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?


10 Answers 10


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, 2020 at 10:12
  • 1
    \$\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\$ Feb 4, 2020 at 16:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ Can you talk about how you've done some of these things and how they worked out? \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    May 25, 2021 at 17:01

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.


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 ...


I have so far used two approaches to this (and since learned a third):

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 haven'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 by explaining the bare minimum. For example, I used something like this at 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 that 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 borrow and study them for a few days.

Luckily, my players new to the hobby have been 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.

lower the entry barrier - and affirm it

A GM I recently talked to had set the knowledge of the basic framework as an entry barrier into their game group. They did so by handing interested people a very slimmed-down version of just the absolute basic rules and terminology together with a short play-experience story. Basically, it was a handout telling them how and when dice-rolling happens, what terms mean, and how the game is meant to be played. Possibly call it an even more dumbed down Basic Rules that skips on all the technicalities.

And now comes the crux: to play in his group, you had to affirm that you had at least read and understood what was on these handouts. So you had to at least skim four pages and have them with you/available for quick reference. While this certainly isn't an including and inviting gesture, that GM had felt the need to sift out people that couldn't even spend 30 minutes to read a little story and the very basic ideas of how the game works. As a rebuttal to noting this, they answered akin to "If they are willing to spend 30 minutes to prepare for the game, I am more than willing to spend 3 hours explaining to them the rest of the rules they need to know."

Apparently, the step has helped with player retention: since then only one out of ten that did start under him did hang up the game completely, and most would actively seek to learn the rules. (That GM's numbers, not mine).

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 of clones. In Paranoia, you are not allowed to know the rules as a player.

After the radical "you may not know the rules", they asked where to get the rules for the game they wanted to play the week after.

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    \$\begingroup\$ How did the players respond to affirmation session? Did that go well? How did the Paranoia run go? That seems like it is trying to teach through negative reinforcement. Not sure I'd have gone for that tool, but how did it go? \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    May 25, 2021 at 16:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch sadly the affirmative action is only 2nd hand to me, so based on what they told me, but I think it is somewhat reliable. The shock treatment of paranoia made the players ask me where to get the rules for a game I wasn't even familiar with but which was offered (by a different GM) regularly. Though that was like in January 2020, pre lock downs... not sure if they stuck to that game either.. \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    May 25, 2021 at 17:26

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 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 pace.

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\$ Feb 3, 2020 at 16:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ Related: How to get a DM to step up their game. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mazura
    Feb 4, 2020 at 2:20

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\$ 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\$ Feb 3, 2020 at 14:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ How well has using cards like this worked? Are there any type of player/person it works better with than others? Are there any perils or tripfalls with respect to making sure they're kept, brought, looked at at all? Adding depth based on your own experience with the method you suggest would substantially improve this answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil
    May 25, 2021 at 17:49

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.)

  • \$\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\$ Feb 2, 2020 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, 2020 at 1:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ Have you tried these out - and if so, can you talk about how it went, player reactions, etc.? \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    May 25, 2021 at 17:02

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.

  • \$\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\$ Feb 1, 2020 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, 2020 at 19:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, chapter 7 and chapter 9 are important for running the game. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 1, 2020 at 21:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ Can you add some details about how you've used or seen these used and how it went? \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    May 25, 2021 at 17:01

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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    \$\begingroup\$ I would love to see you share more of your experience introducing players using this method, and while you're at it, you should probably change out the terminology and examples to fit 5e (so it doesn't confuse new players in particular). Of note, they're called ability checks not skill checks, and there's nothing called Craft. And I'd really like to see more explanation and support for the notions toward end, in particular with the half-orc rogue example. \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil
    May 25, 2021 at 18:01

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. Dungeons & Dragons vs. Rick & Morty also comes with pre-generated characters.

When I ran Lost Mines of Phandelver, I actually required my friends to use the included characters for the first session. I think it was a good move, given that none of us had ever played 5E before and I think one of us had never played D&D at all. I don't remember anyone having any issues, and the player that controlled the wizard has insisted on playing a sorceress in each of the following campaigns that she's played in. For the second session of LMoP we made our own characters, and immediately hit the issue that none of the characters had thieves' tools.

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.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ How did requiring the use of pre-gen go? Was everyone on board with that? \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    May 25, 2021 at 17:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ Try and include player reactions and an analysis of what worked and why (as well as what didn't and why!) \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    May 25, 2021 at 17:20


(Keep it simple, stupid-- no, even simpler than that!)

Dungeons and Dragons is a complicated game. I think it's easy to forget, knowing that 5e was simplified so much from earlier editions, that it's still got a ton of moving parts, and it can be immensely overwhelming to get started.

I've DMed for a variety of brand new players, some of whom were only obliquely aware of the game before I offered to run a little oneshot for everyone.

So, let's walk through the process I use to get new players up and running.

Character Creation

Make characters for them, or whilst sitting next to them. Character creation is an enormous hurdle in D&D, and it's made more difficult by the fact that a new player likely has no idea what they want to play as or what play style will mesh with them.

If I'm making characters for them, I try to pick simpler classes and generic fantasy archetypes, so that anyone who has so much as heard of Lord of the Rings will be able to figure out their "role" in the party. I mostly do this for family parties, where some of the players will understandably be more enthusiastic than others.

If I'm having players make their own characters, I ask them first what sort of fantasy character appeals to them (Do you want to be like Legolas? Arya Stark?), and then steer them towards a race and class combo that I think will fit their wants. Again, this is for a oneshot, so it doesn't matter if they don't wind up loving the character.

Then, I sit next to them with the Player's Handbook open, and we make the character together. This means I'm there to advise and guide them to the bits of information that are relevant to them. D&D can be a firehose of information if you don't have a guide; helping players skip over irrelevant nuances or overcomplicated spells mitigates this a lot.

I always roll stats with a new player. Why? Because rolling dice is fun, and it takes a long time to get to the point of having fun in D&D, especially the first time you play. Monkey brain likes seeing numbers that are big! Monkey brain likes throwing shiny math rocks around! Feed the monkey brain a little bit during this prep phase. This bit of advice is answering something that seems implicit in your group giving up on learning the rules: they gave up because they weren't having fun!

In my experience, around half of my players will want to build their own character, and half are happy with a pre-gen. Sometimes, rules-based questions come up in the process of character building-- either specific to the character ("What's inspiration?"/"What is this Hellish Rebuke thing and where is it explained?") or more general ("What is the difference between a bonus action and an action?").

In either case, this has given me the chance to explain that rule in context, to a person who actually thought to ask. I don't want to get too deep into the theories about how humans learn and the best ways to teach people, but a question that's asked in context is frequently a better learning opportunity than an answer provided to someone with no idea what question would even necessitate it.


I employ a strategy similar to the one suggested by @Devin-A-Poet, but even simpler. I give the players a simple rundown of how the game works, with the steps listed in order.

  1. You, the player, tell me, the dungeon master, what you would like to do.
  2. I will either tell you that you succeed, or will ask you to roll a check. This will involve rolling a 20-sided die and adding a value from your character sheet to it. I'll tell you which value will be added.
  3. You will roll for that check, and tell me what number resulted.
  4. I will tell you if you succeeded or failed, and narrate what happens next.

Like I said: keep it simple, stupid-- no, even simpler than that. We are paring D&D down to its barest essentials. There are things that don't fit into this ultra-simplified description, but guess what? I can (and will) explain those on the fly, because I know the rules, and can clarify what's going on.

I make sure to both email these dumbed-down rules to all players before the game, as well as providing a printed copy to each player. Many games with complicated rules for the order of play do this; Castle Panic is just one that comes to mind, but I suspect it isn't the only game to do so.

I've found that providing this guideline to players has gotten them more engaged and more likely to take the lead when compared to the group where I didn't do this. Setting up the explanation of the flow of play as being player-initiated helps to get them moving.


Your players say they learn best by doing, and honestly, with D&D, I think most people do. So... get them playing! Don't dive in with your full campaign. Do something short and relatively fluffy, so that they get the feel for the game.

You're going to be fielding a lot of questions in this session. Many of them will be stupid. Answer them with grace and ask players to take notes on what's happening to clarify for themselves later. Some players do this on their own, but others might need a reminder from you to jot down the information on the appropriate part of their character sheet.

One of the most frequent notes I see people making for themselves is about the difference between rolling damage and rolling to hit. Yes, I could explain the difference before the game even begins, and sometimes I do, if they ask why their weapon has so many numbers next to it. But when I've done so, I can see their eyes glaze over in confusion; they don't know the use case for this set of numbers!

What happens the moment you start playing is that the players have context. All those rules fit into the flow of a game; the numbers aren't just statistics on a page; the spells aren't just convoluted text. The next time they try to read through the rules, they'll know what they're looking at, and why it works the way it works. The next time they go to make a character, they'll know what they liked and didn't like about the last one.

I've fielded questions from various players on this sort of thing-- one who wasn't sure she liked playing a bard, since she didn't love being a support class; one who wasn't sure he was loving his wizard and thought a bard might work better; and one who wasn't thrilled about his paladin's damage output and was trying to pick better spells for the future. (Yes, in my experience, spellcasters cause the most confusion.)

In each case, once again, they had context for the answer I was going to give them, making it much easier for that information to actually stick. They understood what they didn't know, and knew where to seek that information out.

I do advise lending your players dice, or having them purchase their own (if they've got the $8 to spare for a basic set at their LFGS). The physical act of rolling dice and the anticipation of the roll is part of the fun, and the tactile experience can help to get them engaged-- at least, it worked that way for me! (I will freely admit that two of my players were young teenagers, but the various parental units in their 50s, as well as the grandmother of teens, also seemed pretty happy with their "props"!) Again, as above, this is about making things fun for the new group. After all, why would anyone bother learning a complex set of rules for something that isn't fun? Make it clear that it'll be absolutely worth their invested time!


You asked, "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?"

The answer is: Yes. Both.

If, after explaining the rules in the first session, they don't seem to be interested in learning the rules, they don't note down corrections or explanations of confusing mechanics, or anything else that indicates that they're lazy players who refuse to learn the rules: yes, you absolutely should let them know that it's frustrating.

Players who don't know the rules and don't make a good effort to learn are frustrating, both to the DM and the other players-- they're taking up valuable game time by not being on top of it! But there's no way of knowing if this is what's happening with this group until you've been playing with them for at least a handful of sessions.

I have, thankfully, rarely had to deal with this as a DM; normally, after I explain the same rule to a player for the third time, I'll ask them to make a note of it, since it seems to be a confusing point for them. This is not a time for being confrontational! This is usually worded as a friendly reminder using my best teacher voice, and has been pretty effective at preventing me from having to have more serious talks out-of-game.

But I try to give people space to figure out what's happening, and use my best judgement to decide if someone should've read closer or if it's just an honest mistake. Constantly having to remind someone how to make a spell attack is one thing; someone who misunderstands what the spell Chill Touch does is quite another. I try to err on the side of being lenient as much as possible; it's a game, not homework, no matter how much DMing can feel like being a teacher sometimes.

Final Thoughts

Learning something new is hard, especially when it is utterly unfamiliar to the learner. I think many adults have forgotten what it feels like to have to learn something completely new! And make no mistake, tabletop games are unlike anything else that most adults have done. Unless they've played another TTRPG-- perhaps even a D&D edition of yesteryear-- or video game RPGS of a very specific time frame from a very specific set of developers, they have essentially zero context for any of the new information they're trying to take in.

(Trust me, the difference between my dad, who has a terrible memory but played a bit of 2e in college, and my other family members who had zero context for the game is immense! My dad picks up the mechanics far faster than the others, although it did take a bit of persuasion for him to believe that being a paladin could be fun now.)

Be patient, simplify as much as possible, and have fun!

  • \$\begingroup\$ Can you talk ore about how things have gone in your experience doing these? The bounty is for someone that has tried a lot of the standard stuff and gotten nowhere. How is yours different? Talking about not just what you like to do, but how it's gone at the table (how players reacted, both positively and negatively, and how it eventually worked out - good or bad) turns this into a supported answer. What do you do if a player doesn't know what to 'do' to tell you? \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    May 25, 2021 at 18:35
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch I think a verb might've been lost in the last sentence there, but I take your overall point! I sort of lost track of adding in my support somewhere along the line, I'll get that added. \$\endgroup\$
    – Cooper
    May 25, 2021 at 18:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch I edited my post to include some of my examples, but I'm still not sure what "What do you do if a player doesn't know what to 'do' to tell you?" means, do you mind clarifying on that? \$\endgroup\$
    – Cooper
    May 25, 2021 at 20:45

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