Last week I ran a D&D game for my parents. They’ve heard me talk about D&D for years, but this was their first time actually playing it. We had a great time with the game, and I came away with a few thoughts.
Because this was their first time playing a tabletop RPG, most of the suggestions for running a game for first-time players still apply. However, because the hope was to play with them again, I made a few other changes to improve their experience.
I had a few hours to play with my parents, which is part of the reason I went with some of these decisions. If you have a shorter time-frame, you might want to change some of these so that you can get into the actual game faster.
Here are 13 tips for running a D&D (or any RPG) game with your parental figures! (or any first-time player really)
Side Note: D&D and tabletop RPGs were never banned in my house, and there were never any issues with them growing up. This advice is for playing D&D with parental figures who are willing and open to playing. I am not covering any suggestions for playing with parental figures that are unwilling to play or believe the game is bad or evil. That’s a whole separate topic.
1. Don’t Explain Everything At Once
D&D 5e is not the simplest RPG system to understand, and trying to explain everything can be overwhelming to a first time player.
Explain mechanics when the player does something to trigger them. If a player wants to attack a goblin, that’s a great time to explain how to handle an attack roll. If they hit, then explain how damage works.
By holding back explanations until they’re necessary, you give the player a better feeling of freedom. First time players often believe they can only do things that are on their sheet. By withholding explanations until needed, they are free to attempt things that they may not have originally tried.
This also can flow into learning about other mechanics. For example, a fighter wearing heavy armor might try to sneak. Now you can explain what disadvantage is, and why it applies to their Dexterity (Stealth) roll! Suddenly they’ve been introduced to the advantage/disadvantage system, and might remember it later.
2. Give them only the dice they need
Knowing the difference between different dice types (d4, d6, d20, etc) can be difficult when they’re all new to you. D&D uses a ton of different dice, and knowing which one to use in which circumstance becomes confusing.
Give your player just the minimum number of dice they need, don’t give them a full set. Tie the dice to the mechanic that uses it. For example, if someone uses a greataxe, give them a d12 and say this is for their weapon.
Associating dice with specific things makes it easier to know the correct dice to use. Eventually the players will begin to default to using the d20 for most things, and know which dice is associated with their weapon.
3. Go Through Character Generation
Normally, for a one shot game, I would use pre-generated character sheets. However, my parents were coming into this blind, not knowing what the dice were or even how a RPG works. Because of this, I decided to actually walk them through the character creation process.
There are a few benefits to doing this. For starters, they can get introduced to game concepts like race, class, and ability scores slowly instead of all at once. It also gives them a sense of ownership of their characters. This is a character that THEY created, from THEIR choices. They decided aspects of the character, so they naturally feel more comfortable with the character.
4. Roll Stats
I normally use point-buy, but for a complete beginner, rolling for stats is better.
Stats were the first dice my parents rolled in the game, and it got them used to rolling dice and adding numbers together. Rolling stats for dice is easier to add and calculate than figuring out point buy.
Consider allowing rerolls for low stats. You don’t want players to feel frustrated by failures in the game due to low stats.
Plus, your players might get exposure to the feelings that go along with high or low rolls. (My dad got an 18 for one of his stats. My mom was jealous)
5. Don’t Explain Every Option. Stick With Names and Summary
Player characters have a lot of options for their characters in 5e. Going through the abilities and bonuses of each race, class, and background would take way too much time for beginners who likely don’t understand what any of it means anyway.
For races, give the name and show a picture, if possible. Maybe a sentence about what they are or what they do.
For classes, just give the name and explain what their general role is.
For backgrounds, just the name should suffice.
Spells are complicated, and I would recommend picking a few spells for them and letting them pick the rest based on the name. If you know the mechanics of the spell might be misleading based on the name (for example, faerie fire does not contain actual fire), explain what the spell does in general terms. Otherwise, explain how the spell works when they decide to use it.
New players are going to pick whatever sounds the coolest or resonates with them. Let them pick based on the limited information, and then explain what they get. You might get some cool combinations.
For example, my dad naturally picked a Goliath Barbarian named Herculdes (not Hercules) and my mom picked a High Elf Bard named Bardicus E.
6. Start at 1st Level
In D&D, characters gain complexity as they gain levels. Level 1 characters are simplest to handle, so start your players there.
If you play for long enough, the new abilities they gain will build upon their existing ones. Starting at 1st level lets them gain an understanding of the basic rules for their class, and then slowly build up to more complicated features as time goes on.
7. Their Fear is Doing the Wrong Thing
The fear of messing up or being wrong isn’t limited to tabletop RPGs, but it definitely is a common fear among new players.
First time players sometimes worry about doing the wrong thing, or not playing right. The act of role playing a character or doing a voice makes people feel vulnerable, and therefore concerned about doing it wrong.
Know that this is likely in the mind of your players, and try to mitigate it.
The Game Master tip of “say yes” is more important to new players. Let them get away with things you wouldn’t let other people get away with. Introduce success and failing forward. Every time they are allowed to do something, their understanding of what can be done in an RPG grows.
Introduce failure gingerly. Explain options. Are they doing something dangerous? Let them know potential outcomes. Give them choices, with pros and cons in each option.
Side Note: I had a great time running the game for my parents, but they still apologized for ‘not being good at the game’. They had a great time, but still felt like they weren’t doing things correctly.
8. Ask for their Reason to Adventure
The most important thing to ask players is why their character is adventurer.
Being an adventurer is dangerous, and anyone could make a decent living doing almost anything else. There has to be a reason why their character has decided to take this dangerous job. Figuring that out is a very important step.
Like we mentioned in number 7, your players are probably afraid of messing up or doing something wrong. With this mentality, they are likely to avoid dangerous situations and miss all of the plot hooks you’ve set for them. Have them understand that their job requires doing dangerous (and heroic!) things and you’ll have an easier time running the game.
9. Give Direction
A group of random people meeting in a bar is generally a bad way to start a game, and it’s particularly bad with first time players.
Don’t have them look for a job. Tell them what the job they’ve already been hired to do is.
One of the big draws of tabletop RPGs is the fact that you can do ANYTHING. On the flip side, this freedom can be crippling. Without direction, new players can feel overwhelmed and flounder. This is often why new groups of players get in bar fights or thrown into jail. They didn’t have a strong sense of direction. Provide them with clear guidance, and they can begin to experiment and understand the game in a more focused style.
Side note: I set my parents on the road, and the first thing they wanted to do was grab a drink at the bar. First time players getting into trouble at a tavern is so ingrained in new players that they literally turned around to grab a drink. Obviously they got in trouble, but I was able to get them back on the road quickly.
10. Make NPCs with Distinctive Features
One of my problems with Storm Kings Thunder, and a lot of adventures in the Forgotten Realms, is names. They are often needlessly complicated and similar sounding.
Don’t use complicated names or naming conventions (unless the complicated nature is a major point, like a dragon being named Traxtanisthorilamida “just call me Trax.”) Names are hard to remember unless distinctive, and new players are already learning a lot of things.
Titles and positions are easier to remember. “The Green Warden”, “Captain”, “The King” are likely what your players will remember.
Give your NPCs distinctive features. This is a good tip in general for any players, but having a specific feature or tick to latch onto helps your players remember them.
Side Note: I introduced 2 NPCs to the players. One was a dwarf with white hair, white clothes, and a cane with a yellow gemstone at the top. The other wore heavy black armor. My parents never remembered their names, but could recall their appearances or key features (white/black colors) easily.
11. Give Them Something Familiar
Some typical fantasy settings can throw a lot of information at players. Town names, countries, deities, and factions are all part of a setting, and very few of them actually matter to new players.
Stick with the basics, and give yourself the freedom to build out as your players explore.
It is also helpful to give your players something familiar. Do they all like Harry Potter? Set the game at a magic school or have a magic school be part of the town. Are they fans of a TV show? Introduce NPCs that are characters from the show.
Putting familiar things in the game puts new players at ease. They already know these places/people, so they already have a level of understanding of how they work.
When we’ve been playing RPGs for long enough, we’ve built up a huge base of common, familiar knowledge. Calling something a goblin, orc, or bugbear might immediately conjure certain images, but a new player likely had no idea what a bugbear is. Describe with familiar senses or associate it with creatures they may already know.
Side Note: I’m making the game for my parents inspired by Jurassic Park. They both know the movie, and felt clever when they realized that I was describing dinosaurs. They know how dinosaurs work, so they will feel more comfortable interacting with those creatures.
12. Hand Waive the Rules
One problem with 1st level characters is that they’re VERY vulnerable. A small group of goblins, especially with surprise, could wipe them out! That’s no fun for a first-time player.
Hand wave encounters. Use them as practice for subtracting hit points and rolling damage. Let your players feel like competent heroes, instead of squishy commoners.
I handled goblins as having 5 hit points, +2 to hit, and doing 1d4 damage. I likely wouldn’t be able to seriously hurt anyone, and the goblins would go down in 1 hit. They learned how to handle damage, hit points, and ACs without fearing character death.
13. Be Energetic and Excited
When running a game for first time players, they are getting a lot of their cues from you. If you are energetic and excited, they will feel that way as well. If they see you doing voices and moving around, they will feel more comfortable doing so themselves.
Lead by example. Embody the style of play you want them to use, and they will hopefully begin to emulate it.
Side Note. My dad quickly started getting into a speech pattern for his barbarian, speaking in simpler sentences and lowering his voice. It was great to see him experiment!
These are 13 tips on how to run D&D for your parental figures, or any first-time player! Have you run a game for your parental figures? How did it work? Let me know!