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I’m running my first campaign as a DM. One of the players has created a cleric that has been cursed—he takes 3x the damage he deals—and is therefore for all intents and purposes a pacifist. The player chose this curse as part of his own character's backstory. Honestly, I love this character trait because it makes for good role-playing, but in our last game our player seemed really bored during combat. He’s a level 1 character so he ran out of healing spells pretty quickly. Once that happened, he pretty much did nothing on his turn. He just seems really bored during combat.

He actively participates in out-of-combat role play, but, because of the character limitations he chose, he can’t really do much in combat. I don’t mind that he’s not dealing damage in combat, but I don’t want him to be bored. I’m planning on talking to him to see if he would like to be able to participate more in combat.

If he says he would, what suggestions might I provide to help him keep his PC busy during combat while actively avoiding dealing damage? If he has changed his mind about his character and wants to do damage in combat, how can I help him get around his character’s curse?


This character is also cursed to never die from old age, but he has still aged with time. He's like 900 years old or something and is somewhat feeble (he has a STR mod of –1), so grappling and shoving is likely not going to be an action he will attempt.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch we can. Hadn't thought about it. Is this the same as the Help action? \$\endgroup\$ – KSchank Aug 24 '18 at 17:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ Do you allow Unearthed Arcana? \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Aug 24 '18 at 18:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ A technical question — how does the curse determine if the character "deals damage"? You said he is "a pacifist", but what if he commands other creature to kill? What if he uses magic? (domination, or power word kill, for instance). And if he kills someone with his own hands, how is the "loopback" damage determined? What is "damage" in-world? Does indirect damage count? Does damage to objects count? \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Aug 24 '18 at 21:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ @enkryptor We’ve only had 2 sessions and he hasn’t dealt any damage yet, and he was the one who set the terms of the curse so I’m not entirely sure, but I believe that if he is not the direct cause of another creature losing one or more hitpoints, the curse doesn’t apply. I’m going to discuss with him whether placing caltrops or covering someone with oil before the sorcerer in the party casts Fire Bolt will cause him to take damage. I’m going to urge him to allow his character to use that kind of clever thinking without being penalized. \$\endgroup\$ – KSchank Aug 24 '18 at 21:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you done session 0 with all the players and agreed on how important combat will be in your campaign? Are they all ok with having one character which is mostly useless in combat? Maybe, instead of asking how to make him even remotely useful in combat, you should be rather considering things like 'is it a right system' and 'is it a right character' for this campaign? \$\endgroup\$ – Artur Biesiadowski Aug 27 '18 at 7:06

11 Answers 11

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Non-Damaging Actions

There are still quite a few actions a caster (and a cleric) can take without causing damage.

They can include:

  • Help Action
  • Shoving/Grappling
  • Casting Buff, Control, or Illusion spells (probably even better than just healing)
  • Terrain interaction (caltrops, oil, etc.)

Limited by imagination

Much of their actions and choices will require more imagination. You'll need them to think outside the box and you need to provide environments that they can play within and also be open to non-damaging shenanigans options.

Adjusting CR

As a DM, you do need to be aware that not having a player actively contribute to damage may change your difficulty calculations and should consider your encounter building accordingly.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't know 5e, but does it still have Hold Person? That was a staple of clerics in early versions. \$\endgroup\$ – GrandmasterB Aug 24 '18 at 21:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GrandmasterB: Yes: dndbeyond.com/spells/hold-person \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Aug 24 '18 at 22:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ @GrandmasterB Yes, but it's not available to first level characters. \$\endgroup\$ – Taemyr Aug 27 '18 at 8:17
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Utility, utility, utility.

A while back I played a divination wizard, and I purposely took no damaging spells. Not a single one. Not even a cantrip.

Instead I looked for utility spells that I could cast to help the party. Some of the things I did were:

  • Heroism (yeah, it's not a wizard spell, but the DM gave me the spell via a spell scroll before he realized that it wasn't)
  • Sleep (always a good spell when level <5)
  • Enlarge/Reduce (as a buff or a debuff)
  • Minor Illusion used to make in-combat "cover" (My wizard was over dramatic and would always shout out things related to the spells as he cast them, so when casting minor illusion, he would say "ground, rise to defend" or "Stone, appear to block their way", and roll deception checks to convince the enemy that the illusions were real).

As a cleric, your PC will have access to even more options, as clerics have a better spell list for this (aid, blindness/deafness, protection from poison, warding bond, life transference, etc...).

Your PC also has nets, grapples, and help actions available to them.


But what can I (the DM) do?

  • Emphasize the effects of the cleric in combat. "The [monster] attacks the brutish form of the [barbarian character], but he swings and it passes right through him. [monster] is confused by [cleric]'s spell for a moment, before turning to face the other two copies of [barbarian]. The [monster] snarls, but also cowers just a bit, confused at how there can be multiple copies of [barbarian]"

  • Offer to make the player the monster wrangler, assuming you think they can reasonably do it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Isn't False Life only for the caster, not for 'squishy allies' ? \$\endgroup\$ – Vylix Aug 24 '18 at 18:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Vylix: Yes, False Life is a self-range spell. And on that note, so are Mirror Image and Blur. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Aug 24 '18 at 22:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ You're right, I mixed up my self-protection spells with my buff spells. \$\endgroup\$ – Shem Aug 27 '18 at 3:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ Minor nitpick, Illusions would provide concealement not cover \$\endgroup\$ – Kevin Aug 27 '18 at 12:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Kevin, the DM allowed me to create fake cover using the mentioned deception checks. Basically the enemy thinking it was cover, would either aim elsewhere or aim for only my head, giving me an effective AC boost. Granted this is a ruling rather than a rule, but doesn't seem unrealistic or unbalanced, especially for a non-combat build. \$\endgroup\$ – Shem Aug 28 '18 at 0:24
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Make the goal of your combats about something other than killing your foes

D&D frequently leans towards a play style where once combat starts, the goal of the encounter is to defeat your opponents. But this doesn't have to be the case.

If your party went out looking for the local prince who was polymorphed into a giant toad, and then find the toad right before it would be captured by a group of hungry trolls, then somebody is going to have to spend the fight toad-wrangling unless you want to spend another week searching the swamp.

If your party is trying to dismantle a doomsday spell that is held in place by 5 key components then someone is going to have to disrupt those components while their companions hold off wave after wave of skeletons.

If you're riding hard to get back to the fort to warn the soldiers there about the invading horde of goblins, then someone needs to go on ahead while the rest of the party delays the pursuit.

Obviously, not all combat can be this interesting. Setting up scenarios like this is work, both on the part of the DM and on the part of the players who have to figure out the more complex situation. But interspersing these scenarios among your more normal combat scenes will help keep the game exciting for all players. (Even normal fighty players can get tired of "Oh, look! 3 more vampires!")

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    \$\begingroup\$ I wishI I could upvote this more. I still struggle to grasp how so many DMs seem to lack any sense of purpose in combat. "Hitting all enemies until they are dead" should be the exception as a goal for an encounter, not the only available option. \$\endgroup\$ – Silverclaw Aug 25 '18 at 10:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ In a campaign I'm running, we've had a lot of fun fights like this. One story arc involved a town where all the residents had been cursed with lycanthropy, leading to a series of encounters where the PCs were actively working to prevent casualties whenever they were attacked by the lycanthropes before they found a cure. In another arc, they were leading a bucket brigade of villagers through a burning forest when they were set upon by fire elementals. They chose to protect the civilians while also directing them to form ranks and douse the elementals with water. I like meaningful combat :) \$\endgroup\$ – Dave B Aug 28 '18 at 18:30
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You might consider letting him change his Cleric to a Paladin of Redemption from Xanathar's Guide to Everything, which have a litany of means to heal and support allies, deal damage indirectly to enemies via damage they take, and other methods.

Such a character can be a pure pacifist, but by interjecting themselves into combat, they can make it very undesirable to engage them in direct combat.

Normally, for such a thing, I would say that it's preferable to multi-class, but in this case, I think it's better if you do a 1:1 level swap. From a story perspective, this can be fantastic if the player has not (or just reached) 3rd level, and thus can in-game take their Oath.

You should be aware that the Paladin of Redemptions features deal damage based on the amount of damage the character receives. With that triple damage curse you mentioned, he might turn that into a real advantage (or at least as much an advantage as getting a big hole in your chest can be).

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The Help Action is always a standard resourceless action you can take in 5e combat. Without attack rolls I do not see how his curse would apply if you help your ally attack.

You can lend your aid to another creature in the completion of a task. When you take the Help action, the creature you aid gains advantage on the next ability check it makes to perform the task you are helping with, provided that it makes the check before the start of your next turn.

Alternatively, you can aid a friendly creature in attacking a creature within 5 feet of you. You feint, distract the target, or in some other way team up to make your ally’s Attack more effective. If your ally attacks the target before your next turn, the first Attack roll is made with advantage.

I see you mentioned Help in a comment. Help doesn't have to be as vague and mechanically sterile as it looks in the rules. You as a DM could prompt him by asking, "Okay, what do you do to help" and make him roleplay for it.

Grapple and shove are also considered "Special Melee Attacks" that require attack roles, but do no damage on hit. Does pushing someone off a cliff count for the curse?

Unfortunately, these certainly require a high strength/athletics stat, which the cleric may not have. Maybe as the DM you can give him an item to enhance one of those actions?

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Sadly, I'm not sure your player can make it work.

In the large majority of cases, DnD combat is balanced under the assumption that players will be dealing significantly more damage than they take. A typical encounter sees PCs fight a group of enemies that have roughly the same amount of HP as the players, if not much more, and players typically win an individual successful fight without having come close to running out of their own HP. 5e is even built around the idea that no individual combat should pose a serious risk, even if its challenge rating is relatively high, and players primarily risk death by attrition over the course of multiple battles before resting.

As a result, even if the curse your player took meant that they only took damage equivalent to what they dealt, they would be unable to contribute much to combat. A single point of damage against an enemy is less valuable than a single point of damage against a PC, so every time your cleric tries attacking, they end up expending more of their party's resources than they gain. The most optimal strategy is to just stay out of the way.

The fact that the cleric takes three times as much damage as he deals is so extreme that any time the cleric attacks, the result overwhelmingly sets the entire party back. Either the cleric deals negligible damage in exchange for becoming quite a bit more vulnerable, or hampers their entire team by pushing themselves close to death for damage that any other player could deal with absolutely no negative consequences whatsoever. When the cleric becomes weak, the party is going to have to adjust its strategy to protect him, which will affect the flow of combat for the entire group.

The cleric can use other strategies, but they will only get your player so far. Spells and items are expendable, so they can only be used a handful of times between rests. And support cantrips do give your player other ways to influence battle, but they are all both situational and weak, so the cleric will rarely get a chance to impact a battle with them. As a result of these limitations, no character can plausibly use support techniques on even half of their turns. (In the campaign I'm in, I'm playing a very support-focused bard, and even though I love hanging back and controlling the tide of battle, the large majority of my turns are spent firing a crossbow.)

The balance of DnD 5e means that the most common way for players to engage in combat is by dealing straight damage. And, unfortunately, his curse is so extreme that he has locked his character out of that.


You said that your player chose this curse and has more DnD experience than you. I would suggest talking to him directly about why he chose this curse and how he expects to be able to contribute in battle in spite of such a large handicap. He might have some specific ideas, which you can then plan around. Or he might realize that the curse is more of an impediment than he expected, in which case you can retcon it, weaken it, or give him a way to remove or mitigate it.

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Part of 5e game balance is built on the idea that everyone can at least contribute some to the total party damage per round even without spending resources. If you've taken that away, which this curse effectively does, it is reasonable and balanced to replace it in some fashion.

Assuming that you want to keep the curse, the simplest and probably best answer is to provide him with one or more appropriate cantrips. They should be directly and continually useful in combat, but not directly damage-dealing. Static healing will break the game on short rests, so that's out, but things like giving temporary hit points, advantage for allies, disadvantage to attacks against allies, or other forms of buff or debuff could all work. Many of these effects are pretty weak for a standard action, so stacking more than one at once might be appropriate. (example: a cantrip that gives some smallish number of temp HP and also advantage on next attack). This may be tricky to balance, but should be doable if you work at it a bit. The goal should be so that he feels useful, and the other players don't feel overshadowed. On the bright side, if he's mostly handing out buffs, that's an easier target to hit than in other cases.

If you decide that that's too much effort, you're probably better off removing the curse. In that case? Well, he's a cleric. He has a personal relationship with a God, and probably a group of other people who worship the same God and have clerical powers. It's a plot thing, it'll need to be solved through plot, but there are all sorts of plots you can use, where some representative of his god or other fixes this issue for him. It would likely be a good idea to discuss the plotline with him a bit first, though, and make sure he's okay with it. That sort of thing cuts pretty close to character concept stuff, and deserves at lest a bit of respect.

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Grapple, Shove people prone, spread oil to make enemies slip up, Let him find/make a net ?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Hi! Welcome to the RPG.Stack. Perhaps you could expand some on your answer. As it stands now, I see it attractive downvotes for its length and lack of content; with enough votes, it will face deletion. Also, in the end it doesn't really answer the question. \$\endgroup\$ – Jason_c_o Aug 24 '18 at 18:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ While it's short, it basically does answer the question...kind of. \$\endgroup\$ – Silverclaw Aug 25 '18 at 10:20
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Even with the variety of things that can be done under the rules, that's a severe penalty to take. If he got no compensating advantage from taking that curse in his backstory, I'd offer him some kind of compensation in the form of some additional buff or debuff or even some battlefield-control abilities as well as slightly boosting his healing. He should have plenty of things he can do in combat that don't involve damaging opponents but still seem worth doing.

Whether it's something similar to Bless or Bane or Aid or a Hold Monster or maybe something more like Entangle or Shield or Hypnotic Pattern or Blindness or Gust of Wind .... (if some of these are above his level, that's where the "similar to" comes in -- just posit a weaker effect along the same lines) there's lots of things he might be able to have that would let him contribute in solid ways without doing damage.

You need to pick something thematically appropriate to the character to be able to do, find a spell or feat or class ability with similar effects and basically just rebadge it so it seems like it suits.

Ideally he should have access to one cantrip that has value in battle situations as well as at least one decent first level spell, and something else he can do that makes him a bit special. It might involve some kind of vow, perhaps, before he gets access to it, but it should be there.

As an example, if he had a cantrip called "Guiding Hand of [deity]" that worked like "Mage Hand" but with some restrictions on its uses, that might work as a good cantrip with a bunch of battlefield uses.

You can also encourage him to explore the situations in which combat can be avoided.

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To be honest, I've played only one D&D session and it has been a while, so i can't help with spells or skills, but depending on how much roleplaying is allowed you don't really need skills or spells to be of help in combat. Here some common-sense ideas that could work:

  • How about using a strong shield and provoke enemies? (For example, demons, devils, orcs, etc probably get quite angry when he brags about how cool, holy and great his chosen diety is) And if he's the one enemies target, he can cure himself incase he gets hit. But he should still carry a weapon, just to look badass and dangerous. That way it's more likely he gets targeted.

  • He could use common items that are found in the world to distract or annoy enemies. For example, if he has a gown/cloak, he can throw it on enemies heads to stop them from seeing their surroundings for a short moment. If he has a trumpet, he could suddenly use it once in combat to distract enemies to look at him ("WTF, where did that unexpected noise come from? Why is that guy using a trumpet while we're battling?") and give his party members a chance for an easy hit. Look what common items are available and be creative.

  • If his curse prevents him from using holy water to deal damage to demons, vampires, etc, just throw regular water while shouting "Take this! Holy water!", i'm sure just the fear of getting holy water sprinkled on them will distract them for a moment until they realize he's making fun of their weakness against holy water (another good way to taunt).

  • Does indirect, environmental damage count for his curse? If not, there is plenty of things he could do. Remember the classic story trope of cutting a rope to make the chandelier fall on someones head? How about damaging a stone wall to make rocks fall or knocking over heavy cupboards to fall on enemies?

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    \$\begingroup\$ You should back up your suggestions with citations or experience. In other words, rather than simply suggesting things that could maybe work, you should explain how your suggested techniques have worked in your own experience. (Even if it's not specific to D&D, other tabletop RPG experience can be useful if you're suggesting general roleplaying techniques.) \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Aug 25 '18 at 0:06
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We have a character who has very little to do with most battles, EXCEPT for the fact that he's got really high charisma. He plays a very aged fighter (almost 80 yers old as a human) and made the flaw of his character that it has high wisdom, intelligence, and charisma, but really low dex, con, and str.

He basically walks around convincing enemies to do the opposite of what they're doing. He does still have a very high AC as his character "never leaves the house without his plate" And takes a movement disadvantage because he doesn't have the correct amount of str to carry his plate armor properly. He also carries a shield.

This is a potential possibility.

Fighter: "Oh little bandit.. your mother wouldn't appreciate you trying to stab that man. You should befriend him instead..."

(Old man fighter Rolls charisma +4)

Bandit: You know you're right.. thats a terrible idea.

And on the off chance that he does get hit, he carries a stock of healing potions to heal himself. He also uses the help action almost every turn as he "has to teach the future generation the right way to do things"

Like was said before, encounters are only limited by your own ingenuity and the ideas you can come up with.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Persuasion isn't mind control. That's what spells like Command and Suggestion are for. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Aug 27 '18 at 4:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ That is 100% correct, but if he beats them 5 or 6 times on pursuasion checks, all the while getting missed with his ridiculous AC, the GM usually tends to make it happen because the enemy "gets tired of listening to him and moves on" or something else. The gm says he's a really irritating character. Plus it doesnt always work. he ALWAYS has to roll play it out, and say what his character would say to try and dissuade the opponent from attacking, and he doesnt get to try on things that dont understand his multiple languages. He does still have to attack and defend at times. \$\endgroup\$ – Thatguy Aug 27 '18 at 4:40

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