Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Fresh Meat

D&D is well-insulated.

The people who write the dungeons tend to be the ones who read the most dungeons, who have been playing for the longest time, and who sometimes go online and talk about D&D on G+ or various online fora.  

The DMs/creators have absorbed the ink from ancient rulesets; there is a certain amount of orthodoxy that goes along with D&D.  And all of this tends to make D&D. . . well, not homogenous (quite the opposite, actually), but written for the same types of people.

When I write down shit on this blog, I'm often writing down things for myself, that I might want to incorporate into my games.  OR I'm writing for the people who read it, an audience that I suspect has an awful lot of fellow DMs among it.

So there's probably a DM-bias among the modules and dungeons out there.  Stuff that DMs think are cool, but not necessarily things that casual players will think are cool.  Even further removed is the category of "things that non-players will think are cool".

Playing D&D With People Who Don't Play D&D

Cliches are cliches for a reason.  Is a flaming sword any less cool than any of the weird stuff I came up with a couple of weeks ago?  No way, dude!  The flaming sword is way cooler; it's just that we've seen so many flaming swords.

At the same time, if you bring a d20-virgin into your game, they won't have the familiar knowledge base.  They won't know what a bag of holding does (aren't all bags just "bags of holding"?)  "Bugbear" is a confusing and silly phrase.  What little they know about D&D comes from Community and Jack Chick tracts.

Which is a shame, because there are a lot of good reasons to play D&D with people who don't play D&D.

D&D tends to attract logical thinkers, who appreciate bounded realities fenced in by tidy mathematics and tactical richness.  Or it attracts the artistic ones, who perhaps enjoy the fact that D&D is a medium that only requires an idea and an audience for some piece of weird brilliance to manifest.  Or it attracts nostalgic grognards.

Now, those are insultingly crude generalizations, but you get the idea.  There's not "something for everyone" within D&D.  There are people that might not be too attracted to D&D, but would still be hella fun to play with.

Me: Ahahahahaha!  That's so funny!  You're so fun. 
Friend: Yeah, but I swear it actually happened like that. 
Me: Say, have you ever played D&D? 
Friend: Huh? 
Me: Dungeons and Dragons. 
Friend: Oh yeah, my cousin used to play that.  He was a weird kid.  Used to wear a strap-on unicorn horn and wear a dracula cape.  I think he graduated high school dressed like that.  He talked about D&D all the time.  Every family reunion.  I figure it's probably got to be the least cool thing in the universe. Do I look like someone who's played D&D? 
Me: Ah.

Some of these people love boardgames, but would never think to try D&D.  Or they tried D&D but couldn't understand healing surges.  And some of these people are intelligent, funny, inquisitive, and proactive, and I'm sure they *could* have a lot of fun talking to weird NPCs or pulling unmarked levers.  Some of them just have great attitudes.

Basically I'm just whining that not everyone I like likes D&D.  It's a selfish whine, I know, but perhaps a forgivable one.  I have good friends and good hobbies and it should be understandable that I want the two to meet.

Writing for New Players

This section is highly speculative, but I like it anyway.

1. Don't assume any familiarity beyond the most basic tropes (orcs, goblins, elves, dwarves) and even then, maybe don't even assume that.  Don't use stuff that you can't explain in a few words or show in a picture.  I feel bad for anyone that has to explain the difference between orcs vs hobgoblins vs bugbears.

2. Don't use a highly abstracted system or one that requires (or rewards) extensive min/maxing and character builds.  You don't want a game that requires a deep knowledge of the system or rules-lawyering.  The point here is to get the new person into the game as fast as possible, with a minimum amount of mechanics between them and the game.  Browsing huge feat trees is bewildering.  Understanding that Wis is important for clerics but not for magic-users seems arbitrary.  You should be able to ask the player, "what do you want to do?", let the player give you a common sense answer, and interpret it quickly into the appropriate mechanic.  (4th edition, with it's plethora of dissociated mechanics, is probably a bad choice for the casual newbie)

3. Make challenges and situations that can be easily understood by new players, and overcome with common sense (rather than rules knowledge).  Throwing burning barrels down a stairwell onto a creeping ooze is a common sense tactic, and something that newbies can think up.  Using protection against evil to keep demons at bay is a system-based tactic, and isn't something a person will think up unless they're familiar with the spell list. 

4. If something needs explaining, explain it several times.  Make the environment explicit.  Don't just ask new players "what are you going to do?", also ask what they intend to achieve by doing it, so you can help mediate it.

5. Cliches can be okay, like the flaming sword.  They can even a be a bridge between the mundane and the exotic in your game.  Like, people who have seen the Lord of the Rings movies have a rough idea what an elf is like, but they don't have much of an idea what an elf wedding is (mostly because all the elves do is shoot arrows, fuss about Sauron, and make bedroom eyes at dwarves).  If your newbie PCs are invited to an elven wedding, they get enough familiarity to allow them to engage with elves more comfortably, but will still be paying attention when you're describing the bride riding into the cherry glade atop a painted doe.

6. I've also found that new players are sometimes a little reluctant to get into the game and roleplay.  It helps to write down their character's names + descriptions, and have NPCs refer to them constantly.  If a goblin calls a player "golden-haired elf-dog", you are more likely to coax a response out of the player than if the goblin just shouts "me gonna kill you dead!" (although that has it's charm as well).

7. Use lots of NPCs.  New players love NPCs.  They might not know how to make a saving throw, but they know how to intimidate a captured goblin or hit on a waitress.

8. Don't use a complicated mechanic when a simpler one would suffice.  Yes, you and I care about how grappling mechanics scale with level (I think about it in the shower) and I empathize with the desire to make sure that rules for multiple grapplers are mathematically robust through several orders of magnitude (just how many squirrels does it take to grapple a level 4 fighter?) but when you're dealing with a new player, please consider just making it an opposed Str check.

In summary: some of the best D&D players don't play D&D yet.  But make it easier for them to play, and your game will be better for it.  When you write your adventures, consider who you are writing them for.

I'm actually working on a ruleset (because our hobby doesn't have enough rulesets) that embodies some of these principles of get-newbies-into-the-game-quickly-and-easily.

Closing Thoughts

I'm considering designing a couple of adventures just based around whatever I think a certain person will think is cool.

Like Ynez.  She falls firmly into the category of "wonderful person who has never played D&D, and has no desire to".  And yet she has seen The Desolation of Smaug, like, ten times.  Go figure.

So, for her, I'd probably write something about the gangs of Breeland.  Maybe a few years after the events of Lord of the Rings.  The hobbits are restless and the men are smug.  I'm thinking some sort of gang vs gang one-shot.  Maybe gangs fighting each other in the streets of Bree, each with a different speciality.  Or raiding another gang's hideout after the defenders are all rounded up by the town guards. Add a melodramatic dwarf and a drunken dwarf.  If I'm feeling ambitious, I can work Saruman/Sharkey and Wormtongue into it, as well.

If the Gangs of Breeland get a second session, it can involve giving players a map of their own gang hideout and letting them plant defenses against the inevitable reprisal from Saruman's thugs (hobbits with straight razors, perhaps).

It doesn't even matter that Ynez may never play it.  That's a solid adventure seed, and one that is approachable for newbies.  That's a goal worth pursuing.

My friend Levi has also never played D&D, although he enjoys video game RPGs.  For him I'd write a campaign with more kick-in-the-door-ness, a unicorn, and probably an oversized sword or two.

I dunno.  Just an idea.


  1. Nice set of thoughts also a good reason to think those thought. Personally I try to pull from 80's cartoons and other popular culture beyond just fantasy, nut that's mied result. Also I think 'mathematically' it's 28 squirrels. So a fourth level fighter (3D6 in order natch) has I suspect a strength of around a 15 (he rolled a 14, but drank some gorgan milk at level 2 and we all know that's good for a stat bonus). I name him Fighty III. Basic assumption is Fighty the fighter has an attack bonus of +6 in melee (LOTFP style) or a thac0 of 15 Fighty is AC 18 because plate armor and shield. Squirrels are 1/2 HD creatures with an of somewhere like AC 14/7, unless it's squirrel mating season and then they just dash in front of the car. Fighty can cleave against 1hp 1/2 hd squirrels, so the squirrels are going to get roughed up when they leap on fighty, cause i just GM faited that when crap tries to grapple you you get a free attack. Fighty needs like an 8 or better, so lets assum he hits. That's however many squirrels batted off into the land of the dead it takes before he rolls under an 8. Let's go with 6, squirrels, not really enough for stew, but getting there. Then the squirrels have to grapple. I'd do grapple in this context as a to hit roll. Squirrels have a +0 to hit - meaning 17 out of 20 of the beasts are gonna miss. So lets say it takes 22 + (the 6 scared squirrel dead) to get a grapple on Fighty. That's gonna be 2 STR 8 squirrels with a grapple (they are strong for their size, filled with Chip n' Dale sense of murderous whimsy) according to my not math. Now fighty is more then likely to throw those squirrels off next round, but at least it gives the squirrel mob's buddy, Howly the Owlbear a chance to caw caw bite on Fighty, and once he's in that Str 19 embrace taking a 2-8 beaking each round with a bunch of squirrels laughing at him it's over, and humiliating. Stay outta Squirrel Country fools.

    1. This actually sounds like a horrific encounter. I'm staying the fuck out of your stream-of-consciousness forests.

    2. Come for the rules contemplation shower scene, stay for the Gus comment.

    3. Brendan, what do think of the if you grapple an armed opponent it gets immediately to wail on you with a free attack, regardless of if you hit or miss - otherwise grapple attacks are super powerful if your side outnumbers the enemy. See any uglifying this rule would cause?

    4. @Gus

      That seems pretty reasonable. I probably make grappling too easy
      sometimes. I'd also take a look at what else is going on at the time
      though. If someone with a sword is engaged with someone else, maybe
      that prevents an opportunity attack and makes it easier to grapple.

      This is something that I think the monologic combat I posted about
      handles really well, because since you take damage on a miss, every
      attack comes with built-in risk, and someone without weapons is most
      of the time not going to be able to pick their target, since they will
      be busy defending themselves from the folks with weapons.

      Even in a trad D&D combat round context though, it is worth keeping in
      mind that a grapple attempt is already sacrificing what could
      otherwise be an attack, so there is that inherent trade-off. And a
      group of peasants should be able to pull a knight off a horse a jam
      long knives into the armor joints right?

      In general though I think adding opportunity attacks there probably
      wouldn't cause problems.

  2. On topic though, when I got back into running tabletop RPGs, I did it through playing 4E with some coworkers at my past job. The only time I got much interest from other people at the company beyond the core group was when they saw the simple character sheet for a B/X D&D one-shot that I ran using Tower of the Stargazer. The 4E tax form character sheet was apparently super intimidating, whereas the simple Moldvay sheet was much more inviting. Several non-regulars stayed late that night get in on the action.

  3. I really liked this post so I added a link to it through my Best Reads of the Week series. I hope you don't mind.


  4. I've seen a session which was quite good to show the flaws of Pathfinder in that regard (applying also to 3.5 and somewhat to E5).
    There was a fresh player. She was somewhat used to fantasy, just not to PF/D&D. Build herself a DEX based dual wielding elven fighter.
    Which *should* have been a good choice. Nimble elven fighters, yeah, sure, archetypic character.
    Just that fighters do not have a damage source other than strength, making the character quite bad.
    She also did not pick Power Attack, because it didn't fit the concept. Another understandable choice.

    Still don't get how the people in charge did not see this coming. A DEX based fighter should be standard. Instead, they come up with stuff like special classes that can do that (Swashbuckler) or some feats with which you can under certain very specific builds work with it (DEX to damage feats).

    Now, seems particular, but after a D&D-like did class explosions, characters become less and less intuitive to build, with exotic builds arising that do over nine thousand damage before the fight even starts and so on, and encounters becoming harder and harder.

    Is the arising complexity here really beneficial in some context? It usually doesn't flesh out what is already there, but instead is build around itself, artificially. And it feels to me like this is the reason why people start to play new editions, explosions suffocating the old ones.