When D&D 5e Players Should Retreat and How to Do It Well
For Some Combat Encounters, There Is No Victory...
By Riley Rath
Table of Contents
- 5e Retreat Rules? Who Needs 'Em!?
- D&D 5e Story: When Darkness Walks...
- Sometimes Running from the Dragon is the Right Choice
- When Should Dungeons and Dragons Players Use 5e Retreat Rules?
- The D&D Retreat Guide
- Simple Homebrew D&D 5e Retreat Rules for the DM
- Summary: How to Use 5e Retreat Rules?
5e Retreat Rules? Who Needs 'Em!?
No one wants to play a yellow-bellied, scaredy cat, chicken D&D character... it's no fun and it's not heroic.
Similarly, no one plays D&D 5e because they want to RUN AWAY from a fight... it's boring and cowardly.
As a result, in most players' minds, if an encounter cannot be resolved with diplomacy, the alternative is to FIGHT.
Retreating and D&D 5e do not go hand in hand.
"Avoid: retreating" was true even back in the "good ol' days of REAL D&D" or in any campaign where characters level up based on the experience points they gained from combat encounters. There was a built-in motivation to fight: the more fights and the bigger the monsters, the greater the experience points, and the more they leveled up.
But that was then...
What if you are running a "milestone" campaign where you level up based on what happens in the narrative? What if leveling up has nothing to do with the number of orcs you grind through?
Well... that's a different scenario entirely... and one where "retreating" becomes a real option at the player's disposal.
But that begs the question:
How do players know NOW is a good time to sheath their swords, pivot, and get the HELL out of dodge?
What we need are 5e retreat rules and a guide to to retreating in Dnd 5e.
D&D 5e Story: When Darkness Walks...
Years back, I was running a campaign that featured A LOT of undead.
While there were some unique elements, a lot of it was par for the course:
- Tombs full of skeletons and ancient secrets
- Death cults perpetuating a never-ending war
- Ancient Lich dealing tons of necrotic damage
Ya know... just your regular, everyday, undead campaign!
Of course the campaign was littered with all manner of undead monsters. I'm talking about all the classics: ghasts and ghouls... shadows and specters... wraiths and wights... (see the complete Forgotten Realms list here).
Now... if you have played an undead D&D campaign, you will know that many of the undead monsters in the Monster Manual (and now Mordenkainen's Monsters of the Multiverse) are LOW LEVEL. Think CR 1/4 through CR 2... borderline cannon fodder.
© Wizards of the Coast
Which, for lower level parties, is totally fine! Fending off undead hordes is part of a balanced D&D-campaign-diet! In fact, I recommend it for your first campaign!
Despite having similarities, all these undead are not re-skins of the same monster. Each have something in their stat block that makes them mechanically different. A ghoul is not just a bigger, badder zombie... it also PARALYZES you if you get hit by it's claws and fail a CON saving throw.
After all... a meal is always better fresh... right?
And many a new party has been brought to the brink by a handful of skeletons wielding rusty scimitars.
But as soon as your party of adventurers reaches level 8, cleaving through hordes of undead tends to become less and less fun. Heck... even a zombie OGRE will barely pose a challenge.
And can you blame them? I mean, if there is a Paladin or a Cleric in the party, FORGET ABOUT IT. They can just annihilate undead with a single flash from their holy symbol (Channel Divinity) or summon a literal gawd dayum SAINT to vaporize anything that gets too close (Guardian of Faith spell).
In general, high level characters won't find low level undead scary or threatening.
Well, in one session, the party entered a gloomy forest. Local inhabitants spoke of evil lingering amidst its branches, and terrors streaming from it in the darkness of night.
AKA "the perfect adventure hook."
The party quickly picked up on "the evil" as they wandered through the trees (spider webs and rotting corpses tend to give it away)... but there was something different about this forest:
- The party's strongly held convictions began to wane, tainted with apathy and hopelessness...
- Their courage faltered, and they began to see danger behind every tree and under every stone...
- They questioned their "trusted" allies and struggled to remember what was real and what was their imagination...
As these feelings grew... so the forest faded. Colors felt muted, the earth seemed barren, and vitality was leached from all things living.
They came to a small clearing and witnessed ghostly figures emerging from the gloom.
Figures of pale blue, with glowing red eyes and glowing red hearts... clad head to toe in armor and brandishing blades.
© Wizards of the Coast
And my players scoffed.
To them, this was yet another example of a "low level" enemy. The party, on the other hand, were experienced level 11 adventurers... hardly intimidated by CR 3 undead.
"Sword wraiths? REALLY?! THAT is what we are meant to fear??"
But the sword wraiths didn't attack...
They stood there... staring.
And as the players stared back, they noticed that... ever so gently... the earth trembled...
(boom)... (boom)... (boom)...
Like the T-Rex in Jurassic Park, the single tremor grew larger and larger, indicating that something dreadful and MASSIVE was moving in their direction.
(boom)... (Boom)... (BOOM)
With haste, the party prepared like any party would do: someone attacked the nearest wraith to even the odds... others cast buff spells or held their action.
(BOOM!)... (BOOM!)... (BOOM!!!)
But they weren't ready for what thundered through the trees.
A corrupting horror...
A sentient terror...
Wreathed with shadow...
Towering 2 stories high...
Its long, clawed hands dwarfed only by its curved horns...
Death followed in its wake...
And issued suffering in all directions...
© Wizards of the Coast
And just as I began to feel satisfaction of a job well-done as a Dungeon Master, my druid player asked:
"So... we gonna roll initiative?"
I balked... His relaxed, casual tone stunned me.
I blinked dumbly for a few seconds before stammering, "Uh... yeah... go ahead."
In their eyes... this was just another undead to defeat.
And sure, it was a lot BIGGER than the other undead, but they were confident that a few radiant-damage-dealing spells and well placed crits with +2 magic swords would cut it down to size.
Instead, the Nightwalker got a 26 on its CON saving throw, cut the party's HP down in half just by LOOKING AT THEM (and pointing his finger... but who's taking notes?), and was resistant to ALL of their attacks.
Let me just show you the stat sheet and you can see what I mean:
Click here for a better view
© Wizards of the Coast
Long story short, we got through one round of combat before it dawned on the party that this thing was UNBEATABLE. They spend the second round desperately trying to get away, but with the Sword Wraiths closing in, there was nowhere to escape.
This encounter had all the makings of a TPK... a Total Party Kill.
Thankfully... MIRACULOUSLY... the cleric had prepared Banishment... that legendary "save or suck" spell.
One failed Charisma saving throw later and... poof!... the Nightwalker was (temporarily) back in the Shadowfell... allowing the party their one opportunity to retreat through the woods.
Harrying the wraiths riding their ghostly steeds, the party burst out of the forest bruised, bloodied, and terrified.
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Sometimes Running from the Dragon is the Right Choice...
From the very beginning, I designed this combat encounter to be impossible. It was just like famed Star Trek "Kobayashi Maru": a no-win scenario. My players' only option was to retreat.
The problem was twofold:
1. I, the Dungeon Master, did NOT clarify that it was a no-win scenario. I assumed that my descriptions of the environment and Nightwalker would be enough to convey that my players were well past the "Deadly" encounter level and they should retreat.
But... well... you know what happens when you ASS U ME... and speaking of assuming...
2. The players were so used to killing undead that they leapt into battle on instinct, confident that, like every combat encounter before, they would find a way to win.
This "player arrogance" problem is common in campaigns that depend on the characters.
In these campaigns, the characters are so important to the plot that, consciously or unconsciously, the players know they have plot armor. Actual play podcasts like Critical Role are a good example of this; the characters are too beloved, too important, to be killed off every other session. The story falls apart if the characters get ripped apart.
As a result, players leap into battle with reckless abandon, already knowing they should win even if things go wrong. Players forget that retreat is even an option... even in the face of certain death. Which makes sense, because they almost never die.
This is never a problem in campaigns where players need TWO backup character sheets in reserve... where there is at least one character death every session. In those campaigns, "retreat" is ALWAYS on the table, because death is EVER PRESENT.
So why have no-win encounters, where the only option is to retreat, in D&D?
Because you can use no-win encounters to advance the plot.
In narrative-heavy games, games where players do have some extra "plot armor," it is A-OK to have unwinnable combat encounters... IF the encounter is significant to the plot of the adventure.
In this instance, the encounter was significantly expanding the scope of the campaign. It revealed that the problem wasn't some renegade necromancer, but that the Shadowfell was mingling with the Material Plane. From this encounter onward, my players' investigation of the undead took on a new and world-changing significance.
Side Note: if you are running an OSR or level-up-by-experience-points type campaign, you CANNOT have a "no-win battle" battle. Those styles of TTRPG tend to stress gameplay more than narrative. Every turn in combat is as much of a puzzle between min-maxing players and crafty DMs. To make retreat the only option would be equivalent to putting them in a maze with no entrance or exit, or a puzzle with no solution.
© Olie Baldador
When Should Dungeons and Dragons Players Use 5e Retreat Rules?
When they ask the DM "Is this monster too powerful for us?" and the DM clarifies "Yes, this thing will certainly kill you all."
As the DM, I thought I was clearly articulating that the players should not even attempt combat.
I was not... and that was entirely my own fault.
How do I know?
Because I didn't say: "You cannot win this battle."
Yes... I believe THAT is how clear you need to be as the DM.
The Dungeon Master needs to pause the game and calmly look in the players eyes and explain: "Everybody, you cannot win this battle. There are ways for you to 'win' the counter, but this monster, at this moment, CANNOT be beaten."
While this will BRIEFLY break immersion, your players will quickly zone back in, viewing the encounter from a completely different angle.
On the flip side... players... you can ALWAYS ask your DM, "Do we have a chance in this encounter?"
DMs have a lot on their plate and may have gotten lost in the moment. If you can ask clarifying questions about a room in a dungeon, you can ask clarifying questions about an encounter.
After all, it is cooperative storytelling!
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The D&D Retreat Guide
How should your party retreat from a combat encounter?
To retreat well, every single character should do the following:
These actions will allow you to back away from combat without taking damage. Furthermore, some D&D races and character classes have abilities that impact mobility, allowing them to retreat without being hindered by difficult terrain. Others can cast invisibility, teleportation, or movement spells to help them escape.
Player Characters That Retreat Best
Obviously, if you know you are going to have to retreat, it is good to have a faster character.
One way to do that is to pick a fantasy race that gets extra movement speed, like Wood Elves, Tabaxi, and Aarakocra.
Another way is to pick a character class that gains some sort of enhanced movement. In D&D 5e, there are 3 classes that have advantages when it comes to retreating:
Barbarian Character Class: Granted, your ally will have to roll pretty high on their persuasion check to get the Barbarian to NOT hack and slash to the gates of Valhalla... but that said... Barbarians can BOOK IT. At level 5, they gain the Fast Movement class ability, which grants them 10 feet of extra movement.
Monk Character Class: Similar to the Barbarians, Monks can move 10ft faster because they are not wearing armor. However... unlike the Barbarian, the Monk continues to get faster as they level up. Every 3 or 4 levels, they gain an extra 5ft, resulting in a staggering THIRTY FEET (30ft) of extra movement by level 20!
Rogue Character Class: Rogues can't move any faster, but they do have Cunning Action, which allows them to take the Dash or Disengage action as a bonus action. This class ability was designed to allow rogue characters to move freely across the battlefield and slit throats from the shadows. However, you'll notice that it is basically the rogue making many small retreats throughout a whole battle!
Retreating Movement Speeds
When players are thinking about retreating, it is THESE spells that first come to mind (you can search all the spells here):
- Longstrider: 1st level spell that increases your speed by 10 feet
- Haste: 3rd level spell that allows a character to take the Dash action twice
- Expeditious Retreat: Allows you to take the Dash action as a bonus action
However, there are other options as well! Freedom of Movement will allow your character to ignore difficult terrain and not be paralyzed or restrained (basically, if you're running... you keep running!). And, of course, if your enemy is land-bound, simply Flying away will do the trick!
Retreating With Invisibility Spells
However, there is no need to run faster if you can't be seen at all! Invisibility is a 3rd level spell that turns you and everything you are wearing invisible. However, if you have to cast another spell or make an attack, you cease to be invisible. Thankfully, the level 4 Greater Invisibility solves that problem!
Retreating With Teleportation Spells
What makes these spells great is that they do not provoke opportunity attacks, which means you do not have to use your action to disengage first. When it comes to retreating from combat, the best spell is Dimension Door, which will let you instantaneously teleport up to 500 feet away to a place you can see.
However, it is often the low level parties that need to retreat, which makes the 2nd level Misty Step the most common option. Granted, it only gets you 30 feet away, but is only a BONUS ACTION, meaning you can still use your action to dash... allowing you to move 90 feet in a single round!
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Simple Homebrew D&D 5e Retreat Rules for the DM (no app needed!)
One problem with retreating is that, oftentimes, the monster or enemies the players want to flee from have more movement speed. When that is the case, retreating doesn't make any sense... the monsters are guaranteed to catch up. Even if they have to use the dash action to catch up, they will still be able to use their reactions and bonus actions to attack you.
Of course, you can absolutely play out a retreat following rules-as-written. You can force players to disengage, have them begin dashing away, and have the enemy chase them. If you prefer that, you can find the chase rules on page 252 of the Dungeon Master's Guide.
But it will not take long to notice how difficult this style of retreat is. 5e's mechanics make retreating VERY difficult against high level monsters.
However, if you DESPISE 5e's chase rules like I do (blog post on that here), I have found an alternative.
If everyone at the table agrees that it would be wise to retreat, they have a frank conversation with the DM. The Dungeon Master then asks how the players would like to retreat. Some may want to use a spell, others may want to fly or jump, others might run.
The DM then requires each of them to roll an appropriate skill check. If more than 50% of the players succeed, the DM asks the players to narrate their escape, making it as cinematic as possible.
The author of this method insists that players can only attempt this once per combat encounter. The benefits of this method are that it is easy to explain and simple to execute, and that it keeps the narrative flowing.
Alternatively, you can require your players to succeed many, many checks. If this is the case, you still ask them for various skill checks, but as they are making them, they are also vulnerable to attack. During retreat, players are assumed to be taking the Dodge Action when an enemy attacks and they therefore get advantage on any saving throws. If they are desperate to retreat ASAP, they canNOT get these benefits and instead get advantage on their retreat check.
If there are players that have been downed (succeeded their death saves), you can even add an extra level of realism to the retreat with these additional rules. Other players can choose to carry them by succeeding an Athletics check. Regardless, a successful retreat is "rewarded" by the entire party taking 1 level of exhaustion.
The upside of this method is that the player characters are still in danger as they retreat. Just like in real life, retreating carries some risk... choosing to retreat is not a "get out of jail free card."
But bottom line: to retreat in D&D 5e, just use all your movement to run in the opposite direction!
Summary: How to Use 5e Retreat Rules in Your D&D Campaigns?
Retreating in D&D involves an open conversation with your DM as to whether it is even an option. If so, use your disengage action, any movement and invisibility spells, and drop anything that is slowing you down!
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Based out of Spokane, Riley is a freelance copywriter that combines his love of reading, writing, and people into something useful! He is thankful to be applying his passion for imaginative role-playing to help DnD related businesses communicate their value in the best way possible. He's kinda like a bard giving inspiration, except without the annoying pop covers!