Introducing new players

Soon after I met my girlfriend she decided to try out this D&D thing I was so interested in. She’s never played anything like it before and isn’t much on video games. Recently we talked a bit about the experience and why she didn’t like it – and it turns out a lot of it had to do with how we introduced her to the game.

Imagine that you’re about to sit down to a new board game. You’re going to play with some complete strangers, but that can be cool. They’ve played the game a lot. Assume it’s a bit like Monopoly. You roll dice and move your pieces around, but there’s also strategy involved.

You want them to make you feel welcome, check. But you also want to learn the rules. You want to know how to play and what it means when you roll those dice or move this token around the board. If you don’t know the rules it’ll feel like you’re just going through the motions. And this is what I realized about D&D: you don’t learn how to play by just going through the motions. You have to know why you’re doing it.

Second, the new player knows nothing about the things the experienced players take for granted. This newbie knows nothing about the game setting, or even what country the party is in. Much less history, religion, etc. – the things only a minority of players are very interested in.

Third, the new player needs few options so as not to be overwhelmed. Don’t have her play a spellcaster, for example. But the new player will be learning by watching what the others do, so their activities should be also limited in scope.

Ideally the new player comes into a situation where everyone is low-level (1st level would be lovely) and nobody else knows about the game setting / region. This way the new player benefits from the process of learning and helping each other out that comes when a new party of characters forms up. Her character, at least, is instantly as much of an insider as the others, even if she still feels like an outsider as a player.

Furthermore something simple for an adventure is best. The old introductory adventures like Keep on the Borderlands and Lost City were interesting but concrete and well-defined, and honestly very simple. The DM adds details and weirdness as needed. In this case, not so much of either.

An argument against this is that the player gets the wrong sense of what the game is really like, and may leave dissatisfied with how simplistic it is. I would suggest that the simple approach is better for a new player anyway, because it seems to me that fewer will demand the great detail and complexity that experienced players are used to.

To bring this all together, my suggestion is that the DM have the players each create a new character, such that they are all first-level. While the higher-level party is off on their own adventure, the lower-level party goes off to do something else. The established players aren’t really wasting their time, because establishing a stable of characters of all levels is good for when you want to do a lower-level adventure or you need a character of a certain class for an adventure. And of course, the reward for playing is that you get to play.

Transitioning the new player from being equals with the low-level party into a lower-level member of the established party is less hassle than expecting her to make up a high level character and play it right away. And of course disparities in level are minimized after a few adventures anyway because you need fewer XP to rise at low level than at high level.

Another method would be 1 on 1 gaming, either on another day that week or before the gaming session. The first time out the new player gets comfortable with the game, meets the other players, and is able to jump in better. And she knows that she will get to show up early the next weekend and get more time to ask questions and play examples. You would need to run a separate game during these 1 on 1 sessions, with a different character, but all the 1 on 1 sessions would be a connected series.

Or you could run a separate 1 on 1 game for several weeks until the new player wanted to transition into the main game. This helps overcome the vulnerability ot being around new friends and trying to learn a new (complicated!) activity at the same time.

It goes without saying that the game used should be as simple as possible. Avoid house rules so the player can read the game books during the week. Though you may be leery about loaning your own books to a new player to read – I know I wouldn’t do it if she didn’t already live with me anyway! And you must explain what the game is about. If you can’t explain it, try reading the introductions to the earliest editions of the game. There is a good deal of practical wisdom there.

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