I've been playing DnD for a couple of years now and suggested starting a game at my workplace. My co-workers and I meet on our lunch break every two weeks. It's not ideal, trying to cram the games into the one-hour lunch slots, but we make do.
When I first put out feelers for who would be interested, I got a pretty good response - four people who said they had played before and were keen to play again, and one newbie. Since most of the players had played before I had them all start at Level 3. We did have a session zero to explain and create characters but I spent the majority of the time with the newbie player. She had chosen to play a paladin so we rolled her character and I made sure she understood the rules of the game.
During our first session I realized my mistake. Even though the other four said they had played before, it quickly became apparent it had been some years since they'd played and, I'm guessing hadn't belonged to any particularly good games or groups due to their play style.
The monk had prioritised charisma and constitution over strength and dexterity, making her attacks pretty weak in battle. The rogue was your cliche edgelord who refused to trust the group and kept trying to sneak away and do his own thing, which is frustrating in any game, but doubly so when I only had an hour to get through my planned session.
The bard was the most vexing, meta-gaming, announcing stats of creatures or the answers to puzzles often before I'd even finished describing them, and for some reason refused to use spells, cutting words, or bardic inspiration. In battles all he would do is rush in with his rapier. Why would you choose a bard and not a fighter if that's all you wanted to do?
The only one who really knew how to play was the barbarian, who would rush into battle and hit things with his axe. Which is fine - except all the other players would copy him. I tried everything to make them see that they could do more than draw whichever pointy weapons they had and roll to attack, going as far as to have them run into doubles of themselves who they had to fight. The doubles used their class and race abilities, but even seeing others use the abilities they could use didn't encourage them to change up their battle style. I also tried putting them up against enemies who used spells and attacks that discouraged bunching as the players always did, but nothing was sticking.
I was thinking of ending the campaign, when I got an idea.
The players all received a mysterious invitation for a clandestine meeting with the Big Bad they had been chasing for a while. The invite took them to a room that was empty except for a note that said "Freedom takes everything you have."
The rogue immediately tried to ditch the party and run but the only exit out the room was suddenly blocked with five doors, each with a symbol on them: A dagger, an axe, a sword, a fist, and a musical note. As the doors came down, four skeletons appeared in the room, and I asked the party to roll initiative.
They all behave predictably, rushing in as always with swords and stabbing the skeletons, even as I prompted them on each of their turns if any of them wanted to use bonus actions, although it is worth noting here that the monk used a ki point to do flurry of blows. They weren't much of a challenge and they were soon down, leaving the party to examine the doors. However, as they were looking, all the skeletons regenerated back to full health, and combat resumed. The party caught on to the fact that this was a puzzle room, and to their credit, did try to start working out the puzzle.
The skeletons were a deliberate choice. They weren't tough enough to usually provide a huge difficulty for the party, but they were getting hits in and it became clear that, if the party didn't figure out how to unlock the doors and get out, the skeletons would eventually do enough damage to take them out.
The rogue was the first to try the doors. Using his Disengage bonus action, he then used his action to Dash to the doors to examine them for a lock - there wasn't any. The others kept attacking, with the exception of the Barbarian, who entered a Rage and tried to break the doors - no luck there either.
In the next round, the rogue used Hide and then Sneak Attack. The second his arrow hit a skeleton, the door with the daggers vanished. This got the party excited, thinking that each of the skeletons opened a door - maybe there was a specific order in which they had to be killed? I told them there were no distinguishing marks between the skeletons. They then reasoned that the rogue had killed the first skeleton and the door with the daggers had opened. Maybe the next door, the axe meant that the barbarian had to kill the next skeleton.
On his next attack the barbarian used his frenzied attack and killed the skeleton. However, no luck with the door, and it stayed shut. Again, they took out all the skeletons, mostly stabbing, even as I asked them every turn if they wanted to use a bonus action. They said no. The monk did try her poison spray cantrip to open the doors - no luck, although I made sure to compliment her on thinking outside the box. The skeletons died, then reanimated, and the four remaining doors stayed shut.
The party was getting a bit frustrated but was enjoying the puzzle, even the bard who would have usually called out the answer by now remained silent. Because I'd made this one up, so there was no way he would know it from previous games. But finally they had a breakthrough. One of the skeletons fired their bow at the monk and she used deflect missiles to catch it and throw it back. The door with the first opened.
The rogue caught on first, recalling the clue from the beginning of the encounter - "Freedom takes everything you have." He prompted the barbarian to use his reckless attack on his next turn. He did, and the door with the axe opened. This confirmed the rogue's theory; to open the doors and stop the skeletons from reanimating, the party had to use their class abilities in battle. The exact answer was that they had to use three class abilities for their respective doors to open.
The paladin, the new player, got a bit flustered here, despite many games of me prompting her to use features such as Channel Divinity, spell slots, and divine smite, but the rest of the party rallied around her to help her figure it out. The rogue was most help here, being excited that it was him who had figured out the puzzle - the first time I'd seen him actively engage with another PC instead of playing the distrustful lone wolf. The bard reluctantly gave the paladin some bardic inspiration to help her out. To make things even better, the paladin got a nat 20 on the turn she decided to use Divine Smite and it was my favourite moment of the campaign so far to watch her eyes light up as she saw how much damage that was. The nat 20 was in part due to using her Vow of Enmity to give herself advantage on the attack roll and to top it all off she had also cast Hunter's Mark so that damage was also doubled! That was three, and the door with the sword opened.
That just left the bard. He cast prestidigitation which was useless in the fight itself but did count as using a bardic ability. That was two. It took two more rounds with the skeletons as the rest of the party encouraged him to figure out the final move he could do - something other than stabbing with a rapier. Finally, as a skeleton stabbed towards a very bloody rogue, the bard finally used Cutting Words to make the skeleton miss. The final door opened, the skeletons crumbled to dust and the party were free.
It was by far the best session of the campaign. The party were elated that they had figured out the puzzle and won the fight, and there was a sense of camaraderie that had been lacking before. As they were leaving, the paladin exclaimed, "Oh, I can use Lay on Hands!" and healed the rogue, which gave me hope that this session would encourage the party to use their class abilities more often in future encounters.
I'm not going to blame the party for how they'd behaved before this. I should have been more attentive in session zero and figured out that they weren't as experienced as they had said and thought they were. I also should have started them off at level one instead of level three so they could get used to the basics before getting all the other class abilities. The hour-long sessions also aren't as ideal for learning the game as the usual 3-4 hour sessions are. Also, in hindsight, I should have had all the characters give their PC a reason that they would want to belong to a party to avoid the lone wolf antics, although that player, after this session, has been much warmer towards the idea of belonging to a group. I changed up the monk's stats for her to give her a fighting chance in battle as well. The bard's attitude hasn't really changed - I still can't understand why someone would insist on playing as a bard when they have no interest in using any of the abilities - but now the party has seen him use inspiration and cutting words and understand how useful those can be, they are prompting him to use them more instead of me trying, and getting flat refusals. But I guess you can’t win them all. Baby steps, right?
And that's the story of how I encouraged my party to do more than just rush in with pointy things and stab! The campaign I had honestly been considering ending has become a lot more fun and the highlight of my week.