Role-playing Games Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for gamemasters and players of tabletop, paper-and-pencil role-playing games. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I'm a GM currently running D&D 3.5.

I try to think of situations that present the players with a number of possible solutions. The players, however, always resort to the same pattern of killing the enemies then searching for treasure rather than thinking of other ways to solve the problem.

Outside the game, before and after, the players talk about how it would be more fun if they did a variety of different things. I later on remind them what situations they had, and the other things they could have done. It seems to just be whilst they are playing they are stuck in a mindset of kill then search.

Short of simply telling them directly, "Don't just kill then search here," are there are other ways to handle this situation? How can I encourage out-of-the-box thinking?

share|improve this question

11 Answers 11

up vote 15 down vote accepted

Stop making kill-then-search a workable response to the problems they face.

The first aspect of this is to make combat dangerous. If you don't want to make it deadly, then at least make it have long-term negative consequences, as Richard outlined.

The second is to throw problems at them that they can't solve just by killing things. In a dungeon, "tricks and traps" are a good option. Even something like a pit trap or a stuck door can make them have to sit down and think about how to deal with the obstacle. Just make sure that your traps aren't lame, and can't just be bypassed with a die-roll.

Another strategy that might work, depending on your player's possible interests, is to add a social dimension to your challenges. If the bad guy for your next adventure is the corrupt sheriff of a local town, or otherwise established in the social milieu with lots of allies and resources backing him up, it should be fairly obvious that they can't simply murder their way through the problem, or they'll just make their lives more complicated.

One strategy that combines both the "problem you can't solve through combat" and "making combat more dangerous" options is to throw something that's simply impossible to fight at them and will kill them if they try -- or, at least, that's impossible to take in a fair fight, when they haven't had time to prepare. This could be a single overwhelming monster, or something like a huge horde of orcs headed in the direction of something they'd rather not see rampaged through. The problem with this strategy is that if they're in the habit of fighting everything they see without thinking it through properly, even if it has been telegraphed fairly strongly that something is too dangerous to fight, things could end very badly for them and the game, so only do this if you're willing to let them get themselves killed. You should also probably set it up so it's clear that they don't have to fight whatever it is, and give them a lot of obvious escape routes, but set it up guarding (or threatening) something that they care about.

share|improve this answer

Make sure that combat has consequences. You don't have to kill characters; just make sure recovering from direct combat is not worth it :D

Sometimes I had a rule where if you suffered more than your Constitution in damage from one attack you got an injury - a broken leg (movement penalty) or you lost an eye (vision penalties). And it took time for these injuries to heal.

Then make healing a little tougher to come by. If there's a cleric in the party, impose rules that lower level spells can either heal the injury - removing penalties - or restore HP.

Clerics in town? They don't have to heal everyone - this is a medieval setting; people are poor and dying in the street every day and they have limited spells per day ;) Or maybe they only heal those who pay a tithe. Or maybe they only heal those of the same faith.

Or there's the role playing penalty of combat; people treat you a little differently when you walk into town covered in blood and stinking of rotting corpses :P

share|improve this answer
Really like the idea of injuries with specific penalties. Also making direct combat a bit less worth while would probably alter the style a bit. – Dom Aug 24 '10 at 11:39
@downvoter - Please comment as to what you don't like about this idea! – LeguRi Aug 25 '10 at 10:38

Consider showing, not telling. If monsters and NPCs all act like bots and just charge to the attack till dead in combat, that encourages PCs to do the same. Have opposing monsters and NPCs try different things - being clever, using the environment, using tricks, surrendering, sneaking, etc. Have friendly NPCs suggest courses of action - "Yes, we could go right in the front door... IF WE WERE RETARDED!"

And when it comes down to it, you'll need to put some challenges in place that they can't beat with a direct frontal assault and no tactics. A keep full of guards, for example. If they go hey diddle diddle, right up the middle, everyone in the keep will swarm them and kill them. Then, perhaps, they will learn. In my current campaign, the PCs ran across these serpentfolk who were really tough, and they got their asses chewed by them and were scared of them - but then later when they got ambushed by some and they knew they couldn't take them directly, they pulled off a quite brilliant fighting retreat and counter-ambush and ended up winning.

It can also help to play another game that makes more explicit use of stunts and whatnot to get them used to the idea. Feng Shui, the action RPG, was a huge eye-opener to me and my friends in terms of allowing stunts to work, allowing light player narration, and allowing PCs to be bad ass - then when we went back to playing D&D, we carried those lessons with us.

share|improve this answer
Thanks, I'll try and add some 'smarter' monsters and NPCs (friendly and unfriendly) to show them how. – Dom Aug 24 '10 at 13:25

Well if they won't play tactically then perhaps they are not tactical players. Sounds like you have a bunch of Butt-Kicker player types. Well if that's how they get their fun and they aren't attempting to player the Tactician player type at all then let them get on with it.

If they are enjoying themselves then you're doing a good job, even if it's not how you would play.

Ask them if they'd enjoy playing Tacticians first, if so find ways to encourage them.

And the best course of action to encourage them is to simply say, at the point in question, something like "Are you sure that's the best plan?". It seems if they are of the Butt-Kicker type then they may not be thinking in the excitement of kicking butts, and they just need a little reminder.

Ref: Robin D Laws player types

share|improve this answer
Thanks for your answer. I edited my question to make it clear that I'd asked them and they seem to want to play tactically, they just haven't managed it yet. – Dom Aug 24 '10 at 11:17
"If they are enjoying themselves then you're doing a good job" => this is true, but the GM - while not a player - is also playing the game and is entitled to enjoy it; they don't just have a job to do. If the GM's not getting any satisfaction out of running a Butt-Kick the players should try to tweak their style some. – LeguRi Aug 24 '10 at 11:20

This might be an unpopular answer, but you might consider implementing an alternate XP system. I prefer treasure XP, as I feel it encourages the players to think creatively about how to accomplish their goals. If you don't want them to kill everything in sight, in my opinion you need to stop incentivizing them to do so.

I recently implemented this in my game, and it definitely changed their approach.

share|improve this answer
Are you suggesting reduce / remove the XP accociated with monsters, and start awarding it from the treasure instead, ie. sneaking around the monster and stealing its treasure gives the same XP as killing it and stealing its treasure? – Dom Aug 24 '10 at 13:01
More or less. The old rule of thumb I've picked up from people talking about older editions is a 1:3 ratio of monster:treasure XP. You could use the expected wealth by character level to put together an XP curve. I haven't worked on the details with 3rd edition, only 4th, but I think anything you do to incentivize sneaking around the monster and stealing its treasure helps with out of the box thinking. IMO, it also creates characters who fit the adventurer model more than combat XP. – Numenetics Aug 24 '10 at 13:43
If you want to go back to the original D&D, almost all experience was from gold collected by looting monsters. Killing them gained useful XP at lower levels, but not so much as levels got higher. – David Thornley Dec 5 '10 at 18:25

Invest the player characters in the setting, and follow up on the consequences of their actions either good or ill. Getting invested means you give the character a stake in a culture, religion, or society of your setting. That it would be considered just as good as a magic item. In otherwords it can't just be a source of complications for the character.

And it really important to follow up on the good consequences of the player's actions as well as the bad. By doing so you get them thinking what more they can do. Not all their ideas will be great but over the course of the campaign they will come up with some nifty stuff as they try to advance their status and achieve their goals.

Finally try to be realistic in how your run your campaign. I not saying you need to do the type of realism the Harn, Rolemaster, etc represents. But outside of the fantastic premises of your chosen game try to play the actions and reactions as they would really occur. The reason for this that the only way that players can view the setting is through you the referee. And your descriptions will never be enough to fully describe it.

By playing things more realistically you allow them to assume more of how the setting work and they fill in the gaps themselves. This makes them more comfortable in trying things and thus more chances to come up with interesting solutions or plans to achieves their goals.

share|improve this answer
+1 for this, if the game is just "kill them and take their stuff" then naturally it's going to degenerate into impatient straightforward fights. – mxyzplk Jan 4 '11 at 2:11

Mechanically speaking, out of the box thinking requires a specific mindset from DMs. That mindset is "Say Yes or Roll the Dice." This requires that players know that they can propose any course of action where the DM's response will be "say yes, or roll the dice." To most DMs, this is a scary scary thing, because it means that the x hours of prep (especially for a high-level 3.5 encounter) you just did could be tossed out the window.

To implement say yes in D&D 3.5, you may need to borrow an idea from 4e: divorcing mechanics from flavour. While the intent of say yes is to drive play towards conflict, the idea of set-piece battles is strongly counter to say yes. Instead, prep monsters that can be "reskinned" to be whatever the next conflict should be.

Consider: you've prepped a caster and a few fightery-type monsters. Nominally, they'd be of specific races with appropriate racial mods to their stats. By abstracting out the prep before applying specific races, the next time the party gets into a conflict, you can use your prepped encounter, simply by applying the appropriate races and reflavouring the attacks to suit.

share|improve this answer
+1 for separation of stats from story – Steve V. Jan 7 '11 at 0:39

Make their opposition something they don't want to kill. If that's too 'soft' for them, make a blend: intermix stuff they / their characters about with a careless area-of-attack enemy, that WILL blow their parents/children to bits if they charge carelessly.

share|improve this answer

Train them to think tactically. Create situation where there are very obvious clues and hints at alternative solutions, things like two bad guys setting a trap and chatting to each other about 'how they need to remain calm, otherwise the trap could go off in their faces' and having the players overhear this whilst approaching.

Start of obvious alternatives to combat like that and then slowly make less obvious overtures as they get a grip on them.

Also, the main thing I see when playing D&D games is a lack of XP rewards for anything outside of combat. Reward XP for finding alternative, interesting solutions - sometimes as much if not more than the straight kill-XP, depending on the creativity required. Giving them an obvious carrot on a stick might make them more inclined to stop and think first.

Of course, combat-derived XP distribution can be modified to take into account tactical thinking, rewarding them more for thinking about and planning their actions, reacting to changing events and making use of terrain and cover. Ask the players to think about what they are doing, give them extra time to make plans - yes it slows combat down and can be a little unrealistic, but if they are having trouble coming up with these things themselves, the best thing to do is hold their hands and guide them into this new mode of thinking, eventually ramping up the difficulty and reducing the help you offer as they learn.

share|improve this answer

Reward peace, ways to avoid combat, and such, and make those provide xp also. Something similar been said but I have been a DM where I awarded xp for good roleplaying at certain times, and different amounts to each character altered mostly by role play character correctly and consistently. I also tried for a time to have players vote who role played the best and way I would tally up, give xp and read some. My players started role play much better by mid levels, and more often.

share|improve this answer

Yeah, I think the number one way to get the behavior you are looking for is to reward it. the next time a player says, "what if we do X?" Answer, "Let's do that!" and have them roll it out. Make that option viable, even if you hadn't planned for it. It is painful and sometimes contrived in the beginning, but pretty soon, you won't have to call such attention to it because you will be getting a lot more of it. Realize that every player has been introduced to roleplaying with the phrase "It's your character, they can do anything." But, they soon find themselves in situations where they cannot do certain things. You have to create a safe place where the players can do anything again. Then, slowly, you can reign in the boundaries again. Also, make sure that the players get similar XP and treasure from an encounter, no matter how they solve it. I would suggest, for the very first time players dip their toes in the water, that they get bonus XPs (and tell them you are doing it, too). Finally, tell the players what you are doing, don't force them to learn it the hard way. In fact, Next session start by saying, "The next encounter that doesn;t end in bloodshed gets bonus XPs).

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.