A few weeks back my wife’s pregnancy was taking its toll and she had to take a break from gaming until after the baby is born (it should be this week!). Rather than cut out gaming completely (mostly because we’d miss the socialization) I decided to run a game of Hellfrost for the rest of the group. I just had three problems.

First and foremost, I’d never played or run Hellfrost before. Secondly, I’ve only had very minimal experience with the underlying Savage Worlds system (and that was as a player being told what to do during a game). Finally, I had to shift my GMing combat style from abstract to battlemat. What made these three points even more daunting was that Hellfrost required Savage Worlds to play, which not only meant that I had to flip through two rulebooks but I had to be mindful of the changes Hellfrost made to the system.

I came up with a few techniques that are working out well at our table and I hope that, by sharing, you’ll find them useful when a similar situation comes up at your table.

1. Emphasize that the first adventure is a standalone adventure. Be upfront with your players about your lack of experience and that you need a few sessions to make sure you can run the game smoothly. Also emphasize that the players aren’t going to be penalized for not knowing the rules either.

2. Use a published adventure. There’s nothing worse than wasting time designing an adventure that goes to pot because you forgot rule X, Y, or Z. If you use a published adventure then you may be out a few bucks, but you didn’t waste hours of prep time. Also, presuming the adventure is published by the same company that produced the game, reading the adventure will give you an idea of the kinds of challenges that the designers expect the adventure to have and what types of PCs are suited to play in it.

3. Use Pre-Gen PCs. You’re going to make mistakes in the first few sessions and PCs are going to die for it. Even if your players buy into your proposal, they still may get attached to their PCs, especially if they spent an hour designing them. By offering a balanced pre-gen PC party (with several backups), you’re indicating that the adventure and learning curve take precedence over the PCs.  I went the extra step of having my group play two characters each, which made them less likely to identify too strongly with one PC.

4. Learn the basic mechanics and stick with them for the first session. I threw this game together within a week; I certainly didn’t have time to read two rulebooks. Instead I skimmed them and made sure I knew how the basic mechanics worked (roll your appropriate die and a d6; if it explodes roll again; keep the best roll; pray you don’t get snake-eyes). I also made sure I knew how spells were cast and how bennies worked. That’s pretty much all I used for the first session.

5. Add the rest of the rules incrementally. After each session I’d read through the rules and add in a bit more, especially if I knew a special case was due to come up (e.g. how to handle swarms in combat). It’s much easier for my players and me to grok a few new rules each session and it actually cuts down on the amount of time that I need to flip through the books during play. “I’ll read up on it and we’ll fix it next session, let’s move on for now” has become a mantra.

So far, things have been going great! My players are really enjoying trying out a new game and we aren’t sweating the small stuff. That will, of course, change if we decide to keep playing!

So how about you? How do you introduce players to a system that you’ve never run before? Do you have new tips? Have any of the above tips worked for you or failed in some way? Did your introduction lead to a long-term campaign, a short-term diversion, or an epic fail?