[RPG] How to keep the campaign challenging when dealing with players of vastly different skill levels


In my latest campaign (D&D 3.5), I have a player (let's call him P). P is on his fifth character. Yes, fifth. Except for P, only one other player has lost a character. The world P lives in is harrowing, that's for sure, lots of deadly skills encounters, traps, difficult combat encounters. It's a bad-things-happen sort of world, similar to Game of Thrones. Several innocents dying to a goblin horde is par for the course. It's a gritty, get-stabbed-in-the-back sort of play style, and P was particularly excited to join a campaign based around that dynamic.

The main issue is that P isn't as mature (he's half the age of the others) or skilled as the other players. P takes his character deaths with a laugh, but inside, I can tell he's a little sad that he can't keep his character breathing.

I've already tried fudging a few monster rolls/actions, putting my thumb on the proverbial scale, and other tricks, but to keep P alive through two sessions would take a hail-mary of DM chicanery. I'm not willing to give all the other players (who are not all pros, but they are surviving) a handicap like that.

P has played a range of characters, but I think he prefers a striker or defender type. So far, P has killed:

  1. A dwarf fighter (lvl 1)
  2. A human sorcerer (lvl 2)
  3. A half-elven bard (lvl 1)
  4. A human monk (lvl 3)

Here's a list of the questionable decisions P has made so far:

  1. The party (6 characters) was escaping on horseback from a horde of goblins (about 30 goblins, to be exact). Being level 1, most of the party decided to flee, because the odds were against them. There were some innocents that looked like they would be killed if the party fled. P's response was to dismount and stand against the goblin horde himself, trying to protect the villagers. Noble, but P wasn't even playing his alignment (chaotic neutral). He died before the others could go back for him.
  2. P (a sorcerer) decided he wanted to be the first through the door when the party was breaking up a local organized crime syndicate. The group talked it over and decided the idea had merits (I don't know why but I don't question their tactical decisions). The more experienced players didn't warn P to check for traps, or even survey the situation first. P sprung a trap and then was surrounded by thugs. (I was hoping the other PC's would give him some advice beforehand)
  3. In an encounter in a gambling house, P decided that his character would like to be a contrarian, and make as much trouble with as many people as possible (perhaps he was fed up with dying?) I controlled this situation until the point where P started intentionally picking fights with customers and guards. (Didn't die that time)

P makes bad tactical decisions during fights and is generally not careful about adventuring (charging ahead, not looking), along with sometimes playing his character in an overly obnoxious way toward NPC's. I don't think he was actively seeking death the first time, but definitely was the third time.

I've already talked to P and told him (outside the game) that he's dying because he's making terrible decisions. I'd like to help him succeed, but I'm out of ideas.

Am I missing something basic? How can I keep the campaign challenging for the other players while not killing off my neophyte?

Outside the box ideas are welcome.

Best Answer

Short Version:

Maybe P is overwhelmed by bookkeeping and it's distracting him from situational awareness. Help him make a mechanically very simple character without fiddly bits or conditionals to keep track of, so he can focus on making good choices rather than having good bookkeeping. Invite the other players to support P with advice and by being good role models for the behaviour he's trying to cultivate.

Long form answer, with rambling and details.

Back in my very first RPG ever--and also my first time as a GM--I had a player whose poor choices got him repeatedly killed. Let's call him Q.

Q knew the rules and mechanics quite well, but had a very hard time applying them intelligently to whatever situation he found himself in (like forgetting to heal himself as a cleric). Even more than that, though, was his role-playing: he really really liked to role-play his characters, but that got him in trouble because when Q got deep into his character's internal motives the PC would lose common sense and perspective about the surrounding context of his actions.

It got bad. Really bad. Q's second character was killed by the party for betraying them (he had a conversation about his friends over tea with a "nice" lady). At that point I shared Making the Tough Decisions with the group. He studied it carefully, had intense discussions with me about it... and as a direct result his fourth character perished of untempered curiosity: the characterisation "very curious" overcame the common sense "half these items are cursed and my friends are begging me to stop," until the pile of treasure he was investigating yielded up a lethal curse.

After that session I took Q aside and we talked. He knew he had a problem, and he was trying to "get better," but he needed help. I'd noticed that all his PCs so far were mechanically complicated and required in-game bookkeeping: advanced casters and races with lots of conditional features and spell-like abilities to keep track of. So we hatched the simplest possible character build: nothing to keep track of. No "if you're flanking, X also happens," no spells, no per-day abilities. If his character sheet said he could do a thing, he could always do it.

We wound up with a kind of Indiana Jones flavoured skillmonkey (a rogue chassis with homebrew mods to replace things like sneak attack because tracking whether you can deal that extra damage was beyond what we wanted for the build). He wasn't optimised in the traditional sense--but since another PC in the party had straight levels in the NPC Expert class, that wasn't an issue in keeping him relevant in the group. Instead he was optimised for what Q needed: a simple no-bookkeeping character to let him focus on situational awareness and making good choices.

At the end of each session he'd hang back --along with any other players who wanted to-- and we'd reflect on the game: what worked, what didn't. We'd consult (and if necessary research) and come up with what to make sure we did again, and what we'd change next time. (I've since found that any game I run which has some form of this "reflect and plan" dynamic after every session is improved by it.)

In tandem with another player rising to the challenge and being a kind of "teach by example" role model, it worked. A year later Q was successfully running complicated wizard builds with great party dynamics and great depth of character. He was a real joy to work with, and all he needed was to wade in at the shallow end of the bookkeeping pool instead of jumping into the deepest part head-first.

nota bene: My players have tended to treat the group dynamic as one of table-level cooperation between friends. However much their characters may be rivals, at the table they collaborate to tell the best stories, and I'm also one of the collaborators. In groups where players and/or the GM act as rivals at the table level of things, I'm not sure how much my experience will be useful. It sounds like your whole group isn't really on the same page in terms of their desired gameplay experience, and communication isn't really strong. Working on improving the "friends at the table" level of things might help your game in a number of ways.