In 2011 I offered to DM a 4-hour session of DnD as part of a silent auction for NAMI. My friend Toni bid on it, totally not out of pity. On the successful note of raising a whopping $20, Toni told me she wanted to play with her wife and two friends except… none of them had ever played DnD or any other TTRPGs before. Without thinking it through, I said yes. Then when I started to plan the session, I stared at a blank page for what seemed like hours realizing I had no idea how to teach someone else how to role play.
It’s easy to overwhelm someone new in any hobby especially if it’s something you love and understand. Often we unintentionally miscommunicate for a very simple reason — the newbies don’t speak our language yet. Did you glaze past the terms “DM,” “DnD,” and “TTRPG” in the paragraph above? That’s probably because you know those abbreviations mean Dungeon Master, the one who plans and leads a tabletop role playing game specifically Dungeons and Dragons; Dungeons and Dragons, the flagship game of the role playing industry; and tabletop role playing game, the more generic term for the entire hobby. On the other hand, did you know what NAMI is? From context you know it’s a charity, but unless I spell out the full name as the National Alliance on Mental Illness you may not know what they focus on.
Before You Teach…
If you’re fluent in RPGs, there’s a step I recommend before planning a session for newbies. Play a game you’ve never played before. Preferably something radically different from what you normally play. If you’ve played from levels 1-20 in the same DnD 3.5 edition campaign for the past five years, try picking up something story-forward like Protocol or Fiasco. If you normally play the serious Dark Heresy, try the hilarious Crash Pandas. If you have local conventions, you can look for someone new there. If you don’t, ask your normal group to take a session off and try something different. Or, ask online or find a community like the Gauntlet where you can sign up for online games. If you have no idea what game to play, I recommend John Harper’s Lasers & Feelings or one of its hacks like Love & Justice by my copodner (co-host podcast partner) Senda Linaugh. Handily, you can listen to an adventure of Love & Justice on my podcast She’s A Super Geek BUT don’t just listen — you need to actually play something new.
I get to play new games all the time because of She’s A Super Geek, which does one-shots of different games focusing on women as GMs (that’s Game Master, similar to the term DM but considered more generic). When we started SASGeek almost 4 years ago, Senda and I were learning and running all the games. We’ve gotten to a place where a lot of creators, writers, or someone who has run the game a lot come onto the show to run those games for us. It’s amazing, and it means I’m constantly learning new games from the point of view of a player. It can be hard to break out of our fluent understanding of RPGs, so forcing yourself back into that newbie space can break you out of your fluency and give you some insight into what newbies at your own table might be experiencing.
But I didn’t have that experience back in 2011 when I sat down with Toni, her wife, and her two friends. I’m actually not sure of how good of a job I did teaching DnD to them. I remember that we told a good story, and they all had fun. The bard embarrassed herself in front of her crush. The rogue got to backstab their rival (emotionally and literally). The cleric had a dramatic moment of healing a near-dead NPC. In the end, that’s what we want newbies to experience. We want them to understand why we spend time in this hobby, what draws us deeper into it, and why it’s worth continuing to learn. We don’t want to bog them down in rules, hard math, or (Cthulhu forbid) table lawyering. We want them to walk away with a hilarious story they want to tell others. So here are a few tips for you as the GM to ensure that happens.
- Make the characters — there’s nothing worse than wanting to learn a role play game only to get bogged down in details you don’t understand with the promise of ‘it gets more fun later.’ Create character sheets before hand with gentle role play prompts. If your newbie runs with another idea, that’s ok; but try to give them somewhere to go since they haven’t had experience building a character’s personality. Feel free to use pre-made characters from your system if they’re available.
- Plan a straightforward adventure — we all love red herrings, but we’re focusing on teaching the game. Make sure there’s an obvious thing they’re supposed to do. Don’t be afraid to use simple ideas like stealing a magical item from that castle, protecting a caravan as it travels to another city, or rescuing a kidnapped prince. Having a clear goal makes it easier to think of ideas about how to get there. Asking players to think of classic tropes from movies and tv shows can give them a reference point if they become a deer in headlights. A newbie may not know how their character would get into an exclusive club, but they may know what Buffy, Luke Skywalker, or Steven Universe would do.
- Have an experienced player at the table — newbies will look to an experienced player to set the tone and show them what’s possible. Just don’t let the experienced player take over the spotlight. Have a talk with them before the game and make sure they’re ok playing with newbies and either holding back or pushing forward depending on how the newbies react.
- Don’t overwhelm them with rules — don’t try to explain all the rules in the game up front. Assure the newbies you will teach them the rules as they come up in game. Let them choose their character’s name and go over the basics of reading the character sheet.
- Don’t overwhelm them with jargon — don’t use acronyms if you can help it. Try to explain things when the newbies are confused. Ask them if they’re confused. Encourage them to call out when you’re using a term they don’t understand.
- Create an inviting first scene — Give the players a reason to interact with each other. Are they all stuck in the same jail? Do they all know a retired adventurer who’s called them together for an unknown reason? This doesn’t have to be a traditional go-around-the-table-and-introduce-your-character-scene, but there’s nothing wrong with that!
- Create a skill challenge or small combat as the second scene — It doesn’t have to be an all-out battle. It could be a patron asking the characters to prove that they can handle a task or a simple go kill that low-level monster over there. They’ve stretched role play legs in the first scene. Now they get to work those mechanics a little. If it gets overwhelming, cut it short and move on. You just want to give the new players a chance to get a feel for the mechanics so that they know what’s possible within the game.
- Make sure every character gets the spotlight — since you’ve made the characters, you know what they’re good at. Make sure everyone gets some spotlight time to do what they’re good at. If you’ve got a hacker, make sure there are computer locked doors in the way. If you’ve got a wizard, make sure there’s a book that only they can read. If possible you want the light to shine on each character for something both mechanical and role play-focused.
- Laissez les bons temps rouler* — It’s ok if your straightforward plot goes off the rails. If they’re not having fun, do something different. A bad guy kicks in the door. A distress cry is heard from the next street over. Someone’s sword leaps out of their hands and starts singing. Just keep the game moving and make sure people are having fun!
Giving someone a window into our hobby can be amazing. Don’t be afraid to ask new people to play. You can teach them. After all, we were all newbies at some point. Someone else helped us learn how to play, probably multiple someones else. Being that person for someone else allows us to pay our experience forward, and hopefully they will do the same when the time comes.
What games have you found the easiest or most difficult to teach? What did someone teach you badly or goodly when you started gaming?
*Let the good times roll