One of my players, Swift, asked the following:
“I’ve been meaning to ask for a while: what would happen if you did serve up an encounter that we should run from? I suspect the encounters that should be run from do not occur because they would make the players excessively unhappy.”
As someone who started playing in the bad old days when part of the accepted mindset was “sometimes you’re just screwed”, I’ve spent years trying to perfect the run-from-me encounter and I’ve discovered that it just doesn’t work. Keep in mind that when I say this, I’m talking about an overt Kobayashi Maru scenario, where the design intent is to force the characters to run. While being completely overwhelmed and having to flee works in film and literature, it tends to suck donkey balls at the table.
These types of encounters falter on a couple of different levels. First and foremost, there’s no clean mechanic for saying “you should run.” You could have the players make ability or skill checks, but if the encounter is made for running they should have that information pretty much from the start. Let’s say that the “optimal” things happen: you set up the minis, describe the scene and the players put on their game faces. A couple of rounds pass where very bad things happen and you have them roll dice to determine if they realize how screwed they are. Talk about a letdown. It’s also the worst kind of railroading: “I just told you what the only correct play is.” Ouch.
Another reason these encounters fall apart is that most players refuse to accept that they can’t. Most players aren’t very good at that. Being potent and capable by proxy is one of the big draws of roleplaying, after all. This means that you’ve presented them with the choice between running and feeling emasculated or staying and probably dying. Lots of players will choose the latter and it’s hard to blame them.
Now, it is possible to introduce the theme of flight from a superior foe, you just have to go about it a different way. I know a fair number of GMs that “box text” it. Box texting refers to the “this is what happens text” found in modules. Most of us have come to dislike the mechanism because, again, it’s a form of railroading.
I use what I refer to as the “vortex method” of getting the characters to the correct fight. Basically, once the characters have a target, this is when you have them check skills. This is how they discover that the enemy is heavily guarded or too high a level for them. Once they know this, they can start to figure out how to get around those problems. Using a MacGuffin may seem kind of cliche, but they’re common to the genre and players tend to handle “Oh, we gotta go grab the awesome sword of doom before we kill this guy” better than having their face mashed in. We also have access to a powerful tool in the form of skill challenges. It can be a skill challenge to get to the boss – in which one of the victory conditions is bypassing the boss’ defenses or putting him at a disadvantage.
What about you? How well does “forced to run” work at your table?
Yes, mollywhop is a real word. We use the second definition and joke about it coming from this guy: