January 28, 2011

Make The New Player Welcome

by Heather Grove

Brand Shiny New Players

Bringing new people into your pre-existing gaming group sounds really easy, doesn’t it? You just bring them into your living room, sit them down, give them some dice and a character sheet, and voila, there you go. Umm, or maybe not. Plenty of people try roleplaying for a week or two and then walk off in disgust. Plenty of people never even get that far because they don’t feel welcome in the first place. But there are some simple things we can do about that.

Getting People Interested in the First Place

If someone asks you about roleplaying, take a few minutes to answer her questions. We roleplayers can get defensive sometimes (with good reason, admittedly), and we can confuse a genuinely interested party with someone who just wants to ridicule us. Not to mention that some of the people who think they just want to ridicule us actually find the hobby interesting once they know more about it. Reacting badly doesn’t make other people want to learn more.

Try to be polite to people who show an interest in your hobby. You don’t have to game with every one of them. You don’t have to spend all of your time explaining things to them. Just don’t make them think of all roleplayers as snobbish and irritating. You might collect a few links to web pages that you think explain things well, and give those to people who ask you questions you don’t have time to answer.

If you’re interested and have free time, make yourself available to answer people’s questions.

Be open to bringing new players into your gaming group if you feel comfortable GMing for another person. Don’t drive yourself to GM for too many people if you aren’t comfortable with it, though – it won’t make anyone happy!

Before the Game

Make sure the new player understands what sort of game you’re running and is interested in it. You don’t want to bring someone in to play “Vampire: the Masquerade,” only to find out that he thought it was a variant of “AD&D” and is quite miffed that he doesn’t get to kill vampires with his +5 sword. The caveat here is that just because a prospective roleplayer only knows about “AD&D” doesn’t mean he won’t enjoy “Vampire,” or vice versa. Explain the differences to him and let him decide whether he’s interested.

Make sure the new player knows ahead of time what sorts of things he should bring to the game. If he’ll need his own dice, tell him where he can buy some. Consider giving him a small handful as a “welcome to the gaming group” gift (after all, dice are cheap). If someone will be willing to loan him some for a week or two until he knows whether or not he likes this gaming thing, tell him so.

Give your new player a brief written or printed sheet of any “house rules” you have. This includes rules of the game that don’t match those in the books you just told him to buy. It also includes any rules like “don’t use out of character information in character,” “if you bring food, bring some to share,” or “when you enter the gaming room, hop on your left foot twice.” Okay, maybe not! But you get the idea. Sit down with your new player for five minutes and go through each item just to make sure he understands them.

Character Creation

Give new players more than the usual supervision during the character creation process; don’t have them make up a character while everyone else is playing around them. They probably have no idea what they’re doing, and they don’t know what sorts of characters will irritate you and the other players, or what abilities are necessary in your world.

If your gaming group likes to work with complex characters, make allowances for the fact that a first-time roleplayer will make a comparatively skeletal character. It takes time to learn how to put together an interesting character that you’ll enjoy, particularly with a group of people you don’t know very well. You might allow the player to write up an “introductory” character (or use a pre-made one), then switch characters to something he feels more comfortable with once he’s familiar with the group and game. Or you could let him flesh out his intro character, if he’s enjoying it.

Consider either photocopying the character creation rules for the player or loaning him a rulebook. A lot of people would rather be sure they enjoy this gaming thing before shelling out the money to buy books. (I’m not suggesting that you photocopy entire books for him – there’s a strong line between helping out a friend and theft.) Also make sure he knows which books would be useful to him (and which ones he really *should* have) in case he does want to buy them. If there are any books from the game line that you don’t take into account at all when running your game (and which, therefore, would be useless to the player), be sure to tell him – it sucks to spend the money for an RPG book only to find out that you can’t use it.

Introductory Runs

When you bring a fresh new player into a pre-existing gaming group, try to run a one-on-one introductory run with him first. It’ll let you correct any weird misconceptions he has about what he’s doing without his getting laughed at by other players. (I can’t help remembering a player whose first action in a round of AD&D combat was, “I throw a hit point at him.” Anything can be misinterpreted!)

As a corollary to this last rule: try not to laugh at your new player if he has really strange misconceptions about what’s going on. Don’t make him feel stupid. Don’t penalize him – in the above example, it would *not* be a good idea to say, “okay, you lose a hit point,” no matter how funny you think it would be! Just explain things as best as you can.

Socializing and Guides

Pay attention to your new player during the gaming run. He may be loath to speak up or to say what his character is doing. He may feel awkward among people who already know each other and who have assumptions and in-jokes that he won’t understand. You might ask your players ahead of time to include him in conversation, explain back-story to him, and generally make him feel as though he’s a part of the group.

Have one of your experienced players act as a “guide” to the new player. Have them sit together; let the experienced player be the one to explain mechanics as the adventure goes along, and occasionally make suggestions. This helps to avoid the confusion of many voices explaining the same thing (each one differently), and allows you to concentrate on the adventure. For goodness’ sake, pick a guide who has at least marginal social skills.

Give the guide a little slack, though, as she’s likely to be a bit distracted by explaining things to the new player. You don’t want her to feel like she has to choose between doing well in the game and helping the new guy! Heck, if you want to encourage your players to help out new roleplayers, then give an extra experience point or two to anyone who acts as guide for someone’s first session and does a good job at it.

Cut Some Slack

If you insist on players remembering everything they want their characters to remember, or declaring ahead of time anything their characters might have with them, make sure to tell the new player this (if you hand out a sheet of rules, include this in it). If you forget to tell him, don’t penalize him – give him a break.

For that matter, give him a break the first few times anyway! It’s hard to learn rules, figure out what this roleplaying thing is anyway, remember who your character is, and remember all the in-game stuff at the same time.

If your new player does something that’s a real no-no with your gaming group, like using out-of-character knowledge in-character or attacking another character or whatever, don’t let anyone jump on him or yell at him. He may well not realize there’s anything wrong with what he just did. You never know where your new player got his previous conceptions of how games like this work, and some rules that seem obvious to you may vary from gaming group to gaming group. Calmly tell him that your group doesn’t play the game that way, explain why, and allow him to re-choose his actions. around her.

Combat

Don’t push your new player too fast. It might be best not to have anything too fast-and-furious (like a large combat) on his first night. Start him small. Otherwise the other players will be impatient to get on with things and find out what happens, and he’ll feel as though it’s his fault for not knowing what he’s doing.

Combat rules tend to be particularly sticky, often needing experience on the player’s part before they can go quickly. Experiencing a few short combats before getting into anything big will give your new player a chance to adjust. If you can arrange for the first of those combats to be one-on-one then it should remove some of the pressure other players may unintentionally put on your new player. If you do a brief solo run with the player before bringing him into the group, then that might be the place to practice combat.

If you have any rules requiring players to declare their actions within a few seconds when combat happens, specifically state that you’re going to relax them for the new guy for the first few weeks. You don’t want him to feel pressured and flustered if you want him to stick around.

A Player is a Player

Treat your new player like any other player. I know, I’ve just pointed out all the ways in which you *shouldn’t* do this. But let me be more specific. Don’t treat a woman like she’s there to be dated or stared at, or like you have to totally rearrange what your game is about to suit her “different sensibilities” (you did remember to check that she wanted to play your kind of game, right?). Don’t treat a kid like he doesn’t know anything. Don’t treat an older roleplayer like he’s completely out of touch with gaming. They’re all players in your game, and that’s what should be important. While you’re likely to make changes to your game over time to suit your players, you shouldn’t single out one player, new or not. That won’t make anyone in your game happy – not the old players, who feel discriminated against, and not the new player, who can tell everyone’s mad at her or uncomfortable.

The Short List

I know it seems like there are an awful lot of suggestions here, and you may be wondering how to keep track of them all. Luckily most of them boil down to a few common-sense rules:

  • Explain things well. Spend time with your new player before the game starts. Make sure he’s familiar with anything he’ll be expected to know. Otherwise known as: Communication, communication, communication!
  • Go easy on your new player. Cut him some slack. Be forgiving of mistakes.
  • Convince your old players to help out the new guy and make him feel welcome. Choose a guide.
  • Introduce your new player to things slowly; don’t make him learn everything at once.
  • Be friendly. Don’t laugh at your new player.
  • Loan him anything he’ll need for the first few games. If he’ll be expected to get his own things within a few weeks, though, make sure he knows that.

Keep these things in mind, and the rest should flow naturally.

halfling

What a good article. I have switched gaming groups several times over the years. Being a female gamer, and many times the only one at the table. I really appreciate your comments about not treating a female as if she is to be “dated or stared at, or like you have to totally rearrange what your game is about to suit her ‘different sensibilities’”. That sort of advice is needed more then I care to think, and we gamer girls appreciate it when we are treated just like the rest of the guys at the table.

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