Introducing RPGs

Getting the uninitiated to play a role-playing game can be a daunting task. Honestly, having a group of people regularly do any activity is a logistical nightmare. Our modern lives are so chaotic; finding available people able to engage in meaningful social experiences is a blessing. Sharing this hobby with others is a wonderful experience and well worth overcoming a couple inherent challenges. Here’s our guide to clearing common hurdles with new role players.

The elephant in your gaming room is going to be the inherent stigma associated with role-playing games. There is a stereotype of antisocial neckbeards playing Dungeons and Dragons in their parents’ basements while eating Cheetos and chugging Mountain Dew. It’s silly. Even when I was a high-school aged, nerdy virgin, our D&D sessions were far more engaging and fun on a interpersonal level than most barroom drinking sessions I’ve done.

The first step to convincing people RPGs are for everyone is removing this stereotype. Sell gaming as a social experience: honestly describe your sessions. Talk about the absurdity of plots, the logical challenges, the heroic moments, and the spectacular failures. Make your play environment welcoming. Have drinks, food, comfy chairs, room to pace around, whatever people need. Promote the game as an excuse to hang out with friends.

I’d pitch an earlier session of mine to newcomers: “The four of us met up at my place after work. We opened a few beers, I made dinner, we reminded each other what happened last week, and started playing. My character left off sneaking behind some crazy zombie dude; he used to be in our group before Chad over there shoved him out of a plane. Now he was acting super evil and turned the nearby planation into a graveyard. His kid was nearby, so I figured he was responsible. We knocked out the kid, killed his dad (again), and headed back to the prison to meet up with Zack, err, Bonesaw. In this little break, our GM started texting a lady friend, so the rest of us began spamming sexts to each other. Once he got the point, we flashed over to Bonesaw holding off a demon army single-handedly with his crowbar of justice. I had the brilliant plan to shove a brick on our vehicle’s gas pedal and jump out on to their leader while the truck careened into the army. Apparently, I never noticed the alignment issue and the truck flaccidly drive off to the right. Regardless, we saved Bonesaw and lived to fight another day.”

Once you’ve convinced people of the positive social nature of RPG’s, the comradery and teamwork from getting together and chatting about a different world, they might begin to worry about the mechanics and complexity of such a game. This is particularly true if your friend doesn’t play any modern board or video games.

Initially, you’ll need to sell these people on the narrative nature of the game. Depending on the game, the rules for play can be introduced slowly and glossed over when they start playing. Setup a campaign that has a simple starting goal and, if combat is a part of the game, a basic tutorial-esque fight. I like escaping from a prison as a base point. It’s a simple enough premise and no one wants to remain a prisoner, so they’ll be forced to progress. I like having a non-playing character provide a plan to players and give them a couple scenarios. The players weigh choices, maybe come up with something different, and proceed. Moreover, it gets players talking to each other about something in the game.

Now, the other difficulty for new players is character creation. Every system has different complexity levels, but for most this is the most complicated part of the game. It’s usually because this is the most choices a player have with regards to the game’s mechanics and it comes at a point when none of those mechanics have been used.

Sit down with new players and walk them through everything. My starting question is always, “who do you want to be?” For Catalyst, I’ll give a couple examples like, gun-slinging blood mage or fast-talking illusionist. If they give you an answer, adapt it to the game. If not, just ask at each step what they want: what sex is your character, what age, how do they fight, etc. Be liberal in your advice; don’t let them make a character that’s either useless or hard to play. Help them make a character that will be invaluable to the party. Damage dealers are my default starter characters because their impact on the game is obvious.

Finally, make sure your new players are actually playing. During social scenes, prompt for their input. During combat, let them mulligan bad choices. Don’t let experienced players dominate the scenes. If possible, have your story be skewed against experienced players. I enjoy making the early enemies have all the counters to whatever skills my most veteran player has.

Do be aware role playing isn’t for everyone. Like any hobby, there is a certain mindset required. You can guide people to it and shine gaming in a favorable light, but there’s always someone who just won’t enjoy it. Hang out with them elsewhere. For your new gaming buddies, enjoy an evening of laughter, intense debate, adult beverages, and the unique friendship that comes from knowing someone better by their character name.

Party Dynamics

Catalyst’s manual features six sample characters that players can read about and be inspired by. These were sponsored by Kickstarter backers eager to share their ideas. We ended up with an interesting mix: Bonesaw the pro-wrestler, Brad Swagger the action movie star, Chad the illusionist frat bro, Gianna the assassin pizza cook, Rhys the survivalist demon hunter, and Tucker the naïve college student. All six have portraits, biographies, and filled-in character sheets in the game manual to help new players get a feeling for playing Catalyst. These characters all explore different skills, magics, and tactics for Catalyst characters. They would also make a curious party.

There is a lot to consider when making a character. You need to think about their strengths and weaknesses, their history and goals, their temperament and mannerisms, and all the little things making them a compelling “person” instead of a vehicle for rolling dice. Just as important as the character is their role in the group. Role playing games are social and having the right dynamics transforms a session from a game to an experience.

The first thing to focus on (and too often the only thing to be acknowledged) is ensuring the characters have complimentary skills. In the sample party, Bonesaw and Gianna are close-range melee fighters. Rhys and Tucker have firearms skill to add ranged support, and Chad and Swagger have spells to assist in either scenario. Some are charismatic, others intelligent, some just plain strong. Bonesaw is an excellent fighter, but would fail when discretion is required. Gianna and Chad’s stealth skill and illusion magic compensate for their ally’s shortcomings. A party will always have some holes, but figuring out the worst deficiencies and adding characters to compensate is a good start.

Having a cohesive party is not only about mechanics, but personalities as well. Part of this derives from the characters’ attributes: who is smart or charming is mostly determined by stats. Another part is purely story. Why would the hyper-competent Rhys work with the unjustifiably arrogant Brad Swagger? Perhaps Rhys is the only person Brad admits his shortcomings to and is seeking actual training. Or maybe Brad coincidentally saved Rhys’s life and the hero owes the fraud a favor. Not answering such lingering questions leaves a party feeling incomplete at best and damaging to the story at worst.

Finally, it is important to consider the characters in terms of their egos and archetypes.  Bonesaw is a larger-than-life figure while Tucker is someone you feel like you would encounter both in reality and in the apocalypse. Either could be played straight or comically. The delivery of the characters is important to consider when designing a party. Having everyone role play as a joke character may be humorous at first, but prove detrimental when trying to advance the plot. Likewise, a group of straight-laced, hyper-serious characters may be dull to play and encourage little drama or adversity. In comedy, the goofy character needs the straightman to be funny. The same applies to role playing: Chad’s bro-antics are less interesting if no one is exasperated by them.

When players create characters with complimentary abilities, personalities, and deliveries, an RPG story flows smoothly. You see players talking to each other and working together, instead of stepping on one another’s toes. The Catalyst sample characters were born from different personalities, desires, and gameplay styles. In a real game, they would go swimmingly together.