With the rise of geek-chic comes a new responsibility for us hipster role players; you know, those of us who were slaying dragons before slaying dragons was cool. That responsibility is to introduce people who have never tried gaming to a new and fantastic hobby. Over the years I’ve found that finding interested parties has become more and more easy, as long as you're willing to talk openly about it, but as any fisherman knows, you can reel as many fish in as you want, if they don’t stay in the boat, they don’t count. If you want to keep a gamer initiate coming back for more, their first exposure to a game session is pivotal and done right can turn them into a lifetime gamer who will inevitably recruit even more players. So here are a few lessons I have learned the hard way to help you set up a memorable and engaging first session.
1 Set Expectations
Make sure that they know exactly what they are getting into. Particularly, if they’re thinking about joining your regular group. Most first sessions are about testing the water but it can be frustrating for someone to test the water, find out they like to swim, and then learn that the pool is only open on days when they have other obligations. I like to set the tone by being upfront with the following items: timing and length of sessions, regularity, punctuality, estimated effort between games (leveling characters, etc.), snacks and meals, things to bring (pencils and such), group dynamics, and the learning curve.
2 Find out what interests them
I find it useful to take some time before a game starts to get to know the initiate. What I’m looking for is what interests them in a role-playing game. The problem here is that they usually don’t know, having never played before. I often find myself asking them questions like:
By using their answers to mould your first session, you will not only play to their interests, but also to their strengths. Someone who's read and re-read the LoTR books has a level of comfort talking about orcs and elves and the traditional fantasy story arc. By putting them in a familiar setting with a familiar pace and story line, they will be more engaged and entertained.
3 Set a Comfortable Atmosphere
So, I had just moved to a new city and was having trouble finding gamers. I took the bold step of posting on Meetup, searching for 5e D&D players looking for a DM. It didn’t take long before I had three interested people and was arranging for us all to meet IRL. What I failed to consider was the concept of a “safe space”. It wasn’t until the 3rd session that the only woman in the group admitted to me that during the first session she had asked her boyfriend to wait outside until she texted him, and that’s when I realized how uncomfortable it must have been for some strange man to lead her down into his basement with two other strange men. Don’t do what I did; consider that the atmosphere is just as important, if not more, than the contents of the first session. If you're comfortable with it, you could even consider hosting your first session in a neutral/public space; many game stores offer space.
4 Use a small Group
It can be intimidating to be introduced to a group of grognards; joining any new group of strangers is scary and you want to minimize the pressure and stress. If the initiate knows other members of your gaming group, great, use them. If not, then handpick a small group, one or two of your regulars for a short introductory session. When you make your selection you're looking for those who are the most team oriented, patient, and welcoming. Skill in the game and the ability to rules lawyer shouldn’t even be on the radar. In fact, choosing your most inexperienced players can be helpful, as long as one of them can act as peer-coach, because their inexperience will even the playing field and set the initiate at ease. Further, newer players often have an infectious excitement about the game.
5 Go Slow and be Flexible
Plan out your one-shot quest to have a slow pace. The new player is bound to have lots of questions and role-playing games are already packed with ambiguity. I like to start with something pretty linear with easy options for role-playing. The trick for this is to remain flexible. I don’t write out first sessions, but keep a rough sketch in my head and prepare a number of NPCs, skill challenges, traps, and monsters while giving lots of opportunity for the players to go where they want and do what they want. Most of the time an initiate will follow the predictable course, but a few will surprise you and instead of storming the keep to rescue the princess, they will recruit a band of mercenaries to do it for them. One other quick note, most new players can be pretty nervous about “conversational” role-playing, they don’t know what they can and should say so be sure to avoid uncomfortable silences with all eyes on the initiate and allow them an “out” (i.e., skill checks).
6 Rule Book Schmool Book.
I have never given a Player’s Handbook to a new player and told them to read it. In fact, I have never made it a requirement to read a rule book in any of my campaigns. I find that, except for a very small demographic, the rulebooks scare most people and for those people experiential learning is much easier and more exciting. If they ask, I will certainly lend them my copy; but I will never put a player in a position where they are forced to buy a book. Gaming needs to be accessible to everyone.
Bryan lives off the land in the frozen tundra of Edmonton, AB Canada; by “frozen tundra” I mean he works in a comfortable office and plays D&D in his living room on weekends. By “lives off the land” I mean he shops at Superstore and occasionally at the local Dutch Deli in between trips to his favorite Pho restaurant.
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.