We have all been there. That friend who’s been fence-sitting for years finally agrees to give D&D a shot. The significant other who has been curious but hesitant to get their feet wet. And if you are anything like myself, your love of spreading the good word of our delightful hobby can be a bit, shall we say, enthusiastic. Okay, why mince words, we can get a bit crazy. Not that I blame us. Like anyone who is truly passionate about their pastimes, we want to share, and we want others to see what we see. We want to them to experience the adventures, the stories, and the grand worlds of our imagination. But that desire to share can quickly become intimidating and, let’s be honest, overwhelming for those taking their first steps into the world of tabletop gaming.
Now, to keep from scaring the straights, here are a few hard-earned lessons from mistakes I have made in the past.
1) Let The Wookie Win
It is no secret that games like Dungeons and Dragons can rack up its share of dead player characters, and this can do wonders for creating suspense, drama, and realism to the action that can propel a game. But nothing can be more frustrating to a new player than being hacked to pieces by a dice-lucky kobold. By making your new player think they can’t win, or that an already complicated game is obviously too difficult for them is a serious turn off. So, let them get some games under their belts before you bring out the murder mobs. Instead, if you want to create a sense of lethality and danger, make an important NPC and let them take the fall at a key moment. Star Trek had Red Shirts for a reason. Let your newbie be Kirk.
It may also help to run a mock combat BEFORE the real game starts. Let’s face it: the combat mechanics are the stressor, so maybe giving your new players a test drive may help sell them on the car, or game as the case may be.
2) Bait The Hook Early
With more experienced gamers, you can take your time, set the mood, build the suspense through careful and deliberate subtlety. But if you don’t hook new players early, you may never. Having them spend 2 hours shopping at the village store and whacking mole rats for a bit of coin may be a great way to establish a rich character background, but players who have no idea of the scope and depth an RPG can reach are going to be whipping out the iPhones to kill the clock right quick. So don’t hold back. Give them a taste of the action early and don’t let up!
3) Keep It Simple
Tabletop roleplaying games are light years beyond most board games in complexity, and the hundreds of pages of rules can scare the dickens out of new players. There is no reason to come out of the gate with every subtle rule and nuanced monster. Keep the rules down to the basics, only what you need to make the game fun and interactive. And don’t rule-lawyer them! If it doesn’t ruin the game, flub a rule or three. It will create a more interactive game and allow your players to warm up before they really start to dive in. If you like, try working up some simplified house rules that cut down on the mechanics and raise up the fun.
4) Play Their Game, Not Yours
The best way to hook players is to show them how games can reflect their tastes and interests. If you know your group is into Marvel movies and Teen Titans re-runs, then it’s time to get caught up on your capes and cowls. If they have read Harry Potter to the point of breaking the spine of the book, maybe a touch of modern fantasy might be in order. Either way, play what they like. If they get into the game, you can start to introduce them to new materials, and eventually they will learn that an inspired Storyteller is best, and they will hopefully be willing to try out that epic Space Pirates game you been plotting for years.
This rule is especially true of mood and theme. If you know your players like a dramatic, character driven game, don’t hit them with a dungeon crawl. If they like a humorous romp, don’t try to hand them a dark goth-punk world full of despair and horror. And for the love of Tyr, know your players! Don’t run themes that hit on real world issues and traumas that your players have experienced. If they have recently lost someone close to them, don’t murder their home village! This will turn them away from game, most likely permanently, and justifiably so.
5) Let Them “Role” At Their Own Pace
Roleplaying games can be intimidating, especially to people who might be shy or uncomfortable in a new situation. Keep this in mind, because while most of the fun of a good roleplaying game is diving into the characters and sharing their story, the act of roleplaying a character for the first time can be scary. Let them roleplay as much as they feel comfortable. If they simply want to tell you what their Cold-war spy character does instead of speaking in a phony Russian accent, let them. Forcing roleplay is only going to create pressure, and games should be fun. Don’t be a bully and let them play.
6) Create Suspense, Not Confusion
Nothing works better for a hook than a good question. By building suspense, your players instinctively want to know what will happen next. Let them hear the scratching at the door without showing them the monster. Let a few NPC’s vanish without immediate explanation. If you can make them curious, you can make them invest more into your game.
But keep it simple. Like tip number 3, introducing too complex of a story can be just as overwhelming as the mechanics. While we all want the political intrigue of Game of Thrones or sweeping mythos of Call of Cthulhu, asking your noobs to keep straight 30 NPCs, six political factions, and a pantheon of deities worthy of the Greeks is a fast path to a rage quit.
7) Hold Off On Showing Them Critical Role
Don’t misunderstand me. I love me some Matt Mercer, but don’t set the bar this high. If your players come in with a visions of high production value and professional actors to bring the game to life, they are going to leave disappointed. Remember, shows like this have a magic wand called “editing” that can smooth over the spots where we take a potty break or roleplay our character with a mouth full of Doritos. No one would watch a video of you and your friends spending 45 minutes looking up encumbrance rules. Let your players go into this knowing it is a game with friends and leave these awesome shows for after they have fallen in love with the “reality” of the game.
8) If All Else Fails, Let Them Go
As soul crushing as it may feel, not everyone is going to be into gaming. It is a truth we all must come to grips with. If a new player shows up, gives it the old college try, and still walks away ‘meh’, then that is that. Some people juggle geese, and that is okay. Don’t ruin a friendship or relationship over a game. You don’t want someone who games out of obligation, and you seriously don’t want to pressure friends and family into an activity that takes up hours upon hours of their week if they are not having fun. Smile, let them go, and find something else that you both like to do.
Michael Lee Bross a contributing editor for D10Again.com and an avid lifetime gamer. He been a game master, player, world-builder, and designer for nearly 30 years. He is also a graduate of the MFA in Poetry program at Drew University, and is an active writer of both poetry and speculative fiction. His work has been published in such periodicals as Lifeboat, Mobius Poetry Magazine, and Let’s talk Philadelphia. His poetry chapbook, “Meditations on an Empty Stomach” also won the 2015 Arts by the People Chapbook Award. Michael currently teaches English at the University of Scranton and East Stroudsburg University.
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All blog materials created and developed by the staff here at High Level Games