Teaching D&D

Red Box and the rest of the Essentials line have arrived, so I thought it only appropriate that I spend some time discussing the way I teach new players D&D.

The biggest mistake a person can make when trying to teach D&D to a newcomer to the game is to try to explain everything in advance. As it turns out, D&D is a complicated game. There’s no getting around it. The game has many more rules than most board games, and it requires reading comprehension in order to understand how rules work together. I’ve played enough board games to know that when you try to explain even relatively simple rules prior to playing the game, it almost never works. The best approach is to tell a newcomer the objective of the game, a few important aspects, like turn sequence, and then hit the ground running. Save the conversation about tactics and the finer rules points until they come up in the game. Information without context is almost meaningless.

When these lessons are applied to D&D, it means that you really only need to tell a newcomer a few aspects of the game:

  1. You roll a twenty-sided dice to resolve conflict and situations with a chance of failure.
  2. The game has two general states. The narrative/roleplaying component of the game is when you describe how your character deals with people, situations, and challenges. The tactical combat component of the game is when you beat up monsters, represented by your miniature on a grid.
  3. You have a character sheet that represents most aspects of your character.

And that’s it. No discussion about what the defenses represent, or how to use your attack bonus. I don’t even recommend talking about skills or powers. Those parts of the game will come up during a session, and that’s when to talk about them.

D&D is a game that is learned through doing. It really needs inspired players who are willing to shepherd new players into the game. Rules Compendium is a fantastic compilation of the rules, but no matter how well we articulate these rules, it’s difficult to learn the game through reading books.

Once a player is in the game, a good DM can set up narrative circumstances that allow a character to use his or her skills and powers. The best introductory sessions are games that are 3-4 hours with only one combat. It’s important for a new player to understand the liberty that the game system provides. To that effect, providing a compelling narrative is a better way of exhibiting the system’s flexibility and diversity. Once a player gets the hang of rolling dice, describing what his or her character does, and asking the DM about performing certain actions, then you can get into combat.

One thing a DM can do to help make a player enjoy his or her first session is to be aware of the character that person is playing. If a DM knows the skills a character is trained in, or is aware of the powers, the personality, and the equipment a person has, then the DM can offer ideas or suggestions. You don’t want to tell a player how to run his or her character, but you can suggest what skill or power might be useful in overcoming an obstacle. A DM needs to cultivate the creativity of new players, and the best way to do that is to show the vastness of exploits and actions a character can perform. Provide multiple suggestions, letting the player pick from several options. Soon, that player will be coming up with his or her own ideas, and the DM need only tell the player what actions and dice rolls are required.

Alternatively, when you’re teaching the game to a new person, you can walk them through character creation. However, it’s important not to get tied up in trying to explain how all the math works. Instead, let a player pick weapons, powers, feats, and skill based on his or her conception of the character. Don’t worry of the accuracy or damage are not optimized. Contrary to what the Internets would have you believe, the average player doesn’t care all that much about having great accuracy, defenses, or damage. For example, my girlfriend picked a short sword for her thief. I realize there are better options, like the rapier, but that’s something she can decide later if she wants to change her conception of the character or if she decides to optimize it. Until then, one less point of damage isn’t going to reduce the amount of fun she has playing the game.

In conclusion, when teaching new players D&D, it’s essential to put story before mechanics, because D&D has always been about the cooperative story-telling experience. Everything else can come later.

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9 thoughts on “Teaching D&D

  1. I’ve been trying to ease my wife into playing. I bought her a Red Box last week. She thought the Player’s Handbook looked intimidating so I gave her a character sheet and narrated the text to her. She ended up making a human rogue (Why are chicks all rogues?) and thought it was a lot of fun creating the character. We stopped at the combat section though. We’re going to try it this weekend.

  2. Great article Greg! I’d argue that what kind of game is good for a new player depends on the person involved. That sort of game probably would have scared me away from playing, although perhaps with the right DM…

    And I also picked up a short sword for my rogue. So she’s in good company 🙂

  3. Two other things I forgot to mention.

    1. It’s really helpful if you have at least one experienced player sitting at a table full of all new players. If you’re DMing, it’s important that the players have someone to turn to for their questions. They might feel like they’re bothering you, the DM, so having a person who is a good teacher is essential.

    2. In the first few games when you’re teaching D&D, don’t get caught up on the rules too much. I usually leave rules like opportunity attacks out during the first combat. The most important things is to get players using their powers and understanding the action economy. You can worry about the nuances later.

  4. I’ve helped more than a few people learn 4e, both from the states of “gamed before, but never D&D” to “never held any die other than a board game d6 in their life” and I’m in total agreement with the idea that you should start simple and move up. As both a player and DM, I may offer suggestions both during character creation and during gameplay and explain why I made those suggestions to help them understand better the “why” rather than just the “what”.

  5. Excellent article, and very timely with the release of the Red Box.

    Honestly, I tend to be a bit more lazy as a DM, I’ll admit it! My favorite way of teaching the game is to surround 1-2 newbies with a pack of seasoned gamers, and let my experienced Players teach the game. I know, it’s a cheap cop-out, but there is a lot to be said about learning by osmosis too.

    My preference is to get the new guy (or gal) a Character rolled up as quick as I can – without bogging them down with game mechanics as you suggest – and get them thrown into their first combat, along with the “veterans”, and start rolling dice and having fun.

  6. Overall I completely agree with you; you can’t learn a complicated game by any method other than doing. But I do have one slight exception that I do make…

    When I have the time I like to give a new player the 1983 Basic set to play the solo adventure; regardless of what edition of D&D we are planning on playing. This gets across a number of key concepts, some of which might get forgotten otherwise.

    But if we aren’t playing Basic, I always do this with caveat “don’t try to hard to learn these rules, as they aren’t exactly the ones we will be using”.

  7. Interesting article Greg.

    There’s a ridiculous firestorm over on the rpgnet forums about entry #6 in the red box adventure (the one that says – paraphrased – “not heroic enough, choose better”.

    While it’s an amusingly frustrating read, it does point out that there’s a fine art to teaching someone D&D, and there can never be enough proactive discussion about just how to best do it.

  8. It’s been my pleasure to be that experienced player at the table for you once or twice, Greg. And I remember very well how into the game everyone got at that first session – four newbies were laughing and clapping and groaning as their characters were put through their paces. I tried the same approach with my recent Gamma World game and had great results.

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