“So how’s it work, is there like a board or a map?”
“How do you win the game?”
That is how I got started running RPGs for new folks.
Butch, Renard, ‘Whiteboy’ John, and ‘Half-Mike’ were on my porch early summer mornings of my 6th-grade year, uhhhh 1982-83, maybe? I had them hooked on my hack of Moldvay D&D. I couldn’t afford the books yet, so I began showing them the game by playing what I could remember.
I discovered this game, D&D they called it, at the new school I was transferred to that year. Ms. Cullen at PS#14 said they weren’t the best place for me and sent me out of my ‘hood to a better school. It was summer break now, and I wouldn’t get to play with the folks at that new school that showed me D&D. I got these four urban adventurers together most of the summer and summers after that — playing to find out, making it up as we went, and not knowing those terms would be invented later. The roughest, poor-like-me, Black, bi-racial, Hispanic kids I knew in Jersey City were hooked on whatever was down the next dungeon level, and I was hooked on their wonderment.
I have been running, teaching, and sharing my enthusiasm for RPGs ever since. What follows is my approach for running games for folks who haven’t played that game (or roleplaying games even) before. I’ve been refining this model for more than 40 years..
How To Get Them Hooked
First: Start with character introductions. Use brief, and big concept descriptions. Burning Wheel is a game I’ve taught a lot of folks. I just ran a one-shot for three new to Burning Wheel folks at Gauntlet Con Open Gaming. My intros were like:
“This is the Sheriff. They’re mostly about keeping the internal parts of the Roden nest orderly and safe.” I keep it to one sentence, easy to understand. I’ll then ask players to look at the descriptive life paths on the character sheets (they read like careers or mini-classes) then the skills and traits to get a sense of the various characters.
Next: Put the players in a situation, one that will resolve into something bad for them and others if left unattended. I bring up this first situation early and often. In By Aecer’s Light (coming to DriveThruRPG), the first scene after character setup is about the thieves that have stolen from the player character’s home. The tracks of the filthy dirtbags are still fresh in the muddy ground. They have one live, hysterical captive and a dead one. I believe if your situation is on fire, players will start tossing out ideas and actions. Get the dice in those player’s hands, make tests, checks, whatever your game calls it and talk through the process. Enough to resolve the actions the players are talking over and no more.
Do it again, talk a bit less, let them stumble gently through it. And again.
Build on the early tests: Expand on the rules used, and introduce new ones. I start with the basic mechanics of a system. In Burning Wheel it’s a dice pool vs a target number. Very quickly, by the next test, I’m adding in how other players can help your tests, how you can help yourself get more dice for tests. Pretty soon we’re doing opposed tests and I’ve made sure everyone has gotten two or three dice rolls in and is feeling good about the mechanics so far. And these checks, these dice tests are organic. I’m not working down a checklist. I’m pushing the fictional situation at them. Somebody will say:
“Can I see where they are going?”
“Do I know them? Seen them before?”
“What all have they stolen?”
I’m hoping for “I go after them!” These are actions, you got to know your game rules so you can turn those actions into mechanics. And I go with: she who said it rolls the dice.
At the halfway mark: Introduce a bigger situation. Take the time to describe it, be dramatic, and leave it on a cliffhanging situation. Then take a break. Stretch, bio-checks, drinks, and check in on your players. Ask what’s working for them, any questions, sticking points. After the break, recap the new situation and let them work through it on their own…mostly. Be their biggest fan. Offer some ideas if they seem stuck. As they get moving, walk them right up to the mechanics and watch your baby chicks fly the nest!
Or they fall, and you help them back up.
Let them fly: I am coasting this last half of the session, riding out the player-driven actions. In my experience, they propose more actions than they have time for. I don’t introduce anything mechanically new, but I try to use everything I have taught them so far and in different applications of it.
End it with enough time to debrief: I’ve given up on having a nice ending with a bow. If it happens, great! If not, I look for a fictional place to stop. If it’s a good spot for a “where are they now” montage – we do that. Otherwise, I talk about what the game looks like if this was my regular Wednesday game and we’re meeting up next week. Check-in on everyone again at the end. Take questions. I ask questions, too:
“Why did you pick that NPC to harass?”
“What made you go up into the tower?”
I ask about the things I was curious about.
After 8th grade, I moved and I never saw my Jersey City Delvers again. I like to believe they still play in some fashion, or at least remember our games. I want to believe that they would have encountered RPGs somewhere along the way in their lives without me. I’m sure there are things to be said about our party being all fighters and thieves, dwarves and halflings. I brought back fire to my friends in the hood from my new school outside our Shire. Fire that changed my life forever, and if it changed theirs then I know they have multi-classed beyond the fighters and thieves we gleefully started with. In many ways I’m still teaching that hack of Moldvay D&D. I still see the excitement and wonder on their faces every time I have a table of new players.