Playing D&D With Beginners

Hi Folks,

So this is a break-out thread. from the "what did you play this week" post; here's my original message:

After trying for a long time to get a group together to focus on story games, I gave up and got a D&D 5e group instead. There’s a plethora of players out there wanting DMs, so after just a bit of screening I got 5 players who were willing to put up with my savage house ruling of 5e :-) I changed alignment, XP, initiative, and inspiration, among other things.

Two of the players are new to role-playing, and seem to be enjoying it so far, but it’s been so long since I’ve been a beginner that I worry if I’m treating them as best I can. I do try to make sure they’re not overwhelmed with rules technicalities. The newest player is still a bit shy about participating - for example she mostly stayed out of the recent dragon encounter. If anyone has any tips about making new players comfortable, I’m all ears!

Also if you find any particular house rules that make it easier for beginners, would love to know about them.


  • Excellent! I'll copy my post from the other thread, and remind you to tell us what your house rules are.
    Most of my thoughts fall under the umbrella of "don't play D&D5", unfortunately. (The game is far too complex for beginners, in my opinion, and receives an overrated reputation as a "simple" game just because it's lighter in form than 3rd or 4th.)
    I think limiting the game to the Basic/Quick Start rules would help, as well omitting classes and races with complex abilities (like spells). The slower the leveling up happens the better, as well. Ultimately, though, D&D5 relies quite a bit on the players knowing the rules and using them as well as they can (e.g. using Disengage regularly as a Rogue; forgetting to do so affects your survivability dramatically).

    I might think about forming "tutorial" sequences for the new players. Perhaps (if you can do so without being annoying!) more experienced NPCs or magical sources of information that can offer advice, mentor-like, which crosses the line from in-character dialogue to rules advice. It's breaking the fourth wall a little, but can come across as amusing and memorable, if done right. (Imagine Obi Wan telling Luke how to use a lightsaber and including tips like "undead monsters might be particularly vulnerable to this", or "your father lost a hand once because he was arrogant and clumsy. To avoid that fate, make sure to take the Precise Combat feat when you level up!"
  • edited February 2019
    Excellent tips! I wish I'd done most of that before we started. I think I will add a few "tutorial scenes" for the newest member.

    As for my house rules, if interested you can check them out here:

    It's not written in a very organized format, unfortunately, as setting and chargen is towards the bottom.
  • For the generic newbie with D&D as your tool of introduction, my experience is that the best bet is to drop as much of the character design and combat systems (and attitudes) as you can, and instead focus on interactive roleplaying scenes and GM storytelling. Provoke the players with simple character moments and build on their reactions. Insofar as you're forced to keep these elements in the game for the other players, try to not marginalize anybody just because they're not into those bits; help make them interesting. I particularly recommend investing GM work cycles during combat into narrating the events colorfully and emphasizing the dramatic nature of the actions the player characters take; new players generally enjoy that part of combat the best, even if they don't quite achieve joy by summing up saving throw bonuses.

    I've been running a 4th edition campaign for a group half made of newbies recently, and while some players do engage quickly with the combat and character design stuff, the truth is that it's all a rather geeky pastime that comes into only incidental relation with the fun things that newbies are likely to be looking for in the game. My players affirm this, saying that they generally like the "setting lore" (authentic teenager phrasing there) and drama scenes, while the combat scenes are not the most entertaining part of the game for their sheer complexity and slowness. It just doesn't feel like much happens in those scenes compared to how long they last. I understand the feeling perfectly myself [grin].

    As is often the case, D&D itself is something of a difficulty here. If I was doing dedicated outreach and just had to run "Dungeons & Dragons" because that's what people want, I'd probably cheat by houseruling away as much of the character and combat complexity as I could, leaving a more balanced chassis for the kind of fantasy adventure game that most people actually imagine when they consider trying the roleplaying hobby. There isn't a quite perfect official D&D rules text for newbies, but if I had to choose one, I'd go with the Mentzer red box instead of any of the modern games - it's not the cutest, but at least it's not a cumbersome, mediocre miniatures wargame dressed up as a rpg.

    And of course, all of that should be totally thrown away after you actually meet and engage with a given player. Who knows, they might specifically desire to play the parts of the game that I dismissed above so savagely. I've met those people as well. It's just that the discernible majority - let's say two thirds - of the newcomers I meet are totally not into the cute little spreadsheet hell we've built for ourselves as roleplayers. Some want that, but only catering to them runs the very real risk of alienating the players who were thinking of something less math-y and more imaginative when they decided to try D&D.
  • Great post by Eero.

    I looked at your house rules: your modification of Key-like Goals is pretty interesting. However, my experience with Key-like mechanics has been that they are not exactly egalitarian; many situations in play will reward one character with a lot of XP at the expense of others. (This not hard to imagine; let's say one character has a Revenge Goal and we go and fulfill that Goal, they have earned XP, while the others have not. But far more dramatic differences can occur depending on how the player sees the character as changing.)

    How is being handled in your game? (My wild guess is that, with beginners, most of the XP will come from, which you say you reward informally, and few people will engage with the Goals meaningfully for a while. But once someone does, they could potentially rack up a lot of XP very quickly! A typical D&D character, who doesn't change much, won't score a lot of XP this way, but a character who is more dynamic - more like a Game of Thrones character, to use a media example - will. After all, "accomplish a mission" is very immediate and easy to pursue, whereas a character who is "A Badass" is unlikely to want to change that, as it's part of their identity.)

    I'd imagine that either the players could police themselves - pick complementary Goals together, or look at whichever character is "falling behind" and make a concerted effort to help them address their Goals - or that you, as the GM, will have to keep an eye on this and formulate your adventures accordingly.

    I actually kind of like the idea that the players could see a particular PC as a "weak point", and that would encourage them to ask about their Goals, and then focus on them together, to get that PC back up to par with the group.

    I am, of course, just idly commenting here (i.e. my guesses could be completely wrong), but if my guesses are correct, I'd consider two different "fixes":

    1. Make sure that Goals are really Goals. (In other words, pure "character embodiment" stuff like "mourning a lost love" or "be a badass" should be addressed elsewhere, but not be flagged as Goals.)

    If Goals are all very immediately pursuable things, they can be used as clear directions for play. (As a newbie player, I wouldn't know how to help my companion address "mourning a lost love", for example.)

    2. Take a smart idea from @Deliverator and make all XP gain "pooled": in other words, XP gained by any one player goes into a pool, and everyone benefits from it equally. This means that helping my fellow player address their Goal benefits me just as much as it does them, which solves most of the problems with this kind of scheme in a D&D context.

  • Eero, great points! Two questions: (1) if you were to house rule D&D specifically for newbies, what would it look like? Which combat features would you include and which would you leave out? (2) my newest player is doing ok in combat, in fact she got the coup de grace on the big bad last time; I think we've been doing ok with not overwhelming her with technicalities. However she seems a bit shy or tentative in other scenes. In the dragon scene I mentioned, it wasn't a combat, it was actually a negotiation: the dragon made tea for the PCs, and they sat around discussing what to do. I thought my new player would like it, but she wouldn't even enter that area. Any tips on getting people more comfortable with roleplaying scenes?
  • Hi Paul, I did indeed make XP Goal-dependent in the beginning, but it didn't work well - some people got a lot of XP and others didn't, which I think is what you're pointing out. I switched to giving group XP, proportional to the danger they faced and story milestones reached. Instead, people can get extra XP using the Goal-centered moves I listed; otherwise Goals are a way to get Inspiration points. The solutions you suggest are also very interesting and worthy of consideration.
  • Eero, great points! Two questions: (1) if you were to house rule D&D specifically for newbies, what would it look like? Which combat features would you include and which would you leave out?
    I would leave out feats and combat options that lack vivid fictional triggers and effects. For example:

    "Add +1 AC when using a shield" is an unnecessary thing because it doesn't add anything that we can actually talk about in the fiction (aside from the normal effect of using a shield, I mean), and its effect is a petty little bonus point, accounting for which is more spreadsheet work that somebody has to do. It contributes nothing to a narratively interesting combat scene.

    "The character knows an extra language" is a much superior feat in this regard, as it can be used as the basis of a scene that highlights this particular character and puts its player to the spot as the party face. An inventive GM can also use it as justification for the character being the resident expert on the culture beyond the language.

    In a modern D&D chassis this sort of pruning will, of course, mean a lot of basic development work to redesign necessary bits compensate for the changes made.

    Nowadays I consider the basic D&D initiative system to be substandard for serious fieldwork, so I would probably end up messing around in the guts of the system, too. It is probable that I would fix core math while at it, removing much of the level-up ramping and such. Technically speaking this isn't something you should do, though, if you want the end result to bear a clear resemblance to the stereotypical D&D vision.

    Ultimately the creative goal of my fixing would be to fine-tune the system to support either D&D old school wargaming or D&D middle school drama play. Speaking of the latter (because the former's been talked about a lot, and because frankly the middle school stuff is more in line with what newbies expect), the golden norm in the combat system design should be thus:
    * Players shouldn't have to wait for their turn all the time.
    * Players shouldn't have to maintain abstract spreadsheets.
    * Decision-making should occur in combat, not in character-building.
    * A combat action should feel like combat choreography.
    * Players should have creative input into the choreography.
    * Fictional circumstances should inspire and influence the choreography.
    * Combat should have some emotional depth.

    I think it's not that difficult to see which parts of a given D&D text succeed or fail against this list of expectations.
    (2) my newest player is doing ok in combat, in fact she got the coup de grace on the big bad last time; I think we've been doing ok with not overwhelming her with technicalities. However she seems a bit shy or tentative in other scenes. In the dragon scene I mentioned, it wasn't a combat, it was actually a negotiation: the dragon made tea for the PCs, and they sat around discussing what to do. I thought my new player would like it, but she wouldn't even enter that area. Any tips on getting people more comfortable with roleplaying scenes?
    That is a good question. Sounds to me like the player is indeed somewhat shy.

    Two kinds of shyness in my experience:
    1) They're socially withdrawn - normal shyness.
    2) They're still processing the creative gestalt of the campaign.

    That second one is perfectly normal for all roleplayers, by the way - GM types often learn to "lean" into the uncertainty and essentially fake confidence, but when doing character play in a relatively passive game like trad D&D it's actually not a bad instinct for the player to be pretty quiet and passive until they figure out what it feels like to be their character. Experienced players take about half a session to get that feel even when playing with an otherwise familiar crew, after which they start being more active about playing their character. Sometimes it takes longer for various reasons.

    I discuss this distinction because understanding which one's going on with the player might be useful. If it's the second type, you can help the player in the normal ways you'd support princess play - provoke responses to easy questions, proffer implicit ideas for what their character identity might imply. Sooner or later the character will click for the player and they'll start following the character's behavioral cues.

    Actual social shyness, which may imply anxiety and whatnot, is a more complex issue and mostly outside the purview of GMing; if a player is naturally withdrawn I usually try to notice this and let them be. D&D has a lot of space for deadwood players, it doesn't mind if somebody is pretty passive. They might enjoy participating even if it's mostly as audience, depending on their specific nature.

    Our campaign has a newbie who started the game in an extremely passive style. I've drawn him - and other newbies - out of his shell by addressing his character directly, engaging him in the events of the campaign. Your dragon-passive (dragon-shy?) player sounds just like him when he was starting out, and at least in our case the passiveness went away as the player character gained more unique personal identity and positioning and the player therefore felt more oriented about what they were doing in the campaign.
  • Intetestingly, @Eero_Tuovinen , your list of "middle school D&D drama play" golden norms sound exactly like D&D 4E to me. ;)

  • Thanks Eero! If you ever write up the fantasy rpg you describe, let me know - I’ll shell out good money for that one!
  • Shyness in players is a very interesting thing, I agree. I've seen people who are very cautious because they haven't figured out how this activity they're involved in works just yet (perhaps they are still trying to figure out "how to do it well"), and I've seen people do so because they've had negative experiences they don't want to repeat. (You can imagine how a player whose first session was an exploration of the Tomb of Horrors, which involved them dying over and over to various arbitrary death traps would approach their second session, regardless of the game in question! That forms some serious expectations.)

    Some players need to establish the idea that what they do and say matters before they feel comfortable putting themselves forward. I once had a player who was clearly into the game but spent nearly all their time sitting there quietly, barely answering questions with a "yes" or "no".

    In the second session, a funny thing happened. As a way of introducing some more of the rules, we had the character spar for practice with his swordsmaster/mentor. This allowed us to roll some dice, to see how the practice sparring was going.

    The player rolled very poorly, clearly "losing" the practice round against his mentor.

    I asked the player: what happens? How does your character lose this fight? For the first time, the player became very animated. He described his character being beaten, and his sword flying out of his hand and becoming embedded in nearby barrel. His outward demeanour was shame and defeat, but he really got into the moment, going so far as to stand up from his chair and throw his pen, mimicking his character letting go of the sword.

    It was a strange thing to see! After that, I started making sure to give his character important decisions to make (I had other characters bring important decisions to him, and defer to his judgement), and he became more active in the game. It helped to see that his character's authority mattered and that it had an impact on the fiction.

    But, strangely, that practice sparring defeat somehow really "turned him on" in terms of engaging with the game in a more active way.
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