Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Bugging Out

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 11, 2012

I have a book that was (or still is) used as a textbook for air-to-air combat for fighter pilots. Parts of the book talk about how to exit combat. It’s not an easy thing, actually. In general, if you wait until you really need to escape, it’s too late.

I’ve also been reading about the surprisingly (to me, at least) common occurrences of Defensive Gun Uses (or DGUs) in the United States. Most of the time they go unreported (or barely reported) because they are pretty boring and don’t end in violence. Defender pulls a gun, attacker runs off. Conflict concluded.

And in nature, of course, animals for which life-or-death conflicts are a way of life have the flight thing down pretty well. Not perfectly, or the predators would starve, but there’s some very interesting dynamics when it comes to conflict like this. When to strike, when to hold ground, when to back off, when to flee. The “Battle at Kruger” video gets particularly interesting at about the 4:30 mark, when the water buffalo decide to launch a counter-offensive (and what looks like a successful rescue).

We don’t get that very much in RPGs. It can feel somewhat unsatisfying when enemies flee rather than allowing themselves be slaughtered. Particularly if it deprives you of loot and XP. But dealing with fleeing (and regrouping) enemies can be a pretty interesting dynamic. Do you give chase? This is a common ambush tactic, and rarely advisable if in unknown territory. But if you don’t, will said enemy alert others and tell them where to find you? Also bad news.Ā  RPGs rarely have that level of coordination between enemies, though it can be easily simulated.

And for players – well, it really depends on the death penalty in the game. In games with permadeath or relatively steep consequences for ‘death’ (like in older MMORPGs), players flee far more readily than they do in games where restoration is merely one reload away (or not even that, with some titles).

Another thing that makes fleeing less likely for players is the difficulty of evaluating the threat. Between the need to keep combat encounters fresh and interesting by regularly varying opponents and situations, and the tendency to keep the player’s power level growing at a pretty reasonable pace, it’s hard for a player to really know how dangerous a situation may be until it’s already time to reload.Ā  From what I have heard, in 1970s-era tabletop Dungeons & Dragons, fleeing was far more common (as was character death), but it had very shallow level scaling and a relatively short (and memorizable) list of enemies.

So are fights more fun if they are always to the death? Or can you envision systems where bugging out (both for players and for enemies) can be more entertaining? How?



Filed Under: Design - Comments: 7 Comments to Read

  • Kevin Jackson said,

    One way fights can be more fun if death for one side or the other isn’t guaranteed is it improves the role of status effects.

    When you’re mowing down hundreds of goblins and kobolds every hour, with one or two hits to kill each one, there’s not much point in poisoning them or putting them to sleep. If anything, it just slows down the killing. This makes status effects useless. But they’re really worse than useless, since if your own characters get poisoned or put to sleep, it has a huge impact. Now one of your characters will die in short order if you don’t do something! Now one of your killing machines is put out of commission! Brutal!

    But if enemies have the option to run away and regroup, suddenly status effects can be more useful than regular attacks. If you kill a couple goblins, the rest will run away. But if you poison them instead, you may be able to poison the entire group before they get scared. And then, while they’re setting up an ambush, they start dying off.

    Incidentally, 4th edition D&D solved the status effect problem in the opposite way: they made statuses have significant consequences but with very short durations, so that they are useful for both PCs and monsters, even if every battle ends with the monsters dead and PCs alive.

  • Silemess said,

    I’d be interested to know the title of that book. It seems like it would be a good read.

    I think that games that maintain that sense of “Should I stay, or is it time to yield” are the ones that hold my interest. It depends on the quality of the game and how obvious (in hindsight or otherwise) it was that it was time to leave. A game that kills you repeatedly without having some obvious clue as to your failing isn’t as much fun. If you can’t learn from your past behavior and correct, then where’s the fun?

    I remember playing an old game call “New Horizons” set in the age of exploration and colonization. If you were living the life of a pirate, you tried to separate the merchant ship from its escorts. Usually this involved high risk passes to disable the merchant’s mast and sails so it couldn’t escape off the edge of the battle map. That left you free to engage and destroy the escorts before heading back for your prize. If you screwed up and took too many risks, you were the one left limping for the map edge while the victorious escorts pursued you. It was always a question of “Am I fast enough to get in and out without getting badly hurt? Am I still fast enough to defeat the guards without getting sunk?” If the answer was ever “no” then you had to flee.

    RPGs should benefit from this behavior, but I’m hard pressed to name the last one I played where I appreciated it. In part, because of the frequency of the PC leveling and the NPCs auto-leveling, battles with old foes don’t always have the same “Time to jet” point that they used to. If I had to, I’d say “Fallout” was the last one for me. Reminds me that I need to go play it thanks to that GOG sale.

  • slenkar said,

    King Arthur had to RUN AWAY!! from the catapaulting cows that one time.
    In Xcom you had to run away when you knew you couldnt finish the map Im actually making a game a little like xcom where you can run away or set ambushes.

  • hexagonstar said,

    Interesting topic! I think everything that can make combat in RPGs more dynamic is good. On a related note one thing that bothers me often in RPGs is that once you attacked NPCs you cannot communicate with them anymore. It would be more interesting if dialogue still can occur after combat or with hostile NPCs. I think this could also be put to use with fleeing mobs.

    Like Silemess I would be interested in the title of the book, too. šŸ˜‰

  • WhineAboutGames said,

    I was trying to do the possibility of non-lethal victory in Cute Knight Kingdom, but I don’t think I presented the sin mechanics well enough for it to be entirely clear to people how it was all working. šŸ™‚

    The key to me was that in a game where you are desperately trying to gain XP and loot, a morale victory is useless if it means that you don’t get either. It’s like the problem with alternative solutions to combat in general – if you have a stealth mechanic but sneaking past the monsters means you don’t level up, people will only do it in rare circumstances because otherwise they’d be crippling themselves.

    Ye Olde D&D had subdual damage, and while the concept of subdual was a little weird and I’m not sure how many people ever actually did it, it’s a reasonable thing to include *especially* in games where you are fighting *people*. I’ve often found it quite frustrating in Bioware RPGs lately where I’m in a battle with talkative NPCs and then at the end the game writer suddenly decides whether I’ve killed them or knocked them out or scared them or what.

    There was a particular battle where a friendly character was turned against me by magic and my initial fight with him was very tense because I was trying to figure out how to keep him out of the way in order to kill real monsters because I didn’t want to kill him… and after I finally had no choice but to take him down, I was pretty frustrated with the game for it deciding that I’d knocked him out and he was absolutely fine. Sure, that’s what I’d wanted to do, but the fact that I couldn’t choose to do so, and couldn’t do so in OTHER battles where I might not want to kill my target, irked.

    But that’s not quite the same as fleeing. In games that like to throw huge mobs of low-level monsters at me who really aren’t worth the time to kill them, I’d still be quite happy with the option of displaying my intimidatingness and having them turn tail and run (Especially if you got partial XP and a chance of them dropping minor loot in their panic.) I’ve always been frustrated about waves of idiot bandits attacking someone who is obviously way, way, way out of their league…

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    The book is called Fighter Combat: Tactics and Maneuvering by Robert L. Shaw. Excellent book if you are at all into aerial dogfighting. Very useful when playing the air combat simulators.

  • Xenovore said,


    Quote: “Iā€™d still be quite happy with the option of displaying my intimidatingness and having them turn tail and run. . . .”

    Agreed! Or a combination of reputation, intimidation, and gear makes them fear you and run, or at least not attack on sight.

    I’ve been playing Skyrim lately, and I’m actually starting to get bugged by the constant harassment by the wolves and other low-level NPCs. Realistically, the wolves should be avoiding people anyway (especially people shooting fire out of their hands!) and the ubiquitous bandits should have all heard of my guy by now and, after taking one look at his weapons and gear, crapping themselves and pleading for mercy. =)