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Scenario: I am a first time DM, playing with two of my best friends, who are first time players. One of them plays a Dwarf Cleric, the other one a Wood Elf Fighter. We played "Dragons of Stormwreck Isle" and have transitioned into "Curse of Strahd". The cleric player enjoys the combat since they can be useful in many ways (ranged/magic damage, healing, melee attacks), however the fighter player does not.

I gave them the option to upgrade to a +1 Longsword, which they did, but they still miss a lot of attacks, which understandingly frustrates them. Often, when they do hit, they deal little damage, which frustrates even more. What sucks even more than that, is missing 2 attacks, then using action surge and missing the next 2 attacks as well, using Inspiration reroll and missing once again (this happened last session; 5 missed attack-rolls against an AC 15 enemy in one round).

Before the last combat encounter I gave them some tools, which help specifically against the enemies they fought, but they forgot to use them. They even asked an NPC for tools against vampires, the NPC gave them a wooden stake and they fought within 2 minutes of getting it, but still forgot to use it.

My enemies were surprised by the attack, but developed the goal of escape, preferably while kidnapping a NPC, which the players were controlling in combat. I try to give all of the enemies some sort of motivation, and try to make them use more than just their most powerful attack every round.

How do I encourage players to use items and strategy in combat, instead of just standing there and saying "I attack"?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Missing 5 attacks in a row is unfortunately possible, and can be disheartening to anyone. Because you are all new, it might be worth checking everyone are properly adding all the bonuses they have before announcing a number, because rolling 5 numbers under 15 is much more likely than rolling 5 numbers under ~8 \$\endgroup\$
    – Caleth
    May 12, 2023 at 10:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ What was this AC 15 enemy? And what was the level and attack bonus of the fighter when this happened? Was the stats rolled, standard array or point buy? \$\endgroup\$
    – Mołot
    May 12, 2023 at 12:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Caleth that’s a great start to an answer. If you’d submit that as a full one, I’d happily upvote it. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    May 12, 2023 at 19:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ One more question, are you playing online or face to face? Fighter should be able to hit AC 15 more than half of the times, for at least 7½ average damage, not counting bonuses from fighting style, archetype etc. It seems something is not ok with how this fighter works but I'd need more information to try to post an answer about it. But it looks like an XY problem. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mołot
    May 12, 2023 at 22:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ Reminder that answers, even partial answers or thoughts on where to look for an answer or other sorts of advice, belong in answer posts, not in comments. \$\endgroup\$
    – Oblivious Sage
    May 12, 2023 at 22:56

9 Answers 9

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First of all, as we're talking about first time players, it's to be expected that they'll struggle at first.

Basically if you need to devote a large portion of your attention to managing the game mechanics, you've got little mental capacity left for anything else.

So on the one hand, this will probably improve with time and practice anyway but in the meantime you can try to reduce their cognitive load.

  • For example I sometimes give rookie players a quick-to-scan list (or flash cards) of what their characters can do and what they need to roll to do it.
  • Having a tactical map also helps, as that's one less thing you need to keep in your head.
  • You can have an NPC reminding them of things, which is not very elegant but let's face it, your first few sessions won't be very elegant.
  • Furthermore, since you're all starting out in your respective roles, you're all in the same boat, you should also talk to them about the difficulties you're facing. After all, your cognitive load as first-time GM will also be high with handling a lot of game mechanics stuff, and sometimes you'll get it wrong and that's okay.
  • Lastly, you can agree to tweak the rules a bit to make your or your players' lives simpler, and the game more fun.

Because the only "hard" goal of the game is to have fun. (By which I mean: you can make the game whatever you want so long as everyone's getting out of it what they wanted to.)

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for your answer, We are already using maps and minis but I will definitely try the "flash-card" suggestion and maybe the NPC one. \$\endgroup\$
    – fraenzz
    May 12, 2023 at 11:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ Counterargument on the last point: deltasdnd.blogspot.com/2009/05/its-not-just-about-fun.html \$\endgroup\$ May 13, 2023 at 1:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DanielR.Collins I think that's overanalysing it but it's still a great piece. However it relies on a very different definition of "fun", it assumes that fun is effortless and inconsequential, and that's not what I meant in this context. At the end of the day it's still a game and if somebody's not enjoying the game, it's not worth playing. \$\endgroup\$
    – biziclop
    May 13, 2023 at 10:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ I occasionally have characters roll an intelligence check, and if they get even a mediocre result, I'll tell them "your character remembers [such and such]". Even if the player forgets items and strategy, any half-decent character won't. \$\endgroup\$ May 14, 2023 at 22:33
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Comparable Experiences

What are your players' brushes with RPGs before this game? Strong odds say they're working against conditioning from some kinds of video game or another. It becomes difficult to know what to do when your only experience is "Attack, Skill/Magic, Item" with any variations baked into passive abilities and cut scenes around combat (e.g. your wooden stake translating as a "key item" to unlock the boss fight). I've also had players who were Skyrim and Dragon Age enthusiasts get completely paralyzed outside of combat unless I gave them a list of choices. It also became troublesome if they were investigating because they didn't have obvious interaction points. That's not even including the fact that new players likely don't even know what's possible to try that isn't something in our world.

Consider creating some stock options for the planned decisions for a session or two so they get some building blocks for their logic.

Tutorial Mode

There are multiple ways to offer guidance.

  • Allow some slight metagaming/table talk: Let the players discuss their classes a little bit during the turns. Try to avoid quarterbacking - when one player makes all the decisions for others - but even if the party is in peril, give them a chance to talk things over if it helps shake things loose.

  • Helpful NPC Mentor: A DMPC, especially one not actually doing combat, can shout helpful instructions. Think of it like the "tutorial mode" with those well intentioned "do the thing" prompts.

  • Less than subtle DMing: Give them a side encounter that's set up for a couple of key abilities to be used and directly tell them "Hey, it's not the only way to solve the problem, but this is a great opportunity for [X] because [Y]"

  • Nerf an encounter or two: Reduce the damage of some attacks, or the effects of some traps, or buff them with advantage for a bit thanks to Random Enchantment. Some new players are afraid to take risks because they assume certain death follows bad choices or dice.

  • Special Moves: Ahead of time, have the players map a few actions they'd like to try out and give them names like a Shonen anime. The more ridiculous the better just to make things fun.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1; I especially like the Special Moves suggestion. I play on roll20 and my new players love adding GIFs to their powers for even more fun flare. \$\endgroup\$ May 12, 2023 at 13:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DavidCoffron: Since I can keep adding attacks, I like having separate ones for class abilities like Sneak Attack, Smite, Spells, etc. \$\endgroup\$
    – CatLord
    May 12, 2023 at 16:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ Possibly rephrasing parts of your "Tutorial Mode": often for new players, instead of asking, "What do you do?", I give some explicit options, like, "You could do [A] or [B] or [C] or something else, what do you do?". \$\endgroup\$ May 13, 2023 at 9:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ @CatLord Thanks for your answer. I mostly let them talk/discuss in combat. I always try to add some alternate solutions to the combat encounters, in this instance they got some holy water and a wooden stake before the encounter against vampire spawn. I also do nerf certain combat encounters, I removed the vampire spawns regeneration passive ability for example. \$\endgroup\$
    – fraenzz
    May 15, 2023 at 6:08
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Your player is probably making a math error

A 16 strength level 5 fighter with a +1 sword has a +7 to hit; a 8+ hits. 5 attacks miss 0.5% of the time, or 1 in 200. It is unlikely. Now, if it turns out the fighter has 10 strength or isn't adding proficiency, then this makes it far more likely.

A player who forgets to add proficiency, or strength, or something else is relatively common; I have seen it many times. The result is a character who is ineffective by the rules and it is very frustrating.

So sit down with the character and see if the player is making math errors.

The other possibility is that the character is poorly optimized. Like, a character who mainly attacks with strength having a 12 strength; this can also be very frustrating. This is a side effect of 5e D&D making your attack attribute very important, and not preventing new players from making a mistake with it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for your answer. turns out they actually used a wrong calculation for the "to hit" bonus. We fixed it now. \$\endgroup\$
    – fraenzz
    May 15, 2023 at 6:31
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Let your players' characters be smarter than the players.

2 out of 5 of my current players are new to D&D, and one is playing a class they're very unfamiliar with. I do the following things for them:

  1. If there is something that they're missing, like "You were promised a reward for finishing that quest, maybe you should return to the person who gave it to you" I'll give them a check, usually intelligence, to remember the fact. On a success I just tell them that their character remembers what to do next.

  2. I also try to drop hints in the flavor text like "Your sword passes harmlessly through the enemy, your character laments the decision to attack this magical creature with a mundane weapon. They wish they had a tool that would be more effective against this foe"

  3. If I find my new players have made mistakes during character creation, I'll let them re-specify their character, or give them an item that helps them overcome their weaknesses. Consider a belt of Hill Giant strength. A level 1 character with just this and a +1 longsword will have a +8 to attack (provided they're proficient) and +6 to damage on each attack.

  4. If a player is just really unlucky on their rolls, I just give them the lucky feat as a quest reward. I know it's powerful, but buffing the characters who are struggling is a fun way to DM.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I really like this answer, and just wanted to toss out a possible step further for it; especially with newer players, there's nothing wrong with stepping in as the DM and informing the player of things their character would reasonably know, even without a check first. RP is influenced by mechanics, and while the player is still struggling to learn about the disengage action, there's no reason a fighter with the soldier background should forget about options like disengage just b/c the player doesn't know them well yet, especially if it's the difference between taking 7 op attacks or living. \$\endgroup\$ May 12, 2023 at 21:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Mathaddict Thanks for your answer. They do remember most stuff out of combat, but in combat they dont seem to even consider things other than attack or heal. I try my best to drop hints, If they just barely meet the AC I will say something like: "Your bladethrust hits resistance from the enemys armor, but you just barely manage to pierce through and draw blood" They are using premade characters from "Dragons of Stormwreck Isle". I will keep the "lucky feat" suggestion in mind, and hope a situation for them to aquire it comes up. \$\endgroup\$
    – fraenzz
    May 15, 2023 at 6:20
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Work a narrative cut-scene into your game and give your players examples of cool ideas and how they play out.

As the DM, it often falls to you to set theme and mood. A good session zero can help with a lot of this, but, especially for newer players who aren't combat savvy, there's still a lot to learn as you go.

When you're setting a narrative, either for the campaign as a session zero or at the start of a new session, you often get a chance to do exposition. Work some sort of (brief) combat scene between varying NPC's into your game opening. By brief, I mean it doesn't dominate the entire session, but it lasts long enough to give an idea of what you're going for.

Include commentary on some of the tactics the combatants are using. Mention how the mage disengages to step away from the rogue so they don't get shanked with a sneak attack. Highlight how the fighter grapples and shoves prone the rogue so he can't chase the mage down next round without using an action acrobatics to break free which means he can't use an action to attack. Mention how the healer goes prone behind an obstacle for total cover so the archers can't shoot him while he keeps healing the mage.

Show them some examples, then give them a narrative pivot that offers them a chance shortly after to try to make use of what they've seen. Pre-game, emphasize that just because something isn't in their class kit, doesn't mean they can't come to you with a neat idea and get some sort of arbitration for how to do it/what rolls to make.

As a newer DM yourself, you're going to face some challenges on the RAW side of this b/c it's reasonable to expect you to not know all the optional rules and variants printed across thousands of pages of material. You yourself can help mitigate this by informing yourself (I'm assuming you're okay with some research if you're trying to run a D&D game) and sharing cool concepts and ideas you find with your players. Don't be afraid to give them plays from your own playbook.

At any table with newer players, they have their imagination, but it's a game with rules, and often they are looking to you for a sign of what's possible and what can be done both inside and outside the rules that they're still grasping.

Positive feedback is especially important. Compliment something that's outside the box but might work, and be excited for them. Perhaps even give them a free inspiration if they come up with something creative - this allows you to reward them by giving them advantage on that roll without setting a precedent that they will always get advantage for it or that they should be looking to always repeat it. Inspiration rewards creativity, whereas direct advantage sets an expectation of standardization.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for your answer. I will try to include a combat cutscene like that, if the circumstances allow it. In the meantime I think we will just make flashcards for them, where we write down everything they can do in 1 turn and concepts like cover, disadvantage on ranged attacks when in melee range etc. \$\endgroup\$
    – fraenzz
    May 15, 2023 at 6:29
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Other answers have already mentioned reminding the players, or letting NPCs remind them - maybe to check their equipment lists, or in the case of the NPC even give them ideas / suggestions. I'd also suggest having the enemies pull unusual / dirty tricks to open the players' minds to the idea.

But I'd like to add to this:

If they do try something interesting, make sure their imaginative idea works if it makes sense! (Even if it's a little unlikely)

This is important, especially for beginners. e.g. The character with the "Rope Use" skill tries to use his rope to trip an opponent. Even if you think this should require a dice roll, just go with it, or fudge the DC so it's practically impossible to fail, or maybe get a partial success.

I often found this encouraged players to try new things, as well as unlocked the gears in the brain, as they learned the fun and sense of accomplishment of doing stuff beyond just "I hit him with my sword". Basically the chance of success would be more related to the cleverness of the idea than the actual likelihood of it working (obviously don't get too silly about it)

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for your answer. I will definitely have my enemies use items and increase their attempts at unusual stuff. I can already imagine an enemy using a magical item and then the PCs getting to loot that item from the enemy. \$\endgroup\$
    – fraenzz
    May 15, 2023 at 12:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ I might add "if it makes sense" to "make sure their imaginative idea works!". A DM can quickly lose control if all they say is Yes. But either way, some examples to show everyone how you've done and specifically how it worked would add good subjective support to this answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    May 15, 2023 at 14:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch - yes you're right, I've added that \$\endgroup\$
    – komodosp
    May 15, 2023 at 15:14
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Players forget to use items? Make it obvious that the items are there.

How? Force their brains to notify the items. For example put a good visible (preferable touchable) object right in front of them. From a sticky note to a rubber knife from the costumeshop: everything that may trigger their memory will work.

You don't have access to a real Fireball at the moment? Draw some cards. Nothing fancy needed, just a iconographic sketch on the front and maybe the most basic stats on the backside.

Or print them out beforehand. Of course you could buy some premade cards as well. But I would prefer the improvised homemade stuff. Why? Takes the pressure of a "perfect game" away. A fireball made out of red crumbled giftwrapping paper? Or one stick from a pair of wooden chopsticks to defend against the mighty nigthly creature? Way more fun to remember (and maybe they got the stick in the inn? from a mysterious traveler comming from a place far far away? lots of oppotunities to advance the story) than even the most perfect buyable set of professional cards.

I would assume they forget the items just because they try to do everything "right" at once. Exploring a world in imagination is fun. But this is also a lot of mental work, even more for new players. All the effort to make the world appear visualy in the brain? A lot of work. And remebering all the rules? At the same time? Even worse. Combat also adds something, name it stress, to the already high level of basic mental work. The obvious way out for the overloaded brains: "hit creature with sword until creature going away, uh".

Shutting off everything that makes things complicated and turning to the most basic steps the brain knows that have worked in the past, is a common reaction to high levels of stress. Likely the easiest explaination for new players not using the "more advanced" tactics.

So trick their brains into an even easier way than going the long way of remembering of using the good old sword in a situation of great and sudden danger.

Look brain here, take the easy shortcut: use the handy fireball, waiting for you, right here on the table.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Have you used this when DMing yourself or a DM used this at a table you were playing? \$\endgroup\$
    – Thank-Glob
    May 13, 2023 at 12:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Thank-Glob: yes \$\endgroup\$ May 13, 2023 at 19:00
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Not a 5e DM, but the basic idea should be the same.

Q: How do I encourage players to use items and strategy in combat, instead of just standing there and saying "I attack"?

A: Let your enemy (not just the boss) use items and strategy in combat, instead of standing there and saying "it attacks". And, of course, make those strategies simple and obvious so your PCs can watch and learn from them.

When I was running 3R campaigns, I always ought to teach my PCs how to fight well by making my enemies slightly cleverer then them and having an inventory of items that PCs can easily buy from the market, or use the spells that PCs can obtain in scrolls or can even cast directly.

Yes, they will forget what they have in their backpack. But after getting hit by the same or similar tactics for several times, they learnt very fast that what spells/items tend to work well in what situations. And they (at least the smartest ones of them) start growing quickly in their strategy selections. (e.g. Cast Darkness on a small stone and throw it to the enemies)

PS. When I say simple, what you wish them to use should be surely simple enough. In the specific case of a vampire, you should assume your PC will never look at their inventory (my PC almost never, at least) and give that wooden stick to an NPC, who shall put it into the vampire's heart.

PS2. As another case, if even yourself don't know what they can do other than attack, then you probably have some problem with your enemy or combat design.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I think "learn from your enemy" is just one of the natural learning methods that people are using every day. I wonder where those down votes come from. If you feel this answer is inappropriate, please post a comment. \$\endgroup\$ May 26, 2023 at 23:16
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It's always Carrot and Stick. If they do it wrong, you use the stick, if they do it right you use MORE STICK...And maybe some carrot.

Are you using grids? If you want them to be making tactical decisions, you need to have a grid with all the actors in it, and you need to reward them when they do it right (trying to flank, trying not to BE flanked, taking advantage of LoS, etc), and you need to punish them when they do it wrong (unless they're RPing, in which case you still need to punish them...but not as much...That's a behavior that should be rewarded if at all possible.)

You should always do your best to make it easier and more rewarding to do it the way it's more interesting and fun to play. Make them engaged in combat by offering clear advantages and disadvantages to being engaged. They will amend their behavior without really knowing they're doing it.

This same strategy plays for the whole game. Don't force them to do what you want them to do, just make it easier and more rewarding. And if they go completely off script and actually find something interesting, pivot with that...It's all about improv.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I did not downvote, but one possible explanation for the downvotes I see is that flanking is not a default rule in 5e. Another is that punishing good choices seems like bad advice, even if given as a joke. No objections to your last two paragraphs, that looks like good advice. \$\endgroup\$ May 13, 2023 at 7:38

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