Intro to D&D Test Run

Friday night I ran a test-run of my Intro to D&D game for some friends at at work.  Here’s a quick brain dump of how that went:

What Went Well

  • Plenty of players – I overbooked as I fully expected a couple people to flake.  In fact, for scheduling I used the site whenisgood.net, and the initial results showed no more than half the interested players were available at any given time.  And yet somehow, once scheduled, all but one showed up and we even had a few last-minute extras.  All told I had 9 players at the table.
  • Diverse group – Remember how this idea started?  The point of this first game was simply to test the pacing and mechanics of running a teaching game, so I didn’t particularly try to target a diverse player base.  I posted on our our public company-wide channel asking for players who had “never played, haven’t played for a long time, or could at least pretend they don’t know the difference between a d4 and a d6”.  I got about as diverse a crowd as our company can offer – including 4 women, and at least 3 players who had no background in tabletop RPGs at all.  Not bad for employees of a New England video game company.
  • Opening with light roleplay – The hook for the adventure is that the players are the first to arrive at a tiny village within a day’s walk of the dungeon site which is well known to contain a certain fabulous treasure.  Think tiny town caught up in the gold rush.  I start with the players arriving at the village’s only tavern, where I introduce the tavern keeper as a very gregarious but forgetful fellow.  As he learns of the player’s interest in the dungeon he makes an effort to introduce them to each other, but can’t remember anyone’s name or profession.  There’s some funny play-acting in here for me, and it lets me rope the players into doing likewise as they help the poor sod introduce themselves.  It’s a fairly simple opener, but everyone seemed to enjoy it and it got the game rolling and the players roleplaying with each other.
  • Dice – It’s a small thing, but I bought baggies of pre-packaged dice sets for each player.  Not only did pretty much all my players need dice, several of them needed the info on what the different dice were.  Having this all ready to go without requiring any thought or time sifting through dice at the table was great.
  • Caller – I asked them to nominate a caller and explained what it was.  In fact, I never had to lean on the caller at all, they were pretty good at keeping things moving.  Despite this, I think acknowledging that disagreement or debate at the table was likely to come up may have helped set their expectations, and having someone who felt like it was their job to keep the group moving probably also slightly influence play.

What Went Not-So-Well

  • Too many players – I know, kind of lame to list this both in the well and not so well.  I hate turning people away from the table so I ran with a table of 9 players.  I think it only really worked because some people at the table did have a little more experience than others and could fill in the gaps.  If I assume I really do have to teach the entire group all the basics, I should probably cap it at 6.
  • Making characters – Sigh.  I knew this was going to be touchy.  I scheduled the first hour for this and it actually took about that much time.  Despite all the extra material I created (pre-packaged equipment sets, pages outlining the options for race and class, etc.), it still took forever.  I forgot about a lot of the little things, like explaining ability score vs. modifier, and calculating things like HP, AC, and weapon stats.  I think there is something to having players make characters, but I just don’t think it’s worth it for a one-shot 4 hour game.  I will probably try the next one with pre-gens.
  • Rumors too rare – After our roleplay scene I had the players roll for collecting rumors.  They did very poorly, and only a single one was discovered.  I later realized that I had put some very important guidance and info in those rumors, and not having any of it was hurting the party.  I think maybe I need to just hand them out, or at least make the rolls much easier so more get distributed.
  • Confusing passageways – There’s one spot in the dungeon with some confusing twisted natural passageways.  I had two players stumbling through them and getting very confused and perhaps a bit frustrated.  This would probably be better handled by simply narrating that the passageway is twisted and confusing, while not actually asking the players to make any real decisions.  Effectively the passageway could be straight on the map, and just flavored as confusing through description without actually confusing the players.
  • Splitting the party – When this first came up, I was candid with the group and told them that they could totally do this, but that it would split my attention and would mean half the group of players would be sitting idle at any time while I dealt with the other half.  I actually liked the opportunity to give that info and they chose not to split.  However, towards the end of the game they figured screw it, and actually fragmented into three groups.  It got rather chaotic.  Though this may just be a symptom of the next item…
  • Dungeon still too big – I liked the idea of having a much larger dungeon than they could possibly explore so the players would get the impression of it being a massive world and maybe whet their appetites for wanting to come back.  Unfortunately, just as they were about to close in on their goal the party got spooked and split up going in three wildly different directions, all away from their goal.  The last half hour of play was fragmented and we ended due to time constraint with no real feeling of resolution.

Other Thoughts

  • Level – We played with 1st level characters, and I’m still not sure if that’s the right choice.  The magic-users are very weak at this level, and it’s super disappointing to discover you only have one whopping spell.  On the other hand, I don’t want to overwhelm the players with too much by starting them very high level.  If I go the route of pre-gens, I may bump it to 2nd.  I think that will also help not make the multi-class elves feel over-powered, assuming they end up as a level 2/1 character.
  • Dungeon edits – I’ll probably cut a couple rooms.  I’m also contemplating closing off the lower levels to encourage the players into actually reaching the goal and getting out.  Maybe an impossible-to-open door or a too high to climb vertical decent will give the impression of more without actually allowing them down into the depths?
  • Post-mort – If possible, I’d like to actually leave some time at the end for players to talk about the game and ask follow-up questions.  Of course in this practice run I knew my pacing would be off and we’d be likely to be playing up to the last minute, and devoting a bunch of time to character generation also makes this difficult.  Still, I’d like to make it my goal to end at least 15-30 minutes before the time is up so we can talk about the game.
  • Real time – I should probably make sure the players are aware of the actual game time remaining.  Maybe even a hard rule of “if you don’t leave the dungeon by X real clock time, your character is never heard from again.”  I’m just thinking something to keep the game from spiraling out of control at the end and perhaps give the players an excuse to cut and run even if they haven’t reached the final goal.

Well, there you have it.  I’m actually already scheduled to run this for a real group next weekend, so hopefully a second data point will help.  Also I got a great idea from one of my players for another opportunity to run this game – PAX East.  As a convention with a focus on video games but also some tabletop present, it’s pretty likely to have folks who have heard of D&D and are curious, but have never actually played.  So, hopefully some more data points and refinements soon!

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11 Comments

  1. That sounds great. It really warms my heart that the caller nomination was used and helped set expectations at the start. I can totally see making 2nd level PCs and having them be pre-generated. My experience with new players, as wonderful as it is, is that you just can’t get the PC generation below an hour or two. (Some long-time players will incessantly argue this point, but they don’t knw what they’re talking about.)

    Re, twisty tunnels: Maybe shove the Rappan Athuk maze sections at them, while they also smoke a whole pack at once, so they never complain again.

  2. Hi Paul–I’ve been wanting to learn D&D for a long long time. Rick Lawson shared this link with me. Any way I could get in touch with you? I’d love to join.

  3. @Dan C.:
    @Dan – Yeah, I allowed an hour for character generation which was exactly how long it took us. I think had the group been only 6 people and had I modified the dungeon to encourage staying on the first floor, we would have gotten it all done in time. Despite all this, I’m not sure it’s worth it. I think I’d rather have the extra time to explore more and/or have a debrief at the end of the game. I’m working up some pre-gens now.

  4. @Erin:
    Hey Erin, to be clear, this is a one-off game not on on-going campaign. My intention is to run this many times at many places to teach as many new people as I can. You’re very welcome to join in. I think the next one will be at Excelsior Games in Maynard on the 16th, I’m still chatting with the folks over there to get the final details nailed down.

    If you hit the “Contact Me” button up on the top bar of this site and send me your email address, I’ll be happy to keep you updated. Or watch this site, or connect on FB, any of that is fine.

  5. Another option (re: start level) might be to give the magic-users some one-shot potions or scrolls. This also somewhat balances out the dearth of useful equipment for them to spend their starting money on.

  6. Congrats on a successful first pass. 🙂

    The friendly but forgetful tavern keeper is brilliant! Gonna keep that one in my back pocket if I ever want to run an intro game. (Also a great tool for establishing A: The level of roleplay you want to encourage and B: some of the character of the world.)

    Regarding character generation, I feel ya. I recall my Gamma World game of a couple Helgacons ago that was essentially an awesome 4 hour character generation session with only a nub of actual game play before the time ran out.

    Perhaps a solution is to strike the middle ground between at the table generation and pre-gens, and do a partial pre-gen. Recall that excellent Spirit of the Century game we all were in at one of the Gen Cons we went to, where the characters were mostly done save for some open spaces for aspects that the player could fill in. I also experienced a similar idea at a GenCon Mutants and Masterminds game where all the characters were made save for 20 points that the players could allocate at will.

    Maybe you could look at what aspects of character creation you’d like to educate them about, and tailor your partial pre-gens such that filling in those gaps is instructional for your new players, while still keeping it light and easy on decision making. Like have ’em roll stats and HP’s and just slot ’em in to pre-made class sheets with the abilities, saves, and equipment pre done.

  7. Also, regarding timekeeping, the idea of having an hourglass on the table (like, literally a 1 hour sand timer) might be a good way to go for con games. I was just looking at Amazon and you can get ’em in a variety of styles for less than $25 bux. I couldn’t find any 4 hour sandglasses, but still it might be a good, generally non-intrusive way to keep an eye on the time.

    1. It may be fast for players used to roleplaying, but for complete newbies that’s still a lot of concepts to teach. Having run this game both ways now, I’d say my preference is to bring pre-generated characters and explain the parts of the character as we play. It gets them into the act of playing the game faster, and then as they become comfortable they can figure out nuances like the difference between an ability and an ability modifier, or that lower armor class is better.

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