Introducing New Players to Roleplaying Games!

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.)

#1 Keep cool

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).

#2 Keep it small

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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How to Get Started in Games

[Image courtesy of The Board Game Family.]

So, it’s after Christmas, and you’ve been gifted with a new game, or a roleplaying book, or someone showed you a new card game and you want to know more. Or your New Year’s Resolution is to learn more games, play more games, solve more puzzles, or even make some puzzles yourself.

Basically… how do you get started?

Here. You get started right here. I’m going to run down my favorite guide books for gaming, puzzles, tabletop play, roleplaying, and more, creating the perfect first step to a new world of play for you.

Let’s get cracking!


My first recommendation is also the most recently published book on my list.

The Civilized Guide to Tabletop Gaming by Teri Litorco is a perfect introduction to all things gaming. This delightfully nerdy tome is loaded with thoughtful advice covering everything from choosing new games to teaching them to others, as well as building a game group for regular sessions or roleplaying games, and more.

From how to deal with cranky gamers to how to host your own major gaming events, Teri has dealt with every obstacle imaginable, and she offers her hard-won first-hand knowledge in easily digestible tidbits. Even as an experienced tabletop gamer, roleplayer, and puzzler, I found this to be a very worthwhile read, and I think you will too.

If card games are your poison, then what you need is a copy of The Ultimate Book of Card Games by Scott McNeely.

What separates this book from many other card game books — namely the ones attributed to Hoyle (the vast majority of which had nothing to do with him) — is that it doesn’t claim to be the definitive source. It provides the key rules for how to play, and then offers numerous variations and house rules that expand and refine gameplay.

There are more than 80 pages of variations of Solitaire alone! Kids games, betting games, games for two, three, four or more, this is my go-to guide for everything that can be played with a standard deck of cards.

What if you’re already a fan of games, but you want to play them better? If that’s your goal, check out How to Win Games and Beat People by Tom Whipple.

Monopoly, Jenga, Hangman, Operation, Trivial Pursuit, Twenty Questions, Checkers, Battleship… heck, even Rock, Paper, Scissors is covered here. With advice from top players, world record holders, game creators and more, you’ll find advice, tactics, and fun facts you won’t see anywhere else.

For instance, did you know that letter frequencies in Hangman are different from letter frequencies in the dictionary? ESIARN is the way to go with Hangman, not ETAOIN.

That’s just one of the valuable nuggets of info awaiting you in this book.

Ah, but what about puzzles? There are so many amazing puzzle styles out there, how do you know where to begin learning to construct one of your own?

I’d suggest you start with Mike Selinker and Thomas Snyder’s Puzzlecraft.

If you’re a puzzle or game fan, you already know their names. Selinker’s The Maze of Games is featured in this year’s Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide; Snyder is better known online as Dr. Sudoku, and we explored several of his creations in our Wide World of Sudoku post a few years ago.

Snyder and Selinker break down the fundamentals of dozens of different puzzles, explaining how they work and what pitfalls to avoid when creating your own. You can easily lose hours within the pages of this in-depth handbook — I know from firsthand experience — and you always come out the other side a stronger constructor.


Do you have any favorite books about puzzles and games that I missed? Let me know, I’d love to hear about them!

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The Art & Design of a Geometric Puzzle

It’s rare to get a glimpse inside the puzzly creative process.

Sure, plenty of crossword constructors are happy to share how particular puzzles of theirs came to be, but many constructors and designers, whether we’re talking mechanical puzzles, pen-and-paper puzzles, or electronic puzzles, keep their techniques and tricks secret. They’re like magicians that way.

So when a puzzler takes you behind the curtain, it’s a rare and special treat. The website Gamasutra recently hosted such an event when app designer and puzzler Paul Hlebowitsh explained in detail how he designs the puzzles for his app RYB.

In Paul’s words, “RYB is very similar to ‘Minesweeper’ or ‘Hexcells,’ but instead of using numbers or symbols, it uses colors. The colored dots inside of a shape tell you how the neighboring shapes are colored.”

I love the devilish simplicity behind the solving. It’s so universal that it transcends the language barrier. Simply show another person the first step, and they’ll pick it up immediately.

Paul goes on to explain how one particular puzzle evolved as he sought the perfect mix of puzzly challenge and unique solvability.

He took this:

and eventually ended up with this:

It’s a fascinating read, one I can’t do justice to with a brief summary, so I suggest everyone check out the full post to watch an impressive constructor at work. Being walked step-by-step through a build by the designer is a delight.

I also have to praise the puzzles themselves. The mix of geometric shapes and colors creates a truly striking image. I think I’m gonna get a print made of this one and put it on my wall:


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Word Search Dos and Don’ts!

Today, in the interest of both public service and better puzzling overall, I thought I’d present a brief list of dos and do-not-dos when it comes to constructing word search (or word seek) puzzles.

Now, full disclosure, I will be talking about PuzzleNation apps a bit here, but only because they’re great examples of well-crafted puzzles, and a little shameless self-promotion never hurt anybody. *smiles*

So, without further ado, let’s talk word searches!


DO:

Offer fun bonuses, like trivia, facts, and bonus entries to hunt down!

These additions can make for a richer, more fulfilling solving experience.


DO NOT DO:

Do NOT create a holiday word search without being very careful to edit out any questionable or inappropriate vocabulary.

For instance, these words do not belong in a kids’ Christmas word search.


DO:

Make sure your puzzle has audience-appropriate vocabulary and a family-friendly theme.

For instance, the Penny Dell Bible Word Search app features entire passages from the Bible, broken up into searchable words and phrases.


DO NOT DO:

Do NOT make a 50 Shades of Grey-themed word search and distribute it to middle school students!

Yes, this actually happened.


DO:

Freshen up the word search formula with interesting and challenging variations.

[An Around the Bend word seek from Penny Press.]

Our friends at Penny/Dell Puzzles have some really clever variant word searches, like Missing Vowels, Missing List, Zigzag, and plenty of others. Whether you’re discovering bonus messages, finding craftily hidden words, or dodging red herrings planted by clever constructors, you’ll find plenty to keep you interested.


DO NOT DO:

Do NOT get a word search grid full of swearing and foul language tattooed on your lower back.

No, I’m not including a link or a picture on this one. Trust me, it exists, and it definitely belongs on the Do-not-do list.


Well, there you have it! Some important dos and do-not-dos of word searches and word seeks. With these few simple rules (and cautionary tales), you can craft high-quality, fun, worthwhile puzzles for friends, family, students, and more.

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and be sure to check out the growing library of PuzzleNation apps and games!

Let’s Make Our Own Crosswords, Part Two: Advice!

On Tuesday, I posted an introductory how-to for creating your own crossword puzzles. All of the advice and guidance was based on my own constructing instincts and work I’ve done over the years.

But I’m just one puzzler, and I figured why not reach out to other constructors and editors in the puzzling community and see what helpful suggestions they had for aspiring puzzle constructors.

So today, I put you into the good hands of professionals and topnotch puzzlers, as they walk you through the do’s and do-not-do’s of crossword construction. As constructor Ian Livengood said, “it’s more art than science,” but with the advice of established constructors in your pocket, you’ll be off to a great start.

And as it turns out, they’ve got plenty of worthwhile nuggets of advice to offer! In fact, they had so much to say (and I wanted to include so much more!) that I’ve broken up the advice by topic and put each one on its own page. Just click on the links below to take you to a treasure trove of puzzly wisdom!

Good luck, my fellow puzzlers!

And thank you to David Steinberg, Robin Stears, Ian Livengood, Rich Norris, Patti Varol, Doug Peterson, and Eileen Saunders for their masterful advice!

Thanks for visiting the PuzzleNation blog today! You can like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, cruise our boards on Pinterest, check out our Classic Word Search iBook (recently featured by Apple in the Made for iBooks category!), play our games at PuzzleNation.com, or contact us here at the blog!

How to Make a Crossword: Closing Advice

We have featured a wealth of wonderful (and often, hard-won) advice for the aspiring constructor, but once more, I have to give the final word to constructor Doug Peterson:

“Not really a “do-not-do,” but one pitfall for many newbie constructors is trying to do too much too soon. A rookie will come up with a fabulous theme, a 25×25 reverse-double-rebus with sprinkles on top, but the poor guy or gal doesn’t have the construction chops to pull it off. And often the whole concept is inconsistent or otherwise flawed.

“I think it’s important to start with the simple stuff. Make a few 15×15 puzzles with 3 or 4 theme entries each. Get a feel for the basics of themes, grid design, and clue writing before moving on to painting-the-Sistine-Chapel-level stuff. I certainly don’t want to stifle creativity, but for most constructors not named Patrick Berry, there’s a learning curve.”

Good luck, my fellow puzzlers!