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Relatively new DM with a group of 5 players (some with ttrpg experience, some not) through a twist on the essentials kit module. One absolute first time player is running a 3rd level rogue with low HP 13, lower even than our party wizard. We roll for HP, and even with the reroll ones rule borrowed from CR the PC got lousy results!

My issue occurs in combat encounters: the moment the rogue takes any damage the player becomes terrified of their character dying and essentially flees the battlefield. This makes balancing combat difficult as now a combat balanced for 5 PCs is effectively being run against 4 PCs.

I do not feel that the PC is meant to be a coward, and the table talk has pretty convincingly demonstrated this is a meta-level, player concern. I do like the idea of having the character fall unconscious and showing that there is a lot has to happen before death. (FWIW I did discuss the mechanics of dying as part of the conversation mentioned in the OP, but they latched onto the death by massive damage bit...)

Any advice on how I can help my player engage in combat without as much anxiety? I have already discussed that death does not mean the end to their involvement in the campaign, and told them that in a few levels they will have access to resurrection magic, to no apparent avail.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Also, Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already and see the help center or ask us here in the comments (use @ to ping someone) if you need more guidance. Good Luck and Happy Gaming! \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil
    Mar 1 at 14:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ OK, now I need to ask: what are the Rogue's stats? Did you help them build this character or is this a pregenerated character? \$\endgroup\$ Mar 1 at 14:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ What do the other players think about this? Is the rogue's cautious playstyle causing problems for group cohesion? Has anyone discussed team strategies that would allow the rogue to be more active and risk tolerant? \$\endgroup\$
    – MikeQ
    Mar 1 at 17:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ @CGCampbell Please don't answer in comments. If you think that's a good solution to the problem please put it up as an answer along with the support to back it up. \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil
    Mar 2 at 14:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ What weaponry does the Rogue use to do damage? Why do they feel the need to quit combat, instead of just plinking enemy with arrows from a distance? I mean, many rogue playstyles are such, that if the character takes any damage at all in combat, something went horribly wrong... So why do they take damage, usually? \$\endgroup\$ Mar 2 at 15:32

10 Answers 10

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The first question you have to ask is why is the player fleeing: does the player fear death, or the character? If they've made a character that is a coward, then you may have to find a way in story for them to overcome there fear: perhaps a dramatic moment where they are the only person able to save another's life, but they have to risk their own (or one of the things below may be enough to assuage them). If it is the player, they may need something more concrete mechanically to overcome this phobia. There are a few ways to handle this; you know your players and your party better than I do, so you can decide which seems like the best fit.

Talk to the Player

This one is probably the hardest to do because talking to human beings is difficult, but try to help them understand the balance of how they are only taking away from the fun of the game for everyone, including themselves: the party is at a disadvantage, fighting against a challenge meant for one more player than is present. The DM now has to worry about how to make sure these odds don't result in an unfun TPK (or something close to it with the rogue running away). And the player is now hiding from combat, typically the part of TTRPGs that players get the most fun out of! If you can help them see how their choices are affecting the game (even if it's because of My Guy Syndrome) without blaming them or making them feel at fault, they may be more willing to make a change for the sake of the game night.
The way I've communicated issues with cowardly players (not characters) was explaining it to them in terms of hit points and actions: a party of 5 characters at level 3 should have 5 actions, and maybe around 100 HP. This could mean the party can still have 5 actions and 5 hp left after a grueling battle, or they could have 4 actions and 75hp, because the tank is the only person taking hits and everyone else isn't taking "their share" of the damage. Yes, of course the tank's role is too take the brunt of the damage, but it is still important that the other members of the party have a chance to distract and take a few of the enemy actions to maximize the party's chances of winning the encounter. Generally every class has some way to extend their own longevity; The wizard can cast shield, the rogue can force enemies to spend time searching for them when hiding with cunning action (and using their other defensive features at higher levels), the druid can use wildshape to add to the HP pool, etc.; basically you need to make sure the rogue knows that sometimes they need to take a hit to keep an ally alive.

Immersion Therapy: Knock them out.

Dying always sucks, no one likes being forced to make a new character. However, 5e is very gentle with death for players. If the player is knocked out in a way that seems unlikely to happen again ("I can't believe I rolled a 7 for damage on a crit! That's crazy!"), they can experience first hand how they have lots of ways to survive the damage:

  • Roll 3 successes: statistically more probable than 3 failures (1-9 = 9 faces of the die, 10-19 = 10 faces of the die)
  • Roll a 20, pop back up
  • If they have had bless cast on them by another party member, they have a bonus to their saving throws, making death saving throw odds further in their favor
  • Be stabilized by another party member (DC 10 Wisdom (Medicine) check, or the party member uses a charge from a healer's kit)
  • Be healed by a party member: even healing 1 hp is enough to bring them back to consciousness, so any healing spell/ability can bring them back to consciousness (8 classes have ways to get access to healing spells, in addition to the Aasimar racial feat, and the Healer feat)

Magic items to make staying alive easier.

While not anywhere in the original Dragon of Icespire Keep campaign, if you are willing to make some changes you could easily have a Periapt of Wound Closure replace one of the about 15 other magic items currently in the campaign; this item makes any unconscious character automatically stabilized. This should alleviate some fear of dying, as most attacks are unlikely to outright kill a player.
You could also give them access to more healing potions: Adabra Gwynn sells them at Umbrage Hill, and if the players seem unlikely to head to her, she may have someone bring potions to sell on her behalf to Phandalin.

Homebrew something else?

Maybe in their lineage they have some amount of orc, giving them the Half Orc's Relentless Endurance ability. Create a feat that allows them to flee as a reaction, when another creature finishes moving within 5 feet of them. Create a magic item that gives them access to cure wounds when only used on themselves. There are endless possibilities when homebrewing, however be careful not to focus too much on helping this character, as your other players may feel shorted.

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    \$\begingroup\$ In response to this question and others, I do not feel that the PC is meant to be a coward, and the table talk has pretty convincingly demonstrated this is a meta-level, player concern. I do like the idea of having the character fall unconscious and showing that there is a lot has to happen before death. (FWIW I did discuss the mechanics of dying as part of the conversation mentioned in the OP, but they latched onto the death by massive damage bit...) \$\endgroup\$
    – warfa
    Mar 1 at 6:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ Unless they run into an Anchorite of Talos blasting the rogue with Lightning Bolt or the young white dragon, they don't have much to worry about. Though those 2 could likely kill anyone in the party, not just the rogue. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 1 at 7:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ I gave my goliath (which was a troll-like being made of stone in my world), a little trinket that let them skip throwing death saves once. It never came up but it helped the player a lot and was really cool for them because they knew their party had 4 rounds to clean up the fight and stabilize them in some way \$\endgroup\$
    – Hobbamok
    Mar 1 at 11:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ I take issue with your assertion that "Dying always sucks, no one likes having to make a new character." while the first part is often true, MANY people love making characters, and often they'll get excited enough about a new build that they start taking risks with an existing character because worst case they get to play their new fun build, best case they do something awesome. \$\endgroup\$
    – aslum
    Mar 1 at 15:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ @JonAristotle OK, I didn't quite see where you were going with that. I'd recommend fleshing that thought out to embrace what you've put into the comment; the way that bit comes off to me is "gift them the periapt" to alleviate their fears which is counterintuitive (to me) on how to approach this behavior challenge. +1'd anyway, as there is plenty of good meat on the bone. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 1 at 16:39
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You've written that you think this is a player problem. You've asked: "how I can help my player engage in combat without as much anxiety?"

I think you're wrong. Your player is absolutely correct to be running away from combat, given that they have 13hp. Your player is thinking: "if I get hit again, I'll drop to zero, and I really want to avoid that!" And your player is completely correct to think that.

This is not a problem that you can solve by knocking them to zero hit points.

  1. Your player thinks that dropping to zero hit points would kill them, and they're probably wrong about that.
  2. But your player thinks that dropping to zero hit points would be boring and not-fun, and in this your player is correct.

The real problem that you have is that your player has a bad character and needs to have a better character.

I recommend the following fixes:

Invite the player to rebuild their character

Have them play with the same character, but redo the character creation process, hopefully with a higher CON and more hit points.

Or, invite the player to retire their character and bring in a different one with the same xp and gp

In my games, I have a rule: if anyone is unhappy with their character, they can retire the character and bring in a new one with no penalty. This helps avoid some player misery, and I've never had anyone cause problems with it.

Don't use rolled hit points / rolled stats

A rogue with CON 10 should have 18 hit points at third level, using the "average round up" style of hit points. Given that your rogue only has 13 hit points, you must be rolling for hit points.

The problem with rolling randomly for permanent aspects of your character is that it can leave you with a permanently bad character, and it sounds like that's what happened here.

My games use point buy for stats and average-round-up for hit points. You should use that too.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I like this frame challenge; it embodies a number of points that I was going to raise. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 1 at 16:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast And all without having to say "frame challenge" I don't totally agree with it all, but I sure do agree with that! \$\endgroup\$
    – NautArch
    Mar 1 at 16:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast: A "flawed" or "non-optimal" character can be interesting, but probably moreso when it comes to max damage output than squishiness, especially low total HP at low levels. So yeah I'd agree here, enjoying playing this non-min-maxed character is certainly not going to be for everyone, including this player. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 2 at 10:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ How has applying these fixes helped players with this kind of "bad" character for you? Any limitations to it the approaches or points to be careful so they don't backfire? \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil
    Mar 2 at 14:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ Dropping to zero hp and not playing anymore is boring. But it is equally boring no to play anymore to avoid being dropped to zero hp. \$\endgroup\$
    – Flamma
    Mar 4 at 10:19
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They can play their character any way they like

That's the major drawcard of a TTRPG. If they are projecting their own emotions onto their character, that's fine - some people like to play "someone else" others like to play "me, but with pointy ears". TBH, most players are way too cavalier about the prospect of imminent death for their PCs - in a world of crazy people, the sane person looks insane.

This is not your problem. If this player's behaviour is bothering the other players (which is not something you say is happening) then if they can't sort that out on their own it might become your problem. Personally, I see a lot of RP fodder in adventuring with a coward companion.

As for the balance, don't worry about it. You are playing D&D 5e; the game is not balanced - it's deliberately set up so its almost impossible for the players to lose. Trust me, I've tried; in 5 years of playing, as player and DM, I've seen 3 dead characters and no TPKs.

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    \$\begingroup\$ FWIW my experience is the opposite, pre level 5, I've found 5E one of the more brutal TTRPGs I've played with a loth of PC deaths. The main change all my tables go through is that suddenly everyone runs Healing Word and the death count drops to 0 afterwards. That doesn't take away from your point though, so +1 either way. \$\endgroup\$
    – DonFusili
    Mar 2 at 12:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DonFusili never played Basic D&D then? A bad hp roll gives you 1hp and if you lose it your deaf, none of this death saving throw cushion \$\endgroup\$
    – Dale M
    Mar 2 at 20:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ No, I haven't, just like most people that have basic questions like this one in 2021. I understand and respect the veterans that have played most of the older, objectively less forgiving TTRPGs, but that doesn't change the context today. It's also not very useful to keep on comparing contemporary games to the ones that are old enough they make nostalgia series about them. \$\endgroup\$
    – DonFusili
    Mar 3 at 6:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DonFusili even when they are nominally the same game? D&D 5e dis not spring ab initio in 2015 and its design is explicitly a throwback to pre-3rd edition concepts, informed by 40+ years of TTRPG development as well. That it is more lethal than its contemporaries is not a surprise - many of those take death off the table completely. However, in the context of the OP, the history is relevant. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dale M
    Mar 3 at 10:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ I disagree since almost none of the new players will see the original D&Ds as an alternative to 5E, so when you say "it's almost impossible for the players to lose" and the only alternatives they're realistically exposed to "take death off the table completely", I feel that harms the credibility of a great answer. I guess my main gripe is that the answer doesn't contrast the lethality against original versions of D&D, but through context against other TTRPGs in general. Anyway, I still think it's a great answer and didn't want to start a discussion, just to give my 2 cents. \$\endgroup\$
    – DonFusili
    Mar 3 at 10:27
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What Game Does Your Player Want to Play?

Not everybody looks to gaming for fights, and it may be good to have a chat with them and see:

  • Why they chose to join this game of D&D
  • Why they selected the rogue class (are they specifically a dungeoneer? Artisan? Diplomat?)
  • How they hope to contribute to the party, knowing that fights are a natural part of the game

In my experience both running and playing various TTRPGs, I have seen people feel unfulfilled because they made a social/mental character and the sessions resolve their issues with combat in almost all cases. D&D, in all versions, makes every character a combat character. Even pacifistic priests get weapon and armor proficiencies by default. Not to sound like the grizzled, "back in my day" player, when I learned D&D, 13HP for a level 3 rogue was an average number due to their d6 hit die (6+4+3), and raw bonuses are fewer in 5e. Especially compared to the lethality of some other games I know where seasoned characters may be no more durable than starting ones, and Rocket Tag is the special.

It's hard for characters who don't want combat to get by without it in any D&D edition, although 5E has done more to enable non-combat opportunities. This may be a target to consider. For example, in one game I ran a player decided to have a bad limp, and was dedicated to social interaction in a game of L5R4e. When combat came along, all they could really do was hide behind their yojimbo. I've also had games from World of Darkness where a character was mentally or mystically focused in a world where super strength was common for an enemy to possess. But at its root I needed to sit down with the player and manage their expectations for the game.

The Stick

Lock the doors. Strand them. Surround them. Chase them. Have enemies who wait for someone to leave the safety of the herd. Endear someone in the party (NPC, PC, it doesn't matter) that they care about dying just as much as themselves.

There are a number of ways to force someone into engaging. If they're that afraid for their own lives, a little aversion therapy can get them used to the skills that kept their character alive through levels one and two. They need to know it's dangerous to go alone in a game like this.

Normally this is my answer to players who are aggressively independent, rather than afraid to engage. Usually the rogue wants to sneak off on their own on a whim and start throwing their skills around, and need to be reminded that just because their specialty is stealth does not mean nobody can ever detect them and opposition is waiting. They are in the party because they are part of a team and splitting off makes the DM work double time to provide two parallel scenarios if they are not prepared for it. I have also had the reckless berserker who would pull the party into fights they didn't want or need. Granted them something to protect encouraged them to channel their 'signature' fighting type more productively to prevent collateral damage. Their party members can be rerolled, but not the heap of gold if the carriage gets destroyed.

The Carrot

It may be time to introduce a mentor. To my point above, there's a reason this rogue lasted long enough to make the Level 3 milestone. Put them in safe situations (magic is a great MacGuffin for why they won't actually get hurt or die in these situations). If their fear is related to not knowing how to contribute, show them someone built like them getting it right or motivating their character to. This can easily be done in a side session or two if you and the player can find the time.

Sometimes you can also steer into the skid. Give the character something non-combat to do. Pick a lock, grab the relic, light the beacon, get the VIP out of here, etc. They can be heroic without having to kill monsters.

This has been an area of constant analysis and improvement for me as a game runner. The more diverse the party, the more diverse the challenges. If everyone wants a kick-in-the-door romp, then cool. But (and this doesn't just go for combat) if there's a spotlight on a couple people and the rest just kind of 'exist' for the whole encounter, then that helps nobody. Not every fight is an 8-bit setup of two sides on clear and clean terrain. I have had encounters where while the warriors fight, other characters have had to do things like rig a ship's sail, put out actual fires, persuade the prisoner who was reluctant to escape while the guards were fended off, find the hidden object, etc. In a world where magic makes literally anything possible, you can make multiple objectives apply to the same challenge. Not every enemy wants to fight to the death seflessly, and sometimes there's competition for things without taking damage. Leverage that to bring the player back into the game. If nothing is compelling them to stay, they won't.

The Underlying Issue

What makes them so afraid of dying in game?

  • Are they dealing with a personal trauma / phobia?
  • Is it because they build their character so much like their ideal self that they see the character dying as a reflection of themself?
  • Do they have social anxiety and see their character dying as embarrassing in front of the other players?
  • Do they fear losing their first character (in this campaign at least) as a bad omen of things to come?

The above is a bit self explanatory, but I've had multiple adventures where the line between player and character needed to be more starkly defined. I fully encourage RPGs as a therapy tool when carefully monitored and set up, but if a player is experiencing duress from the game content, sometimes you have to throw in the Golden Rule and keep your player's mental health safe. For example, I have players who tear up at the mere mention of animal abuse. So while I know it's not realistic, I never let enemies target horses in mounted combat. I've also had players who see their character - someone they personally designed as the perfect proxy to do a job - fail and feel hopeless if a trained professional that they pilot can't complete the job. I don't mind allowing for fail forwards if it means for a good story. A lot of LoTR involved running and hiding, after all.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you tried these techniques out? How did they work out at the table? \$\endgroup\$
    – NautArch
    Mar 1 at 16:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch: In some variation or another, yes. For the Carrot, I tend to play games where some characters are purely social or mental - such as a hacker in Shadowrun, a courtier in L5R, or mystics in WoD. For the Stick, I've had players (especially in my college years) who really just liked to go off and do their own thing. It would derail game for both the party and the DM/GM/ST. For the Underlying Issue, I've had things like severe arachnophobia paralyzing players, dying NPCs triggering grief, and people who literally design themselves as characters and hate to see anything bad happen \$\endgroup\$
    – CatLord
    Mar 1 at 17:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch: I have experience with D&D5, although every player I have had goes into D&D knowing combat is a big part of the game because even the pacifists get weapon and armor proficiency. I've also played AD&D games where wizards only had 4HP, and an average Rogue/thief having 13HP at level 3 was acceptable since the HD was a d6 (6+3+4=13). Since HP was the only mechanical issue brought up, and the core issue is around the player's fear of dying, I focused my answer on those aspects. If a more mechanical question were asked my answer would be different \$\endgroup\$
    – CatLord
    Mar 2 at 12:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ When I was a DM, I had a player who feared death, and I did something similar to your animal abuse suggestion: We houseruled unlimited death saving throws. If you succeed, you regain consciousness, otherwise, you remain unconscious, and after a TPK, friendly villagers will nurse the party back to health the next day. All fear problems were solved, and realistically, it didn't change the story or fun at all. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 3 at 0:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MooingDuck: I try not to let my players know this without extenuating circumstances, but regardless of the game I will usually go out of my way not to kill characters unless one of two criteria is met. Either the player consents to the death, or they continually went against my overt warnings that what they were doing could result in true death. I don't want to punish them for putting genuine effort into their characters, especially if the dice made the choice \$\endgroup\$
    – CatLord
    Mar 3 at 12:38
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13 HP. Well, that's an interesting choice.

The Easy House Fix for low HP

For what it's worth, in my games, from levels 1-4, I generally implement a house rule that basically allows you to roll for HP and if that roll is lower than average, you can choose to take the average - this choice is open twice as the character reaches levels 2, 3, and 4. After level 4, you're on your own.

Lower levels are particularly brutal. That's fine for more experienced players as they likely understand the risks, but to new players, it can be really scary.

This fix at least addresses low HP problem, but not necessarily the anxiety bit.

The Harder but Better Party Unity Fix

Perhaps that's not for you to do. As it stands right now, it could just be a character thing. The character is scared for their life and they run away. I mean, it makes sense. And the anxiety is real.

It might be worth seeing if the party does the encouraging you're looking to do instead. If they engage with the character or the player, maybe that will garner a new type of team work where they help each other out. Maybe the party will come together around that player and create the trust required to take those risks. You can offload this concern onto the other players: it's their party, and their party member; let them go through the team building process if this behavior bothers them.

You've create and manage this dangerous world, they learn to survive and adventure together. It can create party unity. There's only so much hand holding you can really do without going full Deus Ex Machina every time there's danger.

It's all about the type of game you and your players want.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Indeed, so far the rest of the party has not outwardly expressed dismay, simply that this has happened three times and the combats where the player has fled have been brutal slogs for the remaining PCs. I worry especially because I have a boss battle planned that will require teamwork, and I don't want to turn off other first timers with a TPK (maybe I'm just bad at balancing encounters...) \$\endgroup\$
    – warfa
    Mar 1 at 6:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ @warfa no, you balancing encounters is hardly the issue; the player is screwing up the whole premise of this team based adventure game by being a lousy team mate. A rogue can evade and shoot their crossbow, etc; what you need to fix is "why are the HP 13?" \$\endgroup\$ Mar 1 at 13:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ How has pushing such concerns onto the players worked for you? How exactly did you go about it? For what type and experience of players did that work or not work? \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil
    Mar 2 at 14:46
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Consider eliminating death

There are several good options presented, but I think another option that hasn't been mentioned yet is worth considering. Eliminate death from your game.

There are several ways to completely eliminate death from a game, and lots of reasons to do it.

I do it at a meta level. I tell my players directly that their character will not die unless it is at least semi-prearranged and then it will be a narratively interesting death. I do this to make my players more willing to invest in a detailed back story and engaging with the story without worrying that it will be for naught. Mechanically, I just avoid things that would clearly be impossible to survive (no massive avalanches or falling into boiling magma) and freeze characters at 0 hp. In an event that might otherwise be a TPK, sapient enemies will choose to take them captive. This is extremely believable in a quasi-medieval setting since ransom of any well off or high-born person was quite common at that time in real life western Europe. If there were to be a TPK from non-sapient enemies, I would have deus ex step in.

You might think that this would encourage the players to be reckless, but eliminating death does not mean that a loss in battle is free of consequences. There will generally be a narrative cost to falling in battle and people just don't want it to happen so they are reasonably motivated to avoid it. Besides which, DND 5e is much less lethal than AD&D anyway so it isn't a huge change. The big change in behavior I have noticed is the one I want, they aren't afraid to invest in the story.

It might encourage certain groups to be less cautious, I suppose. Whether that is ultimately a good thing or not is up to you. If you want a gritty game, this is obviously a problem. On the other hand, if you want a more "heroic" game, encouraging the players to take risks might be helpful.

Like I said, I do this on a meta-level. But if you want to do it in-universe there are a number of ways. If the players have a sponsor that absolutely will cast raise dead for them or at least pay for it, then most deaths are just an inconvenience. If you want to take it even further, that sponsor could be a deity capable of performing the feat automatically once combat ends. This doesn't need to be completely free though. Using the service will incur further debt to the sponsor, who will call it in later.

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    \$\begingroup\$ For some audiences, this is the best answer, and it's especially relevant for children. In one of my groups, a player (age 7) ran away from everything until I implemented something like this. \$\endgroup\$
    – rsanden
    Mar 2 at 6:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ Nah, just kill them until they get used to it. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 4 at 5:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ Similar option: Build an afterlife mechanic, and make sure the players know it exists. \$\endgroup\$
    – Egor Hans
    Mar 4 at 10:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ @EgorHans That's an interesting idea, though I think it would need to be fleshed out a lot to be used. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 4 at 17:01
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Let's consider this from the character's perspective.

The new adventurer sets out into the world, ready to explore ancient ruins, encounter weird monsters, have grand adventures, maybe save the world once or twice, and hopefully get obscenely wealthy in the process. They know there'll be some combat, and they have every reason to believe they're prepared for it.

Then they get stabbed.

Suddenly, they aren't so sure they're prepared after all. They realize that no matter how good they are, if they want to make it as an adventurer, they're going to end up in dozens if not hundreds of fights, and they need to win every single one. The monsters just need to get lucky once. Some adventurers will, at this point, decide that maybe being a blacksmith wouldn't be such a bad career move after all. But others keep going. Why?

Most characters (or rather, most players) simply ignore the fact that this adventuring is suicidally risky. The players suspend their disbelief about the fact that their characters apparently have no sense of self-preservation. Your player isn't doing that. Instead, they're playing a character who wants to continue adventuring, but also wants to live.

You could try to recommend that this player also suspend their disbelief, but it might be more interesting to roll with it. The character wants to adventure, but realizes that even a fair fight has a chance of killing them. The obvious solution is to only get in a fair fight if there's no other choice. Spend some time in town gathering information about known threats in the area before you head out. Have the stealthy characters scout ahead to make sure you to make sure you see the enemies before they see you. Execute surprise attacks, or lure enemies into ambushes. Treat combat as war, not sport. Plan to win the battle before the enemy realizes the battle has started, because the only attack that is guaranteed not to kill you is the one the enemy never has a chance to make.

But occasionally things won't go your way. What do you do when the plan goes south and the enemies start to pose a real threat? Maybe you do retreat. Not just one character running away, but an orderly retreat. Maybe you fall back better tactical position, preferably one you scouted out and prepared already. Or maybe you accept that things aren't going your way, pull out entirely, and live to fight another day.

The key idea that makes this style of play work is that you don't think of the encounter as starting when initiative is rolled. The encounter begins as soon as one side becomes aware of the other, or as soon as one side might become aware of the other. The preparations, contingency plans, and elaborate scheming are just as much a part of the combat as the fighting itself.

A nice side-effect of this style of play is that once the players get in the habit of not wandering into encounters blind, and having contingency plans in case they need to retreat, you can throw them against much stronger foes without it necessarily leading to a total party kill, and a fight against a superior foe is usually more memorable. Always keep in mind, as a DM, it isn't enough for the players to win a fight. The important thing is that they remember it.

Addendum:

I've played and run games in which the characters fight in the manner I've described, and people have had fun playing in that manner. I've also played and run games in which everyone plays characters who charge into every battle without concern for safety, and people have enjoyed those, as well.

Different players prefer one style or the other, and without knowing your players, I can't tell you how well it'd work. My recommendation is to make your player aware of the existence of this style of play, because it seems like it might fit better with their preferences based on what you've described. But only they can determine that with certainty.

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    \$\begingroup\$ How has telling a player to suspend their disbelief worked for you? For that matter, how exactly does one go about that? Has it had any negative effects on the game or other drawbacks? \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil
    Mar 2 at 14:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Someone_Evil Telling the player to suspend their disbelief is the exact opposite of what I recommended. (Not that it isn't a valid option, but there are already plenty of answers that already discuss that option.) I've added a blurb about my own experiences, per request. If I'm being honest, I don't see this as improving the answer. I didn't include the obligatory "in my game, ..." clause initially because I prefer not to represent anecdotes as evidence. (continued...) \$\endgroup\$
    – Ray
    Mar 2 at 17:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ My experiences are only evidence that this works for (some of) my groups. The OP is the only one who might know whether it would or would not work for their group. If they don't know, they can always try it, see if it works, and go try something else if it doesn't. Experimenting with different styles to see what works for your group tends to improve play in the long run, even if some of the individual approaches don't work out. [Source: I've experimented with different styles to see what works for a variety of groups, some didn't work out, and it's tended to improve play in the long run] \$\endgroup\$
    – Ray
    Mar 2 at 17:53
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The dice are meant to guide play, not cripple it. If your randomly-rolled stats generated a character that's not fun to play, not fitting with the party, then fix or abandon the character.

  1. An NPC tells the character that he's inherited a farm; he retires and his cousin (same level) joins the campaign. (We did this with my paladin who had alignment/roleplay issues; he joined a religious order and became an NPC; his brother was a much better fit for the campaign.)

  2. A healer claims he can cure the chronic disease that is wrecking the character's health. The potion is expensive, but it works. Sadly, though, it permanently disfigures the rogue, or leaves him in a bit of brain fog, or leaves him prone to impulsive bad decisions. (In a past campaign we found rare scrolls, but an expensive healer sounds less Monty Haul-ish.)

  3. Find ways for the rogue to contribute without physical danger, for example as a spy or sniper. (My old character Slink E. Feet used to do that.)

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Can the person who downvoted please say why so I can do better? \$\endgroup\$
    – arp
    Mar 2 at 15:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ Can you please add some subjective citations to your answer? We try not to do idea generation here and require answers to be supported. For something subjective like this, reviewing how this has worked at a table you've played at or seen would be a great addition. \$\endgroup\$
    – NautArch
    Mar 2 at 15:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ I cited three personal experiences from three campaigns with three different DMs; is that no longer sufficient here? \$\endgroup\$
    – arp
    Mar 2 at 16:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ Can you add details about how it went, what the players and DM thought about how it went, and any pros and cons that you discovered about doing it? That's the level of expertise and guidance we're looking for. \$\endgroup\$
    – NautArch
    Mar 2 at 16:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ It is much less about "I did this!" and more about "This is how it went and what I liked and what my concerns were - or areas that I realized could be an issue" \$\endgroup\$
    – NautArch
    Mar 2 at 17:57
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The rogue's problem is purely his 13 hp, and it's not the player's fault. At the very least I'd have him either re-roll HP until he gets at least the average, or follow the advice of some other people here and stop rolling important stats like HP (or the six primary stats). Randomness works against the players. Not for them. Not in the aggregate.

The other thing I would do is go over the importance of a solid constitution score. Especially if you're melee.

Finally, if rerolling HP isn't an option, and you're dead set on rolling things like HP and stats, then have him re-jigger his character to be ranged and let him sit back and shoot arrows or throw knives or something. If he's only got 13 HP at 3rd level he very well should be scared of insta-death. Getting hit for 26 or more is not difficult.

I mean, an Orc with a greataxe rolling a crit can hit for more than that, and we're assuming he's at full HP when the crit comes in!

At the end of the day you're trying to provide a fun environment for your players, and this player isn't having any fun and for good reason. The dice make great neutral arbiters, but they're also capable of simply wrecking you if you roll low.

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Call them on their bull****

D&D is a game about heroic characters risking their lives several times a day, I personally always play characters who want to survive, and will concentrate on staying alive, but there is a difference between being cautious and spoiling the game by not participating in combat encounters with the rest of the players.

I would say that there is a place for that style of play, but clearly not in your game, so you just need to tell them to knock it off.

I don't suggest handing out items to make their life easier, or making up new rules, or anything to gently 'encourage' them. This player has made a commitment to play a game with other people and their responsibility is to participate with the rest of the players. Remind them of that.

Maybe this player just doesn't like the style of game you play, and would prefer if everyone else ran away and was far more cautious too, but the quicker you identify that the quicker you can get on the same page - even if that page doesn't include your player who refuses to join in.

You can then help them build the right character for them

As an example I currently play a wizard with 19 AC, a druid with 19 AC, a paladin with 21 AC and a monk with 22 AC. Both the wizard and paladin have access to the shield spell, my paladin prefers shield to smite, and my monk has defensive dualist taking his AC to a potential 27! My casters will stay at the back, use spells to increase defence, hide behind trees and keep out of line of sight, but they don't run away. My paladin will use his slots to stay alive rather than dishing out damage, but will put himself in front of the squishy characters. My monk will look for the easiest targets to stun and let the barbarian take the damage, but all of them contribute.

This is active defence. Running away is not.

Rogues are notoriously squishy, especially if they are melee for some crazy reason, this probably doesn't help your player feel very safe because everything hits them. You could help create them a character who won't be so vulnerable after the conversation about participation.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Can we affirm that RPG.SE embraces a plurality of playstyles? \$\endgroup\$ Mar 1 at 14:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ I took the liberty of editing out "properly" and editing in "with the rest of the group" since that seems to be your general thrust. If you disagree with that edit, by all means roll back, but I think that using "properly" as you did comes off as a bit more judgmental than is needed for the suggestions that you end up giving. @ThomasMarkov I don't think that meta is about a one person in a group not having the same play style as the rest, or the DM, so I am not sure that reference is a helpful one ...(though it's always a decent reminder) \$\endgroup\$ Mar 1 at 14:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ FYI melee rogue is the only rogue build that allows you to whisper "the way to a man's heart is through his stomach" convincingly. Not so crazy after all, huh. \$\endgroup\$
    – DonFusili
    Mar 1 at 15:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DonFusili I always thought the way to a man's heart was between the fourth and fifth ribs. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 1 at 19:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast yeah I had meant to reword the whole thing but I am not too bothered about the downvotes, the message would be the same regardless so the OP can make their own mind up on how useful it is to them still. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Mar 2 at 18:31

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