What I did Wrong at D&D Adventurer’s League Episode 1

I’ve been going to a local gamestore on Wednesdays to play tasty RPGs on about a weekly basis since February. Good times, great way to scratch the itch. It’s always been understood that I was a DM and could fill in when needed. And that hasn’t come up. Until now.This week I showed up, expecting to be running my paladin through a dungeon not designed for a character without a solid dexterity save or a perception check, when I heard a voice at the register. A mother  was asking the clerk about D&D and what her daughter needs to do to join in.

Actually, let’s pull back a few weeks ago, where I made my first mistake and regret: 1. I let someone else run a game. I’m not saying I’m the best DM ever. It’s not bad that he ran a game, but rather the game he ran was bad for the players he ran it for. He had been hoping to play as a character, but, as one of the DMs of the Line (ahead of me in tapping order), when a father came in with his two kids to play, he grudgingly spun up a new table. And proceeded to pull no punches for these kids first game. And the next week was similar. I could easily have taken over, could have made a good experience for their games. I am really good at working with kids. Its a combination of being patient, explain options, warning them of danger, and occasionally ignoring something they said, to smooth everything over. The adventure you run is also important. And I felt regret every time i thought about it.

So seeing a… i dunno… 9 year old? girl coming into the shop, ready for her first foray into my favorite hobby, I decided that the DM that had wiped the kids party, twice, would not teach this one how to play. So I volunteered introduced myself to the girl, and started the task of instruction.

Then the others showed up and I ended up running the first bit of Storm King’s Thunder for a table of 5, 3 of which were probably under 10.

2. Let’s talk about teaching people games. Or even teaching in general. There are a few things that people do when I’m teaching someone that I find super frustrating. And due to me trying to be polite and such, I can’t call people out about it in front of the pupil. Personally, I recognize that these are annoying and can be confusing, so I try to follow these rules, even if it means someone else has to pick up the teacher mantle.

  1. Teach slowly
    D&D is a complicated game. When you stare at it from the start, there is a lot to take in. Just looking at a premade character sheet, there are numbers and words everywhere. It’s even worse if you’re a spellcaster. And while 5e is one of the simplest RPGs, there are still a done of things there. And, that’s not even the rules! A character sheet tells you nothing about actions you can do in and out of combat, how combat works, what ability saves are. Heck, premades don’t even include Spell Attack and Spell Save on the front page!

    There is a whole huge heck of a game to learn all at once. And, as someone who’s taught a lot of new players, they will not pick it all up. You should count yourself lucky if the player can make an attack by themselves by the end of the session (Disclaimer: this is for truly new characters. IF the person has gamed before, no matter what the game, they’ll pick it up quickly. They may not know all the little ins and outs, but they’ll get a quick hang of it. New player, tho…)

    So, once again, relying on my experience in teaching and specifically in teaching games, the best way to do it is to teach slowly. Start them with few options, then slowly increase what they can do. And from what I’ve seen of 5e, the Starter Set (Lost mines of Phandelin) and Storm Kings Thunder are pretty good about being written for cautiously escorting players from noob to experienced. (Not sure about the other adventures.)

  2. Don’t teach from ignorance
    One of more frustrating things is watching someone teaching when they barely know what they’re doing themselves. As I mentioned in the previous point, D&D is complex. And it’s understandable that someone who has mastered a few bits of it feels a swell of competence. But the whole point of these articles (specifically the title) is even I don’t know everything. But I like to think I have a good grasp on what I don’t know. (What’s that? Sarcastic remarks of my know-it-all-it-ness? Genuine concern at my lack of knowledge? Fine. I haven’t played much at higher levels, so there’s classes and spells I don’t know. I’m not good at planning combats, I probably give into players too often, and I pull punches frequently. That enough for ya?)

    Newer players, however, don’t know what they don’t know. D&D is a system with generalities that are superseded by specific exceptions. And if you’ve only played a few characters, say, a fighter and a cleric, you’re not going to be able to give good advice as to how to play as a monk or a rogue, as their specifics are very different than other classes. Also, there’s a slew of rules that may not have come up before. For instance, the players of mine who had played with the previous DM, I don’t think they’ve heard of short rests. Something I’ll have to instruct on next week, I guess.

    And so, if you don’t have a very complete knowledge of how to play, you probably should let the more experienced player take the lead. That’s rarely what happens. In the cases I’ve seen, I’m lucky if a second player doesn’t outright contradict me.

  3. Teach from one voice.
    Have you ever had an assignment at work where a senior co-worker says do X, the boss says do Y, and the handbook says do Z? Which one do you follow? Who is right? Confusing, ain’t it? That’s what it’s like when more than one person tries to teach someone how to play.

    I tend to have a bit of a process when I teach a person to play. I start with the ability scores, then attack workspace and AC, then Hit points and skills. “Everything else, we’ll handle when it comes up.” And I keep an eye on them, sit next to them (even if I’m the DM, I put them next to me) and spend a bit more time making sure they know what they can do and that there are no wrong answers.

    That’s an important bit, in my mind. It’s true of all players, but it’s especially important for new players to know. There may be less than optimal choices, and occasional consequences, but until you know what’s going on in the game, you shouldn’t be afraid to act. Looping back to the first item I did wrong, the adventure the other DM ran did not have soft consequences, and so their less than optimal choices were very punishing. I have yet to examine that adventure from the outside, so I don’t know if it’s WotC or the DM who cause the TPK.

    What I’ve seen happen often with new players is everyone at the table will try to help by teaching snatches of information they think are important. And these snatches tend to be nigh at random, with no central core of details to let the newcomer build naturally on. Life is better for that new player when they have one voice they listen to , one mentor who knows the game well enough to advise them as needed. I did not have that at my table, nor did I have the authority to dictate how the new player should be taught. That comes with time and it was my first week running for that table. Maybe in the future, I’ll have that clout, but not this day.

  4. Let them do it aka Don’t answer for them aka Balancing gameplay/instruction
    Doing is and important part of learning. Everyone knows this, right? Reading about a thing is not acquiring a skill. You need to practice to be able to truly get it.

    So why are people so impatient with new players? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people glance at the new player’s character sheet and tell me what their attack roll was. They rolled a 17 on the die, of course they hit the goblin. But the n00b needs to do that math themselves, to cement where the numbers they need are, to know the steps they need to do for the attack. It’s like if you were teaching someone to play basketball and every time they took a shot at the hoop, you would grab the ball and do a flawless layup or whatever. Then pass it around a bit, before the new player gets the ball again and is encouraged by the whole team to take the shot. Is that shot going to be any better? No, of course not!

    Now, the problem is that teaching someone to play takes time. Some people are faster or only need a refresher, but for the absolute beginners, they need time. Life is actually better if you’re teaching a whole table of new players, because then they are all in the same boat, and, ideally, they’re all paying attention to their fellow n00bs and hopefully get better at understanding how to play at the same rate.

    The problem, though, is when you have a single new player at an experienced table. I’ve been that experienced person before, and it’s painful when people don’t know their numbers and their abilities. It really bogs down the game. And you notice that everyone else’s turns are fast, but the new player’s are slow. and it is oh so tempting to read the number on the die, do the math, report the roll, move the game along. But going down that way is the path of ignorance and enabling.

    And really, because they don’t know their options, when a new player is asked what they do (or what their character does, for added clarity and a veneer of separation), they freeze. And a more experienced player may suggest or recommend an action. Sometimes its just a recommendation. Other times, its not. It’s almost one player playing a second character.

    Really, this is more of one of my pet peeves of asking a question to anyone. Sometimes, I need the answer. In those cases, anyone giving me the answer is fine. But at other times, I need to know what answer the askee would give, and then it’s corrupted by someone else inserting their answers. Gah! So frustrating. Because the moment is often gone and not easy to arrange to have that teaching opportunity again.

    So how do you balance the speed of the game with a slower player, new or not? Well, as I indicated, everyone was a new player, once upon a time. So you can cheat and explain things to the table, telling them that this player is new, sadly slower, and will take a bit of time before they move as smooth as the rest.

    If using your words to the group as a whole is unappealing, take the slower guy aside, make sure they know their sheet. Maybe modify it a bit, so it’s easier for them to understand? WotC’s default sheet does not have Spell Saves and Spell Attacks on the front page, I can’t imagine why it isn’t. Remember, the sheet isn’t the character. The information is the character and having it in a format readily available to the player is more important than having it fit the same lockstep character sheet that everyone else uses.

    Pay attention as well. I had a player once who couldn’t do the math of adding up his dice. It took him ages. So I talked to him about it, learned his situation, and let him use the average instead of rolling and his turns went much quicker.

  5. Always listen

    This seems like a simple one, but it’s trickier than you’d think. New players tend to be a bit more on the reluctant side. And if you have some loud players at your table, or just confident ones, it is very easy for them to be overshadowed. So keep an eye on them. Shush your loud players if you need to (you will). Make sure they know they are part of the game. Because if they’re just sitting next to the game while other people are part of a group, they’ll be less inclined to return the next week to not play again.

I want to point out that you don’t need to be a DM to apply these tips. It helps if everyone at the table recognizes what needs done, but even if you’re just a player, you can take a new person under your wing and let them feel included.

So, back to the game I ran, I don’t have a copy of the adventure this season of adventure’s league is based on. Not for lack of trying. I would have bought it, but the shop didn’t have it. What I did have on me, however, is my trusty copy of Storm King’s Thunder. So I ran Nightstone, the opening adventure in it. I need to go and 3. Take notes to improve the adventure straight into the book. There’s a lot of goblins in odd places in Nightstone, but they don’t index the information well. Goblins in 4c are supposed to be reinforced from 2a or something, but it doesn’t say that at 4c, where the fight is happening, but at 2a, when its too late to reinforce the battle.

Really, I ought to rewrite the whole first chapter. There are parts of it I like, but parts of it that I really, really don’t like. I’ve talked a bit about this place before, probably here or so. I’ll be using my notes to rewrite the second part, for sure.

I think though, all in all, it went fairly well. It sure ran differently than the last time I ran it, that’s for sure. Another thing I did wrong was a mistake in surprise. With a table full of new players, I let someone have advantage, when really, they should have just had surprise. And I didn’t realize what I had done until after the game, after a full hour of asking if they had advantage because of surprise. So I’m sure I’ll need to gently correct that in the future. If you’re going to pull punches for new players, do it by the rules so they don’t build false expectations.

I think though, other than that, I ran a good game. They enjoyed it, I tried to give good screen time to all players, and I received a lot of thanks from the players. It would not bother me at all to become the designated Junior Table DM for the game store. I’ll be prepared to run for that table on Wednesday (losing out on some precious DM XP) but it should be okay, methinks. It’d be fun, at least. And the more prep I do, the better any game I make in the future will be. Because that’s how it goes.

I also ran for my family this weekend. I’ll do a post on that soonish. I just wanted to get this on out of the way.



Join the Conversation

1 Comment

  1. Matt, what a well-written article. As a member of the forementioned group, I can’t thank you enough for making it so enjoyable for the kids.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *