I ran a game of Numenera with an experienced group of roleplayers that went on for about six months. It went okay from the players' perspective - I had a strong handle on making things weird and memorable, and I regularly got a bewildered laugh out of players when I described a bizarre cypher - but I found it increasingly dissatisfying because my players never used cyphers and they were able to overwhelm anything I threw at them with the application of 5 levels of effort. I wrapped up the campaign, not entirely sure what had gone wrong. I wasn't an experienced GM, but things had fallen over in a way I simply couldn't diagnose.
I'd read somewhere that Numenera works better when players are pushed a little harder to be creative, so I thought I'd try it. I designed some encounters that anticipated the usual optimal solutions (enemies that attack intellect, so that the player who found a way to stack 4 levels of speed defence wouldn't be immune to everything; enemies that had physical immunities so they had to be attacked with something other than physical weapons), built a dungeon so I could practice my dungeon-making skills, and threaded together a story with characters to negotiate with so that players who weren't combat types would have moments to shine. I wanted players to walk a little out of their comfort zone, confident that when they tried something more creative I'd find a way to encourage them to stick it out. I tried not to push too hard - I didn't want to stomp all over what my players built their characters to do, but I didn't want that to always work, either.
It was a disaster. The first session where it was some basic combat and some traps went okay - I did have one player resent how I was doing traps (I used a consistent adjective for every trapped object to move trap finding away from rolls to what players are doing in the game, and so the later traps would deal straight damage to reflect the traps becoming more cunning and the expectation that characters would learn to spot the signs) but I managed to find some common ground there and ended with some memorable weirdness. Second session, my players wandered into one of my boss rooms, try some ineffective attacks against the boss (an abykos, so it moves between being insubstantial and solid with attack difficulty to suit) and decide to run. That's fine, at least they're not blindly attacking it, and I guess they'll come back later when they're more ready to work out how to kill it. Only two players are really using their cyphers, but that's two more than last time so I'll take it. Third session, players spent an hour wandering around aimlessly, not really trying anything, and another hour with some enemies I'd designed that were immune to physical damage from weapons but not immune to any other source where they kept hitting them with their weapons over and over again.
I stopped the game ten minutes early and asked them why they hadn't tried using any of their cyphers, or assessing the enemies, or trying some kind of creative solution. One player said that he had assumed, because one enemy did not respond to his phased attack, that all enemies would not respond to his phased attack. Another said that usually in combats that if an attack didn't hit it was because the roll was bad, so they'd usually just try again and hope for a better roll. Another said that the system was too open, so they never felt they had enough information to predict what would work - which were questions I was waiting for. I'd noticed players would try something that wouldn't work, I'd tell them how it hadn't worked, and then they never tried to work out why or what would work, they just assumed that I'd disabled their powers capriciously.
It's been so discouraging that I'm considering not bothering with GMing entirely. I appreciate I'm not the best GM, and that some of my weaknesses likely contributed to the bad experience (my on-the-fly description work is not particularly great) but I don't know what I've done to my players that they're not willing to try to ask questions or try new things in combat. I didn't think I was that bad a GM.
What can I do to encourage my players to be more creative?