Teaching a New Game: A Matter of Need To Know

Another one for RPG Blog Carnival.

The most intimidating thing about a new player joining a game, particularly an old game, is the knowledge barrier—not only for the newbie, who has to absorb all the requisite information, but for whoever brought the newbie in, usually the GM. After all, that’s the one who has to make sure the newbie is safely integrated with the rest of the group. So the challenge becomes, what exactly does the newbie need to know—and more importantly, what does she need to know that she needs to know?

First, there’s the question of mechanics: how much of it is actually required knowledge. Yes, in a perfect world, everyone knows exactly what all their skills do and enough of the rest of the world’s mechanics to manage tactically without making the GM’s life too difficult or turning into a killer rules-lawyer. But that’s a perfect world, and what’s sitting in front of you right now might well be someone who has trouble visualizing what the rules mean, who’s made the mistake of going for the most complex part of the system because it fits her concept, who has one week before game begins and too busy a schedule to study, a combination of the above, and/or who knows what other factors. And it’s different, in different games. In a rules-light game, knowing the rules isn’t near as important. If there’s someone else who’s both willing and able to handle the tricky stuff, it isn’t so bad for the newbie not to have everything memorized. And of course, there’s the question of whether any given character actually needs to know what the other PCs’ mechanics do, though I do find it helps.

Then there’s the setting. If you’re dealing with a setting that is itself a product of someone else’s work (pretty likely, given how common they are these days), there’s going to be background materials, ranging from “just enough to keep a person busy on a long flight” to the masses of books that spawn the old gamer lament, “Drugs would be cheaper.” And if you can lean on those, it’s safe to say that you can probably also boil them down to the important, necessary bits. Since the game’s set in this region, it’s vital to know these big names. Being familiar with this historical event also helps. Your characters are likely to know how these, these and these enemies work, and how to spot these sorts of people; the rest will be some form of knowing-things check at the appropriate time. And it’d be good to know what these two religions are, they’ll be useful later…..

On the other hand, if you’re doing any amount of creation (and even in a canon world, you probably are), you’re going to need to make sure that any newbie knows what’s special about this world. What’s important to know, and not just assume you know. In a pre-existing world, this is likely to be the places where it diverges from the standard setting information; being at a different point in the timeline, an event not happening or happening differently, another event being added, major characters being removed or inserted, you get the idea. It might also be somewhat more subtle, like different interpretations of existing characters. On a world of your own, it’s likely to be things that seem to contradict your overall themes, or ones that contradict whatever stereotypes and archetypes you find yourself struggling against. Either way, if the character would take the knowledge for granted, the player should know.

Last, but not least, is an entirely IC consideration: ensuring that the player knows what she’s getting herself into. What kinds of people are going to be filling the rest of the slots? What overall tone and style is it supposed to take, and what kinds of situations crop up? Is this a novellish game, a sandboxy one; if not, where in between? Is the average conflict likelier to be an Option A or Option B situation? What are the relative importances of local color and hard mechanics?

Wisest may be one who knows that she knows nothing, but for someone coming into a new game or system, knowing what she needs to know may serve just as well in a pinch. This should make it easier.

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