The castle is being over-run; the King has been Usurped and the town is crawling with the enemy; Imperial troops have entered the base, or the undead have broken through the walls. It is time to use discretion, the better of Valor, and live to fight another day. In an RPG getting players to flee overmatched fights is hard to do, but when presented with an overwhelming force they may decide it’s time to fall back. In this Set Piece, I will discuss how to run a fun encounter where the heroes are on the back foot.
The Players are forced to flee overwhelming odds. This kind of idea requires some setup. As a GM you can spell out the scene. The army arrives and your forces are falling there is no way you alone can stem the tide. This scene could follow an epic Hold the Line type fight that failed or could just be the result of events the players had no hand in. Try not to be rail-roady; if the players wish to fight to the end you should let them. Just don’t let up on them. This should lead to a captured or imprisoned set-piece or maybe just player death.
The mood could be utter chaos and fear or it could be composure in the face of adversity it really depends on how the players play things. Do they give orders? Do they calm the hysterical? Or do they find a shadow to sneak in towards a hidden way out of the city? Take your cues from them. Show the effect they are having on the people around them with their fearless demeanor, or show the chaos and death occurring as they run away. If they choose the latter route you don’t have to punish them. Maybe show others trying to lead and get swarmed by the fearful mob, or cut down by a defector or the enemy. Sometimes making whatever decision they choose seems like the right decision after-the-fact makes for a more enjoyable role-playing experience.
The big enemy they are fleeing is the most obvious threat. It shouldn’t really be used in this scene though. Sure foot soldiers of the big bad should show up to be dealt with but a fleeing scene should rarely turn into a Big Bad Battle. Instead, the threats should be more localized. There should be a story in them. The noble forcing his guards to guard his estate while he flees, the foot-soldiers harassing the baker and her daughter. The prince whose ship is in pieces and is trying to steal the players way out. Or that shady outlaw the players have been dealing with thinks this is a perfect time to turn on the players and collect the bounty on their heads. There is a lot of potential in situational threats here. Take a hard look at the NPCs in your game and make sure they all have a plan to either escape or profit. Then see how your players can intersect those plans.
Bullet Point some stages of the villain’s assault or the coup or whatever event the players are fleeing. A half hour of artillery barrages, then storm the gates, the gates will fall in 10 rounds, then soldiers looting the city. That kind of thing. Keep the players abreast of the situation through town gossip, noises, battle reports. It’s a chaotic scene so feel free to add a few bits of misinformation.(Someone shouts that the church of (the cleric’s god) is on fire). If the players dawdle in one area or encounter too long ramp up the tension with new reports of the enemies forward progress. You don’t always have to let encounters end the traditional way either. The firefight going on with that no good scoundrel who turned on the players ends when an artillery shell hits the building next door.
Keep the pace frantic. Describe a situation the players could get involved with but make sure there are some obvious consequences for them taking their time. They are fleeing, they can’t save them all and that should have an effect on the PCs. What would they risk capture for?
Flight vs Fight. If the players choose to stay in fights or try to rescue everyone, keep escalating the opposition. Make capture a real possibility. Cut down on their escape routes. Make sure they know it’s happening to.
Show the struggle of the everyman. What are the regular civilians doing? The lowly footman on the side of good? The Elderly father trying to convince his son to just run rather than defend their home.