Creating New Gamers

Recently, I got the chance to introduce two new people to Dungeons & Dragons, and the roleplaying hobby in general. I always love doing this, as this is a hobby that has brought me so much enjoyment over the past 30+ years.

I’ve introduced many people to gaming over that time frame, and had the chance to rekindle the gaming spark for many others who had played at one time but didn’t anymore. I say this not to brag, but to put into context what I want to talk about this week.

My personal experience reflects the phrase “it’s easier to turn friends into gamers than it is to turn gamers into friends.” While I have attended various gaming conventions over the years—such as GenCon—and I’ve participated in games with strangers in various settings, I’ve never ended up making connections with people who ended up becoming part of my circle of friends/gamers through that method.

This is not to say that it’s impossible to do so, and I’m not claiming that phrase is any kind of truism for our hobby. I know of others who have met and found great gaming groups made up of people who became good friends. While that is not my personal experience, I’m fully aware that it is the experience of other people in this hobby.

But I’m going to talk from my own perspective, because it’s the one with which I’m most familiar, of course.

How It Began

In this case, there was no need to convince these two new players to give roleplaying games a try. In fact, they approached me because they knew I ran D&D for some mutual friends/acquaintances and were interested in seeing what it was about.

So I set up a game with those two people and two more experienced players (my wife and another close friend).

The Preparation

I knew time was going to be an issue, because we were only going to have about three hours for the game. And considering that this was probably only going to be a one-shot—at least unless/until they decide they want to play again—I wanted to hit some key highlights for the game to show off various elements.

The first order of business was pre-generated characters. Brand new players need an easy way to jump into the game, and providing a selection of characters they can just grab and play helps that. Asking someone completely unfamiliar to D&D to go through the entire character creation process is usually rather time-consuming because they don’t know the value of the various choices they get asked to make.

I decided the pre-gens were going to represent some classic D&D archetypes, and I created five of them to provide some real choice. The characters were a dwarf fighter, an elf wizard, a human cleric, a halfling rogue, and a half-elf ranger. I knew that one of these character types were not going to get played, and so I also knew I would have to be prepared for one of these archetypes to be missing. Ultimately, no one played the wizard.

The Adventure

The second thing I needed was an appropriate adventure. I ended up considering a bunch of different options.

It would have been easy to just grab a simple dungeon crawl, start the characters at the front entrance, and let them explore. And I was tempted to do just that. There’s a great simplicity to this approach, and it provides a great example of what early D&D campaigns were like when I was a kid.

But I had to consider the fact that the world is not the same as when I was kid, especially when it comes to media. Video games and movies provide all kinds of fantasy touch points and I didn’t want to ignore the kinds of things that happen in those other media properties. Because if someone has watched the Lord of the Rings movies and you say that you’re going to play in a fantasy world that is “similar in style” to LotR, then the players are likely to imagine more than just the exploration of the mines of Moria.

In many other cases, I’ve actually not used D&D to introduce people to the hobby. Instead, I’ve used the original d6 version of the Star Wars RPG published by West End Games back in 1987. It’s a great, simple system coupled with a property that everyone knows fairly well. Players get a chance to have their character do the kinds of things they see characters in the original Star Wars trilogy movies to do, and it works really well as an introduction to the hobby.

But in this case, the players had specifically asked to play to D&D, so I needed a good D&D adventure. I wanted to touch on a few different things:

  • Interaction with NPCs. I also wanted more than just “the mysterious old man approaches you in a tavern and gives you a mission” interaction. I wanted to give the players a chance to initiate the contact with the NPCs because they needed something from them (e.g. information, objects, favors, etc.).
  • An action scene that didn’t involve fighting. While such a scene could lead to a fight, I wanted the opportunity for the characters to have some kind of action that was not focused solely on combat. A chase, a climb up a precarious cliff, an escape from a raging fire, and so forth was what I had in mind.
  • A combat. Let’s face it, an introductory D&D adventure needs at least a fight or two, preferably against some kind of monster. While I’m happy to run a game with little or no combat, I think that a battle is a pretty iconic experience for this game.
  • A dungeon to explore. I mean, not having some kind of dungeon in an introductory Dungeons & Dragons game is some kind of crime.
  • A trap. At some point, the characters have to encounter a trap of some kind, that they can either bypass or which can cause damage or difficulty to the party if they don’t detect and disable it.

I considered a few of the published adventures for D&D 5E, such as Lost Mine of Phandelver, Alarums and Excursions (introductory adventure from Princes of the Apocalypse), and A Great Upheaval (introductory adventure from Storm King’s Thunder). But all of those were too long, and didn’t necessarily have everything I wanted to include within a 3-hour playing window.

Luckily, I have an extensive collection of back issues of Dungeon Magazine, and converting adventures to D&D 5E is a breeze. So I went back to issue #114 and looked over a great little adventure named “Mad God’s Key” by Jason Bulmahn.

It had everything I wanted, a chase across a bunch of boats and barges, questioning locals about what is going on, a dungeon to explore, fights with undead, and a trap.

Of course, this adventure is also too long for a 3-hour game, so I had to streamline it quite a bit. I based it in a small town instead of a large city (the gnome locksmith had travelled there on business for a local noble, and was on his way home again when he was waylaid by Irontusk, who knocked him out and stole his key).

  • So the plan was for the players to encounter the gnome on a trail leading toward the town, and get hired to find the half-orc who stole the key.
  • They would head into town and question the locals, which would send them to the docks.
  • The pursuit of Irontusk across the docks would result in them getting the information about the key and the cult that had hired Irontusk. It would also give them the pendant at this point.
  • I got rid of the Green Dagger Gang entirely—it’s an entire “dungeon” that would take too long to play through.
  • Some history rolls would get them information about the cairns and lead them to the one they needed to explore.
  • A battle at the top of the falls against some zombies would set the stage.
  • A trap partway down the tunnels would provide an opportunity to demonstrate that caution is important.
  • Another fight at the bottom of the falls with the high priest, a couple of acolytes, and some skeletons would be the climax of the adventure.

No Plan Survives First Contact…

Overall, it went pretty close to what I had planned. Some things worked out well—they had fun interacting with the gnome locksmith, and the trap worked perfectly. Others didn’t work at all, like the “chase” across the boats ended up with Irontusk mostly waiting for the PCs to catch up with him and then him attacking until he was knocked out.

Due to timing, I also got rid of the first battle against the zombies in the temple, because we needed to wrap it up and I wanted them to reach to the final battle against the priest.

But overall, the adventure still made sense, the players got to experience most of the key elements I wanted to highlight, and I’m pretty sure all the players had fun.

Two interesting observations from the game:

One of the new players, during the battles, didn’t really like the arbitrary nature of the dice, and simply rolled again if he missed (and again, if necessary, until he rolled a hit).

This is one of the things about the system used for D&D, in that the dice rolls are usually simply pass/fail. And if you fail, then your turn is essentially wasted. Some players have no issue with this, but I could see that this player was more interested in moving forward with the game/story and didn’t want to waste time with failure.

If he’s interested in trying other games, I expect a game like Fate—where it’s not about success or failure, but about what success will cost you—would be a better fit.

The other new player struggled a bit with the NPC interaction portion of the game. So I let the other players coach her a bit on what to say and let things be pretty flexible on that score. It’s not reasonable to expect someone brand new to a game to immediately be familiar with (and comfortable with) all the aspects. Talking in character, coming up with bluffs and questions for NPCs, and so forth are things that come with player experience. But she did a great job anyway, and made the final battle a lot easier by bluffing the high priest in order to get close to him before the fight started.

Conclusion

I hope both of these new players give roleplaying games another shot, and I’m more than willing to host another game for them. It seemed that they enjoyed the experience, and I certainly did.

Introducing new people to our hobby in a way that makes it enjoyable and lets them figure out if it’s something they want to continue to do isn’t easy, especially if you’ve been playing for a long time. Experienced players internalize a lot of elements that are completely foreign to someone brand new to the game.

Providing pre-generated characters is a good way to let the players jump right into the game, and selecting the right adventure is key to providing an iconic experience so the game can be judged on its real merits and flaws.

And as DM, flexibility is vitally important. I could have demanded that each failed roll be counted and moved on to the next player, but what would that have accomplished? Instead, it gave me the opportunity to evaluate the bits that might be important to this player, so that I can steer him to a set of rules that will give him an experience he will enjoy even more.

What adventures—or even games—have you used to introduce new people to the roleplaying hobby? How did it go? Tell us about it in the comments.

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