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© 1998-2001 Dru Pagliassotti
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Teaching New Players

I've always loved teaching new players how to roleplay. Over the years, I've found that most new players face two big hurdles: (1) mastering the rules or technical aspects of the game, and (2) feeling comfortable getting into character. Every GM probably has different ways to ease new players into the game, but this is one I've used for years and which has never failed me yet.

Mastering the Rules: The most important thing to do is to avoid confusing new players with the books and books of rules that most games can't seem to do without. Assure them that understanding the rules will come in time, and that in most cases they don't need to learn all the rules to play. (Confession time: I've been playing Hero for years without completely understanding all the rules ... I learned character generation, and after that, I rely on GM-provided charts and cheat sheets to figure out which dice to roll.)
If you can, sit all of the new players down together for a character generation session. You can do this individually, but doing it in a group helps avoid repeating the same explanation over and over and also makes the new players feel better—they realize they aren't the only ones who are confused, and can moan and groan to each other as they work.
Walk the players through character generation step by step. Start by describing the types of characters they can play (e.g., classes or archetypes and races) in very general terms. If any of the classes or races has a significant disadvantage, mention it (e.g., in AD&D, mages cannot usually wear armor or use weapons well). Let the players decide what kind of character they want to play.
Next, have the players think up names and physical descriptions for their characters. This will help them feel like the character is a person, and it will help guide them through assigning attributes, skills, and other statistics appropriate to the character. After they have a rough mental image of their character, begin walking them through rest of the technical side of character generation, constantly assuring them that it gets easier as they learn the rules, and helping them maximize their characters' powers as much as possible. First-time characters shouldn't be permitted to be too weak! A new player will only get discouraged if the character is killed or gravely injured right off, or if the character doesn't seem to contribute anything important to the game.
Remember, this isn't the time to get into long explanations of point breaks or statistical tradeoffs; keep your explanations general. If the player is keen on learning more, s/he can read the rulebooks later.
Next, permit players to buy equipment for their characters. This is usually fun, and it provides you with a chance to quickly discuss encumbrance rules. It also helps them flesh out their characters a little more.
The final step is to teach them the basic rules of making skill rolls or engaging in combat. That's best done in tandem with the next section.

Getting into Character: Some players are natural actors and will fall right into character. Others will have more difficulty remembering that they must roleplay, not simply direct the character around like an avatar on a video-game screen. I like to introduce players to roleplaying—and to the basics of combat and skill use—by throwing them into an archetypical situation that almost every media-savvy player will recognize ... the bar brawl.
Of course, the bar brawl doesn't start immediately. First, tell them that they're in a bar. Give it a quick description, pull out or draw maps if you have them. The nice thing about bars is that they're genre-generic ... you can find them in fantasy or science-fiction, gothic horror or cyberpunk ... in any culture that uses alcohol. (If the culture doesn't use alcohol, try a shopping trip that turns into a brawl). Let the characters order food and drink ... and require them to use "I" instead of "My character" and to speak directly to the NPC ("Hey, gimme a beer.") instead of the GM ("I order a beer.").
Provide a few interesting NPCs for them to interact with. Maybe a flirtatious waiter or waitress, a glib gambler, a surly drunk, a rude bravo, a mysterious cloaked figure or a talkative child. Let the characters talk among themselves, too—encourage them to introduce themselves to each other.
And then, of course, make sure it all ends in a brawl.
The nice thing about the archetypical bar brawl is that it is usually governed by an unwritten code of honor—no weapons—and it offers lots of opportunity for fancy manuevers like throwing tables and chairs, swinging from rafters, sliding down bars, and so forth. Bar brawls are usually fun for the players and give you a chance to guide players through the mechanics of doing things in the game. Let players tell you what their characters want to do, and then explain what they need to roll or accomplish in order to do that. Remember to keep them using "I" when they tell you what they want to do!
The point to the brawl is to provide combat without risk of serious injury or death. If the brawl gets ugly—that is, if a player character pulls out a weapon—either have NPCs try to warn the character off ("You don't want to up the ante, pardner") or bring in the authorities to break everything up. The player characters might escape or get off with a stern warning or even a fine, but you shouldn't impose any stiffer penalty than that on them this first time unless taking the characters to jail is part of your campaign concept. Bringing in the authorities serves to remind the players that their characters must work within society; that they can't get away with anything they want.
After the fight is broken up, the GM can close the session or move it on. The bar brawl can be a significant start to a new adventure (maybe somebody they met in the bar approaches them later with a job offer) or it can be an isolated incident, a sort of "training session" that the players all recognize is not tied into the larger campaign in any way. However, it will have broken the ice, given players an idea of how the game works and what their characters' skills and limitations are, and introduced the characters to each other so that they begin to understand what others can do, as well.

There are many ways to introduce characters or to run an opening scene, but most of those ways imply that the players are already familiar with the conventions of the game. For completely new players, it's vital that you take some extra time and effort to ease them in ... remember, they're our most important resource; this hobby can't survive without them!

originally written July 9, 1999


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