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.
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.
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.