts hitting when it didn’t before there has to be a reason. You also can’t have let your players know that 17 was the AC obviously.
The only time this isn’t true is if there is an obvious change. For example, the players crit a Bullet and hack off some of the scales. The bullets AC is now reduced, and you can feel free to tell the players.
The easiest and best stat to reduce is total HP. Your players’ don’t know the total HP and can’t know. That is why you change the total HP without issue. Just make sure the players start to realize when they are doing real damage. For example, don’t make a creature who has taken 82/150 hp suddenly die in the next hit. Reduce the hp by 30-40 and let the players know at this point the creature isn’t doing well.
You can’t just panic change stats and expect an instant result. It has to be done with finesse and calculation, or your players will notice. And that is the last thing that you want.
We have covered a lot today. Players running away in D&D is a hard issue to tackle correctly.
If you do not handle players running away in D&D correctly, they will notice and lose all desire to play. This is because what they do doesn’t matter since consequences don’t apply, or they just realize that they have no agency.
Players generally don’t want to run because it is too late when they realize that they should run. Players also might never realize they should run, and just end up dying!
We talked about some ways to get your players to run away, how to handle running, and what to do if your players are just too stubborn or oblivious to run away in time.
I hope that this has helped you avoid disaster, or create and interesting first villain encounter. Your players will need to run at some point in your career as a DM, and I hope that these tips help you in those trying times.
This has been Wizo and until next time keep rolling!