Open Thread: Introducing Beginners to RPGs

I have a bit of a GMing challenge coming up, so I’m going to post this here to solicit suggestions. A player in my fortnightly Dungeons & Dragons group has a few friends who are interested in trying out tabletop RPGs, and I’ve gone and volunteered myself to GM a short game for them. Now, I’ve actually GMed for new players before and I actually consider myself to have a reasonably good track record at getting people into tabletop RPGs, or at least make their experience a fun one rather than a soul-sapping bore.

That said, it has been a while since I’ve gamed with people new to the hobby – since I stopped going to university RPG society events I haven’t been in circles where there has been a regularly yearly influx of interested newcomers. I don’t think my ability to patiently explain unfamiliar concepts to people I’m not familiar with has especially atrophied in the intervening time – in fact, due to the nature of my job I’ve probably improved it – but I don’t want to rest on my laurels here. I don’t want to build this up into something hyper-serious, but at the same time I do want to bring my “A”-game to the table for these people; since they’ve expressed interest in my hobby, I want to present it in the best light possible and do what I can at my end to ensure their first experience with it is a pleasant one.

So, open thread time: I’d like to solicit what suggestions I can from the crowd to help make this sort of thing go smoothly. I’ve already got some ideas on how I’m going to roll with this, and there’s some factors that aren’t under my control – ultimately I can’t force people to enjoy my games – but I’d appreciate any thoughts people have or anecdotes about similar GMing experiences.

Stuff that I’ve already decided, or which has already been decided for me:

  • As it currently stands the group’s going to consist of me, two old hands, and two to three new people. I think those are good proportions, on the basis that there’ll be enough experienced roleplayers in the group to help give the new people some context but at the same time the new players will be a big enough chunk of the group that hopefully they’ll be able to make their mark. In addition, the two experienced players are solid types I reckon I can trust with keeping the new players involved rather than steamrolling them.
  • On a similar note, I will remember to stay open to the possibility of just stopping the session if it becomes clear people are not enjoying themselves – soldiering on through a gaming experience you aren’t enjoying isn’t character-building, it’s just a waste of your time.
  • My understanding is that the new players know very little about tabletop RPGs beyond a) tabletop RPGs exist and b) they’re interested in trying one out. I am going to attempt to get a slightly better idea of their preferences before we get things rolling, even if it’s just on the level of “if you could be a character in any TV show, which would you go for?” At the very least I want to pick a genre they’re actually enthusiastic about (or at least interested in) so that at least hopefully “Ugh, fantasy/SF/horror/crime/swashbuckling/whatever is so dumb, I wish we’d done something else instead” isn’t a factor.
  • Whatever genre/game we roll with, I’ll try to pitch the scenario so that it’s reasonably self-contained, so if people decide “OK, that’s enough” they aren’t left hanging too much, but at the same time leave the door open for a continuation so if people are all “That was great, let’s keep going!” that’s at least a possibility.

Stuff that’s undecided:

  • Roll with pre-generated characters, or do character generation with them? On the one hand pre-gens take away what might be the biggest, ugliest speed bump that gets between beginners and actually participating in RPGs. On the other hand, I do want to showcase the hobby’s unique selling points, and I consider the sense of ownership you have over a character you’ve created yourself to be one of them. (On that grounds it might be an idea to select a system where character generation is either quick, or fun, or preferably both.) On the third hand, if we’re only doing a one-off then that more or less demands pre-gens.
  • 2-3 session adventure or one-shot? My inclination, since I get the impression (perhaps incorrectly) that the new players are up for it, is to go for a 2-3 session mini-adventure rather than a one-off game; I think the point of the exercise should be to show off the unique selling points of tabletop RPGs, and as such I want to present a scenario which at least has the potential for some depth and interesting player proactivity and choices, rather than a quickie session which showcases some game mechanics but doesn’t really unpack what tabletop RPGs do which computer games or whatever don’t. (If I do go for a multi-session adventure, I will try to make sure it’s open to people dropping out if one of the new players decides they’re not interested but the others want to keep going.)
  • How rules-light to go? I don’t like very rules-heavy games at the best of time and I think they are disastrously bad choices for bringing new people into the hobby; when the basic interactions of a tabletop RPG are, in themselves, unfamiliar territory you don’t want to load on all sorts of additional esoterica. (Plus, I’ve been specifically told “nothing too complex”.) On the other hand, I’m coming away from the position that very rules-light games are useful introductions to tabletop RPGs – structure helps give context, and I find extremely rules-light games can tend to feel a bit lightweight, a bit ephemeral, and at worst a bit patronising – as far as I’m aware these people are grown-ups and in my experience grown-ups can tell (and usually don’t like it) when you’re dumbing things down for their benefit.

Referee’s Bookshelf: Traveller Supplement 12: Dynasty

As part of the process of finding stuff to put on this blog, I’ve decided to start reviewing bits and bobs from my RPG collection. The point of this effort is twofold: firstly, to assess whether I really need the book in question, and secondly to see how referees might us it in their campaigns.

Continuing the grand old tradition of nigh-featureless Traveller covers.

This is the twelfth supplement of Mongoose Publishing’s Traveller line. Twelve supplements into a game line’s existence – especially when you consider that that count doesn’t include the advanced career books, generic adventures, and game setting-specific material (Third ImperiumTraveller: 2300 ADJudge Dredd, etc.) that Mongoose have published for the game – and you’re already hitting the stage where you’ve thinking “well, they really have published an awful lot of stuff for this game line, and do we really need more generic supplements for the game at this point?” Indeed, except for a revised version of the original, flawed vehicle books which came out in 2012, Mongoose haven’t released a new core supplement for Traveller since Dynasty came out in 2012.

Most of the “core supplements” produced for Traveller are fairly dry affairs – stats for fairly generic spaceships and vehicles and equipment and so forth which GMs can use to populate their Traveller universes with if they don’t have the time or inclination to stat everything out by hand. However, towards the end of the supplement line Mongoose seem to have had allowed their authors to experiment a little, with rather mixed results. Cybernetics was essentially a stealth conversion of Traveller from a hard-ish space opera game to a cyberpunk game, which I really want to look into integrating into my current campaign more; August Hahn’s Campaign Guide was a quixotic attempt to provide a GMless and/or solitaire mode of play for Traveller which seems to have had a bit of a mixed reception.

And then you have Dynasty. This is the brainchild of Bryan Steele, one of the more reliable of Mongoose’s Traveller writers, and whilst I’m not aware of him going into detail about where he got the idea I mildly suspect that he might have been paying attention to Greg Stolze’s Reign, since much like Reign the supplement seeks to tackle the management of large organisations in an RPG context.

Specifically, Dynasty is designed to support a whole new layer of play which Traveller to date hasn’t given much support to. Dynasties, as the supplement defines them, are powerful organisations – religions, corporations, governments, organised crime syndicates, that sort of thing – existing within a Traveller universe. The supplement provides means of modelling them in the Traveller system, tracing their actions and interactions, and – most importantly – highlights ways in which the interaction of Dynasties can give rise to opportunities for interesting roleplaying adventures.

As with Reign, the process of supporting this requires Steele to effectively come up with an entirely new character creation and task resolution system designed for characters who are not individual human beings, but are substantial organisations in their own right. The extra wrinkle here is that to make any sort of sense as a Traveller supplement, rather than a standalone game, the supplement needs to make use of those of the Traveller rules which are useful for this purpose (not much, as it turns out, except for the basic task resolution system) and also provide rules which feel that they fit into the general design logic of Mongoose Traveller.

By and large, the supplement succeeds at this. Although so far as I am aware there is no precedent for these sorts of rules in Traveller, they feel like a natural extension to the system rather than something artificial being grafted onto it. By focusing, much like Reign‘s group command rules, on wide-scale strategic systems rather than the fine details of tactics, Steele keeps the focus of things firmly on creating opportunities for interesting Traveller scenarios, and indeed one of the options for creating a Dynasty is through a party of Traveller characters from a conventional campaign amassing enough resources and power to found a lasting power (though the skill requirements of this option are rather extreme, which makes me suspect that Steele has forgotten how slow skill training in Traveller is – personally, I’d be inclined to waive the skill requirements on the basis that a party who’s amassed enough money to found a Dynasty can just hire people with the appropriate skills).

This is what I think is one of the real strengths of Dynasty: it’s one of those rulebooks which really gets your gears turning and inspires all sorts of potential campaign ideas. You can have a Traveller campaign which begins conventionally and builds up to the PCs founding a Dynasty, or a game which kicks off with the players designing a Dynasty and with roleplaying scenarios arising from the Dynasty’s activities (there’s some nice rules which modify character generation based on the attributes and nature of a Dynasty, to allow you to make a group of PCs tailored to that Dynasty), or if a Dynasty-based campaign sees the player’s Dynasty crashing and burning you can revert to a conventional Traveller campaign with the players playing a rag-tag group of survivors of the collapsed Dynasty, or you can have a game where each player controls a rival Dynasty, or you can use Dynasty to handle the affairs of major powers behind the scenes in a campaign, or you could run a large organised play event with the refereeing team using Dynasty to handle downtime actions, and so on and so on.

I’ve not had a chance to test out Dynasty in my own Traveller campaign yet, so I can’t say how robust the system is, but it occurs to me that this is the sort of supplement where it doesn’t matter whether the rules are actually well-balanced or not-broken provided that they throw out interesting results, and that certainly seems to be the case.

Is a Referee Responsible For the Environment They Game In?

I’m an adult, and I like the company of other adults; this being the case, everyone I game with is a grown-up and so far as I’m aware few of them have especially prudish attitudes to sex. Consequently, characters in games I participate in have been known to have sexual encounters – indeed, some PCs made this their main goal in life – and we don’t get all bothered and embarrassed when the subject comes up.

That said, we tend not to go for – how shall I put this? – blow-by-blow descriptions of what goes down. More or less every time sex comes up in a game we decide by mutual consent to draw a veil over proceedings once they hit a certain stage.

Over on The Tao of D&D I recently got into a comment altercation with Alexis Smolensk, who had made a post which seemed to be calling for radically more  overt and explicit exploration of sex in Dungeons & Dragons than a lot of people are used to. Actually, as is so often the case with this sort of blow-up, I don’t think we were disagreeing as much as we’d thought when it came to explicitness – or rather, we still disagree, but our disagreement is different and more complicated than the disagreement I first thought we had.

Alexis has, to be fair, said he’s fine with drawing a veil at a certain point and argues that the short account he caps off the original post with wasn’t really that explicit because he used lots of allusions to stuff happening rather than overtly saying “he places his penis in her vagina” or something like that, and that after the fighter presses the pirate captain down to the sand they might just be making sand castles at that point. This is technically accurate but, I would argue, kind of weasel-wording it. Yes, words mean things, but context means things too, and given all the description in the scene up to that point it’d be irrational for any listener who wasn’t entirely clueless to conclude that something was going on which involved less sandcastles and more body-to-body action.

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