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Being careful as a player is smart, especially in the beginning, when your PC could be felled by little more than a few stones to the head. But I am concerned that one of my players — a Barbarian, no less — is reflexively avoiding crumbs that would lead to a trail with experience (and treasure, and game development) upon it. They are good at sniffing danger... but then shrink from it.

If I do anything at all, I am of a mind to use a very light touch, as this is their first time playing, and the behavior is a hair away from being nothing more than healthy caution. On the other hand, I feel it doesn't serve a Barbarian well to be establishing a reputation in the party as too cautious. Or to "stand guard" over provisions while others scout out danger, etc.

How can I help new adventurers become comfortable taking risks? Or is this the kind of thing that will resolve itself?

This isn't causing any difficulty for the party or other players. I'm just concerned, and wondering if it indicates an underlying problem or a future problem.

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  1. Talk to them. Explain what you are trying to do (in general), discuss barbarian traits, ask for and resolve concerns. Sometimes talking to new players will help put them at ease or encourage them to adapt.
  2. Show them by putting the rest of the party through similar situations, showing that these are safe risks to take.
  3. Ask the rest of the group to encourage/help the player to direct their character differently. Usually new players will try to go with the ideas of more experienced group members if presented.
  4. Create situations where the barbarian needs to be more aggressive. (I know, easier said then done).
  5. Don't worry about it. As DM you are god of the world. The player only has control over the actions of their character. If they want to play it safe, stopping them from doing so might distance them from the character and the game, pushing them to stop playing all together.

We use a combination of all of these with each of our new players. They are usually very grateful for the help.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I really like all of the odd points, especially 1 and 5. Let the player know that Barbarians are typically built to wade into the fight and come out the other side, and then if they say they want to play a cautious Barb anyway let them. Breaking archetypal molds like that can actually make for a more interesting and memorable character, instead of another incarnation of Punchy McFightsstuff \$\endgroup\$ – D.Spetz Sep 22 '16 at 13:35
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In my experience a cautious player will remain cautious unless you establish through a series of sessions that their paranoia and caution is unfounded or unrewarding. Even then it may not change the way they play.

This situation is likely to resolve itself at the table. If it creates a problem that the players themselves cannot resolve, it may be worth pulling the player aside and letting them know that they may need to take some more risks with their playstyle.

Ultimately, as long as everyone is having a good time and the Barbarian doesn't mind being called a coward or missing out on potential loot then there is no reason to try to directly influence their playstyle.

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I don't find it unusual or even undesirable that a first time player hang back quite a bit over the course of his/her first adventure, or even campaign; both in terms of being a player and what the player does with his/her character. Some people will take their time to acclimate themselves to what is a new environment with complicated rules (both in game and socially); some people are just casual gamers. Through maybe the first full campaign, I wouldn't make any special in-game accommodations for the character, they're going to be absorbing a lot from everyone at the table anyway.

As long as everyone at the table is happy, it's all good. As a new player, you should be checking up on him/her (@Tripsed's point #1) to ensure that they're having fun, and likely addressing questions about the game itself.

In these discussions I'd try to find out what pre-concieved notions they have. Even though they hadn't played before, they still come to the table with some expectations, maybe an idea that character death is an unrecoverable failure, or that the other players will mock them (depending on the group maybe they will, but hopefully friendly) etc. Maybe discussing it will sort it out, maybe just playing through more sessions will change these ideas.

The more obvious thing is that as a new player they'll have gaps in knowledge, but these range over multiple tiers:

  1. The mechanics of the game itself, which are complex enough,
  2. How your table plays those rules, esp. which aspects you emphasize and which you don't emphasize,
  3. How to do "theater of the mind"
  4. The social dynamic at your table,
  5. The milleu of your campaign, e.g. how the character fits in to the world, and even
  6. What sword & sorcery fantasy is all about (this can happen if they're not already a fan of the genre)

uncertainty on any of these levels (and others not listed) can lead the player to tend towards trying to play it safe.

As a final note, I wouldn't get too down on the idea of a cautious (wise? intelligent?) barbarian, there might be fun directions in terms of role playing that you could go with this -- turning the table on people who underestimate him/her, or just emphasizing the contrast between his/her normal behavior and what happens when he/she does get angered (say).

Aside

TL;DR In the short stories, Conan, the quintessential barbarian, was in many cases a very cautious character.

I distinctly remember the setup of one of the Conan stories. Conan had been assigned to lead a military unit in a war against Koth. He had heard rumors that the Koth army had a sorcerer with them, but knew that "sorcerer's magic was much more effective on the defense than the offense". His side was setup in a defensive position, as the Kothian army approached. He held his troops in position, despite obvious gaps in the enemy's formation, but another commander saw an opening and charged. The ground burst into flames under the galloping calvary decimating them. From there, the Kothians took the field and Conan had to flee, alone (and get into another adventure...).

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for reminding me, through detail, how much is new & possibly overwhelming on the first go-round. Things that it can be easy to forget, after enough years. And also for the note about character complexity. \$\endgroup\$ – sparrowhawk Sep 21 '16 at 22:02
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I’m going to issue a frame-challenge. This is the way I’ve come to look at it.

As a DM, I should let go of my assumptions about how a player character or any particular class should act.

I should avoid influencing how players play their characters. Because a player’s character is the only thing in the game that they have control of. (In a traditional-style RPG like D&D5e.)

This applies as much—if not more so—to new players. I want a new player to explore their options in their own way and at their own pace. I don’t want to stifle a new player’s creativity by inferring bounds that they should play within. I want players to feel fully free to find and contribute their own approach and style to the group.

In a class-based game, a player’s ability to mechanically shape their character is more limited. Not every character concept is going to fit neatly into the given classes either mechanically or style-wise. Some compromise is needed. So, I should give players full leeway in the style they bring to playing the character, as that is an aspect the classes do not have to limit.

In particular, it is important to separate the class’ name—as mechanical jargon—from the assumptions the name may conjure in my mind from its non-jargon use. i.e. A Barbarian need not be a barbarian.

Of course, that’s an ideal. I’m sure that in practice I fall short of it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ It's true that I am probably hovering a bit protectively. I appreciate the words on letting go. +1 \$\endgroup\$ – sparrowhawk Sep 22 '16 at 15:30
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There are already several answers which cover a good range of thing you could do to get the player to take more risks. There is however one thing I feel should be added; something you absolutely should not do if you want the player to take more risks: once they overcome themselves and take a risk, have it blow up on them. To re-state this as a positive rule:

Once the player overcomes themselves and takes their first risk, make sure it turns out OK.

(And probably the second one as well).

The thing is, if the player is inclined to play cautiously, they will be going at least slightly out of their comfort zone by taking a risk. If that risk doesn't pay off, or even has negative consequences, you'll establish a very strong indication that risk-taking is foolish and caution is the way to go. Good luck getting that player to take a risk ever again, then.

So the first few times this player decides to take a risk, make sure it succeeds. I even suggest rigging the result if necessary (in secret, of course).

Of course, this only needs to happen the first few times. Once the player has seen that risks can pay off, they will hopefully become less averse to them, at which point you can resort to default outcome resolution and the occasional failure (as without failures, risks lose their meaning).

To play it extra safe on your part, you could make sure that the first failure after the player's first few successes happens to someone else. That way, they will see that risks can pay off (experienced by themselves), and that sometimes they don't (experienced by someone who is already comfortable taking risks and understands that). This should help them evaluate future risks without being overly cautious.

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Give them a reason to take risks

Death is, at the very least, an inconvenient setback, and often much more. So why shouldn't they be cautious?

That's not a rhetorical question - really think about your answer. So far, it hasn't caused a problem, so there's no reason to change. You're right, though, that it has potential drawbacks as the story goes further on. Maybe they'll hang back at a crucial moment and get other players killed. Maybe they'll refuse to bite at a story hook you really want them to grab. Or maybe they'll be forced to take a risk and resent it, making the game less fun.

So, what to do about it? Your question is about reassuring the player that it's okay to take risks, and some other answers are about demonstrating that paranoia is unnecessary. That may be part of your answer - but even if the risks are small, why take any you don't have to?

The answer is motivation. What does your player want out of this game? Cool new powers? To explore the psychodrama of being a rampaging warrior and balancing killer instincts with social pressure? Assuming your player is at least a little bit into the roleplaying part of RPGs, work with them to define what their character wants out of life. Magic items? Friendship? To conquer a kingdom? Make it clear that these things are all possible... if you can stomach a little risk.

It's worth noting that once you've done this, you shouldn't force it - when you put a reward behind a risk, weighing those and choosing how to react is a big part of being a player in an RPG.

But in general, the key is that both the player and the character have to want something. No one will jump over a puddle, let alone cross oceans, if there isn't something they want on the other side.

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There are lots of great answers here. One point that I haven't seen raised (yet) is on consequences of failure-- namely, anything other than death. I'm not familiar with 5e, so I'll gladly defer to more experienced people there, but I was a very cautious player for a long time, so maybe that's given me some insight here.

As a new player, they might not be as familiar with non-fatal consequences of failure, and may think that if their character fails at something, then their character will die. They might also think that character death means that they have somehow 'lost' D&D.

As a GM, I would look at how I present failures. In my mind, they should be as narratively interesting as a success. If a success doesn't automatically complete a quest, a failure shouldn't automatically end it. A new player may feel more comfortable dealing with narrative consequences rather than mechanical ones.

My guess is that, once the player sees that failures might not necessarily be bad or inherently 'unfun' (read: death), they might be more willing to fail. Consider the 'partial success' model if the character's narrative positioning is cautious.

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