I was recently reminded of something I've long found true in most roleplaying and wargames – running away from a combat is very difficult, much more difficult than it is in the source material.
There are really three sorts of situations I'm thinking of where the players might run away from a tactical combat. They might run away as soon as they see the monsters, they might run away as soon as they realize how powerful the monsters are, or they might run away near the end of a difficult combat once they realize they are going to lose. There are many other situations where the players might decide to flee due to story reasons or interesting complications in the encounter, but I'm sticking to the basics here.
For this article, I'm going to concentrate on the third situation, running away during a pitched battle as an alternative to being defeated by the enemies, as this is the most problematic time to retreat.
The primary reason that running away is difficult in roleplaying games is the problem of fallen comrades. In order for the players to be losing badly enough to consider retreat, they generally have to have taken a lot of damage and lost significant fighting strength. Since damage is not dealt at exactly the same rate to all characters, this usually means at least one of the characters has been knocked unconscious. This is a severe problem, as unconscious characters cannot run away.
Another character could try to pick up the unconscious character and run away, but this is usually quite difficult to do. How difficult depends on the game rules, but usually it is going to take a whole turn for someone to move over and pick up the fallen character – and you can count yourself fortunate if the game rules do not then give you a movement and/or combat penalty for carrying someone as big as you are.
In games with healing, you might be able to revive the unconscious character. But if you are losing badly, there is a good chance you have already used up all of your healing powers much earlier in the battle, while attempting to keep everyone fighting and maximize your chances of winning.
However, even if you do heal your ally, there is a good chance he is still surrounded by the same deadly enemies who defeated him in the first place, and they may just do so again. And if an ally picked up your unconscious comrade, he may go down too. After all, if the fight is that tough, he is probably pretty thrashed too, and now the opponents are getting uncontested attacks against weakened characters. There could potentially be a domino effect in which the whole party would be trashed trying to save one character.
To go further into the issue of being surrounded, it can very easily happen that in an interesting and well-roleplayed combat, one of the bolder characters has pierced the "enemy lines" and is flanking the front ranks or attacking the vulnerable back ranks. Or the desperate fight has broken down into a wild melee, and one character is separated from the others. In either case, once a retreat is called, the character now finds it is pretty tough to get out with enemies in between him and the rest of the group.
Worse, the combat may involve characters simply being in situations which specifically prevent them from moving. One of the characters might be encased in webbing, or hobbled by leg wounds, or grappled by a giant bear.
Even if the players can get into the situation where they are grouped up and trying to run away as a unit, they aren't out of the woods. Now the characters have to either outrun the enemies to a point that they can't be attacked anymore, "lose" the enemies (in a car chase, for instance), or move the fight to a point where the monsters won't follow.
If you can't plain outdistance the enemies, the tactical nature of the combat really becomes a problem. In a typical tactical combat system, the battle map can be seen very plainly, and the movement of all units is very plainly specified. Every time the characters move, the enemies can simply move to follow. A common strategy is to switch to some sort of non-tactical chase rules at this point, because if you don't, there often isn't much opportunity to shake off pursuers on a tactical map.
A further reason for this is the fact that tactical combat often has a very short time frame. In many games an entire combat takes place in less than one minute of game time. This means that if the enemies can continue to attack the charaters during the chase, there just isn't enough time for the characters to get anywhere that the opponents wouldn't want to follow. There may not be enough time to run from one street corner to another, much less to have a complicated chase.
So the characters are going to need to run away in a fashion that prevents the enemies from attacking them efficiently during the chase. Whether this is possible really comes down to the precise rules of the game in question.
If the game rules say that you can move full speed and attack, running out of range is pretty much hopeless unless all the PC's are faster than most of the enemies. But in the typical mixed party of adventurers, at least one character is going to be slow enough for the main body of the enemies to catch.
Many games have the rule that you can move twice as far when you are not attacking. This rule is what would seem to give a real fair shot at escape. But they may also have rules that circumvent this. Two games I'm thinking of, Champions and 4th edition D&D, both have "charge" rules that let you move at full speed and still attack, at least with melee combat.
Even if the PC's are fast, they may not be able to open the range fast enough without the aid of favorable terrain. In a game system with decent weapon accuracy at range, there is practically no chance of escaping beyond bow or gun range before being mowed down. If the enemies have range, you need to find terrain to block them off – and given the compressed time scale of tactical combat mentioned above, that terrain had better be really, really close by.
Furthermore, even if the characters are all conscious and all faster than the opponents and running away such that the enemies only get one or two shots, we return to the fact that if the players have decided to flee from a tough combat, they are probably pretty badly wounded. In most games, a lot can happen in one round of combat, and the process of running away doesn't give you any better defenses. So even one or two volleys from the enemies can wreak havoc with the wounted party, defeating or hindering one or more of them so they can't properly escape.
Finally, some notes about a couple particular games.
In Champions, you can move at full speed and still perform a Move-Through, potentially making escape difficult. However, a majority of opponents cannot effectively perform this maneuver, so that is not the primary problem when escaping. More pertinent is that the extremely varied nature of superheroes and supervillains means that even though you may be able to move twice as fast when escaping, it is quite possible for a character without movement powers to be half as fast as everyone else, and thus be incapable of escaping. There is some relief by the fact that the really fast characters are probably more than strong enough to pick up the slow people and escape at full speed. But Champions combat is also pretty violent, if you don't have the right powers the chance of being clobbered while attempting to return to the fight to pick up a fallen comrade is pretty high. The good thing about Champions is the genre; since the comics say that heroes get captured all the time, losing fights is not a big deal.
In 4th edition D&D, a fleeing character can take two run actions per turn and escape from a typical range 10 monster in a pretty short period of time. Escaping from a melee monster is a different matter, however. Some of the players are likely to be slowed by wearing heavy armor, and a melee monster than is even one point higher speed than the character can run/charge and keep pace while attacking every turn. The attack is at a penalty, but not enough of a penalty to be ineffective when you make it every turn against a foe who doesn't fight back. And all of the other monsters who can't do this can at least double run to keep up and make sure the party can't stop and fight. Actually, though, the situation for running away is much worse than this, because of the opportunity attack rules. Once you are next to a melee monster, trying to run away at full speed will provoke a free attack from the monster. You can run away at reduced speed to avoid this, but then you really aren't getting away from the monsters.
I am try to recall situations in games I've played in which tactical escape was actually possible. One time was in Car Wars, when one enemy car was defeating two trikes. The two trikes split up, the enemy followed one, and that trike was specially equipped with massive rocket boosters that let it pull out of range before being destroyed. In Champions, there were a couple classic fights in which our party was outmatched and called a retreat, but we soon discovered that retreat was tactically impossible while the enemies were still around, so we started fighting super-efficiently and abusing as many game rules as possible in order to get rid of the pursuers, and ended up winning the battle instead. But I can't seem to recall a successful tactical retreat in a roleplaying game.
Even my successful example shows that if you want to realistically escape from a tactical combat, what you need is some sort of "Deus Ex Machina" power, some sort of extremely powerful effect that allows you to escape from combat. In some cases, the effect has to be so powerful that you wouldn't allow it if it was usable to win combats rather than simply escape them. Something like "When the characters say the mystic word, the entire party and all of their possessions are instantly transported back to their home." Now, that's a way to escape from a combat!