How to introduce new players to D&D (and keep them!)
Dungeons and Dragons fans everywhere are buzzing with excitement for the new edition of the world’s best-known RPG. With that in mind, I think it’s only fitting that the Mindflayer blog’s inaugural post shares my experiences with bringing new players to the table, and keeping them around for campaigns to come!
Before I go any further, I want to clarify that I mostly discuss Dungeons and Dragons on this blog. Other media, like films, video games, and other RPGs will also feature prominently, and while my opinions in this post can apply to any campaign-based RPG, my writing has a clear D&D focus.
New players are exciting. They are proof that someone, somewhere, will always want to tell stories and roll dice. I want new players to fall in love with the game, which is a blessing and a curse. Trying to ensure that a new player likes your game is stressful, because your creative soul is on the line. There is immense pressure (usually self-inflicted) on the Dungeon Master and other players at the table to make the new player’s first game one that keeps them coming back for more. When I DM, my game is my baby, my magnum opus. I care too much what other people think of it, and I know I’m not going to stop caring. So what do I do to keep players at my table?
Short answer: I know what my players want and I give it to them. Sometimes that’s simple! If you’ve been friends with your gaming group for a long time before you started playing D&D, then you have a good baseline for what they like. You can refine from there to make a great game, but when you’re playing with close friends, it really comes down to whether or not they like D&D. The game’s not for everyone, and we have to accept that.
Things get trickier when you don’t know your fellow players. As a Dungeon Master, you have to be prepared to put on your deerstalker and go sleuthing. Dungeons and Dragons is (perhaps ironically) a social game. Actual human beings (regardless of the fact that there are two elves, a dwarf, and a half-orc in the party) are sitting together at a table, telling a story and rolling dice together. Since the DM is the final arbiter and referee of the table, he or she must be friends with everyone. It is the paramount requirement of the game that the Dungeon Master understand what makes each player tick, and that understanding can only come from friendly communication and specific observation, both at the game table and in real life.
That understanding comes quickly, if you look for it. People play RPGs for two overarching reasons, to roleplay and to game. I love to play (and to DM) to scratch an artistic itch. I love to draw maps and create majestic kingdoms and fill dungeons full of kobolds who talk in funny voices. Artistic players might doodle their characters during the game, or they might be more engaged in the story and roleplay more than other players. As DMs, they create very rich worlds. On the sliding scale between storytelling and gaming, they tend towards the story side.
On the other side of the spectrum, the friend I first started playing D&D with had the most fun when he was building super-powerful characters. The rules of the game were his playground. He wasn’t trying to overshadow the other players, he just loved tearing the game’s math apart and finding the tasty, crunchy bits inside. Playing with a power gamer drove me crazy as a DM, (self-balancing a game is the Dungeon Master’s curse), but the simple fact that there are entire online communities centered around optimizing D&D characters is proof that a huge portion of the D&D fanbase loves the game because it is a complex behemoth of rules and mechanics. And while this isn’t strictly conducive to good roleplaying, nothing is stopping roleplayers from building powerful characters or rulesmongers from telling a heroic story.
Placing all D&D players into two camps on opposite ends of a spectrum is a sweeping generalization, but these broad strokes help me begin to focus my game. When I have a party full of roleplayers, I make all my combat encounters huge, dramatic, and meaningful to the larger story, and will pick up the slack with plenty of exploration or character interaction encounters. Most films only have two or three combats in them, and even a ten-hour season of Game of Thrones will have only a handful of fight scenes. Conversely, parties full of gamers tend to prefer story-light, dungeon-heavy games where they can pit their powerful characters against a slew of interesting (if nonsensical, in a Gygaxian way) monsters.
Players who are involved keep playing. If they feel that they matter, that their opinions are being heard, and they have an impact on the game, whether that impact is on the grand plot or in the mega-dungeon, they will stay. Because they’re having fun. And when you get right down to it, when you’re telling stories or playing a game, having fun is the bottom line.
The final word. Having fun is doubly important for the DM. Never pander to your players at the expense of your own enjoyment. You are a player just like the people eating your chips and playing on your kitchen table. In fact, you might be the teensiest bit more important, since you’re the one planning the game and sending out the schedule every week. A DM who isn’t having fun is on a fast track to getting burnt out, and burnt out DMs stop playing the game.
Play the game for whatever reasons you like, and know that D&D begins and ends at having fun. That alone will keep players coming back to play week after week.