July 20, 2016

Introducing New Players

We've all had a first session. Often, it's the content and quality of this first gaming session that invites people into playing more, and turns normal people into regular gamers. It's true what they say; first impressions mean everything.

But how do you DM for a new player, and how do you introduce someone completely new to RPGs?

Introduce Just the Concept 

New players always ask 'What is D&D?' and this doesn't have to be a hard question. If they're familiar with video games, just tell them that it's like that, but one player makes the maps, controls the enemies, and drives the story. If they're not really a gamer, tell them it's a social game, where everyone collaborates to tell a story.

Regardless of what you tell them, keep the description short and succinct, and don't mention a single thing about the campaign world, anyone's particular characters, or anything about the plot. D&D is a very big paradigm shift for new players, and information overload is the surest way of scaring off a new player. Before the first session is completely over, imagine everything you say to the new player about the game is technobabble coming from the mouth of a particle physicist; it might contain content, but it's just a bunch of meaningless words to the audience.

You Build the Character 

After you've convinced someone to play a session at your table, just ask them if they'd rather cast spells, use a sword, fire a bow and arrow, or sneak around. Say nothing about classes, races, feats, or level. You will be letting this player use a sorcerer, fighter, ranger, or rogue, and basically nothing else unless they insist.

Regardless of party composition or who else is playing, grab a pre-built character sheet from the internet of appropriate level that adequately details all the features in complete sentences. You might need to copy and paste some things from the SRD to make sure you have everything easily readable. Leave only the personality traits and name of the character blank.

Explain Things as They Come Up 

Let your new player name their character and allow them to familiarize themselves with their character sheet. Answer any questions your player has, but don't start explaining everything at once. 5th edition is easy to play, but all RPGs are a completely foreign experience if it's your first time. As terms come up in play, briefly explain what they mean, and give another player the job of pointing them out on the character sheet to the new player and showing them what dice to use.

If you're jumping right into combat, you might be doing it wrong. I tend to introduce players with some mystery and intrigue section, and I make sure to ask the new player directly what they would like to do every once in a while.

Do not stress roleplaying on the first outing. I always tell new players to play like they're in their character's shoes, to make decisions as they would. Don't include a character backstory, any written personality traits, or an alignment. All of these create an expectation for playing in a particular way, and that's not the goal of the first session; this is just to get the player's feet wet.

Just Another Day Out

In spite of all of this, just do a normal adventure, whatever that might be for your table. If it's a continuation of a long running game, just explain things as they came up, and don't sweat it that the character comes out of nowhere. If it's a one-time story, that's even better, but don't dumb things down. It's just another session.

If you prefer no cell phones or laptops at the table, kindly let the newcomer know about the expectation. Above all, you want the experience to be representative of most gaming sessions.

Post-Game Review 

After the game, try to get a sense if this is the new players's thing. If it is, make a place in future sessions for them. If it's not - no problem. D&D is not everyone's thing, nor should it be. Hopefully the session was at least fun for everyone involved.

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  1. I've recently introduced a friend of mine to D&D. She's mentioned that she's wanted to play for a while now, but never had anyone to teach her. She's had experience with acting for her, so role play comes naturally. I briefly asked her how she would deal with a stressful and potentially violent situation, and she came up with talk her way out of it. I asked her what kind of social stigma she'd like to carry with her based on her appearance. She went with intriguing and fearful. So she ended up making a tiefling bard as her first character.

    Oddly enough, I've been teaching my nieces how to play as well. I went with the more K.I.S.S. method with them. They ended up wanting to play a human fighter, working to be eldritch knight, and a elf ranger, hopefully beast master to be. The younger of the two took to the idea much better, so I had to coax the older one a little more, and explain things a little more simply.

    Each person is different, and will naturally acclimate to D&D at different rates. So, in my opinion, the best way to get someone new to enjoy a game of D&D is to know them well, and teach the game their to strengths.

    1. Great advice, Phillip: the best way to teach someone is using the tools with which they are comfortable.

      The big point of the article is really: Avoid culture shock and information overload. D&D is really different from other gaming mediums most people are comfortable with, and the one-two combo of being culturally unfamiliar to most and it being quite different to play is the biggest challenge I face with new players, and that's what this article tries to address.