A while back, Troy asked:
In fighty games like RuneQuest, DnD, and Rolemaster, what are some GMing techniques that one could use to incorperate PC defeat without a total party wipe? What are some design tools a game designer could create that allow PCs to lose a fight, not die, and return later with a better plan? How can one incentivize retreat?
Let’s answer in reverse order, since that’ll be easier.
If you’re designing a game, it’s super easy to not have defeat equal death. I mean, look at Agon, Dogs in the Vineyard, Trollbabe, Primetime Adventures, Hero Wars/Quest or even the old TSR boardgame- Dungeon. Either make death not a mechanical possibility (PTA), one which you can easily avoid or has low probabilities (DitV/Dungeon), or part of a larger cycle that makes it very, very rare and something you see coming (Agon).
Like designing anything, you can build what can and can’t happen, under what conditions and how often into your game.
The problem with the games you’ve mentioned, is that for the most part, the window between things turning sour and the time you can make a retreat is too narrow to be useful. For example, Runequest and Rolemaster literally every combat roll can be deadly. There is no decision space between “I’m ok” and “I’m dead”. This is the same problem for low level D&D play- each roll can spell death, and for beginning players (or even players getting used to a new character build, a new team mix, and possibly new players, and thus, new team dynamics) this is really brutal for the learning curve.
And, pretty much the “solution” most people have come up with is to fudge or fiat away the results. My suggestion is pretty much similar though formal- hack the rules so character death is less common and that players can make informed decisions and strategize how they want to come at a given encounter.
For example, my D&D pulp death game hack still makes death possible, just that it adds a buffer zone between defeat and death. Your character is unconscious between 0 to -10 hp, without losing more hp each round. Beyond -10, you’re dead. And, while some grizzled grognards might think that to be “weak play”, the fact is, the higher level you are, the worse defeat becomes- you can lose magic items, which are a crucial part of character effectiveness.
Now, as far as incentives for retreat- it’s easy.
First, as above, players need a decent decision window to decide to retreat. Dogs in the Vineyard does this with the Fallout dice that build up, Trollbabe has it’s injury flowchart. Burning Wheel makes it easy to get injured, but tough to get outright killed. Players need to see that the tide is against them, and still have the option to opt out.
Second, the cost of losing has to be high enough to make it outweigh winning -this- conflict, here. You see this in some D&D play where players are holding tight to avoid losing their hard earned xps with character death. (“some” because raise dead, the instant healing spells, getting xp ONLY for success, and fudging GMs which protect the players from their own mistakes often mitigates this)
Third, retreat has to be a viable option. If you’re really hurt and retreating gives the opponent a big free attack on you, that’s not good. If the enemies are faster than you can ever hope to be, there’s no point in running. The easiest way is to simply make it automatic- like giving in Dogs or conceding defeat in Trollbabe. But you could easily set up something like Burning Wheel’s positioning tests and make it it’s own subgame.
In other words, the only reason high lethality has been a problem in roleplaying games is simply that it’s been a sacred cow that has been kept around and often getting in the way of what most people want from their games. Few people want realism, most people want heroic, cinematic stuff that involves heroes who overcome adversity but don’t die like dogs.