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“Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.” -Carl Sagan
RPGs all boil down to a simple formula: the GM presents a conflict, and the players work to resolve it. When Walter Bradford Cannon described the fight-or-flight response, he was describing two of the three basic strategies not just of survival, but of conflict resolution. (Survival is, of course, the ultimate form of ongoing conflict resolution.) About twelve or thirteen years ago, when I was sitting down to think seriously about how to run and play my games better, I found it helpful to examine these basic survival strategies, and how they relate to RPG interactions.
1) Fight (Or Opposition)
“He pulls a knife, you pull a gun, he sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.” -Jim Malone (The Untouchables)
The most basic form of conflict resolution PCs are familiar with, Opposition is meeting the conflict with force (physical, magical, mental, political, etc) and overcoming it. Even groups that pride themselves on how far they’ve evolved from their knuckledragging murderhobo ancestors still tend to solve the lion’s share of their problems with this way. Using Charm Person to talk your way into the duke’s palace is a form of Opposition. Likewise, the Ventrue Primogen who uses his political favors to have his rival cast out into the wilderness has used Opposition; he’s just using political machinery rather than his fists.
Players expect their enemies to attempt to defeat them with force. It’s rare that a foe can use Opposition as a survival strategy and get the drop on PCs. Still, sometimes having a bigger stick is enough. Giants have used this particular strategy for years. If you want an enemy to be able to compete with players while still using this form of conflict resolution, you may want to think about changing the avenue of Opposition they use. Goblins charging the adventurers with pickaxes flying isn’t anything new. Goblins pooling their wealth to bribe the local magistrate into passing laws to hamstring adventuring groups (such as taxing dungeon crawlers heavily, or outlawing spellcasting, or banning certain adventurer-friendly religions) is definitely an avenue the players won’t be expecting.
2) Flight (Or Avoidance)
“No problem is too big to run away from.” -Charles Schulz
PCs are extremely loathe to use this survival strategy once a fight has started. Retreat is often seen as cowardice, and thus anathema to a hero. If there are innocent parties (or valued assets) at risk, this tendency can be magnified. Avoidance isn’t just retreat though: it’s also avoiding fights in the first place. Against monsters of animal intelligence, kind-hearted groups can occasionally be found using this strategy to avoid having to kill ‘natural’ creatures. If resources are being tightly controlled (say, in a dungeon where sleep or rest won’t be an option, or behind enemy lines) then players can display a shocking level of deviousness when it comes to solving problems with Avoidance. Many a GM has a tale of woe in their history involving flight spells, rings of invisibility, or cunning washerwoman disguises being used to circumvent hours of diabolical preparation.
A bad guy who used Avoidance as their preferred strategy can end up being the most frustrating enemy to deal with. PCs build their combat routines and capabilities with the underlying assumption that the monsters are going to try to fight them. How infuriating is it then, when the villain teleports away, or has alarms set up so they can scarper off before the heroes have worked through the first half of their lair? Dr. Claw and Carmen Sandiego, of children’s cartoon fame, are great example of villains of this type: they always skip out just ahead of the heroes’ arrival, leaving their pursuers frustratingly empty-handed. All of the most rewarding victories in my gaming career have been over villains of this type: after so many encounters where thwarting their plans came with the bitter aftertaste of their escape, their final defeat was so sweet that each would be a high I would ride for years.
3) Surrender (Or Capitulation)
“You are my only friend, O’Connell.” -Benny (The Mummy)
This is my absolute favorite strategy. Don’t negotiate, don’t argue, don’t run: just throw down your weapons and surrender. Abject, total, humiliating surrender is the one outcome that almost no one thinks about. For PCs up against a villain that’s about to wipe them out, total and complete capitulation is forcing your DM to play Russian Roulette with her campaign: either it works, or you’re all starting from scratch. If the Hail Mary play is all you have, it can take you surprisingly far.
For a GM, the Capitulation can be even sweeter. Players who can navigate complex puzzles and organize intense tactical plans in combat can find themselves dumbfounded by an unconditional surrender. I’ve seen players spend nearly an hour arguing over what to do with a surrendered enemy. In most games, there’s no clear cut ‘right’ answer. After all, very few characters are going to be in a situation to have the legal authority to try and execute someone on the spot (and very few groups will be morally sanguine with doing so). If they don’t give in to the impulse towards cold-blooded murder, what are their other options? Dragging the enemy back to town means protecting them from wandering monsters, expending vital resources feeding and protecting them, and to what end? In many cases, there aren’t authorities to turn such villains over to. Even if there are, there is the question of whether the prisoner will receive a fair trial (or worse, if turning them over to the authorities guarantees them getting off scot free). If you’re looking for a way to put your players in a no-win situation, or at least a situation some of them are guaranteed to be unsatisfied with the outcome of, a Capitulation can be the most rewarding method of achieving this.
Who wants to live forever?
“I…I will survive.” -Gloria Gaynor
It may seem a little elementary, but understanding the basic fundamentals of conflict resolution can help us as players find innovative solutions to encounters. As GMs, it can help us come up with unique and memorable encounters, which translate directly to a unique and memorable game.
Jim Stearns is a deranged hermit from the swamps of Southern Illinois. In addition to writing for the Black Library, he puts pen to paper for High Level Games and Quoth the Raven. His mad scribblings can frequently be found in anthologies like Fitting In or Selfies from the End of the World, by Mad Scientist Journal. Follow him on Twitter @jcstearnswriter, or listen to Don, Jon, & Dragons, his podcast.
Picture Reference: https://ironshod.deviantart.com/art/Run-Away-32743482
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.