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Kinda a parallel to this question.

Setup

My players' party has the following composition of level 2 characters: Ranger, Cleric, Paladin, Barbarian, Warlock and Druid. Not all of them are present every session. In particular, the Barbarian was absent in the last two. If that's relevant, we're playing Lost Mine of Phandelver.

Problem

The Cleric and the Paladin usually are the front-liners. I usually split the attacks between both roughly equally, either round-based (i.e. one round the NPCs attack one character, another round the other character) or number-based (4 NPCs total, 2 attack each one). Even if I didn't, I don't feel like focus firing is unfair, as the party is constantly applying this tactic and is actually better than splitting fire randomly in almost every situation.

The Cleric is getting to 0 HP quite frequently, though, due to burst damage caused by all the NPCs attacking at the same time (as stated in the other question) or simply being unlucky. The Paladin got to low HPs (1~3) quite frequently as well, but not being dropped unconscious is clearly way less frustrating, so the Paladin is fine. The fact that the Cleric is getting unconscious while the Paladin doesn't, though, seems to be making the Cleric feel like I'm targetting only him.

I don't think they are playing (too) poorly, in terms of tactics - the cleric has a decently high AC (18) and HP (19 IIRC), so he can be the front line (although maybe he shouldn't, especially if he's getting frustrated by dropping down). The encounters are also not hard - even the ones I rebalanced for more PCs (as the adventure assumes 4 PCs and we have 5-6 sometimes) were, at worst, barely deadly and done while the party was at full resources. Other than that, these were normal/hard encounters.

Most of these encounters had melee enemies (e.g. Redbrands, which use sword attacks, bugbears and the Nothic - which was mostly using the double claw attack) and the party got to them in front-to-front combats, so actually moving through the front line, taking opportunity attacks, to reach the ranged backline would make even less sense than random targetting for me.

While "stop focusing him" seems a solution, it seems a really bad solution - both from the RP perspective of my NPCs (forcing them to be dumber than usual) and from a challenge perspective.

I have tried to explain to him that I'm not focusing him at all, even recording the attacks I had made and showing that in average I have targetted the Paladin more than him, but he said "Yeah, you attacked the Paladin after I was dropped to 0 HP" - ignoring that he got up and the Nothic kept attacking the Paladin for two more rounds after that.

I'm not sure I should simply play differently or try to talk to him, or to the whole party, or what. I don't want to sound rude saying "Welp, if you are going to complain about being focused, don't be the front line" or something along these lines, but currently I feel like this is the best solution - although I don't even know how to say it without him thinking it is even more personal, when it isn't.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Jun 20 '18 at 21:51
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The answer to both of your questions (this and the parallel one) is the same:

Stop giving all of the NPC attackers the same initiative.

That step right there eliminates the focus fire problem. That choice is the first element of a two part solution. You are the DM and you have this choice.

The Cleric is getting to 0 HP quite frequently, though, due to burst damage caused by all the NPCs attacking at the same time (as stated in the other question) or simply being unlucky.

If you break up the attackers in to smaller sub groups, this burstiness is mitigated.

Now for the experience based part of the answer.

The DM in our first campaign in 5e taught me a valuable lesson; he broke the NPC enemies into groups once the number of enemies were larger than 3 or 4. He also had leaders, or different kinds of monsters, roll a separate initiative. All but one of my other DM's have done the same. You can watch the difference it makes at the table. A side effect of this is that the battle gets to look a little more like a tennis match: a couple of their guys attack, a couple of our guys attack, etc.

Example: seven goblins and two ogres fighting a party.

  • Two groups of goblin initiative (a clump of 3 and a clump of 4) and either separate init for each ogre, or both the same.
  • For a level 2 party, I'd spread it out because Low Level D&D 5e is swingy.

    My advice on "the dice are fickle" applies to this also. This approach spreads initiative out so that party actions are interspersed with enemy actions. It's still swingy, but it is less bursty for one side also.

Second element of a solution: a primer on tactics for your players

Sit down with your players and discuss tactics. While each group has its own opinion on how close to "combat as war" they want to get, your choice of playing "smart monsters" (IMO a good one) means that the players have to learn

  1. how to apply their tactics As A Team, not as individuals
  2. how to play smarter not harder.

    Sometimes, it takes some DM coaching to get them working in that direction.

    A tactical point to discuss with your players for this particular problem at 2d level: what are the spell casters doing to slow down the enemy? What crowd control or "dividing the enemy" measures are they taking?

You are the DM, so coach them. Almost every DM I've had over 4+ decades with this game has done a little, or even a lot, of coaching. It comes with the role.

As a final observation on your problem: if, even when faced with the facts, your player still thinks you are out to get him, there is only so much you can do as the DM. Some people are simply like that. My suggestions above may help mitigate that so that this player's perception changes.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Your advice on tactics is a good one. Too often PCs will want to take on 'their' monster to get a kill, meaning every PC attacks one monster each. This can be disastrous. If PCs work together as you allude to, with all (or a sub-group) taking down one monster at a time - special focus on enemy spellcasters etc, the battle becomes far easier due to 'action economy' (the number of enemy actions vs number of player actions). \$\endgroup\$ – PJRZ Jun 20 '18 at 7:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for "smarter not harder". A front-liner should not find themselves confronted with more enemies than could kill them on a regular basis; it clearly highlights a lack of Crowd Control (aka Divide & Conquer) on the players' part. \$\endgroup\$ – Matthieu M. Jun 21 '18 at 11:31
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Transparency is your friend.

Personal experience tells me that in 99% of cases talking through these issues is your best bet.

DMing is hard. You're juggling a hundred ideas at once, and you have to implement them to the standards of multiple players each of whom brings his or her own idiosyncratic expectations to the table. And there is perhaps no aspect of the game that is subject to more disagreement than challenge. Heck, even a single individual player might not have internally coherent notions of how much challenge he or she wants. (I find this webcomic apt.)

Worse, 5e does not make it easy to calibrate challenge. Granted, the complaint I hear more often is that players find encounters too easy, not too difficult. But that still illustrates the point. You are trying to provide your players with an amount of challenge they'll find satisfying, and you believe that means not making encounters too easy.

So put those cards on the table. Tell your players what you're trying to do. Explain that you're worried they'll find the game unrewarding if every enemy is unintelligent and every combat is a cakewalk. Acknowledge that the upset players are upset, and make it clear that you really want them to enjoy the game. That's the bottom line here -- you're putting in a lot of effort to try to give them a fun game to play. If it isn't actually fun, everyone at your table is losing.

My guess is that you all might end up having a conversation about what "fun" means to each of you.

If transparency doesn't work, try variety.

If your player's complaint is that he's getting targeted too often in combat, then find reasons to mix it up.

Note that this doesn't necessarily mean lowering your roleplaying standards. For example, not all the Redbrands need to be played intelligently, after all. The module describes the Redbrands as "ruffians." It stands to reason that some "ruffians" might be shrewd, others less so. That's a difference you can play up. Combat is a chaotic mess where even the best-laid plans fall apart. If, occasionally, your bad guys trip over one another, you get the benefit of minimizing your player's occasions to complain, and you make the world feel a little more textured.

Maybe your player might enjoy hitting back.

If the player who has the issue is playing a cleric, what domain did he choose? If the answer isn't "Tempest," you might invite the player to consider switching. The Tempest cleric's Wrath of the Storm ability is all about taking a beating and dishing it right back out. It doesn't scale especially well, but then again it's more likely to be meaningful at lower levels when players' HP totals and spellcasting options are more limited.

(There are also some character types that offer options upon dropping to 0 HP, e.g., the half-orc Relentless Endurance trait, or the Shadow sorcerer's Strength of the Grave ability.)

The switch might take some retconning, but if that's what it takes to get your player into a position to enjoy the game? Totally worth it. We DMs, as a cohort, tend to place far too much importance on the crystalline perfection of our painstakingly-built narratives. At the end of the day, it's just a game.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "We DMs, as a cohort, tend to place far too much importance on the crystalline perfection of our painstakingly-built narratives. At the end of the day, it's just a game." Speaking as a GM (or DM, if that's your poison), this is what we all need to be reminded of every now and then. \$\endgroup\$ – Szandor Jul 6 '18 at 12:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ I need to tattoo those last two sentences on my eyeballs and also use them as a header for all my materials, so I stop forgetting about it. \$\endgroup\$ – Blue Caboose Dec 10 '18 at 23:15
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Don't be afraid to change up stat blocks

Intelligent NPCs are going to do intelligent things. If they have a wizard raining down fire on them from behind the cleric and the paladin, they'll try to find ways to get to that wizard. This doesn't necessarily mean running through melee, but if you give one or two of them a bow... suddenly the damage is a lot less focused on the tanks and more focused on the largest PC threat.

This isn't a one size fits all solution, of course. Some enemies aren't smart enough to employ tactics like that and others simply can't hold bows. In the case of your bugbears and your redbrands, though, this should work well.

The only thing you'll need to watch is matching their average damage with the bow to that of their melee weapon attacks.

NPCs target whoever last damaged them

This is something I do at my table - the NPC goes after whomever hit them last. They aren't aware that the wizard technically did 3 more damage than the druid, they're only aware that the druid struck them with lightning a split second ago and that hurt.

This rule doesn't always have to be used and it certainly shouldn't be set in stone (there are always exceptions), but if it's used properly then your players should get a sense of action/reaction when they go after certain enemies.

Additional bonus

The backline characters get to feel like they're a greater part of combat than before. Getting knocked down all the time isn't fun, but dropping to <5 HP can be a thrill (and an excellent RP opportunity besides). With this solution everyone - even the cleric - should have more fun with combat.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Note: even in the case of only melee NPCs, I would find it unusual if they ALL focused on the 2 first characters and not a single one sneaked around to target the plushies behind. A quick look at battle reconstitutions should show that even "line" battles ended up with the first few lines of each side mixed up. \$\endgroup\$ – Matthieu M. Jun 21 '18 at 11:34
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Have the other players control the missing players' characters. The cleric really shouldn't be out front, but is by necessity because the barbarian is missing. If a player doesn't show up for a game, have other players run his character. This way the 'designed' party can operate the way its supposed to, with the fighters up front.

Alternatively, provide the group with some henchmen/NPCs who can help re-enforce the group when the other front line fighters aren't around.

That said, it does seem like your players are not adapting the way they should. You say they aren't using bad tactics, but reality is showing otherwise. I'd recommend coming up with some encounters specifically designed to force them into some out of the box thinking.

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Use average damage

At low levels, the swinginess of dice can be really bad. At levels 1 and 2, sometimes 3, I use the average damage for monsters (for example, 5 damage instead of 1d6+2). Combat becomes less random and unpredictable, which helps the survivability of characters.

From the entry for Goblin:

Scimitar. Melee Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 5 (1d6 + 2) slashing damage.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This doesn't really seem a useful solution to the problem. Even 4 attacks with an average damage of 5 would drop a PC with 20 HP (or lower as in the question) so if all the enemies are focus-firing one PC then I'm not sure even using average damage would work. \$\endgroup\$ – Purple Monkey Jun 20 '18 at 5:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ @PurpleMonkey I'm not sure it's useful on its own, but adding more to it, like splitting Initiative (especially at low levels), could mitigate the issue. It's not really "bursting" if the Cleric gets the ability to counter. \$\endgroup\$ – SeraphsWrath Jun 20 '18 at 11:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ for damage, fractions round down. (See how resistance works, etc) Only for HP calculations does it round up. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Mar 19 at 17:36
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I don't have much to add to this that hasn't already been covered, but I would like to note that it's important to consider the teamwork being utilized by NPC groups, which may not be necessarily available to PCs.

What I mean is that when you've all the NPCs going and then all the PCs going, it's a common error to just treat the NPCs as an amorphous group that goes in whatever order you want as you scan the battlefield left to right. For example, if you've a group of 1 worg and 2 goblins, it matters a great deal on the actual initiative order of those attackers. If the goblins have an initiative of 8 and 12, the worg goes on 10; and all the PCs are at something after that point, you have to play those in the correct order. If you simply let the worg go first simply because he's the first one you saw, that can easily setup a trip that results in 2 goblins getting attacks with advantage when perhaps it should've only been 1.

PCs are subject to all the rules associated with not being able to delay their initiative until the turn order is most conducive for them. You need to ensure you're consistent with your NPCs on this as well.

So do your best to ensure your identical NPCs are distinguishable in some manner so you can effectively differentiate.

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Other answers are already pretty good. That said, perhaps help the players learn more about group and individual tactics. This will make a huge difference. For example, is there a Battlefield Control character doing stuff to mitigate incoming damage?

Do the players ever take the Dodge action? In my experience Dodge is greatly under used. Dodge can drastically reduce incoming damage and gives other PCs time to drop the foes while the dodging PC remains safer.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Given that the sorting of an answer can change, it's not generally clear what "above" refers to. I'd suggest referring to "the other answers" instead, and ideally summarize any relevant information from those answers if necessary (as answers should stand mostly on their own). \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jan 1 at 22:01

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