So, this is going to be a bit of a rule-breaking post, for a Saturday post, but I get the feeling that Saturday will quickly become my "Miscellaneous" day for posting. It all started when I read a little post called The Lost Art of Running Away, which tackles a common issue in classically-styled RPGs: players are far more interested in winning combats than in retreating to fight another day, and so DMs have to constantly tone down the challenge level so that PCs don't feel cheated when they spring an "impossible" encounter upon them. The result? PCs never run from a fight, because they have no reason to.
An Outline of the Problem
The way things run, it all boils down to some simple economics. The cost of a combat is whatever damage you sustain, which in the end is typically negated out of combat. Even in 4th Edition D&D, with healing limitations, characters are assumed to be able to make it through a certain amount of combat encounters before each rest, and it's a fairly regular model. End result: the cost is minimal...almost. The exception is when the players die. At that point, the cost skyrockets. The benefit of a combat is XP and loot, along with any in-game rewards the party may encounter. End result?
You have an event which has only positive rewards for victory, and either no penalties or a prohibitive penalty for loss. In this day and age, that prohibitive penalty of loss is such a dramatic change from the "all healed up" of victory that DMs are hesitant to go there. Now, the "third option" of retreat is never really even considered, then, because DMs don't want to submit characters, very often, to the dreaded TPK, unless they're mean and awful and very lethal DMs. The types of DMs that laugh at Tomb of Horrors, that is. Those DMs. Which means that players never think of running away.
What to Do?
The first, immediate answer is to shift the cost of combat around a little. In the current model, there's a huge cost gap between victory and loss, in some cases an absolute gap, where victory = full heal and loss = death. There's a couple things that can be done here: reduce the cost of loss, and increase the cost of victory. Can it be done? I certainly think it's possible.
First things first, that whole "reduce the cost of loss", because it's quite easy to accomplish. The best solution in this case is, quite simply, to pit PCs against foes who don't fight to kill. As long as the PCs fight sentient beings, the DM can say "you got knocked to 0 HP, and fall unconscious"; a default in D&D now. Those beings then capture the PCs, and try and wring what reward they can out of them. Bandits, for instance, holding them for ransom. Now, the truth is, higher-level characters will find fewer and fewer beings wanting to hold them alive, I'm sure, but there's always that possibility.
Next, a DM should look into making victory a little more painful. Perhaps, in the vein of Dark Sun, you could put a bit of a clamp on healing for characters. Make characters count the cost of victory or defeat, and then let them decide whether to fight. Furthermore, make other characters who depend on the PCs. Sure, they can take on this crazy fight, but if they don't survive...well, there goes the neighborhood. Instill the idea that sometimes living is better than winning.
The Crazy Part...
Now comes the other half of the equation. So far, we've talked about making the cost of defeat spread a little to victory. But what about the reward? Is there reason to change the reward system? This is where things take a crazy turn on their heads...
We've all seen the traditional "loot and XP" reward model, like I've mentioned. What if it didn't always quite work like that, though? I found one place online, a game-in-development called Kenshi, that presented an interesting idea...and it suddenly clicked. The developer of the game has developed an interesting approach: you gain more XP from losing a fight than from winning it. You heard that right...more experience gained from losing a fight than from winning it.
I gave it some thought, and then decided that it made sense. From Batman Begins ("Why do we fall? So that we can learn to pick ourselves back up.") to The Matrix (Neo being beaten again and again by Morpheus in the simulator), the hero learns by making mistakes and learning from them, again and again. Only in D&D (as far as I know) and similar RPGs do we have heroes who get better by being, well...good. It's really a matter of two paradigms.
The D&D paradigm is an endless cycle: do good, get better and get better stuff so you can do even better and get way better and way better stuff, etc... The other way? It's more like this: mess up, get better to make up for it, mess up again, get better to make up for it, etc., until you finally break out into a Crowning Moment of Awesome. In my mind, that makes for a way cooler story.
A Temporary Conclusion
I'm definitely not done with this topic, but my main purpose here was to lay out the ideas, and present a little bit of crazy brainstorming. Am I merely trying to solve the problem? Not quite. I've got a bit more in mind than merely that. In a way, I'm slowly sculpting out a completely new philosophy to approach RPGs from. You might not agree, and that's definitely fine. Stick around, though. You may find some interesting things in here and the posts to come.
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