Thursday, April 29, 2010

Building a strategy for converting board gamers into RPG newbies

I'm hoping to start an RPG campaign for the first time in years, here's the lowdown...

Currently, we're playing Settlers of Catan. I started them on Dungeon! which is great fun, but Catan offered more in the way of complexity and they ate it up. I was a Catan newb as well so it leveled the playing field. Since we started playing last November we've trained 10 newbs who all love the game, and at least three others bought their own copies. Table gaming is where it's at!

Three players (besides me) have expressed interest and availability. Basically my wife and a couple we know. One of them I've done some D&D Day gaming with at our FLGS. The other is a certified sci-fi fan (we have protracted discussions about "magical realism" in literature. My wife is the wild card: this is like an audition to see if something this freewheeling holds her interest. Catan did, Dungeon! less so.

I haven't GM'd since high school. Yeah, talk about stage fright.Written lots of supplementary material,which is really my strength (ideas), but I've never felt strong on mechanics. This is really the bulk of my preparation of late--know the rules and flow of the game really well so I have the flexibility to follow/forget them as needed. Basically get it down so I know what to do next.

Undecided. I have three players with different interests. I'm currently working on setting and randoms for X-plorers as well as a Masters of the Universe-like setting for Marvel Superheroes. I could also go straight sci-fi, supes, or fantasy to simplify. I'm still feeling them out.

While catching up on my blog reading and found the following four posts that I think each offer unique insight. I'm obviously not going to repost their entire (and very thoughtfully written) advice, but here are snippets that struck a chord with me.

The Excessive Gamer, who posted about being a "decent GM" and who offers great advice (pulled from his own experience as well as others) on being prepared. Not overly prepared mind you--but there's no harm in getting your act together. I think this is the thing I worry about the most, that I'll not have a way to answer questions quick enough before the yawning commences. Here are a few (poorly paraphrased by myself) points to consider:

  • Be prepared (2 GM styles: preparers and improvisers, guess which one takes natural talent?)
  • Timing is everyting (get pacing down--something I struggle with!)
  • Teen wolf syndrome (achieving balance between players at proper levels)
  • Don't fall in love with critical results (keep the big picture in mind--avoid off-balancing the entire game with one good or bad result)
  • Never split the party ('nuff said!)
  • No one likes the RPG railroad (ditto)
  • Tool time (rules lawyering)
  • Wrong guy running the game (man, I hope that's not me!)
It's a lengthy post, but I got quite a bit from it. I know I'll be re-reading a few more times.

When Doug Easterly posted about "Selling a different gaming experience," I don't think he had my exact situation in mind. He was thinking more "old (grog)dogs, new tricks"--that is, convincing veteran RPGers who prefer a particular type of gaming experience due to familiarity. I think there's a great lesson here about getting players on board:
"...character creation in the newer editions has a dual effect. On the one hand, it is an obstacle to just sitting down to play and thus is an obstacle to new players. On the other hand, it is a portion of the game a new player can engage in between games on his or her own, thus is appealing to new players.

Personally, I can do without all the excess work. After years of running Hero System after leaving AD&D, I have had my fill of customizing characters just so, and see the beauty of simpler systems, even class and level systems I once would have lambasted. But I am not so sure it will be easy to get my friends to walk away from newer bells and whistles."
Now this actually gives me hope that: 1.) Less prep/simplicity for players is better--esp. for newbies in my case and 2.)  Be wary of letting them spend too much time customizing. In one of our Dungeon! sessions I tried to work them up to an RPG-frame-of-mind by letting them come up with background and items for characters. This was a disaster because it was plainly obvious that this was a superfluous exercise for a game that didn't require either. They did enjoy selecting their own minis to represent their board tokens--so there's hope, after all. In the end, Doug says it best that "it is a leap of faith," so it seems I have some proselytizing to do!

Jeff Rients post, "brief thoughts on starting adventures" talked about including encounters that will be relevant to each player in the party. He used the example of the Keep on the Borderlands module not having enough for certain classes to do (especially as it's an introductory module). I'm embarrassed to say I never even considered that! So it's definitely pertinent with keeping the players engaged--esp. those who are known to drift off.

Al at Beyond the Black Gate had really great advice for mechanics in his post "Old school DM, new school players," which I'll just bullet and egregiously over-simplify (apologizes to Al!):
  • Attacks of Opportunity (lose 'em)
  • Level Cap (don't be afraid!) 
  • Critical Hit Confirmation Check (ditch it)
  • Class/Race  (okay to limit them) 
  • Skills (player Actions should trump Skill Checks)
  • Game Balance (adjust published adventures as needed--dovetails with Jeff's point)
  • Communicate (be up front with players)
  • Old School One Shots (have plan B!)
At least, I think that's what he meant. Anyway, I'm sure everyone has their own opinions on how to handle certain situations, but what I gleaned from this was to not be afraid of trimming what isn't working. Too often I've painted myself into a corner because we can't feel our way out of the rules. When we were learning Catan, we made judgement calls instead of abiding the rules--and then looked them up later--which was MUCH more successful and less intrusive to play.

Anyway, this post doesn't nearly do justice to the great advice they've provided, but it helps to collate this into once place where I can reference it and share their tips. Have one of your own to share? Please feel free to comment--and thanks!


Dennis Laffey said...

One thing that helped me to get our Korean friends to try out RPGs in addition to our board gaming was to sit down one on one with each of them and tell them this little story:

"It's a dark and stormy night. You see an old house that everyone says is haunted. What do you do?"

Of course the 'dark and stormy night' thing is cliche, but that's why it works. It's easy to understand. It got them to think of the situation and what they would do to cope. They all gave me good answers, and I would string out the improv RP a bit for each depending on their answers. And in their game play, they tend to think about the situation, rather than think about game mechanics (which they don't fully understand, and don't need to).

The other thing is that we don't play RPGs all the time. We still mainly play board games together, just breaking out the RPGs every now and then (although I'm hoping to do more and more, it keeps not working out...)

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

A) I really hope that this isn't too general a thing to mention, but on the (few) occasions when I've GM'd for brand new players they've often expressed surprise at about how little the rules "got in the way". One of my recent players went from being worried about looking stupid getting different types of polyhedral dice mixed up, to afterward telling me she was happily surprised at how much "talking" (e.g. decision making, roleplaying, planning) there was. My point is that it's easy to take for granted what your players expect!

B) Perhaps conversely, little things that push the players to make "another decision" (in play mini-games and so on) seem like a nice bridge from board gaming to RPGing as well.

The only example I can think of that came in handy recently was Telecanters post about rolling dice on a sheet of paper to generate a place to camp for the night:

It seems like a simple thing but not only can it be useful to disrupt a slow spot if you are worrying about player boredom, it could also help focus attention if people are having a bit of difficulty with the freeform nature of an RPG as opposed to boardgames.

C)I think this is the thing I worry about the most, that I'll not have a way to answer questions quick enough before the yawning commences.

A bit of general advice here that has helped me with job interviews, guided tours and GMing-when you are on the spot, you'll often unintentionally be speaking faster than normal, so any pause will be a "hanging" for a fraction of the time that it seems it is to you. In fact a well placed pause is an excellent attention getter if it's not punctuated by the flipping of rulebooks or shuffling of papers. They might think it's a pause for effect, when actually you are swiftly putting together an ultra-simple 13/4-6 die roll to decide the answer to their question.

Apologies for any unintentional patronising in the above points.


Jay said...

@Lord Gwyndion, that story exercise is a great idea--it helps them get in the mindset of the game and it helps me by letting me see their willingness to "go for it" and imagine their way through.

@Andrew, I don't think your comments are too general at all--if anything I think the idea of pausing to think a bit is a great piece of advice. Too often I try to hammer a solution out before properly thinking it through. And thanks for the link--I'll check that out.

All great ideas gentlemen, thank you!