Larry asks – I’m pretty familiar with D&D via the computer golden age of Black Isle Studios, but just recently started playing PnP this year. So far I’ve been having a blast and I’m going to be DMing in the next few weeks for the first time as well! It’s a pretty varied group that ranges from – playing MTG on the regular when we were kids, to “Oh I liked Lord of the Rings!” to “That thing from Stranger Things?” Any tips for keeping newer players involved or invested when there are varying levels of nerdiness/familiarity around the table?
Larry, there are generally two types of pen-and-paper gaming rookies. The first are folks that are familiar with the tropes of fantasy but may not know the rules of a particular system. The majority of gaming rookies fall into this category, due in part to the proliferation of population fantasy and science fiction combined with the proliferation of diverse collection of rule sets. Given all of that, there is something of an expectation that a GM is responsible for teaching the rules and mechanisms to experienced nerds that haven’t played GURPS or FATAL or one of the other mind-bendingly complex systems.
The second are folks that aren’t familiar at all with fantasy canon and, on top of that, don’t know the rules. In either situation, the GM is responsible for being a teacher when it comes to what dice to pick up and how to keep track of powers and spell slots and all that. But on top of that the GM needs to manage the fact that some of the standard tropes of fantasy, like how eccentric wizards are or the relative danger of fighting a goblin versus fighting an ogre, aren’t known to everyone.
So let’s talk about how a GM can make gaming fun for that second group. People who don’t have years or decades of fantasy fandom can easily feel like they’re at a disadvantage when they’re in a D&D campaign. They might defer to other players who know more when trying to decide whether to fight the kobolds or detour into the Insidious Dungeon of Gelatinous Cubes, which will strip them of power and make them doubt their decisions throughout the whole campaign. If a rookie player feels like the other players know more and are the only ones capable of making the right decision, then he or she becomes a passenger in the adventure instead of one of the drivers. And that’s what you want to avoid. You want each player to feel like he or she has as much agency as everyone else.
One of the best things you can do in those early sessions is to divide up the decision making and ensure that everyone feels like they have all the information necessary to make a call. This can be done in a number of different ways. Have players interact with NPCs one on one instead of in a group, so that both fantasy rookies and fantasy experts have their moment to impact the game through conversation. Remind players that there is no right or wrong answers, and you’re not quizzing them. If one rookie is a ranger, empower that ranger to make to decision about the route to go or which berries to eat or what the best way to lay a trap for a bugbear is. Experiences like that teach the players a very important lesson – your character will know more than you do, and that’s perfectly great.
Another great thing to do for your players is to get the dice out of the way and let them get to know each other through conversation. Have the characters share a meal and talk about themselves, their past, their hopes and their wants. You can make it even easier by tying their backstories together. Make two of them siblings, or members of the same guild. Your players will develop connections and motivations and relationships that have nothing to do with their knowledge of fantasy. “I feel a kinship with Krogg The Bonecrusher because he and I are from the same village in the mountains” will do a heck of a lot more for a player’s enjoyment than “I feel a kinship with Krogg The Bonecrusher because the daily buffs I can cast will synergize great with his powers and also he’s a Half-Orc and you always want to be friends with one.”
Finally, especially in early sessions, fill the world with human experiences. That is to say, make the problems the players feel seem universal instead of fantasy-based. Hunger, rivalry, scarcity, missing family, debt, desire for revenge. Make your players feel feelings and respond to those feelings. Make those the puzzles of those first few sessions instead of having them figure out with combination of spells in which order can chip away at a dragon’s health. Give them fun puzzles in a dungeon, but make them about logic instead of esoteric knowledge. Let what the players know about being people inform what they can do as characters. Then they’ll get more comfortable when their characters start making decisions based on more than what they know.
Be a guide, and encourage them to immerse themselves in the world without fear of making a mistake. They’ll be fantasy nerds in no time.
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