The ability to run away from combat in an RPG is, I think, extremely important. It allows the players a way to lose without ending the game. It also opens the door for more interesting combats where the enemy is known and more pre-planning is done. I find in general that combats that the players know about ahead of time and plan for are pretty universally more interesting than random surprise conflicts. Though that perhaps is another post. Point is, in combat, either side should be able to have some chance of successfully escaping the combat.
Lots of RPGs fail pretty badly at this. Many RPG mechanics seem to encourage a kind of all or nothing mentality. If you try to run away, you will fail, so you might as well fight to the death. Some of this is from the mentality engendered by ‘do-over’ mechanics — players feel like there’s always a chance to turn it around until they drop dead. Some is from the raw fallacy of turn based movement, which effects both players and NPCs. A common mechanic is to allow a free out-of-turn attack on a combatant who flees combat. This really doesn’t work with turn based movement though. Combatant A flees from combat, and combatant B gets a free swing. On B’s turn, he runs to the point where A is. A flees again, B gets another free attack, rinse and repeat.
So how do I deal with this in our current LL game? Well, obviously there is no do-over mechanic, so that’s not an issue. I added a critical hit system to the game, originally just to reduce deadliness, but I find it has an nice secondary effect of allowing players the opportunity to feel overwhelmed and get out. When a player drops to 0 hp and takes a critical effect (broken arm, punctured lung, etc.) it gives them that chance to realize they’re screwed and consider leaving combat.
Unfortunately the free attack mechanic is pretty strongly ingrained in my brain from years of D&D 3+ and the Warhammer RPG. Even though B/X and LL don’t actually have that mechanic, I find it a difficult to remember not to do it, and now the precedent is so strong I think my players might get upset if I try to remove it. That said, the lack of a scale model during battle (I don’t use a battle mat or measure inches) gives me some leeway to alleviate the problem.
First, some background for how I run combat. I use group initiative — I roll a d6 and one player rolls a d6, whoever rolls higher starts. Play then starts either with me or the player to my left, and goes clockwise from there. Initiative is rolled just once at the start of play, and hirelings go after the players but before any monsters. We have miniatures on the table but just for the players. They line them up for marching order when exploring, and I cluster them into combat groups when fighting. Often this is as simple as a front line and back line grouping — the front line is the players in melee with the enemy, the back line represents players trying to keep a healthy distance between themselves and the guys with sharp implements. If it becomes important to have two discrete combat groups (eg. group A is on the near side of the bridge, B on the far side), we just cluster the minis as required. It is entirely non-representational of actual placement in combat, which I assume to be a swirling chaos of combatants moving around and constantly changing targets. In practice I generally like to see the minis arranged in a line, which makes it easier for me randomize targets when I wish with a simple die roll.
So, what if someone wants to run away? Well, the rules state you can either all out flee or you can make a fighting retreat at half movement. In the case of the former, I allow free attacks from enemies as the combatant flees. If someone gives chase and there are still enemies in the melee, then they also will be subject to free attacks as they leave the melee. I assume the latter still allows a normal attack on your turn, it is a fighting retreat after all, and does not grant other free attacks.
Either way, when one side flees, I determine immediately if the other side wishes to press the attack. If so, and it’s a fighting retreat, I just assume the entire combat moves its location and continues as before. If it’s an all out flee, then we switch from combat into a chase (which generally I just compare movement rates to resolve). If only some combatants of a side flee and some combatants press, it basically splits the combat into two groups, as mentioned above. This has actually led to some interesting scenes in game, such as when a group of lizard men fled combat up a stair, and only one of the players decided to press the attack. The lizard men regrouped at the top of the stairs and basically pounded the poor schmuck who chased them up there. He in turn retreated back down the stairs, and we had a sort of stale-mate until both sides decided to move away on their respective levels.
So that’s it, that’s how I handle running away in combat. Even after writing that out it still feels looser in my mind than I was hoping. Actually, that’s probably a good thing. Loose rules are easier to modify on the fly as required by the current situation, which just means I’ve got to be on my toes during play to make it as fun as I can. Which really is pretty much what DMing is all about.