Player: I charge the dragon and hit it with my axe!
GM: Okay, the dragon takes a small wound and then breathes flaming, poisonous gas at you. You’re dead.
Player: I, umm… hit the reset button?
When teaching a TTRPG to new players, their only prior experience may be with roleplaying video games. You can build on these experiences, but you also must deal with some of the expectations based on the limitations of video games. Such players will have some experience playing as different characters, but in most video games, the concept is rather limited. This goes hand in hand with the overall goal of video games: to win! Video game players are trying to defeat the game—or at least the opposing forces in the game. This is the first thing that you’ll need to discuss with new players, that the goal of the TTRPG is not to “win” but to build an interesting story. In a video game, you are playing a character by using whatever abilities are most advantageous in the game. In many cases, the player isn’t as familiar with the character having their own ideals and wishes. This will be your first task with new players.
Show, Don’t Tell
As we’ve discussed previously, it’s often best to explain a new concept by showing rather than telling. The best way to do this is with a short encounter during your first campaign session (or “session zero”). This is best if it’s more of a roleplaying encounter than one of combat. Perhaps your party of adventurers met because they were hired to escort a caravan of merchants to the local city. At the city gates, the guards could confront the PCs one at a time, asking them where they are from and what their jobs are. This gives them a chance to introduce themselves to the other players and also prompts them to fill in their PC’s background. Then once the guards have interrogated all the PCs, you can have the guards discover something suspicious in a merchant’s wagon—maybe an item recently stolen from a city noble. Then you should ask the players how their PCs would react based on their backgrounds and their personal ethos. Even if the players haven’t created a long, detailed backstory, this emphasizes that the players need to make in-game choices based not on what they think is advantageous for “winning” but on what makes sense based on their idea of their PC.
A Younger Frame of Reference
Younger players especially may only have video games as a reference. You want them to have fun so that their interest in TTRPGs grows, so you need to present a situation where the player can see the creative potential in roleplaying games. You can explain character options during character creation by describing the various possibilities with a few sentences about what a typical character might act like. Make sure to emphasize that these are frameworks and not boundaries. You might describe a few different characters of the same class, maybe include references to popular TV shows or movies. For instance, you might mention that examples of a rogue include Robin Hood and Lara Croft. The goal is to get the players to begin thinking creatively about the possibilities for their character because they might be used to the limitations of video games that only offer a few predefined choices.
Once the players get the creative spirit, they may ask if their PC can be something that’s a bit outside of the normal rules. In the case of younger players, because your goal is to encourage their creativity, you should use the “yes, and…” approach whenever possible. This is a technique famous in the improv world. For instance, if a player in a fantasy game suggests they’d like to be a werewolf, instead of flatly denying the request, you should look for ways that you can make that work in your game setting: “Yes, you can be a werewolf, and since your character is only now coming to terms with lycanthropy, they can use their werewolf powers once per day until they reach higher levels…” Or only at night or some other limitations that will allow this PC while not unbalancing the game.
When introducing new players who are coming from the video game world to a TTRPG, you want to present the differences between the two types of games not as a negative thing or limitation but as an opportunity to stretch their creativity.