Making D&D More Casual

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 04 October 2011

Sunday, I mentioned that one of the things I love about Ascension is that for beginners it makes it easy to optimize your turn without knowing all of the rules and strategies of the game. The mechanics limit the choices a player has at any one time, in my estimation often between 2-5 options and the random element of the game dampens the effect of player knowledge on the game. Contrast that with 4e D&D where to create a character you make decisions that touch on just about every subsystem in the game (see Heroes of the Fallen Lands, p 33):

  1. Choose Class - determines your powers and available skills and influences what your ability scores will be.
  2. Choose Your Race - determines bonuses to ability scores which in turn affects a bunch of character build elements.
  3. Determine Ability Scores - determines a number of character build elements including defenses and attack and skill modifiers. Also suggests certain feats and powers over others.
  4. Choose Skills - Training gives you bonuses, but you might have no idea if they will be useful in this adventure or campaign.
  5. Choose Powers - Powers provide tactical benefits but, like skills, for some it can be hard to tell if they will be useful in a particular campaign. Others are only useful depending on what other players pick. For instance, the warlord ability that gave bonuses to melee basic attacks often weren't that great pre-Essentials but were killer with certain Essentials builds.
  6. Select Feats - Feats in 4e provide relatively small bonuses that might not be obvious at first.
  7. Select Equipment - The limited mundane equipment lists at 1st level make things a bit easier, but then again I invested in Fine Clothing when I created my first character so there are still easy suboptimal choices.
  8. Fill in the Numbers - Ok, the character builder does most of this for you.
  9. Other Character Details - Alignment, god worshiped, background, personality, appearance, and languages. The DM and/or adventure determine whether or not any of these matter.
  10. In addition, Heroes of the Fallen Lands specifically suggests looking ahead to see what the hero gains in future levels and use that as a guide for making choices now. That's great if you've already committed to playing this game for multiple levels, but what about the person giving this a try for the first time?

    Level 0

    When I started, this process was a bit overwhelming. I had no idea if anything I picked would actually be useful and, in fact, was disappointed when some of my choices didn't work out as well as I had hoped. Now a good DM can work around these problems, but not every group can or will start off with an experienced DM. The rules and guidance should help new DMs as much as new players. This is one of the reasons why I love the Level 0 rules detailed in the Dragon article "A Hero's First Steps".

    Character creation focuses a lot more on your character's story. Then you pick a power source and gain 1 power from that. The flavor text of each power calls attention to what's unique about that source. For instance, the primal at-will mentions the spirits. They also make it clear how ability scores and powers interact. Each power has 4 riders that are triggered by the use of an experience token. These riders are tied to group roles, so during the course of play the player can try on a number of roles to see which one is the best fit for the player and the character. In my opinion, this is really important and mirrors what kids do during play anyway. Class is something the player picks when moving to first level.

    After power source, the player picks the race, gaining the benefits of that race. After that is ability scores, provided as a choice between two arrays. What I love is that instead of just presenting the arrays with no other guidance, each array has a descriptive label, Promising or Prodigy. Then comes skills. The skill lists are tied to the power source and the player only picks 1 of 3. Unlike the normal skills distribution across classes, this one has little repetition. Finally, the player picks feats (if granted by the character's race) and gear which also is extremely limited.

    I love how this reinforces some of the core concepts of the game such as power source and group role. It also lets them try out a bunch of different options while keeping some things static, such as the character's race. The lack of options also makes it easier to play creatively in the game, at times almost forcing one to do so because there isn't the same assumption that they are likely to succeed at this task. They aren't heroes yet after all.

    Lair Assault

    This ability to experiment with the PC is great, but if the adventures themselves are a moving target, it makes it a bit more difficult to see if the changes a player makes deliver the desired results. One thing I love about Lair Assault is that ability to replay the scenario is built in. I'd love to see similar scenarios aimed at newer players where they can test out their characters and with instructions to newer DMs about how to make the environment and NPCs work together to create more and more interesting encounters. Not all of these should be combat oriented either and it would be cool to have a bunch of them for different terrain types (wilderness, city, dungeon, etc) to use as random encounters.

    D&D Encounters

    D&D Encounters is great because it's a set day and they craft the adventures so the same group doesn't have to show up week to week. For someone who isn't quite invested yet, this can be a great setup. Sure there are problems that not everyone has a local gaming store and not everyone can make Wednesdays. But overall, the system seems to work pretty well and it allows for a more casual gaming experience, something that I think is easier to fit into the lives of the people who might want to play D&D but haven't tried it yet. It definitely echoes my experience with new players at cons like PAX East and NYCC. Those potential players have a lot options competing for their time and a longer player experience means D&D is off the table.

    Overall Recommendations

    • Let players start the game making fewer, more focused choices like in the Level 0 rules. Focus those choices on learning some of the basics ideas of the game and make sure the game world is accessible to them. Give tips to DMs on how to convert some related genres and stories, like Harry Potter and Avatar the Last Airbender, to a D&D setting.
    • Come up with some quick and easy scenarios that new DMs can drop into their game and serve to educate and entertain both player and DM. Try to make them easy to replay as well.
    • Keep the games shorter and more casual but at a set time. Allow players to come and go within the group.

When I read the Level 0 article in Dragon, I thought the same thing: Wow! This is a great way to start off new players and let them ease into character creation without tying themselves down to a bunch of options that they probably don't understand, and may regret later.

One of our veteran players likes to start out with a race choice only, and once his character has a little experience and has picked up some money and treasure, he picks his class. He uses a living vampire, a vryloka, as his base race. That way he gains enough basic powers at "level 0" to stay alive, but he doesn't have to tie himself down to a particular class.

One other thing I'd like to see more of is solo adventures, or adventures for just a DM and a player, so that new players can get some play under their belts without feeling that they're holding back the group of more experienced and rules-wise grognards.

Unfortunately being a UK citizen prevents me from being involved with the gaming conventions you Americans enjoy lol. I do like the idea of solo adventures at level 0 as you say with new players in particular allowing them to see what their character can do before being thrust into a campaign.

I'm wary of using something like Lair Assault to introduce PCs. Anything that is game-board-ish has the possibility of communicating the delve aspect of the game and making it seem like _the_ way to play.

The ideal introductory scenario has a mix of RP with NPCs (perhaps with light investigation or big-city challenges), some fun combat (ideally with the opportunity to do cool heroic things), some choices that matter, and some cool iconic foes (example: a medusa). If the scenario has a number of choices then the replayability will be there. The D&DXP Classic Kalarel's Revenge seemed to have a lot of this. You had a fun initial premise, good RP choices (with no wrong way), fun foes in a cool setting, and then some additional choices.

The Siege of Gardmore Abbey is another example (though mid/upper-heroic). Simple, good choices, great RP hooks for the pregens, iconic final battle, leads to super-adventure boxed set.

For me it is really about creating engaging situations, not minis moving and using powers. You want players to feel smart even if this is the first time they sit down at the table to play D&D. Example: traps they can figure out, info in languages their PC speaks, medium skill checks with skills iconic for their class (tracking/nature for ranger).

The benefit of Lair Assault I'd like to introduce are small parts or whole modules that are replayable. Not everything needs to be added but that particular bit would make things better in my book.

I'm encouraged by WotC's ongoing effort to refine 4e. I find that new players are easily distracted by the full 4e character sheet. Anything that gets them into the more creative "tell the DM what you'd like to do" mode, is good. Testing ideas like the 0-level character option is a good start. I hope to see more ideas tested as they move forward, perhaps to a new 4e-based design.

It's always hard to start new players out. But it's much better than the old days. 30-odd years ago most people just bought the game and sort of figured it out on their own. Nowadays even people who don't have a local group or a game store have a lot of resources on the internet to help them figure out what gaming is. I often start out new people by talking to them and helping them figure out who they want their character to be. As the GM, I can help them figure out their place in the world and their background. Then I'll build the character and give them an idea of what they can do.

Good summary. I would definitely agree with Philo that nowadays (now I feel old) players are more dependent upon the GM to help them figure out the game. When I first started everyone read the rules and had their own interpretation of various rules. With the GM/Storyteller at the center the interpretations are more consistent, however it is always nice to get more than one interpretation and verify those rules via the internet. Thank goodness for that!

A lot of RPGs have this baggage, where new players must learn the setting and the mechanics and make snap decisions before even getting to "play". Role/Power source are the cornerstone for the *mechanical* foundation of a character and are just enough to get into gameplay. New players can grasp the "schtick" of their guy pretty intuitively.

DMG2's "companion" characters are also great fo new players to start grasping what "works" in the game.

I wasn't a fan of the token system in the article (too fiddly, not analogous to "real" play) , but I liked the emphasis on not asking too much of the player too soon.

The real goal for me when I have new player is "how soon can I get the mechanical layer to be transparent to this new player so they can get into the fantasy adventure?".

I own a B&M store & always have new players at the table, I use an extremely dumbed down version of the character sheet & ask the new player a few questions, name, race, what exactly do you want to do, cast spells, swing a sword, etc...

Then I fill in the blanks, fluff when necessary and present the player with their simplified character. Then its always a bonus when the other players around the table help! With the new player we concentrate more on story than mechanics simply by blowing off anything that would impede the players fun and momentum!

I find that usually withing a session or two that person decides whether or not they like the game, either the don't show again or they've invested their monthly allowance at the store and have begun barraging me with question after question (always a good thing!).

Love it. This idea has been bouncing around in my head since I took a hardcore 3E geek and played the Red Box with him. He really enjoyed the character creation therein and I've been trying to figure out a good way to get all the characters into the game the same way.

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