Game Master's Journey 144: Teaching New Players & Tips for New GMs

Today I continue my series on the Roles of the GM. In this episode we discuss the GM as a teacher. As GMs we often find ourselves teaching players a new game, or even teaching players who’ve never played an RPG before.  I give you strategies to set yourself up for success and ensure your players come back for more. I also give some tips specific to teaching 5th edition D&D to new players, and finally I give some tips for new GMs preparing to run D&D for the first time. 

I will be launching a Kickstarter soon for an adventure I've developed for D&D fifth edition! I'm really excited to see what you all think of it. Stay tuned for more details.

Game Master's Journey now has voice mail: 951-GMJ-LEX1 (951-465-5391)


The Trickster’s Labyrinth Kickstarter coming soon!

Some discussion of future adventures from Starwalker Studios and an update on what I’ve been working on with my worldbuilding of Primordia


Episode 141: D&D Product Replacement & How RPGs are Good for Us

Episode 142: Travel, Movement, Falling, Suffocation, Vision & Light

The GM as Teacher

Episode 136: Building D&D Encounters using the Unearthed Arcana

There is more discussion of the Unearthed Arcana building in episode 137, and some more in episode 138 and episode 139

Part 1 of this discussion, the GM as Rules Arbiter.

Why I love running for a new players, and why I recommend running for new players when you’re a new GM

Why I don’t recommend having a session zero when you’re starting a game with new players

A better way to handle initiative in turn-based games like D&D

In my time as a DM I usually take the role of teacher above all else. My start as a gamer was as a DM, so I had to teach people how to play since day one, all the while teaching myself what worked and what didn't.

Use pre-generated characters for the first adventure/session. It’s unfortunate that this hobby begins with character creation.

Making a character takes some time, and depending on the game you’re playing, it may take a great deal of time. This goes against the writing and filmmaking accepted wisdom of beginning with the action. Starting your first session with an hour (or even half-hour) of character creation is not beginning with action. You want to make a good first impression. Hook the players with what’s cool about RPGs. For more experienced players, making a character is a lot of fun, but this is seldom the case with the first-time player (unless they’ve already had some exposure, e.g. read the book, etc.). However much time character creation takes, that time is better spent getting into the story and adventure.

In many RPGs, making a character takes some mastery of, or at least proficiency with, the system that a new player won’t have. If you do force your new players to make characters for the first game, they will often come to regret some of the decisions they made during character creation once they more fully grasp the system. E.g. they might take skills or abilities they end up never or seldom using, or they might take skills or abilities that they never use. It’s hard to make a character when you don’t even understand the game yet. This is even more true if you’ve never played any kind of tabletop RPG before.

I have seen players turned off from this hobby just by character creation. This was especially true with 3.x/Pathfinder, but it can be true with any game.

Once the players are hooked and enjoying the game, they’ll be eager to make their own characters.

You can either use pre-gens from the game company (e.g. a lot of beginner boxes will have these) or you can make them yourself. You can make sure that all necessary abilities are covered, that the characters are mechanically solid, and that they all have ties to the adventure and one another.

Start with a short adventure, 1 or 2, or at most 3 sessions. Keep this adventure relatively simple and straightforward. The goal with this adventure is to introduce the game, hobby and system and show how it all works. It’s ok if this first adventure is fairly linear and plot-directed, and in fact, it’s probably best if it is. Make sure this adventure has a good solid hook and start with some action. A lot of games these days have good published intro adventures and if your game has a beginner box like D&D and Star Wars do, chances are decent that the included adventure will work for you. Don’t start out with a sandbox adventure that doesn’t give the players clear direction on what to do next. Don’t start with a roleplaying scene. Start with action (i.e. combat).

Ideally, the first session should introduce and use all the major mechanics of the game. So a first D&D session should have various ability checks, including some social checks, and it should have at least one combat so players can see initiative, attack rolls, damage, spell casting, healing and recovery/resting in action.

Keep the first session relatively short, I’d recommend at least an hour shorter than your normal sessions. So if you normally play for 4 hours, plan for a 2-3 hour adventure. Allow lots of time for questions at the end of the first session.

Once you finish this first adventure, the players can either continue playing their pre-gen character, or they can make their own new character. This is also a chance for a player to bow out if she decides this kind of game isn’t her cup of tea. Ideally, this first adventure should tie into the next adventure in some way, so that if a player decides to keep playing his pre-gen character, that makes sense in the story. Keep all the players on an even footing, so if the first adventure advances the PCs to third level, and a couple of the players decide to make their own characters for the second adventure, those new characters should be created at third level so all the PCs are the same.

With the second adventure you can get more sandboxy if you want, but be prepared for the possibility that the players will still need direction.

During the first adventure, and especially the first session, be ready to take it slow. Don’t be worried about “how far they get” or anything like that. Your goal should be to teach the game and make sure each player understands everything that’s happening and why. This isn’t the time to be an anal GM. Let them take back actions, etc., but this is also the time to start teaching and training them what you expect. So if you don’t want metagaming, this is the time to establish that. If you don’t normally allow take-backs, you can allow it this first session, but tell the players in the future you won’t allow it. You want to be lenient during these first sessions, but you also want to make sure the players understand what your expectations will be going forward.

Consider giving out more handouts than you normally would. Maybe give the players print-outs of their spells or abilities, especially if they all don’t have the book. Or, if they all have the book, maybe you’ll prefer to get them used to looking their spells and abilities up in the book. It’s up to you.

Just remember, your focus should be on teaching the game and making sure the players have a good time. Show them what the game and hobby have to offer. You shouldn’t be worrying so much about pacing, how much the PCs accomplish, finishing the adventure in x number of sessions, etc.

Tips for Running D&D as a New DM &/or For New Players

I think one piece of advice I would now give to new GMs of 5e is to start your first party at 3rd level. 1st & 2nd level play is a weird anomaly that doesn't play like the rest of the game. I think it's actually more challenging to run and play D&D at 1st & 2nd level than it is for levels 3-9.

I recently started an in-person Primordia campaign, and all my players are either completely new to RPGs & D&D, or have only played a few times. I started at 1st level because it's less abilities for them to deal with, but I leveled them to 2nd after one session, and will level them to 3rd after the third session (not counting session zero). I did it that way because as a GM who has quite a bit of experience now at 5e, I feel comfortable running for 1st & 2nd level PCs, even with inexperienced players. But I wouldn't recommend it for less experienced GMs. You have to really take it easy for those levels, and I try to actually design adventures for levels 1 & 2 with very little combat and relatively easy fights (also fights that can be completely avoided through roleplaying, etc.).

Use milestone xp. Either hand out xp in chunks when you think it's appropriate (like when the PCs accomplish something important), or just level them up when you want. Dealing with encounter xp is just a PITA, and you'll find yourself wasting a lot of time worrying about how much xp the PCs get, when they'll level up, etc. It's so much easier to just level them when you want.

The Unearthed Arcana encounter building guidelines are a lot easier to use than the ones in the DMG. However, be careful with encounters with large numbers of weaker opponents. If you follow the UA guidelines, you'll be making Deadly encounters, and they'll probably be more than the PCs can handle unless you do some fudging behind the screen. Either cross-check with the DMG to see what difficulty it would be, or just reduce the number of opponents by 2 for a medium encounter, or 4 for an easy encounter.

Roll behind the screen. Especially as a new GM, you'll have to find your way in designing encounters and knowing what the PCs can handle. If your rolls are secret, you can adjust as you need to. You'll have times where you can't roll less than an 18, and you're rolling 20s all over the place, so it's nice to be able to say some of those miss so you don't kill everyone. If an encounter is too easy, a nice trick is to have reinforcements show up during the encounter. You're better off using a number of smaller waves than a larger wave, so you don't accidentally increase the difficulty too much.

Stick with the guidelines in the DMG when handing out magic items (eg. don't give out rare items until the PCs are at least 5th level). Oftentimes new GMs are too generous with magic items, and it will make designing encounters more difficult if the PCs are too far ahead on the power curve.

Don't forget to have fun! If you're having fun, and your players are having fun, nothing else really matters. Also, ask your players for feedback. It can be helpful, and you'll probably find that the players often think things went a lot better than you do. Most of us are a little to hard on ourselves as GMs.

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