D&D Player Tips: Paying Attention

One of the things that occasionally occurs in Dungeons & Dragons games is an outbreak of player arrogance. The belief that the player characters are the biggest, baddest people in the game, and that nothing can touch them.

This often ends very badly for the player characters.

I’ve been playing D&D for a very long time, and many of my early games were played with Dungeon Masters who weren’t concerned with balance. So, I quickly learnt that I should pay attention to what the monsters are doing, and be very prepared to run.

In particular, I pay attention to how difficult it is to hit the opponents, how much damage they are suffering, and how much damage they’re pushing out. Before a combat, I try to judge – as much as possible – how dangerous they are. Once a combat starts, I’m ready to get out if things go badly.

Good DMs will generally try to give you clues if you’re getting over your heads. They’re probably not going to tell you outright; after all, part of the fun of being a Dungeon Master is to demonstrate to the players the exact consequences of their actions. However, if you’re talking to a potential foe who doesn’t seem to be scared of you and enjoys insulting you, pay attention. Although there are lots of weak bullies out there, if you try to force the issue with someone stronger than you, you’re in for a world of pain.

This is on my mind due to a recent incident in one of my Curse of Strahd games. The situation was this: the party, a group of fifth-level characters, have found the Amber Temple and were interested in exploring it… knowing nothing about it in advance. They’d heard a group of humans inside, chatting about their exploits in a recent battle, but their initial explorations led them in a different direction. This path led to a scared, frightened apprentice, who told them about how his master had been killed by flameskulls, and how he’d been hiding ever since.

This group likely hasn’t played through the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure, because otherwise they likely would have realised that a report of multiple flameskulls meant this area was going to be tough. I eventually mentioned to them (in character as the wizard) that the flameskulls could cast fireball, and they finally got the idea that perhaps there were areas in the Temple they didn’t want to visit just yet. However, they did resolve to find the humans they’d heard earlier, and – though some in the party were doubtful – they returned to the temple and continued onwards.

And they found them. It was then that the trouble started. I described the humans as a group of wild warriors with a pet dire wolf (the party had listened at the door just previously and heard them talking about hunting), and they were not friendly to the player characters when greeted. It wasn’t an “attack on sight” situation, but it was in no means friendly. Instead, they basically told the adventurers to go away and stop bothering them. The ranger in the group pushed the issue: he continued to ask insulting questions of the wild men, despite their continued hostility. The wild men, fed up with this, decided to throw a javelin at the party to get them to leave. (It hit, dealing 10 damage, a significant amount of damage for fifth-level characters). The wild men told the group to leave, again.

Instead, the rogue and ranger attacked, much to the surprise of the other two adventurers.

Let’s look at the situation: there are four fifth-level characters (barbarian, cleric, rogue, ranger) against a group of six human warriors and their pet dire wolf; and the players had just witnessed one of the warriors dealing 10 damage with a thrown javelin. These are not good odds. But the party still attacked.

The first round saw the barbarian and cleric in melee, while the rogue and ranger stood back a bit, lobbing in missile weapons. The warriors pushed out of the chamber, and hit the barbarian and cleric with most of their attacks, dealing a significant amount of damage. Then the warriors pushed past the barbarian and cleric, moving behind them to cut off their easy retreat. (A twenty-foot-wide hallway makes it very difficult to properly control combat against superior numbers). No thought of retreat entered the mind of the rogue and ranger; they continued to attack. The cleric thought of retreat, but he couldn’t see a way to do it.

Two of the wild men were slain, but their numbers were still overwhelming. Both the barbarian and cleric went down in the same round, and the wild men moved up to the ranger.

At this point, the ranger did something smart: He dropped his weapon and surrendered.

The rogue readied an attack, watching to see what the wild men did. They approached him, so he attacked. They killed him.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what happens when you don’t pay attention!

Watching the rogue commit suicide (in the true Discworld sense) was awe-inspiring, though not in a good way. The ranger almost followed him: both displayed a complete lack of understanding of the actual situation. They didn’t grasp that there might be enemies tougher than them. They didn’t pay attention to how little damage the wild men were suffering, nor to how much the wild men were inflicting in turn. I was very pleased to see the ranger finally admit that he’d provoked a situation he couldn’t control; him surrendering was the one good thing that came out of the session. The rogue’s actions? Sigh.

One interesting point: after the session, the cleric’s player said to me that he wanted to flee, but that he couldn’t see a way to do so. My advice: He should ask me (the DM) if there’s a way to do something. Typically, in such situations, it’s likely the characters would notice something their players don’t know about. The players are limited by what the DM has described to them, but it may be that there are other things the DM knows about that might be relevant. The only way to discover this? Asking. Yes, the DM might say there’s no way to flee… but perhaps it will focus the DM’s mind on finding a way to help you.

Dungeons & Dragons rarely gives you perfect information about the situation. If you want to play it well, pay attention to what the Dungeon Master tells you, and to what occurs in the game. And be prepared to change plans if something goes wrong.

As for this group? I ended the session there because I needed time to work out a way they could continue the adventure. I think what the wild men will do is take all of the party’s gold (as a weregild for the slain wild men), and throw them out of the temple. The rogue might be resurrected by the intervention of the Dark Powers; I haven’t quite settled on it yet. Whatever happens, I hope they’ll be more cautious in future!


  1. delwyn (@delwyn)

    In my experience, the hypothetical-average player doesn’t include flee (or surrender) on their list of available combat options. I suspect it’s uncommon for GMs or published scenarios to include encounters that will be overwhelming without making it exceedingly obvious (ooh, look, a dragon!)

    The game system itself can have an impact on the potential for disaster too. For instance D&D does a good job on power level and balance, and may lead the player to believe that a given encounter may prove challenging but will probably be overcome. Something like WFRP, or the various 40k RPGs, lack that easy to calculate balance, making it difficult to gauge the outcome of combat, and the settings themselves emphasize the perils of survival. I make it a point to highlight to players who might be unfamiliar with these styles of game that combat is dangerous and isn’t always the best option. My current group has learnt to weigh their options before going for weapons (assuming they didn’t walk into an ambush, of course!)

    It’s one of those facets of gaming that I wish would be dealt with more often – violence shouldn’t be the default answer to an encounter (style of game/scenario not withstanding), even if it’s simply because the PCs aren’t sure they will win.


  2. Sean

    Great article! You could do like Chris Perkins did on Dice, Camera, Action. The party rogue died and he became a disembodied spirit. He was able to possess other people/creatures, and he “rode along” in another character’s body for a session. The group brought his body to the Abbot in Krezk and had him raised.


  3. Konrad

    Great Article.
    Yeah I am with Delwyn. PCs don’t flee. I once had an NPC in the group just to tell them- that monsters dishes out a LOT damage. They were about 5th (3ed) and in first round of combat that monster hit 3 times AC over 20 with 15+ Damage each hit. (for me that was a clear sign go away fight later.) Not for them. TPK. 😦
    And yeah Players choose violence as an option but forget, that others can do the same.
    Whats happening to your Strahd campaign? Last thing I read was Yester Hill and I linging for more. 🙂
    Please take your time a write up Yester Hill to Amber Tempel. Pretty please with cherrys ^^


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