I'm having a tough time handling encounters with the players at my table.

Sometimes, if anything negative happens to them they get angry. For example:

  • During an encounter, a hostile NPC Cleric was able to cast hold person on the party's Barbarian. Due to his low Wisdom saving throw modifier, he couldn't break out of the NPC Cleric's hold. The NPC cleric kept rolling well on concentration checks. I rolled his checks in the open to show them that I am not fudging the numbers.

Everyone at the table is whining, e.g. "If you immobilize us, how do we play this game?" and "What are we doing if one of us just makes a saving throw each round and does not get to attack?"

If I can't even use a 2nd-level spell on my players without them getting angry, how can I create any kind of tension or an encounter that is challenging?

Encounter Summary:

The party is level 6. They were fighting choldriths and chittins (CR 2 & 4 monsters). The choldrith cast the hold person.

The party consists of a Barbarian, a Cleric (who did not prep dispel magic), a Paladin, a Barb/Druid, a Rogue/Fighter and a Ranger. They defeated all of the chittins and choldriths. The Barbarian was only able to get involved at the end of the fight; he got to do very little. The rest of the party did not get held, even though more choldriths could have cast the spell.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Out of curiosity: did either the Ranger, the Paladin, or the Cleric know/prepare Lesser Restoration? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 13, 2018 at 21:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DM124 Your topic line and question suggest that the players become upset whenever anything bad happens to their characters. Do the players also become upset whenever their characters take a large amount of damage? Or is it only when they perceive themselves as unable to do anything? (This question is not meant to imply that you shouldn't cast "hold person" on them. I'm just trying to get a sense of how they behave with other "negative" outcomes.) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 14, 2018 at 1:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ @user2497 Your comment was removed for being abusive. Please don't tell people they have mental disorders or presume bad faith for someone's actions. See our code of conduct for more. (Also, answers may not be submitted using comments; it would have been removed for that anyway.) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 17, 2018 at 23:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Victory without risk brings triumph without glory" \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 18, 2018 at 8:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Anketam I’ve also seen taking the average deviation of the past X rolls and substracting it from the current roll. But that would make natural 1s and 20s and the sense of drama they generate vanishingly rare, so it’s probably unsuitable for DnD \$\endgroup\$
    – millimoose
    Commented Jun 20, 2018 at 19:36

9 Answers 9


It might be time for another session zero: expectations adjustment.

If there wasn't uncertainty regarding success or failure for a given event or attempt during play, we would not be rolling the dice.

The only problem the Barbarian had was cold dice. One decent roll and the hold person goes away. (DC 12 for Cohldrith casting Hold Person; VGtM p. 132). His very understandable frustration was that the hold person left him stuck rolling saving throws, and the dice stayed cold. (Arrgh, I hate it when that happens! I feel big empathy for the big Barb!)2

  • That's Not Your Fault as a DM.

  • It's not the player's fault either; it's a feature of the d20 system and the use of d20 with its flat probability curve.

The result was "no spotlight on barbarian this time" beyond held / frustrated warrior.

The fact that your die rolls for the concentration saves succeeded are not your fault either. Rolling those saves in the open was a good call there. Dice will fall and roll as they may.

Dice are fickle things: discuss this, embrace this1.

During the discussion with your players before you play the next session, your player(s) need to decide if they are bold adventurers who are willing to risk death and defeat in pursuit of (insert adventure goal), or if they expect to steam roll every encounter. Without a certain amount of danger, or chance of failure/defeat, where's the excitement? Where's the value in success or victory? The dice being fickle are an inherent feature of this game. If that is not acceptable, as a group you may choose to change game systems. But, if you decide to stick with the D&D 5e thing, here are a few talking points.

  • Talking Point 1: With the swingy nature of the d20, you can get on a cold streak. Stop complaining about cold dice. They happen to us all. {I've had some cold dice sessions recently}

  • Talking Point 2: Did anyone else in the party try to hit that creature for more damage to try and break their concentration? Did someone try to cast Lesser Restoration on the Barbarian? That would have removed the hold person:

The target must succeed on a Wisdom saving throw or be paralyzed for the duration. (Hold Person text, p 93. Basic Rules)

You touch a creature and can end either one disease or one condition afflicting it. The condition can be blinded, deafened, paralyzed, or poisoned. (Lesser Restoration text, p. 95, Basic Rules)

  • Talking Point 3: What tactical lessons, as players, did we learn during this encounter? You need to prompt the players and get them to brainstorm how they might have approached that combat differently. You don't tell them; you get them to sort through alternative ways of dealing with this fight.

Bottom Line

Cold dice and failure happen, and can happen to any of us. Roll with it and get ready to be awesome in the next encounter. That's your basic message.

1 The fickleness of the die roll is addressed by one of the game's lead developer in the Preface to the Player's Handbook:

You and your friends create epic stories filled with tension and memorable drama. You create silly in-jokes that make you laugh years later. The dice will be cruel to you, but you will soldier on. (PHB, p. 4)

2 = Experiential update

We were fighting on the top levels of a tower last weekend and my bard got stunned by a mind flayer's psychic blast. She was stunned for five consecutive rounds - five consecutive missed DC 15 INT saves. (And a couple of them got +3 for being within 10' of the paladin). The paladin's mount had to drag me around to keep me out of trouble. I got hit a few times by minions who had advantage on attack rolls. I finally got un-stunned when I rolled exactly the number - 15 - during the sixth round. Frustrating to be sure, but our table has a long history of nights where one person ends up exclaiming "I can't believe the dice hate me!" - it moves around the table from player to player, and has become a running joke as regards the DM's saving throws (often awful) for his monsters. (10-15-2021)

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    \$\begingroup\$ Just to be fair, for some the joy is in the story building (and a bad story, no matter how "fair" is considered a bad thing), for some the joy is in feeling OP, and indeed, for most the joy of the fight is at least in part in the challenge. In consequence, D&D might not be the right tabletop for some groups. Dice are fickle things. Reality is a fickle thing. No need to embrace that in your games though. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 15, 2018 at 13:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DavidMulder I mentioned a possible game system change. Point 1) this was a single encounter. In any given encounter, one character may not shine as well as in other encounters. Point 2) the barbarian used up an enemy resource: their caster's concentration. That spell caster could not cast another concentration spell; for the team this helped the rest of them somewhat. Point 3) The fundamental game model is that adventures are undertaken as a team. The team succeeded in this battle, though in this case, others were more effective. That's a fine story also. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 15, 2018 at 13:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DavidMulder I've had a number of recent battles during sessions where my dice went ice cold, so I wasn't all that effective as a combatant. (Ranger, ToA). The other characters were more effective and helped win the battle. While I admit that I grouse about cold dice, I didn't whine to the DM that I got hosed. Our team overcame! That's (to me) great, and our story/adventure advanced. In other encounters, I've been a bit more effective. "The sun doesn't shine on the same dog all of the time ..." \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 15, 2018 at 14:00

Several good answers to this question already, but I'd like to add some suggestions:

1. If the enemy frustrating the players can be stopped, communicate that to the players. The balance to hold person in D&D 5e is that the caster must maintain concentration, which can be broken if he's attacked. Make sure that the players can tell this. Describe the spell visually drawing a line of crackling energy between the caster and his target. Describe the caster holding his fingers to his temples and visibly struggling to maintain mental focus on his spell

2. Blame the character. You didn't cast hold person on the barbarian. The enemy cleric did. Don't let the players bully you into taking it easy on them. If you allow that, your players will consider whining and DM manipulation to be valid ways to succeed at the game.

3. Don't use character-blocking powers too often. Your party should really have a wizard or something in it, but you can't force the players to pick characters they don't want to, and it's frustrating for players to be unable to contribute for long periods of time. Having the enemies use the most optimal methods is realistic, but not necessarily fun, and as DM your priority should be fun over realism.

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    \$\begingroup\$ To be fair, the other balance to Hold Person is that it only can be used in humanoids. If not for that, it would be top pick for any PC imho :P - but the asker mentions the "cleric" kept succeeding in Concentration Saving Throws. (and he was rolling openly, so the players probably knew that). +1 anyway as the other two points are enough for me to upvote. \$\endgroup\$
    – HellSaint
    Commented Jun 14, 2018 at 0:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ I like #2. "Yeah, that Dudley the Resplendant was a real wanker, wasn't he?" \$\endgroup\$
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jun 14, 2018 at 13:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ I like number 3, the emphasis should be on fun. If your players don't enjoy playing against controllers, then give them other types of enemies to fight. D&D is a collaborative effort, and the emphasis should be on making sure that everyone is having a worthwhile time, otherwise you wouldn't be playing. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 14, 2018 at 14:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ Whether a DM or player, you should be very careful about blaming the character (if you do it at all) - that makes it too easy to excuse things you really shouldn't be doing, which makes the game less fun for everyone, because "that's what the character would do". \$\endgroup\$
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Jun 16, 2018 at 1:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NotThatGuy Yes and no. It's true that you want to avoid doing things that make the game less fun for players - but it's also possible to go too far with that: If NPCs never do anything that seriously threatens or hinders the player characters, that in itself may cause the players to have less fun, as they'll feel like their choices have no real consequences and thus are less meaningful. There's a balance to be struck, and different groups will prefer it to be struck in different places. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Commented Jun 11, 2021 at 23:18

Frame it as a learning experience

Choices have consequences.

The Barbarian's player chose to dump Wisdom (which is strange, by the way, since two thirds of a Barbarian's proficiencies are Wisdom-based) - the consequence is that the character is extremely vulnerable to magical (and mundane) deception and coercion.

No one character can be strong at everything. You are always going to have two or three bad saving throws, for example.

What the players need to learn is to act as a team to take advantage of strengths and cover for weaknesses.

"So, friends, it sucked that the barbarian didn't get to contribute. How are you going to prepare for the next time it happens? Cleric player, Have you considered preparing dispel magic and lesser restoration? Lesser restoration is particularly useful since it cures poison. Rogue player, a rogue is great at burst damage, have you thought of prioritising enemies who are concentrating on spells?"

During the combat, redirect their complaints back at them

"Yes, it sucks to be immobilised."

Look at the rest of the players.

"One of your team is down, he needs help. What are you going to do to get him back into the fight?"

If they don't learn and keep complaining

Change games.

Or change group.

If they are going to whine when a foe charms the barbarian in D&D then they are probably going to whine when someone trumps them in 500 or takes their queen in chess or puts a hotel on Mayfair/Boardwalk (hi OldBunny) in Monopoly.


It's generally bad to remove Player Agency, Regardless of Realism or Challenge

The important thing to bear in mind is that regardless of how important it is for the challenge of a scenario, it's not fun to have to sit for half an hour (or longer!) without being able to do anything. If you engineer a situation where a player is basically removed from combat for the whole duration, they're rightfully going to be upset. You should try as much as possible to make sure that situations like that don't happen. This can include fudging rolls in the player's favor if, like in your example, the enemy cleric gets a really lucky string of successful saving throws against concentration checks.

It's also generally bad for PCs to not adequately prepare for unusual combat situations

The fact that your party felt the need to complain about the barbarian being locked down suggests to me that they lack tools for dealing with crowd-control situations. The Barbarian probably wouldn't have failed so many saving throws if he hadn't chosen Wisdom as a dump stat. The player needs to understand that there are consequences for min-maxing a character in this way: ensuring that they have maximal damage output might leave them vulnerable to non-physical attacks, like, say, a cleric casting Hold Person.

Conversely, it's strange that your party would go up against a caster capable of level 2 spells, and not have anyone in the party capable of, say, casting Dispel Magic (to remove the effect) or Beacon of Hope (to give advantage on the continuing Wisdom Saving Throws) or Suggestion (to make the cleric drop the spell) or Lesser Restoration (to instantly end Paralysis), or any number of other spells that might have dealt with the situation. If your party was in a situation where none of those options were present, then it tells me that they aren't properly considering their strengths and weaknesses, and planning accordingly. So it may be necessary to sit down with them and help them plan their builds/spell preparations.

The Barbarian should probably be more upset at their Cleric or Paladin for failing to prepare Lesser Restoration than at you, the DM

The Paladin I can (somewhat) understand, because their prepared spell list tends to be at a bit of a premium, but there's really no excuse for a sixth-level Cleric to not be running Lesser Restoration all the time. It's too valuable a spell, and there are too many situations that call for it as a response.

This should be a learning experience for them: prepare the right spells, or your party is going to suffer.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Jun 13, 2018 at 23:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ To add to this, back when Monte Cook was still with the D&D Next team, he called these sorts of effects Save or Suck, and made an effort to tone them down. Now you get a save every round instead of just being done for the duration. D&D5 is far more forgiving on this than past editions. Imagine this player's frustration losing one roll a few editions ago! \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael W.
    Commented Jun 14, 2018 at 15:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'd like to +1 this, but I can't agree with the first paragraph. Agency is about forcing character decisions, not about game effects like paralysis. The players can use those same effects, too. \$\endgroup\$
    – T.J.L.
    Commented Dec 3, 2019 at 19:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ @T.J.L. That section is more just about acknowledging the players' anger, so as to avoid blanketly saying "well the player should suck it up!" which I think a reader might accidentally infer if I left that part out. The rest of the answer is rather direct that culpability does fall on the party's spellcasters for failing to adequately prepare for enemies that can cause negative status conditions, and that the Barbarian themself has some culpability in terms of their decision to emphasize physical scores at the expense of their Wisdom score. \$\endgroup\$
    – Xirema
    Commented Dec 3, 2019 at 20:00

Consider a more swashbuckling system:

The answers others have given are excellent, and some have pointed out that the issue might be player agency. The player was forced to sit on the sidelines rolling a single die and not "doing" anything.

You might consider switching to a system that allows players more agency in describing actions (though not in determining outcomes). In some systems, rather than simply repeating his saving throw, the player would narrate how he is struggling against the "crimson bands of Cytorak" that are holding him. Mechanically he still has to roll dice, but the dice are describing his actions, rather than barring his participation in the story. The player's description of his struggle gives him some of the spotlight and might even motivate another player help him out with an appropriate spell or action.

The FATE system might be more suitable to your players, or any other less crunchy approach than D&D5E.

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    \$\begingroup\$ nothing prevents this kind of narration in D&D either. \$\endgroup\$
    – ravery
    Commented Jun 13, 2018 at 23:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ Except that in Fate (not all-caps FATE) " the dice are describing his actions, rather than barring his participation in the story." You can't have that mechanic in D&D, no matter how you narrate failed rolls. \$\endgroup\$
    – Beanluc
    Commented Jun 13, 2018 at 23:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ While this is related to a small part of my answer, I am not sure that a whining player will necessarily like Fate any better than (X) game system. Sometimes, whining is a feature that is just hard to deal with. (But not a bad proposal, in terms of "change system and maybe this gets better.") \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 14, 2018 at 2:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ D&D summarizes a whole series of actions (a feint, a parry, an exchange and then attack!) in a single die roll ("roll to see if you hit"). While the mechanics allow the players to give all of the descriptive fluff, it would be a stretch to say that they encourage it. Fate and similar systems start with the player's description of their action (invocation of Aspects, etc.). I concede that in RAW the GM could spend time on describing a failed saving throw, in my experience players are asked to make their saving throw roll and move on. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 14, 2018 at 19:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ @CaptainMan In D&D, a failed roll has utterly unequivocal mechanical consequences: What you tried to do, didn't work. In Fate, a "failed" roll is widely interpretable, and even sometimes negotiable in terms of what it means to the story, in terms of what is possible. The difference is very, very far from "how do you narrate" an inevitable mechanical consequence of a failed roll. I'm not necessarily saying Kieran's answer is right for this situation, but I'm saying Ravery was wrong to object to it on the grounds that he or she did. \$\endgroup\$
    – Beanluc
    Commented Jun 14, 2018 at 23:39

In addition to the excellent observations from others ...

Do your players play in anyone else's game?

Each group can have it's own culture. I have played with players from a group that had a very permissive culture and had everything handed to them (from my perspective).

When they played with our group, they complained about challenges that we looked forward to.

When I played with their group, I was bored with how easy everything was.

So I rarely played with their group. And I was, personally, relieved when they stopped sitting in with us, even though it left us a bit short of players.

As a second comment, the dice are not only random, they allow the story to unfold in divergent ways. This is to everyone's advantage (generally), as it allows the medium to create some really stupendous tales.

I once ran a game with no randomisation. I decided the outcome of every event. The players from our group loved it. Some players from outside our group who had dropped in for the game became really angry. They did not have a trust relationship with me, and also played in a different style. They felt robbed of agency, and I was having a difficult time balancing their actions with the tone of the play.

The most interesting part was ... it was exhausting to storytell. I felt too much responsibility on my shoulders. Too much had to be weighed to create tension and risk, but to also respect the players' sense of their characters' identities and effective power. And I had to constantly think about not just having the story stay in comfortable territory for the players and myself.

Even though our group wanted to continue with the adventure after the first session, I withdrew the game.

When randomisation is included in storytelling, we have an additional author. And because that author does not have an ego investment in the unfolding of the story, they can take the story into amazing, unexpected realms ...

if you let the story go there.

If you, the storyteller, and they the co-storytellers (players), work with the dice outcomes, dramatically responding not to player frustration, but to character experience of the situation, the story can become much more intense and fun. Or powerfully painful and rich.

It becomes something that is not just "I did this ... ", but adds more of "We experienced these amazing things ... ".


The No.1 Job of a DM is to make a session fun

In order to be able to do this, you should figure out what player types there are, and the core motivation for anyone to play role-playing games.

Mostly, players play role-playing games opposed to computer games or board games because those are open-world and with imagination, anything is possible. Role-playing games enable out-of-the-box thinking (which is impossible in computer games and nearly impossible in board games), more realistic action than board games and acting.

If you immobilise a character and the player can do nothing but to continue failing rolls, they can't think out-of-the-box, shine at role-playing or even be part of the action scene at all.

In this context, as others have suggested, it is the players' faults that he can't do something about it: He made the choice of min-maxing the character, and the clerics could have prevented this situation. But ultimately, it is your job as a DM to make the session fun, even if that encompasses overlooking and tweaking certain rules. Show the player consequences, but make sure that they can still play.

Feel free to skip the anecdotes below:

For the first RPG session ever of a party, I was chosen DM. I created a nice medieval detective plot, and the players overlooked every single hint and ended up sleeping in the room with all the explosives that should go off at night. I tried to warn them subtly, but they ignored me. So what did I do? I openly rolled the damage they took in the explosion.

Needless to say, hardly anyone survived. It took my players roughly 4 hours to create characters, and after 45 minutes of playing, I literally blew it. They were mad at me, and rightly so. Although the damage and all was according to the books, I failed to make a session fun for them.

Obviously, there needed to be consequences, but severe damage and most equipment destroyed would be even more devastating than "sorry, this is it, until next time" and wouldn't have taken away the fun of the game. I should have rolled blind and made up the damage figure

Another time, when I was a player, we were forced to fight a basilisk that could freeze you to stone and instant-kill you if it was looking at you even with you looking the other way. We as a party came up with this brilliant plan to lure the beast into a cave, jump on top of its head and strike at its eyes.

The chances were ... not exactly in our favour. But the DM (a player of the former party) learned from my mistakes and rolled blindly. He ruled that we managed to jump on top of the beast, take out on eye but failed to get at the other. One of our party was mortally wounded with a curse that would become lethal in a few weeks.

Nonetheless, we subsequently managed to escape the one eye that was left and killed the basilisk, with a high body count of NPCs. We continued as outcasts of the village and had to find a healer to heal a wound that has never before been healed.

If we had succeeded with our plan, it would feel too easy, but if the harsh reality had hit us and we had died all, it wouldn't be fun anymore.

From these two anecdotes, I have learned that game-changing throws should always be done blindly by the DM, and it is the skill of a good DM to find fun solutions for devastating dice outcomes.

What can you learn from this? In your example, the throw wasn't as game-changing as in my examples, but nonetheless, it prevented a player to have fun (which is bad). Periodically, that has to be expected and this is something you should discuss with your players. I suspect that this Barbarian built is only able to shine in combat, and you took away this (in the eyes of a player) single opportunity to have a heck of a time. You can do this, but the player rightfully will get angry at you.

In scenarios like these, make blind rolls to aid the player, and find other means of "punishment" for bad preparation than removing the character from all action.

Maybe the cleric's control grew weaker and the player is only incapacitated or grappled? Maybe his sword/axe is stolen during the hold and his damage is nullified?

You as a DM decide everything, and you as a DM tell a story. The dice are only means and shouldn't dictate an outcome.


Your players are whiners, but maybe that's OK

D&D isn't really a game, it's a game construction set. Everyone has to agree on the kind of game they want to play, and then the DM builds the game to fit the expectations. If everybody is playing one game except one person is playing a different one, there's going to be a problem, and it's worse if that person is the DM. Your players complaining might be their way of saying you aren't meeting their expectations.

If you look at the eight kinds of fun, it describes eight well-understood ways in which players can engage with a game. Only one of the eight is "challenge." A second type of fun is "fantasy," which is the appreciation that your character could be a real person in a world that doesn't exist but could. These are the two types of fun that will be engaged by things like enemy controller spellcasters. The first will appreciate beating the difficult enemies, and the second will only have their expectations met by dangerous enemies that use their abilities to the fullest.

But there are six other kinds of fun that players can engage. Some, like discovery, don't really interact with the type of battles you fight. A player seeking discovery doesn't really care what the enemy cleric does in the fight, which is just a means to an end; they just want to find out what the cleric has hidden under his shrine. But some, like submission, are almost actively opposed to challenge. If you have a bunch of fellowship-and-submission players, they'll just want to sit around the table, laugh, eat potato chips, and not think too much.

From your description, I suspect you are a GM who is used to providing challenge, and it might be a challenge for you to deal with players who hate it. You might or might not be the right GM for the group, but you do need to have an honest conversation. That honest conversation isn't necessarily "Enemies have these spells, and it's fair for them to cast them, and you need to be prepared." It might be more along the lines of "Either you can deal with enemy spellcasters, or we can set the game to easy mode." If you're willing to do that, and accept the answer, then everyone can at least decide honestly what kind of game they want to play. That might mean a change in GMs, a change in your approach, or a change in their attitude. But if everyone agrees on the question, I think the answer can be found without hard feelings.


It's a roleplaying opportunity

This does not apply specifically in the case of Hold Person, but as a general principle may be useful with this player in event of other conditions or setbacks in general. There are lots of great answers here already, but I'd like to suggest a final one: Encourage the barbarian to use it as a roleplaying opportunity.

Ask them questions such as:

  • What are you saying?
  • How does this make you feel?
  • How do you respond to being stuck?

There's more to the game than just whacking things in combat. (Again, in the specific instance of Hold Person they just have to grin and bear it, although it could be an interesting opportunity to explore their inner life and feelings. They still get a turn.) These sorts of setbacks can be excellent opportunities for exploring characters more fully. Try to help the player find the fun in the moment.


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