[RPG] Self-Preservation: How to DM NPCs that Love Living


I have it in mind that humanoid NPCs do not "rage against the dying of the light" as much as they should. Combat encounters frequently result in a full-on massacre, when realistically a single fatality would instill an idea in everyone's minds the gravity of the situation, resulting in either a terrified retreat or an unconditional surrender. Anyone who's wounded should begin to favor the preservation of their own mortality over combat success. Obviously these rules do not apply when the NPCs find themselves forced against their wills.

Does anyone have experience running this style of campaign? How does a combat scene play out with these restrictions? How would experience be awarded? Can the game still be rewarding and fun?

Best Answer

Beating an encounter can include the enemies fleeing or surrendering.

Role playing NPCs or enemies where murder or death are not the only options is an effective way to mitigate the tendency toward murder-hobo player parties.

An enemy that surrenders and/or flees counts as defeated. Make that clear from the outset session 0. They party gets the same credit as if they had killed the creature. Additionally, it offers up the opportunity for more loot and role play.

Additional Benefit

Demanding the opponents doff their armor or give up their weapons in their still serviceable form as terms of surrender.

Persuading or intimidating the opponents to reveal information before turning them loose. Such as the location of a horde or a clue in a side quest that would have otherwise been harder to obtain.

Additional Role Play

Make note of opponents that were defeated and allowed to live or escape. Make the circumstances of that come back around. If the player characters were benevolent or malicious, that information will spread. Perhaps they encounter the relatives, friends, or allies of an enemy they allowed to surrender. The treatment of the previous encounter should affect the subsequent interactions.

Run Away! using the optional chase rules

Determine the conditions that a group of enemies or NPCs would disengage or flee prior to the encounter. Figuring out what a show of significant force would be to the NPCs is a reasonable staring point. E.g. "If their best fighter goes down, they run away." or "Demonstrating a command of the elements inspires awe in the creatures and they lower their weapons."

It is particularly impactful if the characters have discovered the conditions that can manipulate the situation previously in the story, and can then apply their knowledge to great effect. E.g. "They might have discovered that Krog the Krogdarian is immune to fire, but fears lightning." or that "Meghanna, ironically titled the 'merciful', is particularly keen on avoiding a fight if not confronted in public."

When running away, it is a different mechanic than a fighting withdrawal. The Dungeon Master's Guide includes an optional rule for chases that makes for a different flavor should the characters find the need to give chase:

Strict application of the movement rules can turn a potentially exciting chase into a dull, predictable affair. Faster creatures always catch up to slower ones, while creatures with the same speed never close the distance between each other. This set of rules can make chase more exciting by introducing random elements.