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My players are nearly all newbies who prefer a very roleplay heavy campaign with combat that is very deadly, quick and sparse... but I've run into a snag.

The party, in-character and out, are extremely distrustful of every single NPC. They have no interest in interacting with them, and are very fearful every time the party splits for any reason (even when just collecting supplies in a totally harmless town).

We are only 4 sessions in, as a DM I have never had them be attacked in a "safe" zone such as a town. I have only had one NPC outright lie to them (a thief, no less) and the rest have been cordial.

I don't understand what I am doing wrong as a DM to make them so mistrustful of other NPCs, to the point where they refuse to interact with them. Every small change in music or scenery makes them tense up and start doing rapid fire perception checks.

They seem to enjoy roleplaying amonngst one another, and do not seem to be motivated by loot or combat or even exploration. They just like to have their characters chat and speculate about current in-game events.

How can I help them feel less tense to enjoy their roleplaying experience more? Or should I give into their paranoia and just roleplay out the world being conspired against them?

They tell me they enjoy being very paranoid IC and that it is fun for them, but I don't want the game to be a dark place for them.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Note that if they are having fun, it might not be an actual problem \$\endgroup\$ – Cristol.GdM Feb 16 '17 at 5:38
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Explain how your world works

For whatever reason, your players are treating everything in the world as an obstacle and everyone as an antagonist. Explain that they are wrong!

Then, while you are playing, you will clearly indicate which zone the character's currently occupy:

  • In a green zone there is no chance that the people they meet are antagonistic or otherwise ill-disposed to the characters before the characters interact with them. After interaction, they may become so if ,for example, the characters come across as paranoid jerks. Example: the PC's home village or city neighborhood.

  • In an amber zone, some characters will be well disposed and some will be not so well disposed but violence will never be a first response. Example: the open road, seedier city neighborhoods.

  • In a red zone, most people they meet will be antagonistic, however, some will be helpful. Violence may be a first response but if, as you say, your players prefer role play over combat, intelligent monsters may negotiate first.

Get some poker chips or other tokens in these colours and put them on the table where the players can see.

If you want exceptions (e.g. a villain targeting the PC's base), explain that these will always be an obvious clear and present danger.

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I'd set aside a few minutes before the next session to discuss this, completely out of character and outside the actual game. Let them know you want to have a Meta discussion about NPCs and the world in general.

Lay out the fact that, as GM, your job isn't to murder/slay/kill the party, but to be the filter between the player and the world. That your NPCs are not and cannot always be evil villains or servants of the dark masters, so they need to understand that their reactions are not appropriate to the setting.

But first, I'd ask Why they are so on edge. For example, I had a GM that, over several unrelated RPG mini-campaigns, set villainous NPCs in our path. After that, we never trusted his NPCs again. We just assumed the NPCs were sleeper agent assassins biding their time, because of those assassin NPCs that had attacked a few parties in the past. We were paranoid and on edge because of him as GM, not because of the RPG setting/session/story. That was a meta-game decision. But we just sort of assumed that's how it would go down, because it had gone down that way a few times already. To the point that we refused the help of NPCs when we shouldn't have. It is possible that one or more players have had similar experiences with past GMs and simply assume that's how RPGs work. It would only take one player to sew the seeds of paranoia and doubt in the others.

I'm not saying that's what is happening here, but something like that might be happening here.

I also think Dale M's suggestion of color-coding areas is a good idea, though I would make that a temporary thing. Use it as a tool to help them understand that some areas are safer than others, but if it works, after a few sessions, start phasing it out. Maybe forget to set the tiles out and wait for them to ask. Or just say, "Your characters aren't quite sure how safe this area is..." But then make sure to follow that with "That's not a threat, no really!" But they shouldn't always have such clear-cut safe vs. not-safe zones. Eventually. When they are ready.

One last idea, that you sort of hint at. Maybe that's the game the players want to play. If they truly prefer a high-paranoia style of game where they can't trust anyone "outside" their team, then perhaps you should try to shift the game, at least somewhat, to support that. If so, that should come out when you ask why they're on edge. But set up some boundaries. Maybe require that each PC have a set number of NPCs they trust implicitly (or 1d6 NPCs, or whatever). Help them work up who those people are -- not stats, just how they know the NPC and why they trust them. Use at least one of those NPCs in each session as a link between the PCs and the world that isn't threatening. As an aside, a horror writer once told a convention panel that horror isn't the threat of death; it is the threat of watching your friends or loved ones die and being helpless to prevent it. If they want a horror game, then NPCs they trust are an implicit way to make it horrific.

But that's going darker than you want, so I'm leaving that as more of a general thing for other readers. I don't think it's the direction you want here.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ My main issue is a lot of them struggle from anxiety IRL and I feel like it is translating into the game space. The whole point of us gaming is to give them a break from their anxiety to help build their social skills together. Making the world a dark place I feel like only makes us all on edge the rest of the week! \$\endgroup\$ – user32584 Feb 18 '17 at 3:17
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In my games, I don't like it when players spend too much time worrying about whether to trust NPCs. What I do is I ask for insight checks, and then when inevitably one of the players rolls well, I just tell them everything that NPC is thinking. I make it pretty clear that there's no more mystery, and that removes the need to worry.

On the other hand, it sounds like your players are enjoying paranoid thinking and searching for plots. You might consider giving them some plots to find. Make sure to offer easy plots that they will be able to find: your players are looking to outsmart people, not to be outsmarted themselves. I've done this sort of thing in the past, when players seem to want it, and it tends to go over pretty well.

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Do they have any NPCs they trust? Have these characters travel with the PCs, making them even more "one of the family". Then this NPC wrangles them all invites to an innocuous celebration...a "Harvest Party". A party that the NPC's cousin or other trusted soul is hosting. And the party will be a ripping good time of RPG with other NPCs. Have elders who share their tales of derring-do. Have kids starstruck to meet an actual warrior wizard. Tensions hopefully ease back.

Have mini-biographies and especially names for all the NPCs attending the party. Require the PCs write these names down in a journal. That way, sometime in the future, they can bump into NPC's cousin's son, who can steer them away from that slag of a blacksmith to a smith who really knows metal and gives good value for the money. And then write that blacksmith's name down.

Eventually they'll have a Contact Book of NPCs that are more-or-less reliable. (I say "more-or-less" because people will be people. These new contacts will be decent folk, but they can still be jokers, lazy, absent-minded, grumpy, etc, etc.)

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Merci! A kneejerk reaction from visiting other sites where I eagerly plunged into a discussion, failing to notice the layers of dust and cobwebs. \$\endgroup\$ – Blaze Apr 19 '17 at 16:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to the site. :) I'd try to avoid asking a question in an answer. Instead of "Do they have NPC's they trust" you could go with "Establish trust to specific NPC's". Questions should be comments on the original post. The rest is good information! \$\endgroup\$ – Guy Apr 19 '17 at 18:27
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I was struck by this:

They seem to enjoy roleplaying amongst one another, and do not seem to be motivated by loot or combat or even exploration. They just like to have their characters chat and speculate about current in-game events.

New players sometimes react this way because they feel the need to understand the game world better before they act; there are several excellent answers that already address this. They may also just want to play paranoid outsiders.

If you talk to them and determine that this is the case, it's fine for them to be suspicious of every NPC. Maybe instead of dungeon crawls, they go on long range recon missions for the king's army. Or perhaps they wander the city looking for threats and schemes. For missions like these, their paranoia is a virtue.

They'll find lots of plots and schemes and dangerous NPCs. But you can also weave in NPCs who demonstrate their worth by their actions relative to the bad NPCs. For example, as the PCs are keeping an eye on a band of brigands, they notice that one of the brigands is actually a captive. The enemy of my enemy can be a useful motivator in bringing people together.

After establishing one or two NPCs as allies, or at least as non-threatening, they may be able to dial back the paranoia a bit, and you can start introducing a broader range of NPCs more easily.

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