The Combat “Out”

"Run Away" by Ironshod

Combat speed in D&D is an oft-debated topic, and while much of the conversation is useful, I have one method that I trumpet above all others to make your combats take less time and work better as a scene in your game, and that’s the combat “out.” Since this technique is primarily in the hands of the DM and takes place in the story instead of the rules, it’s easier to implement than a lot of suggestions and is useful for most RPGs, not just D&D.

Though it’s a technique I’ve discussed before, to recap the core of the method:

In a given fight, have alternate means for the combat to end beyond the D&D default “one side is dead.”

To start, put yourself in the situation and in the mind of the adversaries. Now make sure you know their goals. Why are they fighting? What do they want to get out of it? Would they be open to negotiation? Is their heart really in the fight, or is there something else forcing them? Is one of the bad guys in the fight in charge? And so on.

From there, you can develop alternatives to having the fight just go all the way to the bitter end. Some examples that could result from the above questions:

  • The elven brigands want an item from the PCs, and will focus on the PC with the item. If they can steal it, they’ll run away from the fight with it.
  • The bad guys are a mercenary company. If too many of them are bloodied or killed, they’ll stage a tactical retreat. Alternatively, they respond well to offers of gold pieces.
  • The orc is bossing around the goblins and getting them to fight. If the orc drops, the goblins take parting shots, grab their payment from the orc’s body, and get out of there.
  • The hobgoblins operate as a brave unified fighting force- until there’s only one of them left. Then he pleads for his life to fight another day.
  • The crazed wizard has summoned a group of elementals to help him fight. They are bound to his life force, so if he is killed, they’re banished back to the Elemental Chaos where they came from.
  • The only thing keeping the zombie horde controlled is the will of the vampire necromancer. Stake him, and they begin to attack randomly.
  • Caiphon, the Whisperer in Dreams, destroys the dream world around the PCs. They can’t fight him, they can only hope to escape through the portal… which is being guarded by ravenous beasts.
  • The summoned primordial is bound to a powerful artifact. By severing it from its wielder, the primordial returns to slumber.
  • The demon queen draws her power from multiple portals to abyssal planes. By closing those portals, much of her power is cut off.
  • The flight of dragons is only interested in hit and run tactics. They will not stand and fight, but instead engage, deal out some damage, then fly away.
  • The homunculi are all armed with self-destruct spells, in case their gnomish master is killed.

As you can see, not only do you have a technique to shorten combats, you also have an effective technique to build interesting encounters. Use of this method encourages skill checks/challenges, dialogue, roleplaying, and creativity in combat. Not only that, but it makes it easier to use a wider range of relative power level of creature- it just means that fighting becomes less of an option, and using the out becomes more important.

Will this work for every fight? No. While there are plenty of options to create outs in fights with fighting mindless killing machines, it’s not going to always be an option. As the always insightful Sly Flourish says, sometimes you just want to fight a Gelatinous Cube and not have it take an hour, which this technique doesn’t help with.

What it does help with, however, is to take those encounters that are fights to the death and make them more important by comparison. If there’s usually a chance that the fight isn’t going to end with death on both sides (or that death can be sped up due to thoughtful play), the ones that are more serious have a bigger impact. That’s when the players know to pull out some of the big guns. Thus, your overall time in combat is reduced, and I hope, more rewarding.

If you have a DDI account, be sure to also check out this Unearthed Arcana article by Rich Baker, giving some concrete rules for ending a combat through fleeing, surrender, or parlay.

About Dave

Dave "The Game" Chalker is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Critical Hits. Since 2005, he has been bringing readers game news and advice, as well as editing nearly everything published here. He is the designer of the Origins Award-winning Get Bit!, a freelance designer and developer, son of a science fiction author, and a Master of Arts. He lives in MD with e, their three dogs, and two cats.


  1. Vinicius Zóio says:

    Excellent article! Couldn’t agree more! That’s precisely the way I have been handling combat duration in my games, and I couldn’t say how much the UA article this month helped in “mechanizing” fleeing situations :).

  2. The great thing about that UA article is that it uses a non-combat based system to deal with the ‘fleeing’ part. Usually the ‘fleeing’ part is just part of the combat but is a lot more annoying to deal with.

  3. Thanks for bringing this more to light. Such a great idea! I’ve done this minimally, but now that I see its full potential I want to implement it completely.

  4. The challenging thing is coming up with outs when the other side’s only goal is to kill all the PCs. Running away is difficult if the PCs are too confident and wait until several of them are dying before they think to run. Using the “allies come in and save you” trick can only work so many times without breaking the suspension of disbelief. What’s a DM to do when the enemies could and would kill the PCs, but you don’t want that to happen?

  5. Great examples. I’m looking through them and seeing a few that could have been implemented in my game that I just didn’t think to do. I think I’m going to implement this style of combat encounters into my game and see how it works out. I’m just afraid that I can’t depend on the combats to take up most of the sessions so I’ll actually have to come up with a story or something. Oh no!

  6. When I try to implement a “combat out” like this, I feel like my players are often disappointed that they’re being robbed of the opportunity to use their uber-skills to annihilate their foes. That, combined with the paranoia of leaving an enemy behind–particularly in a dungeon setting, where 1 foe here and 1 foe there can easily regroup, mean that when I attempt to take an “out,” my players fight me to finish the combat.

    This has been a bit different in other systems–even old edition D&D makes the players a lot more likely to take a break from the fight when the GM offers it, simply because it is so much more fatal than current editions. I had the same experience in Shadowrun, where we could be dominating our opposition, but a stray bullet from a wounded thug can still be enough to drop a fully healthy character.

  7. I often have enemies start running off the board to flee when their side is clearly losing… and often my players put projectiles in their backs. They generally don’t like monsters fleeing monsters… as they are a bit paranoid about that one monster coming back later with friends. I guess that’s what happens when, in the first real session of play with people new to DnD/tabletop RPGs, one monster tries to run ahead to warn his brethren.

  8. Runeskin says:

    Excellent article… I am a DM since the basic edition, and the rules to disengage from a battle is missing in 4th edition. It accelerate the story and add a lot of flavor to futur possible NPC back for vengeance… But the players are gods in this edition… the fear of dying is almost none existant. So they run after everything with there goldy power… I try a combo of deadly traps, skill challenge and combat out to change the tempo a little… What happen! Player wre not happy at all… So you want happy players….back to encounters bashing…I hate that 4th edition sometimes…

  9. Camelot: Remember that the outs cut both ways. If the bad guys are winning, they won’t necessarily kill off the party. They may knock them out, take their stuff, leave a scar, kidnap someone important, etc. You can show them that losing in battle has consequences that they’ll hate anyway. Plus, I encourage you to look at the suggestions above to try and reduce the number of battles where the goal of the monsters is to kill the party.

    cwhite: If your players are enjoying the fight and wanting to run it all the way to completion, there’s no real issue. These are mainly for when everyone might want to cut it short. An alternative (one that I recommend) is to start throwing harder fights at the party more regularly. Then they have to pull out all the stops earlier instead of using it to mop up at the end.

    Sunyaku: I recommend the DDI article I linked for some of that, which breaks away from combat in favor of skills, making it more difficult to just simply attack everything running away. Plus, running away isn’t the only out- there are a lot more options! Mix up your games to show that paranoia isn’t always correct. That goblin trying to run away may beg for his life, and if you can bring him to life, the party may spare him because he’s too entertaining. And if not, they may find the goblin had lots of friends who want revenge later, and a family!

    Runeskin: There’s lots of good ways to ratchet up the challenge of a combat. I’m not sure what your players were specifically upset about, but be sure that it still feels like they’re accomplishing something while being challenged. That’s not just a 4e problem, that’s always been the case with D&D as long as I’ve been playing.

  10. A great set of examples, but I think you’ve overlooked what ought to be the most common out of all: The cause is question isn’t worth dying for.

    Life might be a bit cheaper in the D&D world than in our own, but most creatures still don’t want to die. They especially don’t want to die defending a pathetic collection of dirty silver pieces. Fleeing lets them live another day–and perhaps sneak back to try and recover their little hoard when the heroes are sleeping or otherwise vulnerable. . . .

    Defending your home and young? Yep, that’s worth dying for. Pride? Sometimes. Messianic fervor? Check. Beyond that, realistically, most opponents would break off by the time they’re bloodied. A fantasy world may be more ferocious than the real one, but fighting to the death for the sake of fighting to the death should still be pretty uncommon.

  11. I definitely am more conscious of “outs” these days, mainly because I’m more careful with every encounter really mattering (I miss random encounters, but these days, because of system and reality, time trumps them… the poor buggers.)

    With the choice-rich tactical combat of 4e being so awesome, sometimes we forget there’s other, classic ways to end a fight. In fact, you need to mix up encounter resolution, or it gets boring fast. The Dragon Age video game is a near-perfect model. That specific examples here (I love that Caiphon one for some reason! I’ll be using that haha) and the “Fight or Flight?” article by Richard Baker over at the D&D site are also tremendous.

  12. A question I’m asking of myself more often is, “How can the PCs win without killing every monster in an encounter?” This forces me to think about alternatives to a longer grind of combat. And it’s a great point to think how the monsters can “win” without forcing a TPK. That could lead to some fantastic story and RPG elements.


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