Despite their popularity in the 80s, RPGs continue to be a hobby that isn't quite as popular as video gaming or even board gaming. Today's post is going to be the first of two parts, where I discuss tips on making new players feel welcome. This advice is of course going to be primarily aimed at Game Masters, but it can be helpful too if you're a player welcoming another. It's also the first post that's tagged with both 'Swords' and 'Stationery' -- while Part 1 is aimed at advice for general audiences, Part 2 will focus on youths and students.
Coddling New Players? Nay, But Put Them At Ease
If you've played with new players before, especially those who aren't even into gaming at all, you'll know how awkward they can get during the first session. Not everyone is attuned to the same frequency. This is because RPGs are a social activity, with face-to-face interactions. In a moderately-sized group of experienced players that know what to expect from an RPG, it can be especially daunting for a newcomer. They would need to know the basics, and even then, queries might still be at the back of their heads. And don't think for a moment that it isn't daunting for them to raise up those questions... if they even know what those questions are!
See, many of us who play RPGs are introverts or extroverted-introverts, and by extension, so are most of our immediate social circles. Noting that, some social settings can be overwhelming, especially one which we're completely unfamiliar with. In other words, if you want your new player(s) to have an enjoyable experience, you'll have to ease them into the experience. That's not to say we can't break out a challenging module or scenario during these players' first session. They should, however, be given a set of ideas to get into a similar frequency as the rest.
The Process Itself (CHEESE)
To this end, I have come up with an acronym called 'CHEESE' (because here in Singapore, we love our acronyms). What does it stand for? Well, let's take a look:
Choose the right game
Just like how there's no wrong way to have fun, there is no one-size-fits-all game. If you're playing with a group of new players who have zero experience with gaming (tabletop or video), perhaps consider something simpler and less number crunchy. Similarly, if you have at the table an experienced PC Master Race gamer who has never played a PnP RPG before but who wants to try Fallout on the tabletop (like myself, when I first started out with the hobby), he/she might be able to handle GURPS easily, since, you know, Fallout was meant to be a GURPS game.
We assume the name explains itself, because come on, a Role-Playing Game is a game where you play the role of someone else... right? Well, if you're using Ars Magica at the table (and why would you if you're playing with a newbie), its basic concept might differ from how one would explain Dungeons & Dragons. Even explaining 2e might differ from 5e, depending on the module.
Whatever game, module and/or scenario you're using, you should explain basic concepts to give new players a heads-up of what they will be playing. If it's a 'collaborative, shared-narrative game' that you're running, go with that. If it's a game where players 'collect loot, slay monsters and level up', make it clear.
When you explain an 'RPG' to a player, you're describing the game in broad strokes. Next, we need to get down to the finer details: what should the player expect from their experience, and what do you expect from them? Laying expectations is important, because it can prevent player boredom, and helps them to set a clearer vision for what they want out of the experience. These are not hard and fast rules, but rather guidelines that you think can ensure everyone has the most fun. Examples can include wanting proactive participation, or to steer the game in a sensible direction. For me, one of the expectations I like to establish, especially for newcomers, is the encouragement of player agency, usually through Montages.
Unlike expectations, boundaries should be specific lines drawn, whether in-character (IC) or out-of-character (OOC). I game with younger players, so I tend to disallow mobile phones at the table. I also disallow extensive OOC chatter. Whatever the boundaries you want to set, these have to be adhered to as far as possible -- and you need to make it explicitly clear.
Don't expect new players to understand all of the rules in one sitting, especially in the course of the game. This is particularly so if the player doesn't have prior knowledge of the rules. While experienced players can help them along the way, in my experience, it is best to explain the basics first, omitting the situational rules. As an example, when GMing 13th Age with beginners, I will first explain skill checks, saving throws, combat rolls and the actions a player can take. As the game progresses, they should have a better understanding on how to use their powers.
Of course, there are games out there with even too many basic rules. In that case, the GM should introduce the rules as and when needed by pausing the flow of the game to explain. Sure, it can be disruptive for the experienced players, but a game that moves along too quickly is bound to lose a new player if they aren't given sufficient time to internalise the basics.
Putting It Together
As some of you already know, half the time I'm GMing for new players. There is no better reward than seeing my players leave the table with smiles on their faces, excitedly talking about the session for minutes after. Personally, CHEESE is what works for me, as cheesy (ba-dum--tsh) as it sounds.
If you GM a lot for new players too, please don't hesitate to share your own tips in the Comments section below. Also, do let me know if you decide to try out CHEESE at your own table, and how well it works in helping new players integrate with the rest of the group. I hope this post has been helpful. Thanks for reading, and have a good gaming week ahead.