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:
- You roll a twenty-sided dice to resolve conflict and situations with a chance of failure.
- 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.
- 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.