In the small trading town of Devonshire, a small group of adventurers just getting their start had a simple job: go to the town, find the adventurer-turned-bandit calling himself Baron Dunbar, and bring him to justice alive or dead. Rumors had it that the Baron and his bandits were actually in the town itself, spending their nights at the Pachyderm & Palace tavern. The adventurers would have to get into the town, gain access to the tavern, and deal with Dunbar and his bandits.
Spotting a pair of guards, one asleep and one reading, as they approached the gates of Devonshire at twilight, the bard managed to play a tune to lull the reading guard to sleep. Slipping into the town through the unlocked gate the group spotted a bandit watching the door to the P&P, but managed to lie or sneak their way in. The rogue attempted to convince the Baron that they wanted to join, but Dunbar didn’t fall for her lies and attacked. Luckily the bard charmed the Baron who then helped the party fight the rest of the bandits. The bandits were all killed, the wizard set part of the tavern on fire, and Dunbar was convinced to hop into a sack before the charm wore off.
Or . . . wait a minute, actually they approached the guards at the front gate openly, and learned that the guards and town were actually being more or less held hostage by the bandits. The guards informed them of the P&P’s layout and the number of Dunbar’s men and then let them in. The party threatened their way past the bandit at the front door, before the bard tried to charm the Baron. Unfortunately a critical fumble led Dunbar to immediately sic all the bandits on the bard, and the result was a big knock-down fight. The fighter was nearly killed in the melee, but eventually the wizard stopped drinking at the bar and harassing the bartender long enough to lob a magic missile at the Baron, killing him.
No, no, they did talk to the guards at the front gate, acquiring the same information as above. But when it came time to get into the tavern they lied their way past the bandit, claiming to be a rat killing company. Once inside they somehow started up a drinking contest, wherein the ranger (with some help from the cleric) managed to drink Dunbar into unconsciousness just before he passed out himself. When the bandits attempted to recover their leader to let him sleep things off the party jumped them. The rogue ambushed a few, the bard thunderwaved a couple across the bar, the fighter started headbutting people, and the wizard put everyone left to sleep. The ranger was tossed in a bed to sleep it off and Dunbar was tossed into a sack.
Darn it, no, here’s what really happened. They approached the front gate openly and nearly got in a fight with the guards, thanks to a number of critical fumbles and poor word choices. Barely getting inside the town without violence the bard just charmed the bandit guarding the P&P’s entrance. While the bard put on a show for the tavern to distract everyone the ranger and rogue snuck around the back to ambush Dunbar, yet with another critical fumble only managed to shoot a waiter by mistake and ruin the surprise. As the bard used thunderwave to blow a couple people across the bar the cleric of life was using her hammer to knock people unconscious, while the rogue and ranger fought it out with Dunbar. Thanks to flanking him and some much better luck they were able to knock him unconscious, and then joined the bard and cleric in mopping up the bandits. Into the sack Dunbar went.
Or, actually, all four stories happened. There were just different players, you see.
This past November and December saw me hosting a pair of “D&D for Beginners” nights in concert with the weekly board game night hosted by BoardGame Empire at the Elephant & Castle in Boston. I put together a short adventure, made some characters, and put out the word that anyone who was interested in Dungeons and Dragons but had never gotten the chance to try it were welcome. Each of the four stories above cover the four groups (5, 5, 6, and 4 players respectively) as they traveled into town, found their target, and figured out how they wanted to handle it. It was a lot of fun to run these games, and everyone seemed to have a great time. Luckily, I also learned a few lessons for both sides of the DM’s screen when it comes to these ‘beginner’ games.
Lessons For The DM
- Keep things simple. You don’t need to explain every rule of the game before you start playing, and you definitely shouldn’t overwhelm beginners with too much stuff. Your job is to show them how the game is played and to give them a fun experience that leaves them wanting more, and if they’re bogged down with the entire handbook right away that’s going to be difficult.
- Jump right in. Once you’ve explained what you absolutely need to in order to make the game playable (this is a d20 and this is what you use it for), and maybe answered some questions, just start playing. Anybody can read the rulebooks, but nobody learns how to play until they actually get experience. Address additional rules as they come up (aha, you rolled a natural 20, so here’s what that means . . .) and answer questions as they’re asked, but if you’re running your beginner game at a convention or event like I was, be mindful of the clock and the fact that people came to learn and play.
- Unlearn what you have learned. Remember that you may have been at this a while, and that many aspects of any game that you take for granted aren’t going to be obvious for new players. Everyone who’s played D&D for a bit is going to know what to do when they see 2d6+2, for example, but you shouldn’t assume that someone who’s never tried a game before knows what that means.
- Engage with your players. They might be nervous, especially if they don’t know anyone at the table. Ask them if they have any questions. When they ask questions, thank them for bringing up the issue. Be patient, especially when it involves something you take for granted with the game. Try to spend an equal amount of time paying attention to each player. You will note that this is generally good advice in any game, but it’s particularly important when teaching newcomers.
- Have a friend in the crowd. Running games for a pack of strangers can be kind of scary when you’re new to it. Try to invite a friend or two along for the first couple of times. A friendly face can help ground you a bit, particularly if you’ve played a different game with them. Plus, if you’ve played another game with them (or even, sneakily, have played the game you’re running before) they can be a very helpful assistant. After a few rounds the nerves will probably settle and you’ll be fine without some backup.
Lessons for the Newcomers
- Ask questions. There are no truly stupid ones, and something you have a question about might be something the DM just forgot was something not everybody knows (violating lesson #3 up above). You’ll have a much better time figuring things out and having fun if you ask your questions. Also, you’re doing your DM a favor: nothing is more intimidating to a DM teaching newcomers, especially if they’ve never done it before, than a table full of silence. And if you happen to run into a DM who doesn’t like you asking questions? One of my players at the second night asked me that exact question, and I told her right away: find a different DM.
- Invite a friend! For the same reason as the DM, playing games with strangers can be a little intimidating (if also pretty exciting with the right people). Try and get someone you’re friends with interested. You’ll have at least one person who’ll have your back, your DM will be secretly quite grateful that you helped fill up the table, and when you’ve been bit by the Tabletop RPG bug you’ll have someone to start forming a game of your own with!
Thank you to the BoardGame Empire for giving D&D for Beginners a home, and thanks to the players! You can find more info on BoardGame Empire at their site above or on Twitter. If you’re in the Boston area, right now BGE hosts a weekly game night every Monday at the Elephant & Castle. Keep an eye out for more D&D for Beginners, and maybe even some other games . . .