I have had a fairly interesting 2 months introducing a whole lot of people to playing rpgs. This is hopefully going to be a pretty small post, focusing on some of my thoughts on the process of teaching/learning rpgs (I’m writing this at 3 am, forgive me if its a little messy). I’m going to focus on a single session of The Pool I played a few weeks ago, but I have also introduced this same group of players to Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Trollbabe, and recently Champions Now, which we played our first session of last week. All of the games have been fun, and everyone in the group brings something interesting to the table.
I have heard and been given a lot of strange advice about teaching people rpgs. A lot of the advice seems to focus on picking a game extremely carefully that will be “easy” to understand for new players, often with a focus on games with soft failure. What soft failure usually means, in my experience, is no real failure at all, ever, and the absence of real failure in a game often means an absence of real success. Both of these, among other common design choices for these kinds of games, mean that players often have very little agency.
So I decided to jettison all of this advice, which I think is terrible, and commit to my often repeated theory–new players (especially the ones who haven’t been indoctrinated into the hobby and picked up bizarre habits before even playing a single session) are awesome, and they can learn new rules and play new games. They can make bold decisions, and most importantly–they can handle real consequences. I have said this a couple times on the site and at the Discord, and I thought I would head out into the real world and prove it.
So…what happened in this session of The Pool? I’m going to focus on a single, highly consequential roll. Here’s some context:
The players were playing explorers on Pasitheia, a once glamorous satellite planet orbitting Mars which had been invaded by aliens and turned into a horrific, flesh-jungle covered nightmare planet, with a few struggling human settlements remaining. I told the players that they had just stumbled upon something they never expected to find–another human settlement. This is the information they used to make their characters, along with some information about the fascist empire that controlled most of the human planets, and some information about the vat-grown “chosen”, humans grown with specific genetic makeup and raised to be exploitable workers. I also told them that the characters probably dressed like the monks from Aliens 3.
The settlement they had found was populated by the members of a crashlanded freighter that had been headed for Pluto with a big supply of Earth grown vegetables, a rare delicacy on the far off planet. The royal gaurds onboard had taken over when they landed and were becoming more and more violent as food supplies diminished.
So the group approached the settlement, and was instantly accosted by a large group of these gaurds. Here’s where things went somewhere I never expected. One of the players, my friend Laura, had made a character who had fled her noble parents, who were very important in the human empire, and upon the gaurds approaching, she revealed her parentage to them (and the rest of the group) and demanded to be given control of the operations of the settlement. I told her she should roll, and she succeeded. She took the monologue of victory, and described them bowing to her and ritualistically licking her boots. This was her first session ever, and from the result of that roll, and how it altered the situation in such a fundamental way, I saw her have a realization that she had real agency at the table, and she began to really step up her play. I think that roll taught her a lot–and it worked because she had the real thing in her hands, not a scaled down version of the real thing. I think she realized that she was dealing with real success and real failure in that moment. Having a player come to the realization that what they said really mattered is the single most important aspect of “teaching” or introducing someone to roleplaying, because it shows them what this is all about.
A little more reflection–we have seen some pretty intense failure in other games, as well as big successes. We saw a Trollbabe get killed (blasted apart by a minigun weilding robot), and a bunch of Lamentations characters get close to being slaughtered by some esoteric creatutes. Through all these experiences, I have only seen enthusiasm for play rise.
I hope this post will inspire people to think twice about how they introduce new people to rpgs. They don’t need to be babied, and they don’t need training wheels. Get to the cool shit quick–and by the cool shit, I mean the agency. Don’t hand them a tambourine, give them a guitar and turn their amp up high.
I would appreciate comments about other people’s experiences introducing people to rpgs, and I’ll try to expand on my (pretty brief) reflections here in the comments of this post, if people end up replying.