How To Help New Players Have A Blast With Their First Session
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1127
With so many new players (and GMs) joining our beloved hobby, there’s a lot of confusion out there about how to make sessions enjoyable and accessible for newbies.
Sometimes your entire group is new.
They don’t even have trope or game references to draw upon from different mediums such as video games. That’s what happens when a hobby goes mainstream.
Sometimes it’s one new player or two joining an experienced group.
Regardless of scenario, here are a few ways to help new players get addicted to our adventures and campaigns, and enjoy themselves better during the first session.
Send a couple of video links around of actual play videos on Twitch, YouTube, or elsewhere before a player’s first session to help them orient and feel a bit more confident at the table.
This Welcome to Dungeons and Dragon video by Matt Colville was recommended to me as an example, though it’s not actual play.
(If you know of a good actual play recording, please send me the link. Thanks!)
If your game system has pubic rules, sometimes called SRDs or System Resource Documents, share the link out in advance for eager beavers who want to study up.
Another nice touch is a mood board. Find images that reflect the genre and tone of your game. Send a link so players can view the images and get a feel for the type of story or game your session will offer.
Likewise, if any fiction embodies what you’re going for, put together an optional reading list.
Last, send out a reminder email with session details a couple days in advance, and drop some hooks and teasers to keep players excited.
Put your game in tutorial mode for the first session.
You aren’t aiming for clever or challenging gameplay in tutorial mode.
Instead, you want a series of encounters to show and teach different aspects of the game and rules.
You also want some repetitive gameplay to cement the rules.
This might mean pausing your main plot and sending the PCs on a side quest.
And in your quest, you provide clear goals and simple decisions.
For example, dungeons offer easy decisions. Left or right?
But wilderness and civilized games are open-ended. Players are not confined by walls and doors. This makes it hard to choose what to do and where to go unless you’ve laid out a clear path.
A game in tutorial mode helps players make easy decisions.
That means less sandbox and more direction.
Tutorial mode also means clarity in encounters.
Make the objective clear. Identify enemies. Signal dangers.
If you run deadly combats, hold off this session. Put the game in easy mode, and maybe build up to a tough challenge for session end to give players a chance to figure a few things out first.
Run your newbie first session in a way that creates a safe place for players to learn, explore, and have fun.
Then TPK in session two. 😛
Explain Mechanics As You Go
Avoid front-loading the first session with a ton of rules.
That’ll overwhelm newbies fast.
Instead, start with a walkthrough of their character sheet.
In addition to you the game master, the charsheet is the newbie’s main interface with the game.
Go over the sections first, to orient them.
GM: <holding up a pre-filled character sheet>
This section describes your abilities. How strong and smart your character is, for example.
Over here is for combat. You have swords and lasers. You’ll roll dice when using them to see if you hit your foes. Then you’ll roll dice for damage. All the information about that is here, which we’ll get into should combat erupt.
This section is for spellcasters. All their spells are here. Spells are magical effects that are like a Swiss Army Knife of options and uses. It’s a lot of fun trying to figure out the best spell for any given situation.
Here is your equipment. You use equipment to MacGyver your way out of tough spots.
At that point, I’d start playing the game.
Get Players to Open Up
Describe the setting and the current quest to orient the group.
Then I’d go around the table and have each player tell everyone their name. Plus character name, race, gender, and class. Physical appearance too, if noted.
This makes players search their character sheets for specific information, thus getting them more familiar with their sheet and character.
It also gets players to speak up without risk. Shy folk might balk at public speaking and being asked to roleplay at the start.
So we draw them out a bit instead, and expand their comfort zone with easy introductions.
Make the first encounter about a simple skill check or three.
This will give new players a bit of time to orient themselves without danger.
Rolling skill checks introduces them to the funny dice or VTT dice roller.
It gets them exploring their character sheet more and discovering what their character can do.
Then trigger a quick and easy combat or action scene.
More Information is Better
Experienced GMs playing with experienced players hold their cards close.
We mete out clues and information in ways to engage and challenge players.
In tutorial mode though, we want to be crystal clear and direct.
We hide less for now so players can learn the genre, tropes, and gameplay better.
More information gives players confidence.
For example, deliver clues and key information via props.
This lets players read and study the information.
Some people are terrible listeners. It’s not a skill for them yet.
Details delivered verbally to these folks will get lost. Long boxed text read out loud will bore such people, and then frustrate them when they make decisions half-informed.
If you use Campaign Logger, for example, use the Stream feature to share details players can check out on their phones.
Another idea is to give important details and objectives out on index cards. Cards can be passed around and reviewed at any time. Players can make notes on the cards as well.
Don’t be coy with new players. Give’em what they need to make good choices – they are already struggling with information overload.
When I GM’d a group last year, I gave each player a set of dice. Nothing exotic or expensive. Just some nice, basic polyhedrons.
This helped them connect deeper with the game. The dice plus character sheet I said they could keep created a sense of control and ownership.
If I’m trying to figure out which is the d8 versus d10, studying my own dice is much easier than sifting through a pool of strange dice every time.
Encourage them to write on their character sheets.
If you can supply any cheat sheets, that will go a long way.
In one game, I brought spell cards for cleric and wizard. I gave each player a “hand” of cards that represented all their PC’s spells. Rules laid out on the cards helped them learn faster. And drawing from a”hand” helped a ton with decision-making.
One player divided her cards into two hands after a couple of encounters – combat and utility. Smart.
Remember the player screens of D&D 2E? I loved the spirit of the idea, but execution was….ill thought out.
I show up and see a player setting up a screen.
Me: wtf Chris?
Chris: All my character stuff is on my side for easy reference. It’s very cool. And now I can make my rolls in secret too, like you do.
Me: Ummmm, nope.
So those were banned fast from my games. Though players could still use them for reference, just not as screens.
Google “cheat sheet” for your game system. Share the links or print them out.
A unique mini or pawn also helps. Players not used to living in their imaginations will identify with the object. This will help them better orient to battles and situations where place matters.
Tell a Good Story
I’m a gamey GM who abides by the rules because I believe a game’s rules are a communication device.
When I break the rules, I reduce player agency because they cannot think or plan ahead. They always have to wait for my arbitrary decisions.
So I see the rulebook as an ally to great gaming.
However, last time I GM’d newbies, I let all kinds of rules slide in favour of a better experience.
If players don’t know the rules, then it doesn’t matter if I stick to them, except for the benefit of teaching and consistency. When rules get applied the same way each time, players will see patterns and learn faster.
A good story beats long minutes of rules explanations and enforcement for the first session.
In one game, a new player wanted to storm across a stream, attack twice with his dual axes, and dance away before a counter attack.
I pulled out the actions cheat sheet and quickly explained the action economy. We then looked at his movement rate and looked at the distance between minis on the battlemap.
That was enough ruling, I felt, and so allowed the two attacks in one round. Next combat I clarified the attack rules.
I didn’t stomp over the player’s ideas. We learned some rules. And the result was an enjoyable encounter.
A good story also involves bad guys you want to beat, great rewards, and interesting challenges.
I favour player challenges over mechanical challenges for newbies. Meaning, I’ll give out puzzles for players to solve instead of skill challenges and other mechanics.
It’s not realistic. But it’s fun.
Another trick is to play up dice rolls.
First thing, set the Stakes.
Ok Roghan, you’re about to try to convince the guard to let you all pass through with a five gold piece bribe.
If you succeed, you gain entrance to the inner sanctum.
If you fail, the guard might raise the alarm and arrest you or maybe even attack.
Roll your d20. You see your Diplomacy skill there on your sheet? The number is 5? Great.
You need to roll a 7 or better to succeed. Roll!
Second, describe the result.
And offer degrees of success and failure.
15! The guard smiles, looks around to make sure no one else is watching, and shakes your hand, palming the gold in the process.
He says, ‘Welcome friends! You aren’t on the list, but I recognize you, Roghan. You all may enter. And I hope you come again – I’m on duty this time each night. <wink>
A good story also has a strong ending. I tend to run a 5 Room Dungeon and make it a one-shot so players get the experience of starting and finishing a story in their first session.
That could be the strongest hook for coming back next game. New players will forgive rules, table manners, and learning curves if a great story comes out of gameplay.
Be Patient and Use Empathy
New players don’t know table etiquette.
And the rules books don’t provide social rules.
Interrupting, speaking in/out of character, not looking at the Monster Manual, checking phones and missing details, touching the GM’s dice.
All these unspoken rules.
A group of strangers must not only contend with game etiquette, they must also get to know each other too.
Behaviors that irritate me at first don’t once I get to know a person. Oh, that’s just Johnn being Johnn.
So put on your social intelligence hat and try to smooth out rough corners.
I allow out-of-character talk and set a friendly tone so players can get to know each other during the game.
As the group Forms and Storms, they’ll eventually coalesce and become friends.
As referee and facilitator, you can reign in overly competitive players, draw out shy ones, and help keep the table polite and respectful.
See if you can begin to understand your new players’ world views and mental models so you can interface better.
Likely, other players won’t have this skill. They’ll also be trapped inside their heads grappling with all the newness of things.
If you have a new player joining your game, or a whole group of newbies, make the experience a great one so they become hooked on our amazing hobby.
You can help do this by reducing the game’s complexity at first, getting players inspired, and empathizing with their step learning curves of rules + social norms + strangers.
Here are some additional tips to help:
- How To Get New People Hooked On Roleplaying
- How To Introduce New People To Roleplaying
- Introducing New RPGs
Also, thank you!
Thank you for being a game master. You are the crux of the game. Your leadership makes games happen.
And thank you for teaching new people about our awesome game.
I started gaming during the Satanic panic when the media made up terrifying stuff as channel bait.
I lived through the industry collapse of the mid to late 1990s.
Today, our game mainstream, which has many benefits. Let’s welcome all the new players and try to make their first session wonderful.