A Walk in the Dark A look in to the mind of an RPG designer


Is Surrender Always an Option?

In the movies, I don't recall many times where the protagonist asks the "big evil" to surrender and the BBEG says "You have a point. I surrender!" You didn't see Oddjob throw his hands up and capitulate when Bond threatened him with his hat. You didn't see the alien queen assume the fetal position and begin trembling just because Ripley called her a bitch. The Witch King didn't look blankly at Eowyn, suddenly realize that there was a little loophole to his immortality, and ran away screaming. It just doesn't happen in fiction, at least not as often as it would in real life.

Not much has been written about the possibility of surrender in D&D, especially in 4e. The only reference I can find is in the entry for the Intimidate skill (Player's Handbook, page 186 or the Rules Compendium, page 147):

Opposed Check: Against a monster’s Will. (Adventurers can also try to intimidate DM-controlled characters.) The monster gains a +5 bonus to Will against the check if it is unfriendly to the adventurer, or a +10 bonus if it is hostile.


Success: The adventurer forces a bloodied monster to surrender, gets a monster to reveal a secret, or cows a monster into taking some other action.

The above does not take in to consideration a variety of factors, such as morale. If the party has slaughtered fifty goblins as they plow through their lair, the rest of the lesser goblins would be much more receptive to "surrender or die." But, if you're a "by the book" DM, using the above numbers would still make it somewhat unlikely, or at least infrequent, that even the most lowly goblin would surrender.

Run Away! Run Away!

Every time I look at the first encounters in Keep of the Shadowfell, I can't help but think "why are these monsters still hanging around?!? Screw Irontooth, he could handle himself... I would have dropped my blade and run the hell out of there in a heartbeat!"

Let's do the math for a second: a Goblin Cutter (Monster Manual, page 136) has a Will defense of 11. For argument's sake, let's downgrade it from "hostile" to "unfriendly" - rather than charge at you with its sword, the goblin will be more likely to shout insults and really dislike your presence - so that's a +5 bonus, making the Intimidate check a DC 16. At first level, that's pretty close to a "Hard" DC (a truly "hard" DC at level 1 is DC 19). I have a level 2 warden that has an Intimidate bonus of +0, so he'd have to roll a 16 or higher to coax a goblin to surrender. That's a pretty tall order, even though he's the lead defender killing things left and right with a big honkin' battleaxe.

Let me sidestep for a minute and point out that Intimidate is Charisma based, which in my opinion is somewhat absurd. Your beefiest, burliest, most violently intimidating defender usually can't Intimidate themselves out of anything unless they take training in it (I've always wondered what "intimidation training" is like). If anything, it should be Strength based, I think. But I digress.

Someone trained in Intimidate and that uses Charisma as their primary attribute could get a +10 bonus if they really try. So even against a lowly, visibly shaken goblin they need a 6 or greater, which means there's still a 25% chance that the goblin will laugh in their face. And if the goblin was truly hostile (DC 21), that percentage rises to 50%. Somehow that doesn't seem likely enough.

I also need to point out the consequence of trying to intimidate anything. Under the block quoted above:

Target Becomes Hostile: Whether or not the check succeeds, using this skill against a monster usually makes it unfriendly or hostile toward the adventurer.

So if you happen to roll a failure, this lone goblin is going to come charging at you? Really? I also don't think I need to point out the inconsistency... Even if one rolls a success and the creature surrenders, as per the above it is still unfriendly or hostile. So what's the point of intimidating?

D&D does not have a "morale" stat; the closest it gets is a "circumstance bonus" to die rolls, but that's somewhat of a gray area and I don't think it's documented anywhere. If the party has been killing goblins wholesale, the remaining goblins would be terrified in no time at all. There is no way to quantify that, so DMs must use their own creative license, using what they may or may not know about how goblins act and try to make an intelligent decision of what exactly would happen in this situation.

Taking On the Alien Queen

But what if the target is your "big evil"?

"Gosh Ripley, you're right... I never meant to be such a bitch... I'm sorry. I should go."

The whole reason this conversation came up is because my primary party is going up against the "big evil" and the assassin/rogue decides to intimiate it. The BBEG has a base Will defense of 19, +10 for being hostile (no doubt about that here), so that's a DC of 29 (way beyonsd being "hard"). The assassin has a +11 intimidate, which means he'll have to roll an 18 or greater; that's a 15% chance of success. Another tall order, but at least it's fairly realistic.

But what exactly *is* success here? Many say that this shouldn't work at all, that there are creatures that are so fanatical that they are beyond intimidation ("fight to the death", as some official modules put it), but then I become one of those DMs that says "no". So if I allow the roll, and for argument's sake let's say the player rolls a natural 20, what exactly happens then? Would you still tell them that their intimidation had no effect, even though it was (1) a natural 20, and (2) higher than the BBEG's Will defense +10? Does the BBEG simply see the error of his ways and give up, no questions asked?!?

From a story standpoint, that's obviously not going to happen, but part of me still wants to reward the roll in the unlikely event that it is successful. I've asked this on Twitter and I've gotten suggestions such as granting an attack or damage bonus, decreasing his defenses, adding a temporary condition like dazed or weakened, etc... I actually like a lot of those ideas.

But what about failure? It is a big risk, but the player is making the check as a Standard Action so he's paying a certain price (especially considering he's the team striker). Besides a witty retort and back talk, should the BBEG gain some benefit? Some have suggested increased defenses, giving him one more action point, making an attack as an immediate reaction, etc... I'm still torn about this one, but for now will probably do no more than than laugh in the player's face and try to kill them again.

I do not want failure to be too extreme, because if it's something too over the top the player may not want to try it again. I do not want to put the "fear of God" in a player and prevent them from trying a creative solution to a problem using the resources they have available. I mean, if this will never work, again... what's the point of training Intimidate in the first place?

Others have suggested that it be a complex skill challenge, not leaving the unlikely surrender to a single lucky die roll and reflecting the inherent difficulty in trying to convince the BBEG to give up. This is another idea I'm considering.


I haven't rolled that d20 yet, but will do so later today. I still have the day to determine how it's going to be handled, but I'm wondering how many of you out there have dealt with similar situations. Does your BBEG end up being a big weenie and dropping to his knees, terrified that the rogue in the party really means business? How have your players used Intimidate, and what have you allowed them to get away with?

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  1. As a player, I recently used intimidate to remove a combatant from the fray. I think that it’s a pretty powerful ability to use against a non-minion, especially when they have the HP to stick around and cause real trouble for you.

    As far as the mechanics are concerned, I’m fine with the high difficulty but if the target is threatened, all bets should be off.

    As far as story is concerned, BBEGs shouldn’t go down so easy. There are, sometimes, shortcuts in an encounter to shorten it, but Intimidate seems too easy an out. Using a skill challenge to force a surrender can at least stretch out the encounter to a reasonable length and add flavor to the climax of the story, especially if your players are skilled role-players.

    And if you go the route of the skill challenge, you could set a limit to how many successes may be earned with any particular skill, including intimidate.

    The real trick here is setting expectations and how open your players are to doing something differently. If your assassin has specialized to make good use of his Intimidate skill, he may be put off by an exception. But only you know your players.

  2. It would surely help to know what the PC was trying to achieve, how it was formulated, and what exactly he tried to do to intimidate the NPC. Those are the main factors.

    That said, the rules are clear :
    The adventurer forces a bloodied monster to surrender, gets a monster to reveal a secret, or cows a monster into taking some other action.

    The target, from what I read, is not bloodied. He would have little reason to surrender if he ever thought his chances of survival are actually good (that’s taking overconfidence into account).

    So ? What I figure happens is this : Somehow stunned by the sheer balls it took for the assassin to even try this, BBEG hesitates. “How can he be so sure of himself ? Does he have a trick up his sleeve ?”

    What happens next is up to BBEG’s personality, his history with the PCs, his reasons to oppose them… Damn, you have a problem I’d kill to have ! Pure roleplaying potential, just waiting to be shaped ! Please keep us informed.

    • I agree with this, I’d see a BBEG who has no specific reason to want these heroes dead not be so much intimidated, but intrigued by this guy, perhaps even offering something to him to join up (or at least stay out of the way).

      If he knows the assailants, though, I don’t know how I’d handle it.

  3. I’ve allowed this a number of times in the past. I always make the decision based on the personality of the NPC or BBEG. Heck, I’ve even had the BBEG surrender without them making the check.

    I generally use the check to determine how genuine the surrender is, rather than whether or not the opponent surrenders. I the Pyramid of Shadows I even had the gang of rogues join the PC’s once they killed their boss (who happened to be the Clutches brother). The group are all charismatic Dragonborn, so when they burst in through their defences and traps and threw their leaders head to the floor, they surrendered without a single life being lost.

    On the other hand I’ve also had a failed intimidate result in “Sure, I surrender.” *SNEAK ATTACK* one round later.

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