Tag Archives: teaching

Then There Was One: Introducing a New Player to an Established Group

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Do you remember your first game session? Yeah, I know it’s probably been a while, but I bet you remember how overwhelmed you felt.  You had this sheet plopped down in front of you, covered with numbers and strange acronyms that may as well have been ancient Egyptian for all you understood it. And then there were some of the strangest dice you’ve ever seen. But worst of all, everyone else at the table was shouting out things in a strange garbled tongue.

Remember that feeling? Good. Now hold onto it as you read this next post, the second in my series on introducing new players to roleplaying. Last post, I covered what to do if you’re running an entire group of new players. Today I’m covering how to introduce a new player to a group of experienced roleplayers.

Before Adding a New Player

First and foremost, you need to make sure the rest of your players are okay with the idea of new players. Many experienced groups become very insular and can be unwilling to accept a new player into their ranks, especially if the the player is brand new to roleplaying.

Talk with your group. Ask them how they feel about adding another player. If they’re not comfortable with the idea, you may have to consider other options, if you really want to bring this new player into the hobby and you have the time and energy to run more than one game. You’ve got a couple of options:

  • Run a one-on-one game with just her and you
  • Try to find more new players to form a beginners’ game

Know Your Limit

For the purpose of this post, I’m assuming that your group is okay with adding a new player. But what about you? You need to make sure you’re okay with the added responsibility of adding a brand-new player to your game. Is your game under control? Can you handle the extra workload?

Every GM has a optimal number of players he feels comfortable running.  This ideal number varies depending on:

  • the game system you’re using. Some games work better with smaller or larger groups,
  • how familiar you are with the system,
  • the current mix of players in your group,
  • how high-maintenance you’re current players are.

For example,my optimal group size is around eight players; my games have a lot of PC interactions and politics. Many other GMs prefer smaller groups of four to six players. However, when I run LARPs, my optimal size is around thirty players and when I run FASA’s classic Doctor Who game, I prefer a group size of three.

Think back over other games you’ve run. At what point (in number of PCs) did you feel like you started to lose control of the game? On the other hand, was there a game you felt didn’t really work because you didn’t have enough PCs? Usually having too many PCs is more of a problem than having too few, so if you’re in doubt, don’t add any more players. Especially brand-new players who will require more of your time and energy than an experienced player would.

Preparing the new player to play

Assuming you’re able to handle another player and your group is okay with the idea, you can go ahead and talk to your brand-new player about joining. Let her know that kind of game you’re running. Go beyond naming the system and stay away from describing mechanics. A “near-future variant of the d20 system, only using spell points and increased technology to give it a Shadowrun feel” won’t tell her if she’d be interested in playing.

Describe your game in plain words. A better way to describe the above game would be “a dark, cyberpunk-type game set in an alternate near-future that has slightly more advanced technology than we have now, but also has magic and magical races, such as elves, ogres, and dwarves. If you can, find a movie or TV show you can compare it with. That gives the new player some basis to know if she’d be interested or not.

Try to give her a feeling for the mood and themes of your game. It’s great that it’s a near-future game with magic, but are the PCs a dedicated group of cohorts who can trust each other completely (like Babylon 5) ? Or are you running a game where people’s minds are messed with on a regular basis, the enemy has spies planted inside the group of PCs, who, themselves, may not be who they think they are (like the most recent Battlestar Galactica).

Encourage your prospective player to come watch a session or two of your game (provided the other players are okay with this). That will give her the best of idea of what your game is like. Tell you current players that she’s coming and ask them to make an effort to welcome the her.

Once your potential player tells you she’s interested, let her know what she needs to have. Does she need her own dice and book(s)? If so, let her know in advance of her first play session. Tell her where she can get them and exactly which books she needs to buy. It’s also a good idea to let her know what books she won’t need, if any. Game books aren’t cheap these days and it can be frustrating to pay out $20-50 on something, only to discover you’ll never get a chance to use it.

Consider letting her borrow books and dice for the first few game sessions, until she knows whether or not she likes the game enough to stick with it. Or you can pass the hat and have your current group chip in together to buy her a set of dice and copy of the core rules. Many games have PDF versions of their rules, which are usually much cheaper and allow a player to print out only the section of the rules she needs. If you go the PDF route, give her a range of pages to start with (i.e., “print out the character creation rules–they’re on pages 18-36”).

It’s also helpful to create a “cheat sheet” of the most basic rules a player needs to know. I’m not talking about copying whole sections of the book: just create a one or two page sheet of the most common mechanics. This will give her something to look at during the game section (it would also help to page note this sheet so she can look the rules up in the actual book, if she needs to). That way, she doesn’t need to be flipping page after page to find how to role for initiative in the middle of combat.

Fill her in on any house rules you use, as well as any behavior expectations any “table rules” you may have. For example: “if a die rolls off the table, it must be rerolled” or “once the game starts, I assume everything you say is in character.” Don’t forget to include any group traditions, such as “everyone in the group chips in for pizza.”

It’s also good to give a brand-new player a glossary of common gaming terms. We, as experienced players, tend to forget that not everyone knows what “hit points” are or what “NPC” stands for. We forget that it sounds like a foreign language to someone brand-new, who’s still learning that AC has nothing to do with electricity.


Next time, I’ll cover character creation with a brand-new player, as well as tips for bringing that character into your game without ruffling feathers.

[Image by JGNY from Flickr Creative Commons].

Other posts in this series:

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Passing it On: Introducing New Players to RPGs

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We love this hobby of ours so much, it’s only natural we’d want to spread the word. We do our damndest to get our non-gaming friends to give this “roleplaying thing” a try. This is especially true if we’re far from other gamers and the only way to get a group is to build one ourselves.

But how do you run a game for an entire group of brand-new players? Especially when you’ve been playing so long, you can’t remember what it feels like to be brand-new?

This is the first in a series of posts with ideas to help you introduce new players to our illustrious time sink …er, pastime.

When Your Whole Group is New


Do the planning for them

New players are often overwhelmed by the character sheet alone. Are we expected to know all those numbers? How do we actually use the stuff that’s on there? Give brand-new players pre-generated characters, especially when you’re teaching an entire group of first-time players.

By using pre-generated characters, you make a lot of overwhelming decisions for the players. They don’t have to worry about choosing effective skills, powers, spells or weapons, because you’ve already done that for them. Too many choices become intimidating. Even first-time players realize that some choices would be more effective than others, but which ones?

Limiting choices was part of the success of the original D&D game, IMHO. And I think it’s one of the reasons D&D was wildly more successful than Traveller, another early RPG. Traveller had (and still does) an open-ended character generation system. Sure, you chose a branch of service and rolled randomly for skills, but you still had to create a role in the party.

Being from the Navy didn’t give a new player any ideas on how to actually play his character. It was entirely up to you to define your place in the universe. Great for an experienced player with a strong character concept and goals. But if you’d never played an RPG before, you really didn’t know what kinds of things your character could do. If you’d never played Traveller before, you really didn’t know what kinds of things your character could do.

Original D&D took care of that for you. You had only four classes (well, really six—dwarf and elf were treated like classes), each with a very distinct role in the party. Fighters fought, magic-users cast spells, clerics healed and thieves disarmed traps and opened locks. Each class had a built-in purpose that made them very accessible to brand-new players and this worked really, really well new players.

Choose your game system carefully. When you’re introducing a group brand-new players who’ve never roleplayed at all (as opposed to experienced players learning a new system), you want something that’s simple, without being too simplistic. Pick D&D over Rolemaster, Star Wars over Traveller, and anything over Amber (unless your entire group are die-hard Zelazny fans).

This is not the time for you to run a system for the first time. Pick something you’re very familiar with, so you don’t waste valuable teaching (and playing) time looking things up. Plus, if you’re constantly having to look up things, you make the game seem much complicated than it actually is. When you use a system you’re very comfortable with, you give the impression “See, this isn’t so hard. I don’t even have to look up the rules, it’s that easy.” It makes the system much more accessible.

Limit choices, but make sure you give some

If you’ve ever had toddlers, you know how effective an empowering it is to let them choose something from a limited and predetermined set of options. Do you want to wear the green pants or the new skirt? The same goes for new players. Do you want to use a healing potion or have the cleric use her last spell?

Don’t be afraid to make suggestions during play. Most brand-new players will be grateful for the advice, especially if you explain the reason behind your suggestions. Just remember that the players are free to choose something other than what you suggested. That’s part of the  learning experience.

Don’t make them feel stupid or wrong because they made an ineffective choices, just let the results of their actions catch up to them in-game. If one of their choices doesn’t work, explain afterwards why it didn’t work well and what might have worked better. Never imply it was a stupid or bad decision. Instead, use language like “less effective”.

Take it slow

Plan a short adventure. While you may consider a mission to stop an ogre from carrying off the nearby town’s livestock dull and routine, the players have never done it before. They’re not going to feel cheated because the “dungeon” is nothing more than a three-room abandoned farmhouse and the “treasure” is a masterwork (non-magical) sword and a single healing potion. And if your adventure doesn’t look like it will fill and entire game session, remember that you’ll be stopping frequently to answer questions and give explanations. It’s much better to end too soon than to go too long.

Give out information as the players need it

Don’t try to explain the entire character sheet at the beginning of the adventure. You’ll just confuse the players and they won’t remember the explanation, anyway. Instead, explain each section just before the players need to use it. Explain initiative as they’re getting ready for combat. Explain lock-picking when they encounter that first chest. Because they then immediately use that information, they’ll remember it better the next time they need to use it.

When you explain something, also explain why it’s done that way. Explain that you roll for initiative because you need to know in what order things will happen. Explain that you go around the table in initiative order because faster characters get to act first and because it helps you make sure you haven’t missed anyone. While this will help the players remember what to do next time, you’ll probably still need to remind them of the details the first several times they do something.

Follow their cue

Go through the adventure at they players’ pace. If they’re having trouble with combat, add in a few more easy fights. If they mastered skill use on the first go, make the next set of skill challengers a little bit harder. If they want to spend 40 minutes real-time looking for secret doors, let them, as long as everyone is having fun with it (and, if they look that hard, consider letting them find one, even if it just leads back to a room they’ve already explored). Be prepared to change things to fit the group even more than you would for an experienced group.

Make learning the goal

Don’t get hung up on finishing an adventure in the first game session. Your goal should be on teaching the game, not accomplishing the mission. If you’ve chosen a small enough adventure, this probably won’t come up. If it does, remind yourself that your real goal is to encourage these players to come back for more. Sure, the players will feel great if they save the day, but it’s much more important that they have fun.


This post is a slightly expanded version of a post on the rpgGM.com homepage: Some Tips for Introducing New Players to RPGs. Next time we’ll cover adding a brand-new player to a group of experienced players.

[Image courtesy of tim_and_selena via Flickr Creative Commons]

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August Blog Carnival Wrap-Up

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First off, thanks to everyone who contributed to August’s Blog Carnival Teaching the Game. This is my first time hosting the carnival; thanks for making it a success. This post is a little late, but I just got married last week and am only now getting the chance to get back to a regular schedule. We had some great posts this month:

Again, thanks to everyone who participated. I’ll be hosting the January 2011 blog carnival on Worldbuilding, so mark your calendars 😉 .

Class Is in Session: Running a Convention Teaching Game

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Game conventions are a great place to introduce new players to your favorite system. But running a game designed to teach a new system is a bit differently than running a game for experienced players. For one thing, you can’t assume that the new player knows anything about the system you’re running–even what type of die to use, if any. Also, you’ve somehow got to do a quick over-view of the rules without boring your players to tears and yet also manage to complete your scheduled adventure.

It’s a lot to juggle. Below are some steps to help you successfully pull off a teaching game. These steps don’t have to be limited to convention games; they’re also useful if you’re running a demo at a game shop or even trying to convince your regular group to try that new game you bought and are dying to run.

  1. Always use pre-generated characters. I’ve yet to see a successful teaching game which started with the players creating their characters. I’m sure someone’s done it, but it does make teaching the game much, much harder. With pre-gen characters, not only do you save valuable play time, but you can also plan your adventure around those specific characters.
  2. Create “iconic” characters. Teaching games aren’t the place for off-beat or unusual character ideas. If you use archetypal  (or even cliché) characters, players can spend less time figuring out their motives and more time learning the game itself.
  3. Don’t make your players add. The other good thing about using pre-generated characters is that you can do as much of  the math ahead of time as possible. You want to be able to tell a player to “roll a d20, then add your BAB [marked in large numbers on the character sheet] to it.” As much as possible, try to keep your players from having to add more than two or three numbers together at a time.
  4. Prepare “cheat sheets” or “quickstart” versions of the rules, if the game company doesn’t provide them. I always make a one to two page summary of a game’s basic rules so the players have something they can refer to while playing.
  5. Consider creating character packets. I create an information packet for each character that contains the character sheet, any relevant character background, written descriptions of the character’s powers, and a brief summary of the game’s setting and background. It seems like a lot, but if you limit the background information to its most crucial elements, your players will thank you for putting what they need to know right at their fingertips.
  6. Simplify the mechanics. Strip away anything not absolutely critical. You want new players to get a feel for the system, not bog them down with modifiers and exceptional cases.
  7. Plan to spend the first quarter of the session explaining the game and its basic concepts. Here you want to focus on the essence of the game, not the mechanics. Sure, do a real-quick mechanics run-down (I usually go through the cheat-sheet), but spend most of this time going over the character sheet and game background and answering player questions.
  8. Tell players to hold their questions until after your explanation. If you’ve done a good game introduction, you may find you’ve already answered the players’ questions. This also helps prevent you from getting bogged down in player questions and having time to finish your introduction.
  9. Begin with a bang. Start your adventure with the PCs in the middle of something: they’re in the car on the way to the haunted house; they’re trapped in a burning building; they’ve just been locked in a room with a group of people, one of whom is murderer. Unless you’re running Tales from the Floating Vagabond, try to avoid the “You’re sitting in a bar…” opening.
  10. Do the  math for them. Try to handle as much of the mechanics yourself as possible. You want to give players a feel for the game, not bog them down with situational modifiers. Let the players roll dice, but add the modifiers yourself and describe the results to the player in words, not numbers. Sometimes you need to give the player numbers, but try to serve them with some descriptions as well: “You’re knocked back against the wall as your opponent’s blade rips through your shirt, drawing blood and pinning your sleeve to the wall. Take 8 points of damage.”
  11. Be flexible. Keep an eye on the clock. If your game is running over time, try to bring it to a conclusion, even if it’s not the one you’d originally planned. You may need to improvise scenes or cut some out. Allow the players to ask questions about the game, but try to keep them focused to the adventure at hand.
  12. Get feedback. If you’ve got time after you finish the adventure, ask for player feedback. What did they need the most help with? What game concepts need to be made clearer? Is there anything that should’ve been covered in the introduction that wasn’t. That type of thing. Really listen to what the players say and, if need be, modify your introduction and information packets accordingly.

This steps should help you teach new game systems to players successfully, particularly when you have a short amount of time to do it in, such as at a game convention. Please feel free to leave comments letting me know if I’ve left anything out or need to improve something.

Teaching the Game: August Blog Carnival

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First off, thanks to Mad Brew Labs for hosting the July carnival on Growing the Hobby. It really got some great discussion going. This month’s carnival actually (and inadvertently) extends that discussion. Much of the consensus about growing the hobby focused on how we, as RPG players and GMs, need to teach our games to as many new players as we can. This month, I take that one step further and ask how do we teach them?

I’d originally intended to call this “Passing it Down” and focus on children and roleplaying, but then I realized that was only one type of new RPG player. So this month, I want to focus on the hows and wherefores of teaching RPGs to new players, whether they be adults or children, people just joining their first game or people who’ve been playing for decades learning a new system.

Here’s some possible questions to get you going:

  • How do you find new players?
  • How do you help them learn the mechanics of a system (and how much of the system do you require them to learn?)
  • How do you teach the non-mechanics part of the game?
  • How do you teach someone to GM?
  • What’s the best beginner system?
  • What’s the best system for teaching roleplaying to kids?
  • How do you run games for kids?
  • What was your first game like? How could it have been better?
  • Should roleplaying be taught in the schools?
  • Do you play with your own kids?
  • Are all-kid game groups better than adult-kid mixed groups?

And, of course, anything else you can think of.

I’ve always enjoyed teaching games and most of the convention games I’ve run have been designed to introduce new players the whatever system I’m running. Later this month I’ll post my techniques on running a teaching game. I’m looking forward to seeing your posts; just put the URL of your post in the comments section below and at the end of the month, I’ll do a wrap-up post listing everyone’s contributions.

Kids & RPGs: Passing it Down

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Just recently, I’ve started a new campaign. I think I’m more excited about this game than any other I’ve run (which is saying a lot,  given the fact that I practically live for running games). It’s nothing fancy: just a plain, vanilla, out of the box ADD3.5 game, using largely canned adventures. The adventures aren’t anything to write home about — many are old-fashioned dungeon crawls updated to 3.5 stats. It’s not the adventures, it’s not the setting (I haven’t really developed one yet). What makes this game so exciting for me is the players … well, one player.

You see — I’m teaching my son AD&D. At 12, he’s finally able to sit down long enough to make it through a game session. I’m not sure who’s more thrilled: him or me. Probably me.

As the child of two gamers, he’s been around RPGs his whole life. He actually played his first game when he was 14 weeks old; he played a changeling child in a World of Darkness LARP. He’s been playing MMOs since he was five.  He’s watched countless game sessions I’ve run and played in. He follows the AD&D game I’m playing in almost as closely as I do and always asks what happened if he’s not around during a session. But this is his first real tabletop game.

I’m not expecting him to play all of his games with me. Honestly, I wouldn’t want him to. I know for me, half of the fun of games was discovering things for myself, with people of my own age and skill level and that’s an experience I don’t want him to miss out on. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t proud when he asked me to run his first game.

I ran my first game when I was about his age. It was the B1 module In Search of the Unknown that came in the Basic D&D “blue” box. Of course, back then adventuring consisted of killing monsters, gathering treasure, and getting as much magic and experience points as we could.  We had only the most rudimentary idea of a background for our characters and there wasn’t as much role-playing as roll-playing. But it was the start which, 30 years later, led to our current games of rich character interaction, fully-developed game settings, and intricate plots and subplots where it’s almost as much theatre as game.

I’ll refer to my son as ‘Kraseus’ —  his character name. After all, when I was his age, I preferred my character name to my real one, too 😉 .

Kraseus is starting from a different point: he wants what he sees the adults playing. He wants a detailed character background and the sense that he’s playing in a world that could be real — something I never looked for until my later years of high-school. But he’s entering a well-developed hobby where as, 30 years ago, it wasn’t just us that were new: the whole idea of gaming was new. My son is a second-generation gamer (actually third, on his dad’s side), so his expectations are different from mine at his age.

It’ll be very interesting to see where his generation takes us.