How to Teach Dungeons & Dragons

Teaching new people how to role-play and the systems of table-top RPGs can be both exasperating and rewarding. As sometimes it is hard to find people with as extensive backgrounds in RPG as yourself, I often find the only way to get a cohesive, friendly group of table-top gamers together is through teaching new people. This guide works to explore how to teach newbies to play RPGs.

Over the past few years I have taught over 35 people from ages 10-40 how to play Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, Savage Worlds, Shadowrun, and more. During this time, I uncovered the do’s and don’ts of teaching people just being introduced to the genre. My first suggestion is counter to what most people would think: do not start with an easy system to learn. FATE and Savage Worlds can be tempting due to their simplicity, but more intricate systems like D&D 5e, 3.5e, or Pathfinder work better due to their complexity. When teaching new players, the goal is to not overwhelm them, but simpler systems have less rules and each and every rule is essential to gameplay. Therefore, they have to learn everything in order to play the game. With constructs like D&D, the system has a few core rules which are absolutely essential, and other rules may be added on at your leisure.

Here is an example of this: in D&D 5e, they do not have to initially know why they have certain bonuses to skills; they just need to know when using that skill, they roll a D20 and add the modifier. All the necessary information remains on the character sheet, although bits and pieces of rules and the deeper understanding of the system can come later.

On this same point when starting out new players, do not have them make a character. Use pre-built level 1 characters you have created. This way, you understand the ins and outs of the character and can easily answer questions they may have without needing to refer to the book. Furthermore, character creation requires a certain level of knowledge and connotations which come along with certain classes, races, weapons, magic, etc. as well as a greater understanding of the system itself. It is one thing to know the Strength ability score refers to the physical ability of a character, but it is completely different to understand how strength influences damage, hit chance, grappling capacity, jumping, and several other factors in game. New players do not need to know these things in order to enjoy playing just yet.

To start a player, let them choose between several prebuilt level one characters. Use simple ways to describe these characters for their choosing such as, “The human sorcerer does a lot of damage through spells and humans are widely excepted in society”, or “the half-orc barbarian does a lot of damage through hitting things but tends to be ostracized in social situations”, or “the Halfling bard does little damage in battle but rather aids allies and excels in doing things outside the battle field specifically socializing and sneaking”. Using simple terms to explain the core idea of a character’s class and race helps the person choose a character based on how they might like to play the game. Avoid giving characters’ personalities, genders, or backstories and instead encourage the new player to think of a few ideas for their selected character before playing.

After character selection, it is important to go over the character sheet in simple terms. Briefly explain about abilities and ability modifiers, once again use basic general explanations instead of rule heavy explanations (ex: Dexterity is quickness, Constitution is health/ability to withstand hits, Charisma is social capacities). Show them where their health and speed can be found, and ignore explaining things like hit dice. Give a rundown of skills by explaining to them that when their character wishes to do something that cannot be done automatically (speaking, breathing, eating, walking, etc.) they can say what it is they wish to do and the Dungeon Master will say which skill to roll to accomplish this. When a skill is rolled you always roll a 20 sided dice and add the modifiers found under the skill listed in the skill section. No need to explain what each skill encompasses unless they ask.

Avoid talking about combat or combat rules as this is better learned in a hands-on situation. Do give them a spell list if they use spells, and have all the information from the book written about that spell so they can read them at their convenience. If they use a weapon, show them where the weapon can be found. Other than that, only explain racial and class abilities which seems crucial to gameplay. Leave the rest of the information you might have stirring in your brain out, and only explain other things if the player asks questions about it. The goal is to not overwhelm them and merely give them the basics they will need to START an RPG game.

Voila! You are done teaching them to play, for now at least. At this point, it is best to get them started in playing and take things slow. Next blog will look at ways to help them role-play and learn how to let themselves go and become their character. Here is a link to find three D&D 5e beginning character examples to kickstart your journey.