Do You Take It Easy On The New Guy? — RPT#561

From: Johnn Four

With school season upon us once more, lots of games will be launching or starting up again. New players will be showing up at game tables around the world.

But a question on Role-Playing Games Stackexchange got me thinking about what would I do in the questing GM’s situation.

The GM asked:

“How can I treat old and new players fairly, without upsetting anyone?”

There were some great answers, which you can read here, and which I’ll comment on or summarize in today’s article: How can I treat old and new players fairly, without upsetting anyone?

I also had a new player join my campaign recently, but I was fortunate because he was a former player who moved back to town and re-joined us three years later. So, the situation is not quite that same.

Regardless, here’s what I’d do if a person new to RPG joined my existing group and there was risk of upsetting the veterans.

Make the New Guy Feel Welcome

The faster the “new guy” awkward period ends, the better.

A new person at the game table always changes the energy and feel of the game. That carries risk of alienating someone.

The new person lacks a shared history. Never mind all the campaign details. There’s the camaraderie, inside jokes, social expectations and a thousand little behavioral and psychological agreements everyone has adopted without realizing it by hanging around each other.

Get familiarization kick-started by being a gracious host:

  • Introduce the New Guy Before The Session

Give everyone a heads-up, perhaps by email. Offer a few personal details about the new guy to trigger conversation around points in common, such as school, hometown, work.

  • Introduce the New Guy at the Session

Take charge, stand up, do the intros. Ease awkwardness by doing the speaking and intros yourself. Shy players will thank you.

Start with your players – give their names, a personal detail or two (to get those connections going) and what character they’re playing.

Then introduce the newbie.

It’s easier for multiple people to remember a new person’s name than for a new person to remember multiple names. Get some name badges or cards. Address players by name often in the session (and by character name when GMing in-character).

  • Provide Air Cover

All types of people and personalities game. You might have a special personality at your table. You might even be that personality.

Do what you can to ease all tensions or awkwardness that will arise until the new guy and the personality get to know each other.

For example, I read an article recently where a European said North Americans smile too much. “Smile when you mean it, otherwise I can’t tell what you’re truly thinking.” That’s a cultural thing. It’s not right or wrong, it just is.

Chances are, your players have similar biases. Explain, laugh off, intervene and do whatever you can to help everyone get to know each other better. Give the new player a bit of air cover to shield him a bit until everyone understands each other better.

For example, one player might be a huge tease. And who knows how thick the new player’s skin is? When the newbie gets teased, watch and intervene if you see him bristle or freeze. “Haha, that’s Joe. He teases everyone. Joe, take it easy on the new guy, would ya? Let him build up some ammo. Haha!”

Be a great facilitator. Ease the strangeness and stay alert for tension points.

Make the Newbie Useful Right Away

Assign a task to the new player. Maybe she tracks treasure or writes the session log.

Give a low risk task. Mapping, for example, is high risk – you might end up looking the fool if you can’t map well in front of everybody. But tracking loot or making notes is fairly low risk.

This makes the player feel useful and welcome, which is a great feeling.

It also jump starts integration and gives players another reason to interact with each other. “Hey new girl, what’s left on the loot list?” (Followed by you kicking your veteran player under the table and saying, “Jennifer, can you tell Carl what the remaining treasure is?”)

How can the new player make an immediate contribution?

Use Mulligans

I love edgerunner’s suggestion in the Stackexchange thread about offering Get out of trouble tokens.

Players new to groups or new to RPG don’t know what they don’t know. Bad moves obvious to everyone else might seem reasonable to the newbie. Help smooth over these tricky moments with a get out of jail free type mechanism.

Game these how you want. Edgerunner suggests, “These tokens will allow the player to undo their disastrous actions, but they will never ever get refreshed, so they better learn from the experience.”

That’s fair. To the new guy and to the veteran players in your game.

So offer the new guy a graceful way to clean their boots after they’ve stepped in it.

Set Expectations

Also, before the game, have a chat with your group to let them know the new player’s experience.

If the new player is new to RPG, ask your group to have patience and to help teach the new guy.

Let them know you’ll be lenient with the player for the first while. While you GM the others in normal fashion, you’re going to give the new player extra time, a bit more attention, helpful prods or advice.

This should forestall player resentment of the extra spotlight time or preferential GMing the new guy gets because your group will understand why you’re doing it. The faster the new guy gets up to speed and starts to fit in, the better the gaming experience for everyone.

Then have a chat with the new player. Fill them in on group and player style and preferences. Give them a few pointers (but not so many to cause overwhelm) on what outlier situations to avoid.

  • How much is too much roleplaying or too little?
  • Avoid or embrace meta gaming and meta game talk?
  • Make decisions based on party harmony or “that’s what my PC would do.”
  • Lethal or non-lethal campaign? (Bring one character or three.)
  • Combat, roleplay, both?
  • Jokes or stay serious?

Do what you can to help people understand what changes are coming up next session with the new guy showing up so those resistant to change have more time to adapt.

Help the New Player Choose a Valuable Character

If a player shows up with a PC who’s out of synch with the group, you’ve got a problem.

When the roleplaying pixie joins the hack-n-slash brothers, Krug the barbarian and Fug the paladin, the pixie is gonna get whacked.

Coach the player about what PC decisions would be valuable. Better yet, ask your group what they’d like to see in a new PC and pass along those suggestions to the new player.

Create a brief character background with the player that indirectly ties the PC to at least one other PC. Why indirectly? This leaves options open for players to play up that bond, tweak it or discard it.

When the new PC is valued, good game ensues.

To Kill or Not to Kill?

The core question of the Stackexchange thread was about a new player getting their character killed in the first session and leaving the hobby forever.

How do you want to handle PC death with the new player?

It depends on your game system and campaign style.

  • Does your game allow sudden random PC death – critical hits, massive damage saves, big random damage foes?
  • Do you make your rolls public?
  • Is your campaign tough love and lethal?

If yes to any of these questions, you need to prepare the new player in advance. You need to set their expectations.

If PC death is likely, minimize the character creation process. Consider giving them a pre-generated PC to avoid bitterness from time spent learning character creation and lovingly crafting a wonderful PC.

After years of GMing rolls both ways – public and secret – I currently roll my dice behind the screen. I do not fudge rolls most of the time. But my players have a lot invested in their PCs with my Riddleport campaign, and I’ve decided to let PC death happen only if it’s warranted, as judged by me.

I will make a public roll for dramatic effect, when I’m prepared to accept whatever the dice may bring. Those are great moments. The villain attack pins down a PC. How much damage? The public roll has every player intensely tuned in, for sure.

As GM, you can also manage circumstance to give the new player breaks. Foes choose to target other PCs. You change poison type to Minor. The foe fails a perception check, or suffers a penalty because he’s drunk and singing.

Fill your new player in on lethality and adjust character investment.

What Would You Do?

To sum up, I advise taking these actions next time a new player joins your group:

  • Manage expectations. Talk with your group about who’s coming and what to expect. Talk with the new player about who your players are, who you are, what the campaign is like, and what to expect.
  • Provide area cover. Be referee, facilitator and gracious host. Ease the transition and make the awkward period go away as soon as possible.
  • Provide a pre-generated character if PC death is possible. Let the player create and introduce a new PC once they are familiar with things.
  • Give the new guy a couple of mulligans.

That’s me. What about you? How do you go about smoothing the introduction of new players and players new to RPG? Email me at [email protected]