It's often the assumption that combats in D&D, no matter how difficult, will end in victory for the party. They're the heroes of the story, after all, and typically winning is more fun than losing. But part of the joy of D&D (and TTRPGs at large) is telling a story without limits, and that includes having the protagonists come up against threats they cannot overcome.
But as we just said, losing isn't really fun. So how do we keep these narrative down beats exciting and fun for players accustomed to being unstoppable heroes?
First to spend a little time on the problem for those that might not be as familiar. There's nothing stopping a character in D&D from saying "I run away", but the mechanics in D&D 5e aren't set up to enable a good get-away. So you disengage and move... on the enemy's turn they just run up to you and continue the beat down. Unless you have something like haste, fly, or crazy movement speed like a monk, barbarian, or rogue, you are very likely trapped in an unwinnable gridlock of movement mechanics.
This leaves more difficult encounters in the awkward position of forcing potentially unsatisfying outcomes. Either the whole party stays engaged, hoping to avoid the inevitable "death spiral" and somehow pull out a victory, or some amount of the party stays behind, sacrificing themselves so the others can run away. The former scenario depends entirely on luck and can leave the table stuck in a hopeless, slow TPK (total party kill). The latter is forcing some pretty high stakes onto a subset of the party, which might not be something the table wants to entertain. In both cases it would be better to allow some sort of tactical retreat - live to fight another day!
So here's two options for how to implement more satisfying run-away sequences in your games.
Option 1 - The Flee Action
This is by far the simplest way to implement a mechanical means of running away. Allow creatures in your game to take the Flee action:
Flee. You gain the benefits of the Dash, Disengage, and Dodge action all at once. On this turn and until the end of your next turn, you cannot make an attack roll against a creature or force a creature to make a saving throw.
This action allows a character to commit to running away without being limited by the action economy of 5e. You are able to run as far away as possible (both your movement and Dash) while escaping a melee entanglement (Disengage) and making it less likely to get shot down as you run (Dodge). This massive gain in benefits is offset by strictly limiting the creature to defensive, evasive options until their next turn. You can't even take an attack of opportunity if one presents itself - you must focus entirely on escaping.
This also allows characters to decide it's time to run independent of their party. Heroic sacrifices are still on the table for those that find them fun! And it could lead to interesting inter-party conflict if one character chose to run away while others stood and fought.
The primary drawback is that it's still engaging with the crunch of combat, so it's entirely possible certain enemies still lock down an attempted retreat with higher movement speed, ranged damage options, or powerful magics. This is where our second option shines.
Option 2 - Skill Challenge
This is a far more complex solution meant to balance the need to fulfill the tactical-retreat narrative against the mechanical gridlock of tactical combat rules, all without foregoing a sense of challenge.
Fleeing Combat Skill Challenge
In order to retreat from a combat, the following criteria must be satisfied:
The group has made a consensus to flee (out of character at a minimum)
All conscious creatures are either outside of enemy melee range OR they are have readied the Disengage action
An escape route exists (i.e. can't begin if you are within an enclosed, locked space)
Any creatures that are unconscious must be carried by someone with the appropriate carrying capacity. A creature carrying another creature suffers disadvantage on the checks they make to complete the Fleeing Combat Skill Challenge. Death saves continue as normal.
Continuing in initiative order, each conscious creature must describe how they are attempting to escape the situation, potentially suggesting an ability or skill that applies. With GM approval, the creature then rolls the ability check. Creative use of attacks and spells can also apply, although you can not use an attack roll, spell or weapon, for more than one check.
When a creature reaches 3 successes, they have escaped and no longer need to keep making checks.
Once a creature fails for the third time, and for every failure after that, they will incur some form of consequence. This might be an attack from an enemy, being targeted by a spell, or taking damage from some sort of hazard. These consequences could escalate the more failures are accrued. The creature still continues to flee, making checks until they get those 3 successes.
Helping. On its turn, a creature may forgo its ability check to...
stabilize or heal an unconscious creature (must expend resources and make checks as normal)
help another creature, granting them advantage on their next check
roll a check on behalf of another creature; this check cannot benefit from advantage, no matter the source
If a creature has already escaped (i.e. reached 3 successes) and wishes to double back to help, it will reset their successes, requiring them to gain an additional 3 to escape again.
Clearly this is a much more complicated approach, but it allows for the narrative to be the strongest element of a retreat. It also means that specific enemy abilities do not make escape impossible. As long as there is narrative room for the party to flee from danger, the GM is able to adjudicate it.
Live to Fight Another Day
Have you had to run from combat? How did your table handle it? Let us know in the comments, or hit us up on social media!