How do I make someone's first time be as enjoyable as possible?
January 4, 2020 11:16 AM   Subscribe

I'm about to run my first D&D 5e game, on Roll20. I have played and run D&D before but it's been a while. Many of the people joining my game have never played any D&D before at all. How can I help these newbies have a great first experience with this wonderful hobby?

I feel pretty good about my story-telling abilities, iffy but accepting about my rules knowledge, but hugely worried about my social skills and diplomacy with strangers, especially ones I want to impress. I want everyone to have a fun time. I don't have a huge plot to work through, I just want to run fun little adventures. I've never run for people who are brand new. Any suggestions or advice are welcome!
posted by Pastor of Muppets to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (16 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
First, be forgiving of mistakes, both theirs and yours. Given the situation, nobody will get everything right, so don't be afraid to let people go back on actions. Second, I would suggest pre-made characters with new players so they don't get scared off during character creation. Give them a number to choose from so everyone can play something they like. Third, don't be afraid to modify or skip part of the adventure path if people don't seem to enjoy certain parts. If they are doing badly in a fight, you can have fewer enemies. If they like interacting with NPCs, make up more!

In short, be flexible and go for fun over rule specificity.
posted by Gneisskate at 11:25 AM on January 4, 2020 [4 favorites]

1) Make it front and center that you're all there to improvise a fun story with you as the lead. It's easy to forget that when you're new and still trying to understand/remember the handbook. Depending on your own bent, make sure everyone knows that the handbook will be the default but the DM can overrule it.

2) At the beginning have a couple of strong NPCs working with the party. Their purpose is to make the kind of actions normal PCs would do (talking to other NPCs, pulling out swords, casting spells, etc.) so that the new players have some idea of how to interact. Alternatively you can draft more experienced players to fill that role.

I'm not too sure what to say about social skills and diplomacy. Patience and flexibility. Be firm that the DM has the final say but use that authority to set up loose boundaries, not tell people what to do. But mostly patience and flexibility.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:40 AM on January 4, 2020 [5 favorites]

Oh yeah, as per Gneisskate pre-made characters are a must.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:42 AM on January 4, 2020 [2 favorites]

As a new player, the things I found difficult were 1) spending ages rolling a new character before even really understanding the significance of all the numbers and terms. 2) trying to deal with spellcasting on top of just getting to grips with the basics 3) feeling inhibited about role playing and making decisions on the spot, especially interacting with NPCs. The thing that really helped me was listening to the Critical Role podcast. You could consider encouraging your players to listen to Critical Role, as it really helped me to understand the logic of how gameplay works, and also see how role playing can be done.
posted by Zumbador at 12:00 PM on January 4, 2020 [3 favorites]

I also got some really good advice here on a different but related question here
posted by Zumbador at 12:04 PM on January 4, 2020

For new players be ready to suggest things they can do. You can do it simply by saying, so & so give me a survival check, OK you see some footprints heading off to the north, or whatever then slowly fade out the suggestions as they start to realize the scope of what they can do. So many new players don't get just how open D&D is to you doing anything sometimes you have to show them. I have an early tutorial built in to my new player games, is oh look a few skill checks to save someone say trapped under a tipped cart or whatever, a bit of roleplay, then a nice basic combat, just to warm everyone up.

Be ready to adjust combat & skill checks on the fly. Some people get it quickly some don't but a TPK of the first game of newer players will kill enthusiasm to keep going.

Be ready to railroad newer players a little or they'll never leave the inn, but once they're out & got a hang of the basics reward them for their crazy side schemes & quests.

Make note of any rules you forget & study them up afterwards. Don't worry if you forget them, every DM does and stopping to look up rules every 10 minutes will kill new player enthusiasm.

Don't let anyone new play an evil character, they are super hard even for experienced players to play without pissing off the rest of the group. Spend a few minutes at the beginning of the game to establish expectations re how graphic violence/sex is going to be during the game. Also let players know they can stop ask for a break if things get heavy, you don't always know what people are going through in their Real Lives. I fell apart completely DMing a game with an unexpected character death in a few weeks after my mother died as an example. I also establish the concept of "Help the party, don't hurt the party." to new players, explaining even if you are a rugged, silent brooding loner, you have joined the party for some reason, so it is in your best interests to help them succeed not to undermine them.

Don't forget you're supposed to be having fun too.
posted by wwax at 12:04 PM on January 4, 2020 [2 favorites]

Make it more about telling a story together than letting dice, inventory lists, and character sheets dictate what happens. Remember the classic improv line, "yes, and..." rather than shutting interesting ideas down because of unimportant details.
posted by Candleman at 12:20 PM on January 4, 2020 [3 favorites]

Don't make combat last too long!
posted by ChuraChura at 12:25 PM on January 4, 2020 [3 favorites]

Consider simplifying rules for the more tedious tracking bits, like leveling up as a group at intervals instead of tracking individual XP, ignoring carrying limits, ignoring food, etc.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:03 PM on January 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

Above is excellent advice. I run a group with two Autistic kids, one real shy kid, two experienced players, four inexperienced players, including my skittish great aunt (she's in her 70s) and whatever stray wanders in with any of the above. This is what I do:

Any rule that makes it harder for them to achieve the story goal is out. We don't mess with multiclassing yet. We don't mess with "you can only cast each spell 1 time a day." We don't mess with resting rules. We don't do encumberance. If a player asks me if X is possible-- if it amuses me, it's possible.

(Conversely, I don't keep track of rewards. If they don't write it down, I'm not going to remember it, and therefore they don't have it anymore.)

I started with, essentially, mini-quests. Deliver this item to the next town. Help the local temple. Get from point A to point B without dying. The first half of the year, there was only a glimmer of an overall arc to the story. They hadn't learned how to behave with each other or NPCs yet, so there was no way they were going to pick up on intrigue and double-dealing.

When it was still a small party, I included a carry-along NPC priest and a Phase Dog to help them in combat. Those guys (a year later) are finally about to be phased out because they don't need them anymore.

When they wanted to do something stupid in the first half-year, I very gently asked if X Bad Result might not be a consequence, and let them change their minds. (I also let them go on and make the stupid decision if they really wanted to.)

I use a computer to keep track of initiative, and to look up rules, spells, etc.. as needed, so they don't have a lot of downtime waiting for their turn or for a ruling on a situation.

I made sure each week was a different kind of adventure (horror, road encounters, dungeon, puzzles, role playing) so they would get to try out each experience, and get comfortable with it.

I discovered that under-powering combat was important to their growth. Because they really didn't get how to do combat, actual level appropriate content was too hard for them. For the first half year or so, we had extra NPCs, and I usually ran encounters 1-2 levels lower than the playing party. I did my best not to outright kill anyone (I let them go all the way down to negative their HP (so if they have 16, they can go to -16 and simply be unconscious.)

I give them XP for amusing me, and also for particularly good performance in ways that improve the game. For example, I gave the very, very shy kid 10 points of XP for finally raising her voice and talking over a table hog when she had a good plan to proceed.

Now that they have more experience, I push them a little more. The battles are more challenging. People have to play their role a little better (no, wizard, you shouldn't go through that door before the thief checks it!) I expect them to pick up clues and hints. They've learned to introduce themselves to people, rather than attacking everything on sight.

Most importantly, if they don't seem to be having fun doing something, I change it. If they're not interested in helping the people in the Village With No Name, then okay. We'll go tromping through the woods again-- or whatever doofy thing they want to do.

I use a LOT of tables from DnD Speak to help fill things out when the party decides not to run with my planned story. As long as you're comfortable improvising, those tables can help A LOT.

Basically, pretend you're playing with puppies. They will probably bite, scratch, pee on the floor, leave the toy in the other room, or get distracted by the sound of a cereal box. But they are cute, they don't know better, and they will all grow up to be good boys and girls if you're patient enough, and loving enough, with them.
posted by headspace at 1:10 PM on January 4, 2020 [8 favorites]

Go for immersion - use description to make sure they have a good feeling for where they are and what their character is seeing, hearing and smelling. Description is important. The hangings on the wall are tattered, the glass in the windows is cracked and obscured with grime, the air is fresh after the rain last night, the old man is bulky huddled in his cloak. Then try to use those type of details. The innkeeper hastily offers them a reduction in rates as he is desperate for customers, they have to run out into the street to see what is happening outside, the dog keeps throwing his snout up and sniffing and is obviously excited, the old man turns out to have a sword under his cloak that he offers to the players.

Try to find out what their previous experience is and what their defaults will be. If they are gamers they will understand the concept of permadeath. Similarly if the game is presented as probably requiring five sessions to fulfill the quest and you gently let them know that they will likely need to fill side quests/get better equipment they are less likely to do something suicidal within the first thirty minutes or tromp straight to the caves and then complain that this is stupid, they obviously can't kill a monster like that.

Offer binary choices at first to get them used to and more confident in making choices. Do you decided to camp outside the city walls, or do you take a room at the inn? Do you use your sword or your mace? Don't offer them choices that they shouldn't take. If they miss a cue and swallow the goblet of poison you're going to wish you hadn't put it in front of them and challenged them to drink it.

Give them feedback on the ramifications of their choices. "You save three gp by camping outside." "Because you stayed at the inn, you overheard the conversation where the local carters were complaining about gnolls on the the North Road." "Since you're use the sword you are going to need to look for gaps in her armour to do damage..." "Since you're using the mace you're going to want to find aim for places where she's not protected by plate."

If they run into a monster out of their weight class and they go in and get smushed that's your fault for not making sure they understand weight classes. So if they do run into a monster like that, provide them with cues to evaluate the risk. NPC's are invaluable this way, and so is foreshadowing. If they heard at the inn that a party of seven level three adventurers disappeared in the caves when they find the bodies, and if their NPC shouts, "No! Not a balrog! The village is dooooomed!" before fleeing, your brand new level 1 archer is less likely to walk up and try to poink the balrog at point blank range.

Take your cues from your players what type of atmosphere they enjoy. You may have planned on something silly only to discover that they take the death of an NPC hard. Or you may have planned on grim and spooky, only to discover that the game is going to devolve into puns. Encourage these tendencies, as it will make them more than merely passive participants following an inflexible script.

Listen to them very closely and incorporate minor things that they mention, if possible. So if your new player mentions swinging her backpack onto her shoulder, fifteen minutes later you can mention that the strap is chafing as the party arrives at the point where it would be helpful for the party to stop. If your new player doesn't mention putting the backpack on but does respond to your describing that the path up the hill is bad and full of stones by saying that she walks around the stones, then at the point where you want the party to stop, have the NPC start limping and pause to take a stone out of his sandal. If your player says she's thirsty then immediately try to figure out how to incorporate that into the action. Maybe she's see the gnoll sentry just at the moment when she tilts her head back to drink. If that doesn't fit your plot, how about making her water-skin spring a leak and then adding an underground spring in the cave at a suitable moment for her to refill it.

The things the players say will give you an idea of how they are experiencing the adventure and what they are imagining. You may only discover that your player imagines the servant girl at the inn to be a bodacious tavern wench when she describes herself leering at the character. Even if you didn't intend that the servant be in that cliche class, don't contradict the player, but go with it. The servant can either toss her head flirtatiously, pull her shawl closer nervously, or step forward an invite them to join her in prayers for chastity. Just don't ignore whatever little scraps of information your players give you as to how they are experiencing your setting.
posted by Jane the Brown at 1:40 PM on January 4, 2020 [15 favorites]

Make it more about telling a story together than letting dice, inventory lists, and character sheets dictate what happens. Remember the classic improv line, "yes, and..." rather than shutting interesting ideas down because of unimportant details.

There's a lot of answers in here that are basically "de-emphasize the hundreds of pages of rules of D&D in favor of a fun improvised storytelling experience."

I think this is sound advice! But I say go a little further...think about the value all that massive rules footprint offers to your gang. Does it justify the difficulty it brings? If no, look for a simpler game. I'll suggest some if you're curious.

Other advice:

1.Keep the group to a manageable size. Everything in D&D run thru the DM and there's nothing worse than sitting around waiting for a slice of the DM's time. Especially online.

2. Inexperienced players are the best players; I've run hundreds of game sessions in my life for thousands of players and the rookies are always the best because they aren't hamstrung by D&D baggage. Let em run wild.

3. Listen more than you talk.

4. I have a whole thing I do where I improvise an adventure completely at the table by questioning the players about their characters and the world they inhabit. This makes the game way more collaborative and rarely fails to draw people into it. I don't do it with D&D but I think the techniques may be useful there as well.
posted by Sauce Trough at 8:18 PM on January 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

oh, and premade characters are a great idea. D&D character creation is a long process full of poorly explained choices that can be very intimidating to new folks.
posted by Sauce Trough at 8:31 PM on January 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

Oh Sauce Troughs idea of getting the players to help you imagine the world if you get stuck is a great one & one I use a lot players & didn't think to mention higher up. Don't feel you have to be the one to describe or think up everything. Even something like we go to a tavern. OK what does the tavern look like? Who hangs out there? I mean in RL people choose where to go to drink so let them chose the tavern & the company their characters keep. Not only does it save you mental energy it engages the players and get's them more invested in their characters. Of course feel free to offer suggestions if your players seem stuck at first, but make them multiple choice, they'll soon get the idea they get to help create the world.
posted by wwax at 9:39 AM on January 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

I really appreciate all the suggestions so far! If I may piggyback a bit on my own question; how can I help myself have a good time too, and how can I 'psyche myself up' for dealing with the stage fright of running? I -want- to do this, I think I maybe can, but I am afraid of messing up, making people upset or disappointed or offended or hurt if I don't get it right, and generally worried about being a failure at this thing I want to be good at.
posted by Pastor of Muppets at 12:31 PM on January 5, 2020

Hi Pastor! Sorry for the slow reply but things have been super busy here.

A D&D group is like a band for a ton of reasons:

1. no single person is responsible for a whole song. Everyone has to do their part to make the song fun! The DM is ideally (IMO) not a dancing monkey who entertains people. But everyone does the DM job differently -- some groups might benefit from a dancing monkey approach where the DM is the author of the most of the experience and the players engage very shallowly.

2. The magic of D&D is that it is lots of things simultaneously, but two big ones are that it's a framework for collaborative story creation and a highly fussy tactical game that deeply rewards (actually, demands) player engagement. If you have some folks who are not interested in the tactical bits and others who are only interested in the tactical bits and a third group who don't know what they want, they just want to participate in this social thing -- it'll be just as tough for them to share a table as it would be for a band to include a bassist who only wants to play blackened deathcore and an emo-folk singer/songwriter who wants to whisper all their lyrics. They might be able to figure out how to play whispered emo blackened deathcore together, but that's going to be a lot of work for them.

So, to get back to the anxiety and stage fright question -- if the group doesn't thrive, there's every chance it's not your fault! D&D's economics are such that it's designed to appeal to the largest number of people it can and so it contains vast multitudes and (again IMO) doesn't really do a good job at guiding people to the bits they may find enjoyable.

Learning to play and DM D&D enjoyably is more of an exploratory process, as you find what the game offers and what you like about it and gather folks who are in harmony with those preferences.

I hope that's a helpful answer. Think of it less like you're putting on a one-night one-act play and more like you're gathering a band that might or might not soar together the first time out.

Good luck! D&D has been a super rewarding hobby for me and I hope it can be for you too.
posted by Sauce Trough at 1:27 PM on January 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

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