Combat is an integral part of many RPGs. In some, it’s a necessary evil. In others, like D&D, it’s an exciting part of the game. Sometimes, the PCs are facing truly evil and villainous foes that need to be wiped from the face of your campaign world. Sometimes, however, you want to have a battle end in something other than a complete massacre of one side or another. What if the PCs are facing honorable foes who’ve been duped into fighting them? Or what if they’re facing foes who vastly out-number or out-power them? Is a slaughter the only answer? Obviously, the answer can and should be no.
Here then are five ways to end a fight before the battlefield is drenched in the blood of one side or another. You can use these ways to keep a battle short, or to offer an alternative to simple one-sided destruction.
A Fight to First Blood
If the PCs are facing honorable foes, or are fighting in a tournament, they may choose to fight to “first blood”, and I’m not referencing any cheesy 80s action films. In 4E D&D, this is an easy concept: have the players and NPCs agree to fight until someone hits their Bloodied value, and use this as the threshold of when someone finally draws blood on the other.
This has a lot of basis in reality. Knights at tournament wanted to show their prowess at real battle, and first blood was a way to show one’s skill, but to avoid seriously injuring one’s foe. Likewise, a duel that was serious but didn’t need to be to the death would sometimes be fought to first blood. This served as a grim reminder to the wounded – I bloodied you once. Next time might be more fatal.
Holding Out Like a Hero
This is a particular favorite of mine. In it, the PCs aren’t necessarily planning on winning a fight, but only of surviving and holding off foes until a set goal is reached. This is particularly effective for when the king can get to safety if his loyal knights can last ten rounds of combat, or if a wizard needs them to hold until he gets six successes on Arcana checks. Combined with Skill Challenges, this can make for a memorable sequence. Skeletons will keep pouring out of the crypt until the cleric successfully re-consecrates it as a skill challenge of minor actions, or the room will keep filling with water that’s inhabited with shrieking eels until the rogue resets the trap mechanism. It’s up to the party to hold off the skeletons, eels, or what have you.
You can use this device to simulate a scene like Helm’s Deep. The PCs have to hold out a certain number of rounds until the reinforcements arrive. Especially in combination with an ever-increasing number of minions, this can give the proper feeling of literally holding off an army.
Cutting Off the Head
The orcish army feels unbeatable until their leader, Gruzhgarn, is slain. When the necromancer is killed, the undead crumble back to lifeless husks. The wolves will flee in dismay if their alpha is killed. If you make one or more of the enemies the linchpin holding the rest of the monsters together, then you can give the PCs a goal other than simply slaying every monster on the battlefield. Once the leader-type monster goes down, the rest will surrender, flee, return to their home plane, etc. I especially like the feeling of “kill the wizard and his minions will return to the Elemental Plane.” It’s something that makes a logical sort of story sense, and it gives an out to the players.
A variation on this is “this monster is invulnerable until condition X is met.” In my current campaign, a great example was Auntie Mengybone, whom I’ve mentioned in other columns. She was harnessing the life-force of a captive Arch Fey to constantly heal herself, making her effectively invulnerable. Several of the PCs with Controller-type powers kept her busy and away from the other PCs who were freeing the Arch Fey through a skill challenge. Once the Arch Fey was released, she immediately went into retreat mode, leaving her minions to fight the PCs. She didn’t escape, but, if she had, she would’ve likely become a recurring villain in the campaign.
Live to Fight Another Day
There’s an adage that most PCs would rather have their character killed than have them captured. I’m not sure what the psychology around this is, but I agree that it’s true. That doesn’t mean, however, that you have to have your monsters behave the same way.
I befuddled my players in my Eberron campaign by having the changeling villain they’d been fighting step back, go defensive, and offer to surrender, but only if the Lawful Good character promised him mercy. The party was immediately suspicious, but they reluctantly agreed. This let me draw a fight that was already a foregone conclusion to a quick close and keep a valuable NPC alive for a future sequence. And when the PCs found out later that he’d escaped the prisons of their patrons, they cursed his name – darned, tricksy changelings!
The other trick is to have monsters flee. They might be running for reinforcements, or they might be running for their lives, but sometimes monsters, especially intelligent ones, might choose to abandon a fight that they’re clearly losing. Earlier editions of D&D had complex Morale check systems to help a DM determine whether or not a monster would fight on or drop their weapons, but, nowadays, story is the arbiter of such a decision.
Stop. Just Stop.
I would never suggest that you should declare a fight against the PCs and tell them they’re all dead. But good news! Your monsters don’t have any ego beyond that which you invest in them. If you’re down to two half-dead orcs, everything else is dead, and the PCs are still in excellent shape, you can call that fight. Sure, the orcs might do a little more damage, but is it really necessary to eke every hit point from the player characters that you can? I think not.
Some DMs, and some players, don’t like this approach. They want to know exactly who did what, who killed whom, and noodle the fight down to each hit point. That’s not my style of game play. If it’s getting late, and I have an important plot point to make before game ends, and this fight is slowing me down, I’ll sometimes call a fight once it’s clear how unlikely it is that the PCs will lose. “Well, the ogre has 15 hit points, and you’re all going to get to attack before he does. Unless you really want to know who kills the ogre specifically, let’s call it. Someone describe for me how the ogre dies.” My players were baffled the first time I did this, but they’ve come to appreciate it.
Not every fight has to be fought to the last HP. Sometimes, there are reasons why a fight should end early, and sometimes it’s just more convenient to move things along rather than dither down to the bitter end. Using this tool, you can make battles more about the story and excitement and less about drudging down to the last hit point.
Do you have any tricks for ending a fight early? Do you think my choices are good ones, or way off-base? Let us all know!