Happy Halloween! You’ve put on your costume, and finally come to the realisation that what you’re doing is in effect LARPing and cosplaying for treats. In fact, you might even have given in to the nouvelle vague hype surrounding tabletop roleplaying games – perhaps even Dungeons and Dragons specifically!
Alas, you find yourself overwhelmed by the rules, classes, and races. Where to begin? Here are some tried and tested tips and tricks for new players who are being guided by an intermediate level Dungeon Master!
Be clear about your expectations
There’s nothing worse than being stuck in a year-long medieval role-play-heavy campaign when you thought you were going to space. Before joining a group, define what exactly it is you’re interested in when it comes to tabletop roleplaying games. Would your ideal gameplay include a lot of combat? Are you expecting everyone to dress up as their character? Do you want music and scenery to add to the immersion, or is detailed narration enough? Talk to your Dungeon Master about your wishes, and conversely, recognise that they might not be able to meet all of your expectations. Of course, this goes both ways; find out how much is expected of you as a player, and ask yourself how much time and effort you are willing to invest in D&D.
Expectations also extend to your level of comfort. Ask your DM whether they plan on providing players with a consent form. It’s a shame to join a group only to realise later on that the story includes scenarios that are traumatic or uncomfortable for you to be put in. This may happen regardless of a consent form, but the DM should try their best to plan ahead. If you are aware of any specific triggers and feel comfortable talking about them to your DM, do so early on, before you start playing.
Agree on edition and core rulebooks
Although most people these days play 5th edition D&D, new players should confirm with their DM what edition they’ll be playing, as it will constitute a good prompt for Game Masters to tell their participants what information will be applicable to gameplay. A lot of blogs or guides online contain content from 3.5e or 4e that is no longer applicable to 5e games, and beginners might have trouble distinguishing which information is valid to them.
Though the game might rely heavily on the Player’s Handbook (PHB), there are other rulebooks that players might already have investigated, keen to incorporate them into their experience of D&D. Have you just discovered Unearthed Arcana? Check with your DM if they’ll allow for it to be included in their world!
Find out what templates you’ll use
With D&D Beyond’s detailed, and by now standardised, character creation template, it’s easy to be assumptive when it comes to what ‘forms’ your DM will require you to fill out; however, there are often easier, simplified versions of character sheets that can be better suited to beginners.
D&D Beyond’s character sheet fills in a lot of information automatically, which is a lifesaver for experienced players who want to save time and already know what perks come with what class and race. Beginners might be more likely to oversee this information, and could benefit from writing it down themselves, or discussing it with their DM to write it down together.
Start off easy or be prepared to conduct research
You certainly shouldn’t feel forced to play a human fighter with no feats, but if you plan on picking a tricky combination, say, a half-changeling wild magic sorcerer multi-classing as a wizard, you’ll have to conduct some research. Perhaps the most baffling aspect of D&D is its immense corpus of choices upon options upon possibilities. If you’re shocked by the amount of playable races on the web that don’t feature in the Player’s Handbook, then you’ll be flabbergasted at the sight of the long online lists of backgrounds at your disposal.
Having so many options can be exciting, but it can also be overwhelming. Don’t be afraid to ask your DM for recommendations; they should be prepared to dissect your character, and be able to come up with a selection of possible classes, races, and backgrounds for you to peruse in your own time.
Consider playing a one-shot
There’s truly no better way to familiarise yourself with the game mechanics of D&D than playing the game itself. It’s very difficult to sit down with a beginner to explain all the variable rules, let alone be able to cover everything in one call.
If your DM doesn’t have time to prepare a preliminary one-shot on top of the one-shot or campaign they already have set up for your party, ask them about the option of hosting a session zero, or a quick run through of an improvised game. Essentially, you’ll be able to test run ability checks and in-combat turns – no strings attached.
Write your backstory in First Person
When a new player of mine recently got back to me with their backstory in first person, I was taken aback and impressed to discover just how much I was able to hear the character’s voice. Often, and certainly in my case, I see a lot of third person narratives, which admittedly can feel very detached. Writing in first person really brings the character to life, and even more so if you choose to incorporate dialect-specific words. For role-play enthusiasts, this further helps players prepare for what they intend to sound and act like when in character.
Know your character to the best of your ability
As a DM, there’s nothing more respectful and helpful than when a player has tried their utmost best to know everything they can about their character. When you have done research on your class, race, and background, and you are adamant about understanding your weapon attacks, spells, and abilities, the game runs smoother for everyone.
If you intend on playing a light-hearted improvised game just for the laugh of it, then showing up unprepared can of course add to the humour of the night. But be sure you’ve understood the tone of the gameplay correctly, as a lack of research and preparedness can be a big sign of disrespect or disinterest to Dungeon Masters that have spent weeks, months, or even years combing through your character to make sure they have a fulfilling time in a fully-fledged fantasy world.
What can you do as a Dungeon Master for new players?
I cannot recommend consent forms enough. The original form was created for the TTRPG Safety Toolkit and is adapted from the RPG Consent Checklist that appears in the Consent in Gaming supplement by Sean K. Reynolds and Shanna Germain, published by Monte Cook Games. The adapted version that I based my adapted version on can be found here.
Consent forms can seem off-putting at first, as there’s a lot of wild stuff on there, but it’s important that you and your players are comfortable at all times (except of course in moments where you have expressly agreed to feeling uncomfortable). Be sure to explain the spotlight method to your players, and convey that ‘enthusiastic consent’ does not denote support of the gruesome things mentioned in the form, but rather denotes an undeniable certainty that the player agrees for these topics to come up in-game. For players that aren’t sure, advise them to always tick yellow.
Dungeon Masters should remember that consent can fluctuate; what might have been all right for a player last week might no longer be. It is your job as a DM to check in with your players, and they should be provided with a safe space in which they can tell you that something feels off.
Questionnaires are all about exploring and managing the expectations of your players, and finding out how much they already know about D&D or RPG. They are also useful when it comes to worldbuilding and plot expectations. Though most beginners might tend towards being interested in a medieval world that is mostly optimistic in tone, your players might surprise you with their answers.
Questionnaires can help you find out what some participants find essential to have a good D&D game.
And they are extremely useful as an extension to the consent form, for example on the topic of perma-death, of which the emotional side effects are often misunderstood, downplayed, or outrightly mocked.
All in all, questionnaires are always a good idea, and pre-existing templates can be found online for DMs who are stretched for time!
With so many rules, coupled simultaneously with a huge lack of specific guidelines, it can be useful to have something to refer to that is more condensed than the Player’s Handbook. I had a hard time finding help sheets online that were all-inclusive; 1) colour-coded 2) succinct 3) extensive (includes actions, movement, conditions, environmental effects).
If you plan on being a part-time, long-term Dungeon Master, consider creating your own help sheets, or adapting yours from a pre-existing template. Players will be able to refer to them in-game when you are caught in narration or Non-Player Character (NPC) role-play, and they might just spare you a lot of questions.
Colour-coding and/or semiology
D&D Beyond’s pre-made character templates aren’t very eye-grabbing, which is important when learning rules quickly; when you’re playing D&D, your eyes have to gravitate towards specific information, which is even more important when engaged in combat. This is particularly useful when playing remotely. Don’t know what AC and HP are, or where on your sheet they are located? With colour-coding, your DM will be able to refer to them easily, and you’ll be able to spot them immediately.
Of course, it’s the DMs job to make sure everybody is included to an equal degree. Remember to check with your group that all players are able to see colours the same way; if you have a colourblind player, consider semiology instead, and rely on symbols that stand out and can easily be used as visual references. If you have visually impaired players, you will be partly responsible for coming up with a solution that facilitates learning D&D comfortably and quickly.
In-depth Character Creation Discussion
Last but not least, if you’re a high-commitment group, then you owe it to your players to put aside an hour to discuss their character with them. They might have specific backstory questions that will surface in a one-to-one discussion, or be curious about customising something with you. It’s a fun experience that is rewarding to both parties, and will help Dungeon Masters engage in coherent and rich world-building, where characters are tied into the world itself, and where their actions and choices have an impact.
So, what are you waiting for? Halloween is the perfect time to embark on a spooktacular adventure!