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TLDR: What can I do when a player is getting upset by low rolls causing poor PC performance?


I'm running a duet gestalt Pathfinder campaign in Roll20 with an Incanter/Conscript (from the Spheres).

Issue I'm running into is my player seems to be getting alarmingly discouraged in response to any sort of low rolling. For example, last session, against a single enemy, combat went something like this (Level-3 Gestalt PC vs level-3 Warrior; a nat 10 was needed to hit enemy AC, with the -2 from attacking twice):

  • PC: Nat 2 on stealth, initiates combat. Wins initiative. Attacks twice, with nat 5 and nat 12.
  • Enemy: Attacks, hits. Takes off ~20% of PC's hp.
  • PC: Nat 1 on acrobatics to move without provoking (enemy misses), attacks twice with nat 8 and nat 16.

At this point, the player was getting upset, so I just lowered the enemy's AC by 2, which was enough to down him.

Despite what I view as a rather one-sided victory by the PC, the player was upset by the PC's apparently poor performance. The player complained of it seeming as if s/he always rolled low while I always rolled high - and admitted that, while this view may be due to confirmation bias, it was still distressing.

The player then proceeded to mention that a portion of the issue is that there is no 'get up method' - that, due to the nature of the solo campaign, if the PC dies, that's the end. At this point I mentioned that there was actually a planned plot device to undo character death, but I don't know if that helped anything.

Obviously, the first suggestion would be 'talk to the player', but I've already done that - s/he replied that 'It's my fault; I should have built {PC} better." I don't actually agree with this assessment - while the PC isn't hyper-optimized or anything, the build isn't bad. And even if it were, it's my responsibility as GM to make appropriate-difficulty challenges.

The problem is, how do I do that when a nat 5 failing is seen as problematic? I could make things massively easier (or just lower AC to basically nothing while upping hit points to maintain difficulty?), but I'm not sure what actual point there would be to combat, at that point.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ in your example, if the PC moved, they should only have attacked once, not twice, unless they have some special ability? Also, why is the player taking a -2 for attacking twice? Is this from Rapid Shot, or something similar? \$\endgroup\$ – YogoZuno Feb 13 at 0:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Feb 13 at 1:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ @YogoZuno Barrage Sphere's basic ability lets you do two ranged attacks with -2 for a standard action. \$\endgroup\$ – Marcus Feb 13 at 1:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ Related: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/138397/… \$\endgroup\$ – Miles Bedinger Feb 13 at 1:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ Possible duplicate of How to Manage Player Frustration and Disengagement \$\endgroup\$ – Greenstone Walker Feb 13 at 2:10
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Remind your player that they're not Superman

Sometimes players see themselves as great warriors - they're a cut above everybody else because they have all these cool abilities. This is probably a bit more than they should expect, at least at this point. Later on, when they're fighting bears for a bit of fun, and taking down demons that are ransacking villages, then they can maybe feel a bit more "epic". Right now, however, while they do have special abilities (combat manoeuvres and spells), they're only better than those that don't have any of those abilities. So at this point, thugs and bandits are what they're up against.

Statistics can be fudged in more ways than one

As you mentioned, you dropped the enemy's AC by 2 to allow for a higher chance to hit them. This is fine, but it can lead to a counter-intuitive persona, as described above. Instead, you can "fudge" statistics by giving them a different dice to roll with. This doesn't actually change anything, but if they suddenly get a better roll on one dice, their mood might immediately change. Suddenly "this dice is rolling better". I personally am a believer in "dice ju-ju" - I favour certain dice over others even though they follow the exact same laws of probability. And then when they start rolling bad, they go in "time out". The idea is that it simply gives a "reason" for the bad rolls. Yeah, it still sucks when it happens, but it becomes less "random" in the player's mind, because the "black dice always rolls better than the red one".

This can work for dice rolling apps - switch one out for another (discord have dice rolling bots, or you can even switch out the app for physical dice rolls).

Maybe throw in an NPC

Games like pathfinder aren't really built properly for one-player campaigns. they're aimed at groups. Combat can get very rinse and repeat in these situations, so throwing in another NPC can really help mix things up, and take the focus off the PC, and help them feel like their "team" is more competent than they believed. Be careful with this though - this can backfire if the NPC is also "more competent" then the PC, so use this with caution. If anything, use them as a method of "assisting" the PC, rather than being their own character.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Not so sure about the first bit, as it seems to be to boil down to telling the player to "Suck it up"? Or did I misinterpret? The suggestion to use a different RNG is interesting, though! I'll definitely suggest that and see if anything comes of it. I actually already have a GMPC, but he's built specifically to not take the focus off of the PC, specifically to avoid overshadowing, so the effect is limited. \$\endgroup\$ – Marcus Feb 13 at 2:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Marcus The wording on that point is a bit blunt. I will agree. It doesn't have to be in those words of course. The point I'm trying to put across there is that they aren't the "great warriors" they perceive themselves to be - not yet at least. This is the adventure where they build up to that point \$\endgroup\$ – Ben Feb 13 at 2:56
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Narrate the failures as stepping stones to the successes

How you narrate the events determined by the dice can have a lot of influence on how the player perceives things. One of the easiest examples is when a player attacks twice and only hits once. When this happens, you can describe how the first attack was deflected but managed to break the enemy's guard, leaving them open for the second attack to hit. Even though the first attack didn't accomplish anything mechanically, you can still describe it in this way, and it makes that miss feel like it mattered.

Similarly, you can have a bit of fun with the case of the natural 1 acrobatics that provokes an opportunity attack that misses. Obviously, the attack would have hit if only the PC hadn't tripped and fallen under the path of the weapon, after which the PC quickly recovers, springing back to their feet in their new location.

The general idea is to have the player take their entire turn, figure out all the mechanical effects that happen, and then narrate more or less any cool-sounding sequence of events that leads to the same outcome, regardless of how well it matches up with the mechanical actions the player took on their turn.

Of course, you won't always be able to do this. If the player fails every roll on their turn, there's not much you can do. But if you consistently narrate failed rolls as progress toward successful rolls on the same turn, then unmitigated failures will feel few and far between, and that can make things feel a lot more fair, even when mechanically, nothing changed.

(Side note: I can't take credit for this idea. I figured this out by watching how Matt Mercer narrates player turns in Critical Role.)

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Write down the numbers for a session

Take the effort to overcome the confirmation bias by each of you actually writing down the numbers you get on each and every d20 roll for one session and then crunching the stats. There is nothing like looking at the data for creating the ah-ha moment of "I actually roll about average".

Your targets are too high

There is a 'sweet spot' for the number of successes:failures of about 2:1. That means that the natural target number you should be setting for your PC to hit is about 7 \$\pm\$ 1 and your PC should be better than the opponent in a contest by +3 \$\pm\$ 1.

Notice that when you dropped the target from 10 to 8, your player had a better experience and it would have turned one of her 2 misses into a hit. Her problem is not that a 5 missed: its that an 8 and a 5 did.

Don't worry that things are too easy

I'll let you into two DM secrets:

  1. The players are supposed to win.
  2. Things appear much harder from the PC side of the DM screen than they do from the DM side because you have all the information and they don't. A cakewalk is only a cakewalk in retrospect.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ The player actually did get agitated by the nat 5 missing - things just went further downhill from there. Still, thank you for the insight. I'm curious about your numbers - are you pulling those from personal experience, or from some statistics (and, if the latter, where)? \$\endgroup\$ – Marcus Feb 13 at 3:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Marcus it is baked into 4th and 5th edition D&D and it comes up naturally in 3.5 and Pathfinder at about levels 5-10 - which are widely considered the most fun to play. \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Feb 13 at 4:31

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