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I'm DM'ing my first D&D campaign using the 5th Edition Starter Kit. Our party consists of three people who have never played before, but picked up the game mechanics quickly and really enjoy it.

I would describe their playstyle as "exceptionally cautious." Perhaps due to an early TPK (and revival by an NPC), they've taken up the following behaviors:

  • They move slowly and they deliberate every decision for minutes at a time
  • They never use the "front door" of a dungeon unless there's no other way in
  • They often prefer to negotiate, persuade or intimidate rather than fight
  • They avoid areas that seem like trouble, even trouble they could probably handle
  • They don't seem interested in any side quests

I don't personally mind any of this, since they're having fun and I enjoy the challenge of complicating and trying to raise the stakes of their carefully-laid plans. But in this particular campaign it seems like a deficiency. In the last two dungeons they played through, they managed to achieve their objectives and escape while ignoring over 50% of the rooms, monsters, and treasure that was available. More importantly, they missed out on a lot of XP. I think they're unwittingly doing an "any%" run.

They're currently heading toward the final dungeon, and the Lost Mine of Phandelver guide says that players below level 4 will struggle with some of the encounters in this dungeon. Should I:

  • Let them play the dungeon as-is and if they struggle, let them struggle? I worry there will be another TPK and they won't understand why they did so poorly.
  • Warn them (e.g. through an NPC) that they aren't strong enough to enter the dungeon, and nudge them toward some opportunities to gain XP?
  • Drop some monster encounters in their laps and try to make them level up? They're not even close to level 4, so this could get tedious.
  • Nerf the monsters in the dungeon so the players can handle them?
  • Give them a free level-up so they're properly equipped for the challenges to come? I did this once before and didn't like it, it seemed to break the fairness of the game.

I'm also second-guessing the way I've been running the show. Should I have given them XP for rooms and fights they circumvented? Should I have made those encounters more difficult to avoid?

Does D&D just not work well for crafty, battle-shy characters?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Relevant metas: “Update: here's how it worked out…” Where does it go? & Follow up to posted questions - Rather than editing an update of which answer's advice you followed and the outcome into your question, you should leave it as a self-answer to your own question (if you didn't follow any one answer's advice or you combined the advice of several answers), or as a comment on the answer whose advice you followed. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jan 16 at 18:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast Ah, I wondered about the etiquette for that. Thanks for letting me know. \$\endgroup\$ – Isaac Lyman Jan 16 at 20:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ "they've taken up the following behaviors [...] They often prefer to negotiate, persuade or intimidate rather than fight" Wow, many DMs would sell their souls to get such players instead of the "rush in, kill everyone, ask questions later" mentality they always complain about. \$\endgroup\$ – vsz Mar 7 at 7:20
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Change the game to match the players, not the other way around.

In your scenario, with players avoiding combat whenever possible, it's the DM's responsibility to make successes feel like successes. There may be a mismatch between player types, with the players wanting to avoid combat, and you wanting to create combat, but that may mean that another DMing playstyle needs to be used for everyone to get the most out of the game.

Assuming that you're willing to adapt the game to make it feel more rewarding for your players, there's a few things you want to note:

  • Modules are designed to be fluid, to allow the DM to modify as needed. Maybe there wasn't a secret entrance there, until your players started looking for one. Maybe there wasn't a trap in the floor, until the Rogue started checking for traps constantly. Meet your players' expectations by creating things that they're looking for. In turn, they'll create the world for you while you just give the people what they want.

  • Experience and other rewards can be obtained through a bunch of different methods other than combat, but it's up to the DM to decide upon the best method. Some DMs use a per-session-attendance level scheme, where the number of sessions you need to attend to level up is equal to your current level (so it'll take you 5 sessions to go from level 5 to level 6), which is good for campaigns with long RP times or to incentivize attendance. Other times, simply finishing a particular sequence in the module is enough to earn a level (usually stated in the module itself when this happens), which is good for balance. Other DMs reward EXP for not slaying an obstacle/enemy, but simply pacifying it, which is good for rewarding unorthodox solutions. Choose the method that works best for the table.

  • Forcing combat is something that's within your power (via ambushes, traps, imprisoning, etc), but make sure that the game is designed around players having fun. There are not many undead in Lost Mines of Phandelver, but if the players decided to make a party of holy Paladins and Clerics, I'd want them to stand out and feel rewarded for their decisions, so I might swap out some generic enemies for some generic undead. Consider having enemies adapted to the player's usual interactions, or providing clues as to how the players' expertise can deal with these scenarios.


But what should I do about right now?

For it being this late into the module, the good solutions are limited, so it's important to attempt to make good habits going forward so that this issue doesn't pop up in the future.

Applying a short-term Band-Aid, like making the dungeon easier, is an option, but it might create problems in the event that the players can't pacify an obstacle, or they decide to play after the module is finished. To avoid any future issues with the module and any events afterwards, the focus should be on leveling the players immediately rather than constantly trying to scale the game back.

With the style of play of your players, there are two methods I'd recommend to increase their level to the appropriate threshold:

Level them immediately, stating that you've decided to change how Experience was rewarded in your campaign, and that their current Experience values are adjusted for these changes and will stay at this rate going forward (putting them at whatever experience method you think is appropriate). If you want to avoid just handing out free levels without it feeling justified, try and calculate their current experience values by determining how you feel they should earn experience and running some rough calculations by skimming through what the players went through. If you're shifting to a benchmark system, make everyone's level the same up to the expected amount. If you're now rewarding EXP for pacifying creatures, just skim over what combats they avoided and tally up their new EXP. Once you've done that, explain to your players what the changes are and how their new levels reflect that.

Railroading them onto a detour, whether that be by aiding an allied army push back a band of marauding goblins, or by defending a town from monsters. Railroading, like a scalpel, is a tool best used with precision and becomes scary with excessive use, so while Railroading is generally frowned upon as a default method to DM, this is a perfect scenario for it. Use this time to utilize a sidequest your players managed to avoid, modifying it to accommodate their current situation, and tie in something that effectively requires them to participate in it, whether that's an important NPC asking a favor or an item they require for their mission. Perhaps them ignoring a sidequest they could have taken care of now evolved into a greater threat that they cannot ignore.


With any solution you choose, make sure that the players are recognized for what they're trying to get out of the game, and try to adapt the game to that, even if that means that the enemies are more easily manipulated or that they're more easily thwarted by items hidden in the dungeon that the players can find.

Because of the fact that leveling them immediately lets your players feel an immediate reward for their uphill slog and also sets the expectation that they'll be rewarded for their playstyle in the future on both sides of the table, I think that it is the best approach for your campaign. Just make sure that both sides recognize that it's a reward (compensation) rather than an award (gift).

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I am going to go in a separate direction than the other answers here.

Teach them when to run away.

Let them attempt the dungeon as they are. If they can rise to the occasion and defeat the enemies anyways, then good on them. If they cant handle it, then they need to learn to retreat. Not all battles have to result in "We Win or We Die".

I have the reputation within my gaming circle as the "tough but fair" DM. I have no qualms about TPKing parties that make stupid decisions or don't know when they are biting off more than they can chew.

Its one of my ways of keeping parties on the path I need them to take to further a campaign: place a really powerful enemy in the way of their off-ramping attempts. They either get mauled to death horribly (and I describe in detail how their characters die) or they learn to run away and take a different path.

However, my players enjoy that style of play. The "Dark Souls" style of gameplay. Gauge your players. How did they react to your first TPK? You said they start taking a far more cautious approach, but are they having more fun this way? Does the fear of death excite them more or is it detracting from their enjoyment?

Some parties just want a dungeon-crawl/curb-stomping style of play. Others like to have a challenge where every fight feels like a true victory with dire stacks at hand.

Maybe even ask your party directly?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I like the "tough but fair" approach (assuming the party is okay with it). It sounds like you use high-powered enemies to keep the party from going off-course; is that considered "railroading"? \$\endgroup\$ – Isaac Lyman Jan 10 at 18:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ I only implement it when they get ridiculous with it. If its a small detour I will play along, but if they want to go a completely different route that would completely ruin the module I am running I will force them back into the scope of the module. Outside of the game I will tell them they are getting too crazy and if they are not enjoying the module we can discuss changing things. \$\endgroup\$ – Semada Jan 10 at 20:33
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As a relatively new DM running Lost Mine of Phandelver myself with help from a more experienced friend, I’d recommend you go one of a few directions:

Experience: you may be doing this already, but if your party gets out of a fight by talking or sneaks past (not away from) an encounter, give them the experience they would have gotten. They’re still navigating the encounter in their own way. If you have been and they're still low, perhaps try to entice them by upping the reward for an easy side quest. Perhaps Sister Garaele in Phandalin is desperate for them to help her and decides to offer a magic item if they help. In my campaign she did just that, offering a small harp that can cast the guidance cantrip 3 times a day. Its not amazing but it was enough to get their interest and that side quest is very safe.

Encounters: If your party insist on going into Wave Echo Cave at (I assume) level 3, maybe look through the book and alter the encounters a bit. Some enemies will likely be too much for them. Either reduce the difficulty by lowering HP or giving them alternate solutions (e.g. the orcs all flee if the boss is killed, which you can hint at by describing the orc's behaviour). My party went to Wyvern Tor and fought the ogre and orcs there at level 2; to try and stop them being crushed, I introduced a choke point that only one at a time could get through so that they wouldn't get rushed. The other option is to remove some of the harder enemies. For Wave Echo Cave, the biggest risks are likely to be: the spectator, the bugbears and possibly the stirges. I wouldn't recommend removing them all but thin out the numbers per group, especially as there are only 3 players.

The third option is offer the help of an NPC. Sildar Hallwinter comes premade with the book and could even the odds slightly, or at the very least soak some damage. It wont make the difference if they suddenly change to want to kill everything, but it could help if they get caught out.

Hope this helps.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Our DM only gave us XP for kills, so every piece of sneaking, working around etc meant we were very low on XP when we reached the end. None of us wanted to play a total wipeout game. So option 3 as the DM "say you realised you haven't done this and adjust their total XP for all these reworked encounters" they will soon level up. \$\endgroup\$ – WendyG Jan 10 at 9:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Falconer So as an example, the party entered Cragmaw castle through the South entrance and ended up going straight to the "boss" room, skipping ~8 other encounters, most of which they weren't even aware existed. Are you suggesting I give them the XP for all of those rooms? Just to clarify. \$\endgroup\$ – Isaac Lyman Jan 10 at 11:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ I would say that depends on your outlook. If you want to get them to the level 5 you could, but in general I would suggest if you remember whether they made any stealth rolls to bypass any groups, those would be the ones to mark experience for. If they ignored the room and never interacted with it I wouldnt award experience. Judging by the map i wouldnt bother for the guatd tower but i imagine they peaked in at room 7, the mess hall on the map, if they did and successfully snuck away you could make an argument for experience. \$\endgroup\$ – Falconer Jan 10 at 17:47
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After considering every answer, I took some advice from the top-voted ones. However, I want to add a point that hasn't been addressed.

Consider that the players may do better than you expect

I put together a surprise encounter in town, before they left for the last dungeon, to see how they would hold up versus eight zombies and a flameskull (exactly the sort of encounter they'll face in the dungeon). They had a little help in the form of some NPC townspeople and a makeshift barricade, so if they were outmatched there were plenty of opportunities to retreat or tag-team. But they managed the situation extremely well at their current level, which gave me confidence that they can handle the dungeon. It's clear that they punch above their weight.

Indeed, their first couple of battles in the dungeon haven't been unreasonably difficult, in spite of their levels. Unless things change dramatically, I expect they'll be capable of fighting through to the end.

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It's your game

I have not been DMing for very long, but I have never run a single encounter right out of the book. Because my party, for example, has no tanks. My toughest character is a druid. So I have to change the encounter and tailor it for the party. Every DM I've had has done this, and it works very well. It can be difficult, so I would encourage you to head to YouTube, there are many great Dungeons & Dragons channels out there. And I'm sure you'll learn a lot.

Change the monsters

Maybe that group of orcs has 10 hp each instead of twenty; maybe the evil mage is only a 4th-level caster instead of a 6th-level one.

Let them win

Build up their confidence. If they are afraid of another TPK, build up their confidence. They find a crate of healing potions; the paranoid player will probably have ways to tell if something is poisoned. Then maybe have them get ambushed by goblins; with the healing potions they might be more inclined to fight. Make this fight an easy win.

Or maybe even fudge some dice to make sure they win. Sometimes it's okay to cheat, but do so sparingly, and only to make sure everyone has fun. I'm not advocating that you never let a player die, just make sure your players are enjoying themselves. New players will probably not be okay with losing a character. But more veteran players will be a lot more accepting.

So in conclusion, you don't have to follow the books to the letter. You are master of the rules.

I'll link a few channels below:

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A Player’s POV

Similar to the previous answers but from a player’s standpoint.

I prefer leveling up whenever we have beat a boss. It makes you feel accomplished, it flows in a way most people expect (like a video game), and you don’t have to worry about keeping track of your XP, and if one of the players misses a session then they aren't left behind.

In your particular case I would go with option 2. Warn your players that they can’t handle what's coming and provide them with a side quest to level up.

Also, I understand you using a pre-fab story but, if your players are being super cautious and not wanting to get into fights, consider that you’re not giving them enough incentive to. I am not talking just about gold or loot here — I am talking emotional incentives. Do they want to fight? Who are they saving or protecting? What emotional warm fuzzies will they get from completing this quest?

And as a last, somewhat unrelated note, as a player levels 1–3 are a complete waste of time. My group starts every new group of characters at level 3. Though, I would say that until you hit level 5 there is still a feeling of being cautious, because you can only take one good hit before you’re down rolling your death saving throws. Anything under 40hp feels like you’re a skinny kid who stole your uncle’s rusty sword and decided to go out looking for trouble. Trouble you probably can’t handle.

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