Ask The GM: Working With Rookies

By John Serpico on


David asks – I’ve been running a campaign with a group for a little over a year. For the majority of them this has been their first exposure to pen-and-paper games, so I have spent a lot of time teaching and reteaching terminology and mechanics in our sessions. This has slowed the pace of the down significantly, and my frustration at their continued difficulty with even basic principles is starting to put tension into the game. What would you recommend for helping newer players learn the rules?

David, a year is a long time for a group to still be confused about basic mechanics. Foundation to the enjoyment of any game – football, RPGs, chess, Scrabble, whatever – is a shared understanding of the rules and the terms. Without that shared understanding, you’re all speaking a different language.

Within the context of tabletop gaming specifically, an inability to grasp terminology and mechanics means that every element of the game (except for maybe the talking in funny voices part) is hampered. Combat can’t be dynamic and strategically compelling if players don’t know their character’s abilities or what a critical hit is. Working through dungeons or navigating tense political discussions take a decidedly bland “Can I do this…. Yes, you can do that” patois. And that’s not fun for you. The game is no longer shared storytelling – it is a perpetual, year-long lesson in what might as well be a long-dead language.

Thankfully, there are a few things you can try before throwing up your hands and deciding you’re not a babysitter anymore. The first is some kind of cheat sheet. Yes, it’ll be more work for you to put in, but what if you type out a list of twenty or thirty concepts that come up a lot and what it means. You could also add a couple other things are well like a brief description of how combat works. It’s a little bit paint-by-numbers, to be sure, but I think that beats explaining what Armor Class is every week.

The second is a tutorial session. Essentially, you take a break from the roleplaying and run the party through a few different scenarios. Coach them, tell the folks what they need to do in certain situations, and encourage them to take notes. For newer gamers, the stress of combat or time-sensitive problem solving (like, say, a pit they’re trapped in filling up with eel-infested water) makes them forget all of the things the GM has explained in the past. So perhaps a stress-free session in which they can just play around with all of the equipment and abilities and mechanics will get some of your explanations to stick.

The third is a bit more of a drastic solution, but you could also change the system you’re using. Fate Core or Fate Accelerated are very easy “grab some six siders and see what happens” systems that may be more engaging that one with too many rules and too many tactics. The thing about Dungeons and Dragons or GURPS or even 7th Sea is that there are a lot of mechanics that are wasted on folks that don’t have a mind or a heart for them. If you switch to a less rules-intensive system, that opens up the door for more actual roleplaying and more problem solving. You and your players can focus on solutions that leverage creative thinking, creative lying and out of the box approaches instead of a mastery of crunchy mechanics. For some campaigns, defeating an armor-plated orc general by trying to move the thief out of line of sight so he can get bonus damage while the paladin charges up her smite at the right time and the bard is slinging buffs is the way to get the most out of the game. But for others, it is fun interactions and straightforward combat. Maybe that is what is needed.

Whatever approach you take, do it with your enjoyment and the players’ enjoyment as your top priorities. It’s gaming. It should be fun. If it feels like a chore to anyone, you need to change it.

Happy GMing!

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