Behind the DM Screen: Welcoming new players to a group
To me, one of the primary purposes of the Adventurers League (AL) is to act as a gateway to bring new players into the game. The organized style allows a new player to feel comfortable in a strange setting, and avoid the hassles of finding a game to play. Scheduled times for play makes a new player feel comfortable that there will be other people interested in playing at that time and ease feelings of uncertainty when looking for a game.
In my experience, the process of incorporating a new player into the game takes place in 4 steps: Welcome, Introduction, Playtime, and Follow-up. Much of the responsibility for these steps working effectively lies in the hands of the Dungeon Master, or DM. The DM is the figure that a new player will look to for guidance and answers. Being at the head of the table indicates, truthfully or not, that the DM is the knowledgeable one, the player with the most information, and the player to whom one can look for answers.
Let’s face it, the stereotype of a gamer as a socially awkward nerd isn’t totally inaccurate. Many of us, myself included, were drawn to gaming as a way of meeting like-minded individuals, without the need of social niceties such as parties and large gatherings. Few of us come from the “cool” crowd.
As DM, I try to break down the social awkwardness that being a new player brings with it. I have each player introduce themselves to the rookie and give a small tidbit about themselves as well. This relaxes the new player and makes them a bit more comfortable; after all, we all like playing with people we are familiar with.
I then tell the player about myself, with a funny anecdote to bring their nervousness down a bit more. Laughter tends to bring people together very quickly; mention the 3 Stooges in a group of men and you instantly have total strangers poking eyes and making “nyuk nyuk” noises. Again, familiarity among players brings comfort.
Allow the new player to adjust slowly to the group, like dipping a toe in the water. Be patient, we all were new to the group at one time or another. Have them choose a seat, and then move on to the introduction phase.
If the player is a true newbie, with just a passing knowledge of D&D, I have them tell me what drew them to the game, be it movies, literature, or some other influence. Many new players are fans of fantasy literature, and want to try being “part of the book”. Who doesn’t want to be Merlin, saving King Arthurs hide, or Frodo, undertaking the quest to destroy the One Ring? This information allows me to get a feel for what kind of character they might be interested in playing. “I love Conan and want to be like that” indicates a player who likes to be a strong fighter. A person who looks to Gandalf for inspiration will probably be a player who gravitates towards being a Mage. If they attempt to pick my pocket, I assume they will be playing a Rogue.
Our first session included a brand new player who had read all the Salvatore books, and his favorite character was Bruenor Battlehammer. He wanted to play that kind of character. A “little tank” were his exact words. We had him create a dwarven fighter, wielding an axe. He had a great deal of fun making the character his own, and he created a great back story for him.
D&D is a game more easily shown to a player than explained. This isn’t chess, with a defined rule set for each and every piece; this is a living entity, with change being the only constant. Yes there are rules, but even they are guidelines, subject to the interpretation of the DM. Adventurer’s League play is a bit more stringent in the rules, but even there will be found flexibility.
Thus, I don’t try to explain the whole game to a new player. I tell him that his character is a creation of his own, with a personality and foibles that are up to the player to bring out by playing a role. I show him the dice, hand him an Adventurers League character sheet and a pencil, and we jump into character creation.
With AL gaming, the time is limited, so to expedite play, AL offers pre-generated (pregen) characters. A pregen character allows a new player, or a new to the session player, a quick way to get right into the gaming. A new-to-the-game player might be intimidated by the process of creating a player from scratch. In this case, a pregen offers them a stress-free method for having a PC. Give them a couple minutes to look over the sheet, ask questions, and develop a short back story if one isn’t provided. This bit of improvisation will be a nice way to ease the player in the roleplay aspect of the game. Alternatively, you can allow the player to create his character using the AL approved method described in the AL Players Guide beginning on Page 3.
I allow the player to do much of the work. With guidance from myself or another (hopefully experienced) player, the new player creates his first character. Making the be-all end-all character here isn’t important, the desire is for the player to create someone he wants to be. Don’t pigeonhole the player; yes he has to use his ability points in a legal manner, but if he wants to be the most charismatic half-orc possible, encourage that.
My current group is led by a Gnome Fighter. She constantly acts as if she is 6’3”, instead of 3’6”. Her latest escapade was to tackle the legs of a troll, hoping to knock it down. It went poorly, but that’s what she wanted to be.
Character creation is fun, we know that. We’ve spent hours crafting the character we think will be most interesting to play. Don’t ruin that experience for a new player by being a tyrant. Allow faults in creation, they make the best role-play opportunities! A Paladin who is not very charismatic just has to try harder to promote his cause.
Once creation is done, and the basic rules are explained, we move to the playtime phase, and this is where we show our best game face.
Want to learn to swim? Jump in a lake and go from there. Want to play D&D? Grab your character and jump into the game! D&D is a game best experienced by playing it.
The new player will have questions, and it is up to the DM and other players to be patient, answering them the best they can. As you play, explain why certain rolls are being made, use your best role-play voices to help the new player feel comfortable doing the same thing, move through the first combat slowly, and let the new player make his own decisions. Don’t assume the player “should” know something. Odds are good they don’t know, and will need to be told.
Nothing discourages a new player more than the feeling that they are not “doing it right”. Let them know that there is no wrong way to role-play, as long as that’s how they want their character to actually behave. As they progress, the new player will flesh out his character, imbuing it with a personality and voice all its own. Let them try insane actions, with little to no chance for success; these learning experiences will help them later in their gaming lives.
Be a vivid storyteller! As you describe the scene to the new player (and the rest of the group watches), be as descriptive as you possibly can. Help the new player see in their mind the scene you set forth. Bring them into the game, immersing them in rich detail. They came to the game to be “part of the book”, make them that. The immersion factor is a large part in the players decision to come back to the game the following week or not. If they feel they were being talked to, they are less likely to return than if they feel they were being talked with. Don’t make them the target of a conversation, make them be the conversation. Let them know that their actions have a very real influence on the game.
Once the game is done, spend some time with the new player. Get feedback from him about his experience. “How did you feel the story went?” “Did you understand how the combat cycle worked?” “Did you feel comfortable with the role-play aspect?” Get him to tell you about areas of the game they didn’t quite understand. Ask her specifically what it was about those areas that were confusing, and what areas he was comfortable with. These questions and more will allow you to get a feel from the player about your game, and offer ways in which you can help him understand the system. Take some time to chat after the game, about both the game and about random stuff. This time is a good time to enhance the welcome phase, making her feel more comfortable and enhance her desire to return the following week.
Early in the sessions, I had a new player give me feedback. One of his comments were that the side-chatter among a couple of the players was very distracting, and drew him out of the game. The following week I addressed the issue, asking for little to no side-chatter, except during breaks. The players took it well, and we have had no problems since.
New players are the lifeblood of D&D. Without them, we will die off eventually. Offering a fun experience to new players is key for continued growth and expansion of the game and the Adventurer’s League. It is up to us, as DM’s, to create these experiences in our players. Take the time and put forth the effort to ensure a good time is had by players, and enjoy the feeling when they return the next week, growing and improving as a player. Be proud of what you do; you’re an ambassador for the game.
Until next time, good gaming!!
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