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Everyone in this story works mostly together. Some work friends and my wife were talking about playing D&D, and I was appointed the DM. I've played the game once 20 years ago, so I've spent the past few months buying the resources and learning as much as I can about the game so I can make it as enjoyable for then as possible, we are yet to have our first session.

But to make it easier so I don't have to teach them literally everything I asked them to read the Basic Rules so they have some idea of what they are in for and the expectations of them and me are.

But they came back with "its too hard to read it, I learn by doing, that's what we have you for".

I'm super pissed by this, I've spent so much time and effort learning this game and they can't be bothered to put any effort in.

My question is should I let them know how much it's annoyed me, and reiterate they need to know stuff, or just ignore it and carry on?

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I think that if your players say that they learn by doing then it is a good idea to listen to them. Otherwise you will just end up banging your head against a brick wall. The dynamic of every table playing a campaign is different and, as their DM, it is your role to set things up to make the game enjoyable - without neglecting your own sanity of course!

Here are some articles that might be helpful in finding some further guidance with this.

Keep it simple

It is important to give new players the support they need, e.g help them with their character creation so they don't feel overwhelmed. There are a lot of boxes to fill in a character sheet. As a DM it is important we do not forget this or assume others know what to us may seem "obvious".

There are more suggestions here: Keeping it simple for new players

Learning rules, wait, what...

There are some great suggestions about how to manage this in the article below, but one thing I would suggest is: patience, and more patience. It can take some players much longer to learn rules than others. The 5e of D&D has some rule economy in it which is a glob-send! Still, for someone who has never played a tabletop RPG, it might feel quite daunting. So, your being patient is essential. As is suggested in the article, if you have other experienced members in your team, ask them to buddy up and help those who are newer. Another tip is to provide them with a cheat sheet/summary of the main mechanics and terminology.

Plenty more here: How to play with friends who don't want to read the rules?

The homework

Yuck, even the word is enough to send crowds running for the hills. I personally enjoy it - you might too as a DM. But, not everyone is the same. In my experience as a DM, the only reasonable homework I expected was for spell-casters to read up on the next tier of spells, when they were about to go up a level and acquire a higher spell-slot. This saves a lot of time. They did not memorise them, but had a good idea what the the spell did. As DM, you can decide this with your players. Again, making these decisions collaboratively is important to have them on board.

There is more food for thought here: How can I get my players to do extra “homework”?

Tic toc

If you find that after a fair few sessions you have still got one or two stragglers who for neither love or money want to put in the effort to learn the basics, then I would suggest using a timer. In the lower levels it may not make that much of a difference if someone forgets how to roll for initiative, or where their skills are on their sheet, or what a spell does, or how to roll a saving throw, or how to calculate crit damage, but later on it will make a big difference. They might have several attacks and a bonus attack, plus companions and minions, etc. If every player takes a long time to make decisions on their turn in combat at this stage, it can bring the game to a grinding, and boring, halt. Zzz.. so learning the essentials in the first few levels is key.

One of my favourite strategies is using a simple time limit, as a gentle nudge. I love visual aids so I tend to use a 1m or 2m sand timer which the players can see on the table. This encourages them to think ahead and be responsive. If the timer runs out, so does their turn. Next... It may feel mean the first time, but they soon become quick-thinkers after missing a turn.

There are some other excellent suggestions in this article: How can I speed up combat?

Last, and not least: Session Zero

I would definitely recommend setting up a Session Zero to help the players learn some of the basic mechanics of the game. If you are DM for 5e for the first time, it will take some getting used to also. So this will be a win-win for all of you. I particularly suggest making it a collaborative experience.

See: What is a session 0?

Bring plenty of snacks!

Note: thanks to MikeQ for some of these suggestions.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The way you reference all the previous good questions makes this one of the best laid out answers I have seen here. \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Feb 4 at 10:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ Session zero is a must, wouldn't hurt to do a basic combat sequence either. Also, the cheat sheet idea is great! Just print out the list of actions, status conditions, etc and they can review those instead of reading the entire PHB. \$\endgroup\$ – Just Another Guy Feb 4 at 16:56
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I have two approaches to this:

Club Style

I play in a university club. When I GM, I am always prepared to explain rules, but I only explain them a) when they come up and b) when I havn't already explained that rule several times. Because even I have a limit. Well, maybe there's also a c) I break down the rules into bits and pieces and feed the relevant bits as they come along.

For D&D-like games I start usually be explaining the bare minimum. For example I used something like this on a convention where we had total newbies checking on the hobby. It wasn't D&D5 but Pathfinder, but the message can be (and has been) adapted to other systems easily.

"This is your sheet. Up here we have some basic information: Name, class - that's your job so to speak - and level - how good you are - and some other things that are not necessarily important at the moment. In the Attributes section here it tells you how strong, fast, witfull and charming your character is. Over here are the skills what your character knows and here are your weapons. The scale on the attributes uses a basic 0 to 21, where the normal human is a 10. Questions so far?"

"Ok, let's get to dice. Whenever we don't know if something will succeed or fail, we roll this fat boy here. That's a d20, because it has 20 faces numbered 1 to 20. It's also called an icosahedron. When we roll it, we look at the rolled number, then add some modifiers - I will come to those in a minute - and then look up if that result is the same or more as a certain value. Questions?"

I am also armed with an e-book reader that holds a copy of the rules so they can look up the rules during the game or to borrow and study them for a few days.

Luckily, my players are rather proactive in learning the rules of games they enjoy, and if players have problems to keep the games apart, it needn't be me to correct them on the rules, but the fellow players help each other often, reminding them how the basic framework functions.

Switch games.

And then there is the case of the one group that was defiantger: renitent to even learning basic rules. I swapped games for them. Instead of a fantasy game, we played Paranoia. If they picked up on the rules and tried to lawyer them, I got to terminate a couple clones. In Paranoia, you are not allowed to know the rules as a player.

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Treat this as an opportunity to grow together as a group.

While you are the only experienced player, you will be learning D&D 5e as a group. Together. That can be a lot of fun. I strongly suggest that you let go of your instincts and assumptions from your last edition. Treat this like a new game. It will help a lot. This is from personal experience. It took me getting this advice from another player to finally begin to enjoy this edition: that (letting go) was hard for me to do, as I'd DM'd a lot starting from the late 70's ...

Learning by doing isn't all bad

Your player who thinks that 'learning by doing' is a good path ahead isn't all wrong; you need to dream up an adventure anyway, so why not start with a very basic one?

First, make up three simple encounters; one mostly social(bandits or thugs threatening someone in a town), one mostly combat(wolves), and one that could go either way (more bandits or perhaps a few cultists).

Second, have some exploration and a couple of encounters in a two level "ruined tower on the outskirts of town." (A few miles away)

  • Room 1, entry way, abandoned tower, describe its decrepit condition. Room 2, either have a door or a secret door or an arch to enter it. Something in there, if only a few rotting skeletons. Spider webs on the stairs going up. Room 3, Giant Spider. Room 4: something special; a captive, a book, a chest with some silver coins and an emerald on a necklace, a healing potion, a map to a cave with treasure, or, the cult leader. Something. A trap door to the roof and a ladder allows you to add a third floor if you like.

    enter image description here

Your players will meet, start in town, have a few encounters, and then for 'a reason' they head out of town for the tower.

Remember, these are new players. Keeping it simple is important.

  1. For the first session, don't have them roll up characters. Go to WoTC web site and pick 5 or 6 pre-generated PCs of first level. Make each one a different class. I recommend these:
    Fighter, Rogue, Wizard, Cleric, Barbarian, Monk
    Pregenerated Character sheets.

    Have them printed out, lying on the table, and ready to choose.

    Have all of your players roll a die (use a d12 or a d20. Ties re-roll until one has a higher score). Highest roll gets first pick, and in descending order they pick a character that appeals to them. Put any left over characters aside. (If the players end up negotiating with each other "Hey, I was hoping for that barbarian, can we trade?" don't get in the way of that. Let them figure that out).

  2. Explain how the basics of the rules go:

    How to Play
    The play of the Dungeons & Dragons game unfolds according to this basic pattern.

    1. The DM describes the environment.
    2. The players describe what they want to do.
    3. The DM narrates the results of the adventurers’ actions.

    Then, simply start playing. Situate them in a town, and tell them what they see and what they encounter. Ask them what they do, or what they try to do. Make sure that you ask each player. Have them explain to you in plain language, and then you translate that into game play.
    I can't stress this next part enough:

  3. Only refer to the PC character sheet if they need to look something up, otherwise, ignore the character sheet.

    Focus on the "theater of the mind" in terms of what they are encountering. Use visual aids if you have them, but a pencil and a piece of paper to sketch, or a white board with a dry erase marker, will suffice.

  4. Roll the dice as rarely as possible. Granted, there will be ample die rolling ion combat, but otherwise keep it to a minimum.

    If you are not sure about a roll or a rule, err in favor of the players.

The above method is how I got a bunch of pre-teens playing Basic D&D in the early 00's. (Black box, 25th anniversary edition). They had fun. They came back for more. And their parents didn't object, despite living in a part of the country where "D&D is the devil's game" was not uncommon to run into.

What happened was that as a mechanical thing arose in play, I simply adjudicated the action, told them what to roll, and explained it later.

Example

A giant spider in the tower's second floor bites the Rogue and scores a hit. If you want to embellish on this hit, you can describe the feeling of the poison entering their veins, burning, but tell the Rogue player this:
"Roll a d20, this is a Constitution saving throw."

They roll.
Ask the Rogue: "What is your bonus for Constitution?"
Rogue reads off of the sheet: "It's a +1" 1
"Add 1 to the roll. Is it greater that 12?"
Yes or no, apply the poison or don't, and then keep on playing.

Keep the pace of play moving!

You are all, as a group, learning the game together.

Bottom line: you have a great opportunity to establish some good habits early. Don't miss it.

Caveat 1: make sure you understand the action economy. Focus on move, action, and interaction. Apply bonus action or reaction only when it comes up. Part of your role as DM is as a coach; I still do this, coaching, when I DM. Be alert for reaction or bonus actions arising, and apply them in play so that the players see what those are as they learn how to play. (In re coaching as DM, Tim Grant's answer is superb detail on that. Please read it).

Caveat 2: make sure that you understand what the first level spells do; the spells that are on the pre gen sheets. That way, if they are thinking of casting a spell, you can be of assistance. Spell casters are a bit more labor intensive for new players than martial characters.

Caveat 3: make sure that the first time one of them gets knocked to 0 HP, tell them "You are not dead yet!" They get to roll death saving throws, other players can help, etc.

Once the first session is over, talk about how it went with the group

If they like it, you can then discuss rolling up their own characters, or keep on playing with these ones, or picking some of the other pregens.

Credit where credit is due: this answer is a variation on "how to get people to not focus on the rules" answer here. The guy who wrote that answer developed Basic / Expert / Companion / Master / Immortal (BECMI) D&D in the early 1980's. What he describes there is a lot like some of the sessions I used to run for new players, from pre teen through adults in their 40s, for about 20 years as a DM.


1 Or, it goes like this (thanks @TimGrant)
DM asks Rogue: “What is your bonus for Constitution?”
Rogue: “13”
DM says: “That sounds like your ability score. Your bonus would be a smaller number. It would either be zero, or start with a plus or minus. Look for where it says ‘plus one.’”
Rogue: "Oh, it’s +6"
DM: Proceeds to explain how ability score bonuses work, and points to the page in PHB/Basic Rules where that is explained ...

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Ask the Rogue: “What is your bonus for Constitution?” Rogue: “13” DM: “That sounds like your ability score. Your bonus would be a smaller number. It would either be zero, or start with a plus or minus. Look for where it says ‘plus one.’” Rogue: "Oh, it’s +6" \$\endgroup\$ – Tim Grant Feb 4 at 17:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ @TimGrant ROFL, yeah, that too. :) Too good not to add to the answer. :) \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 4 at 17:04
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What they are doing is rude, and you are allowed to tell them how you feel. Personally I would emphasize how hard it is to tell how interested people are if they won't do any work.

HOWEVER, it's generally accepted that the worst part of playing any game is reading the rules. And you can play D&D without actually knowing the rules.

One solution is to include all the basic rules on a 3 by 5 card.
Combat info on one side. (AC, HP, and Speed on top, Actions, and Bonus Actions in the middle, Common Attacks Accuracy, and Damage on the very bottom) Other info on the other side. (Name, race, stats, specialized skills, etc)

RPG's have a lot of rules, and it is a lot easier for players to understand the game by playing before diving too far into the rules.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Hi Devin, welcome to RPG.SE. I see you've already read the tour; don't forget the help center too if you haven't already seen it. I tidied up a little of your punctuation for you - I hope you don't mind. \$\endgroup\$ – BBeast Feb 1 at 9:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ Thank you very much BBeast. My first reply got deleted while making my account, so this answer was a bit more rushed. So thank you for making me look more professional. I am brand new here and I really like what I'm seeing. \$\endgroup\$ – Devin A Poet Feb 1 at 9:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ Generally accepted? Maybe among some communities, but it's certainly not generally accepted across the board. At the risk of making a no true Scotsman fallacy, none of the serious board gamers I play with have an issue with reading the rules to a new game, even if they prefer me to explain the game to them. I know multiple people (including myself) who hate having games explained to them without the opportunity to read the rules. \$\endgroup\$ – Spitemaster Feb 3 at 14:39
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I understand your frustration. I’ve been where you describe, professionally, recreationally, and in my community involvement.

Other answers provide a lot of implementation advice getting your players introduced to the game mechanics. Before doing that, though, it’s important to adjust your mindset so that the process is fun for you, too.

SODOTO

SODOTO stands for “See one, Do One, Teach One.” It describes levels of mastery on a subject. You and your friends are both stuck at hurdles in the learning process.

They are asking to “See one” because looking at the rules confused them and they got frustrated. (Admittedly, many folks get frustrated very easily.)

You learned the game without asking for help. You may have had a lot better background grounding, or you may just be a talented autodidact — or both! You can be proud of that.

But the next step for you is to be willing to take on the role of teacher - because most folks need one.

Leadership is Fun

Other folks are going to need more help (true everywhere). Providing that help is what being a leader is. Try this out in your game life, and watch it spread throughout your whole life.

The better you get at this, the more people will look up to you. It’s a very good feeling.

Remember Math Class

Maybe you are like me — one of those oddballs that just loves a good rule book. I read them when I can’t fall asleep. Even games I know I’ll probably never play. I’ve accepted that this is… atypical.

Rules (of any stripe) are inherently stressful to most people. You don’t want to break them — but how can you avoid that if you don’t even understand them?

I’ve found that discussing rules with folks works best when you tackle one concept at a time. With brand new players, this starts with “How to take your turn.”

Like Math class, there will be somebody who gets it first, and somebody who gets it last. Don’t be that nightmare Math teacher who assumes that once the first person gets it, then you did a great job and it’s time to move on. Your goal is to bring everyone along.

Demonstrate How to Use the Rules

Your friends want to be shown how to play, and you think they should learn the rules. You’re both right.

When questions arise, get the rule book out and look it up — without judgement — and get the players to do so too.

In this way you are teaching the players how to actually use the rules.

Revisit the idea of reading rules in off-time, as needed

After your first session, you might let your players know you were initially frustrated that it seemed they were asking you to do all the work, but that you decided to put in some (more) effort to help them learn.

Then ask again if they can “review” the rules so you don’t end up starting over. Do it in bite-sized pieces: taking your turn, learning your class and race skills.

Expect star pupils and remedial students. Encourage your star pupils to help the others.

Ask if folks had questions at the beginning of play sessions. When it’s clear nobody glanced at the rule book in downtime, remind them the game is more fun when rules questions are not constant interruptions.

When folks really aren’t pulling their weight at all, I like to assure my players that I offer my Dungeon Mastering services free of charge — but that I’m also willing to serve as a rules tutor for my standard consulting rate.

That is, keep it light, but keep asking.

This process may never end

Considering the fact that D&D has hundreds of pages of rules (while many games have rules that fit on the box lid) it’s rare there’s a table where everyone knows every rule.

My group of friends have been playing for 35 years now, and we haven’t reached the end of rules questions. (The evening my friend quoted my own StackRPG answer back to me was certainly fun.)

Your goal should be to teach your players how to use rules. Your level of expectation should be that they get to the point where the game can proceed at a reasonable place.

Most likely, you will always be the rules expert.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Better answer than mine, nice job TIm. As to SODOTO, in flight training we did the "Demonstrate, Introduce, Practice, Review" approach to each flying maneuver. Similar learning structure. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 3 at 16:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ Related: How to get a DM to step up their game. \$\endgroup\$ – Mazura Feb 4 at 2:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast Demonstrate, Introduce, Review, Train would have made a better acronym and a reminder of the type of outcome you were working to avoid \$\endgroup\$ – Alex M Feb 28 at 0:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ @AlexM Heh, funny, but there was a method to our madness ... :) \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 28 at 3:50
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Turn This Into An Opportunity

I understand that you're feeling somewhat slighted, aggrieved, pre-emptively taken-advantage-of... something in that neighborhood, right? I'm not going to tell you to stop feeling that way because (1) You feel the way you feel, and (2) I'd probably feel the same way because of the asymmetry of effort between playing and GM-ing.

I get it, I do: No one wants to feel like a public utility, and getting that vibe right up front is really dis-heartening.

However: Looking at it from their perspective, reading the rules of a tactical-heavy RPG like 5e is not exactly thrilling. Even just reading the first few chapters of the PHB or the basic rules is not exactly thrilling. There is a reason that modern CRPGs have tutorials, these days, rather than rulebooks. And it probably isn't because game designers love making tutorials.

And it seems very likely to me that if you have a full and frank exchange of views (as the diplomats refer to an acrimonious conversation) then they're going to end up as irritated as you are and there's a substantial chance that you just won't end up playing.

One possible solution is the following:

First, in addition to a possible Session Zero, as others are suggesting, strongly consider having the first actual session of the game focus on character creation. Ideally, half a session of that, and half a session of play, but character creation always takes longer than I expect it to.

  • What Your Players Get Out Of This: Hands on coaching and walk-through (from you) on how to make characters. This won't cover all of the rules they need to know, but it will cover quite a bit. And if they're doing the work under your guidance, it will stick in their minds better. This should explicitly include character background brainstorming, which means they will also be getting an out-of-play sense (again, from you) about what your game world looks like, even if it's just purchased modules from commercial sources.

  • What You Get Out Of This: Basically, a better group of characters (if not necessarily players) because you've had a hand in guiding their creation. This means guiding the creation as individual characters (so that if you know a particular skill will be useless, you can coach your players way from it) and as a group (so you don't end up with three paladins and a warlock with an arch-demon patron, or something.)

Since both "sides" are getting something out of this-- and I promise you, if you guide nimbly and lightly through this process, you will get something out of it-- it hopefully won't strike either "side" as odious.

(And if they balk at even this much work, well then, maybe they're just not that into this.)

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Interesting that we both saw this as an opportunity, and we took slightly different approaches to it. As ever, per Novak Productions, LLC,an answer that should help the OP. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 2 at 1:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1. You can't teach someone how to play MTG w/o a deck of cards. When it came out it had a 30 page manual the size of a card that barely made any sense. Now it's like 900 full-length pages. \$\endgroup\$ – Mazura Feb 4 at 1:06
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I agree with what Devin A Poet said, but the rules actually are quite difficult to understand if you have never played RPGs and I think that reading them all is not so useful. I suggest you to tell your aspiring players what are the most important rules and ask them to understand those parts, leaving the other ones to be learned when they come up during the game. For example, even a new player must know what is a skill and how skill checks work, but it is not necessary that he knows how to use Craft to create a sword, as well as it is pointless to read the description of each and every class and race.

Another way could be not to ask them to read the rules but to prepare their character sheets instead. You would have to check them and explain the mistakes afterwards (there would surely be mistakes), but the players would have to familiarize with the system.

Also, since it is the first campaign for everyone you might prefer to avoid the most particular classes, races and pairings (e. g. no half-orc rogues).

Last but not least, playing is the best way to learn the rules - and one of the tasks of the master is to teach them to the players, so try to be patient.

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Videos may be better than books

Reading the book is not the only way to learn the rules.

The books are not laid out with first time player in mind.

A first time player does not need to know everything right off the bat, they just need to understand basic combat and ability challenges, and the book does not present that well, the real core part of gameplay are buried and scatter throughout the book. You can explain the basics in five minutes but the basics are not collected in one place in the book were you could read them in five minutes.

Honestly a game play pamphlet would be a great product. Even just telling your players which chapters they need to know before play would be a good start. (I suggest chapters 7, 8, & 9)

The alternative is to have them watch some videos. There is an abundance of good videos teaching the basics, picking a few of them and giving them to the players is going to give far better results than asking them to read a book that may take hours and still leave them confused. I highly recommend the critical role handbook helper series they are broken down very well and you can recommend a few general videos like the combat actions and ability checks video then recommend other more targeted videos, like spell casting basics for spellcasters, armor for the fighters, ect. Videos also have the benefit of being free meaning they do not have to commit money to the system before play.

Even just asking them to watch a few videos of play can be helpful. Again a first time player does not need to know everything right off the bat, someone playing a fighter does not need to know how spells work in the first session, likewise a cleric does not need to know how sneak attack or rage works, yet the books are presented as if those should be the first things you learn. first time players just need to understand basic combat and ability challenges, and the book does not present that well.

From an educators perspective bite size doses of information are far more likely to be engaged and absorbed than wading through a mass of crunch. And the easier it is for the players the more likely they will actually do it.

That said, asking them to put in some effort is fine.

You can tell them, hey I don't want to spend all of the first few sessions just teaching you guys the rules a dozen times, I want to have fun too, so you guys need to put some basic effort in if you want this to happen. No DnD is better than DnD you don't enjoy, but pushing for them reading books is not going to be the most productive method to get them to learn the rules.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ it is not really even a good way - yes it is, actually, but you don't have to read the whole book. Watching the videos as a supplement, rather than in place of, being familiar with the basics of the rules I agree with you on as sometimes being useful. I also agree that a first time player need not know everything off the bat. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 1 at 16:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast but someone reading the book for the first time does not know what parts are important, and the books are not presented in such a way to make it obvious. ability challenges and combat are 7 chapters into the book, yet they are the core of gameplay. \$\endgroup\$ – John Feb 1 at 19:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, chapter 7 and chapter 9 are important for running the game. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 1 at 21:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ Man, I wish I thought to say that! \$\endgroup\$ – Devin A Poet Feb 2 at 0:22
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1. Session Zero

Decide what type of game you want to play. Talk to your players, and determine what type of game that they want to play. You may want to use the same page tool.

This would also be a good time to set expectations for your players. Will the tone be more serious, or lighthearted? For Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, I told my players that the campaign would be more focused on role-play and investigation and less so on combat.

2. Pre-generated characters

These will save you about an hour of character generation, and hopefully prevent you and your players from getting overwhelmed. The Starter Edition box comes with five characters, which I think form a pretty balanced party. When I ran Lost Mines of Phandelver, I actually required my friends to use the included characters for the first session. Dungeons & Dragons vs. Rick & Morty also comes with pre-generated characters.

3. Character generation tools

If you feel your players are ready to create their own characters, there are definitely tools such as the one on DnDBeyond. For one campaign that I played in, I created six characters of different races and classes before deciding on one. For the campaign that I'm DMing, one of my players apparently generated 50 characters before deciding on one. This might be a good way to see what the differences are between the various races and classes.

4. Practice combat

After playing more than a few sessions, I still have friends that forget basic rules such as rolling to hit before rolling for damage. Practice combat helps with concepts like initiative, hit rolls, damage rolls, and in general gets your players thinking about their character's abilities. For the campaign that I am currently DMing, we spent a couple hours on practice combat before ever starting the campaign. I used the first fight from Once Upon a Time in Waterdeep, but goblins also make good opponents for players new to 5th Edition.

5. Rule Zero

While I try not to lean on this too much, ultimately the rules are what you say they are. Make judgement calls whenever needed, sometimes even just to speed up game play.

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