I'm running a game for an unorthodox group, and I have put them in situations that they were sufficiently challenged mostly because of poor preparation and poor tactics. Some of these situations have taught them to think ahead and use things.
Things they've learned:
- Carry around ranged weapons, for those times when things are flying
- Carry around light, places get dark and concealment sucks
- Wands are useful, they picked one up with scorching ray (it's used up already, though)
- Getting magical weapons, it's good to keep up your defense and offense when you can
Things they haven't learned:
- Actually using the ranged weapons; they only use them when they can't possibly use melee weapons. This has led to some humorous but poorly executed attacks (such as climbing / leaping to attack)
- Using the potions that they keep on their belt; they'd rather rely on channeling despite the fact that they don't actually have a cleric (the pally is a hospitaler archetype)
- Using the battlefield to their advantage; I usually put in terrain and objects which could be used for cover or concealment, they are usually in offensive mode though...
- Fighting defensively; they never use this, even when it would be more advantageous.
- Saving smite for the one that's actually hard to kill; the paladin tends to use up her smite on the first evil thing she sees.
The roleplay is good, but when it comes to combat their tactics are kind of barbaric (Full on attack, rely on heals to stay up).
Sounds like they're learning though! I really don't have room to talk: one of the most effective parties I've ever played in was archer ranger, rogue, evoker wizard, and druid shapeshifter. This was back in 3.5, so all of us were multi-classed like crazy and the druid only had 9 caster levels when he was level 15. You will note the distinct lack of anything resembling healing ...
We pretty much only had one mode, which was full-on aggression. It worked out surprisingly well most of the time.
And to be honest, channeling by a hospitaler is pretty effective healing. Potions are single-use emergency buttons, while channeling is a renewable resource. Additionally, drinking a potion is a standard action that provokes- not always a great plan in the middle of combat. Sometimes the right move actually is to swing away and hope the bad guys fall down first.
As for the ranged weapons- if they're not specialized in it, they won't want to use them. I have a fighter who's melee specialized, and while she has a bow and a few javelins, if there's any way at all I can get to melee I'll do that instead. I hit better, do more damage, and get to do "what makes me special" instead of doing something I'm not as good at and do crappy damage with. 20% chance to hit with a bow or 10% chance to pull off a leap attack? I'll definitely try the leap attack, because I'll probably fail either but the success of a melee attack is much more meaningful than the success of a ranged attack.
The problem with full-on aggression is that they're split up, and after killing one bad guy, they rush on to the next. At 5th level, the paladin is only healing 1d6 and they've got potions that heal 3d8+3.
And while I agree that killing the enemy and thus stopping the damage is more important than recovering damage, they target the closest ones rather than the ones that deal the most damage. The paladin on the other hand could have been finishing off the one that's dealing 1d10+6 damage twice around instead of healing 1d6 to 3 people.
I've actually seen them run into cramped areas to attack one and get surrounded and trapped.
They are powerful and do great against a handful badguys as long as they are not flying or otherwise out of their reach. However, outside of those circumstances, they really throw themselves for a loop.
What Melissa said.
Additionally, you may want to consider the corollary: What your players will learn:
- Use barrier, wind, clouds, and other persistent effects to force flying creatures down into melee.
- Paladin taking quick channel so channeling and melee happen in the same round.
- Taking leadership for a bard cohort to negate their opponents defensive fighting bonuses.
- Using spell effects to destroy terrain features which are granting cover to enemies.
- Paladin can wear a silver smite bracelet so she has an extra smite for the one that's actually hard to kill after the paladin uses up her smite on the first evil thing she sees.
Happily, some groups will learn (even if slowly) from smart groups of monsters that beat up on them.
Saddly, some will not. I've been with groups that will get upset if the monsters don't lineup and wait their turn for a beat down.
My current group is not that bad. They've learned to switch back and forth from ranged to melee as appropriate. They still sometimes have trouble deciding who the bad guy is. (Which is really odd considering all the mental casting options they don't always use.) Almost never purchase consumable magic items, though they will sometimes use the one found.
Well, recounting my group at the time...throw re-DEEK-uously tough monsters and situations at them. In short, play a "killer DM" roll for a bit. Actively *try* and kill at least half the party every session...don't cheat. Keep your DM'ing firmly in the "arbiter of fairness" side of the fence. What you are trying to do here is, effectively, the DM equivalent of "tough love" I guess (if you have the means, go read the Hackmaster 4th Edition GMG for exactly what I'm talking about...brutal, but fair).
Y'see, it sounds like your players prefer the "balls to the walls, full out attack" style because it always works...except when it doesn't. If the "when it doesn't" part doesn't come up very often because you try not to do that because they don't deal with it well, they have learned that "attack, Attack, ATTACK!" is the best course of action. You need to get them to pee themselves. You need to get them to get all clamy and sweaty as they see their HP's dwindling. You need to get them to the point where they outright PANIC and just say "AAAAaaaa! Run for it! RUN!!!!!".
The first time you get them in this situation they will likely be both upset at you, and thrilled. Even if/when they say they "get it", don't let up. Keep at them...hard. They may whine and moan about the unfairness of it all, but after a few sessions of this, they will become better players. They will start to think more "how do I get an advantage?" simply because they will never know if an encounter is going to go all pear-shaped on them...and if that does, having those extra 9 hit points, or that +1 to AC, or 25% concealment may make ALL the difference.
If they keep dieing repeatedly...you're pretty much hooped and your players will NEVER get better. Ever. Don't dwell on it, just try and figure out other things that keep you entertained when DM'ing and have fun. :)
Paul L. Ming