The Situation

I have been a GM for a few years on and off, for at least half a dozen of groups with at least 20 different players and have played my fair share of systems.

A few weeks ago my colleagues asked me to introduce them to roleplaying. I was delighted to share my passion with the people I see and talk to daily. We now have played two times with a group of me plus 4 player characters. Nearly all of the player were completely oblivious to roleplaying in general.

We are playing "Splittermond" which is a German system with a typical high fantasy setting which is comparable to "The dark eye" or "D&D".

The Problem

All in all the two sessions have been a lot of fun but I struggle with one of my players that seems to have big problems with imagining the real situation the characters are in.

Things like trying to build things without any of the necessary tools, trying to run from a enemy that is obviously about ten times as fast as him, although they have cover and are not yet discovered and so on. The result is that the other players and I are very confused and partially frustrated since those false interpretations can put the group in very rough spots, which is dampening everyone's fun. Which in turn might demotivate the player in question.

The player in question has not played any pen&paper games before and is only casually playing board games or computer games.

The specific situation that sparked the discussion in our group was the following:

The group went out into the wild to try and figure out how to slay or at least bind a wild crow beast, which had ripped apart a group of adventures (The characters of a one shot I previously played) as well as a pack of rattlings. So they know quite well that this beast is dangerous.

The player in question is safe and sound in a already deserted camp of rattlings and hidden under some bushes and trees under which the group covered themselves with the remains of the tents of that camp.

While he is on watch duty he is playing with fire (so far so good, this is part of his "pyromania" character trait). Then he hears a loud shriek which they already hear before and could/should therefore connect to the beast they are hunting.

First of all he does not realise that the light coming from the flames in his hands is a dead sure giveaway of their location for the beast, which can fly and hunts during the night. And after someone else woke from the beasts noise and extinguished the flame he wanted to jump and run across the open field in hopes to escape instead of assuring himself that the beast had yet to find them.

We collectively stopped the game there because we knew the player really struggled with building his character and would quit the game if his character died within the first few hours of the game.

What I Tried

I try to picture their situation as clearly as possible, even using a smart board in the room we are playing in (we luckily can use one of the rooms in our office) to draw the current situations. Still these problems accrued.

I never had this happen in one of my groups before. Is this to be expected and will sort itself out over time, or should I try to tell them even more?

Does anyone have any experience with players like this?

Is there any technique I can use to make it clear to him that he is a real character in a real world and cannot do things that would be impossible in a real world as well (apart from magic)? I fear that he is somewhat used to the game mechanic of just try things and reload if they don't work.

  • 13
    \$\begingroup\$ Could you give us more detail about the "I try to run away" and "I want to build things" situations? Those don't sound too unusual, or disruptive, or a problem at all. That sounds like something that's perfectly normal. It tend to unfold like this: “I try to build this thing.” “You can't, you don't have the tools.” “Oh, okay. I'll try this other thing instead.” It's just part of the process of players working out what's available to them. It also sounds like normal roleplay. Is something more problematic happening? Are these occurring super often? What's the disruptive / problem part of this? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 13, 2020 at 13:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ These sound relatively tame. I've had a player who wanted to kick their pet out of quicksand with their horse, push flying enemies to their death and sail across a stormy ocean on a log because he felt the price for hiring a real ship was too high. Consider yourself lucky. \$\endgroup\$
    – Theik
    Commented Feb 13, 2020 at 13:44
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ What did this player say when you asked them what their thought process was when deciding on this action? How did they respond to your "collectively" stopping the game because you didn't like the choices they were making? \$\endgroup\$
    – Alex M
    Commented Feb 13, 2020 at 23:57
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ Especially with regards to fleeing, this sounds like a good player! They are being proactive and actively solving the situations in front of them. New player or not, I would not expect an engaged player to choose “I will do nothing and hide here” as a good idea, and I would consider my encounter very poorly designed if that choice was the only way to safely navigate it. \$\endgroup\$
    – Eric
    Commented Feb 14, 2020 at 5:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ I have had problems with players who decided that their character is unable to progress (either can't beat the monster, can't find the way through a maze, or can't solve a puzzle). The player in this situation simply gives up and is defeated. I think that this is based on the belief that their PC is unstoppable and if something looks like its a threat to that pretence then the GM must have made a mistake, and the game itself is at fault. This is based on the assumption that there is competition between players such as playing a board game of Monopoly. \$\endgroup\$
    – Penanghill
    Commented Feb 18, 2020 at 0:20

4 Answers 4


I ran tabletop games for new players at a local game store for a while and I've had several players make wildly unwise decisions in their first couple sessions. There seem to be three main causes for this:

Ultimate Greatest Heroes

Your player just built the absolute best character imaginable. They're a pyromaniac with an attitude problem and completely unstoppable. This is, of course, completely out of line with a Level 1 character in the system you're running, but who wants to squash the enthusiasm of Chuck Norris with a flame thrower? Only those who don't want the character to immediately die.

Certain games, like Savage Worlds, actively encourage this mindset—as do certain GMs (cf. arguments for "the rule of cool"). Your game does not. That's worth training new players on. In this case, either describe NPCs hiding lights or specifically call out how bright the fire is before the monster is close enough to see it.

Heroes Have Plot Armor

This one is similar, but subtly different. Here, the player assumes that they have plot armor. They may not be the coolest thing since sliced bread, but they Heroes Win. That's just how this works. Villains give expository monologues, protagonists walk out of jails, and bullets are just another game of dodge ball.

I think you headed this one off rather well with the stories of now late adventurers, but sometimes new players need to experience character death (though not always their own) before they realize that no one has plot armor.

What Does This Button Do?

"Wait, I can do anything I want?"
"I just realized how cool [insert class ability] is!"
"Ha ha! My sword is on fire!"

This is, by far, the most common problem I have when running games for new players. Players new to tabletop games are sometimes too enamored by the freedom and power the game gives them to focus on the strategy and tactics they need to survive. I once had a player choose to start a campfire and cook fish while the party fought a Balrog simply for the joy of having the freedom to do so. Everyone died, but she loved the session. Everyone else, not quite as much.

In these cases, there are several options:

  • I often pair up players who weren't as good on their critical thinking with players who are through in-character interactions so that both the character and the player can be coached.
  • I also spend time emphasizing obvious (to me) ramifications for player choices before certain players finalized them. Not every player has Wisdom scores of 16 and it's worth helping them get into the right mindset for a character who does. Also, I learned quickly how differently my players can interpret my scene descriptions!
  • If all else fails when we're playing D&D, I may call for an appropriate ability check and tell players "you know the light can be clearly seen" or "you know that will make the Queen upset" when they start to make particularly stupid decisions. This reorients the player to environmental and/or social cues that they are overlooking. If they stick to their guns after that, let the bullets fall where they will.

Players who focus too much on awesome single actions and players who often incorrectly visualize a scene (poor descriptions, aphantasia, lack of trope awareness, etc.) often just need some additional coaching from the GM. Usually this clears up after a few sessions. I have one player who still needs some help thinking through the likely consequences of his actions every now and then. Sometimes he gets upset that his awesome plan won't work, but he usually thanks us for our patience as he formulates a new one. And to be fair, his plans are often pretty cool.

My answer does assume good faith mistakes. A player seeking to repeatedly cheat the rules or rewrite "reality" is a different beast entirely, but it doesn't sound like that's what you're facing either.

  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for giving a bit of a reminder. Sometimes people's imaginations miss things, or they aren't sure what the rules are in the current game, or the player forgot something that their character ought to know, or the player forgot crucial information (like when I had to remind my players that I was running a campaign that was more truly sandboxy, and there might be enemies they couldn't face immediately...) \$\endgroup\$
    – Cooper
    Commented Feb 14, 2020 at 19:40
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ after doing this a number of times for new players, they learn that they can ask "would my character know x" or "how would my character research this". \$\endgroup\$
    – Reed
    Commented Feb 14, 2020 at 22:33

What This Might Be:

This is a fine distinction to make, but I think the issue is less that the player can't picture the in-game situation, so much as that the player is drawing drastically different inferences from the situation-- different enough from yours that you can't effectively plan around them, different enough from the players' that they find him (unintentionally) chaotic, and different enough from yours (again) that they may be active harmful.

Here is why I think that:

  • He knows there is fire around. He caused it. It's part of his character flaws, so he's clearly picturing an environment which lacks something his character wants-- fire-- which he then creates. But the inference he's failing to draw is that it's visible and will attract the monster.

  • He knows the monster is too dangerous to fight, so he's clearly imagining that part of the environment correctly, too. But the inference he's failing to draw is that aerial night hunters have really good vision for sensing motion.

This could just be simple ignorance on the player's part. You're in a better position to know, but I'm a city boy and I can easily imagine a GM expecting me to know something about woodcraft (say) that would just sail directly over my head. It could be part of the general fallacy of "We have to do something! Running is something! Run for it!!!!" (All die. Oh, the embarrassment.)

It could be a lot of things in this general neighborhood that I'll sum up as "Blind spots."

What I've Seen:

I do see things like this from time to time, and, heck, I've been that guy once or twice. I suspect, but cannot prove, that most people have been that guy once or twice-- nobody knows everything. So I'm not sure that two sessions is going to be enough to tell if this guy is truly unusual in his failure to make good inferences, or if he's just unlucky and in exactly the wrong situation for him, personally, in the opening scenario.

When I do see things like this, very roughly half of them tend to be social and social-violence related ("What do you mean I can't throw a fireball at the thief who dodged into the crowded market?!" "Uhh... because you'll kill a dozen other people? And maybe burn the whole town down?") and the rest is just random stuff that a player has really wrong ideas about... or at least very different from the GM.

What I Do:

Generally what I do (and have seen others do) is just tell the player that his character knows this is a very bad idea based on whatever skill or stat they have that seems applicable... and that I expect them to listen to that advice, learn from it, and carry it forward in the future. Even if all they learn is, "Wow, I really don't know anything about how aerial night predators operate-- I should check with the other players," that can constitute a win.

As a GM, you're allowed to do this, to be the voice of the character's game world specific common sense. It does set up a situation where you feel like you're railroading him if it happens too often.

How well does it work? It's mixed, honestly. The fireball tossers usually come around pretty quickly when they realize it's not a 1980s video game that will reset everyone's attitudes as soon as they're out of sight. The blind-spot characters usually just have to learn to feel their way around the blind spots, which is... challenging.

What I Advise You Do:

As above, and talk to your player. Non-confrontationally, but try to figure out why he was doing those things. And asking is almost always more effective than trying to figure it out because, let's face it, you haven't been able to figure him out yet.

What Won't Work:

If I'm right, and this is just a blind spot or a lack of knowledge, then a Session 0 won't work. Sessions 0 have the unstated assumptions that everyone is making informed statements about their preferences and their promises, and that they are capable of following through.

But if there's really a blind-spot of knowledge, those assumptions aren't true, and the player can promise-- in good faith!-- to try to picture the game world. But he will still fail if he's fundamentally lacking in knowledge about some parts of it.

  • 6
    \$\begingroup\$ I agree, especially with telling players about knowledge their character is very likely to know but the player themselves don't know or just oversee. P&P often involves playing characters in a setting that the players themselves only learn about through the info the GM offers them, this is especially true for new players. I don't expect a player with a ranger character to have extensive knowledge about all things nature, but their character (probably) does. If its general knowledge, I simply tell him, if it's specific knowledge, I ask him for a roll to see if his character remembers. \$\endgroup\$
    – Crovaxon
    Commented Feb 14, 2020 at 10:26

This looks like a typical "we have a different model of what is reasonable".

This is a beast.

In the real world, all beasts are afraid of fire. A strange source of fire in the night is going to be something a beast would avoid.

So obviously having a camp fire makes them more safe.

This is a predator. Predators live in balance with their environment. They'll usually go after the weakest kind of prey they can find; a predator that kills prey but gets wounded to any extent in the hunt has lost, because the energy and risk needed to heal up from a wound is far larger than the benefit of a single meal.

Predators need to hunt prey that are trivial to them, unless they are starving or protecting their young.

If a predator gets to the point that all prey is trivial to them, they'll over populate and cause a prey population crash. As there are still humanoids in this world, this means that healthy armed humanoids are not easy prey for a predator in this world (as if equipped and wary armed humans are trivial, then unarmed humans are going to be all dead).

The fact that some humanoids where killed just means they must have disturbed the predator near its nest or something similar (ie, maybe it was starving at the time).

So by this model, your pyromaniac was actually safer when playing with fire than when hiding. Putting it out meant that the predator was more likely to attack. And moving in a way that isn't consistent with its usual prey (and see above: humanoids cannot reasonably be usual prey) would make them safer from the predator; freezing would make them more at risk, especially after the fire was put out.

Are these the only "reasonable" ways to interpret the situation? No. Yours is a completely different "reasonable" way to interpret the situation. But you, as the DM, have dictated that your reasonable way to interpret the situation is the only reasonable way.

Once you accept that your "this is the only reasonable response" is predicated on assumptions that are questionable, you can accept that this is quite likely to be a communications problem. Namely, you communicating what is reasonable to the player.

That doesn't mean you have to tell the player what to do; but expecting the player to read your mind and find the "reasonable" response isn't going to work either.

Let's look at this on the player's side.

There are two ways to deal with this as a player. One is to iteratively work out what the DM considers reasonable or not. This can sometimes be because you are embedded in the same preconceptions as the DM ("they have RPG experience"), or because you do the character-replacement-dance-of-death (and sometimes lesser punishments). Another is to rely on game mechanics to let the DM communicate what is reasonable (knowledge checks or equivalent).

This isn't the only reason why a PC would act in a way you would consider "unreasonable", but it is quite often a big one in my experience.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ +1. "But you, as the DM, have dictated that your reasonable way to interpret the situation is the only reasonable way." Exactly. And then they stopped the whole session as a result. \$\endgroup\$
    – Alex M
    Commented Feb 14, 2020 at 23:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, this! Beasts/predators in RPGs usually behave like Hollywood movie monsters, not like real animals. So if the player has spent more time watching David Attenborough documentaries or movies like The Ghost & The Darkness (Tsavo lions), then they'll have a very different take on the beast. And even movie monsters are sometimes afraid of fire - Pitch Black for instance! \$\endgroup\$
    – DrBob
    Commented Feb 15, 2020 at 14:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ While this is a valid point, it doesn't actually sound like what is happening in this case. It doesn't sound like the player was thinking that 'having a camp fire makes them more safe'. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 3:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DarrenRogers In a sense it doesn't matter if the player was thinking "having a fire is more safe". The DM assumed that "having a fire is unsafe" because of the DM's own unrecognized assumptions, and was asking what to do about a player doing unreasonable things. I'm framing it as a communication problem; the player doesn't understand that the DM believes that having a fire is crazy dangerous. That assumption - that a fire is crazy dangerous - is an uncommunicated assumption by the DM, not a universally obvious truth. \$\endgroup\$
    – Yakk
    Commented Feb 21, 2020 at 15:22

Sometimes the DM has to remind

It's one thing for a player to make bad choices because "It's what his character would do", and it's another to make bad choices because they are not familiar with the game / genre / specific lore. Your player may be a combination of both, but you describe them as someone who is new to the game, so I would treat them as someone who is ignorant of what their character would know.

So when he decides to do things that are detrimental to his character / group, it would be the behavior of a fabulous DM to make sure the player understands the situation his character is in. For instance, the character is on watch, spinning two torches around like hes practicing for the circus, because, that's what his character would do. He hears the shriek, and stops twirling, but continues to let his torches burn. At this point, the DM would be wise to mention, if appropriate, "the shrieking is getting louder, something might be approaching. {character} realizes creatures might be attracted to lights at night." At this point, the player can choose to act or not act on the information his character knows. If he chooses to continue to keep the torches, because "that's what his character would do", then you are free to wreck him. But if the player reacts by being more stealthy, he should have a chance to get away before getting eaten.

In general make sure the player understands everything his character understands, especially if the player is not well read on the fantasy genre.


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