Makayla looked up at me from her character sheet. “So… now what?”
It was her first time playing Dungeons & Dragons v3.5. At that time, I had only had three years of experience playing D&D and most of it was playing Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. AD&D was released in 1977. It was 2006.
“You, uh…” I stammered, flipping through my brand new Player’s Handbook. I had no idea how her 1st level Druid spell ‘Charm Animal’ actually worked. I had somewhat of an idea—but I was no expert. The next 20 or so minutes were spent turning the Player’s Handbook inside out.
And not a single die hit the table.
Learning a brand new game can be overwhelming. Many times, it can be the difference between a gateway experience to the wonderful world of tabletop gaming or a bitter-without-the-sweet hour—or three—of thinking, “I don’t know why I’m even here right now.”
Fortunately, teaching a new game to your friends, family, or even strangers doesn’t have to be that hard. Here are four tips to keep your new gaming crew saying “let’s play it again!”
First, play the game. A lot.
I once worked at my resident LFGS (Local Friendly Game Store) a couple of blocks away from my place. I had accrued a nice handful of store credit to my name and decided I’d let my wife pick something she might want to try out. After sweeping through the ancient, looming, dwarven-crafted, obsidian shelves (fine, they were probably the basic black ones from Target) we ended up picking up a copy of Pandemic: the Cure.
During our first go at the game, I decided to play as the Dispatcher (he had a helicopter—he had to be cool, right?). At first, I had no idea how to play that role and, after playing a very slow first game with the rules sheet essentially taped to my forehead, we lost. We played once more that night and then a couple more times a week for the next few weeks.
Frequently playing the same game will not only give you the opportunity to get a better handle on the rules, it will also make you ask questions about certain rules. Pay attention when you ask yourself what the purpose of a rule is and why it functions the way it does.
In the case of Pandemic: the Cure, I initially wondered what the reason would be to put Infection Dice back in the bag rather than simply hoard them on the board to find cures more quickly (thus putting us one step closer to victory before medical apocalypse ensued). We discovered that if there are no more Infection Dice to pull from the bag, we lose the game. Thus, my initial strategy changed once I took into consideration that one underlying game mechanic. If you find something confusing or worth clarifying about the game, chances are that your players will as well.
There have been times when I have stumbled trying to answer a new player’s question of “Why do I need to do it that way?” Playing a game over and over will cement the basics of the game in your brain and allow you to answer some of the more uncommon questions that players might have, questions that you might not have personally had at first.
My Dispatcher tells people to “get to da choppa!” with confidence now.When teaching a new game, it’s your job to teach all of the game.
Know the goal and refer to it often.
I love Escape: Zombie City. Your goal is to, well, escape the zombie-infested city. The game naturally reminds you of that goal with the creepy and brooding soundtrack provided by its app. Your play is accompanied by the bone-chilling growls of zombies coming from all sides—all whilst battling an audio cue-based timer. Every second the clock ticks, the haunting audio atmosphere and ticking clock scream “GET OUT” with deft accuracy. Escape: Zombie City lets you know what your goal is easily—and reminds you of it every heart pumping second.
In The Red Dragon Inn, the last (sober) man standing wins. In Boss Monster, my BBEG (Big Bad Evil Guy) needs to collect 10 souls from those pesky 8-bit heroes to be crowned the victor. In Lords of Waterdeep, my goal is to complete quests and collect Victory Points to claim my rightful rule of the city.
When teaching a new game, it’s your job to teach all of the game. In some of the more complex systems, there is a vast library of rules and mechanics to keep track of—including trying to figure out what the heck your strategy to win is going to be. With all of these rules getting thrown at players, it’s important that you always bring it back to the main goal of the game.
Frequently remind your new player(s) how that question they asked is relevant to the win condition of the game. Putting everything into the perspective of the main goal of the game will help them grasp the concepts of “why” and not just the “how.” Aim them constantly towards the goal, and always try to set them up for success. (Unless you’re playing Munchkin. Or Mario Kart.)
Put extra effort into making their first experience a great one.
I’ll never forget my first game of Dead of Winter—desperately attempting to survive the barren and dead or diseased, flesh-craving monster-filled colony while facing grueling moral choices about my own humanity. But it wasn’t just the interesting and intriguing game mechanics that made that night special. It was simply the night itself.
A few of my buddies and I were huddled around a makeshift table eating a mountain of Hot Cheetos and pizza rolls in the wee hours of the morning, simply trying to keep our colony of humans alive. There were laughs, really dumb jokes, really good jokes, and a few thousand trips to the fridge for more iced tea.
There was nothing extremely climactic about that night—but it was memorable solely for that fact that I had such a great time.
Since that night, I’ve secretly been waiting to “accidentally” put Dead of Winter into my Amazon shopping cart.
There is no secret formula to making a first experience a good one, but there is one thing I always try to keep in mind: the game is about your players. I forget this whenever I first introduce people to D&D. Every. Single. Time. No matter how you excited you are about being able to share one of your favorite games with someone else, they only have one first impression of that game. Focus on making sure they are having fun. Mechanics, strategies, and tactics aside—your number job is to make them say “let’s play again!”
On the flip side, it’s also important to note that not everyone likes every game. It’s okay if your players shrug the shoulder and ask what else you have. As long as they’re having a good time—you’ve done a good job.There is no secret formula to making a first experience a good one, but there is one thing I always try to keep in mind: the game is about your players.
Put that distraction down.
In today’s age of readily-available technology, distractions are aplenty. I’ve been guilty of sitting behind my Dungeon Master’s screen on my phone, holding up the game until somebody finally fake-coughs for me to realize my players were done role-playing and were waiting for me to continue.
When gaming, nothing is more frustrating than people who are constantly distracted. Like a Dungeon Master in D&D, you, as the game teacher, set the tone and pace of the experience. That doesn’t mean you need to enforce martial law so everyone keeps their eyes forward—casualness, light-heartedness and a simple time to unwind over your favorite game is often just what the doctor ordered. But you should make an effort to engage with your players’ interaction of the game. If they have questions, that means they are actively participating and that is something you should capitalize on. Stay focused, set the pace, and watch them follow your lead.
So, what’s the point?
Board game nights are simply the best. (If they weren’t, you might not be reading this article.) And teaching something new to someone is just as much for us, the teachers, as it is for the learners. When we teach something to other people, we come to understand it better ourselves. The mechanisms of teaching others helps us see shortcomings in our own understanding and allows us to better organize information in our minds. In the end, we’ll end up creating a better game night experience for everyone.