Monday, December 2, 2019

Laws & Customs of Surrender

This excellent post over on The Dragon's Flagon prompted this post in turn.


If you read the Tales of Froissart, Medieval history in general, or watch lots of YouTube histories of battles (like this one here), you'll constantly run into the concept of ransom of nobles. Capture an important enemy knight, you sell him back to his family (and treat him well in the meantime.)

I find most gamers come at battle with a 20th/21st century concept of ruthless total war. A defeated enemy is a prisoner. Prisoners are held indefinitely or killed outright. All belongings of the defeated belong to the victor. A prisoner has no value to the victory except for what he or she carries or the information he or she can give about allies or treasure. And that's more easily extracted, in fantasy games at least, after murder using Speak with Dead (D&D) or Summon Spirit (GURPS Magic.) The concept of prisoners for ransom, prisoner exchanges - a perfectly common 20th century phenomenon, and release on exchange (you go home and don't fight until officially exchanged for another prisoner) - they may as well not exist.

With that in mind, would you surrender? At best, you're looted of everything of value and set free, but that's unlikely. You expect to be stripped of gear and either sold into slavery or murdered.

But I think there is a way to do this.

Laws of War

Implement some rules of value.

Make it clear right from the start of the campaign that there are certain concepts of war and battle that are accepted. When a civilized foe is defeated, it's accepted in general that he or she should pay a ransom in return for being spared. You may claim their goods, or a ransom, but not both - and it's generally preferred that you claim a ransom. It's considered bad form to seize goods outright with the acceptance of such by the defeated. Ransom will generally be in cash, but can also be in kind, deeds, or promises (in a game that needs them - I'll respect your borders for a year, we'll conclude a pact, I'll protect your allies in my territory, etc.) If you can't pay in cash, you can hand over your gear.

Service also counts. Using the rates as a hireling (DF15, p. 32) to calculate how long of service works, or you can default to a year's service in lieu of handing over goods of value. This is a great way to get hirelings, by the way - defeat the enemy, recruit them instead of looting them, and you've got hirelings who've agreed to work for you for a year without pay (you would still need to make sure their upkeep is cared for, through loot or pay.)

Another option is to pay a month's upkeep. A Status 0 foe might owe $200, while a high-ranking noble may owe many thousands. They could easily be worth more than their carried goods.

For example, you defeat a foe and he or she surrenders. You can claim his or her gear and let them go, or you can claim a ransom. The ransom should be similar to the sale value of the gear seized - say, 50%. The defeated and the victor can negotiate turning over a particular piece of gear as part of the negotiations. If you defeat an enemy swordsman and he doesn't want to give you his Weapon Bond sword he doesn't have to, but may have to pay quite a lot to keep it (assuming the foe values it correctly.)

Also state outright that NPCs follow these by default. That is, it's likely that foes will follow these rules more than they'll break them. Most enemies will follow these rules; ones with "oath breaker" disadvantages will have appropriate reputations. But otherwise, assume civilization matters and the rules are followed.

The concepts of absolute good and evil work against such social mores, however. Can you free a member of a Chaotic Evil race? Would a Lawful Good character free an evil foe, and vice-versa? Would Lawful Good people really be fighting each other to the death? Those are maybes, but it's another layer of complication and another step in the going-on 50 year arguments about what alignment means. In a game without strict alignment but clear definitions of evil - GURPS Dungeon Fantasy, for example - it's unlikely true evil will just ransom off a Holy Warrior of the Good God or spare some "useless" prisoners. But the more civilized types might - anything that lacks "Truly evil" could follow these norms, rules, and mores. And even then Truly Evil ones may spare those that surrender in an attempt to use Good to defeat Good. And Good can try to use the weaknesses of evil to escape and win the day, as well.

All in all, though, I feel like stating outright that surrender is viable and likely only costs you service or some of your cash can help. Combined with "fleeing always works" and knowing what the foes want can make fights doubly less all-or-nothing decisions. Players fear death of their PCs and often fear loss of their cool stuff more than death. "I may as well be dead if I'm going to lose my magic sword and armor" can end a PC and make for long slog fights where the players desperately try to drag it out while they come up with a miracle to win. But knowing, hey, I surrender and pay some cash and escape - maybe that's the way to go. Maybe next time after the extracted truce ends, you can get some payback. But surrender doesn't equate with death, and it's stated outright.


  1. Hmm. Something to think about and remember. The PCs in my OD&D game had to surrender to goblins at one point and the goblins took all their stuff before letting them go. It hadn't occurred to me to give them an option of a ransom in cash OR give up all their stuff. Plus the non-hostility option. They've captured some goblins since then but turn the captives over to the local sheriff as they are guard goblins. I'll need to remember this going forward.

    1. For each victor it probably comes down to "give me something I can use and I'll let you go." And your goblins being a little outside the mains of society may find equipment of higher quality than they can manufacture of more use than some more gold that can only be used to buy what other evil tribes can supply. So you didn't do a bad thing. But make sure the next time those goblins are encountered, their champion is wearing the PC's plate mail and using his cherished weapon!

    2. You know for next time. Maybe the goblins release them but ask for a promise of non-hostility, or hold some of their stuff hostage until they kill a pesky nearby ogre and split the loot with the goblins, or something of that sort.

      I'm with Alex, you didn't do anything bad. But hey, options for next time, right?

  2. I find that players/PCs create most of the problems they encounter. They whine "we can't run away because the enemy will attack when we turn our backs!" (because THEY always attack to kill when an enemy turns its back to flee). They cry "we can't surrender, they'll just take all our stuff without a fight then kill us with ease!" (because THEY always take the equipment of monsters that surrender then kill the helpless prisoners). They moan "a wizard with a sleep spell is a guaranteed TPK!" (because every time they put an enemy to sleep with the spell they ruthlessly cut the throats of the helpless). They complain "our party is too small but the DM won't let us hire henchmen!" (because they refuse to pay henchmen fairly or their heirs if they die, drive them into suicide missions as front liners without support or human minesweepers, and make every effort to become known as evil bastards).

    I love your post on this subject. It gives good options for the GM to set the expectations to try to curb some of the above behavior. It's still up to the players, though, so may end up in the same place with the PCs' reputations in the trash by their own choice.

  3. I don't know why I didn't think of Rules of War! I remember reading Arthur Conan Doyle's "The White Company" and "Sir Nigel," in which knights who are captured in battle are honor-bound to pay a ransom to their captors and remain non-combatant until then, and the captors are honor-bound to treat them well and respectfully for that duration.


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