Being Gentle for Other People’s First Time

Our apologies to our readers for the lack of posts in the past few weeks. I’ve recently re-entered the world of the working, putting in long hours as an ‘emergency associate editor’ for a magazine. That, plus new responsibilities somewhat prevented me from devoting as much time as I’d like to developing new post ideas.

Our gaming in recent months has been a little erratic – a long draught after the holiday, followed by the concluding chapters of THAT Eberron campaign, followed by various false starts at a campaign. That’s changed, now that are in a situation most gamers would envy: two healthy campaigns. We’re players in a Star Wars SAGA edition campaign set in the Rebellion era and players in a Shadowrun campaign set in the city of Makati.

That means every weekend guarantees that Girlfriend DM gets to be a Togruta Jedi in hiding or a troll shaman/dominatrix and I get to be a taciturn ex-Republic merc or an avaricious pistol-wielding cyborg. However, it’s also left both of us without a campaign to run, and the truth is, I MISS DMing. At the very least, when Girlfriend DM was running her campaign, I got to help out with much of the math of the game and designing treasure parcels.

So what I’m looking for these days, are players. For the most part, I’m looking at people completely new to Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition – which is the system I know best. So what I’ve done is hooked up with the host of a board gaming night to prepare an introduction to D&D. I have no idea who my players are going to be – only that they are two degrees, at most, linked to me on Facebook. In any case, my plans are to take my cues from Chris Perkins.

Perkins, as you might know, is the DM So Sexy That Admitting It Does Not Damage One’s Heterosexuality. Word from his regular players is that he is heartless and unforgiving. However, he also runs games for webcomic artists, Wil Wheaton and writers of Robot Chicken. (This means that people who want him for a DM must create a webcomic about Wil Wheaton’s appearances on Robot Chicken.)

On the Penny Arcade/PVP podcasts, there is a mixed amount of D&D experience among his players, but on the Robot Chicken videos, Perkins has to deal with mostly new players and it is there that he displays his skills in teaching the game to newbies. As such, I’ve taken a lot of pointers on how I’m going by to design the adventure:

  • Don’t overcomplicate character development. This pointer is based on the observation of something that ISN’T in the podcast, and that’s pre-game character development. Yes, they’re running pre-generated characters, but still it tells you something that a lack of individual back story and intricate setting detail – (“It is the Fourth Era of the Third Age!”) – doesn’t stop the game. It means that making your character a “dragonmarked scion of the Aundair branch of House Cannith who has chosen to become an Orla-un monk” isn’t a prerequisite for meaningful roleplaying.
  • Let players ease themselves into their character. With the adventuring premise is taken as a given, Chris aptly demonstrates that a tavern meet and greet is not necessary for players to find their character. Instead, he lets them discover their characters through the actions they take. Tom Root doesn’t say, “I’m the practical drow!” nor does Kevin Shinick declare, “Yes! I’m the helpful one!” Those are qualities they discover through the course of the game through the things they do.
  • Pace the mechanics. Chris introduces one concept at a time. It’s not condescension, but rather a deliberate effort on his part not to shove loads of mechanics down his player’s throats. He begins by introducing them to the concept of rolling a die and adding a number and let mechanical explanations emerge on a need to know basis. Healing surges don’t get mentioned until a few episodes in and dailies and encounters are things that come up when the players ask for more options.
  • Let players explore their options. It’s difficult to not make covert suggestions to your players on how to play the game, but Chris avoids doing that as much as possible. He lets them run to separate edges of the room, defiantly trigger orc skeletons and doesn’t pressure them into using their special gem. Instead, he makes things happen in the dungeon and lets the players figure out their reactions. He simply pipes up when he needs to determine the mechanical resolution of what they want to do.

I’m sure there are more lessons to be learned, but it is 3 am and I have work tomorrow. Still, I want to know what you readers think. Once you’ve convinced someone to play a roleplaying game, how do you ease them into it and its central conceits of die-rolling and make-believe?

*Photo of Chris Perkins taken from Dave Chalker’s Flickr account. Used without permission.

One Response to “Being Gentle for Other People’s First Time”
  1. Geek Ken says:

    Nice post and excellent points. Like any game (unless it is checkers or candyland), if you bombard the player with all the rules and player turn options at once, they will get overwhelmed. It works to ease the player into a game, slowly introducing mechanics in increments. Even when I teach people to play certain boardgames, I’ll set up the board and usually play 2-3 demonstration turns to let everyone get a feel for the mechanics, then set it up for a ‘real’ game.

    For D&D, I work on a few core concepts (these are ability scores, these are your skills, roll a d20 and beat a score to do something), then work into things slowly letting them push, pull, prod, and figure out how things in the game work through their actions.

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