In my last game my players were almost overwhelmed and I saved them, with a NPC joining the battle. My players were bummed out after the fight and had a heated discussion about the fight.

How can I get my players back on track and stop fighting each other?

The Situation

The players recently created a new party of characters, after our first campaign ended a few weeks ago. They are still “new” players, having problems remembering the rules. Because of that, I openly roll all dice in rules-heavy situations, so that rules get explained more.

This time around they wanted more specialized characters, after playing more general adventuring type characters at first.

The group consists of:

  • Alice, my fiancée, playing a mage
  • Bob, a friend of Alice, playing an archer
  • Charlie, Bob’s best friend, playing a sword-fighter
  • Dan, a friend of mine with no connection to any other player, playing a rogue

Up until now they never lost a fight, and they wanted more of a challenge with the new characters. We play a game with extensive role-play scenes, but normally at least one battle per session. The characters are not optimized and there was never a “grand group strategy” with roles that have to be filled.

There have been some complaints by Alice and Charlie about Bob’s choices before. Mostly for investing to much experience points and in-game money in only one “feature,” (i.e., putting everything into making damage, complaining that his intimidate checks don’t work).

Otherwise the group ran rather smoothly.

The Battle

The party was defending a castle against a besieging army. The players were sent to defend against a small vanguard of the enemy forces, who had breached the wall and were now trying to open the gate.

The party attacked the vanguard head on, without playing to the new characters’ strengths. Alice didn't use her mage’s magic powers, as she didn't deem it necessary at fist. The rogue didn’t try to flank the enemy. The archer just stood in the middle of the room to be able to shoot at any enemy without moving, instead of using cover for his advantage.

Things started to go south rather quickly. The vanguard rolled extremely well in the opening round. With two critical hits against the players and high damage rolls. The players rolled badly and little to no damage in the first round.

We all shrugged it off as bad luck (which it was) and played on, but after taking massive damage in the first round and having similar luck in the following rounds, the vanguard clearly had the upper hand.

Bob, the archer, just stayed his course, standing in the middle of the room, taking hits. Alice thought about using magic, but concluded that it would take too long. [Magic takes several rounds to prepare]. Charlie tried to strategize some way out of this and moved together with Dan, bringing him into a better position.

Then Bob got hit by a second critical attack, almost killing him. I realized they were out of options I sent in a NPC to help. A knight they had met before, who was helping with the castle defense against the main force. He stormed into the room, and joined the main fight with Dan and Charlie’s characters, killing one enemy but mostly took defensive actions and taking the brunt of the enemies attack.

Not getting pummeled allowed the party to recover quickly and overwhelm the vanguard. Charlie rallied Dan to a counter offensive, while Alice finally decided to use magic.

The Problem

After the fight everyone was bummed out, because they thought they lost the battle and were just spared by the knight’s arrival.

I told them, that I might have misjudged the enemies strength and that they mainly had a hard time because of the exceptionally bad luck in the first round.

Bob started to complain that the enemy had archers, that attacked his character, as he would otherwise have won the battle single-handed1. That lead Alice to attack Bob, telling him, that his character was a glass cannon and he only thinks about attack and never about defense when creating his characters. Bob lashed out in response, complaining about her stupid magic2. Charlie joined in, telling both, that their old characters were a lot better. Meanwhile Dan just had a defeatist attitude about how they should always have the knight with them.

1 Not correct.
2 Technically correct, but unhelpful.

After everyone calmed down a bit we were able to continue playing for a bit. Everything seemed fine for a while, as we played out the aftermath of the attack and discussions about rations and wounds. Only Dan sometimes remarked, that we might just have the knight deciding things like that.

But as they decided to start a counter attack, things started up again. Even in the planning phase of the attack heated arguments flew around and Alice and Bob were attacking each other, with Charlie joining in on Alice side. Dan just announced that he thinks that they should just take the knight to the attack and let him do the heavy lifting.

The Question

So how do I get the players back on track?

I could now either have the knight refuse to go with them, or go with them and show them that the knight can't solve all of their problems. The knight isn't overpowered. Bare dumb luck, he should be no better than the players. His stats are slightly below those of the characters.

So I’m hoping this will stop the “Let the GM solve the problems.”

But how do I stop the players infighting over “bad” character choices and getting back to having fun?

  • 3
    Do your NPCs use the tactics your PC seem to be ignoring? Does your NPCs seek cover, use magic and flank for example? – nvoigt Jun 18 '17 at 11:29
  • @nvoigt NPCs do use cover and and other tactics. I'm not sure if the problem is with the understanding of the rules. The problem isn't that should have won, and didn't. It's that the players are no fighting each other, because of the lost fight and trying to rely on the NPC that helped them. – Cohnal Jun 18 '17 at 11:52
  • Two things: the Alice and Bob naming scheme is an alphabet of names people use as pseudonyms, and is the [problem-players] tag relevant here? – Javelin Jun 20 '17 at 14:04
  • @Javelin I wouldn't refer to my group as problem players, I was thinking about adding [problem-gm]. But in the end I think this is a group dynamics thing. But you might be right. It might easier to find for someone with a similar problem. – Cohnal Jun 20 '17 at 16:43
up vote 66 down vote accepted

The Sword of Teamwork and The Hammer of Not Bickering

Your party is in the middle of a classic movie plot, where the team has an initial setback caused by a failure to work together effectively. Take heart that these stories have happy endings.

Real feelings come first

Your players seem to be really sniping at each other, and you want to make sure there are no ill feelings after people step away from the table.

Many experienced players can really get snide or even downright nasty in-character, and then stand up from the table and laugh about it. Other players, though, might get their “real” feelings hurt by comments about their character’s performance.

Please keep an eye out for this. If your players are getting truly upset with each other as people, not just as party members, you should take a little break from the game. Have a little fun with each other doing something else, until everyone cools off. (Maybe watch one of those movies with the teamwork theme.)

So they really like your knight...

A common trope in the “Learning to work together as a team” plot is the wise outsider who helps the team overcome its problems (The Sphinx in Mystery Men, the Vision in The Avengers, Gandalf in The Hobbit/LOTR, etc.) In your case, it’s the knight who came to their rescue. So yes, use the knight to help solve your party’s teamwork problem.

In and out of game issues

You now have 2 voices to deal with the bickering issues: your knight for game issues, and your own voice, for out-of-game issues. If things seem to be getting personal, use your own voice and step back from the game.

“Sir Coach-a-lot”

You want the party to be able to stand on their own, but right now they are teetering. Let the knight coach them along until their are ready to act alone.

Your knight might tell the party, “I am really getting too old to be an adventurer. But you are such a promising team. If you can rise above your current problems, I feel you are destined to do great things. Should you so see fit, I will try to help. May I accompany you for you next journey?”

This lets you model a humble spirit of teamwork, and sets the expectation that the knight’s help is for a limited time. The knight’s goal is not to become the leader of the party, but to make them capable of leading themselves.

Coaching, not Commanding

Feel free to give general tactical advice in the voice of the knight. The battle at the city wall might have gone differently if the party had hit the enemy a little harder early on; the knight can explain how important it is to gain the upper hand.

In battle, keep the knight’s advice as general as possible, ultimately devolving to simple encouragement, a la, “You know what do do!”

You might give your knight a heart-breaking backstory themed failing to save a companion, and how he has worked to redeem himself. The moral of the story being: Everyone makes mistakes, sometimes leading to calamity. But resiliency in the face of adversity is the true test.

Model Resiliency

Your knight’s prime purpose is to change the tenor of the party to one where the characters support each other instead of blaming each other when things go sideways. Let him be almost relentlessly supportive of the other characters, and relentlessly humble about his own accomplishments.

When a character snipes at another (“Aren’t you ever going to cast a spell?”) he might simply rephrase it in a more positive way (“Your magic will turn the tide!”)

If a character does make a serious mistake, the knight can model dealing with it in a mature and humble way. If one party member starts laying into another for a mistake, the knight can intervene, “If you are going to blame someone, blame me. I promised I would help you work as a team, and I have not yet succeeded.”

Saying Goodbye

Keep the arrow of this plot pointed squarely at, “the knight will leave the party as soon as possible.” He will do so when he deems the party is ready. This should provide the party a feeling of pride, being ready to face the world on their own.

The other way to remove the knight from the party is to see that he meets a tragic end, perhaps sacrificing himself to save the party. This has the advantage of forcing the party to really stand on its own, but be aware it would permanently take away a good tool you have to influence the party.

Do whichever you feel is appropriate for your story. Just don’t feel you need to kill him to get him out of the party. The last thing you want is for his death to be the trigger that starts your party bickering again.

  • 4
    Another option to get rid of the knight, also prominently used in movies, is starting off with Sir Coach-a-lot and then making him Sir Dead-a-lot [sorry for the horrible puns]. This way, they won't be tempted to trust in him again. This was done in Dr. Strange, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings (although Gandalf returned) and many other movies. – Narusan Jun 18 '17 at 15:59
  • 2
    Eh? Since when does death take away the NPC as a tool for steering the party? Do you want to live forever? – Mindwin Jun 19 '17 at 3:03
  • 2
    @Narusan Obi Wan returned as well. Precisely for coaching and advice. He also showed up for the celebration party because damn it if he didn't feel like he deserved some music and maybe a bit of stormtrooper head.. – xDaizu Jun 19 '17 at 8:06
  • 3
    The coaching knight be like: "The Quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little, and it will fail, to the ruin of all. Yet hope remains while the Party is true." – xDaizu Jun 19 '17 at 8:06

Here is a thing that I have done in the past, when I worried about combat difficulty: I offered the party a free do-over.

Several times, when it looked like the party was in trouble, I've said: "guys, I think I misplayed this battle. I ruled that X monster would do Y thing, but that was unfair -- really it should have done Z thing instead. Would you like to just play the battle over?" Then we rewound, and they fought the battle again with better tactics.

One time, I knew that the group was heading for a tough battle, so I told them: "this weather phenomenon you're seeing is the Storm of Foresight, a gift from your goddess. If you cast a spell slot into it, you can see the future." The cleric agreed to use a spell slot on it. Partway through the session, I turned to the cleric and said "...and this is the future you saw, when you gazed into the storm. Do you accept this future? Or would you like to change it?" She told me she'd like to change it, so we did the battle again.

Once, I told the players: "Guys, this curse you got hit with was a little bit railroady. The plot of the campaign is about getting rid of the curse, so I sort of had to make sure the curse happened. But I want to make it up to you, so here's what I'll do: I'll give you one do-over. One time during the campaign, you can tell me you don't like the outcome of a decision, and we'll rewind and do it over."

All of these conversations went pretty well -- the players accepted what I did, and they didn't seem to lose belief in the game world. That last conversation was my favorite, because it eliminated some tension. The group would be agonizing over whether to fight or flee, and someone would say: "guys, we have a do-over. Let's make a plan, do our best, and if it doesn't work we'll take the do-over and run." They never actually used the do-over.


I think this would work pretty well for you. You've told us how the group is learning, and you've told us about the terrible tactics they used. Offer the group the chance to do the battle over, without the knight -- maybe make up some reason why the first result was invalid, or tell them that the knight was needed elsewhere and pulling him into this battle meant bad consequences for the castle, or maybe just tell them you think it'll improve the game. It sounds like the group would do much better on a second run through.

  • Thank you for that idea. I think the concept of a free do-over, especially as you describe it is, is genius. Not only for my specific situation but as a general advice for groups with new players. I think this would solve a lot of problems for new players and I'm going to use it in my campaign. I really wish I could accept multiple answers, but you get my upvote and my undying gratitude. – Cohnal Jun 20 '17 at 18:52
  • I don't like the Idea of the redo. If intentional or not, it always smells like "we did something wrong", and not the "Learn from your Mistakes" wrong. Sure, the people are learning, but it can discourage the players from trying things. Sometimes the cool things result from the wrong, but bold decisions. And a redo makes you feel like it doesn't count. – PSquall Jun 20 '17 at 19:15
  • @PSquall I also don't like the idea of a redo. Maybe I should have been clearer. I love the idea of a free redo artifact, the players can activate themselves. – Cohnal Jun 21 '17 at 4:57

It seems that the encounter was a bit much for what your players were prepared for.

Mechanically

  • It might be good to just have them as a smaller part of a bigger fight, that way if they need to fall back, there are a few NPCs at or below their level to take the flack until they recover.

  • Auxiliary NPCs of the same class, but maybe not the same full specialty are good to lead by example, especially if your players aren't very creative with the system yet.

  • Have smaller scale encounters that play very strongly to one player's strengths (that is, solved in a round or two if that player does what they are specialized for).

  • If you really need the crutch, have an NPC that is brilliant, but not very combat ready. For example, an old quartermaster with a crippling injury could direct your party when they seem lost, or if you want them to see opportunities they overlook.

Player Management

  • Your players are discouraged, which can happen in situations like this. Reassure them that it's okay. Between dice, figuring their new characters out, and the increased challenge level, they were up against a lot. It's okay to tell them that the knight was not part of your plan, and served as a counterbalance to things getting a little off the rails.

  • Your players are in-fighting, which is the biggest item that you need to keep in check as a DM/GM. It's sometimes problematic because you want to keep everyone happy. If you want to offer any given player their old character back, that's not necessarily bad, but only do so if the player actually wants the switch, not anyone else at the table. A common problem I encounter running games is that everyone wants to be something super specific without considering how it might mesh with the rest of the party.

  • They are still playing a game. It's worth reminding them that if what they are doing isn't fun anymore, that you should all take a moment and discuss what sort of game everyone wants to play.

There seems to me to be a fundamental difference between what the GM and the players relate to as problems, and the type of game you are playing.

The GM and players seem to think they want a game where their PCs win without NPC help, despite them just learning the rules and having new unfamiliar characters and are facing enemies who want to kill them, playing a game system that uses dice for unpredictable results and where teamwork and tactics and luck make a difference.

Are you all really sure whether you want to be playing a game with actual risks or not?

Also, if they are getting upset with each other for sub-optimal character design and impractical tactics, that's also something worth working out with them.

Both issues seem to me to have a lot to do with expecting certain game results and getting upset when those results don't happen. And I don't think that really fits a game where you set up a situation and then play out what happens with dice and rules people don't know very well.

If your players really do want to play a game where they face situations, then I would hope they would learn to deal with consequences, first by trying to take responsibility for them by taking the effects of their tactics seriously and not assuming they will just always beat every situation, and also knowing when to run, sue for peace, use deception, surrender, play dead, and/or call for help.

When introducing new players to game systems with dangerous tactical combat, I tend to start them out with disposable characters in some sample situations, so they can learn the system and get used to the possibility of character death and defeat as a real possibility.

Also, the objection to reinforcements showing up seems ill-suited to a game about facing a situation. If there are other defenders and the invaders are not being stopped by the PCs, it seems to me it makes sense for other NPC defenders to also try to stop them. Of course, those NPCs would logically have been doing something else useful rather than helping in the first place, so there probably would be some logical consequence of them coming to help. In my experience, logical consequences and the possibility of unexpected developments and their consequences are what make a game about a situation interesting. Complaining or being depressed by that seems like a sign that the players have strong expectations of getting to be the heroes no matter what. And so...

If on the other hand, the players' most important wish is never to fail, then maybe a more narrative game type would suit them better.

  • 1
    Thank for questioning the frame of my question. You are totally right: This could be solved by playing a more narrative game. In this instance most of the players (Alice, Bob & Charlie) have already played freeform RPGs and wanted me to gm a "diced" RPG. But still: You are correct, the expectations can be a problem and in this case they coud have been the root cause of the problem. I will at least talk to my players about a more narrative approach to the game. – Cohnal Jun 20 '17 at 19:03
  • I might suggest you experiment or at least discuss both a more narrative game, and also a game with more risk and consequences where defeat is an expected possibility. They're quite different types of play that offer different things, and mixing them muddily can have issues, such as the GM trying to figure out how to mechanically force outcomes. – Dronz Jun 20 '17 at 21:19

You could:

Have the knight NPC act as a "mentor" of sorts and teach the players how to:

  1. fight while using cover
  2. plan ahead for the battle
  3. use teamwork to solve their problems

    After this, maybe have the knight be caught in a trap or ambush, and the players have to rescue him.

I know this is framed as a social problem, but no one seems to be addressing the actual tactical issues at play; it sounds like your group dynamic is largely healthy until they suffer some setback. This can be solved with a two-prong attack:

  1. Resilience in the face of adversity. Setbacks happen. People need to be prepared to deal with them. This means the players, the characters, and the GM.

  2. Tactical competence that prevents setbacks that feel like "someone's fault".

Part 1 a lot of other people are focusing on. A couple other tips:

  • Don't save them. Don't kill them all, but don't save them. The vanguard captures one of them, and the next adventure is rescuing the captive. The vanguard pushes them out of the courtyard, and they have to fall back to the keep and defend from there.

  • When things get heated and blame gets thrown around, encourage them to take a minute and talk about their group tactics. It might be obvious to the mage that the archer should be behind cover, but clearly the archer doesn't know that.

  • Remind people not to take it personally. They're all learning a game together. No one's very good. It will take time before the party gels.

  • Don't roll in the open. I know you think it helps them learn the rules, but one of the largest advantages a GM has is the ability to fudge rolls to improve the player experience, and you're throwing that right out the window rolling in the open. Still narrate what you're rolling, but roll it in secret. Then, when that second critical in a row happens to the glass cannon, you can turn it into a normal hit. Players get discouraged when the GM openly saves them, so you need to get good at secretly saving them until they find their feet.

Onto Part 2: Tactical Competence

Everyone seems to be harping on the archer for being a glass cannon. Here's the thing: you want a glass cannon in the party. Without knowing specifically what game you're playing I can't get into specifics, but the roles you typically want go something like this:

  • Damage
  • Tank
  • Healer
  • Controller (handle large numbers of enemies)
  • Utility (typically rogues or mages that can do a lot of "adventury" things that aren't necessarily combat related)
  • The Face (whoever's negotiating with people outside the party)

People can double-up on roles (very few players want to play someone who's just The Face), but no one should try and do everything; Jack-of-All-Trades... but Master-of-None. Each player should pick an area of mastery and play it to the hilt.

But, obviously, each player needs to understand how to play their role. The problem with the archer was not that he's a glass cannon. The problem with the archer is that he's getting hit. He should be standing behind a merlon with 9/10 cover firing at whatever enemy is doing the most damage to the others.

Mages are often tough to play because they're given so many options, and it can be hard to know when to use what option. Generally, though, if you're playing a fairly light combat game (one combat per session), I'd probably use at least half my spells during that one combat. Either immobilize a bunch of enemies, or help the archer to damage the enemy glass cannons.

Rogue's gotta rogue. Dart in, flank, sneak attack, disappear. Rogue's typically also play like a glass cannon, but they're fast enough they don't get hit.

Sword-fighter... your tank, maybe? You definitely need a tank; someone has to be absorbing the focus of the enemy attacks. It can't be your glass cannons, obviously (though, I have seen tank rogue builds focused on ridiculous dodging that were quite effective). Mages typically have too low of life to be able to tank... unless they get a lot of buffing magic. But fighters are often the default tank: heavy armor, big sword, look like a threat, shrug off the damage.

What I would do is sit down and analyze everyone's characters. What are they good at? What aren't they good at? How can they be most effective in combat? What are combat red flags that they absolutely must avoid? Then, sit down with each player and talk to them about the tactical responsibility of each player. Archer: you're going to take out whoever's doing the most damage, and you must position yourself where you will not get hit. Mage: most damage with the least spells. Etc..

Then, replay that battle with proper tactics and no knight. Don't keep the mulligan; the "real" timeline is the one where they botched it and the knight ran in to save them. But show them how their characters, when played properly, can kick butt and take names.

Just like any game, RPGs require practice. Tactical knowledge can either be learned haphazardly while they play, or it can be deliberately cultivated. Armed with this knowledge, everyone will feel like everyone else is doing the right thing, so setbacks aren't "Bob's fault" or "Alice's fault", but bad luck or good storytelling. Or a mean GM. ;-)

This isn't that unusual of a problem, and there are a lot of potential ways to deal with it (as others have pointed out). I prefer a more "school of hard knocks" approach myself.

Work your way up

It sounds like this battle was not intended to be deadly, but was targeted at a more fair fight. Your players do not yet have the ability to judge what a fair fight is, nor do they have the ability to deal with it on equitable terms (as they do not cooperate with one another). You should built up encounters over time (think of a tutorial in a video game). Start with a few easy, straightforward encounters where they can win handily the way they are doing things. Then add in a complication (say an archer that can deal enough damage to down them in two hits, but who is a glass cannon). This should still be "easy" but gives them a clear idea of danger and a clear objective (Kill the archer). Keep adding in things for a bit until you have a complicated situation where they have to determine their best choice of tactics.

Also, have your enemies be tactical. Soldiers will try to trip, disarm, and bull rush their enemies to disrupt their formations and make them easier to kill. Don't give them perfect tactics, but show off what you can do in the system (players will eventually get the idea, and realize they too can trip, disarm, bull rush, and other things). Enemy archers use cover effectively, enemy rogues strike and disappear into the shadows....emulate the cool things the party can do in their enemies and they will eventually get it.

Give them objectives

Most parties start out with the goal of "kill the enemy" in an encounter, which can lead to bad tactical decisions and bad builds.

More importantly, give the enemy objectives. If the archer is in the open, have them try to target him (even having a "commander" shouting out the order so it's obvious). If the mage isn't using magic, have an enemy spellcaster start using a powerful spell that takes a long time to prepare (the dread from trying to stop the spell from going on should reinforce the power of magic). You can use the enemy's actions to nudge players away from behaviors that aren't ideal (literally the "stick" of carrot and stick).

If you really want to have fun, have the enemy's objective be the capture of one of the players.

Fix the Characters

As the DM, you are referee, rule adjudicate, and storyteller. However, you are also there to help. After you change the way you handle encounters (as above) take each player aside individually, and ask them if they are having fun, what they do and don't like, and if they want to change anything about their character. Small changes can be worked at over time in RP, but major changes (like if Bob wants to change his focus to more defense) can be done mechanically, with an explanation being done shortly in character (the knight takes him aside and teaches him to reign in his recklessness or something). Players shouldn't be stuck with a bad build just because they are new and made a mistake.

Redesign Your Encounters

Something I noticed immediately when you described your party is the lack of a "tank" character. Various systems implement this differently, but with Bob's low defensive abilities, it sounds like you are lacking someone who can take a lot of hits and still keep going (like your knight, for example). I'm not a fan of forcing parties into specific roles (you also seem to be missing a healer of any sort) but you basically have four high damage characters. Unless you can get someone to change their characters willingly (don't force this), you will need to adjust your encounters.

For this party, balanced enemies (those that deal a moderate amount of damage and have a moderate amount of health) are going to be deadly. This is because they can survive hits from the party, but can still hurt the party significantly. You should instead make encounters with tanks and glass cannons. You have sufficient melee and ranged damage that it should be workable in a variety of situations. For example, archers protected by a beefy knight. The mage and archer can take out the enemy archers while the melee deal with the knight. There is real danger (the archers do high damage) but it is also able to be mitigated (they die quickly). The knight is hard to kill, but deals low damage (which over time may still prove deadly). This would also teach them to prioritize targets effectively and work as a team (the knight could still butcher the mage if he got close).

Stop rolling in the open all the time

Rolling "in the open" might be good for instruction, but it is terrible for new parties. You want to be able to pull punches and play more for the story than for the mechanics. There are times when it being in the open is appropriate, but you need the ability to fudge the dice when necessary, especially with players using sub-optimal builds. At least until the party gets some experience in mechanics and understands the consequences of their actions. That said, with my experienced parties, I roll in the open most of the time (though I won't always explain what I am rolling).

Give Players Options

New players especially may not know what they can and can't do. You want to get them to the point where they will ask you about something that is not at all in the rules, that you have to adjudicate. This shows they are thinking deeply about their situation. It is hard to get to this point.

If they seem lost or are bickering, point out the situation at hand. State clearly what is there, and mention a few things, always ending in "or you could do something else," leaving the situation open ended.

For example, the wall breach. You could say "The enemy has breached the wall, and are trying to lower the drawbridge. You could man the breach, fighting them here, defend the drawbridge mechanism itself, or you could find another solution. What do you want to do?" Only use this if there's no clear momentum towards a decision, as it can be railroady. It does suggest the idea that there are many solutions to problems (for example, what if they sabotaged the gate mechanism so it couldn't be opened?)

  • +1, good advice. More people might read/like it if you edited to shorten. – Tim Grant Jun 30 '17 at 10:49

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