Friday Favourite: Running A Game With New Players

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on February 7, 2014

On Friday we comb through our extensive archives to find an older article that we feel deserves another look. From February 3, 2012, Dungeon’s Master once again presents: Running A Game With New Players.

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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1 Joe February 7, 2014 at 9:34 am

New players is one of the reasons I keep coming back to DM Encounters. While there are tons of challenges (as you’ve displayed above), the rewards are impossible to beat. Seeing the excitement in a new player who gets to do something cool and heroic is all the reward I need.

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