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I'm currently running an exalted 2e campaign, and the party (three solars and one lunar) got beaten horribly by a single infernal who wasn't much more powerful than any single one of the PCs. This happened for two reasons:

  1. The party had to separate to find him. There were several possible paths in the catacombs, and they weren't sure which one he'd gone down. That would have been fine, if the guy who found him didn't immediately charge in all by his lonesome, when the villain was trapped in a corner with nowhere to run.
  2. Between Mind-Hand Manipulation and Dragon's Lair Obtenebration, the party really couldn't do much with a direct assault, but kept throwing themselves at it as the rest of the party trickled in to join the fight. Holy magic was the only thing that worked, and it worked very well, but only one person was using it. The others were blindly punching, with no party cohesion, and refused to withdraw and regroup as they got wounded one by one.

I didn't kill any of them, because his goal wasn't to kill any of them, but given their choices in that encounter, I wouldn't have felt all that bad about offing one of them. I even resorted to telling them, mid-combat, point blank, that retreat was an option and they could regroup. They did not.

The dawn caste in the group was pretty sour about it, out of character, because he couldn't solve the problem by running screaming at it, fists first. Everyone else seemed mostly okay with the outcome, but the plans they were talking about basically amounted to trying to fight him head on again. Even assuming they win, they'll never figure out why he was even there in the first place if they just snap his neck and toss him in a sewer as they're wont to do.

How can I get the party to try to figure something out instead of just trying to punch the problem away?

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I read that title as, "How can I convey to my players that they can solve problems, without me resorting to punching the players?" Glad to see I was wrong! – Tim Pederick Jan 18 at 11:02
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Not challenging the frame of the question, but... are your PCs actually geared towards peaceful resolution of problems ? If they have, like, 2 social charms between them, maybe they're sending a message regarding their expectations for the game ? – Nigralbus Jan 19 at 17:23
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@Nigralbus In a game like Exalted though, such things are not reliable flags of player wants. Expectations can form a vicious circle where they expect to have to fight everything, so they build for only combat, and a GM who erroneously reads those as flags for what they want (instead of what they fear) will just perpetuate the cycle. That makes guessing from builds less than useful, compared to just asking. (Aside: for a game to have reliable flags they need to be mechanically separate from what makes for an effective character in a given activity, else this ambiguity arises.) – SevenSidedDie Jan 19 at 23:32
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You could say to your players, "Y'know, in this campaign, not all problems can be solved by punching them. And some problems that could be solved by punching could be better solved by not punching, or by punching with strategy instead of with no real plan. What I mean to say is, punching things in the head is a good solution to a lot of problems, but it's not universal. That's the kind of campaign I'm running, here. I probably should have mentioned that earlier."

This method of conveying your point has the advantages of being A) accurate, B) clear, and C) Not taking long.

In my experience, the best way to tell your players about out-of-character and meta-game expectations is to tell them. It's a better way to avoid misunderstandings than subtle hints and in-game encouragement.

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I fully agree with GMJoe's answer and I encourage you to talk with your players. It's always good to have some feedback, this way you and your players will know how to make game more enjoyable for everyone at the table.

But considering they ignored your comment about retreat, you may use this whole situation as more harsh learning example. If in the end they will kill infernal, you may explain them out-of-characters what possibilities they lost, making emphasis on what their decisions led to this outcome and how they could handle it more fun and/or effectively.

This way when price for rushed decisions will be harder plot advancement(which is, IMHO, greater price than KO'd characters) they would consider different approaches.

But it all depends on your plot and if you see that letting players kill infernal will lead to slow advancement and boring plot outcome, you may spoil some surprises and, again, emphasize that they need infernal alive.

One more thing, considering communication with players: make sure you know what players want from your game. Purpose of the game to be fun. Some players may find that punching infernal in the face more fun and will gladly accept consenquences, than question him and make their life easier. You should understand what makes your game fun and enjoyable for everyone at the table.

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+1 for mentioning the players expectation of fun. As a GM, I try to be flexible when it comes to players expectation. If everything they want is punching, why not give them something to punch at? – Corvus Jan 18 at 6:56
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"Stop ... beating me ... if you let me ... live ... I'll tell you ... [a pretty important part of the storyline]" – Jan Dvorak Jan 18 at 12:56
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@JanDvorak Not much of an issue here, but it won't always work. I overlooked a simple tactic in the first module I ran, and my players turned a plot hook into a smear on each opposite wall. I'm torn, looking back, on the one hand the module was almost completely derailed, on the other hand the players thought it was awesome. – Morgen Jan 19 at 2:48

While the other answers are all good options, they're also all oriented from the OOC perspective. Another approach to this problem is to provide entirely in-game consequences, based on our unique ability to learn far more quickly from our failures than we do from our successes.

Punish the party, in game, for solving with their fists, the problem that you wanted them to solve in some other way.

For example: Suppose you wanted the party to initiate a dialog with the infernal, so that they could learn that he was working as part of a larger organization with a greater agenda - the infernal would have disclosed many important details if the party hadn't been so overly aggressive. But since they went for an all-out attack, instead one of these situation occurs:

  • They kill him, and when talking with an ally about it later, the ally will say "This almost seems like it must have been part of some nefarious plan. He didn't say anything before he died? Too bad, I bet we could have learned a lot if we had questioned him."
  • They kill him, and when the local lieutenant finds out, he admonishes them "You fools, he was going to defect! We've been in covert communications with him for weeks! He's been gathering intel for us about..."
  • They don't kill him, he escapes, and just before vanishing, he taunts them "I was going to tell you all about the Shadow Gang's plot, but after how you've just treated me, I think you deserve what's coming to you!"
  • ...etc.

It shouldn't take more than two or three instances of Bad Things™ happening, as a clear result of the "Ask questions later" approach, before someone says "Hey, guys, maybe we shouldn't all charge headfirst into this cave, with our torches and pitchforks and everything..."

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@SevenSidedDie how does that look now? – Dan Henderson Jan 19 at 19:43
    
Looks good to me! – SevenSidedDie Jan 19 at 19:50

I find it hard not to reply to questions beginning with things like "how can I tell someone..." with the obvious answer "With your mouth. Use your words."

But in this case I think it would be an injustice, since you already did that. I reckon you made absolutely the right decision to explicitly point out they could back out of the fight and regroup. They might need more prompting, but that's OK.

I'm in a campaign with a GM and several players who've been playing RPGs since before any were published, and the GM STILL takes time to give out OOC pointers about how he's running the current campaign. It's important, since he runs a rich range of campaigns, from quick dungeonbash to political intrigue.

We recently approached an island, split the party (yeah, I know, but it made sense at the time...) and of course one of us died (he got better!) At that point, it was clear we might be outmatched, and the GM said "Well, I'm running this campaign as a series of explorations. So you can try handling it yourselves, pull back and regroup, or you can just leave the island forever and mark it on your map as 'here be dragons'." We pulled back to regroup so we could hit it the next session... and that session, we again got our butts handed to us. The GM made very clear that we could back out, but we opted for one last attack, and this time through superior strategy, tactics and luck, demolished the bad guy's plans even though, after two approaches, he'd set up all kinds of defenses and plans for our third approach.

Even after decades of playing together, my GM still gives even his seasoned players an "are you sure?" chance to rethink poorly thought out actions, where it matters: where a life or quest success might depend on it. Not always, though: if they're gonna fall asleep smoking what they know to be a stick of dynamite, well, they should know better, they're seasoned players after all.

It's worth noting that getting people to give up on a quest they have begun is VERY hard. Partly sunk cost fallacy, partly that they're personally invested in the outcome, they can't let that bad guy get away with that... these draws cannot be overcome with an impersonal "there's another area ten miles down the road with at least the same amount of loot in it." They aren't invested in that anonymous other area.

One solution is to offer them a weaker target that they are invested in: perhaps the bad guy's henchman ran off to that other area, and might have some kinda info you could use on the main bad guy.

It's also hard to teach diplomacy (even where speech in combat is a free action) and tactics (even though "protect the ranged attacks, buff the warriors, don't get surrounded" should be basic to anyone).

For new players, explicit advice is worthwhile, as is having NPCs do it "your guide falls back to the corner of the room so he won't be surrounded", "the mob seems to be trying to circle around the fighters to get at the squishier party members," etc.

[Edit: this question title can also be interpreted "How do I convey (in ways that don't involve punching the players) that the players can solve problems?" - in which case, perhaps consider a LART or cluebat instead of fists.]

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I want to empasize that poorly thought out actions may not be poorly thought. Players may find challenge, danger and hardship to be fun. And I understand how your party see daring to defeat evil guy more fun than leaving islands alone, even though it's deadly dangerous. – RollingFeles Jan 18 at 6:37
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True - in the context about which I spoke, the GM tends to give "are you sure"s more to those things where the choice may be being made because of lack of OOC info; peeing on the shrine of the God of Revenge didn't get an "are you sure", because the repercussions should've been obvious (hooboy...) but leaping a chasm could get a clarifying "it's probably a hundred yards wide, and there's lava at the bottom: are you sure?" – Dewi Morgan Jan 18 at 6:47
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I found the best way of having a party retreat is to stage a fight with a higher level, but ultimately friendly NPC that defeats them and then joins them, then have him/her die to the mob they're facing (also opens up the option for them to resurrect the NPC at which point they'll probably be stronger than he/she was). Another way is to put trophies of high level monsters around the setting to warn players. New players might need a friendly NPC with them to be the GM's mouthpiece. – gaynorvader Jan 19 at 12:04
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This is a great answer that's dragged down a bit by its use of D&D assumptions when the question is supposed to be system-agnostic. For example, how long talking takes in D&D is a very system-specific issue about the difficulties of teaching diplomacy, and isn't system-agnostic help. – SevenSidedDie Jan 19 at 16:51
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@SevenSidEddie Hrm, good call, thank you. I'll fiddle a little... – Dewi Morgan Jan 20 at 0:41

Make it a skill check. A middling-difficulty skill check that lets you tell them almost point-blank that they're making a mistake. For example, if they succeed then one character notices that the content of the infernal's last insult implies that he knows something important. Because there was a skill check involved, your players may be more inclined to listen and less inclined to dismiss the suggestion of a retreat as a taunt or goad from you.

On the other hand, sometimes you just have to roll with it. Let them kill off their best source of information and then walk blithely into the traps you've prepared for them. You don't want to railroad them into a precise sequence of events, even though you do want to limit the number of things you as the GM need to know about the world on any given game day.

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Unless I am rather sorely mistaken, Exalted's mechanics are such that DC 15 is really quite different from what it would be in D&D, or even flatly meaningless. – TuggyNE Jan 19 at 2:27
    
Oops, I missed that. I've not played Exalted, so substitute whatever type of check makes sense. By DC15 I mean any check which even a low-level character has a practically even chance of succeeding at; you want it to be fairly easy for them to get this information. – db48x Jan 19 at 2:31

Contrary to other answers, I would not advice to talk out of universe unless other ways prove useless. By "other ways" I mean:

  1. Companions Once I gave a kobold companion to the party. He surrendered fast and offered himself to help. I used him to give them "tips" to pass a dungeon full of traps and puzzles. Example: "Maybe you could make a deal with those orcs...". If they are clever enough (and role players always are), they will learn of him (you).

  2. Wise NPCs High level wizards, sphinxes, even a god can be used to give them advice. Example: That night, you dream with a voice. It is sweet and full of rage at same time. You know for sure it belongs to your god. He whispers the words, but they come clear to you in the dream: "Remember the medallion... forget the Orcs". That would be an order for the Priest or Paladin of the party to try to get the Medallion by stealing or other way. Of course, gods don't use to appear to people even in dreams, but this can be used in rare cases. (exalted campaign can be one of those cases).

  3. Monsters and other enemies. Someone could just act too stupid "ha!, they think they can pass the door without the magic words...", so they should figure out that they need the Orc Leader alive. An enemy could talk to them to sell information about why they can't win in a battle and they must find another way to success...

  4. Other clues I don't encourage the "changing the story" approaching (like "there is a trap but they are too weak, so I will move the trap to another room"), but if subtle, it can work. Put a note in a pocket, or a chest. Let them find a secret room automatically, where there is a note which says the Orc leader loves the soup of mushrooms which can be found in the north cave...

The point is all of this can help you to build the campaign flavor. A well used help can end being a good story to them. "Those orcs are really stupid, remember the day one of them tell us about the magic words?, man, that was so funny back then.. " or "You can say we are just looting, but this IS important. Don't forget my god help us. We are in something BIG."

Plain talk as GM can break the 4th wall and should be the last option, saved just if anything else fails.

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I don't think I understand this answer. Most of the examples are ways to convey information in-game, but they don't seem to be about what the question is asking about (how to tell players "don't try to fight everything"). Are they related to the question and I'm just not seeing the connection? Are god-sent dreams, etc. your suggestion for telling the players to not fight everything? – SevenSidedDie Jan 19 at 21:57
    
@SevenSidedDie Yeah, I'm not sure how this is not clear :). Let's see: Players keep attacking everything. Using 1. Companion suggest "Maybe you could make a deal with those orcs... 2. The god suggest they steal the Medallion instead kill everyone. 3. An enemy tells them why they cant win or they need someone alive. 4. They find a note which says the Orc leader loves the soup of mushrooms which can be found in the north cave.. – Gerardo Uribe Calderón Jan 19 at 23:09
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Since the answer doesn't say any of those things, you've left it as an exercise for the reader. Given how often we do see completely off-topic answers, it's probably in your best interest to actually just write what you mean and avoid the chance of looking like one of those off-topic posts. Revising it to include the uses that you explain in that comment is probably a decent start. :) – SevenSidedDie Jan 19 at 23:28
    
@SevenSidedDie You are right, I have updated the answer with those examples, so it is more clear now. Thanks for the criticism. – Gerardo Uribe Calderón Jan 20 at 15:25

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