Running D&D for New Players
Last week I had the rare honor of inducting a brand new group of players into the wonderful game of Dungeons & Dragons. After floating the idea around my office for a few months I was able to talk a group of six of my co-workers into playing through The Lost Mine of Phandelver, the adventure that comes with the excellent D&D 5th Edition Starter Box. Reflecting on our first game (which I think went as well as can be expected of any table with six brand new players) I learned about something very important that I had completely lost sight of.
I have been running D&D games on and off since I was 13 and that means I have a really hard time knowing what the new player experience is like. There are phrases like "saving throw" and "cantrip" which have become second nature to me and my regular group of players. It is easy to forget the level of jargon a new player has to contend with just to create a character, particularly if they are a spell casting class. While trying to teach the latest and greatest edition of the game to a crop of fresh faced players with no experience of tabletop RPGs, I have been able to pinpoint a few snags that I need to keep in mind the next time I have a party of level one adventurers in my clutches.
1. Primacy of the d20 and the d# nomenclature
This is the most obvious part of the game and the easiest to forget when explaining the concept of the game to a new player. For the first 2 hours of the game session, any time I asked a player for a skill check, attribute check or save, and attack rolls I was hit with the "Which one do I roll?" question. I had overlooked explaining the fact that almost everything in the game runs on the d20. Speaking of d20, I really forgot that people don't understand inherently which shape dice is what. There is a part of my brain that makes the leap from the phrase "d8" to what a d8 is so quickly that I forget most people have no idea on their first glance at a set of polyhedral dice which one is which. In the future I should really front load that information in my explanations, don't assume that your players have this knowledge. The worst thing that happens if you tell them and they already know is you make them feel smart when they tell you, "I already know that."
Making your players think they're smart is half the work of DMing, so don't waste the opportunity.
2. Known spells vs prepared spells vs spell slots
This is something that even some veteran D&D players who stick to martial characters don't like dealing with, because it can be confusing. I knew this would be a trouble spot going into the game with my players who chose to be spell casters. D&D with your standard Fighter or Rogue can be enough rules to overwhelm a new player but when you thrown in a huge myriad of spell effects, preparation and spells known, choosing a domain in the case of clerics... it adds a lot of choices to the character creation process. Even though I thought I had explained it clearly, I had obviously done a poor job of it as I had players at my table very confused about spell preperation and what that means for their spell slots. The language used in the rules doesn't make it very clear to a new player. For instance, if this spell is on my "known" list why isn't it "prepared" ? Even though I only have to prepare it once, I can cast it more than once if I have enough spell "slots". What the hell is a spell "slot" ?
It's not obvious how any of it works from the way it's presented. It's one of the most explicitly "gamey" aspects of 5e and there are a few mechanics intersecting to make spell casting happen. This makes it a perfect storm for tripping up new players and I clearly need to work on some way of explaining it succinctly without forcing a new player to read the Magic chapter of the PHB end to end. My wife may have given me the best analogy for it so far. Your spells known is like all the food in your refrigerator. How many spells you prepare is how much food you can fit in your lunchbox. Your spell slots is how much you can eat of what you brought that day before getting full. Then you can go back to the fridge and swap out your lunchbox at the end of the day. Seems pretty good to me.
3. Athletics vs Acrobatics, Intelligence vs Wisdom
Continuing the train of thought about confusing or arbitrary language in the rules system, the very first question I recieved (and have always recieved, since 3e) is "What is the difference between intelligence and wisdom?" At the time the best I could come up with was "Intelligence is what you know, Wisdom is how you use what you know" but that seems vague and unsatisfactory and mostly fit for writing on a fortune cookie. After I got home from my character creation session, I did some googling and found this Reddit thread from a year ago. I think the user Obrien nailed it when he said:
"Wisdom is the stat reflecting your discipline. It's your self control, your ability to pay attention, and your mental fortitude. It in practice powers your will saves, your powers of perception, and your capacity to communicate with your deity or spirit of choice."
I think that really sums it up mechanically and lore wise and works for me as an answer from now on. The other question, "Athletics vs Acrobatics" is a similar problem. It cropped up in our first session as it relates to climbing. It isn't clear based on colloquial understanding why athletics is used for climbing and not acrobatics. Generally, describing athletics as the jump/climb/swim ability and acrobatics as the flip/tumble/land ability worked for most of my players. You need Strength(Athletics) to propel yourself up but you need Dexterity(Acrobatics) to come back down safe.
4. Alignment and Background are not straight jackets
I'm going to blame this mostly on those stupid meme charts of character alignments from various books, movies, and tv shows. Somehow even my D&D inexperienced players weren't unaware of the stereotypes associated with "chaotic evil" and assumed "lawful good" equals boring paladin. I'm not sure what it is, but a lot of players get it in their head when they learn about alignment that it's going to be first and foremost in their mind when they make decisions in game. I've found far more often people discover how they're going to play characters once they start playing. Alignments seem to do far more to constrain a players role playing than to encourage it in a positive direction. Mechanically, alignment is only needed for a few powers and magic items to determine their effect. As far as I'm concerned, it's something the DM should keep track of in his personal notes, based on the player's actions and not something the player actively chooses on their own. I may go more in depth on that one in a later post. For now, suffice to say that I haven't seen alignment selection help in character creation for new players.
Backgrounds on the other hand, I found did actually stimulate new players. For someone new to tabletop RPGs, the idea of coming up with a backstory for your character can be daunting. They're unsure how much or how little detail to go into, where to begin or how to frame it. The background mechanic in 5e solves this problem elegantly, my players loved reading through the background section and let it spark the reason their characters were the classes they chose. Forget alignment, encourage backgrounds and thinking about flaws/traits/bonds/ideals. This is a much better system for helping your players form an idea of who their character is in the world and where they stand.
5. There are no downsides to playing any particular race
While we're at it, I blame Tolkien the most for this one. There seems to be an assumption on the part of many new players that an elf is automatically a master archer and a dwarf will never be a wizard. Nothing but fantasy racism of the highest order I say! Since 3rd edition, D&D has embraced a philosophy of anyone can do anything - it might just be a little more challenging for some. However, 5e has made this even more true with the mass removal of attribute penalties during character creation. None of the core races give a negative stat penalty to any of the six attributes. They all simply get bonuses in the areas for which they are good. This was easy to explain and the players quickly embraced the idea. We even ended up with a Gnome Barbarian! I simply point it out as a point I've had to explain time and time again, so it is something to take note of when trying to generate characters with new players.