Saturday, March 24, 2018

GMing for New Players

A local medieval re-enactment group recently held a special event, and I chose to take part. Specifically, the group hosted an RPG night; several people volunteered to GM a one-shot introductory game, and the others chose one of those games to play. The idea was to give veteran gamers a chance to play, if only briefly, and to give players an opportunity to experience a new system, and to give newbies the prospect of getting a taste of tabletop roleplaying games for the first time.

In case you're curious, there were six total GMs, running the following games: Dungeons and Dragons (because of course), Pathfinder, Starfinder, a Star Wars game using a modified Warhammer 40K system, Changeling: The Dreaming, and Fate Core. Surprisingly enough, I was not the one running Changeling: someone else had already offered to run that one, so I ran Fate instead.

But here's what I thought was interesting: a good friend of mine was very nervous about playing. She ended up joining my Fate game, but in the weeks leading up to the event, she asked me several times if it would be a problem that she had never really gamed before (technically, she had, but only in a limited way... more on that in a moment). I reassured her that I was very familiar with GMing for newbies, and had introduced quite a lot of people to the hobby over the years.

This experience got me to thinking about some of the horror stories I've heard about gaming. I know someone (I'll call her Ann) who was introduced to RPGs by her spouse, who didn't take the time to explain to her how the game works; instead, he simply told her what to roll and when. He might let her decide which specific action she wanted her character to take, but then would say simply, 'Roll a tewnty-sided die and get above a fifteen.' She never was able to learn why she was rolling that kind of die, or why she needed a fifteen or higher; the mechanics of the game were never made clear. She was simply following instructions.

The friend who ended up playing in my Fate game (let's give her the pseudonym Phoenix) described her first gaming experience to me thusly: her partner at the time was going to GM Pathfinder and she decided to give it a try. She asked him how to play, but he brushed her off. He gave a series of increasingly unhelpful pseudo-explanations, insulted her ability to understand the workings of the game, and when she finally just picked up the rulebook and tried to read it for herself, he called her stupid. When the other players arrived, one of them gave her a brief overview of the rules, and they all helped her create a character. The game got underway, but soon, everyone realised that the GM was not doing a very good job of GMing. The story was meandering, backtracking, and generally making no sense at all. This was in large part due to the fact that the GM was quite drunk, and continually getting drunker. Shortly thereafter, he passed out and slid slowly out of his seat, at which point, all the players abandoned the game.

These are just a couple of examples of bad introductions to roleplaying games.

I am pleased to say that I have since been able to give both of these friends a proper introduction to gaming. In fact, many of my friends have played their first RPG at a table headed by me (all such games have, of course, been something other than D&D or Pathfinder).

So I wanted to take a moment today to give you a few pointers: how to introduce new players to the wonderful world of roleplaying games.

Explain Everything Beforehand

The first rule of thumb is to make sure that a new player knows everything necessary before you start playing. Sadly, I've often seen people say things like, 'You'll figure it out as we go.' That is not helpful to someone who's probably already feeling overwhelmed! Make sure they understand the essentials so that when the time comes, you won't have to stop the story to explain things. Obviously, especially for first-time gamers, questions will come up. Minor explanations will be needed, as will clarifications and reminders. But the fewer interruptions that occur in your game, the better.

If you know you're going to have a new player, try to give them the information they need a few days or more before the first session. If that's not possible (for example, you're running a game at a con and won't meet the players until it's time to start), take a few minutes before you begin to give the players an overview of what they need to know. It may slow things down at the beginning, but it will make it much easier in the long run.

Setting First, System Later

This is especially true when playing a game that doesn't have an easy-to-grasp setting; most people will probably understand the general idea behind the world of Dungeons & Dragons (particularly if you're not using one of the more esoteric settings). This will also be less of a problem if you're playing in a franchise (like the Doctor Who Roleplaying Game). But in new, original, or unique settings, it is essential that new players know what they're getting themselves into. Another way of looking at it is this: it's more important to know what you're doing than to know how you're doing it. Once the object of the game is understood, then you can begin the explanation of how to achieve that objective.

Take It Slow

This is particularly true in crunchy rules-heavy games. Given that, in a lot of ways, a roleplaying game is a simulation of reality (or, at the very least, a simulation of a reality), and reality is vast and complex, it can be a lot to take in. Don't expect new players to understand everything right away. Give them time to absorb new information.

As an important corollary to this idea, don't give them unnecessary information. If the player isn't playing a magic-user, don't try to explain the magic system to them. If you don't expect to have a lot of political intrigue in your game, don't bother detailing the intricacies of the game world's noble system. When I ran my one-shot Fate game at the RPG night, I didn't mess with explaining how the damage system worked, because I knew there was a very good chance that there would be no combat (and I was right; the one time a combat was a possibility, the first action a character took was to flatter the monster—an action that succeeded so well upon the die roll that the monster ceased attacking, and had a pleasant conversation with the PCs). I saved myself a ton of headache by simply not stressing about knowledge the players didn't need.

Accept Differing Play Styles

Keep in mind that not everyone plays games for the same reason. Whereas you, as GM, may be upset it the players keep avoiding combat because you really want to indulge in some vicarious violence, you must remember that the players might be more interested in exploring the world than in slaughtering its inhabitants. They may be more drawn to the interpersonal interactions between the characters than in telling an epic story.

This is particularly essential when playing with newbies; they probably don't know what type of player they are yet. It may take them a few sessions of play before the know what they want out of a game. They haven't had the luxury of years of practise to figure out what they do and don't want out of a game, like you have.

And that leads us to our final, and perhaps most important point:

Be Patient

They don't have the knowledge that you have. They haven't memorised charts like you have (probably; not every GM memorises charts). They don't have the advantage of having played the game for years before trying their hand at it.

Remember to give them the time they need to acclimate to the game, to the setting, to the rules. Don't get angry when they ask for the twentieth time how to roll for damage, or what THAC0 is, or what kind of Bunk they need to perform before casting a Cantrip.

Keep in mind that you were a clueless n00b once before, and if you hadn't been initiated gently and appropriately, you may have abandoned the hobby as well. Try to give that same respect and understanding to new players in your games, now that you are the master and they are the students.

In Closing

So there you have it. Hopefully, these suggestions will make it easier to bring new players into the fold. Because, after all, there's room for everyone at the gaming table. So we should do all we can to make sure everyone feels welcome there.

I hope you have enjoyed this advice. With luck, you'll be able to use it someday soon! In the meantime, bring the joy of gaming to everyone you can, and remember always to

Game on!

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