Friday, November 29, 2019


Old school RPG combat is not a carefully balanced system meant for the players to win. It's a high-stakes affair, but its lethality can be mitigated somewhat by giving full consideration to other possible alternatives than fighting to the death. Fleeing is an oft-cited and important option, but there's another one less considered: surrender.

There are many reasons why monsters, particularly intelligent ones, may be willing, even eager, to accept the PCs' surrender. Surrender shortens a battle, avoiding the additional losses that even the victors will likely suffer if they fight on. In the long run, being open to surrender is also a great tactic for gaining more loot at less cost: if the monsters can cultivate a reputation for letting victims live, it encourages future victims to surrender with little or no bloodshed, a strategy used to great effect by real-world pirates. "Your money or your life" is a much more meaningful dilemma if you know your life will really be spared when you hand over your coin.

The PCs may also have more value as prisoners than as corpses. The monsters might keep them as slaves, sell them into slavery to another group, or demand ransom for their release. They might be kept alive as livestock for fresh meat later. Or the monsters might wish to interrogate them for information. Clever players may plead for their lives with promises to reveal the location of something valuable to the monsters. or to perform some unique service for them.

So, why is surrender as an option in a hopeless combat shunned while running away or fighting to the death is not?

For the players, it may be a matter of pride. Surrender may feel like a more ignominious action than retreat. Running away also has the advantage (if successful) of assuring the party will keep all or most of its equipment and treasure, while surrender often results in the losers being stripped of valuables. Finally, there's the possibility that captured enemies will simply be executed, thus resulting in a more certain death than fighting on against long odds.

The DM may be guilty, consciously or unconsciously, of making surrender an unattractive option. A DM who hasn't considered the possibilities or doesn't know how to turn a surrender into an interesting setback rather than total defeat, may steer players away from it. An adversarial DM who punishes the party harshly in-game for surrendering also pushes them toward a binary fight-or-flee attitude. Also, if the campaign is one where death is cheap, with an abundance of options for raising dead characters, the players will likely consider any combat that doesn't result in a TPK to be better than being captured or looted of favorite magic items and such.

How does one, as a DM, begin to reverse the stigma against surrender in a fantasy RPG?

1. Flat-out tell the players before beginning a campaign that they won't be able to win every fight, and retreat and surrender are both legitimate alternatives to getting slaughtered.

2. In-game, feed the players evidence that surrender is a setback, not an irredeemable defeat. Let them hear of a group of traders who surrendered to the local orc tribe and were allowed to live. Better yet, give them a strong example to follow. Maybe they hear accounts of experienced, brave, and respected adventurers, perhaps even mentors of the PCs, who have surrendered to opponents, and who have embraced the philosophy of "live to fight another day" rather than "death before dishonor." Have them recount their memories with pride or amusement rather than bitterness, to drive home the point that knowing when to admit you're beaten is just a part of the adventuring life, not a disaster you'll never live down.

3. Don't summarily execute characters who surrender. This should be so blatantly obvious, I almost didn't include it, but better to be thorough. If you decide the monsters would execute the PCs, at least let them mull their options for escape from a squalid cell for a while before the sentence is carried out. Surrender should be an opportunity to extend the story, not an excuse to cut it short.

4. Really consider what the monsters want out of the encounter. Dead PCs are not always a primary, or even secondary goal. Do the monsters want loot, food, prestige, information, to complete some task, or to protect their territory? Can they get some of what they want with minimal combat losses instead of risking their very existence to get the whole ball of wax? If so, why wouldn't they take it?

5. Surrender does not always have to be unconditional. Allow players to bargain for the best terms. Remember that this isn't an all-or-nothing proposition. Intelligent monsters should weigh the risk of trying to get everything against an easier win for a lesser reward. Not only does this allow the party to limit its losses of prized equipment and treasure, it allows the players to save a little face too.

6. Be prepared to explore the consequences of the choice to surrender. Let them feel the agony of defeat, and then tempt them with opportunities to escape, to regain their lost possessions, to rebuild their reputations, to seek retribution, to use their survival against all odds to rally the townsfolk, or even reach an understanding with the monsters as worthy adversaries. Revenge and redemption can be powerful motivators.

7. Remember that as DM, your goal should be to play the roles of the monsters, not to crush and humiliate the players. It may sometimes happen that characters are humiliated in-game, but the players should never be made to feel hopeless or ashamed of their performance.


  1. The longest running campaign I played in/dmed(we switched who was DMing pretty frequently) started with our surrender to a tribe of hobgoblins.

  2. Great post. I wrote one on basically the same subject, with some similar conclusions, a while back here:
    PCs Who Won't Run.

    I also wrote an article back in the day for the 2nd version of Pyramid magazine about dealing with PC defeat without just murdering the whole lot of them.

    Still, for all of that, it's still common for my players to assume it's victory or TPK and play that way. Establishing a social base for game where surrender and ransom is a regular thing, and negotiating when being defeated or after being defeated would be a good move right out of the game.

    Hmm . . . new post coming on. :)