[RPG] How to help a player terrified of their character dying in combat


Relatively new DM with a group of 5 players (some with ttrpg experience, some not) through a twist on the essentials kit module. One absolute first time player is running a 3rd level rogue with low HP 13, lower even than our party wizard. We roll for HP, and even with the reroll ones rule borrowed from CR the PC got lousy results!

My issue occurs in combat encounters: the moment the rogue takes any damage the player becomes terrified of their character dying and essentially flees the battlefield. This makes balancing combat difficult as now a combat balanced for 5 PCs is effectively being run against 4 PCs.

I do not feel that the PC is meant to be a coward, and the table talk has pretty convincingly demonstrated this is a meta-level, player concern. I do like the idea of having the character fall unconscious and showing that there is a lot has to happen before death. (FWIW I did discuss the mechanics of dying as part of the conversation mentioned in the OP, but they latched onto the death by massive damage bit…)

Any advice on how I can help my player engage in combat without as much anxiety? I have already discussed that death does not mean the end to their involvement in the campaign, and told them that in a few levels they will have access to resurrection magic, to no apparent avail.

Best Answer

The first question you have to ask is why is the player fleeing: does the player fear death, or the character? If they've made a character that is a coward, then you may have to find a way in story for them to overcome there fear: perhaps a dramatic moment where they are the only person able to save another's life, but they have to risk their own (or one of the things below may be enough to assuage them). If it is the player, they may need something more concrete mechanically to overcome this phobia. There are a few ways to handle this; you know your players and your party better than I do, so you can decide which seems like the best fit.

Talk to the Player

This one is probably the hardest to do because talking to human beings is difficult, but try to help them understand the balance of how they are only taking away from the fun of the game for everyone, including themselves: the party is at a disadvantage, fighting against a challenge meant for one more player than is present. The DM now has to worry about how to make sure these odds don't result in an unfun TPK (or something close to it) with the rogue running away. And the player is now hiding from combat, typically the part of TTRPGs that players get the most fun out of! If you can help them see how their choices are affecting the game (even if it's because of My Guy Syndrome) without blaming them or making them feel at fault, they may be more willing to make a change for the sake of the game night.
The way I've communicated issues with cowardly players (not characters) was explaining it to them in terms of hit points and actions: a party of 5 characters at level 3 should have 5 actions per round, and maybe around 100 HP. This means the party can theoretically have 5 actions and 5 hp left after a grueling battle, or they could have 4 actions and 75hp after the first round, because the tank is the only person taking hits and everyone else isn't taking "their share" of the damage. Yes, of course the tank's role is too take the brunt of the damage, but it is still important that the other members of the party have a chance to distract and take a few of the enemy actions to maximize the party's chances of surviving each encounter. Generally every class has some way to extend their own longevity; The wizard can cast shield, the rogue can force enemies to spend time searching for them when hiding with cunning action (and using their many other defensive features at higher levels), the druid can use wildshape to add to the HP pool, etc.; basically you need to make sure the rogue knows that sometimes they need to take a hit to keep the team alive.

Immersion Therapy: Knock them out.

Dying always sucks, no one likes being forced to make a new character. However, 5e is very gentle with death for players. If the player is knocked out in a way that seems unlikely to happen again ("I can't believe I rolled a 7 for damage on a crit! Exactly enough to knock you out!"), they can experience first hand how they have lots of ways to survive the damage:

  • Roll 3 successes: statistically more probable than 3 failures (1-9 = 9 faces of the die, 10-19 = 10 faces of the die)
  • Roll a 20, pop back up
  • If they have had bless cast on them by another party member, they have a bonus to their saving throws, making death saving throw odds further in their favor
  • Be stabilized by another party member (DC 10 Wisdom (Medicine) check, or the party member uses a charge from a healer's kit)
  • Be healed by a party member: even healing 1 hp is enough to bring them back to consciousness, so any healing spell/ability can bring them back to consciousness (8 classes have ways to get access to healing spells, in addition to the Aasimar racial feat, and the Healer feat)

Magic items to make staying alive easier.

While not anywhere in the original Dragon of Icespire Keep campaign, if you are willing to make some changes you could easily have a Periapt of Wound Closure replace one of the about 15 other magic items currently in the campaign; this item makes any unconscious character automatically stabilized. This should alleviate some fear of dying, as most attacks are unlikely to outright kill a player.
You could also give them access to more healing potions: Adabra Gwynn sells them at Umbrage Hill, and if the players seem unlikely to head to her, she may have someone bring potions to sell on her behalf to Phandalin.

Homebrew something else?

Maybe in their lineage they have some amount of orc, giving them the Half Orc's Relentless Endurance ability. Create a feat that allows them to flee as a reaction, when another creature finishes moving within 5 feet of them. Create a magic item that gives them access to cure wounds when only used on themselves. There are endless possibilities when homebrewing, however be careful not to focus too much on helping this character, as your other players may feel shorted.