Tuesday, February 9, 2010

How Hard Should That First Session Be?

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.


  1. I learned this the hard way by putting my wife off D&D forever during her first session. I still feel pretty crappy about that.

  2. "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."

    Spell failure doesn't have to mean that nothing happens - spell failure merely means that what the spell caster intended didn't work the way it meant. I can see that leading to great possibilities.

  3. Chgowiz-
    good point, but i still think a lot of the fun for the 1st time player is that the player actually gets to choose to do stuff and see what happens, not just trip over stuff and start stuff happening.

  4. @Zak - I could see why you say that. I like looking for opportunities that failure provides to make the game more interesting. For instance, clairvoyance is one of the spells the newly minted mages were running around with. I was thinking that it would be fun/funny that on failure, they get a vision of the final goal - just not sure where exactly it is!

    It's like swinging a sword - at first level, you're more likely to miss, which can remove the fun really quickly if the newbie keeps missing and that damn goblin keeps hitting (ask my princesswife about that... she was pretty damn annoyed!) so there are a lot of areas where 1st levelers have troubles.

  5. This is a super important point, this here post. I convinced my wife once that D&D wasn't so weird by having a big event called The Girls' Game. It was all her friends who were interested. I made food and made sure there was lots of wine, and we used the Moldvay Basic rules. And I made sure they had plenty of orc pirates to kill.

    So, in that, we have something in common in that we both run or have run D&D for large groups of girls with little D&D experience. The difference, I suppose, is that I have only seen one of my female players in full spread eagle poses. :(

    Also, I bet none of your players would ever name their fighter 'Princess Buttercup'. Yep.

  6. maybe. i got a 'Lady Smashalot'

  7. One thing I don't like about some "old school" DMs is the high mortality rate among PCs. The DMs will say they are firm, but fair.

    Me, I think it's lazy DMing. It's easy to keep slaughtering PCs with pit traps, goblins and mega-dungeons. It's harder, I think, to actually develop a setting and foster character growth.

    So what do I think? I say let the PCs live. Let the characters grow, prosper and connect to one another as well as the setting.

  8. @Christian: "Burn the witch!" :p

    I'm all for having a Halls of Noob (pace Scott Driver) demo area for 1st time gamers.

    Maybe start their demo character at 4th level. D&D is supposed to be playing a hero, so why not start them at Hero level? This gives the character a bit more survivability, thereby giving the player a chance to see more of the deliciousness that is D&D in action. They can always build a new character from scratch later...

  9. So many memories, thankfully when i learned D&D it was with 3.0 and our DM at the time was also learning, as a result we the PC's had a blast doing stuff that not even the books allowed (we didn't understand spell slots back in the day so we waved them up, imagine how fun it was to have Spell Mastery mean you could cast a spell without preparing it as many times as you wanted!)

    But yeah if the player doesn't learn that D&D is fun before the DM gets his chance to kill all willy nilly he may never learn since most likely that player wont play again.

  10. I tend to be a bit to permissive of players (I want to see them pull of something cool to) but if you want to make them crunchies go with Paranoia where everyone gets insta-clones

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  12. One reason I like your blog is because you're one of the few (other) people who focus on the new-player experience and is honest about it. The decadence of 20-year experts arguing preferred play styles with other 20-year experts is one of the biggest problems with the industry.

    Personally, I don't mind starting PCs at 3rd level. I think that's the fundamental knob to dial in the starting deadliness of your game, somewhere in the 1-5 level.

  13. I put off all but one of my school friends by killing them too much. Luckily I had two captive younger brothers to practice on until I got better but it can be difficult to keep new players alive if you don't like fudging.

    One thought that came to me is a dream session i.e. the first game the players are asleep in the inn thinking of tomorrow's dungeon crawl and they dream a short mini dungeon tutorial - replay up to once per player as they each dream the same dream.