Playing Bashfully

I’m not sure why, but sometimes I’ve had players who downright just play like wimps. It is a stereotype (or perhaps assumption) that spans far and wide regarding player characters in RPG’s that label them as heroes or extraordinary in some way. You would think these people who weave elemental and divine powers from their fingertips, transform into beasts, leap chasms and wear plate armor brimming with weapons would charge headfirst into danger.

Apparently not always, as my most recent homebrew campaign first started I’d never seen so many players take the “safe route” so often. By safe route I don’t mean “Let’s see if we can convince the baron of X before we try Y” I mean when encountered with a graveyard that may have a few zombies lurking around they opted to sleep until daylight before investigating, even though an urgent matter was at hand. Unfortunately I didn’t punish properly for taking a casual approach to dispatching evil.

I had a cinematic encounter laid out before them, the moon was full and the graveyard thick with mist where an ominous winged silhouette appeared each night perched atop an abandoned tower. A barmaid offers them a key left by a stranger who said it would unlock the towers mysteries also offering gold to vanquish whatever sinister thing that resides in the tower. “You say the shadow appears there every night, and it’s yet to attack?” “Well then it’s probably not going to do anything tonight either, let’s get some rest and investigate when the sun rises, it will be safer this way.

Honestly, in hindsight and after becoming a much more experienced and well-educated DM (thanks to the great D&D blogging community) I realize I could have handled this situation in several ways – have the zombies attack and infest the inn they were sleeping in that night, simply have it become a missed opportunity, etc. However this was back in my “all aboard the story railroad” period of my DM’ing career before I truly realized how to harness the power of improvisation and proper planning.

Still though, is D&D not a game where we get to live vicariously through an alter ego? RPG’s are without boundaries like most other gaming formats, and with complete knowledge that it is in fact a game, why wouldn’t someone press boldly into danger? Perhaps I didn’t relay the situation properly that night, or I just suck at creating encounters but had I been in the players position that session I would have been screaming “Let’s go kill us some zombies”.

DM’s have you had players do things like this in your games? Players, is there any particular reason for being overly cautious (other than sinister DM’s)? And am I in the wrong for wishing sometimes players would just “show some backbone” in a situation such as this? I’ll be waiting to hear from you in the comments!


  1. I feel like this every day. Well, I did, until I corralled a group of players who weren’t afraid to act heroic and get their gauntlets dirty.

    I don’t play as a PC often, but when I do, I’m often the instigator, which has drawn usually sharp and antagonistic reactions from more ‘cautious’ players who are just livid that we had to fight the monster or disarm the trap.

    I think the impulse to avoid danger is genuine, realistic, and prudent – if any one of us were in the situations D&D heroes face, we’d do the same. At the same time, a game with overly cautious PCs feels less like heroic fantasy and more like Operation.

  2. Maybe you should make it hurt more when they take the safe route. Something like, “Sure you can take the safe route, but this magical treasure chest sealed when the moon is not visible.” Lame example, but it’s a thought.

  3. @james – that’s actually a pretty solid idea. I like that

    @Sersa – It’s good to know I’m not alone, I’m the same way too. It might be because as a DM I’m starved for getting actually into the action so when I’m a player I am a bit headstrong (like stabbing a sleeping t-rex directly in it’s eye while it’s sleeping as opposed to attempting to sneak away.)

  4. Taking the safe route is what normal, careful, boring people do. Adventurers aren’t those people; adventurers are the guys those people hire to do dangerous things for them. Remind your players of this. Shame them.

    Depending on the type of game you’re running, you may want to get into the habit of rewarding brash actions. When someone does something that a normal, careful, boring person would do, let them do it, but when someone charges in face-first and tries to stab a zombie in the brains, give them a solid +2 or +4 Adventurer Bonus. It encourages your players to do things that will give you more story material.

    Obviously this works better if you’re a cinematic GM; more “realistic” GMs don’t usually have a problem with careful players, though…

    • I’d like to think of myself somewhere between cinematic and “realistic” as I do use very cinematic descriptions and promote using the full extent of one’s imagination. I do appreciate players who also play smart, don’t get me wrong. I don’t expect them to go around kicking doors in but sometimes I just want to say “holy $#!* it’s a game, if your character can throw fireballs a zombie shouldn’t phase you a bit!”

      Just think there is a line between “playing smart” and “playing safe”.

  5. I believe in playing smart, but I also believe in playing to character. If a DM and a player can read each other between the lines, then there should be no reason why ‘heroes’ should act like cowards or cynical pragmatists.

    That means that when the dragonborn fighter charges headlong into battle and everybody else groans, an insightful DM can tell whether this is a player being a ‘I’m the hero, the DM don’t dare kill me’ jerk or this is a player saying, ‘This is what a 300 pound, hammer wielding dragon man would do in the face of poisonous serpents one size category larger than him.’

Shoot An Arrow At It