Some would agree with the Judge from Blood Meridian--and say that, at a young age,
"...they should be put in a pit with wild dogs. They should be set to puzzle out from their proper clues the one of three doors that does not harbour wild lions. They should be made to run in the desert until..."
and this is not entirely insane--yes, players should learn that D&D requires thinking and they should think hard if they want their character to survive.
This is not the first lesson.
The first lesson is: D&D is fun.
A player will never find out anything else about D&D unless this lesson is learned, and learned quickly.
And why is something fun? One important way a thing is fun is because it does a thing other things don't do. Look, fireworks are fun, they explode in colors in the sky, the Natural History Museum is fun because of dinosaur bones, the zoo is fun because monkeys look funny. etc.
An obstacle to lesson one is: it is pretty hard for a 1st-level PC to do anything. This can lead to the impression that D&D doesn't do anything. No matter how interesting the descriptions or story or miniatures are, until the PC realizes they can do stuff, there's nothing unique about an RPG.
I am not saying: let them win. I am, however, saying: let them see D&D do the things that D&D does.
I started thinking about this when Jeff mentioned there's a 60% spell failure chance for 1st level characters in the original Petal Throne rules.
Is this unfair? Maybe. Does it fail to emulate the genre? Maybe. Does it--on the other hand--perhaps teach players to rely on their wits rather than their character sheet? Maybe.
But the real problem here is: spells cast by PCs are a unique thing that RPGs do (they do them in a way distinct from video games), and if a first-time player never gets to do those things because their spell keeps failing, then the player may not get to see the interesting and unique-to-RPGs-chain of events that casting a spell initiates. (Ok, the worm-man is Charmed, what'll you do now?--Then D&D starts happening.)
Or to put it another way: realism and tough love aside, a newbie can't be blamed for wanting to see just what it is that the game does. And what the game does that's unique isn't just show you magic and lizardmen, it shows you magic and lizardmen that you personally can mess with. If a 1st-time-playing fighter never manages to hit anything, then D&D is just listening to a bunch of other people talk.
So the rules should be designed such that first-time player should get to succeed at least a little--especially when success might give them some interesting choices.
So, yeah, make them sweat it out agains the slime that;s immune to metal, throw 4th level monsters at them and make them learn to run away, puzzle them and bedevil them, but remember: you already know the game is fun, make sure they do, too.
Besides, the faster they learn that, the faster you can kill them.
On Ship Design
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