Confessions of a D&D Newbie
Recently, I've found myself in the unusual situation of being an experienced gamer with little experience in the game my primary group is playing - and that game happens to be D&D. Many gamers take D&D experience for granted in their new players, which can cause groups to run into trouble when that isn't the case for some players. These are a few of my experiences as a D&D newbie; knowing about them may help you when dealing with new players.
I have something kind of embarrassing to admit to all of you: I don't really know that much about D&D. Sure, I own the books and have played a few sessions and small-scale games here and there at conventions (as well as racking a fair bit of experience with the Star Wars d20 system), but due to falling in with gaming groups who spent most of their time in the old World of Darkness, I managed to spend the first ten years of my gaming career with hardly any "table time" as a D&D gamer. It wasn't until my primary gaming group recently began a large-scale D&D 3.0 campaign after more than seven years of playing in the Storyteller system that I was forced to step outside of my "roll Dex + Firearms" comfort zone and begin to explore the wide world of the world's first RPG.
As the campaign began, I didn't see any reason for concern about the change in systems. Epic fantasy settings aren't normally to my taste (I much prefer a modern fantasy, horror, or sci-fi game), but with a group as good as mine I figured I would get past my lack of experience quickly and soon be just as comfortable in D&D as I was in WoD. So I'm quite surprised to note that about three months after the beginning of the campaign, I'm still getting acclimated to the game system and finding my feet as a D&D player.
I don't think my situation is all that unusual.
Although you might be surprised to learn about my lack of D&D experience, I don't think my situation is all that unusual. Many segments of the gaming community still take D&D/d20 familiarity for granted, but a growing number of gamers - often women and younger players - are coming to gaming through a path that started with something other than rolling 3d6 for stats. Even otherwise experienced gamers can be clueless when it comes to D&D - and chances are that if you're at all serious about keeping a D&D group together in the long term, you will eventually have to induct someone into your group who's barely played the game before. In the interest of making the gaming hobby more welcoming for everyone (and helping you to keep new players once you've attracted them), I though I'd talk here about a few of the aspects of D&D that I've struggled with, and how you might approach them as a player or a DM if you ever find yourself with inexperienced D&D players who feel the same as I do.
Character generation and advancement. One of the hardest things for me to get accustomed to in D&D has been the need to look ahead to the future while building a character. Certainly it's a good idea to think about your character's future advancement in every game, but it's much easier to wing it from week to week in a game system like WoD, buying up skills or powers as demanded by the situation and not thinking too far beyond your character's immediate needs. Not so with D&D. The less flexible system of level-based advancement means that a bad build starting out is likely to screw your character over for the entire duration of the game, unlike WoD where it's easy to go back and pick up missing skills once you realize you need them. What's more, it was hard for me to remember that I had to be looking ahead to my prestige class while generating a first-level character, in order to make sure I would have all the prerequisites to do what I wanted later on. Although 4e looks as though it may ameliorate some of these problems, D&D's character creation system still strikes me as rather unforgiving of mistakes, which can be off-putting to new players. So make sure to give your new D&D players as much guidance as they want or need during chargen, and to offer suggestions about how to optimize their characters (without taking over their concept, of course). If you're a DM, you might also want to consider touching base with your players after the first session, and letting them shuffle skill points or even feats around if it turns out that what looked good to them on paper doesn't translate so well around the table.
Systems in general. d20 is a fairly straightforward system, all things considered, and from what I've seen of 4e so far it's been streamlined even more. Yet it's still easy to feel overwhelmed by all the possibilities for races, classes, and feats, particularly if you're bringing third-party sourcebooks into the mix. The same goes for combat; going from WoD's rather simplistic fighting system to the world of miniatures, hex mats, flanking, and attacks of opportunity proved very jarring and confusing for me, particularly since the number-crunching bit of gaming has never been my forte. When dealing with new players, then, it's best to go slow to avoid confusing them. That's not to say that you should dumb D&D down, but you should definitely make sure that your new players have a solid grasp of the "attack bonus vs. AC" basics before complicating the issue with things like grapple checks, crazy spells, or environmental modifiers. I'm also very grateful for the fact that my current DM has extensively limited our choices by going so far as to give us a list of allowed races and classes and to not permit anything else. You can always add in more options as the campaign progresses and evolves, but I know that it really helped me to pick between only about 8 races and 10 classes instead of wading through dozens of sourcebooks looking for the perfect combination.
Personally, I'm not a fan of D&D's alignment system
Alignment. This is a thorny issue even for experienced D&D players, and for newbies it can be downright incomprehensible. Personally, I'm not a fan of D&D's alignment system; though I understand its tradition and its place in D&D, coming from a fairly freeform WoD background it strikes me as an overly limiting and reductionistic way of defining a character. (I have similar gripes about the "virtue and vice" system used in the revised World of Darkness, but that's an article for another day.) But all personal gripes aside, I think I would have found alignment much easier to adjust to if its importance (or, in the case of my game, the lack thereof) had been made known right away. Most of the D&D material I had read prior to my new campaign spoke of alignment as a crucial part of the character, something that should always be on your mind as you roleplay. In practice, the truth was very different.
For example, in my current D&D game, the DM's world has nine gods, each controlling one alignment - gotta love the classics! The gods and the church exercise a huge amount of control over the gameworld; in fact, a major part of the campaign's backstory has to do with a failed revolt against the church on behalf of arcane magic wielders, and the devastating consequences of the resulting war. After reading up on how the gods were so powerful that they could literally call down lightning on blasphemers at any minute over any incidents of deity-related trash-talk, I came to the first session ready to play my Lawful Good fighter to the hilt. No gods would be smiting me that day, even if I had to play my character like she had a gigantic stick up her ass in order to accomplish that! So I was quite confused when my DM asked me a few sessions later, "Why are you so worried about keeping within your character's alignment? You can lie and stuff if you want. It's not like you're playing a paladin." I was extremely surprised to learn that despite the dire and inflexible-sounding backstory of the world, the experienced D&D players in my group still saw alignment as a guideline, and that I didn't have to worry about any smitings anytime soon. Again, this could be a personal shortcoming rather than a universal issue experienced by new D&D players, or just a case of poor communication, but it certainly never hurts for a DM to make his alignment-related preferences and attitudes known explicitly to the whole group.
Setting and world. This brings me to my next point: Defining and describing a colorful and detailed game world is good. Not only does it aid in good roleplaying, it cuts down on the confusion detailed in the previous two sections by giving your players a good idea of what to expect and what characters will be a good fit with the story you're trying to tell. My gaming experience means that while I can churn out a character for a modern-day setting quickly and reliably, and have a good time playing her. Not so in D&D; I found it challenging to come up with a character concept who would avoid the traditional fantasy cliches while also being fun to play and fitting into the setting and story. DMs, this is where clearly defining the history, culture, and facts of your game world, perhaps by writing up a document that contains this information, will really help your players. It will help everyone, not just new players, to have access to a ready-made source of character concept ideas by understanding the different factions and groups that populate your game world.
Experienced players might also want to think about a implementing sort of "adopt a newbie" program. If you notice that your new D&D gamer seems overwhelmed or confused about what sort of character to play, offer to tie your character concepts together and play friends, siblings, or partners in crime. This makes it easier for new players to make a character that fits with the setting, as well as provide them with a ready-made source of character interactions. (And just for the record, this advice works for pretty much any game, not just D&D!)
Player expectations. In D&D as in any game, it's important for the DM to consider what the players want and try to give it them. But it's equally important for players to come in with a good understanding of what the campaign will be like, so they don't end up angry or disappointed to be playing something different from what they wanted or expected. Sometimes, the chasm between expectations and reality ends up impossibly large, and it's up to the group and particularly the DM to bridge that gap. When my group embarked on its D&D endeavor, I assumed that the campaign wouldn't be very different from our past WoD games - deep, talky, immersive, light on combat, heavy on character interaction and plot investigation. Imagine my surprise, then, when our characters spent at least as much time in the first session fighting two jackals as they did talking to each other, and post-game discussion trended more toward "this cool feat I'm going to pick up next level" than the ins and outs of the plot, as it previously had. The truth is, each game system encourages a certain style of play. This isn't a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a fact that gamers often overlook - and assuming that switching systems wouldn't also switch the group dynamic can lead to problems further down the road. Make sure that everyone, especially less experienced players, knows exactly what they're getting into before the game begins.
Overall, my experience as a D&D newbie has been mixed.
In the case of D&D, this often means making new players aware of the importance of proper character design, and how what works for one game often doesn't work for another. In the World of Darkness games (the new ones in particular), it's often prudent to spread your skill points around broadly, making your character a jack of all trades. Most of you already know that following the same strategy in D&D is a recipe for disaster, or at least an extremely underpowered character. So much of the enjoyment of D&D is combat-based, and nothing leads to frustration more quickly than trying to have fun in a new game with a character who simply was not built to work with the game. I was fortunate in that I'm an experienced gamer in general, and my forays into Star Wars d20 enabled me to make these mistakes earlier on (in the form of a comically inept Jedi Guardian), so my current fighter is pretty good at what she does. Still, as mentioned before, not everyone is so lucky, and a little guidance throughout the process of character creation is likely to save your new players a lot of grief further on down the road.
Overall, my experience as a D&D newbie has been mixed. I'm happy and excited to be trying something new, but it can also be frustrating to feel as though I'm coming in half-blind and crippled because my gaming journey started in a different place. With any luck, the next time I talk to you about D&D, it'll be from the perspective of a totally happy and experienced player. I'm definitely in this game for the long haul; it's just going to take some time to get to where I'm going. Until then, I'd love to hear your suggestions in the "comments" section about what you've done to help new D&D players find their feet in a new system. Together, we can continue to make gaming a little more welcoming for everyone, regardless of where they got started.