The Secret Sauce For Teaching Combat To Newbies

From Johnn Four

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0545

A Brief Word From Johnn

What Game Forums Do You Visit?

I took a break for a couple years from gaming forums. I was swamped with the development and launch of Assassin’s Amulet and, plus publishing this newsletter. I was also a little burnt out.

Now I’m interested in hitting some forums again, and I was wondering where you hangout.

The big boys look like they are still thriving, such as,

I’m curious, where do you go to talk game?

What Are You Doing With Your NET?

I received an email the other day that talked about NET, which stands for No Extra Time.

We all have NET, and it pushes away our game planning and preparation.

But design is one of the best parts of GMing. Who doesn’t love crafting that evil villain, or sketching a map and filling it with a few surprises?

Plots kept simple are a joy to plan. As are encounters with a twist.

When I was on vacation recently, I realized how much I missed crafting lore for my campaigns. Lore does not have
direct effect on a session, so it often goes neglected.

But lush backgrounds and histories for people, places and items is the milk in your cereal. It makes your Lucky Charms float. I miss my lore.

So where does your NET go?

And NET is actually everywhere.

You walk your dog in the morning.

You commute to work.

You make dinner.

The situations in life where you can experience NET are unlimited.

So, the question is, what you are doing during your NET?

Are you like most people who just do nothing and then wonder why you have no time for game prep?

Or are you someone who wants to make a change in your games by leveraging your NET right now?

Challenge every NET activity.

The first step is to become conscious of where your NET lives.

Next, can your NET switch to drawing maps, crafting NPCs and imagining cool places for encounters?

Third, focus on your game during NET instead of letting your mind wander. Think about something that needs designing, and do it in your imagination when possible.

What’s the history of the NPC? What would be three cool experiences for one PC? What is the dungeon’s life like today?

Don’t let NET be the reason you game less often.

Have a game-full week! Play with your NET to have more fun at every game.


-Johnn Four

The Secret Sauce For Teaching Combat To Newbies

Over at my online school for game masters,, a member asked me for tips on how to teach combat to new players without confusing them.

“In the lesson you make reference to the target times for Round Length and Player Turn Length that you use. Do you have any recommendations for a target I should aim for with newbies?”

Also, do you have any suggestions for how to explain how combat works to my players without confusing them?”

Kale, here are a few tips for you. And if you don’t mind, I’m going to put these into Roleplaying Tips for everyone to check out and comment on. I hope they help! (Drop me a note if you have more questions.)

Batch Things Into Group Rules And Character Rules

You learn by doing.

When you read something, like these tips, you actually aren’t fully learning. Not by my definition.

Here’s how Wikipedia defines learning:

Learning is acquiring new, or modifying existing, knowledge, behaviors, skills, values, or preferences and may involve synthesizing different types of information. Learn

I suggest you learn by gaining experience. You learn by doing.

That’s how Gygax designed RPG, so it must be true!

I love knowledge, but I feel it’s trivia until personally tried and tested.

To teach your players about combat most effectively, put them into a fight.

Once they’ve been taught how a roleplaying game works, whatthe weird dice are, and a bit about what’s expected of themduring play, jump into encounters.

I am of two minds about exposition for a brand new group at game’s start.

On one side of the coin, a description of the world, the region, the background of the adventure and the histories of the PCs and key NPCs is a nice overview. And an overview of the house rules arms players with important info.

Such an exposition can last awhile. A GM once did 45 minutes with a new group I was in.

And I worry players get bored. They can only take so muchinformation in at once. They want to play, not sit back.

Yet, on the coin’s other side, a great intro can set newbie nerves at ease.

It can help everyone get comfortable through presence, andhear about the context of their PCs, which will affect their decisions once interactivity starts.

Long intros risk boredom, slay table energy and give a bad first impression.

My preference as GM is just-in-time information.

Tell or teach just before such information becomes important. Then let your players immediately apply it.

This works because:

  • It helps them experience what they’ve just seen and heard.
  • They get to play with that information and make decisions based on it.
  • They get to see how results are determined.
  • They find out the consequences of their actions right away.

This fast cycle of cause and effect teaches well.

Box learners who need to learn the whole framework first might get frustrated, though. They want the overall frame in place so they know where to mentally pin things.

I’m such a learner, but I’m satisfied if someone gives me the 10,000 foot view and then doles out the ground level details a bit at a time as I need them.

Giving a 10k high view is fast, too:

“In combat, you use your character’s abilities to beat your foes. Most times we’ll use dice to determine the outcome. Sometimes I’ll decide what happens based on common sense or the information I have as GM.

Combat ends when we all agree it’s over. The most important thing is to protect your character’s health. If your character dies, he cannot continue play and you must create a new PC.”

You can teach combat well by getting through the formalities fast and jumping them into a fight.

There are two kinds of rules:

  • Group
  • Character

Group Rules

Group rules affect everyone. It’s best to teach these during moments you have everyone’s attention.

It’s difficult and time-consuming to stop play, regain everyone’s attention, get them to stop thinking and listen to you intently instead, and teach them a group rule.

It’s also inefficient to teach group rules to players individually. You have to repeat yourself. And moments wherepeople learn together are more effective because of the mutual learning and chance to ask questions and hear others’ questions.

Get to group rules first, before combat starts.

For example:

  • How turn order works
  • How health works and how to track it
  • How the battlemat and minis work, and what they’re for
  • What can you do on your turn?
  • What can the GM do on his turn?

Don’t worry. You’ll get to repeat these again as players forget later in combat. 🙂

But at least everyone starts out from the same clear point.

Character Rules

Once combat starts, you move into character specific teachings.

  • Abilities
  • Attack, defense and movement options
  • How to take and resolve various actions

It does not matter so much if the other players are not paying attention. You’ll need to give them repeat micro- lessons on their turns based on the unique elements of their PCs anyway.

Avoid teaching the whole combat chapter at once. 🙂

Just stick to what’s relevant right this moment.

Be patient with repeat questions and players slower to grasp certain things.

Remember to tell them why rules are the way they are sometimes. Nobody likes arbitrariness.

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Create Cheat Sheets With One Critical Element

Cheat sheets for players give them something tangible to hold on to as they engage in this highly mental game.

They also present the rules in a visual way, for those learners who prefer that or who are poor listeners.

And they provide ongoing service as reference. If you can teach newbies where to find the rules on their cheat sheets, you teach them how to fish.

Here’s the key to great cheat sheets for new players:

Keep Them Simple

Avoid information overload. Leave lots of white space. Offer just the essentials.

Next new group I teach I will experiment with visual tools I now have at hand. Flowcharts, mind maps, diagrams and infographics.

Tables are great too. So are bullet lists. But a dash of colour and geometry enhances learning because our brains function visually.

Run A Non-Lethal Intro Encounter

Make the first combats simple, fun and survivable.

PC deaths and TPKs might rub new players the wrong way. (Especially when you do the TPK In Your Face dance.)

In-game tournaments offer a wonderful way to teach combat rules.

Tournaments have a variety of events.

They compartmentalize rules to help avoid information overload.

And the events can all be non-lethal, providing a safety net for new players and their vulnerable PCs.

Example events:

  • Fights that end with one touch or three (non-lethal)
  • Archery contests
  • Skill challenges like tug-of-war or obstacle courses
  • Two-on-two matches
  • Spell slinging (most damage, put the ogre to sleep, etc.)
  • Jousting
  • Races on foot or mounted
  • Scavenger hunts or orienteering
  • Beauty contest (ok, it’s not combat, but Charisma has to count for something at least once in a PC’s life!)

The goal here is to not wage combat so much as to try out different rules and experience different aspects of the game.

I left wrestling off the list as grappling rules might overwhelm and confuse. 🙂

You can also weave story into this setup with roleplay encounters between events.

If medieval tournaments seem boring or cliche, no problem! Skin your tournament and call it something else.

  • PCs are prisoners used for amusement
  • PCs are stuck in a mad wizard’s maze with strange encounters
  • A new culture makes contact and games are held as a get- to-know-each-other exercise
  • A contest with winners offered the quest as prize (“I need the toughest, smartest and fastest in the land to combat this evil.”)
  • A holy event or national holiday tradition

Stop Each Round

Keep initiative or turn order static. If you plan to re- order who goes when each round, put this off for a few combats. Let new players get into a rhythm their first combats. “Ok, I go after Ken. Got it.”

Then use end or start of each round to recapture group attention.

“Ok, it’s the start of a new round. Everybody, please listen up.”

Use these short periods to:

  • Teach group rules
  • Recap what happened last round (turn it into a fun story)
  • Describe how you feel battle is going
  • Offer any brief advice

The last two are important. As the rules and combat expert, you are their teacher and leader. You take on the role of consultant.

Avoid making decisions for players – let them work through things themselves as much as possible. But they will listen to your advice.

If you see a TPK coming, advise them to flee.

If you see they are running in circles, advise them to try to work with each other as a team.

If a player is not using their character’s best ability, suggest it.

Remind them of rules they’ve already forgotten that might help them. “If you step to the exact opposite side, your foe will be trapped between you both and you’ll get an attack bonus.”

Pausing each round also gives everyone a chance to breathe, assimilate, process.

While this might feel board gamey to you, it helps learning. You can speed things up and make them more dynamic later on.

How To Use Repetition Without Being Boring

We learn through repetition. Do it until we experience doing it right.

So too can you manage your combats by offering up the same foes over the course of several encounters.

This helps players put their new learnings to use against known entities. If each foe is different, players have two learning curves going on (what their PCs can do and what their foes can do), which can be too much.

It also helps build teamwork. Players can talk and strategize better because they are familiar with their opponent.

It builds up a good hate. Even though the PCs win each time, recurring foes get a good rivalry going.

However, repetition by definition is boring.

So switch things up to keep your combats fresh and exciting:

1) Same Foes, Different Objective

  • Why are they fighting?
  • Change this reason and offer different Mission Objectives.
  • Change up the purpose of the combat each time.

2) Turn Foes Into Interesting NPCs

  • Give foes personality. Give them their own objectives.
  • Treat foes like NPCs so they feel different each fight.

3) Change One Feature

  • Switch up the foes’ equipment.
  • Give them a new ability.
  • Change their tactics.

4) Switch CombatScapes

  • Change the environment. Foes remain the same, but the fight feels novel.
  • Terrain, hazards, boons. Put them in and switch them up.
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Place Veterans Strategically

If you have experienced players in your group, then create a seating plan.

Place veteran players beside the newbies.

Encourage the vets to help the new folk. Send them a heads- up by email or hold a quick chat before the game.

Does everyone need to stay sitting? If a veteran player is a good teacher, ask them to step out of the first couple of combats and co-GM with you, acting as a roving one-on-one mentor.

Infuse Story From The Start

Story ties everything together.

Earlier I said our brains are visual. That’s how our memory works.

But our brains are also wired with a certain structure that makes story a powerful learning technique.

Good teachers will get their key points across through anecdotes because we remember stories much better than lists of facts.

Infuse your combats with story. Break out of the number crunching and dice rolling to tell the tale of the combat.

You can do this each round with a fun description (without numbers) of what’s happening.

You can do this after combats. Have NPCs ask the characters about their fights. Or go out of character and summarize fights at the end.

Make foes more than just combat constructs. Roleplay them during fights. Make their actions memorable with good descriptions.

And have combats serve a story purpose instead of just being fun contests. What are the consequences of the foes’ deaths? Who will care and how will those NPCs react? How can youmake the foes relevant to the PCs’ purpose?

A good story packages experience for later reflection and enjoyment.

Story also helps players put what they’ve learned into perspective, helping them remember the rules better.

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I hope this gives you a few ideas, Kale, and to you Roleplaying Tips reader, if you are about to show new players the joy of RPG.

Reader Tip Request

Logic Puzzles Are Tough

RPT reader constablebrew asks for help with writer’s block for puzzle crafting:

I came by your excellent article discussing the use of logic puzzles to guide story development.

I love this idea and would like to incorporate it into my game to add a layer of story depth and entertainment for my players.

However, when I set down and try to incorporate a logic puzzle story line structure, I get writer’s block.

All I can come up with are basic encounter puzzles (the old ‘Ye shall not pass until youfigure out this puzzle’ deal). All the ideasI’ve had for overall story driven logic puzzles seem way too contrived.

I have searched the web to see if anyone has ever done this and written about it. I can’t find anything! Something may be out there, but it certainly isn’t described as a logicpuzzle.

Are you aware of any adventures that utilize a logic puzzle structure? I could use an example to set me in the right path.


Readers, if you have any links or tips for constablebrew,drop me a note.


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How To Plan A Campaign In Three Parts

From Jeremy Brown

In my experience there are three basic parts to every campaign:

Beginning – Setup

The players grow together as a team, face local challenges, develop combat and roleplaying styles, and a party leader develops.

In addition, the campaign’s overarching story begins showing itself.

For this section of a campaign, I usually use short adventures that do not necessarily forward a campaign plot other than in an introductory manner.

“The woman rescued from the goblins is a powerful merchant, who was kidnapped by goblins because of a rival.”

The party will not find out this last piece of informationuntil later, but the recurring merchant character isintroduced.

The main thing to keep in mind with the early part of thecampaign is the party is not a coherent whole yet, and has to have time to grow together. You can’t give them too much background story as they don’t care – they’re too busy trying to survive.

Middle – Development

The middle part of a campaign develops the overarching story, develops character goals, and allows the characters to begin impacting the world.

These adventures need to be more interconnected, should propel goals more often than not, or alternatively, propel the campaign storyline.

End Game – Climax

The end of a campaign, the heroes know what is going on (more or less) and must stop it, encourage it, move the action toward the end.

Each adventure should build toward the final climactic battle between the heroes and the campaign villains.

Two Examples:

First, Antiora, a fantasy game.

Beginning – Setup

The characters were guards of an ill-fated caravan. They pursued the caravan’s attackers, amassed treasure, and eventually were “chosen” by the duke of the frontier like Westmarch to be his personal gophers.

Middle – Development

The party went on a complicated quest seeking two artifacts of power for the duke.

Finding these, they were to take them to the royal archives in the capital, but the items were stolen.

Meanwhile, a mysterious group called the Cabal of Seven began efforts to destabilize the kingdom, and anotherorganization, the Cult of the Noose were assassinating heirs to the throne.

End Game – Climax

The party confronted the Cabal of Seven as well as the Cult of the Noose, only to learn a single purpose was directing both.

They were sent on a wild goose chase to act as ambassadors to giants, and on their return, learned the giants had invaded the kingdom, and their erstwhile employer had become the King in their absence.

The King, revealed to be an ancient vampire, uses the destruction of the two artifacts found in the second part to transform the kingdom into undead.

The remainder of the campaign revolved around defending the neighboring kingdom against this threat, and reversing this situation and destroying the evil duke.

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Starcrossed, a horror game.

Beginning – Setup

The party were a group of investigators for the historic development committee sent to Starcrossed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The party found out that something weird was happening in the town. They confronted local street gangs, had a number of minor adventures reinforcing the weirdness, and discovered sinister links between the weirdness and the prominent families of the town.

Middle – Development

The party gathered information, identified bad guys, worked to thwart bad guy plans, and inadvertently became cat’s paws for one of the evil cult’s leaders that ran the town.

By the end of this part, the party had identified the cult leaders. They had also identified not only when and where the ritual would happen that would summon a powerful demon, but also how to banish the demon.

End Game – Climax

The party confronted the cult and destroyed it, not realizing there were two cults and that they had eliminated competition for one of the cult leaders.

The party raced to destroy these final threats, and had a final climactic battle with the inner cult, and eventually, the demon, sealing it away from the world.

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This model isn’t perfect, but it seems to be the basic design of most campaigns I have seen published, as well as most campaigns I have ever run or played in.

If you’re more comfortable with short campaign design, each section can be designed separately and linked through characters, events and places without much trouble.

Remember that organizations, monsters and characters can develop right along with the character.

Two articles on the WOTC web site by Wolfgang Baur are good resources. One was called Adventure Builder, and the other
Villain Builder.

While not directly concerned with campaign design, they both contain points that help flesh out campaign thoughts.

Villain Builder especially has information for villain backgrounds and goals, which helps develop a campaign’s direction.

The main thing to remember is each adventure performs a function in either character development or campaign story development, or sometimes, both.

You can even manage to run some campaigns by the seat of your pants. Let details and villains that escape in the beginning develop during the middle of the campaign, and re-introduce them toward the end.

Characters love to hate recurring villains, and by substituting your nemesis for villains in published adventures, and connecting these to your campaign world, you can develop a loosely connected campaign that does not require much in pre-planning.

The main thing is to make each section of the story, and the campaign world, consistent so players can predict developments with some fair accuracy.