# Dealing with players of vastly different skill levels?

In my latest campaign (D&D 3.5), I have a player (let's call him P). P is on his fifth character. Yes, fifth. Except for P, only one other player has lost a character. The world P lives in is harrowing, that's for sure, lots of deadly skills encounters, traps, difficult combat encounters. It's a bad-things-happen sort of world, similar to Game of Thrones. Several innocents dying to a goblin horde is par for the course. It's a gritty, get-stabbed-in-the-back sort of play style, and P was particularly excited to join a campaign based around that dynamic.

The main issue is that P isn't as mature (he's half the age of the others) or skilled as the other players. P takes his character deaths with a laugh, but inside, I can tell he's a little sad that he can't keep his character breathing.

I've already tried fudging a few monster rolls/actions, putting my thumb on the proverbial scale, and other tricks, but to keep P alive through two sessions would take a hail-mary of DM chicanery. I'm not willing to give all the other players (who are not all pros, but they are surviving) a handicap like that.

P has played a range of characters, but I think he prefers a striker or defender type. So far, P has killed:

1. A dwarf fighter (lvl 1)
2. A human sorcerer (lvl 2)
3. A half-elven bard (lvl 1)
4. A human monk (lvl 3)

Here's a list of the questionable decisions P has made so far:

1. The party (6 characters) was escaping on horseback from a horde of goblins (about 30 goblins, to be exact). Being level 1, most of the party decided to flee, because the odds were against them. There were some innocents that looked like they would be killed if the party fled. P's response was to dismount and stand against the goblin horde himself, trying to protect the villagers. Noble, but P wasn't even playing his alignment (chaotic neutral). He died before the others could go back for him.
2. P (a sorcerer) decided he wanted to be the first through the door when the party was breaking up a local organized crime syndicate. The group talked it over and decided the idea had merits (I don't know why but I don't question their tactical decisions). The more experienced players didn't warn P to check for traps, or even survey the situation first. P sprung a trap and then was surrounded by thugs. (I was hoping the other PC's would give him some advice beforehand)
3. In an encounter in a gambling house, P decided that his character would like to be a contrarian, and make as much trouble with as many people as possible (perhaps he was fed up with dying?) I controlled this situation until the point where P started intentionally picking fights with customers and guards. (Didn't die that time)

P makes bad tactical decisions during fights and is generally not careful about adventuring (charging ahead, not looking), along with sometimes playing his character in an overly obnoxious way toward NPC's. I don't think he was actively seeking death the first time, but definitely was the third time.

I've already talked to P and told him (outside the game) that he's dying because he's making terrible decisions. I'd like to help him succeed, but I'm out of ideas.

Am I missing something basic? How can I keep the campaign challenging for the other players while not killing off my neophyte?

Outside the box ideas are welcome.

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## Short Version:

Maybe P is overwhelmed by bookkeeping and it's distracting him from situational awareness. Help him make a mechanically very simple character without fiddly bits or conditionals to keep track of, so he can focus on making good choices rather than having good bookkeeping. Invite the other players to support P with advice and by being good role models for the behaviour he's trying to cultivate.

## Long form answer, with rambling and details.

Back in my very first RPG ever--and also my first time as a GM--I had a player whose poor choices got him repeatedly killed. Let's call him Q.

Q knew the rules and mechanics quite well, but had a very hard time applying them intelligently to whatever situation he found himself in (like forgetting to heal himself as a cleric). Even more than that, though, was his role-playing: he really really liked to role-play his characters, but that got him in trouble because when Q got deep into his character's internal motives the PC would lose common sense and perspective about the surrounding context of his actions.

It got bad. Really bad. Q's second character was killed by the party for betraying them (he had a conversation about his friends over tea with a "nice" lady). At that point I shared Making the Tough Decisions with the group. He studied it carefully, had intense discussions with me about it... and as a direct result his fourth character perished of untempered curiosity: the characterisation "very curious" overcame the common sense "half these items are cursed and my friends are begging me to stop," until the pile of treasure he was investigating yielded up a lethal curse.

After that session I took Q aside and we talked. He knew he had a problem, and he was trying to "get better," but he needed help. I'd noticed that all his PCs so far were mechanically complicated and required in-game bookkeeping: advanced casters and races with lots of conditional features and spell-like abilities to keep track of. So we hatched the simplest possible character build: nothing to keep track of. No "if you're flanking, X also happens," no spells, no per-day abilities. If his character sheet said he could do a thing, he could always do it.

We wound up with a kind of Indiana Jones flavoured skillmonkey (a rogue chassis with homebrew mods to replace things like sneak attack because tracking whether you can deal that extra damage was beyond what we wanted for the build). He wasn't optimised in the traditional sense--but since another PC in the party had straight levels in the NPC Expert class, that wasn't an issue in keeping him relevant in the group. Instead he was optimised for what Q needed: a simple no-bookkeeping character to let him focus on situational awareness and making good choices.

At the end of each session he'd hang back --along with any other players who wanted to-- and we'd reflect on the game: what worked, what didn't. We'd consult (and if necessary research) and come up with what to make sure we did again, and what we'd change next time. (I've since found that any game I run which has some form of this "reflect and plan" dynamic after every session is improved by it.)

In tandem with another player rising to the challenge and being a kind of "teach by example" role model, it worked. A year later Q was successfully running complicated wizard builds with great party dynamics and great depth of character. He was a real joy to work with, and all he needed was to wade in at the shallow end of the bookkeeping pool instead of jumping into the deepest part head-first.

nota bene: My players have tended to treat the group dynamic as one of table-level cooperation between friends. However much their characters may be rivals, at the table they collaborate to tell the best stories, and I'm also one of the collaborators. In groups where players and/or the GM act as rivals at the table level of things, I'm not sure how much my experience will be useful. It sounds like your whole group isn't really on the same page in terms of their desired gameplay experience, and communication isn't really strong. Working on improving the "friends at the table" level of things might help your game in a number of ways.

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I think you've hit the mark there, P isn't at the same maturity level as the other players in the group (he's half the age of some of the guys), so he gets left out of the team-collaboration dynamic sometimes. I think that's where I need to focus on this group. – Zachary Yates Jun 15 '14 at 16:01

## Use the character's common sense and survival instinct in the game

A simple solution I've successfully used to manage somewhat similar situations is to allow / require INT or WIS tests with a low / unannounced difficulty number and give the player warnings about the dangers and possible consequences of the choices they're about to make, embodying their character's common sense and gut reactions.

The party (6 characters) was escaping on horseback from a horde of goblins (about 30 goblins, to be exact).

Roll WIS. Success:

You're overcome by a sense of doom. I'm not telling you how your PC should react, it's up to you, but the thought definitely occurs to your character that this is rather suicidal. Heroic, but suicidal. Maybe it would be better to run and live to fight another, more luckier day. Do you think your character would like to stay and likely sacrifice himself for a lost cause?

The more experienced players didn't warn P to check for traps, or even survey the situation first. P sprung a trap and then was surrounded by thugs. (I was hoping the other PC's would give him some advice beforehand)

Roll INT. Success:

Hey, your character suddenly remembers a story he's heard last week about a guy who checked for traps in a similar situation. Sure, that would slow you down... but maybe save your skin as well. So... do you check for traps? Those stone snakes look rather terrifying with their hollow eyes.

Leave the decision in the player's hands. Always. But offer them wisdom, in game, through their character. Hopefully P will require less and less artificially supplied common sense as time passes... :)

Edit/update: Let me emphasize: this is not about influencing how the player plays his character. This is about providing more and information for a player who's apparently not on the same page as the rest of the group (including the DM) concerning the style & genre of play and the workings of the world. I'm not saying tell the player implicitly what to do. I'm saying give the player more information for him to be able to make better, or at least more thought through decisions.

To reflect on the thought "I don't want to give my player less advice if he plays a character with low mental stats" (@BESW, in a comment) Again, I'm not propagating dealing out more or less advice. I'm talking about information, as impartial as possible (though information regarding the genre and/or the workings of the world is quite likely to imply advice in general.)

One additional note: Using the core abilities this way, as they were intended is appropriate, I think. INT "determines how well your character learns and reasons" whereas WIS "Wisdom describes a character’s ... common sense, perception, and intuition." Rolls are traditional mechanics to introduce result-based amounts of info (Spot, Listen checks, etc). A low IQ/WIS character (not player!) is less likely to mentally perceive things that would improve his chances of survival. :)

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In my reading, it is not just P that is making these mistakes, but the entire party is also contributing.

Decision 1 - The heroic savior of innocents

Not typical for a chaotic neutral - but with a chaotic neutral everything goes. And saving innocents against overwhelming forces is truly noble, heroic and epic, good fantasy stuff and advisable PC behavior. Why didn't you punish the rest of the party for cowardliness? There are many ways you can save your heroic PC (the royal guard charging in, a miracle from a god, one bystander being a wizard with some fireballs, etc.) and make an example of him to shame the rest of the party.

If you put the goblin horde there to have the party flee the scene, don't put innocents around as this will surely have the player with the idealist epic bent accept the challenge, even if this means sure death for his character.

Decision 2 - The naive springer of traps

Here, the other, more experienced players didn't warn P and didn't give tactical advice. Did you punish them for not playing their alignment in being overly careless for the well-being of a fellow party member and using him as a living shield (or are they all evil)?

Also, this seems a rather unprepared criminal organization where all the thugs only care about the one person springing the trap and not the rest of the intruders. Be more adaptable in controlling such situations.

Decision 3 - The contrarian

Now this is beyond excuse, P was a nuisance. Yet, what was the party doing in the meantime? Just watching P harrassing people (again, are they all evil)? If so, and the people in the gambling house knew they were together, why did they not pick on the party as a whole?

I sure do not see the whole picture, but based on the aboves I think that you need to involve all the party in solving this issue. A party is a close group of characters and a close group of players, and the characters need to take good care of each other for the sake of survival and the players need to take good care of each other for the sake of fun.

As for the general making of bad tactical decisions and being careless in adventuring, I say you raise the level of the party a bit, where they have a higher HP buffer so being careless just means a disadvantage and not instant death.

Also, from the alignment spec and the list of killed characters I get you play any one of D&D's latest incarnations, but as this is tagged as a system agnostic question I urge you to try some systems that support impulsive and epic playing a la Errol Flynn and Jean Marais style. One such is Seventh Sea.

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+1 this answer brings up some important points, although it is not a complete answer in and by itself. The experienced group is leaving P out to dry, and there is a strong social element to all this. DM decisions which seem logical and "P is making mistakes" from one angle look like "conform to our play style or die" from another, and this answer calls that out. – Neil Slater Jun 13 '14 at 7:44
Yeah, the focus on punishing the characters that didn't get themselves killed is odd. I don't think it's the GM's job to actively punish characters, just confront them with the consequences of their actions. They didn't save their buddy from his own stupid decision, and now their buddy is dead. Yes, good party dynamics can mitigate the problem of foolish players, but the foolish player is the primary source of the problem. – mcv Jun 13 '14 at 13:07
-1, the others should not stop him from doing stupid things, otherwise he never learns. See Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home – András Jun 13 '14 at 14:23
Regarding your first point, the OP has already said that the world is a harrowing world where times get hard and people die. Having the royal guard sweep in, a miracle from a deity occur, or an NPC wizard save the day really doesn't fit with the world that's being described (and that the player chose to play in). If the game is meant to involve hard decisions about saving your own skin or risking it to save innocent strangers from an overpowering goblin horde then those decisions must have meaning and consequence without a deus ex machina if the players make the choice you didn't expect. – Haegin Jun 23 '14 at 11:05

I can't help but wonder if there is an expectation mismatch between P and everyone else at the table. He may be craving a game in which his character is more like Conan (even mistakes can be overcome with brawn and a bit of luck) and less like a typical starting D&D character that has to tread carefully. The recklessness P is exhibiting may be a reflection of a frustration with the process of moving slowly up the power ladder.

A game in which characters start out more powerful might be more to his liking, as might a more narratively-oriented game. That doesn't help you integrate him more smoothly your D&D campaign, though. The same page tool could be helpful in pinpointing where the mismatches lie, but you may also want to ask some narrow questions about power progression and heroism with him as well.

I once encountered a somewhat similar situation as a GM, where one of the players would always opt for the heroic option, no matter how tactically foolish. After some discussion we introduced an in-game mechanism: the character run by the heroic-minded player was put under the tutelage of a more experienced character who counseled him on when to hold back and when to charge. That approach worked pretty well, and by the time his character attained more power, his player had developed a bit more tactical sense as well.

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I thought the same thing. D&D doesn't really compare with other forms of fiction that the player is probably familiar with. In many computer games which are quick to kill you, you don't actually die, just reload. In almost all TV/movies/books the main characters get away with all kinds of reckless stuff, because it's more fun to watch. – Steve Jessop Jun 14 '14 at 15:57

You can’t really change his behavior. If he is impulsive, then you’ll have to adapt to that. He might learn a thing or two as he plays anyway.

1. Help make a character with him. Make it tough, but do low damage. You know, the exact opposite of a sorceror. Letting a newbie play a bard is also rough. Friends don't let friends play bards. Get him in plate armour, stat.

2. Most intelligence 2-3 things should be picking their targets based on how delicious they would be to eat. Their target priority should be no armour > leather > chain shirt > plate. Intelligent enemies should be targeting healers then arcane casters then ranged then melee. Or alternatively, have them target whoever did the most damage in previous rounds. Either way, if you give this guy a tough, low damage, plate wearing character then you can justify pretty much never attacking him.

3. This guy was not acting out of alignment, his alignment was a poor fit for him/his character. Particularly with newbies, you should not have them pick an alignment until after a couple of gameplay sessions. After that, decide with them how they have been acting and give them that alignment. That way, your group ends up with a more consistent alignment, and no-one is forced into anything. I’ve had some sessions where I’ve died due to trying to save others, and do not consider it a mistake or a problem.

4. A house rule I use is that characters don’t die at -10 HP, they die at -50% of their max health (assuming max health >20). As you get to higher levels, it’s a bit odd that 100 damage does nothing, 101 knocks you out, and 110 kills you. It also can get hard to take prisoners without the house rule. Use it if you want a less lethal game, although this will effect your experienced players too.

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"Get him in plate armour, stat" is likely to lead to trying to put this kid in a Fighter, and the last thing someone like this needs is a tier-6 class that's weaker than 2 of the NPC classes. – Matthew Najmon Jun 18 '14 at 19:32
A live fighter does more damage than a dead Wizard. An argument could be made for druid if you want high tier. Summoning (dire) wolves to trip opponents, entangle etc for crowd control, summon monster 1 for traps, and if the DM makes enemies attack whoever has been dealing the most damage/doing the most visibly awesome thing, the druid will rarely be attacked (the animal companion perhaps). The reason I didn't suggest that is because the druid survives by not getting into a dangerous situation by clever playing. If they do, they are dead with their d8 HD and leather armour. – Scott Jun 18 '14 at 22:19
Wizard can out-durable fighter if done right. For a druid, out-durable'ing a fighter is trivial. HD and armor prof do matter, but a lot less so than you seem to think – Matthew Najmon Jun 20 '14 at 12:20
Does this player sound like they're likely to 'do a wizard right'? – Scott Jun 23 '14 at 1:34
@MatthewNajmon this is a low level game (at the moment) and at low levels the tiers don't really have much of an impact. In fact, fighters are often stronger than wizards and better able to face the typical challenges of a low level game than a wizard is anyway. – Haegin Jun 23 '14 at 11:09

It sounds from some of your examples like your player doesn't mind dying, or at least isn't sufficiently averse to it. You could work on this angle (at the same time as you incorporate the mechanical suggestions from the other posters) by giving him a specific role that 1) makes him want to stay alive, 2) makes the other party members want to keep him alive, and 3) binds them together in a way that encourages him to go along with the other party members' wiser tactical decisions.

For example, you could have him play a character who is bodyguard or oathbound comrade to one of the other PCs, or set him up with a powerful and useful ability that requires cooperation with the other characters. An extreme version would be to set things up so that his death will irreversibly cause the failure of the entire campaign (even if we find the Reliquary of the Holy MacGuffin, it will only open at the touch of The One Marked by the Goddess...).

A setup along these lines will also give the more experienced players an in-character way to give him advice about his bad decisions, and give him an in-character reason to listen to them. You could achieve the same thing by making him a student or apprentice, but that might make him feel humiliated or rebellious, so I'd go with the idea that he has to stay alive because he's so important. If he's really, really bad then this could degenerate into an escort quest for the more experienced players, but if it works out and everyone is into it then I could see it being a lot of fun.

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