Sunday 12 April 2020

What To Do With The Cowards?

This came about as a response to this post on Facebook. What do you do if you have some PCs who keep hiding whenever there is a fight, and don't do their fair share?


Your job is to present the world, and the consequences in the world that arise naturally from the choices that the players make. Dealing with PCs that cause problems is something that the players should deal with. Let THEM hold back a share of the treasure. Let THEM replace the problem PCs with new party members (which can even be run by the same players).

Be blunt if you have to, or if the players complain:

"They are your characters. This is your problem. Deal with it."

That said, there may be occasions that the consequences for these kinds of choices are brutal.

Intelligent enemies don't necessarily want to face the strongest members of a group. If you watch nature documentaries, you can see how wolves will try to cut off a weaker member of a group. Foes can do the same. It is easy to imagine slavers intentionally drawing the braver PCs out while sending others to collect those cowering in the back. Doppelgangers might employ similar tactics.

The point is, you are not trying to punish players for how they approach the game, but rather consider how the game world would react to the approaches they are using.

At the same time, you want to ensure that situations and opponents vary enough that no one tactic is always the right one. Sometimes, the brave PCs who leap into the fray discover that their opponents are illusory, but the covered pit is not.

In short, it is always useful to consider how your players might respond to the encounters you devise, but it isn't useful - at all - to make encounters that are dependent upon the PCs responding on one particular way. That will be the one encounter where the players confound your expectations. Not always, but often enough that you are doing yourself no favors by planning encounters that way in the first place.

My advice is to let the dice fall where they may, and discover if cowardice is a good tactic or a poor one together at the gaming table. The dynamics of the players within the party isn't your concern. Don't let them make it your problem.


  1. Not having read the FB post - Playing a cowardly PC in D&D might be a passive way of saying you want to play a different game entirely. They could be looking for an experience better served by Changeling or something Powered by the Apocalypse or such, with no clear language to convey that wish.

    1. If they want a different game, of course, they are free to seek that out. It is not incumbent on the person running the game to do change their preference. If you can get even a single player, you should always run the game you want!

      But playing a coward in a D&D-type game can also be done because you want to play that kind of character, or because you believe it is a "winning" strategy, or simply because you don't understand the combat rules and it all seems overwhelming.

      The point is that, unless the other players complain, it is a valid way to play. And if the other players complain, the dynamics of the party is their issue to resolve, not the GM's.

    2. The FB group is private, and I'm not in it so this is just based on what's written here.

      I think the worst thing that happened to D&D under WotC was the idea among the game designers that EVERY PC was supposed to be a combat class. There's a class specifically called "Fighter" for a reason. :D

      Yeah, combat is fun. But if my low level Thief or Magic-User gets into combat too often, they're not going to see the next level. Even that low level Fighter might not see the next level if they pick the wrong fight.

      I think there is some responsibility on the DM in a situation like that, though. If the adventure is only combat encounters, there's no room for the non-combat characters to shine and show their worth to the party outside of combat.

    3. Yup. Originally, the game was designed for exploration and acquisition of treasure. Combat was a thing that could happen, and was often best avoided. Each class represented a different way of dealing with the problems presented by the game.

      The person running the game should not be deciding how a problem within the game must be approached. They are presenting problems. The players devise solutions. Then we play it out to see if those solutions work. (That isn't the whole of it, of course.)

      The idea that "the encounter" is the unit of play, as though each encounter is necessarily a distinct thing with a well-defined beginning and end, leads to the combat-or-puzzle-centric nature of WotC-D&D.

      In reality, areas and encounters are designed separately, but often bleed together in play. If a PC in my game impresses the orcs enough that they decide to make him their warchief, when does "the encounter" end? If there is enough footprint material for a major monster, does "the encounter" begin when you actually meet it? Or when you begin seeing signs of it? Or when you figure out what those signs mean and it starts affecting your decision-making?


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