Several Tips for new tabletop gamers [pandemic edition]

A couple of years ago, in this very space, I offered some hopefully helpful advice for people dipping their toes into the waters of playing table-top roleplaying games (ttrpgs) like Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition.

With D&D seeing its best years in history, there are more people than ever before trying things out, but for many of those people it’s in a way that’s definitely unusual for the “old school” players out there.

I’m talking, of course, of playing D&D online.

Thanks to platforms like YouTube and Twitch, and professional streamed D&D campaigns like Critical Role, it seems like you can pretty much find a group streaming their online RPG campaign at any hour. (I’ve personally tested this around the clock).

But enough of a preamble, I’m going to jump right into some tips and tricks that hopefully make things more enjoyable for you, encourage you to keep playing, and possibly help prevent you from feeling overwhelmed and lost.

TIP 1: Your expectations, manage them.

I’m talking directly here to people who have experienced the joy of watching Matthew Mercer, Satine Phoenix, or Deborah Ann Woll run their respective games on an online platform.

Each of these campaigns features extremely high production value, rarely any technical issues, and people who are literally paid to act out roles. If you’re new to playing, or new to DMing, it’s 100% acceptable to learn from what you watch and experience as a Critical Role fan and viewer, but I can tell you, with over 30 years of experience under my belt, the number of Dungeon Masters or Game Masters that I’ve encountered of their caliber are few and far between.

I’ve personally received accolades and perfect judge scores on tabletops biggest stages (GenCon, DragonCon, et al.) and I’ve run games for well over 1000 players (usually complete strangers). While the CR folks might not know the rules as well as I do, or many of the people who have sat at my table, their acting ability far surpasses anything I’m both capable of, or have experienced from players.

Bottom line, don’t go into a game expecting it to be just like Critical Role. (Google: The Mercer effect, if you’re interested in reading other opinions on this — including Matts)

TIP 2: My Guy Syndrome.

This one, honestly, is huge. It’s so huge it should probably have been the first tip, and it’s something I have a fair bit to say about.

So, what is My Guy syndrome? Well, sometimes it’s honest and innocent, sometimes it’s deliberate, but it’s always the most toxic behaviour you can bring to a table.

Here’s the scenario: The party encounters a desperate group of lost and wounded faerie-folk, with an injured unicorn — cautiously, and sensing some good in the party, they approach and ask for help. As the party discusses what they can do, and who should speak on the parties behalf, the Chaotic Neutral Thief pick-pockets one of the faefolk, then another, but gets caught on the second attempt.

The party, completely blindsided by this behaviour, and universally disapproving of it, is thrust into an awkward position, both in-character (IC) and out of character (OOC). Depending on how well they know this player, their reactions might range from awkward un-comfort, to a rounding chorus of “WTF dude?”

Our “My Guy” stoically turns to the party and says, “Look, it’s what my guy would do.”

And right we’ve got the problem in a nutshell.

Look: If you want to play an anti-social psychopath, who is quirky, sullen, and unpredictable, then what you’re looking for are Single-Player computer RPGs. The massive mistake you’re making with the choice to play this kind of character is your assumption that you have the right to impose this toxic, disruptive behaviour on your other players.

Unless you’ve all determined that you’re playing the kind of game where this is expected or even encouraged (a game where everyone is evil, for example), Dungeons & Dragons expects that your characters are *heroes*, or at the very least aspirational to one day become heroes.

The My Guy who steals from people, whether the friendly NPC they’ve just met, another party member, or the caravan you’re supposed to be guarding through orc infested lands, isn’t being quirky or interesting; they’re being disruptive and probably annoying the rest of the party, regardless of whether or not they’re willing to speak up.

The My Guy who always shoots first and asks questions later because they’re a loose cannon, a rebel, an anti-social loner who does what he wants and takes no shit from anyone…absolutely SUCKS for everyone else to have to deal with.

The problem is for *many* new players, these are the exact kind of characters they think will be interesting and fun to play with, but in reality it’s exhausting for your party, and you may very quickly find yourself alienating other people from wanting to play with you.

My personal advice here, try to make sure your character is as open and freeform to meshing with whatever and whoever the other characters in your party are bringing to the table. I strongly encourage you to discuss parts of your character with everyone else and try to ensure that you have a party that is both well rounded and fun to play — a party of 5 wizards might sound cool, but a party of 5 first level wizards isn’t a challenge I’d recommend for a group of new players, and you’re going to be seriously handicapped compared to a well rounded group; quite possibly beyond your groups means to handle as inexperienced new comers.

TIP 3: Plan for downtime discussions.

“Downtime” is something I first encountered as a gamer when I ventured into LARPing (Live Action Role Playing), but it’s equally as useful for standard table-top RPGs.

Essentially it’s a period of time set aside for either player to player interaction, or more commonly player to DM interaction; wherein you have the opportunity to engage in activities that are both time consuming, but also time monopolizing.

For example: Your character wants to go and have a 20 minute conversation with a Librarian about a subject that’s important to them.

Now, if this happens during your game, of which mine run an average of 4 hours, taking 20 minutes of one on one time with your DM, leaving everyone else just sitting there, isn’t going to go over well with everyone. Try to make sure you balance your time between your players, and limit the amount of one on one time people monopolize the DM.

My personal preference is to have players allotted a number of “time units” that they can use to engage in activities, from crafting, to earning gold, to researching, to the adventures that the whole party goes on together.

Of course, not every DM or player group has time to set aside for additional interaction after their game sessions, so another possibility is to conduct this via email — point form, simple, and direct.

I encourage players to avoid splitting the party up too much whenever possible, especially for long periods of time. With the number of distractions available these days you’re very likely to have players check out and start scrolling their phones if you’re busy describing in painstaking detail the style of hair cut you want your character to have from the marvelous NPC barber.

TIP 4: Don’t overwhelm your new players with impossible tasks.

A very common mistake I’ve seen new game masters is assign staggering difficulties for dice rolls, or have players roll for absolutely everything.

Passive skills are designed exactly for this, but you should also consider expanding passive checks to include all other skills and abilities.

The basic Difficulty Class (DC) from the dungeon masters guide goes as follows: Very Easy DC 5, Easy DC 10, Moderate DC 15, Hard DC 20, Very Hard DC 25, Nearly Impossible DC 30.

Table of DC’s for 5th Edition D&D

With this as the formula going forward, a “very easy” task is quite quickly something that player should be able to auto-succeed at. First level characters, especially Rogues, can easily have +5 on certain skill checks, but a party of 1st level adventurers shouldn’t be facing DC 20 checks on the regular; it’s overwhelming and not really fun.

Try to find ways to help your players creatively succeed, not an endless number of ways for your players to fail.

TIP 5: New player rebuilds are an important tool.

Many groups and organized D&D campaigns allow players to rework or completely rebuild their characters as many times as they want (usually between sessions) until they reach level 4.

I can’t stress how important this is enough.

New players, especially those who made their first characters alone or with minimal help, will often make hobbling, brutal mistakes when making their own characters — some of the best/worst ones I’ve seen in recent years?

Not assigning the right attributes with the right points, essentially making it impossible for your character to do what their role in the group is (a Fighter who puts their points into Intelligence and Charisma, instead of combat stats, or a Rogue who doesn’t take any of the skills that let them do their expected rogue actions)

1st level Ranger who goes the melee route, and takes Dragons as their favoured enemy. Honestly this one happens more often than you’d think, and while it’s wonderful for flavour, you’re hobbling yourself. As a melee ranger you’re going to be squishy and a liability to your level 1 party, and while picking Dragons as your 1st level favoured enemy is great for backstory, you’re never going to be facing dragons at that level, and you’re doing yourself a disserve not picking something you’re far more likely to fight at 1st level (Undead, Humans, Orcs, Goblins are all good choices).

Making a horribly anti-social, grouchy, insane character, strangely with a highly unbelievable, completely un-roleplayed massive charisma score (see My Guy syndrome above) and realizing everyone hates your character and doesn’t want to play with you.

Picking all flavour spells for your spell caster and walking into your first, second, and third combats of the day and having absolutely no way to participate in the battle on any meaningful level.

This also extends to character concepts and histories — don’t be afraid to change your original idea to something you like more, or something you realize will be more fun to play. One of the best ideas I’ve ever seen happen at my table were two players who’d never met each other having such a fun time playing together (and with some 28 solid hours of time table time to come at the con) they decided to make their characters long lost siblings, and when the session was over and they leveled up to level 2, they reworked their backstories and characters ever so slightly to sync up before going on to their next table together.

One last tip here, if you’re a class who can take healing spells, consider taking/preparing/learning at least one, even if you don’t want to be your parties healer. Its a cooperative game, remember.

TIP 6: Be patient. (Technology edition)

6 people rolling up to a table, slapping down their books, and rolling a bunch of dice on Saturday afternoon is easy.

That same 6 people trying to get their virtual tabletop, method of voice communication, video communication, and digital die-rolling all lined up is hard. I’m serious, it’s really hard.

You will *inevitably* have at least one player who has technical issues that are time consuming and frustrating to resolve, and that can significantly affect peoples moods and temperaments.

My personal preference? I use Roll20 for tabletop game play, and Discord for voice and video chat. People have spent a lot of time developing channel set ups for Discord to facilitate just this, and it shouldn’t be hard to Google them for yourself.

Push-To-Talk is an incredibly important/useful tool, and while it can potentially be disruptive to learn to use, it also potentially embarrassment saving, especially if you live in a shared space ;-) (Trust me on this one)

Noise Suppression on a Discord Chat Channel

It’s not for everyone, but if you don’t use it at least look for the settings that boost noise suppression or background chatter reduction and turn them on; nobody wants to hear you eat, drink, burp, or any other host of bodily functions, over their headphones.

TIP 7: For DMs: INSPIRATION!

This one is often overlooked, and very important to me.

5th Edition D&D has a mechanic called Inspiration — it’s a rule that the DM uses to reward players for good roleplaying, and mechanically for going out of the way to roleplay the personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws that you assigned to your character upon character creation. You can use inspiration when you make a d20 check to give yourself advantage on the roll (then it’s spent and gone). You can also, if you have inspiration, reward another player with your inspiration if something they do makes you happy and you want to reward it.

Inspiration window on a standard DNDBeyond Character sheet — Unassigned

But this all falls apart if the DM fails to never assign inspiration.

Inspiration window on a standard DNDBeyond Character sheet — Assigned

As a DM I look for ways to assign inspiration, not set massive barriers to prevent it. You want your players looking to impress and earn inspiration, not forgetting it even exists!

This is getting a bit long now, so I’m going to wrap things up for now, also as always, feel free to disregard any of my opinions presented here (except the bit about My Guy… seriously, don’t be that dude.)

Follow me on Twitter if you’re so inclined :) @IvanMakesGames

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