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Following up on How to deal with indecisive, overthinking players?. This question got closed, because it was not specific enough. I will offer a more detailed scenario from our play group.

Context

My group plays D&D 5e, where in most sessions we enter combat encounters. When we roleplay outside of combat the sessions run smoothly, but the moment we go into combat there's one player that almost always halts the game because they can't decide what to do. All other players know what to do, or only think briefly. This way we keep immersed.

When it's the indecisive player's turn, we all lose the immersion. Often, after first thinking about it, they decide to delay their turn to the end of the round (the DM allows this). And then when it is their actual turn again, they still haven't made a decision and go into more thinking. Their choice paralysis is very often hurting the flow of combat, and clearly annoys the group.

The player has been playing with us for about two years, biweekly and in periods even weekly. The group consists of seven players. Three of the players, including myself and the DM, have had more experience outside of this campaign. The rest of us started playing D&D together.

We usually play live at a table, but have been also playing online over Zoom and in hybrid forms (with one or more people online while others are sitting at a table). These ways of playing do not seem to influence the problem.

The problem player is a high elf enchanter wizard. We started at level 3, and are now level 11.

Attempts at solving the issue

The DM and I have been brainstorming about this issue a lot, and came up with multiple solutions.

  • We have talked about this with the indecisive player. They struggle with making decisions in their daily life too, and are already receiving professional guidance for it. When it comes to D&D, they want to make optimal decisions. We have informed them multiple times that everyone can think about their turn during other player's turns. But they don't prepare themselves in this way, nor outside of the sessions to actually know their abilities and spells beforehand. The table is, however, very pro-active in quickly finding answers regarding rules for each other when required.

  • We made them a flow chart, with simple yes and no questions that guides them into making a default decision in frequently occurring scenarios. For example: 'One creature attacks your ally? --> cast Firebolt and move into a safe position.'; or: 'Our group is outnumbered by humanoids? --> cast Hold Person.' The player expressed a lot of gratitude for this, and it has definitely sped things up. But the moment they forget to bring this chart with them, we are back to where we came from.

  • We have worked with an hourglass, giving everyone a maximum of two minutes during their turn to decide what to do. If you don't decide before the timer runs out, your character doesn't act (fully). This time restriction sometimes works, but also seems to stress the player. It has also resulted in new discussions where the indecisive player seeks ways to defend how it's unfair. Again, these moments halt and hurt the flow of combat.

  • We have suggested for them to make a different character, playing a character with more obvious in-combat options. They only want to play this one specific character however: a highly intelligent and educated wizard of nobility.

Answers

Please only offer practical methods that have proven to be successful in your experience. These methods can be for the problem player, the DM and/or the whole table.

I accept answers from other gaming systems, or even outside of roleplaying. Elaborate on how these methods have helped your group or a group you've witnessed. I don't accept answers based on speculations and that don't refer to decision making in the context of combat.

We try to not meta-game during combat, meaning players preferably don't interfere with decisions by others outside of their own turn. However, if there is a method that utilises player-to-player communication on a meta-game basis, we are open for this.


Related:

These are interesting questions and answers, however they address roleplay in general. Our player is good at that, they just struggle with choices mid-combat.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Do you have another player at the table who would know the optimal combat option for the wizard? \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Jan 3 at 13:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ I just want to point out regarding "We try to not meta-game during combat, meaning players preferably don't interfere with decisions by others outside of their own turn.", that allowing character to shout short comments during other players' turns isn't meta-gaming, if it's done in-character and from their character's point of view. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 3 at 13:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ What about the obvious and realistic option? Life goes on, and the next round starts. "You spent your round thinking". \$\endgroup\$
    – Aganju
    Jan 3 at 23:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ Does the player (who I will call Chidi) want help with this? Do they want each turn to be practice in decision-making ("role-playing", if you will)? "They want to make optimal decisions" sounds as if they don't -- they truly want 5 minutes to plan each action; but you also say they're in therapy for it, which suggests they do. In other words, are you working with them to speed things up, or against them? \$\endgroup\$ Jan 4 at 0:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ You say that "outside of combat the sessions run smoothly". During non-combat situations (puzzles, skill challenges, exploration, roleplay with NPCs or with other players, etc.) is this player engaged and/or contributing? Is there a particular type of activity, outside of combat, where they make decisions with little trouble? \$\endgroup\$ Jan 4 at 17:55

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I am the kind of player who likes to figure out the "optimal" strategy, in TTRPGs, in board games, in video games, etc. Not only that, the character I play (an abjuration wizard) shares this trait with me. So I will answer from the perspective of a player trying to avoid this issue for myself.

Play the character, not the game

The main strategy I've adopted to avoid decision paralysis in combat is to keep the focus on role-playing even during combat. By role playing, I don't mean continue spouting witty in-character dialogue. What I mean is, on my turn my objective isn't to make the "optimal" move, as it might be in the case of a board game. Instead, my objective is to decide what my character would do in the current situation. To do this, each round I ask myself first "What does my character want to accomplish right now?" and then "What is the most obvious/direct way to do that?".

(As some comments have pointed out, this answer is effectively a frame challenge, because my advice for the player who "wants to make optimal decisions" is to abandon that goal entirely in favor of a new goal, in the hope that the new goal will be both more manageable for them and more fun and rewarding at the same time.)

To demonstrate this principle, I'll give some examples from my past sessions. As the player of an abjuration wizard, I have a similarly dizzying array of combat options to choose from to the player in question. By just keeping in mind the one or two most important things my character wants to accomplish at any given moment, it makes my decision a lot easier. For example, in one combat, we were facing off against a bunch of soldiers and one powerful spellcaster. As an abjurer, my primary objective in that fight was to keep the spellcaster in check. This meant always maintaining a position to ensure I was in line of sight and within counterspell range, and using my action mainly for dispel magic to shut down any of his spells that made it through my counterspells. Once the enemy mage cast globe of invulnerability, this meant running up into melee with the mage to get inside the globe, so I could continue targeting him. Later in the fight, the mage cast banishment on my character's romance interest, and my primary objective shifted from control to dealing maximum damage to the mage in order to break his concentration on the banishment spell.

I'll give another example where my goal was completely different. In another battle, I had just punched a hole in a wall with my Arcane Hand to let the party into a warehouse where our assassination target was hiding. As the rest of party made their way in, a dangerous high level enemy came running toward the warehouse to protect the target. Because we had a good idea of what enemies were inside the warehouse, I judged that the rest of the party could handle them without me. So instead of following them in, I made it my mission to keep this one high-level enemy out of the fight long enough for the party to get the job done. Since the enemy was more powerful than me, it was a favorable trade to remove myself from the battle in return for keeping this enemy out of it. I did this first by using my spells to delay their approach with restraining effects and difficult terrain, and then finally by standing in the entrance to physically block them from running past me. Each turn, my main decision was "How can I make it as hard as possible for this enemy to make it inside the warehouse?"

When I keep my character's motivations in mind, making decisions in each round of combat becomes much more straightforward, because while I theoretically have many options available to me at any given time, usually only a few of those options would actually advance my character's current objective. In the second example above, I didn't have to go through my entire spell list, I just had to look at spells capable of restricting movement, which narrowed down my spell selection substantially. In addition, unless my character's current motivation involves a long-term goal such as "conserve spell slots for an upcoming major battle", usually I only need to consider what my character will do this turn instead of planning ahead beyond that. Given the chaos of battle, it's rarely useful in practice to plan further ahead than 1 round anyway.

Embrace mistakes as legitimate character choices

One principle that flows from the above is that a sub-optimal choice is still a legitimate character choice. Within the fiction, characters have at most 6 seconds to decide what to do in a given round. With that constraint, it is expected that mistakes will be made, often. And that applies even to characters like mine, who aspire to be five-dimensional chess masters out-thinking their opponents at every turn. In some sense, optimal play can be considered meta-gaming, because your character doesn't have 2 minutes to decide what to do. So if you make a quick decision that turns out to be a mistake, commit to it and say "yes, my character made a poor decision in the heat of battle and has to live with the consequences". Recognize that from the perspective of telling an interesting story about your character, this "mistake" has not ruined anything at all.

I can give another example for this. In a fight with another powerful spellcaster who had a special ability to phase through solid matter, my turn came up while the enemy was underground. I made the tactical error of readying a spell to hit them when they emerged, instead of keeping my reaction open for counterspell. When they emerged, my spell hit them, but then they immediately counterattacked with a powerful spell that nearly killed my character and broke his concentration on the spell he had just landed before it was able to have any effect. Even just thinking about the character's motivations as described above, this decision was still objectively a mistake in hindsight, one that I might have realized if I had taken longer to decide what to do.

While I did beat myself up a bit for this mistake, I reserved most of the self-flagellation for my character, who was likewise disappointed in himself and had even prior to that fight been doubting his qualifications as an adventurer for other reasons. The main reason was that he never decided to become an adventurer in the first place; it just sort of happened incidentally. This mistake became the straw that broke the camel's back and brought the issue of his self-doubt to a head, leading to a genuinely interesting and heartfelt character moment in which another character (the aforementioned romance interest) reassured him and eventually led him to finally affirm the fact that yes, he is an adventurer now and not just a scholar who has gotten very badly sidetracked.

While I had this self-doubt character arc in mind for some time, I had no plans to bring the issue to a head in this way. But as I considered how my character felt about this nearly fatal mistake, I realized it was the perfect opportunity to advance this character arc. This satisfying resolution to the character arc would not have happened, or would have at least happened very differently, if I always took as much time as I needed to make the "optimal" choice on every turn of every combat.

You filled out that character description for a reason

Obviously it's possible to take this principle too far. That's how you get things like "My Guy" syndrome. However, in cases where the player doesn't know what to do, it's perfectly valid to let the character decide instead. To this point, remember that your character sheet has a list of bonds, traits, ideals, and flaws, on it. If all else fails, go down that list until you find one of these character aspects that applies to the current situation and use it to make your decision.

You can mix and match optimality-based and RP-based decisions

It should be noted that you don't have to completely abandon the goal of optimal play in favor of role playing. It's perfectly valid to combine the two. For example, suppose you are able to narrow down your options to just 2 or 3 potentially optimal choices, but you just can't make your final selection between them. As soon as you realize you are unable to decide based on optimality, use RP-based decision-making as a tiebreaker by asking yourself "Which of these 3 options is most appealing to my character?" Conversely, you might start out by coming up with 2 or 3 things your character might want to do and then make your final decision based on which one you think is most optimal.

Re-frame your decision-making using your character's "default" combat action

This is only tangentially related to the above, but it might help in combination with it. One reason that playing a fighter might feel simpler than playing a caster is that a lot of the time, the fighter just takes the attack action, so the main choice they need to make is who to attack. The attack action serves as the fighter's "default" action in combat. However, spellcasters also tend to have a default combat action as well, though it might be less obvious. Typically a caster's default action is a damage-dealing cantrip such as fire bolt. (For my wizard, it's ray of frost.) It's totally fine to fall back on this if you can't figure out what you want your character to do.

However, you can also use this default action as an anchor point in your decision making process. The completely open ended question of "what should I do this turn?" can be overwhelming, but you can replace this with a more restricted question: "Do I have anything I can do that's better than my default action?" By re-framing the question in this way, you only have to compare 2 options at a time: the option you're considering vs. the default. This can allow you to quickly narrow down your choices and make your decision more manageable as a result.

Assistance from the DM & other players

If the player agrees to adopt the above strategies, the DM and other players can help them along without meta-gaming or taking away the player's agency by simply reminding them of the relevant questions:

  • What is the most important thing for your character to do right now?
  • What spells/abilities does your character have that will help them accomplish that?
  • What spells/abilities does your character have that are better than their standard attack cantrip in this situation?

In addition, encourage them to talk through their logic out loud, since this will give you immediate insight into when and where they get stuck in their decision making. For example: "This knight is dealing a lot of damage, so I want to charm them to stop them from attacking. Oh, but we already know they're immune to charm, what else do I have? Maybe I can trap them? Do I have any spells that restrain? ..."

(Actually, all players should talk through their turns anyway, because explaining their rationale helps the DM recognize when they're acting on a misunderstanding that needs clarifying, e.g.: "I'll move over here to get in crossbow range-" "Actually there's a wall here, so you won't have line of sight from there.")

Allow some time for adjustment

When the player first adopts this RP-driven approach to combat, they might initially need more time to decide their turns, since they will have to form the new habit of getting into their character's head during combat. However, this should generally only be an issue on the first round of combat, or when circumstances change drastically, since most of the time a character's goals don't change substantially from one round to another, so they generally shouldn't need to re-evaluate their character's goals every single round.

Summary

If I had to summarize my experience on this topic, I would boil it down to this: find techniques that help you narrow down your options to a small, manageable set of choices that are relevant to the current situation, such that you are no longer overwhelmed by the choice. You might be able to do that using the suggestions I've given above, or you might find a different technique that works better for you.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Feel free to continue in there :) \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil
    Jan 10 at 13:26
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We had players like this and our solutions were quite simple, but twofold:

  1. A more experienced/strategic player/the GM gives them a few options like: "You could consider casting a fireball here, or giving bull's strength to the fighter?" This could also be a joined effort where people pipe up with their ideas like: "I would love it if you could kill this enemy attacking me, this would really help"

  2. A battlemap. I find that players having a hard time choosing actions in combat (But not in roleplay scenarios) often have a hard time visualizing the combat. Putting up a battlemap (Whether that's a virtual one or a physical one) can really help them see their options and go for it.

Suggesting that a player changes to a simpler character won't always change this behavior. If it's because they are overwhelmed with options, a simple character will probably help. If it's because they suffer from decision paralysis (As you make it sound like they do) it won't. Even if you give them a ranger and they only have to decide who to attack, that can take a lot of time if decision paralysis creeps in.

I'd suggest easier visualization and input from the other players. Make sure that players don't come with too much input as that could have a negative effect, but a single suggestion or two every turn might really help them.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Agreed on simpler characters don't always work, the player in my group like this plays a rogue and his turns take longer than the rest of the players plus DM combined, yet always end in either shooting and hiding, or hiding and shooting. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Jan 3 at 13:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ The point about the battle map is a good one. We play workout one in my game, and I put a lot of effort into maintaining my mental model of the battlefield to enable me to make an informed decision. A good alternative to a map is for the player to ask the DM lots of questions about positioning, such as "is there somewhere I can move to line up 3 enemies for a lightning bolt?“ \$\endgroup\$ Jan 4 at 0:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ @RyanC.Thompson That is indeed a good idea, but it does require the player to decide what they want to look for, rather than something just jumping to them as they look at the battlefield. Which might not always work with indecisive players. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 4 at 13:11
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From personal experience with such things, a few things help.

Warn them their turn is coming up.

What I normally do for time intensive characters is warn them a few turns in advance.

"Bill, you ready to do your barbarian justice in the Colosseum? And by the way, Jim, make sure you have a spell ready after for the slaves approaching."

This tends to mean they actually spend the other people's turns preparing for it rather than whatever they are doing.

Have a list of standard options and roll with it.

Doing nothing is fairly frustrating. One thing that I have done with players that has helped is make them make a list of applicable spells before the game, and roll on it.

They can have their spells printed out on cards, and fairly quickly decide any that are not appropriate to the situation. They can also have a few pro cons of each spell on it.

They can spend their two minutes or whatever eliminating options. Even if they can't make a clear choice, they can at least eliminate some options. Then they can roll a dice to decide. As an indecisive person, it's often easier to decide what you fear than what you want, and I've gotten players to make some choices this way when they didn't otherwise, with a little bitching about how suboptimal it is.

Do what works.

You had something that worked- using flow charts and having a time limit. But, you didn't enforce not ignoring the time limit to complain.

Use strategies that work, agree on them before the game, and enforce them. If they forget their way to make choices, that's their choice. They shouldn't ignore the rules and go over the two minutes they have. If they keep arguing after this you have an issue other than indecisiveness, you have a player ignoring the rules.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ You mean warn them a few turns in advance, I think? Most characters get a turn every round. I've seen DMs say "X's turn, Y you're on deck", as a quick way to remind people that the shifting landscape of combat is (probably) close to what they'll be dealing with, unless the turn before them is game-changing on its own. But yeah, if you're going to set a time limit, the default action on timeout should probably be a damage cantrip like you say, not something garbage like not acting or taking the Dodge action. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 3 at 22:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ @PeterCordes: The Dodge action can be quite useful (at least for characters on the front lines or at least at risk of being targeted with multiple attacks). Disadvantage on all attacks against you is pretty nice. Of course, if there's something better that a character can be doing, they may choose to do that instead. \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Jan 6 at 19:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast: Yeah, certainly worth keeping in mind if you have decent AC relative to the +hit bonuses, and advantage on dex saves is nice too. But it's pretty situational and not usually something a wizard would want to do on most turns, so it feels like more of a penalty to have that happen if you run out of time, especially if you aren't in a position likely to get attacked. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 6 at 19:48
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I've been this indecisive player, and I might have some insight about where they're coming from. For me, the difficult thing was that while I hoped I was playing well, my inner voice always told me that there might be something I could be doing better. That nagging feeling caused my decision paralysis, but there were some preparations, tricks, and re-framings that helped me a lot.

None of this can happen without active player buy-in

It's time to stop talking between you (a fellow player) and the GM and start involving the person this is actually about. Do it ASAP! Talking about someone else without them is a recipe for misunderstanding, and there's a big risk that you and the GM will draw incorrect conclusions about the player's needs that could have been easily rectified by asking them.

In situations where a person wants to learn or change their own behavior, the most effective strategies mobilize their own agency in order to do so. If this person already working on developing strategies for decision-making in their daily life, then they probably already have a lot of insight into the kinds of strategies that would work for them.

Start by asking why they stopped using the flow-chart

Since the flow-charts were working for a while, the idea is probably 80% of the way there, but there was a reason why the player stopped using them. Figure out with the person what about the flow-chart didn't work, and work with them to make adjustments accordingly.

If I had to guess why they abandoned the flow-chart, I suspect that they felt like the flow-chart wasn't adequately representing the full range of options available to them in combat, particularly since this player is so concerned with taking the best action possible. When I started playing, I was similarly given several flow charts about combat moves, and a template for my character sheet. However, there were a lot of specifics about my build that I had to add in myself before I really felt like they represented my abilities. I also didn't fully understand the build or the rules until I'd reworked those flow charts and my character sheet into a format and terms that made sense to me.

Confident in-the-moment decision making requires preparation

If there is one misgiving I have about the situation, it's this:

they don't prepare themselves [...] outside of the sessions to actually know their abilities and spells beforehand.

It takes preparation to a) figure out all the available options in a build (particularly for a wizard), b) to know what spells work well in each situation c) to be able to reassure yourself that you're probably doing the right thing and JUST DO IT.

I've only been on the player's side of this situation, so the advice here I have is for them. Maybe these suggestions can help when you and the GM are working with them to build a workable strategy. Here are some preparations that I do:

  • I rewrote the relevant parts of all my weapons, abilities, and spell descriptions on note cards to put the concepts in my own terms that I could connect with more easily on the fly
  • As combat begins, I would grab a handful of relevant ability cards and keep those as my main focus for deciding what to do.
  • I practiced sorting these notecards for various situations. I quizzed myself between sessions by watching youtube games and shuffling through my notecards to decide what spells etc. I would pick for their encounters. At one point, I had made a combat pile, a diplomacy pile etc. and I could grab these pre-made stacks as each situation arose in-game. But more importantly, during games, I got a lot better at glancing over my character sheet and grabbing the notecards that would be helpful for each combat encounter.
  • For each combat, I keep a sheet of scrap paper for HP, initiative order and conditions so I always know when my turn is coming up.
  • While other players take their moves, I jot down an action, say "cast healing on Jeff" or "shoot the bbeg with crossbow, use acid arrow" and ready the dice I need to roll in advance.
  • At the top of my combat sheet, I often write down an overarching objective for combat, say "protect my sorcerer friend" or even "remember to try using X cool spell I just got" and let those objectives guide my actions. +1 to Ryan C. Thompson's point to ground your choices around "what does my character want to accomplish right now"
  • The day after sessions, I often sit down with my combat sheet and think about the situation we were in, how well what I did worked, and what abilities I might want to try next time.

The hero was inside all of us all along...

I know this sounds cheesy, but I mean it very sincerely. From some of the comments, it sounds like the wizard's desire play a suave character who always knows what to do is creating a lot of counter-productive pressure. HOWEVER, I think it's important to remember that even a combat with a lot of turmoil and bad luck can't invalidate a character's belief that they're the slickest, smartest guy around. Their abilities are already so far beyond what a regular person in the PRG world can do that they're still a formidable hero even if their spells don't land or are ineffective.

I think there is an answer to the perennial problem in RPGs that fectin posed in the comments: How do you play a character that is smarter than yourself? The answer is that you already are, particularly if you're playing a wizard. You don't have to stress about making the right choice 100% of the time. For one thing, there's no way to figure out what the unequivocal, optimal choice even is because there are so many complications and unknowns in the moment and sometimes the dice don't cooperate. For another, even if you feel outside the game like you could have done better, your character is well justified in thinking of themselves as a badass who always knows what to do simply because they held up in a dangerous situation and cast complicated spells it takes years to master in-game.

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This isn't about combat

You mentioned that this is a player that struggles with decision-making outside of gaming, too. And you've tried a number of good solutions for decision-making in this context, and they don't seem to have helped. So while you say you "don't accept answers based on speculations and that don't refer to decision making in the context of combat", I think you should reconsider that a bit--because that's probably where the answer (if there is one) is going to lie.

You need to look at psychological and social aspects of your group--combat indecisiveness is a symptom; if there's a solution, it'll need to address the root cause. So I'm answering here from my own experience struggling with decision paralysis, which for me is an outgrowth of anxiety-based perfectionism. Briefly, I think your best solutions will be to reduce the anxiety, and thereby make the player more free to make choices without worrying about absolute optimality. But a lot of that is going to come from the dynamics of the friendships and the game as a whole.

Needless to say, the best solution needs to involve the player & get their buy-in. But it can also be productive to consider table dynamics on your own, too, to see if they can be made more welcoming/less stressful, which might be an improvement even if it doesn't fix the problem.

Also, I should add: you are the one asking the question here, not your party member. There's plenty of good advice here in other answers about how your party member could be more decisive; but the only person whose actions and responses you can control is you, so I'm mostly focusing here on things you can do and questions you can explore.

In terms of table dynamics:

  • Is your game prone to particularly high-stakes encounters, such that suboptimal combat actions have serious negative consequences? It sounds like this is happening in every combat, not just the real nail-biters, but if your DM has established a pattern where some/most fights can (non-obviously) be very high-stakes, then it's possible your player is responding to that with extra decision anxiety.

    • It might help to have some combats that are explicitly low-stakes--where the player knows that even markedly poor combat decisions aren't going to be the end of the world--so that they can be more comfortable making mistakes and dealing with that as a part of life. I'm not saying neuter all combat (especially if it'll bore the rest of your group) but maybe the players participate in an arena contest where nobody dies and winning only gets you bragging rights; or you can have regular "training sessions" where you square off against each other in sub-teams, doing non-lethal damage; etc.
  • Similarly, is the player getting a chance to shine without having to wrack their brain for earth-shaking heroics? Does this player typically contribute equally with the rest of the team, or does everybody else have astonishingly clever/epic moments that this player feels they have to work extra hard to try to match? Not everybody makes inspired choices every time, but if this is happening, maybe the DM could set up some scenarios which are more suited to the player's particular strong points.

  • If you play other games together, does the player tend to be dominant at those, or otherwise feel like they might have a reputation to uphold that would be threatened by making suboptimal choices at this table?

  • Also consider social dynamics among players. What's the vibe when one of the other players makes a mistake? Do they beat each other (or themselves) up over minor suboptimality? Even what seems (to them) like good-natured razzing might have a much greater emotional impact for this player, so I'd look to see if one of those dynamics is at play.

  • I know you don't like meta-gaming, but maybe it would help the player to think out loud a little bit? Just to get reassurance from others that, yes, any of the three courses of action they're considering would be totally reasonable? This would be more about decision-making process (active progress vs spinning their wheels reconsidering the same options repeatedly) and reduced anxiety (because others signed off, so they can't judge you if it turns out poorly); and should probably only be attempted if you can all trust yourselves not to eye-roll or make active suggestions for what the player ought to choose--just to reinforce that the choices they're making are reasonable.

In terms of mind-setting for the player:

This is harder, because you aren't their therapist, and you don't want to seem patronizing or add pressure by being overly invested in what they're doing. I'm sure having people watch them struggle with a decision doesn't help. But there are certainly behaviors you can model, and possibly mantras to repeat if it would work within your relationship dynamic.

  • If you spill the salt, throw a pinch over your shoulder--because spills happen, and the gesture is a physical reminder that this mistake is behind you; the spilt salt can't be fixed, and it's fine even if you don't perfectly clean up the mess. This is a great thing to model if you can. Any time you catch yourself making a suboptimal choice, once everything is resolved and you know it's safe, point out your own mistake and that it didn't ruin the outcome. Be visibly undisturbed by your own imperfect play.

  • For an informed decision-maker, the harder it is to distinguish between two choices, the less the difference matters. If none of the possible choices are obviously better than the others, then the "wrong" choice won't be that wrong, especially when you don't have perfect knowledge of the future.

To be more concrete: if you're trying to evaluate whether choice A gets you 96 points or 98 points (on some arbitrary scale), to see if it's better than choice B which you think gets you 97 points... stop. No. They're worth the same. You can't correctly estimate with that accuracy, and if you pick 96 when you could've had 98, who cares? Hopefully the difference between a 40-point choice and a 90-point choice doesn't require a half hour's analysis; and if they have 3 90-point choices but are spending inordinate amounts of time looking for a hypothetical 150-point choice, that's a separate problem (see above). Otherwise, that mantra ("If you can't spot the difference, they're actually the same") might be appropriate if given in a friendly and reassuring way (or obviously repeated to yourself).

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. Good first answer! :) \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Jan 6 at 19:47
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Provide Choices

I've run into this before in a 5e campaign with a new player who chose a wizard. What we realized was that the player was simply overwhelmed by the number of options available to them on a given turn and had a hard time focusing through the turn order.

Rather than asking the player what their character does, instead provide them with two or three discrete choices and then ask which their character would be most likely to choose. You can also provide them with something similar to the "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" lifelines, so that they can poll the rest of the party or eliminate poorer decisions, etc. without opening the door to total meta-gaming.

Fundamentally, this makes the player's combat turn more of a "choose your own adventure" and should speed up their decision-making. Because they're playing a highly intelligent wizard, you should be fine providing the best two or three choices to them and then having them pick from those.

Alternatively, designate one or two party members to provide 3-4 choices to the player each turn.

Before embarking on this tactic, it will probably be worth having a discussion with the player ahead of time to ensure buy-in.

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    \$\begingroup\$ coaching/helping players: it's part of the DM work package. 😊 👍 \$\endgroup\$ Jan 10 at 19:46
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I'm a roleplayer and a GM, but I've also worked in sales and I want to approach this from the more general perspective of coaxing decisions out of people. It might sound manipulative (and it is) but it's also effective. If "manipulation" sounds harsh, replace it with "guidance". They're synonymous in sales.

Also, be aware that too much nudging and direction will take away player agency. This is perfectly OK when done in moderation, but be sure to talk to the player afterwards about how it felt to them. Was it too much? Did it make sense? You want to guide the players, but you still want them to feel like they're part of the game.

This is a quick guide to some techniques used in order to get people to make a decision. Please note that different people do react differently and that adjustments are needed to make them work in specific cases. As a person who have worked in sales and with various projects I have often used one or more of these to lubricate the decision making process.

Limit the options

The number of options available can be overwhelming for many. Asking "What do you do?" is an open-ended question with an infinite number of options and should be avoided at all cost. Instead, present the player with only two (or, in rare cases three or four) options to choose from.

Ex: "Would you like to be offensive or aggressive?"

Ask leading questions

A leading question will have an answer it points towards. It will nudge the customer (or player) in a certain direction and if the customer trusts the seller (or GM) the customer will likely answer "yes". It's a bit manipulative, but effective.

Ex: "Would you like to cast a spell?"

Make recommendations

This is a bit clearer than simple nudging, and while it's still manipulative it's not covertly so. It can also help in future decisions so that when presented with a similar situation the player chooses a similar path.

Ex: "There are three of them approaching you, but they're not close enough to attack yet. An offensive spell with an area of effect would probably work best."

Make customer recommendations

"This option is very popular at the moment." Meta-gaming isn't always bad. Let the others chime in every now and then. You can relate it to their characters to keep up immersion.

Ex: "Well, the others seem to be managing for now and I'm keeping your back clear so you can go on the offensive without worry."

Skip some questions

Often it's OK to simply imply a decision by skipping a question. This is used a lot in sales where we never ask the customer if they want to buy the product, but assume they do and ask instead a question that would not make sense unless the customer had agreed to buy. This is often combined with only giving two options: "Do you want to take this with you now or do you want it delivered?"

Ex: "There are three of them approaching you, but they're not close enough to attack yet. You have the perfect moment to take the initiative. Do you cast Fire Tornado or Ice Missiles?"

Make it simple to buy

There are things I have wanted to buy online, but skipped when I realized that the effort needed to go through the order system was more than I wanted to exert. In the same spirit, make it as easy as possible for the player to use magic. Streamline the process for them so that casting a spell doesn't become a huge task for them.

One option would be to write down the spells they can cast on cards. When a spell is used they tap the card and can only untap it again once they've rested. Have only a small number of cards.

The customizable subscription service

Some subscription services allow you to customize your monthly delivery, but if you don't they send you a default option based on your preferences rather than nothing. This too is how you can treat the time limit you've already tried.

If the player cannot make a decision within the time limit, either the GM or one of the other players get to decide the action this round. The player gets a new chance next round. It's not guaranteed to work, but hopefully this can take away some of the frustration of not getting to act because now there is no direct punishment for the character.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 good practical suggestions :) Just to be picky DM for D&D answers. \$\endgroup\$
    – Senmurv
    Jan 7 at 20:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ Great thoughts… may try some of this on one of my players. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dan W
    Jan 7 at 23:25
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First of all: this is not something to solve with game rules. As you say, introducing a time limit / punishing indecision definitely seems to make the game not fun and even stressful. On the bright side, it sounds like the player is understanding and willing to try to improve.

They only want to play this one specific character however: a highly intelligent and educated wizard of nobility.

Wizards are a class mired with options - the more spells the worse. However, that also allows for fixing this: reduce the number of spells available (ie prepared), at least for combat. Of course the player should agree with this and perhaps compensated.

For example, instead of a generalist that knows lots of spells, this wizard chose to specialise on just a few - but really masters them. As they are noble, picking some non-compact or social spells is also an option.

We try to not meta-game during combat

This might contribute to indecision too, specifically when it comes to deciding whether to burn the big spells or stick to cantrips. Personally I believe that giving hints that this is the final fight (or the players realising it on their own) is fair game; but divination spells are also something that could be used to justify this.

Finally: spellcards. Spell descriptions are extraordinarily verbose; I find that I can summarise most spells in a few characters. Eg fireball can simply become: 20ft sphere, 8d6 fire, DEX halves. This can greatly reduce the time spent scanning - and you can even highlight the saves. Preparing those also feels like being a real wizard!

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Be strict, and think about the others

7 players is quite a lot, waiting for your next turn can be boring even if no one is taking ages to decide. You did everything you could, talked with them, created a flowchart, suggested another character.

The hour glass stays

What is unfair is that he expects 6 others to have significantly less fun because of him. If you are familiar with the Five Geek Social Fallacies, this is connected to #2 and #5. You are absolutely allowed to set rules on the interactions.
Even playing without him does not make you bad friends or bad people.

Consequences for the DM

If he usually fails to take his turn, the DM might have to weaken the encounters, expecting only 6 actual players.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for "the hourglass stays. Indeed. I have play-tested this and players soon got sharper at keeping track of their turns, what others PCs and NPCs were up to, and planning ahead. It was only necessary for a few sessions. :) \$\endgroup\$
    – Senmurv
    Jan 7 at 20:55
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Things I have done, which worked.

Praise. Maintaining a positive feedback and even slightly ridiculous congratulations whenever the player not 'does their turn faster' but 'takes a less optimal action'. Whenever and wherever they take a less optimal action for roleplaying or other purposes, for speeding up the game or otherwise, tell them 'well done' or 'I like that' or something similar. What is slowing them down is not 'a lack of speed', it's 'trying to calculate the most optimal action and running into difficulties'. If taking less optimal actions is rewarded, they will feel less emotional impetus to try to find the optimal action, and thus will spend less time thinking about it/more often just go with whatever.

Doesn't work if you don't have a good grasp of what the person is considering as 'optimal', but it should be pretty obvious. Works best if the whole group is doing this.

Suggesting a course of action. 'These gnolls are bunched together, so you could use your Fireball spell on this point here to get all of them'. Suggestions work by far the best coming from the GM. This works more by making it a committee decision (GM shoulders part of the blame if it 'goes wrong', which is always the underlying concern/fear) than by 'helping them with game mechanics they don't understand'. Often they understand the game mechanics well enough to be going on with, the issue is trying to do 8 kinds of math in their head all at once in a rush. The emotional support of the suggestion is the part that often is carrying the weight.

Promise a lack of specific outcomes without player buy-in. Works only from the GM. Take the player aside and tell them that specific outcomes (usually 'death' + 'fates worse than death') will not happen to their character unless they specifically tell you they are okay with that in a situation. You won't ask them for confirmation, it just won't happen unless they come to you first. This is kind of lame as part of the fun of dnd is the excitement of danger and death for 'your guy', but removing this as an outcome can cause some people to enjoy the game more as the possibility of character death limits their ability to interact with the game.

In-game problems with obvious solutions. The Ice Imps are immune to cold but vulnerable to fire. The Taunting Fey are invisible and have powerful mind attacks but are helpless if exposed. The Old Witch has powerful curses that she can deliver through her many familiars, but if the familiars can't sneak up on the party at night the party can safely sleep. Tailoring problems to specific capabilities the wizard has will potentially help him make decisions. Resist the urge to tell him which spells to use though - obvious solution + suggest the solution can be a bit obvious. Use this a few times to get the idea that 'monsters have counters' - doesn't need to be true for later monsters, but will put the guy in mindset of 'pick spell for monster' which isn't obvious sometimes, and shortcuts the 'hmm but what if I need See Invisibility later' roundabout thinking. A clear, blindingly 'best' use for a spell gives context. Don't use this forever - this is training wheels.

Thematic development of character. Work out what kind of wizard this guy is playing. Which arts were he trained in? What magic did his mentor specialize in? Perhaps he always was at odds because his natural affinities fell to Fire Magic and his mentor was an Enchanter. Character development is fun, backstory development/flashbacks are fun, npcs from a character's past coming into relevance in the current story is fun. But more importantly, they can also be used to give cues to the player as to what options to select. If he decides his mage has always liked mind magic, despite it being dubiously legal in the kingdom, it gives him a reason to cast Suggestion on the enemies instead of Firebolt. That may help him come to faster decisions as to what to do on his turns, by adding a narrative element to the decision that isn't about 'what do I do/what if I do the wrong thing' etc. If it's for roleplaying reasons, it can be sub-optimal. Works well with the first option, Praise. The GM will have to figure out some way to work in developing the character, from a brief discussion before/after a game to potentially having elements from the backstory come into the plot necessitating further character development.

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Your goal here is to balance the slow player having fun with everybody else having fun (including you). If the other players are having fun with the game as is it's probably fine. If its not try the following:

  1. scan and keep an extra copy of the spreadsheet
  2. when they take to long on their turn, find the flowchart
  3. when it rolls around to their turn asks them do you want to do X
  4. where X is the entry on the flow chart

The goal here is priming an answer so that you can keep the fun rolling for everyone. Don't be condescending or clinical about it; weave it into asking what they are going to do so that it's seamless.

Note that if this becomes a permanent fixture of the game you can use their automatic responses to line up actions that only "a highly intelligent and educated wizard of nobility" would think of. e.g.

"that cur just besmirched your family name and your honor, maybe he thinks that you are not an archmagi and that cur's not going to be receiving a fireball to the face in short order."

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    \$\begingroup\$ Hmm, I'm not sure I agree with this. If I was the player I might feel like my agency was taken away. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 5 at 7:32

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