In this weeks edition of “Ask the Guild”, we’re going to talk about a problem that sometimes occurs: What happens when some of your party flees from a fight and others stay? Should you encourage players to run? What happens when those players who do stay fight an enemy, which ultimately proves to be far too difficult for them and what do you do? This is especially problematic if the monster in question was beyond the DMs expectations or realization in terms of difficulty.
Recently I was running my 5E Princes of the Apocalypse game, when my players picked a fight with a specter, which I wasn’t expecting them too. Once this happened some of them did something strange, with 3 of the players running away and the other 4 staying to fight. As the 3 players who ran away were most of the spellcasters, leaving only a rogue, ranger, paladin and wizard to fight the specter it pretty quickly turned bad when the wizard was dropped. What should I have done?
So the most important thing to remember is that sometimes running away from an enemy is not only logical, it’s the most suitable course of action. In this particular case, even though a specter is an incredibly deadly opponent (potentially) for first level characters, with 7 PCs (4 of whom have spells or magic that can harm it) this shouldn’t have been insurmountable. The question becomes “Why did these players flee” and then “What should you have potentially done about it?”.
The first and most important thing going on here is how scary this “Specter” should have been? If it’s the encounter I am thinking of, it’s actually not immediately hostile and the players (or at least one of them most likely) deliberately picked a fight with it. In this circumstance, the other players may have fled simply because they felt a fight – which for 1st level characters can be very dangerous – was not a good idea. Why they came to this conclusion is the interesting part you (as the DM) should consider. On one hand, I feel if the fight was deliberately provoked and didn’t need to be fought, it could have been a “Let them deal with their own problem” thing. That’s pretty reasonable when you think about it. On the other hand, it might also have been the result of metagaming and that’s a stickier issue to deal with.
Metagaming is essentially when players bring information in from outside of the game and assume their characters also know it. A good example is your party encounters a hydra for the first time, which may not be a monster any of their characters have ever seen before. One of the players immediately suggests using fire to destroy a severed head or it will grow back, which is not something their character would have known. This is called metagaming and is where the player brings in knowledge from outside of the game they (as the player) knows to inform their characters decisions. While I’m not saying this was definitively why those players may have retreated, it is the case a specter is a potentially lethal encounter for a 1st level character – so running may have been the players using this metagame knowledge to get their characters out of danger.
Generally speaking, metagaming like this can be subtle to rather obvious and should be something you watch for. It’s important to emphasize, for generally the functionality of the game, that your players knowledge may not apply or reflect the characters knowledge. If they have good reason to know this monster is strong (we’ll talk about this more below), then that’s fine but if they are running because their players know better? That doesn’t make a lot of sense and is against the spirit (honestly, no pun intended) of the game. I wouldn’t allow them to get away with that. In reality, I’ll address metagaming in a future “Training Day” more thoroughly, but for now you should keep this in mind when designing encounters.
In either case, you need to make a decision between suggesting the time old adage of “Never split the party”, or allowing the players to basically abandon one another in this manner. For Dungeons and Dragons to function, given it’s a very “team” orientated kind of roleplaying game, you need to have your players generally accept a kind of “democratic” decision making process. If the majority of the party wants to engage in a fight, generally speaking they should go through with it and flee when everyone else has. Otherwise, encounters and battles can rapidly become overwhelming especially if one (or more) players decides to just run from a fight instantly. There isn’t a worse feeling than giving a dramatic speech to face the Dragon, only to find everyone else has decided to quietly leave during it.
After thinking about this question for a while and the situation, I feel the best idea here is to emphasize that DnD is a team game. If the majority of the players are doing something, even if that result is from a mistake, the best result is to not split the party. Supporting one another and facing challenges together is essential, because of a multitude of different reasons. Firstly, if half the party runs away they’re more or less taking themselves “Out of the game”. If you’re not participating in a combat at all, for all intents and purposes you’ve decided to do nothing at all – which is kind of boring. The second and definitely more important reason is for you, the DM.
As the DM, it becomes a nightmare to run the game if you aren’t sure if the players are going to work together. Additionally, this is the kind of incident that can build uncertainty and a degree of “Well, they left me to die last time” kind of thinking in the party. So while it might make perfect sense for players to run from a battle, it should generally be discouraged unless this is a suitable decision taken by the group of players together. Essentially, I am loathe to suggest that you outright tell your players “No” when they want to do something like “run away”. Running away is both practical and useful, especially at the uniquely lethal initial levels in 5th Edition.
What I think you need to do is emphasize that it’s a team game and everyone should be working together whenever possible. Mention that DnD is not going to work well for anyone if the party is regularly “split” on these decisions. It’s a team game and decisions, like a good chunk of the party fleeing a fight, should be done as a group.
The specter was a really tough opponent for a challenge 1 monster, especially because we’ve only just begun and so they have no magic weapons. As it’s immune to all non-magical things, it felt very difficult for them to handle and if the rest hadn’t fled from that fight they would definitely had some dead players. How do I handle monsters of unexpected difficulty?
This question cuts to the heart of one of my biggest problems with the most recent edition of DnD: We’ve gone back to a system where “Challenge” often doesn’t mean anything useful for a DM. The most important information about how challenging a monster will end up being is usually right in its stat block. Unfortunately, this information takes experience and knowledge of how the game works to know it’s an issue. In this questions specific case, the specter is an incredibly tough monster for a “Challenge 1” creature. Aside from its basic immunity to non-magical weapons, which automatically renders all martial characters (like fighters, rangers or rogues) useless, the specter does good damage and can even lower maximum HP.
This makes it substantially stronger than most other challenge 1 monsters, but it’s also far more debilitating to an adventure as the lowering HP takes time (and effort) to deal with. Monsters that prove to be more dangerous than the DM anticipated or thought, especially when used in official modules/adventures, can be quite a blindside. Unfortunately Wizards adds a layer of complication onto this, which I’ve mentioned in Hoard of the Dragon Queen, by not including the stat blocks of these monsters in the text. This extra layer of having to look up the creatures in another book or resource, can easily result in a DM without a lot of time to prepare missing important details.
So unfortunately, my first piece of advice here is to “guess” – as reasonably as possibly – what encounters your party might face that session. Once you have a vague idea, at least try to read those encounters in the book and look up the relevant monsters. Don’t just look at their challenge ratings, but pay close attention to their stat blocks: What immunities do they have and does it prevent your players even hurting them? Do they do an extremely high amount of damage? Will they have a substantial advantage given the circumstances of the encounter (like stealth orientated monsters in a dark environment) and so on.
Sadly realizing what may or may not be an issue in advance, is often a matter of experience and system knowledge. Minding even if this is experience talking, it’s important to deal with problems when you identify them and obviously “strong” monsters are a good example. In Princes of the Apocalypse, other than the specter, the module makes use of another monster that has similar immunities to non-magical weapons. In the gatehouse portion of the adventure, the Wereboar* commander is a pretty tough opponent for an early party without magical weapons. He hits hard, won’t be harmed by many front line martial characters and will possibly even have friends. So how do you deal with this?
The first and often best approach you can take is to tell the players about it in suitable in universe ways. For example, NPCs could be talking about rumors about the “difficult to harm” gatehouse commander, notes might be left in the castle instructing guards to surrender “All silver immediately, even coins as the commander hates the sight of them” and so on. Essentially, give hints that the enemy is especially strong and direct them to a potential weakness. Don’t hit them bluntly over the head with this, but let them figure it out themselves and it’s much more satisfying.
Finally, try to (whenever possible) provide characters who would be rendered useless or disadvantages in a fight resources to let them be useful. Silver weapons are a simple answer to the lycanthrope here, but returning to the specter you could decide that light removes its immunities. Put a big curtain that blocks the light into the tomb, which if removed allows the players to hurt the specter, can make an unwinnable combat into a tactically interesting one.
Like before, I hope this answer gives you an idea of where to start at least – but I do fully intend to return to this topic in future as well. There is a lot more to say and not enough space in this particular feature for it! Just remember these things: Try to carefully read the stat blocks of the monsters in encounters, while bearing in mind what your party has (or can do). If a monster looks too strong, consider changing it or giving your players an idea that “This is too dangerous, come prepared or run away!”. Finally, don’t be afraid to outright change the encounter or add elements on the fly to help! The specter losing its immunities to sunlight, for example, is thematic and appropriate while giving players a chance to make their characters useful.
*At least I recall he was a Wereboar. It was a were-something, but all of them come pre-packaged with the very tough on martial characters immunity to non-magical weapons.
Well that’s all for this week I feel, so if you have a question here’s where you can get in touch with the guild:
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- Tweet short questions to me directly on twitter as well.
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Really complicated questions might get elevated into entire features under longer pieces, like Narrative Thoughts or Training Day as well – so don’t fret if I don’t immediately answer!