A person’s first experience with tabletop roleplaying will stay with him or her forever. That’s equally true whether it was good or bad. If the player didn’t like it, that player will never come back. If the player enjoyed the experience, the RPG club gains a new member and that person picks up a hobby that could last the rest of his or her life.
So let’s say you’ve roped a group of colleagues or school chums into trying Catacombs & Catoblepases. Making a good first impression is vital. What’s your plan?
Cast your mind back to your first experience with funny-shaped dice. Can you remember the thrill you felt kicking open your first secret door, cleaving your first goblin skull, surviving your first brush with 1 hit point, and counting and recounting those first tarnished silver pieces lifted from a bloodstained purse? Or was the best part slipping unnoticed past the patrolling manticore, negotiating with the gargoyles, and outsmarting the medusa? Maybe it was standing at the edge of the cliff and looking down on the lost city of ruined spires and soaring bridges that no civilized man or woman had seen for a thousand years.
During those few hours, some combination of exploring, fighting, danger, and loot captured you forever. The goal of every first adventure is to give someone else that same adrenaline shot to the heart.
Be mindful of age. Players need different challenges at different maturity levels. Young players want monsters to kill, dead bodies to poke, goofy creatures they can insult or befriend, and deep, dark places to explore. More mature players like the same things but might also enjoy wrestling with a moral quandary or having a chance to face grave danger just because it’s the right thing to do. Play to your audience.
This ain’t no Xbox. Assume your players are familiar with video games. The days of D&D being the gateway drug to computer games are gone, and the reverse is now true. To pull players AFK, you must offer something they can’t get at a screen. That means face-to-face interaction, maximum imagination, and unfettered freedom.
For all their advances, video games still can’t let players do anything really original. Every option that the game allows has been foreseen and programmed. The latest generation of video games allows an amazing range of options, but it will be a long time before they can match blows with a GM’s mark-1 brain.
Take advantage of having options! That is perhaps the most fundamental element of an RPG and the biggest conceptual leap that new players must make. Every other game they’ve played, from Candyland to Carcassonne to Call of Duty, has clearly delineated what they’re expected to do. Stepping into the skin of your first RPG character is like becoming an adult—you’re suddenly free to make your own choices and do whatever you want. It’s a heady experience, and the impression it leaves can stay with you for a long time.
Limit their options. No, I’m not contradicting what I stated above. I’m being practical.
Players want to start playing, and once they’ve started, they want to keep going. When Bob halts the game to ponder his choices, you begin losing Carol, Ted, and Alice. But players also want to make decisions. It’s the GM’s job to ensure that new players are offered options but not overwhelmed by them.
Here’s a fact about making decisions: choosing between two complex options is easier than choosing between five simple ones. If you ask “do you want to be a fighter, rogue, wizard, cleric, or bard?” you’ll spend the next 15 minutes explaining what each of those characters does and how they’re different. Instead ask “do you want to fight with a blade or cast magical spells?” When the player picks blade, ask “do you want to stab monsters in the face with a sword or stab them in the back with a poisoned dagger?” This gets you quickly to the heart of the matter without wasting time exploring options a player isn’t interested in.
In a game with complex character creation like D&D 4E or Pathfinder, skip over it. Pregenerate a dozen or more characters so players can zero in on one to their liking with a few A/B questions. Don’t ask them to row across a sea of powers, feats, and skills before picking up their first die. You might even leave the races blank. Let players select characters based on class (or job description) alone. Once that’s done, they pick a race and adjust a few numbers on the sheet. It will feel like character creation without much overhead at the table.
Nothing is wrong with out-and-out leaving things off the character sheets for a first game. Players won’t miss it if you forget about feats, skills, or even attack powers. Let rookies focus on swinging swords, flinging spells, thinking their way through problems, and maybe even roleplaying their way out of tight spots. Minutiae can be added gradually during the second and third sessions.
Level up. Go ahead and make everyone 2nd level at the close of the first session. Why not? What are you saving it for? Alternatively, if you withheld character options such as feats and skills, add some of those at the close of the session; it will feel just as empowering as gaining a level. Paying out this boost at the end of the first session is better than waiting until the start of the second, because it helps to ensure there will be a second session. You’ll need to review the changes the next time everyone sits down, but a bit of repetition is a small price to pay for drawing everyone back to the table.
Bring on the lootz. Garnering treasure, honestly or illicitly, is one of the thrills of adventure RPGs. Make sure everyone finishes the first session with a pouch full of silver and a shiny new weapon that’s better than the one they started with, a potion or two, and a scroll to cast a hitherto unknown spell. This isn’t bribery; it’s a lure, and a darned good one.
Don’t limit the fun to newcomers. While you’re at it, run an occasional “introductory” adventure for your regulars, just to remind everyone of the amazing rush they felt on their very first outing. Sometimes we forget, and it’s good to remember.