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Recent encounters with hard to hurt opponents have left the party pretty beat up. The player is now seemingly scared by similar encounters and prefers fleeing.

I'm GMing a solo game of Pathfinder for a friend, using a premade module. He plays a team of four characters and it's been going great so far. Recently though, the group has started facing harder opponents with various immunities or high damage output. Result: the party has taken a beating but is still alive. My player's confidence though? Went down for the count.

The party had a series of encounters with creatures that displayed unusual powers and immunities. Some of them were more dangerous than I think the module intended, and others would have been less dangerous but the party didn't react the way the module expected (not least because they were spooked by the earlier dangerous encounters). The party also didn't get any mental breathing room by being given fights they could simply smash in between these more dangerous or unusual encounters.

This resulted in the player quickly getting spooked, feeling like he was in over his head, and so we spent the session with the characters running away. It did not make for a fun session on either side.

How do I reassure the player and make the fighting something to look forward to rather than a frustrating experience of hide and seek?

Should I start adapting the scenario to manage the player's fear level and put a few easier encounters to show his party is not inept? Or should I push some tools that could help against those opponents?

Sub-questions:

  • How do you reassure your player when a new encounter brings back an unexpected previous-encounter trauma?
  • How do you reconcile the fact the encounter is meant to be scary, is indeed scary to the player, but you suddenly wish it would not be?

Update

The issue has been discussed with the player right after the session since it was obvious we were both disappointed by these few hours. He admitted being gradually scared by multiple things:

  • A previous encounter with a creature which required spending more resources than usual to defeat. The problematic encounter is meant to look like that creature at first, so... trauma.
  • The description of the new creature (it is eerie and menacing in various ways)
  • The legend one of the PCs remembered, which seems linked to the creature (legendary creature?!)
  • The problematic encounter's secret true nature led to alarmingly unusual and apparent rule-breaking effects when the party didn't figure out the truth quickly.

The player actually enjoys combat, quite possibly more than roleplaying encounters. He is not yet knowledgeable about all the tactical possibilities of the system though (nor am I, really).

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Related: How can I make my PCs flee? (Maybe read that and do the opposite!) –  SevenSidedDie Jan 31 '13 at 18:35

6 Answers 6

up vote 17 down vote accepted

The scenario will need some adaptation. Your player is now trained to think about these hard-to-hurt monsters as too powerful for him and his characters to deal with.

It's actually a good sign that he runs away when he feels outmatched (see How can I make my PCs flee? for the flip side of your problem).

One system-specific possibility is that he has missed some option which is assumed by the designers. An extreme example is a party of melee only characters against ranged monsters with flight. Take a look at this and see if there are easily available options to deal with the common monster defenses. Make this an extra sidequest so it's not just a GM handout.

In general, there are two feelings a player needs to get involved in a conflict. The first is confidence that he can find a way to defeat the enemy without losing horribly. The second is investment in winning.

There is a balance between these two elements. The more investment a character has (the monster is threatening an NPC he really likes for instance) in winning, the lower the confidence he needs in winning to try. This also applies in reverse. The more confident he is in winning easily, the less investment he needs to get involved.

Confidence is increased when you achieve something a little harder than you expect to be able to do. The classic psychological text on this is Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. If you want to train someone up to feel capable of handling monsters that put out these signals, start with much much weaker ones and show farmers/townspeople/NPC nobody's dealing with them. Then build up the opposition until they know how to handle the ones you care about or have worked out the tools they need.

In the specific example of the Eerie, you need to signal that all is not quite right with it. Give someone a skill check, Knowledge, Nature Lore, Perception, whatever, to see that it's not exactly what it seems. That should give a little boost.

Building investment is a big task. Creating emotions and How can I increase tension during roleplaying? have more advice to give on this subject.

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Thanks for this detailed answer! Since I've been more GM than player, I tend to discover things in combat at the same time as my player, even when prepping the monster abilities. As such, I try to think of solutions on the fly and discuss tactics with the player. I never impose anything but try to provide all the possibilities I can come up with for him to choose from. Could you detail your "extra sidequest" idea? As for the Eerie, interactions have proven that there's something more, but it's been misinterpreted or even reinforced the wrong idea. –  leokhorn Jan 31 '13 at 18:06
    
The sidequest would depend on the particular tool. I suspect that for PF, it would be a magic item of some kind. I'd probably go with 5 encounters (like The Five Very Abstract Rooms) that span from really easy to just over their level. –  Simon Gill Jan 31 '13 at 19:00

Be sure that your omnipotent perspective as the GM isn't solely responsible for leading you to believe that your player is being overly-cautious. Caution is a function not only of what someone is dealing with, but is also and much more a function of available intel on the danger. It might be that they're being properly cautious for the degree of knowledge that have to work with, and you and they are coming to different conclusions because you have perfect knowledge. Perfect knowledge robs many things of their deserved scariness.

If you're sure that your player is being overly-cautious, then the advice of the other answers is excellent. If, however, your birds-eye view is giving you an erroneous idea of how cautious someone who is both figuratively and literally in the dark should be, then there's nothing wrong that needs fixing.

I've very often been in the GM's seat and had to bite my tongue when players turn back, when I know there's easy treasure right around the corner, or the threat they're fleeing is totally within their means to defeat. It happens every time I GM, and it's just the difference between operating with omniscience and operating with limited knowledge. I've gotten used to it; now when my players press on and discover something, I know they earned it! I didn't hand it to them with hints and leading them around by the nose.

(Oh, and this isn't to be overlooked: there is a benefit to you in your players retreating. It means that your prepared material is going to last longer than you expected. Enjoy that!)


As for how to "reveal" the cube, don't bring it out of the dungeon – gelatinous cubes are not creatures of the outdoors and wouldn't have any reason to go out. Instead, let it wander off into the dungeon and be encountered another time. Your player will be constantly on the lookout for it (which is awesome, because they're deeply engaged with the place). In order to show them that it's not quite what it seems, remember that cubes can move in every direction – what are the chances that it moves toward the party with the armour oriented toward them again, next time the meet it? If the suit is moving sideways or backwards down the hall toward them, that's much less threatening. It will give the player another piece of information, and it might be the piece that makes them reject their current theory about it and start trying to figure out anew what it is.

I definitely wouldn't bring it out into the daylight. That's too much like literally holding it up and showing them that it's not mysterious. Your player may be relieved, but you might also find that they're suddenly disappointed by the whole thing. People strive to reveal mysteries because they want them to be known, but they resent having the answers just handed to them.

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A really good point; see related question rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/13954/… for more on that. –  mxyzplk Feb 1 '13 at 2:29
    
+1 for recogising that knowledge is the bane of fear. If players can quantify a threat, they can come up with counter-strategies - and knowing for sure that a thing can, in fact, be defeated makes standing and fighting a whole lot more attractive. (On that note, it might be wise to break out the knowledge checks to boost your player's confidence.) –  GMJoe Feb 1 '13 at 4:26
    
@mxyzplk I actually like the accepted answer there more than my own, now. –  SevenSidedDie Feb 1 '13 at 5:06
    
@GMJoe Aye, and that reminds me of a related question I once posted: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/3548/… –  SevenSidedDie Feb 1 '13 at 5:56
    
Looking at the list of why he's scared, it's perfectly understandable. I even prefer that to him mindlessly running into every battle. But in spite of all this making sense and being a reasonable behavior, it wasn't fun, for neither of us. It felt like a stalemate situation or a mexican standoff lasting 2 hours. It gets boring. Honestly I'm not even sure there's a solution to this, it might just be a rare consequence of the circumstances. I'll keep your advice not to reveal it in mind, though I'm unsure putting it back down there is going to help (more like resetting the situation). –  leokhorn Feb 1 '13 at 10:18

I use to ask this in questions like this. Have you tried to talk with the player? It seems the more obvious solution, but you haven't mentioned, so I have to say it. Nothing some strangers like us can tell will help as much as asking the player why is playing that way, and explaining him which are your expectations in the game and asking what are his.

If the problem is your player actually prefer to play with so much caution, you can always modify a little the adventure. Maybe some stealth mission is more appealing to him. What about infiltrating an enemy stronghold, assassinate an important leader and then be able to escape.

Or maybe he is not even interested in combat, and wants a more social gameplay or whatever. If that, you'll need to reach a compromise.

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It was discussed right after the session (see updated question). The player seems fond of combat more than roleplaying encounters. I think he just got overwhelmed by the recent scenario history and the fact some creatures aren't squishy. –  leokhorn Jan 31 '13 at 23:01

Motivation for the player may be key. Yes, that monster will maybe use a day's resources to beat and leave the party healing for the next day, but what about SimpleTown over there that it's rampaging? Certainly a good aligned character isn't just going to sit there and watch the carnage just because some metaphysical force says nay. Or maybe tweak the rewards and either modify the existing loot or rearrange where what comes from. "Yes that dragon is daunting, but I know if I'm smart I can beat him and that +2 Vorpal Sword is mine!"

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Agreed: heroes don't fight because they like it, but because they have to. Characters fighting even though they are scared, because they have to? Awesomeness. –  Cristol.GdM Jan 31 '13 at 18:34
    
It is admittedly a bit of a tacked on dungeon encounter. Prime motivation is mostly that it's blocking your way to your actual goal. As such, fighting it is not truly necessary. Getting it out of the way would be enough. In a sense we were getting there towards the end of the session, but it still took about 2 hours of fruitlessly poking about and running before that. –  leokhorn Jan 31 '13 at 23:05
    
I could see if the "party" could use diplomacy to get out of the way, but maybe start playing the critters such that they will stalk the party since they're giving off a "prey" vibe. –  CatLord Feb 1 '13 at 0:23
    
In this very case, diplomacy won't help one bit, sadly. See the updated question for the whole mess. –  leokhorn Feb 1 '13 at 0:29

There are some great answers, but another way to approach this is to give them the chance to get something very specific that will help. Perhaps there is a spell or poison that is highly effective against the monster in question. They got beaten the first time, so they need to go get that thing and come back prepared for that monster. The preparation will help give them confidence without making it feel like you just lessened the difficulty of the game.

This incidentally is a fairly common trope that comes up extensively in some of the Batman stories and in things like The Witcher. If Batman is not prepared for the specific fight ahead, there is a good chance he will loose (or at least not win decisively with the opponent able to fight again). But in that first fight he gets the information he needs to go off and get ready so he wins the next fight. Similarly, the Witcher is fearsome when ready for a battle, nearly unstoppable when ready for that particular battle, but merely a highly skilled fighter if he hasn't had time to prepare his potions, oils, etc.

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The PCs are kind of on the clock in this specific scenario. It's otherwise good advice in general! –  leokhorn Feb 1 '13 at 0:35

As a GM you have to slowly learn how to manage the carrot and stick. Each player and/or character is motivated more by one or the other. When players don't react how I anticipated, I usually try to give them subplots which allow them to get an edge they didn't have when they first started a quest or encounter.

Fleeing players are actually a good sign. Give the players new tools and find a way for them to have a measure of their opponents. Report about who has tried to go against and won or made the bad guy flee. Allow your party to use NPCs as bait or backup, maybe even tie-in a high-powered campaign NPC as a story hook in a way which lets your players "owe" him one. Basically give them confidence that at least they won't die trying. Give them hints that the npc might have other ennemies to barter or blackmail.

On the flip side, you can do it the opposite. If they fear an NPC, maybe he can start going after the party. Sending henchmen, denying them services (every hotel in the region is owned by a lackey of his). Make it so that dealing with the issue is better than fleeing. You could allow the players to measure the NPC in an initial encounter and let HIM flee when an un-involved NPC arrives by pure chance (police just happen to get a call near the encounter). Remember that many rivalries in real life start very small and grow... give your team the same scaling effect.

I don't know which kind of rpg this is, but most games allow for post screw-up repairs... waking up in a jail cell, being rescued just as they are about to die, dying and being revived, whatever... maybe the players need to get such an event so they realize that maybe the risk doesn't mean dying and the game is over. Note that any such last-ditch save must come at a price (jailbreak infamy, debt to leaders, new enemy).

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I like the "show them that it's not the end of the world" bit. In rock climbing the advice is the same: first you learn to fall in your harness to the end of your lead, so that you learn to not fear falling off the wall. –  SevenSidedDie Jan 31 '13 at 23:19
    
another thing I forgot is that in all my games, I have two xp handouts. XP, as usual and destiny points. destiny points allow players to go back in time and change one decision up to a few minutes ago. They never have more than 2 dp on their sheets as a party. It does relieve a lot of negative stress of playing on harder difficulties (I'm a pretty gruesome GM, in general ... yes I've made 6'4" grown men cry ;-). –  moliad Feb 2 '13 at 16:26

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