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I've been running games for some friends who had no prior experience in D&D (any edition).

One issue I've encountered is people simply not knowing they can do something. Being used to other game formats where you have set, limited options, after the obvious/simple solution has failed, they're stuck. Or they have a class/racial feature that is forgotten when it counts. This has led to variably giving up on sections of dungeon, characters downed thanks to missed opportunities for a kill, traps blindly walked into, undiscovered clues/plot points.

Examples that led to this question:

  1. No one thought to break down a door that couldn't be picked.
  2. Fighting style bonuses not applied. Wild shape not used.
  3. Extra attack/bonus actions not used.
  4. Shooting a crossbow when fireball is the answer to a packed group.

Is there an acceptable way of nudging players that they have additional things to do?
For the "obscure" actions I've been asking an insight check to see if they remember what they can do ("Mage hand can get that key you can't reach").
But in combat that feels sarcastic, and makes the game drag, so I'm a bit more direct in saying it ("you could still smite for extra damage").

Is this the right thing to do? I don't wish to take away any agency, but 90% of the time it's being oblivious that x is an option, that could be crucial!

This wasn't such an issue in the first few sessions which were basically tutorial, of how to play, and what makes their character special. But gradually it's becoming a headache for me to remember each PCs abilities as they gain levels, and frustrating when they remember about, for example, damage reduction from heavy armour master when they're bleeding on the floor!

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    \$\begingroup\$ I've just started running a game with newbies, so I will likely have an answer in a few weeks. ;-) \$\endgroup\$ – goodguy5 Apr 9 '18 at 17:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ Did they create their characters themselves? This could help clarify their lack of knowledge on their own abilities. \$\endgroup\$ – Runescape Apr 9 '18 at 17:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ @AnthonyGamache Mostly, with my guidance. Some (who somehow didnt find time...) I made, based on what sort of character they wanted to play. And either way we've gone through, they each have a printout of feats etc. \$\endgroup\$ – ErosRising Apr 9 '18 at 18:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ 2 and 3 are about rules: explaining rules is always okay. 1 and 4 are different as they are about ingame actions: unless the group gets stuck, let them solve the problem in other ways and live with the consequences. \$\endgroup\$ – Raphael Apr 10 '18 at 11:54
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Talk to your players

Just...step out of character for a moment and talk to them. There's no rule that says the DM can't help players remember the features their characters have. If you're more comfortable doing it outside of the game, then chat with them in private (in person, text, chat, whatever).

If you were trying to teach someone how to play checkers and they clearly forgot that multi-jumps are possible...if you want them to learn how to play, you remind them. There's no rule that says that once the game has begun, everyone must muddle through on their own.

Learning D&D is a process...and knowing how much to help with that process depends on your players. As a DM who has run for a lot of new players, I routinely have to remind my players of all the things their characters can do. Because these are things the character should know but the player does not.

Your concern that this strips away player agency is not something you need to worry about. You are not mandating that they do something, you are not taking away their choices. You are simply pointing out that another option exists.

So, here is what I recommend.

Ask them if they'd like input from you.

Go with something like...

Hey guys, I know you're all new to D&D, so I wanted to ask you something. I've noticed there are times when you guys forget about some of the stuff your characters can do, or you get stuck on something that has an alternate solution. I know D&D can be a lot to handle all at once, would you like me to help remind you?

If they say yes, a simple "Hey, just in case you forgot, your character can cast Mage Hand...which is kind of like short-range telekinesis." or "Hey, just a bit of advice...when you see a bunch of enemies in a clump like that, hitting them with an area of effect spell, like fireball, is usually a good idea."

For more complicated things (such as breaking and entering), I will call for a check that provides a hint right in the call. To give a recent example, the party was looking at this well-secured building, trying to figure out how to get in. So, I said to the party Rogue...

Give me an Investigation check to case the building, see what your options are for breaking in.

The rogue knows how to break into a building. There's no need for a check to see if they remember how to make locked doors stop being in their way. Instead, I called for a more specific check to determine how good of a job the Rogue did at picking out the specific vulnerabilities of this building.

Even if their check wasn't great...that still plants the idea in the party's head of "what other ways can we break in?"

Checks should be for things that challenge the character, NOT the player

What I would NOT suggest is calling for rolls for your characters to remember what they can do. Just tell them. This is not something their character has to try to remember or struggle to recall. In the example of Mage Hand...that character has cast that spell a vast number of times during their training...remembering that they can cast that spell is not 'challenging' for that character, it's hard for the player. Dice rolls should be about the character, not the Player behind them.

In Summary...

D&D isn't a competitive game...the DM is yet another person who is working with the party in order to make an engaging, fun game. The fact that they run 'the enemy' doesn't matter. You aren't their foe, you aren't trying to beat them. If their lack of experience is getting in the way of them having a good time, then volunteer to help!

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I like this, I know these guys want input in some cases, but especially in combat it feels like giving too much - while yes i'm not aiming for a tpk, it's nice to keep the fear of death in them. What i've tried for this is sort of a debrief of hints for next time: "try to stay out of melee range" "kill the big one first" "protect the squishies" \$\endgroup\$ – ErosRising Apr 9 '18 at 19:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ What are your thoughts on hints like "the door doesn't appear all that strong", which is obviously a hint but also comes across as additional flavour / description of the environment, unless you already said something specific about the door earlier. Saying that after / while someone's trying to pick a lock on it would be appropriate because their character is paying attention to the door. But if the good option for breaking in is somewhere else (e.g. a window), it's more obviously a hint to mention that. \$\endgroup\$ – Peter Cordes Apr 10 '18 at 6:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ "This is not something their character has to try to remember or struggle to recall" isn't quite so clear-cut. Maybe under pressure the character forgets half of what they learnt in their training. \$\endgroup\$ – Peter Taylor Apr 10 '18 at 8:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ When I run games with newer players, I make it a point to give them multiple suggestions for a given scenario, just to reinforce that they can play the game how they like. "You didn't manage to pick the lock this time. You can keep trying but it might take awhile, or you can maybe find a key, or you can try to break it down if you don't care about the noise." As the more experienced player you should offer advice until they pick up on what they can do, regardless of if you are DMing or not \$\endgroup\$ – D.Spetz Apr 10 '18 at 14:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ Another thing I've found helps for out of combat things (like trying to break into a building) is to tell them "Forget the rules and your character sheets, if this were you in the world, or you were reading a book, what would you or the character do? I'll tell you if you can do that, and how to do it." - This gets the players to stop thinking about the game as a series of choices, and more of a living world where they can do anything they can think of. Your job then becomes the traditional one of "just say yes", or "yes...but..." \$\endgroup\$ – Doc Apr 10 '18 at 16:36
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Suggest once

I have ran into similar situations with new players. Bringing up the existence of a feature does not remove agency at all, forcing someone to use something would. No one so far was offended by a friendly reminder like "You still have a bonus action, would you like to enter your rage?" or "Did you add Colossus Slayer to that?". The important part is that (unless the player is exceptionally absentminded or asks you to remind them) you should drop the issue for a while. Judging when to bring something up again is up to you, but I would advise against more than once per combat per feature.

I personally am not in favor of "get a clue" rolls regarding the abilities of the characters. You should decide whether to offer it up or not based on the situation. Sure, reminding someone that their spell can easily bypass an obstacle is much less glamorous than they figuring it out, but stalling the whole adventure would be even worse. Adhere to the general rule: Do not ask for a roll if you do not want to deal with either outcome.

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There are a few different things that you can do:

Suggest/Remind

Szega's answer covers most of this. I don't think it needs to be just once, but a limited number of times. It might be that the druid just doesn't want to wild shape. Either case, always phrase it as an option.

Give Options

This is slightly different than the previous one, while the reminding of skills is probably going to be more combat focused, this is focused more on role playing/obstacles.

It's hard as players to come up with every option and sometimes you get stuck on a single option so when it fails you don't know what to do.

One of my favorite phrases as a DM is: "What do you want to do?". That's a lot for new role players, so when it's someone who is new, give them options.

"There's a door in front of you, what do you want to do? You could knock on the door, you could try and pick the lock, you could try and break down the door? What do you want to do?"

Now, if they try and pick the lock, it can't be picked, they can grab one of the other ideas quickly. So, while they are learning, give them three options and have one of them be the "right" option. In the example I gave above, maybe knocking does get them in, but it's brought attention to themselves in a way that breaking down the door wouldn't have. Eventually, the players will start to generate these ideas on their own as they get more used to role playing, but it's a good way for beginner players to figure out all they can do.

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This could be a Too-Many-Specials problem.

tl;dr: Let them get to know their complex characters bit by bit...

In my experience many new players love the prospect of cool characters with a lot of stunts and special features at creation time. But once the game commences newbies usually have their hands full with getting all standard rules right and remembering the default game mechanics.

In this case I would start with simpler mechanics - remove all special rules except for one on each character sheet. So each player has a single special rule he needs to remember. Then try to build your sessions so these special-rules are often triggered (a good pace could be one trigger of a special rule for every player per session)

When you feel the players know their special rule you can unlock the next special feature of their character, explain it to them and focus it in the next sessions. - Give them time to really get to know their character-mechanic and unlock all features like in the first few levels of a computer game.

You will of course have to reduce the difficulty of your encounters while the players are not using the full power of all their special feats. - In this way you will get a group of players, which know and appreciate all of the possibilities their characters have.

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This is like a reverse meta issue.

There is always information that the characters would know rather than what the players would know.

You could assist them with pointers, if you determine that Thag the barbarian would know something if Robert his player did not.

However it is on the players to understand what their characters can do.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "...it is on the players to understand what their characters can do." This. However, one thing that I've seen done to 'jog their memories' is to make them write down various things that they can do on their character sheets (which, admittedly, can easily become "character booklets" pretty fast) - I don't mean just a list of feats or skills, but a sentence or two about what the feat "Twiddle Thumbs" or the skill "Read Old High Church Slobbovian" can allow the character to do. \$\endgroup\$ – Jeff Zeitlin Apr 9 '18 at 17:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ Normally, I'd agree. But these are brand new players You wouldn't expect a brand new chess player to remember all the rules of chess while you were trying to teach them how to play the game. You'd help them through it...remind them of things when they need them, point out mistakes they may be about to make, and so on. You don't just go "Whelp, I guess you forgot a rule, sucks to be you, I'ma destroy you at this game now." \$\endgroup\$ – guildsbounty Apr 9 '18 at 17:50

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