How NOT to Teach Newbies D&D

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Nothing ruins a good game of D&D like a new player. They have no preconceived notions about how things ought to work. They aren’t invested in petty fights about the rules. They aren’t so jaded that they need sixteen sourcebooks just to make an interesting character. They haven’t been warped and twisted by countless other crappy GMs. They are just wide-eyed, unrestrained, creative little children wandering through f$&%ing Narnia for the first time. That’s no way to play the game.

I know A LOT about new players. Let me tell you a little something about me and my history with table-top RPGs. I got started with this crap back in 1988. I was ten. I got a copy of the Mentzer Basic Dungeons & Dragons Red Box – the single greatest product for bringing players and GMs into the fold EVER – and I realized that if I wanted to play this game, I was going to have to make it happen myself. I kidnapped two of my friends and made them play. I was the GM. And I’ve been the f$&%ing GM ever since.

I knew from the beginning – I KNEW – that if I wanted a D&D game – or any other RPG; there have been lots in my life – if I wanted a D&D game, I was going to have to make it happen. Not just run the game. I’d have to schedule thing. And find the players. And more often, I’d have to make the players. Convert muggles into gamers. The thing is, I go through a lot of players. Because, these days, players are a bunch of pussies who can’t get two rooms into Tomb of Horrors without running away in tears about “screwjobs” and “killer GMs.” So, if I want any pool of players at all, I need new players. And I’ve trained a lot of them. If I only count extended games of three months or more – not conventions, not one-shots – I estimate I’ve run regular games for sixty or seventy people. And more than two-thirds of those people had never played a tabletop RPG before I got my hands on them.

I HAVE TO settle for new players. But YOU probably don’t. And you wouldn’t want to. As I said, new players suck. So, what do you when a bunch of muggles asks you to introduce them to the game? How do you keep them from coming back? How do you avoid getting stuck running an extended campaign for a bunch of joyous, excited newbies who don’t know their a$&es from their proficiency bonuses?

It’s easy: you bury the fun of the game. You take all the good parts of the game and you hide them away so that their first session is absolutely craptastic. That way, they never want to come back. And once you’re rid of them, you can go back to being screamed at by Pathfinder Society munchkins or indulging a crew of special snowflake thespians and their fifty pages of self-aggrandizing backstory.

So, without further Long, Rambling Introduction™, allow me to present The Angry GM Foolproof Method for Getting Rid of that Group of Newbies for Good.

Step 1: Don’t Sell, Teach

A salesman is someone who wants you to love a thing so much that you have to have it for yourself. More importantly, they want you to come back to them to buy more stuff. And that’s the last thing you want from a new player. You don’t want them coming back. No. You want to be a teacher. You want to be someone who bores the f$&% out of the players. Someone they piss and moan about while they’re smoking behind the gym. Someone they avoid when out and about in the real world. “Oh, here comes Mr. Angry. He’s such a d$&%. I hope he doesn’t see us.”

Here’s the thing: the players really don’t need to understand most of the rules to play the game. Players can play for a long time with only a very limited number of rules. Mostly, they just need to be able to listen to descriptions, declare actions, and roll dice on command. And maybe do some math. Oh sure, eventually they pick up more. But there’s a human brain adjudicating the game. One that can spell out the possibilities and manage the rules and present options and adapt to their clever, creative ideas. And that is pretty much the biggest, bestest part of RPGs. The human brain running the game makes everything else possible.

You can’t let the muggles know that. Or else they will be breaking down your door, begging for more. Fortunately, they don’t have to know. Because there are big, giant rulebooks that make the game look scary and complicated. And newbies will assume that if they don’t know what’s in those rulebooks, they will be at a disadvantage. And they will be eager to learn.

And THAT is how you go from awesome salesman to d$&%wad teacher. Before you let them play, teach them the game. Explain everything. Explain about the dice. Explain about ability scores and make sure you spend a huge amount of time on the important and critical difference between Intelligence and Wisdom. Explain proficiency bonuses and advantage and disadvantage and combat rounds. Explain the spellcasting procedures for every character class. Explain every trait on every weapon. Explain everything. And while you do it, keep that big, giant book open in front of you so they can see all the words and tables. And don’t leave anything out. Make sure they understand literally every game concept you can imagine. Assume they will be taking the equivalent of the D&D Bar Exam after the session and you’re the only studying they are going to get. Fill their heads with rules and procedures.

Not only that, make sure you also explain your own house rules. I’m sure you have some. And they are probably excellent. So you could never run a game – even for newbies – without your own, much better rules. But for the players to recognize how much better your house rules are, make sure you explain both the rules in the book AND your own changes to them. Otherwise, how will they see why your rules are better?

Now, some GMs would just focus on helping the players understand the most basic concepts of the game and not sweating the details so they can just play and have a good time. Some GMs would just start with the rule of “describe your action and we’ll see what happens” and then bring in various rules as they are needed and explain only exactly as much as is needed at one time. Some GMs would leave all sorts of rules out just to make the game flow faster. Some GMs would present a small number of clear, concise options to the players at various intervals instead of overloading them with every possibility or asking them to simply pick actions from the helpful pool of “anything they can possibly imagine.” You know what happens to those GMs? Next week, there’s a knock at the door and the gang of muggles is there demanding more. F$&% that.

Step 2: The Best Part of Everything is Paperwork

You know what’s fun? Killing dragons! Finding treasures! Negotiating with pirates! Exploring flying castles! Laying forgotten spirits to rest! Fulfilling ancient prophecies! Tricking gods! And you can do all of that crap and more in D&D! Which is why you absolutely can’t lead that with that s$&%. Do you really want these little sniveling non-gamers coming back for more? Hell no! And that’s why you need to lead with boredom. It’ll fatigue and exhaust the muggles and eat up so much of the game’s time that, even if they do get to something cool, they won’t care because of all the boring work it took to get there.

Fortunately, there is an awesome roadblock you can throw in front of any excited newbie: character generation. Now, you and I both know that character generation is the most creative thing that the players get to do during the game. They get to invent the character they want to be for the rest of the game. Their persona. Their avatar. Their escape. And they get to choose all of that from a list of highly esoteric options that have to painstakingly explain to a newbie. A newbie who has very little context for any of the decisions they will be making and whose sense of their role in the world can be summed up in one sentence that sounds like “can I be a knight” or “are there wizards; wizards are cool” or “I want to be an elf archer, can I do that?”

Of course, you can’t let them get away with such surface decisions. This is character generation. It’s important. They need a sense of pure creative control. “A knight, huh,” you have to ask. “Do you mean a warrior or do you serve the gods? Have you sworn a divine oath? What? Oh, that means you can use divine magic? Well, yes, that includes healing magic but it also lets you use some combat magic but mostly magic that enhances your physical attacks and you also get divine senses, but you’ll need to pick a god or at least an oath and do you want to be a champion of virtue or a divine executioner of the unjust or a protector of nature?” You have to say “well, there isn’t an archer. You could be a fighter or a ranger or a rogue, so let’s go over all of those options and see which one you like, now listen close.”

You and I both know these details are important. Otherwise, the player might not end up picking the absolutely perfect character for the very first session of the game. And there’s no way to ever go back and start a new character ever. Especially not once the player has a better grasp of the rules and the world and the context for all the choices they’ve made. If you don’t let the player answer a thousand questions to firm up the one sentence that represents everything they know about the game, you’re robbing them of their creativity. Forever.

But after that part about making all of the decisions, then comes the best part: paperwork and math. Because character generation is one part coming up with a cool idea to four parts filling out a form, looking stuff up in books, and adding up numbers. And, if you’re focussing on teaching and not selling, you get to explain all the options.

If you have a whole table full of new players, this whole process can sometimes take up the entire session. You can waste a whole afternoon on confusing interrogations about indecipherable game jargon, charts, tables, explanations, paperwork, and math. That means an entire session spent NOT playing the fun parts of the game before you are anywhere close to the game. That’ll keep those bastards from wanting more.

Other GMs might realize that, for their first game, a handful of simplified pregenerated characters will do, with a few rules spelled out clearly in plain language as needed. Those GMs might cheat the players out of the full experience by just letting the players pick from a handful of very familiar archetypes like “knight” and “barbarian” and “dwarf solder” and “elven hunter” and “wizard” and “halfling burglar.” And no, leaving details like names, physical descriptions, genders, and personality traits blank for the players to fill in, that isn’t enough for players to feel some attachment to a character they are probably only going to play once. Those GMs would probably say something like “we’ll just use these characters for a few sessions. Then, if we decide to continue, we can work on creating characters of your very own.”

You know what happens to those GMs? On session turns into several and then into an entire goddamned campaign with a bunch of unwashed heathen newbies. Hell no.

Step 3: Be Unique, Be Unfamiliar, Be Inpenetrable

You and I both know that an GM who uses any sort of common trope or cliché or even a single, familiar fantasy monster is just an uncreative hack. These games are supposed to be fantastic! What’s fantastic about a bunch of travelers in an inn getting drawn into trouble when orcs attack the village and kidnap the village reeve and his daughter? What’s fantastic about human fighters and dwarf clerics and halfling rogues and elf rangers and human wizards? Nothing. That’s what. Because you’ve seen it all before.

Oh sure, newbies are initially drawn to D&D because of their familiarity with fantasy tropes and cliches. And nothing makes it easier to lose yourself in a world than a sense that the world is familiar and recognizable and comfortable. But that crap isn’t D&D. D&D isn’t about losing yourself in your favorite, familiar fantasy stories and imagining yourself as a hero doing all the cool things you’ve seen and read about. It’s about complex, unfamiliar, fantastic worlds unlike anyone has ever seen before. With strange races and alien environments. And nuanced moral and political philosophy.

See, despite all the time you’ve time wasted on teaching every single rule and on math and paperwork and overwhelming questions, there’s a still a risk you might have some time left to actually play the game. And if that happens, your newbie players might actually manage to have some fun if their imaginations actually get engaged. You can’t have that. So you need to make the world difficult to get into.

Run complex stories with unfamiliar creatures and unrecognizable settings. Don’t use orcs or goblins when you can use gnolls or mongrelmen or ixitxachitl. Don’t let the players play dwarves and elves when they can play aaracockra and tortles and genasi. Take a page from the Out of the Abyss introductory Adventurers League thing: introduce the players to myconids and quaggoths and svirfneblin. In short, avoid anything that has appeared in a TV show or movie or that you would be exposed to in a 100-level Classical mythology course.

But just making the world hard to imagine by filling it with things the players have no familiarity with may not be enough to overwhelm them. That’s where exposition is your friend. Remember, the more specific details you build into your game, the more you get to explain. And exposition is to excitement what a crowbar is to an Olympic figure skater’s kneecap. Set your game in a specific setting and make sure you feed the players the history of the setting. Pick an obscure corner of the Forgotten Realms like Myth Drannor – whatever the hell that is – or set it in Valenar in Eberron or on the Silt Sea in Athas. Or create your own city that is ruled by a council of representatives from seven different political factions each with their own goals and agendas. Make sure you describe each to the players. They need to know this stuff and there is no way you can just weave this stuff into the narrative.

Other GMs might recognize that new players are more interested in approachability than in complexity or uniqueness. They’d draw the players in with familiar worlds and characters and story elements and tropes. They’d recognize that the players are likely to be so drawn in by the new experience of playing a freeform escapist fantasy game that they aren’t going to care if it’s just another story about a group of noble Imperial soldiers trying to overthrow an evil Rebellion. Those GMs might make sure their game feels like a comfortable sweater the players can easily slip on for now and later sew on some sequins and pom poms and whatever other crap you might sew onto a sweater to form an analogy about gradually adding unique elements to something familiar and comfortable.

And those GMs would be saddled with running a two-year campaign for a bunch of moronic greenhorns.

Step 4: Demand Commitment

One-shots are for conventions and losers who can’t hold together a real group. Everyone knows that. A limited adventure that tells just a single story over the course of one or two sessions is the creative equivalent of gluing googly eyes to a rock and calling yourself a sculptor. There’s no art to it. You don’t have to string a bunch of plotlines together. You can’t take your time building a grand epic. There’s no foreshadowing. Limited worldbuilding. It’s crap. Why would you ever put a one-shot game in front of anyone unless you were at f$&%ing LameHoleCon or something?

Now, technically, running a one-shot doesn’t preclude you from starting a long-running campaign as soon as the one-shot is done. And yeah, that’s only two goddamned weeks of not running a campaign. But still? Why waste two whole sessions out of a year-long campaign just to whet people’s appetites and to make sure people are willing to make a long-term commitment to the game? I mean, it’s not like restaurants will bring you smaller portions of simpler foods in advance of serving you an entrée, right? Why would they?

Simply put? Don’t run some crappy, limited, one-shot adventure for a group of newbies. Tell them you’re starting a campaign. Tell them they will be playing every week. Right up front. That way, throughout the entire game session, they won’t be fixated on whether they are having fun right now, but rather, they will be trying to figure out if this will STAY fun FOREVER. If they aren’t absolutely certain they will want to do this activity every week for the rest of their life, they aren’t really a gamer after all and it’s not like they will ever build an attachment over time. Knowing that you’re committed forever to something just makes you more likely to enjoy it anyway, right? That’s why it’s so much fun to go to work. You know you have to, so you might as well enjoy it.

Some GMs would forestall any discussions of future games. They would reassure players that the possibility exists for another game but otherwise would caution the players to wait and see how the first session goes before they commit to anything. They’d allow their players to relax and judge the single session or adventure on its own merits. And if any of the players are on the fence after the first session, those dumb GMs might offer another one-shot adventure in a couple of weeks to try it again instead of demanding the player either agree to a campaign or leave forever.

And those GMs somehow end up trapped in terrible campaigns with a bunch of inexperienced idiots who would probably have left after the first session left them cautiously optimistic but unsure about the future commitment.

Step 5: Bench the Newbies

When you join a sports team, your first job is to warm the bench and watch the better players play the games. That’s why there’s such a thing as Junior Varsity. Gaming really isn’t any different. New players show up expecting to sit on the sidelines, watching the other, better players actually play the game. And if they don’t expect that, they should. Because new players aren’t as experienced. They can’t handle the game the way the real gamers can. Not yet. And it would be unfair to ask the real gamers to tone it down a bit and draw the new players in. After all, there is at least as much riding on every session of your D&D campaign as is there is riding on the Super Bowl.

Okay, realistically, you and I both know that that’s a load of bulls$&%. That pretty much anyone can get into these games pretty easily. That there isn’t a huge amount that rides on player expertise. And even if things go badly, the only thing at stake is a piece of paper with a name that has way too many apostrophes written on it. But, it sure doesn’t seem that way to newbies. And you don’t want the newbies to figure that out. Or else they will start participating. They will start having fun.

Maintain the illusion of “professionals” and “bench warmers” by just bringing the newbies to your regular, ongoing game with your long-standing group. And then run the game the way you normally would for your existing players and let the newbies just run to keep up. Have quick, rapid-fire exchanges in-game jargon. Interrupt the game frequently to explain inside jokes to the newbies or to share war stories. That’s basically more teaching anyway, right? Grizzled veterans sharing their experiences with the rookies. That sort of thing.

Now, some GMs would put the new players at ease by running a separate session just for them. One that doesn’t involved any experienced players so that the focus can be entirely on drawing the new players into the game. Or else, those GMs might invite one or two experienced players to join in the game and fill out the group, but make sure those players take a passive role in the game and frequently engage the new players. Those GMs would actually adapt the experience to the players instead of forcing the players to jump in and fit in or get left behind.

And you know exactly what would happen to those GMs. Those poor, stupid GMs.

Don’t be like those GMs.

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33 thoughts on “How NOT to Teach Newbies D&D

  1. …Jeez, my sarcasm sensors must be off today.
    It took me nearly half of the article to realize that this was supposed to be anti-advice that you were supposed to apply in reverse, which is what you helpfully spelled out how to do. I mean, it was even in the title!

    Regardless, thanks, Angry! This should help a lot!

    • Half the article? I figured it out in the first sentence. In the introduction. Regardless… Great read after being sick for the whole d@*% weekend. Thanks.

      • Man, forget this “bench warmer”… he doesn’t even know how to roll Perception right. Us “professionals” that realized the sarcasm in the first sentence shouldn’t mingle with these “amateurs”. Don’t spend your energy showing how much better we are… I need you focusing on the battle ahead, because a Nalfeshnee is comming and I’ve only got this useless Magical Fire-Spitting Poison-Dripping Longsword +3…

      • Wait… does this imply his other articles contain sarcasm too?

        OH MY GOD, DOES HIS TWITTER HAVE SARCASM? Maybe he isn’t a huge jerk at all…

  2. This was a really great article, uncannily reminiscent of Swift’s Modest Proposal essay. I’m currently running a campaign for a huge number of new players, and I am very aware that I may have fallen into the ‘too much paperwork’ trap. They seem to be enjoying themselves now though, so hopefully I have got away with it.

    • Reminds me of CGP Grey’s “7 Ways to Maximize Misery”;
      basically what if this article was a video about happiness instead of good GMing.

  3. Really, the best part of this article was the sweater analogy.

    The advice is good, but that analogy is gold.

  4. I can and will happily read through the angry shtick, rambly introductions and grawlixes (or whatever you call those $&#!ing things). These are fun in small amounts. But adding the whole “opposite of what I say is true” trope to a whole damn article is just too much.

    I can’t claim to speak for all your readers, but personally, when I read through your blog, I’m already using 20% of my brainpower to translate from English to my native language, and I like to use the remaining 80% to understand and memorize all the useful stuff you’re talking about.

    I won’t request a Full Sarcasm Mode to Actual English translation of this article, but really, just please tell me you won’t be doing this again. I don’t want to spend extra time and energy to convert every single paragraph into its opposite meaning so I can actually **start** getting useful advice out of it.

    • As friendly advice from another non native speaker: you really shouldn’t be translating to your native language at all. You’re just making things harder for yourself. Every time you read ‘English’, try to set your entire brain to ‘English mode’, so that even your own internal thoughts while reading come out in the same language. Translating is a pain in the ass even if you’re proficient in the two languages. It’s not easy and it takes practice, but try to forget you even know the other language. It’s like trying to run an RPG and every time you adjudicate an action trying to compare it to a D&D one.

      The ‘useful bit’ is the last paragraph at the end of each step: they start with ‘Some GMs/Other GMs would…’

      • I suppose I could have chosen my words better: I can already handle reading things in English without mentally translating them first. Hell, I write half my GMing notes in English and I tend to think in English pretty frequently. It’s just that (IMHO) getting to the real message behind an entire article that’s written sarcastically is harder when you’re not intimately familiar with sarcastic turns of phrase in that language, the way Angry is with English.

        But really, forget the point language. Angry’s persona is already pretty ramble-heavy and you already need to dig through paragraphs to find the nuggets of advice worth remembering. Making it so your readers must dig for good advice disguised as bad advice for an entire article is just asinine. If the little “some/other GMs” blurbs are the only ones that matter, then I’m going to question the purpose of everything else, and if they’re not, then I’m missing on some advice, right?

        • Ohhh now I get it! Well, it is what it is I suppose… Angry writes this way and while I agree that sometimes he takes it way too far, I wouldn’t point this article as an example of the worst offenses. I actually found this easier to read than some of his campaign stuff. But it might be the fact that sarcasm is my 2nd language. 🙂

          Although on the other hand, Angry’s articles are usually about analysing the core concept of everything, not just “do this or do that”. That always leads to rambling no matter how you tackle the subject.

  5. I really, really needed this at exactly this moment. I’m starting a game next month with some friends and family and had imagined hours and hours of explanation and “teaching” I would have to do before we even played the first game, not to mention I wanted them to commit right away to an epic campaign. Thanks, Angry, for figuratively slapping me around and snapping me out of that insanity. I’m just going to keep it simple and fun and see what happens.

  6. BAHAHAHA!!! I was pleased the “I can’t take it anymore! Here’s the real advice…” never came. Illustrating absurdity by being absurd. You are most certainly the Rush Limbaugh of tabletop, only I frankly think you do it better.

    Thank you, I was getting worried that my players would STICK AROUND.

  7. Brilliant! This also applies to videogames and pretty much every hobby. Hell, I’ve even fell for some of these ‘sins’ without realizing it. The longest campaign I ran was for a bunch of newbies(me being a newbie GM myself) where I just asked them to describe their characters in their own words and I created the actual sheets myself, and during the game they just asked to do things and I adjudicated the actions, handled level up, and pretty much everything on the numbers side. It sucked since it was my first campaign, the plot was a cliche fest(a race against an evil wizard(whose name was Istargul, Tolkien for ‘Dark Wizard’ LOL) to collect four McGuffins, sometimes it didn’t even make sense, sometimes it was railroady as hell, I even pulled the dreaded “DMPC”(although luckily I realized it pretty quickly and had him killed early). But all in all it was the most fun I’ve seen players have on my table. At least we’ve got pretty good laughs at my own clumsiness and the nonsensical plot.

    In fact I think my games started to suck the moment I got infected with the GM pretentiousness disease and forgot what fun was about. I’m not saying I would go back to that campaign because in all honesty it was crap, but the spirit of it. I wonder why as we get experienced we end up missing the forest for the trees.

    • But hey, there is always an opportunity to realize you are off and correct. Now you can be more aware and make your games suck less – with better plot! 🙂

  8. Great stuff, as per usual. I really don’t have anything to say about this. Great advice. And something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Over half of my group played their first D&D game with me as a DM at some point in the past few years. And 2 of the 5 in my group had their first RPG experience with me. There are times that I just want to step out of the current game and run a one-shot where they can play simpler characters. I think it would be great to give them fresh perspective on mechanics and game flow. Even a grizzled old veteran like me enjoys the excitement of a brand-new 1st level character.

    The other takeaway from this article I got was that Angry started playing when he was 10, in 1988. And I’m pretty sure that he considers himself a many-years long veteran of the game. I started playing when I was 11. In 1981.

    I’m old.

  9. Thanks for this article. You made me laugh a lot and cheered me up on this sucky Saturday morning (I am at work :S )
    Also it was good to have some recap on this stuff ( I think you wrote about this already before, maybe for the mad adventurers?), I might try to run some games for my non gamer friends.

  10. I laughed my ass off. I didn’t catch on to your ploy right away. I started to wonder if you had completely lost it. Thanks for the amusement!

  11. Man, Angry, this hits hard:

    ‘D&D isn’t about losing yourself in your favorite, familiar fantasy stories and imagining yourself as a hero doing all the cool things you’ve seen and read about. It’s about complex, unfamiliar, fantastic worlds unlike anyone has ever seen before. With strange races and alien environments. And nuanced moral and political philosophy.’

    Why I f***ed up when I tried to run a campaign for my roommates

  12. Ouch, this one actually stung- I explain too much crap to newbies before the game, and usually depend on the idea of making the kind of character they want as a hook. Which always ends up with me explaining lots of things to them before they even really play much. I’m also not big on running the cliche adventures again and again, so they have their first experience doing something weird. This was probably the most important article of yours I’ve ever read angry.

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