The travelling RPG Blog Carnival moves ever onwards. As discussed last week, the March event is hosted by Jacob Wood at Accessible Games.
Jacob has chosen the topic accessibility in games, an important subject to help the continued growth of our hobby. This is a very broad topic, as noted in Jacob’s description of the theme on his blog:
It may mean different things to different people: equal access for people with disabilities, inclusiveness in game design and representation of people from diverse backgrounds, family-friendly gaming with a welcoming vibe, etc.
Barriers to Entry
As I explained last week, in order to contribute to the March Carnival, I wrenched the topic around to the problems new Players may face when joining our hobby. What issues prevent new Players from easily accessing the fun and excitement we find in gaming? This approach is not pushing the envelope as much as some essays on this topic, but it falls within the remit of family-friendly and welcoming games outlined by Jacob.
So what are the barriers to entry within our hobby. Let us assume that the novice Player has found herself a group she wants to join, and focus instead on the issues at the table. I can see four problems which could prevent the novice turning into a regular Player:
- Group Dynamics
- Playing Safely
- Searching for the Fun
For Part 2, I offer a solution for the last two entries on my list.
Searching for the Fun
Once you have created a welcoming atmosphere at your table, allowing the novice to feel conformable amidst a group of strangers, we come to the game itself. The first thing the novice needs is a character, the avatar of the Player which acts as the primary interface between the Player and the fictional world.
Before exploring the character, let us first consider where we find the greatest amount of fun in the game. For me, the fun of roleplaying is in exploring the story. This is the interaction between characters and events, the conversation at the table, and the emerging narrative. While the rules facilitate this fun, they are generally not where the fun lies.
If this principle is true for most games, then why do we so often present new Players with a barrage of rules before they can play? The new Player is likely a little nervous already, without pitching them into a rather dull lecture about all the things the rest of the group already knows. If we want to turn the novice into a regular Player, then we need to cut straight to the fun as fast as possible.
Do not turn a novice’s first session into an extended lecture on character creation, while the other Players conspicuously twiddle their thumbs. Instead, hand them a blank character sheet, and allow them to build their character as you all play. All the novice needs is a name, a species and an occupation, and they are good to go.
Okay, you may need to give a short presentation on some basic campaign details, but this needs to be brief. Sum up the current situation in one paragraph, have the novice make the three basic choices above, and then launch into the game. The GM should manipulate events to have the novice join the other Heroes as quickly as possible, and then the fun can begin.
Depending upon the game being played, it may be best for the GM to guide the novice with their initial character choices. Suggest the novice adopts the simplest options for their first character, to ease their learning curve. Thus, in a typical f20 game, the best choice might be a human fighter.
Remember, first impressions last, and you want the novice to have fun. Cut away as much lecturing about rules as you can, by guiding the novice to simple choices. She can always explore the minutiae of the rules at a later date, these early sessions are all about having fun with a new hobby.
During the course of the first few sessions, talk the novice through their options whenever they interact with the rules. If your rules have any point-buy options, then only require the novice to spend points when they need the skill. For example, in a HeroQuest game, a novice may meet the following situation:
The air elemental whirls towards you, picking up dust and leaves as it moves. How do you want to deal with it? You can buy a new ability here, to help you in this encounter. If you want to talk to the elemental, then you need an ability to talk with creatures of air. If you want to bind the elemental to your will, then you need a magical ability of binding. Perhaps you have a useful magical item, or even a weapon created to fight elementals. If you want to banish the elemental, then you need an ability to open portals.
In this way, the novice builds an interesting character in response to the events in the game. The new Player can contribute to the group, because she can pick exactly the right ability for the current situation. Also, by presenting the options at the moment when they are relevant to the story, the novice should understand them better.
Another alternative is to present the novice with a pre-generated character. If your game really cannot cope with the build-as-you-play option, then this is a fine compromise solution. Chat with the novice before the game, ask those three basic questions again, and then create a basic character for them in advance. If you are likely to have novices just turn up at your table, then always carry a couple of these with you.
Closely related to the problem for the novice Player of finding the fun, is the complexity of the rules. Many of us forget that the whole concept of an RPG is unusual. Here is a game, often with no board, using weird dice, thick rule books, that can last for years, and most of the time nobody wins. A novice may be overwhelmed by these basic features of an RPG, never mind the social dynamics and the slightly embarrassing experience of having to play “in character” for the first time.
With all that going on, the last thing a novice gamer needs is complex rules. The GM should be aware of the difficulty of their system, and seek to minimize this for the novice. Of course, you want to teach the novice how to play the game, how to make clever choices and know which dice to throw. However, the novice does not need to learn all this in the first session, and definitely not before the game actually begins.
Solution: The Long Build
My solution to the issue of complexity is to work through the rules slowly, over multiple sessions. Just as the build-as-you-play option takes the novice through the character generation process one step at a time, so too should the rules be presented in small chunks.
Thus, the first session for the novice could be a relatively easy one in town, featuring plenty of roleplaying, and perhaps a few simple skill checks. The following week, the Heroes could venture out of town, and perhaps fight a few simple combats. Obviously, you need to ensure that these sessions are still fun. Just remember everything is new, and a little strange, for the novice. They do not need to absorb vast chunks of the rules every thirty minutes.
If you have a supportive group, then you could ask one of the regular Players to act as guide to the novice, to help them understand what is happening at the table. Not only will this free the GM to devote more time to progressing the story, but it means the novice has less time “in the spotlight” when the game halts to explain the new rules to them.
Ease novice Players into your game by smoothing their progress through the rules. Beside meeting new people, RPGs are complex games with some unique features. A gentle introduction to the hobby can turn a novice into a loyal and excited member of your gaming group. What GM does not want more of those?
How do you adjust the rules to accommodate novice Players? Can you think of another way to ease a novice into the complexities of RPG rules? How have novice Players settled into your game? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.
- Read all the current entries to the March Carnival at Roleplaying Tips.
- The RPG Blog Carnival is under the stewardship of Johnn Four, at his Roleplaying Tips website.
- The host for the February event was Johnn Four at Rroleplaying Tips, where the topic was Inspiring Players.
- Do you need more Tales?
If you enjoyed this article, then please share it, or the associated quotations. You may also be interested in the following links:
- Something for the Weekend last week: Blog Carnival Part 1, Accessibility & Social Dynamics
- Something for the Weekend next week: Microscope as History