A month or so ago, there was a marvelous article on Amazing Tales about how to make your child’s first role-playing game amazing.
Although the article was geared toward introducing younger players to the world of roleplaying games, the advice can be easily adapted and expanded to include new players of all ages. So today, I thought I would take the five points introduced by Amazing Tales and do just that.
So if you’re a new or inexperienced game-runner / dungeon master, or if you’ve only run games for people with previous experience playing roleplaying games, this is the place for you.
(And this advice should fit no matter what sort of game you’re running. Is it classic Dungeons & Dragons? Supernatural? Zombie horror? Space adventure? Knights of the Round Table? Explorers? Pirates? Monster hunters? Modern spies? Thieves in the Victorian era? No matter what setting or characters, this advice is universal.)
It’s easy for the person running a roleplaying game to have high expectations for themselves and the story they want to craft. You want your new players to have fun. You want them to immerse themselves in telling a story. You want them to be excited and come back for more.
But that’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself, and a stressed or nervous game master can lead to stressed or nervous players. So don’t set the bar so high. Sit back and let the players interact; sometimes, you can engineer a scenario that allows for this, like a tavern scene. Or you can create an instant threat and let them jump into the action and work together to solve a problem as a bonding experience.
Don’t be afraid to take opportunities to ask if anyone’s confused. A first game is introductory by nature, and if someone feels left behind early on, it can be hard to catch them up later, or to make them feel included if they’re not gelling with the other players.
Sometimes when I’m starting a new game with new players, I’ll hold what I call a “session zero,” a safe game before the game kicks off, where the characters can play in the environment, interact, and test out the actual mechanics of playing (particularly if there’s a magic system or some other aspect of the game that might not be intuitive).
You want your players to feel immersed but not overwhelmed, so party size (the number of players) is an important consideration. I try to keep my number of new players to three or fewer, because it can be hard to give meaningful attention to a larger number of players. It’s like a classroom; you want the ratio of experienced voices to students to be as small as possible, so you can get that one-on-one time to answer questions and help them find their footing.
For me, the ideal group for a newcomer-heavy game is two (or three) new players, one (or two) experienced players, and myself running the game. That way, each new player is balanced by someone with greater experience. You can even have a buddy system to get them acclimated.
A smaller group also means less time for players to sit out while other players get the spotlight. Never let the new players feel shortchanged or like their voices aren’t as important as those of the more experienced players. After all, if you’re an experienced player, you’re going to feel more comfortable speaking up and venturing forward than a new player might.
[Image courtesy of Lewis Brown.]
#3 Say yes to their ideas
Now, obviously, you can’t say yes to every idea a player has or the story could descend into nonsense. But trust your players’ instincts.
Let them wander down the paths they find most interesting. It might not be the path you intended, and it might take them longer to get to the desired end point, but it’s always better for players to reach a story point organically, rather than railroading them to the place and time you want. Even new players can sense when they’re being strong-armed in a certain direction, and that can leave a bad taste in players’ mouths.
Be flexible. I’ve always found that, no matter how thoroughly I think I’ve mapped out an adventure, my players (both new and experienced) excel at finding paths I hadn’t considered. That requires me to be quick on my feet, and I enjoy the challenge of pitting my wits, improvisational skills, and imagination against those of my players.
A roleplaying game is like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novel writ large… whenever possible, let them feel in control of their players, their story, and their destiny.
[Image from Stranger Things courtesy of The Verge.]
#4 Take them where they want to go
This might feel like a repeat of the previous note, but it’s not. This point is a reminder to always consider the characters your players are playing. What are their strengths? What goals do they have? What are they hoping to experience and accomplish?
Plenty of game runners, myself included, can get so wrapped up in the story WE want to tell that we forget that it might not mesh with the story our players want to participate in.
Give them moments to shine. Give the fighters a chance to fight, give the magicians opportunity to ply their craft, and give the puzzlers puzzles to solve. If characters have wings, let ’em fly.
[Image courtesy of Digital Trends.]
#5 Make the ending awesome
No matter how simple the adventure starts — a theft, a murder, the discovery of a treasure map, the descent into a trap-laden dungeon — make sure the ending is memorable. You want the quest, however short or long, to feel worthwhile.
You can try the old cliffhanger trick in the hopes of leaving them wanting more, but that can come back to bite you if the players are dissatisfied that their first adventure doesn’t feel complete. Instead, give them a sense of accomplishment.
Martin at Amazing Tales said it well:
Make sure your child’s first ever role-playing game features an epic ending. Face to face with the villain on a cliff edge as the counter ticks toward zero; returning the stolen jewels to the temple moments before sunset while pursued by ghosts; wrestling the controls of the star-ship from the pirate moments before it crashes into the sun. That kind of epic.
You don’t necessarily need to go epic, but certainly make it memorable. Nothing sells a big win like giving the bad guy a funny line before he turns to ash.
Here’s hoping this advice encourages aspiring dungeon masters and storytellers to get out there, find some players, and spin some marvelous adventure yarns. (Or maybe it’s inspired some new players to try roleplaying themselves!)
What’s your favorite memory from your early roleplay sessions, fellow puzzlers? (Either as a game runner or player.) Let us know in the comments section below!
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