Table Reflection: Teaching New Players

One of the best things to do with any friend is to introduce them to a hobby they’ll enjoy-I’ve personally introduced several people to tabletop gaming, and a few more to specific games such as Shadowrun or the like. However, there are a few things that really help before you start to get people involved in the hobby; most people my age play video games and know the basics of what goes on in a tabletop game from references or video games heavily based on a tabletop system, like Neverwinter Nights, but don’t really have a real clue about how things work-they know about rolling dice and comparing numbers, but they’ve been doing the equivalent trying to learn a language by listening to it, rather than being engaged in the core of what they are doing they are merely gleaning an occasional number or the number of sides on a die (this isn’t always the case; but games that both explain and fully implement tabletop systems are rare).

So what is the best way to introduce players to tabletop roleplaying? Typically, it helps to have two people; one to make the suggestion, and another to chime in. For instance, my college tabletop group started with me hanging out in a friend’s dorm while he was discussing running D&D in high school, then mentioned that he’d seen people playing Shadowrun, which I already wanted to run, but that he had never played himself. Between the two of us, we found a pretty sizable group of people to join us (eight or nine, which was way too many for a GM of my experience to handle, but we still had a good time). The number one barrier I’ve found when trying to get people into tabletop roleplaying is that it’s perceived as being too difficult; there are huge books of rules and they specify a lot of different situations, game world information, and more, which makes a lot of players balk, so giving an example of having two people who game can significantly decrease the perceptions of difficulty and inaccessibility.

Another thing to consider is the system that you’re using. For instance, Traveller is not a good starting game; D&D, for what it’s worth, is often one that works well because it’s well-referenced in nerd (and even mainstream) culture, and it’s a game that has a lot of name recognition-you’d be surprised at the number of people who play or played D&D. Look for something with a simple core system, that uses easy to understand numbers, and which generally is engaging with a low entrance barrier. D&D’s nice because so much of the game centers around a single D20 roll, and 5th Edition of Shadowrun is much better than 3rd Edition because of 3rd Edition’s fluctuating TN and dice pool, while 5th Edition’s thresholds and dice pool change equally often they’re a lot more understandable; “just roll a 5 or 6 and you get a hit” works better than “Well, normally the TN is 4, but you’re at a penalty so you need to roll a 7 for a success”, especially when you’re working with six-sided dice.

Once you’ve settled on a system (remember, simplicity is good) you need to work on figuring out the core knowledge needed to play the game. If you have a GM screen, use it to get a grasp of what people need to know (collections of tables and such often are good for this, unless they’re comprehensive and not just the “most important” ones). One thing to consider is how your players think; if you’re running D&D in the wake of a Neverwinter Nights LAN party, you probably don’t need to talk about the d20. On the other hand, if you’re running Shadowrun 3rd with novices, you probably should mention the Rule of Six and exploding dice. Figure out the minimum each player needs to know and let them digest it. If you have a print book you can show them it, or you can let them glance through your .pdf’s on your laptop (sharing .pdf’s is technically piracy, and can carry a fine or jail term) if you bring it to the table. Alternatively, you can make handouts with what they need. Try not to do things for them them; as a powergamer I like to give my players a ton of advice on how to make their characters, but I’ve found that I train them to do everything I do, for better or worse, without making analytical decisions. The same goes for making rules calls; correct them if they say something wrong, and give advice if they’re unsure about their capabilities, but don’t tell them what to do-if you must give them advice, tell them the reasons why you’d make that decision (“You get a +8 to attack with Homing Strike, but only a +4 with your Stunning Fist”) while pointing out where you got your knowledge so that they can learn rather than just letting you play. Similarly, even if you like to keep NPC stats secret or hide the results of rolls, be sure to explain why and how certain things happen, especially if you’re making exceptions (for instance, giving a GM discretion bonus or penalty) to the normal written rules.

The best asset you can have to introduce a player is a “quick start guide” or equivalent. They’re the equivalent of video game demos; a short standalone adventure and a condensed and limited version of the rules. Sometimes they’re intended to sell the game, sometimes they’re legitimately intended to help out with learning the rules, but they’re always better than tossing someone a 450 page book. Plus, if the main game doesn’t have examples (which should be industry standard, but they’re not) the quick start guide will almost certainly remedy that.

The next thing to consider is telling players the specialist rules they need. If you don’t know them, try to avoid them. My first Shadowrun 4th Edition campaign involved a player technomancer, and I’m still not sure I’m handling those rolls right; needless to say it was a total nightmare, and my player explained the rules to me without having as solid a grasp of the basic rules as he should have had, which resulted in a lot of issues. Be sure to introduce these rules to the party, but you don’t have to go over the nitty gritty mechanics to everyone; D&D players should understand Vancian magic, while Shadowrunners should understand drain/fading as concepts. This helps double-check these rules in play, and encourages players to put a voice to their misconceptions rather than simply form more to try to justify what they incorrectly believe to be a rule.

Finally, have a test session. I like to give players a one-shot with relatively low difficulty, and ignore any consequences; as I’ve mentioned before here or elsewhere, the first time you play a tabletop roleplaying game is the first time you experience the freedom in a game that roleplaying provides. Usually, players misbehave their first game, pushing everything (including your patience and the melanin in your hair) to the limit by engaging in as much combat or otherwise things they weren’t supposed to be doing-especially if they play a lot of video games (combat’s easier to implement in a satisfying manner than social skills in those things, so it’s a logical transition from screen to table to fight a lot). If you have a plan for your first game, ditch it. My brother, who has a powergamer invulnerability complex, has never made it through the adventure in the Shadowrun Third Edition quick start guide (dying to the same entirely avoidable foe at least twice after provoking him), even with various parties, while one of my groups did the whole run without a hitch. It’s just learning the ropes (and your limits), and the first session should follow the rules pretty heavily (with copious explanations), but let the players decide the course of the action more than normal. Either way, don’t ruin your players’ experience in the first game; the tabletop allows for shared storytelling, the perfect alternative to modern media which allows for very little audience choice.

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