Running A Game With New Players

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on February 3, 2012

Over the past couple seasons of D&D Encounters I’ve had the opportunity to play with a lot of new players. Many of these players (usually the younger ones) were completely new to D&D or any RPG for that matter. While some of the DMs have found it frustrating to run tables with so many inexperienced players, I’ve found it to be quite rewarding.

During this time I’ve come up some guidelines for running games with new players. Although I put these together to help me manage tables of newbies, many of these points are still good to keep in mind when running any table, no matter how much experience your players have.

Keep It Simple

The most important thing to remember when you’ve got new players at the table is to keep it simple. There are a lot of rules in D&D and throwing everything at them all at once can be overwhelming.

Simplicity begins with the character sheet. If they’re making their own character, than encourage them to play a simple class, one with no moving parts. D&D Essentials classes are built this way. They use their basic attacks eliminating the choices of which At-Will power to use on your turn. Characters that have to apply conditional damage (Rogue sneak dice, Ranger’s Hunter’s Quarry) will add additional steps that are not necessary early on. There’s a reason most people begin by playing a Fighter – they’re easy to work. You just focus on one monster and keep it pinned down until it’s dead.

Bend Some Rules, Break Others

During combat I don’t try to explain the standard, move, minor concepts initially. I just ask the player if they want to engage a monster (attack) and if they want to move. When a new player is still learning I rarely have monsters make opportunity attacks. Since the simplest classes don’t usually have powers they can use as a minor action I don’t confuse them by bringing it up. If they’re running one of the pre-gens then I usually have a pretty good idea of what powers are available to them so I can make suggestions or recommendations.

For example we’ve had a new player running Fargrim, the Dwarven Fighter (Slayer) over the past few sessions of D&D Encounters. Fargrim has two stances that he can activate as a minor action. The player is younger and still trying to grasp all the rules so I just apply the stance’s applicable modifiers in my head rather than insist he declare that he’s activating them. As his comfort level grows I’ll explain all the nuances of how the stances work and that he needs to decide when to active each one, but for now I’m willing to let him pick a monster, charge in, and hit it with his weapon.

Encourage and Reward Role-Playing

D&D is about more than just killing monsters. Newer players (especially younger ones) are drawn to the game initially because they get to kill stuff. But I believe that it’s my job as their DM to remind them that it’s a role-playing game and that they’re actually playing a character.

If combat is what they’re most interested in, then I try to get them to role-playing the fighting. It’s not just roll a d20 and tell me if you hit, it’s tell me what weapon you’re using, what power, and how it looks before rolling any dice. Once we determine if you hit or miss, tell me how your character reacts.

When the players take the time and effort to describe their actions, the characters they play begin to take on personalities. This personality, although initially developed during combat, will then carryover into non-combat situations. The ranged attacker that hides in the back and shoots monsters from a safe distance may be played as a cautious coward or a smart tactician. The melee combatant that hit a lot may be played as overconfident and arrogant, or just really lucky and quite humble.

As players get more and more into their characters I’m a lot more inclined to say yes to creative ideas. I’m also more inclined to give them a +1 bump if the description of what they’re doing is really good. As players catch on to this it encourages even more excellent role-playing. Now I have players jumping and leaping, spinning as they make attacks, calling out inspiring battle cries, taunting monsters, and attacks that target specific areas of the monster’s body. Believe me, it’s a lot more exciting than just rolling a d20 to hit.

Skill Challenges Are Challenging

Considering how many experienced players still have trouble understanding the skill challenge mechanics it’s not surprising that it completely baffles newer players. I’ve learned that it’s a huge mistake to announce that the party is engaging in a skill challenge. I let the storytelling and character interactions happen fluidly. The players always want to roll dice and think that they need to do so after every action, no matter what it is. When there is a puzzle of obvious challenge put in front of them they immediately look to their character sheet and try to find the skill with the highest modifier. I try to discourage this approach. Skill challenges are not combat.

When we’re in an actual skill challenge I ask everyone to put down their dice and look at the people around the table, not their character sheets. I try to get them to converse in character like they would a in a real life situation – look at the people you’re talking to. After describing the scene I ask them what they think they can do to help the situation or overcome the obstacle (without looking at their character sheets). I encourage common sense and not mechanics. And I remind them that in most cases any rolls that they may be required to make will be easily attainable.

One thing that I never allow is for a player to just declare that they’re using a skill and then rolling a d20. They have to tell me what they’re doing and then how they think that skill will help them accomplish that takes. Sometimes it’s obvious “I’m using Athletics to climb this wall,” but I still make them tell me what they’re doing. I try to encourage players to think about actions before mechanics and not the other way around. If they think they have to use Nature because it’s their best skill then it will limit their creativity. If they have to decide on an action first they’ll think outside of the box and may end up trying something that uses a skill they didn’t expect to use (usually because it’s not their best skill). However, talking it out before rolling any dice allows other players to explain how they can help (assist) and it allows for a character with a better base score to make the primary check, thereby increasing the likelihood of success.

Above All Else, Have Fun

Having fun might seem like an obvious expectation, but I’m amazed at how many DMs and players forget that it’s just a game. Sure D&D is more complex than Monopoly, but it’s still just a game. And the reason we play games is to have fun. A good DM will gauge the table’s enthusiasm and adjust accordingly. If a group is having a hard time with an encounter, try to throw the party a bone to keep spirit’s up. It may seem like a small thing but it really works.

For example, in real-life after a natural disaster rescue crews will use dogs to help find survivors. If the dog hasn’t found any living survivors by the end of the day the handler will stage a rescue so that the dog gets the satisfaction of having found at least one survivor. Help your players by doing the same. If they’re getting destroyed during a tough combat session give them a spectacular kill right at the end or reward them with some unexpected treasure that way they feel like their sacrifice was worth it.

These are the most common things I try to keep in mind and apply to my games when I’m running with newer players. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it should help DMs running tables with new players. What other tips or suggestions do you have for DMs in similar situations? Perhaps there are certain things that you would recommend DMs avoid doing? Please share your experiences and thoughts when it comes to running a game with new players.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Joe February 3, 2012 at 11:00 am

Thanks for this article.

It seems like all I do is introduce D&D to new people. Thankfully, I enjoy it.

Good thoughts about running the skill challenges.

2 Lahrs February 3, 2012 at 1:22 pm

Encounters has been great in drawing in new people. Personally, I prefer the new players at my table because I find it fun to teach people the game. I do find it highly beneficial to have a few patient vets helping out, but the ratio should be fairly equal. It can be difficult to run a game with all new people, but also intimidating for the new player if everyone else is experienced and they are slowing things down. Even if everyone is fine with going slower, the new person still perceives themselves as a problem, human nature I guess.

I would add one more guideline, make sure the vets do not end up playing the new character. Most of the time it starts out as just help, but can quickly turn into the experienced player taking control and that doesn’t help anyone.

I do try to simply some rules, such as no OA against the newbie, but I do start with teaching them the minor/move/standard mechanic. I find they can pick it up very quickly, though I refrain from mentioning the trading down until later, that is a bit more advanced.

3 Alton February 3, 2012 at 7:07 pm

I fully agree with helping these players along. There are many occasions at school when new students came to play for the first time. I like teaching the new players and they seem to have a lot of fun.

It is hard to balance the tables sometimes. Many experienced players will not put up with new players and sometimes they will either scare away the new players or they will no longer come to open play. Crazy, but that’s they way the cookie crumbles.
Alton´s last blog post ..Do RPGs Cater to Include Everyone?

4 Victor Von Dave February 3, 2012 at 10:11 pm

The advice about the skill challenges is great – that can apply even to experienced players.

@Alton – I hear what you’re saying – I’m always up for teaching a new player the ropes (it keeps the hobby alive and is kind of the point of the encounters program after all), but I also understand why other players don’t want to, and I don’t think it makes them bad people. They come to sessions to play, not to teach, and probably take system mastery seriously. You wouldn’t find that kind of behaviour that strange in a Hockey league with people who didn’t know how to skate.
Victor Von Dave´s last blog post ..Monsters in 5e

5 Sunyaku February 4, 2012 at 1:11 am

My home group consists of “new-ish” players, in that this is first tabletop campaign they’ve ever played. Even though it’s been about 18 months now (playing an average of once every three weeks), I’d still consider the group “new”… but they’re getting better.

Anyways, I have, on several occasions, firmly bent or completely broken a rule or two along the way. I remember one occasion in particular when a Defender was surrounded by a half dozen minions and a couple brutes and was really taking a pounding. The player asked, “Is there any way I can slash wildly in a circle to try to hit some of these things around me in one attack”. To which I responded sure, starting making burst one attack rolls. After he completed his attack and hit a few creatures, I said “now make an acrobatics check. Oops, you fall prone.” With the remaining monsters up next, they had combat advantage and still knocked the character unconscious. It all felt pretty balanced, even though I let the player use an attack that his character essentially did not have.
Sunyaku´s last blog post ..New Character Theme: Black Powder Barrister

6 Paik the Kenku Monk February 4, 2012 at 11:02 am

New players are the life-blood of DnD. I also try to make it as easy and fun as possible. Using the a crib sheet I found online, it simply outlines what you can and can’t do, basic attacks and effects. It has helped a lot. I came back into the game after a 20 year absence and took me awhile to get a handle on 4E mechanics. Hell I am still learning new things. I can imagine how confused a younger person or n00b may be.

Keep up the great work. Read your blog everyday!

7 B.J. February 5, 2012 at 6:38 pm

Speaking as a newer player, all of the above things would have been very helpful. I’m not saying that my FLGS didn’t provide those things for me, but the first group I played with was very veteran heavy. I was the new guy, while the rest of the folks had been playing a long, long time. A user-friendly experience is what I needed and I didn’t necessarily get that. However, things got much better for me as a new DM took over for the Lost Crown of Neverwinter season.

Also, Paik the Kenku Monk: do you have a link to this crib sheet? I would like to see it and possibly use it.

8 Alton February 5, 2012 at 7:04 pm

@ Victor Von Dave
First off, I like your blog. Interesting stuff.
Secondly, just to give you a different perspective, Encounters is like public skating, you have to share the ice with everyone, so even if you are NHL caliber, you still have to put up with those who cannot skate.
But yes I agree that it does not mean that the veterans are bad people, but unfortunately, they have to share with everyone.

@BJ
Sorry about the experience you had. I had a few players back out from encounters because of the new players at the table. It was their choice for getting out. I am disappointed in them. Elliot Lake has little choice of gamers to begin with. Some of these newbies could eventually bacome great gamers to have at the table when others leave.
I am glad though that things are better now. I am glad to see you stuck with it.
Alton´s last blog post ..Do RPGs Cater to Include Everyone?

9 B.J. February 5, 2012 at 8:03 pm

I don’t want it to seem like I’m “harshing” on the first group I played with. They’re all great people, and I play regularly with some of them outside of Encounters now, but they weren’t necessarily ambassadors for the game.

I think Encounters is a great opportunity to pull in new folks like me. As such, finding new-player-friendly people to run Encounters is important. I think an environment that encourages looser play is more important for Encounters rather than just being another opportunity for diehards to play D&D. Does that make sense?

10 Alton February 5, 2012 at 8:15 pm

Yep I gotcha. I did not think it was ‘harshing’ at all. I just agree that new-player friendly is a necessity. Thanks for chatting.
Alton´s last blog post ..Do RPGs Cater to Include Everyone?

11 Mariah December 30, 2012 at 7:15 am

I sit down with new players and help them in creating their characters and discussing why they chose the race and class they did. Then I put together an amazing folder for them! The folder has a list of conditions on one side and a list of uses for skills on the other. Then in includes a photocopy of race information, class information and their character sheet. Also when I award treasure like magicakal weapons, I use the compendium so I can print it out, and then they can just put that printout in their folder. Then we can keep all the folders ay my house in case another character needs to play someone’s character if they are away. I love teaching new people how to play!

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