Avoiding the Early Out

by Mike Shea on 4 April 2011

Dave Chalker's "Out" is one of the best advanced DMing techniques you can pick up. It keeps encounters unique and interesting, keeps your game focused on your story, and keeps your battles short and tidy. If you haven't yet learned about the out, start with Dave Chalker's The Combat Out and my previous article, Three Examples to End a Battle Early. Sometimes, however, you might accidently end a battle TOO early. Either your players trigger your out sooner than you expected or you gave them the answer too early. Today we'll look at a few ways to avoid triggering an Out too early.

Know when to reveal the out

A good "out" depends on more than just a mechanic for ending a battle early. It also depends on how and when you reveal it to your players. Reveal it too late and it might not matter, the battle is already over. Reveal it too early and your big battle might end before it ever really began. When you're designing the out, pay careful attention to when you reveal it.

Example: The mummy lord

In a battle I ran recently, I had a mummy lord and his four spectral servants. Time was running late, this was the third battle of the night and we had about 45 minutes before I wanted to finish up the game. Within the first couple of turns, after asking for a religion check, I revealed that the spectral servants were directly tied to the negative energy of the mummy. Destroy the mummy and you destroy the spectral servants. It's not a bad out if it is a little typical.

Unfortunately, I had given it away too early. The party completely ignored the spectral servants and made a mad rush for the mummy. Within a round and a half, he was defeated along with his spectral servants. The battle was over in the first 20 minutes.

This battle would have worked far better if I revealed this only after the first two full rounds, when the party is already mixed up and engaging the spectral servants and getting over to the mummy isn't as easy as it was in the beginning. Knowing when to reveal my out would have made this battle excellent.

Plan your rounds

As shown in the mummy lord example, it is important to know how your rounds might play out when deciding the right time to reveal the out. Statistics have shown that most of the action takes place in the first couple of rounds. For that reason, it is probably best to reveal your out at the end of the second or or third round of combat. At this point, monster effectiveness goes down every round as more and more of them are killed and the initial interest of your players begins to wane. Figure out the best time in each combat to reveal an out and maximize the interest of your players.

Build in flexibility

You don't know how your battles are going to play out. For this reason, its important to build some flexibility into your outs. Give yourself the room to change them during the game when you're able to determine the best time to bring it into play. Also, give yourself the freedom to determine what your "out" really does. Maybe it wipes the battle clean or maybe it just makes monsters easier to hit. Design them so you can change them at the table.

Example: The vampire's obelisk

In my recent PAX East DM Challenge adventure, Gravemyst, I had a battle against a big pile of vampires, two skeletal tomb guardians, and a dark obelisk. The obelisk itself was the main component for the out in this battle. After some skill checks to identify that the obelisk was the primary source of evil in the chamber, the players could either choose to run more skill checks or complete a puzzle. Either way and they trigger the "out". The cool bit is that I never really defined what it does when its disabled. If its disabled early, it might only destroy the skeletal tomb guardians. If it is triggered late, maybe it kills every remaining creature on the board. Right in the middle and maybe it kills the tomb guardians and bloodies everyone else. I got to choose what it did depending on when they triggered it.

You can take a look at the "outs" designed into all three of the battles in this adventure.

Balancing time and emotions

At a PAX East panel on house rules, Phil Menard and Quinn Murphy mentioned that long battles aren't a matter of time but of interest. If you're group is into it, a long battle might be just fine. Your job as a DM is to keep the pace of battle where it fits bests with the interests of the players and your own interests. Designing your battles with the flexibility to fit the mood of the players is one of the greatest techniques you can pick up as a dungeon master.

If you liked this article, take a look at Sly Flourish's Dungeon Master Tips and Sly Flourish&'s Running Epic Tier D&D Games. For some great books and tools for encounter design, check out the Dungeon Master’s Kit, the Deluxe Dungeon Master’s Screen, the Dungeon Master’s Guide 2, or use this link to buy anything from Amazon. Good maps include some excellent options for building "outs". Take a look at the Gamemastery flip maps at Troll and Toad, an official Sly Flourish sponsor.

Send feedback to @slyflourish on Twitter or email mike@mikeshea.net.