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.
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3 thoughts on “Open Thread: Introducing Beginners to RPGs

  1. Okay, I’m not going to try and teach my grandmother to suck eggs, and I’ve only played a fraction of the systems you have, but as I’ve introduced a few people to gaming recently, let’s have a quick think about how that went. As you suggested, a lot of the issues seemed to relate to feeling stupid.

    Briefly, the main sticking points I’ve noticed were:
    * getting bored or demoralised by chargen
    * having too many choices and not really understanding them
    * not having simple options available for simple activities
    * not knowing the tropes of the game, with fallout including awkward character concepts or not realising on what level you’re expected to engage with the plot

    I think having the veteran players around should help out a lot, as juggling game plus rules plus beginner-shepherding can be tricky. As well as immediate advice and reminders, it’s also nice having someone who knows the tropes to help avoid things getting bogged down.

    From previous experience, I would say pick some option that minimises character creation time. You really don’t want to dampen enthusiasm or burn up concentration before the game starts, and not understanding even character creation can be offputting. Pregens are one option; you could potentially have a few templates for the chosen system (warrior, spellcaster, technician, scholar) that are mechanically sound, but leave out the finishing touches, so they can decide what sort of character they want to be and personalise it, without getting hung up in learning all the mechanics on the spot.
    You could also try for a vaguely Morrowind setup, where they just create an outline character initially, and add more detail as you go on. For example, maybe pick class-equivalent and roll stats, but let them allocate skills as they go along when they decide something fits their character concept. Disclaimer: never tried it, but I’ve been thinking about it. Obviously this won’t work in Traveller or anything…
    FWIW, my 4E group just chose from some pregens, but most very quickly seemed to bond with them and give them personality, to the extent they’re quite mournful they can’t play them any more.

    Adventurewise, I think you’re right and a two-shot is probably the way to go. That way you have more time to take things slowly at the beginning without forcing the pace, and build up to an interesting ending. Plus cliffhangers, of course 🙂 As you say, it would also make it easier to rework things based on their initial choices, as I suspect new players are more likely to throw you curveballs.

    Weightwise, I think basically I’d say look for a game where it feels like your actions actually mean something, but that doesn’t require tactical expertise or constant cross-referencing. It’s nice to feel you can do basic things without constantly having it re-explained, so things like the BRP or Traveller rules are fairly accessible. AD&D is smooth to play because I know what’s going on, but with my newbie hat on, I feel like blindly rolling dice and having the results announced might make me feel stupid, and the rules are a bit tricky.

    It doesn’t really apply here, but in general I’d also be cautious about games that rely heavily on setting knowledge, because it’s another layer of bewilderment for new players (as we’ve seen sometimes in Deathwatch).

    More broadly, I’d also suggest picking a fairly forgiving system where you’re not likely to die in the first session, and where PCs are reasonably competent, because a feeling of accomplishment is a good start to buying into the game.

    1. I think not understanding your choices is a massive problem, which is one reason I’m leery of fully pregenning characters – being handed a filled-out character sheet you don’t understand isn’t really that much better than being handed a blank character sheet you don’t understand, and in at least some character generations the process of making a character also nicely teaches you how to use the character. (That’s an advantage that BRP or Traveller or World of Darkness has over D&D, come to think of it.)

      I had considered offering a Morrowind option for character generation, on the other hand going in with a total blank slate (or close to) can make you feel a bit loss. Thinking about it that way makes me inclined to run something like BRP or World of Darkness or Unknown Armies, where you don’t have to spend every stat and skill point to get a well-rounded character and filling in dots/percentage points on the fly is a viable option.

  2. Pingback: Pendragon: Another Example of Character Generation Done Right « Refereeing and Reflection

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