Introducing New Players to RPGs
One of the more difficult hurdles to overcome in introducing people to role-playing is, in my experience, communicating the core concept. For someone who hasn’t done it before, the idea of sitting around and pretending just doesn’t sound enthralling. And it isn’t. But that’s because they’re not imagining the game you’re playing. At their most charitable, they’re imagining a group of people sitting at a table actively deluding themselves.
Interestingly, I suspect the popularity of video games gone some distance to bridging this gap. It’s easier to communicate the experience of pretending to be another character now that a lot of people have experienced what it is like to assume the role handed to you by video games. Still, there is a world of difference between the plugged and unplugged versions of role-playing, and in my experience the best way to get people to understand the appeal of say Dungeons & Dragons or Apocalypse World, is to get them to sit down and actually play a session.
Of course, once you get them to the table a whole new challenge presents itself. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Gamer gets friend to sit down to game. Gamer asks friend who they want to play. Friend, having little to no conception of what answers they can give stares confusedly at gamer, trying to figure out the right answer. Gamer, trying to sell the beauty of tabletop RPG’s, tells friend they can do whatever they want. Friend either searches for a structure gamer is not providing, or else stretches imaginative wings and gives an answer that doesn’t work, for whatever reason. Maybe friend says they want to play a character that by definition breaks the power level or the game’s aesthetic.
It’s a problem. New gamers, no matter how enthusiastic or skeptical they may be, invariably aren’t really sure how to play a role-playing game. That is part of what makes them new. Often they’ll end up stumbling through the motions, feeling like they are only along for the ride and not really participating in the creation of a story. And therein lies the real appeal of these games: collaborative storytelling.
If you’re on this site, you are probably not a new gamer. But, you probably know some neophytes, or people you’d like to introduce to this hobby. To that end, here is a list of four things you can do to make sure their first session keeps them coming back to the table until they too have their first really memorable game.
- Limit their choices - This may sound counter-intuitive. I know, part of the appeal of RPG’s is the freedom. But, for someone who doesn’t know what the choices in front of them are or more importantly what they mean, the vast array of possibilities can be daunting. People know that there are good and bad decisions when playing games, and don’t want to make bad ones. When introducing them to a game, try picking a character for them you think they’d enjoy playing, or simplify their options. Don’t show them the array of character classes, ask them what kind of play experience they’re looking for. Magic or steel? Soaks up damage, or intricate skill set? Hit once hard, or bamboozle over time? Then suggest a character for them. And with rules-heavy games like D&D, do they heavy lifting for them. You record their bonuses and such on their sheet, let them pick their weapons.
- Communicate what game is about - Most new players (and more than a few old) don’t always understand the concept that the game is a collaborative thing at first. So while it is not inherently wrong to be a beard and pointy hat wizard in your World of Darkness campaign, it probably throws off the game you’ve got going more than a little. To avoid that awkward moment when you have to recant your “You can be anything” statement, explain the game like you would a story. Tell them the setting, the themes, some possible characters that would be found in your game. Chances are they’ll ask to play something that works with your game. And if they come up with something that’s still a little outlandish, run with it. If you run games you’re a creative, so put that creativity to work making their character fit. It’ll probably make your game richer.
- Engage them directly - Set up situations where your new player has multiple options in front of them. Put them in a spot, but make sure there are clear ways out. Make them varied. Most of all, make sure they have real consequences, preferably ones that change the status quo of the world in some way. Not too severe, but things that will last. And if they make a choice that seems illogical to you, don’t correct or second guess them. Part of the mystery around role-playing games is realizing that your actions still have consequences and that you can change your situation around you. Make sure this kind of engagement occurs in the first session.
- Nudge them - If they’re truly stuck, help them out. Don’t just sit back like an impartial god awaiting their decision. Recap pertinent information, remind them of one of their abilities, or simply ask them if they’d like a hint. Just don’t be smug about it.
If you take these suggestions to heart, you should be on your way to showing another person the fun of role-playing games. I’ve heard too many stories of people turned away from the hobby because of a bad first play session. Don’t let your new player be one of them.