Teach Newcomers to Play

Maybe it’s friends. Maybe it’s relatives or coworkers or classmates. Whoever it is, they’ve expressed an interest in your hobby, and you figure they might even enjoy it. So how do you get them (pardon the pun) rolling?

There are many ways to introduce newcomers to roleplaying. This is just one gamemaster’s approach. Feel free to take what you like, tweak bits, or ignore as necessary.

“The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery.” — Mark Van Doren

Run A Pilot Episode

It can be a bit intimidating to come into a group that has been playing together for a while. So even if you’re thinking of introducing newcomers to an ongoing campaign, consider an introductory session for the newcomers only. Run it like the pilot episode of a TV show. It should be action-packed, it should hint at a larger world, and it should leave the participants wanting more.

Keep It Simple

Use a game you know well and would want to run with these players for multiple sessions. You’re not just here to teach roleplaying, you’re here to get some new players. That said, if you are comfortable with a game like Dungeon World that has an easy initial learning curve, such a game would probably provide an easier onramp than a high-crunch game like Burning Wheel. Regardless of the game you choose, be sure to re-read the rules and get really comfortable with them. When you’re teaching you need to really know the subject matter.

If you’re using a fairly complex game system, go with pregenerated characters. Summarize them – “The rogue can sneak around, steal things, and deal with traps” – so the characters can easily pick one. You can also ask them ahead of time what sort of character they want, and create it for them. Make sure characters are well-differentiated and each has one or two key capabilities that make them stand out.

DMs are scary when this happy.
Sharmie running a game – by Graeme Clarke. Used by permission.

It can be tempting to attempt to explain the rules before the first session. Unless they’re familiar with wargames or sophisticated board games, resist the urge. It can be very difficult for newcomers to understand game mechanics in the abstract, and you want to keep things as stress-free as possible.

Keep the adventure simple and straightforward. If you’re running a fantasy game, have the PCs get hired by the local constable to clear out some (small) old ruins that have been the source of unpleasantness. For a science fiction game, have their spaceship suffer a malfunction that forces them down on a hostile uncharted planet, where they have to survive long enough to find a way to get back into space.

Start in media res – in other words, start with action. Introduce a situation with just enough context so the players understand what is going on, and present them with a compelling event that requires them to make choices. Ask them what their characters are thinking and how they will react, and take it from there. When they have to do something difficult, like detect a replicant or shoot a kobold with an arrow, have them roll. Take it slow – show them what to look up on their character sheet, make sure they know what they need to do to succeed, and be prepared to answer questions. Expose more of the system’s task resolution mechanics as they come up in play. If you need to streamline rules or leave out complicating factors like to hit modifiers, err on the side of keeping the action moving.

Also, don’t be afraid to ask leading questions to help players understand the impact of actions their characters are taking. For example, “Are you sure you want to rush those three stone golems? You’ve heard just one is more than a match for a veteran warrior.” While player character death might occur, it shouldn’t be as the result of an uninformed decision.

Flesh Out the World and the Characters Along the Way

While you don’t want to spend too much time explaining the nuances of the game world, small plot elements can make the adventure feel like a meaningful part of that world. For example, as the PCs clean out the old ruins they notice that the skeletons they’re fighting wear the armor of the evil Empire of the East, which was only defeated after a decades-long civil war. Are these skeletons part of a resurgence of that vile threat?

Use vivid, descriptive language and encourage players to do the same. Sometimes newcomers will be hesitant about giving voice to their imaginations. Part of your job as a gamemaster is to help them feel comfortable in the improv theater setting that we call tabletop roleplaying. NPCs can be a big help here – nothing gets a player talking in character like interaction with a particularly obnoxious (or flattering, or talkative) NPC.

Wrap It Up, Recap, and Keep Rolling

Keep the first session relatively short. New players are taking a lot in, and three or four hours should be sufficient immersion for them to get a feel for the game. You’ll likely know well before the end of the session whether they’re into it or not – often body language is a dead giveaway.

Whether it looked like they were having fun or not, be sure to ask your new players collectively and one-on-one what they enjoyed about the session, which aspects confused them, and whether they want to continue. Let them know it’s fine if they still don’t know everything about the rules – part of the fun of the game is becoming more proficient with a system as you play it more. Because you’re an outstanding gamemaster, they’ll all want to continue playing, of course.

Think about how to integrate their characters, whether you’re creating a campaign specifically for your new players or merging them into an existing campaign. They can create new ones, but if they have formed some attachment to the characters they used in the pilot, consider allowing them to tweak the characters a bit before the next session in order to make them more personalized.

Before the next session, give them a quick recap of what happened in their first roleplaying session and prepare a follow-up adventure that feeds them more context and draws them deeper into the game world. Then prepare to be amazed at what they’ll do, because there’s nothing like quite like watching someone’s imagination being unleashed by tabletop roleplaying.