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Someone I know recently expressed interest in playing D&D. This came at the perfect time because I and some other friends were about to start a D&D 5e game.

The problem is, I don't know how to teach this person the game. Usually, my advice is, just read the PHB, but the person in question isn't much of a reader, and I'm afraid that this will turn them off from TTRPGs. I also don't have the time to sit down with them to guide them through every aspect of the game in a long session before the campaign starts. Our game starts in 13 days.

I want to teach this person a basic grasp of the game, and let the rest of us fill in gaps as they come up. How can I teach them this? Are there any helpful resources, online guides, videos I ought to give this person for example?

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Keerthik Muruganandam is a new contributor to this site. Take care in asking for clarification, commenting, and answering. Check out our Code of Conduct.
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Play the game

Just play. Give the person a pregen character for the first couple of sessions (something simple, Champion Fighter for example) and just let them play.

Don't worry about rules, just ask them to describe intentions.

Fighty McFightFace runs up to the nearest goblin and munts them with his maul!

Fighty glares at the mayor, "That offer's too little, pay us more gold."

Be Cheerful

It is awesome when new people enter a hobby. Sharing my hobbies with a new person is of immense joy to me. Make sure you welcome them and nurture them and make them feel comfortable.

Don't Send Them Videos

I realise this one may be controversial, but I don't suggest sending them links to "how to play D&D" videos. Many videos on the web are for the entertainment of people watching videos, more than the entertainment of the players. Some of them are very bad tutorials for playing the game.

Also, tables have different atmospheres. You want this new person to join your table without too many misconceptions or opinions.

Don't Require Them to Read Books

They don't need it. Everything they need will be on the character sheet for the first few sessions, after that you can direct them to just read certain paragraphs.

I've GMed for people who found reading difficult (second-language issues, mostly, but also a couple of dyslexia-similar issues). Not reading the book is mostly a non-issue.

However, do make the books available so that if they want, they can read them (hat-tip Austin Hemmelgarn).

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    \$\begingroup\$ On the last point, do at least make sure the books are available, just don’t require the player to read them. Some people will very much prefer to be able to read through certain parts of the book and will usually do better if given the opportunity to do so. I strongly suggest pointing them at the chapter on combat first though, as that’s usually the part other than spellcasting that trips up new players in my experience. \$\endgroup\$ – Austin Hemmelgarn May 5 at 11:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ I also find reading RPG texts difficult because of ADHD. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener May 5 at 11:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a good answer -- it's how I introduced my current group to D&D (also making the books available, as Austin suggests). One additional tip: think about which bits of the game you think it's most important to learn, and arrange things so that they come up. In my case, this meant some social encounters, some scenes involving skill checks, and then a simple combat at the end of session 1. \$\endgroup\$ – Alexander Betts May 5 at 12:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'd add to just tol them what to roll during the game. They don't need to know their BAB and so on ... when they attack just say "roll that 20-sided die, you want high". When they get a feel for the #'s then they may ask about it, or want to know what chapter of the rules it's in. Also, be very careful letting other players tell them what to do. I can be bossy and overwhelming. \$\endgroup\$ – Owen Reynolds May 5 at 14:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Don't Send Them Videos" + "Don't Get Them to Read Books" - Some people would probably prefer videos or books. Some videos might be bad tutorials, but pretty much anything is going to have different levels of quality. The better ones will probably just not be too engaging for people who don't like to learn in that way (but can be best for the people who do). While I'd probably recommend "Just play" by default, I wouldn't say you should avoid giving video or book recommendations at all costs, especially not if they specifically ask for it or when it's just to supplement the "Just play" approach \$\endgroup\$ – NotThatGuy May 5 at 19:49
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As someone who introduced multiple people to the hobby, in many cases without even having access to a rulebook, I realized that there is just one thing you need to explain to a new player who wants to start playing DnD (and most other pen&paper RPGs). And that's the basic game loop:

  1. The dungeon master describes the situation
  2. The players say what their characters try to do
  3. The dungeon master describes the outcome

That's basically all they need to know in order to play. There is really just one person at the table who needs to know all the game rules which govern what happens in step 3, and that's the DM.

Yes, there is also the character creation. You can't play without a character. But when the new player does not know the rules yet, then they won't understand any of the decisions they make during character building. So it's best to just ask them what kind of character they want to play, and then create that character for them. I would recommend to stay away from spellcasters for now, as they require some understanding of what their spells do in order to be played properly. Again, they don't need to understand their character sheet. They just need a plain language explanation of what their character is good at and what they are bad at.

A character sheet on the table and knowledge of the basic game loop should be all you need to start playing.

This is until the party gets into their first combat encounter. Which should be simple and easy to win. That's the point when you need to explain a few combat mechanics. Especially what their character can and can't do on their turn. Fortunately, most first level characters have rather few options of what to do, and even fewer if you exclude highly situational actions they won't even think of doing in a simple combat encounter. So you really just need to explain moving, attacking and perhaps the one combat-related class feature their character has at level 1. More advanced actions (ready, hide, disengage, dodge, grapple...) can wait for another time.

This might actually be all you need for the first session. When the player enjoyed the session, then you can introduce them to the more complex mechanics of DnD in order to allow them to make more informed choices in the next session. Either by explaining those rules to them, lending them the rulebooks or directing them to online resources.

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Walk Them Through It

Since you've stipulated that they have some interest, I'll assume that they have some basic idea what the game is about, so you don't need to do that. And since you've also stipulated that you're about to start a game, it seems plausible that your group hasn't settled on characters and may not be very far into that process.

If that's the case, that's almost optimal. What I would do is not very different from how I would normally start a game:

  1. A Session Zero and/or Same Page Tool, to get everyone moving in the same direction. (I personally prefer the former, but this is a matter of taste.) These are, in their own ways, good introductions to what role playing is, as well as how you expect the game to treat your new player and how you expect the new player to treat the game in return. It's also a great way to give them a chance to ask questions and to spread the burden of the introduction to your whole group instead of just you. Be prepared to keep on eye on her, though, and make sure they're not getting overwhelmed or steamrolled (even unintentionally) by the rest of the group.

  2. Ask your player to skim the first few chapters of the Player's Handbook-- enough to get a basic handle on the basics of character races, character classes, etc.

  3. Joint Character Creation-- I honestly don't let even experienced players, even ones I've known and been gaming with for decades, go into character creation open loop. I've got reasons, mainly, that I like to guide them away from bad choices that just don't happen to fit the game and I like to make sure all the characters are connected to at least one other. No brooding lone wolves in my games. But! This is also an excellent way to help the new player through the character creation process, and again spread some of that burden around to other players. It's also virtually certain that your other players will have their own questions, and your newer player gets the benefit of hearing those answers as well. Be prepared to spend more time with this player than the others, though.

  4. Then... dive in. Be prepared to go a little slow, at first. It's highly unlikely a new player will come prepared to the first session knowing exactly what to roll in every situation, or what the time-tested tactics are. But they'll pick it up.

If that isn't the case (if you've already done all that preliminary stuff with your group, or if you're unalterably opposed to Sessions Zero and joint character creation) then you may need to set aside a little one on one time to impart some of the same information to them on their own. Be prepared to tell them what the table etiquette is like (i.e., is player-vs-player forbidden, allowed, or encouraged?) and so forth.

And I would strongly encourage you to help them with the creation of their first character if you're not going to do a joint session.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Being prepared to help someone is worth it's weight in gold. I remember my first ever tabletop session, where I had to create a character and the GM was getting rather impatient with me, since I required so much help. \$\endgroup\$ – MechMK1 May 7 at 13:52
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Do a Tutorial like in a video game

In fact that's not only for new players. Every encounter and every puzzle should have some kind of tutorial in beforehand. Teach your players how to play YOUR game. That's why it is important that design your adventures with that in mind. And like you'd never give your players the stat block of a monster, you don't give new players the whole PHB to read.

How does that look like in practice?

Every encounter should be designed in a pattern. You have an easy encounter that teaches you some of the abilities of a following considerably more difficult encounter. There are actually many Game Design YT-videos FOR YOU to design your adventures. It sounds a little bit odd, because you explicitly asked for videos for your new players... but it's your job as a DM to introduce them, not some YouTuber's.

It's done like this for example: Have the typical meetup scene (ie. ye olde boring meetup-tavern) and have it interrupted by an easy combat encounter with some bullet-sponge that lives long enough for every player to do some combat actions but doesn't do much damage to the players. You don't want them to die during the training session. If you want to design it more dramatically have that bullet sponge mangle a no-name redshirt to tell your players indirectly: "THAT THING IS DANGEROUS!"

Use that fight to teach your players combat actions. They learn from that how initiative and combat rolls work. After that first combat let them have some utility action: everything that involves skill checks.

You tell them: "You describe what you want to do and I tell you on what you have to roll, or if you don't need to roll."

Adapt that utility parts to your player characters. If you have a lock picking rogue, put in some locks to pick or have some persuasion checks for the party's face. That's for teaching your players what their characters are good for during off-combat encounters.

The next combat is a some kind of harder version of the first fight. The only thing you add is damage to players, so your healer can learn how to heal. During that fight you foreshadow some abilities for an upcoming boss fight. Design that foreshadowing encounter in dependence to your next more dangerous encounter.

For example:
You want your players to run into a mind flayer and want to foreshadow the ability to detect thoughts. Let them have an encounter that can cast Detect thoughts and create a situation where that spell gets relevant and recognizable. That way they already know that there's the ability to detect thoughts without telling your players directly. In every encounter you foreshadow a new ability of your boss, that's (in the best case) is a combination of all encounters your players had to face.
That counts for every type of player no matter if you do that for new or veteran players. You have to teach your players how to play YOUR game, because the DM is the most defining factor and every DM has their own style of running a game.

Have that tutorial adventure before a session zero

If you have new players they won't benefit much from a session zero, because they don't know what to expect from the game in general. They don't know all the aspects of the game and thus can't tell what they like and don't like. So have your tutorial to be a hybrid of many different aspects the game can be. After that tutorial session have your session zero... like: "Okay, you now know some of the game's aspects, what did you like most?"
Listen carefully and take notes. Allow your players to change class or character, if they didn't like the particular play style of their character. And then you write your actual campaign.

That said: Don't introduce a completely new player into a running group. The game is complicated enough on level 1 for a player who never played DnD before. Have a fresh level 1 party for your tutorial adventure (a one- or two-shot). If your new players got the game's mechanics very quickly give them a level-up after that tutorial. That way they already learn the next important thing about D&D and are able to start the campaign knowing all the game's basics. In my experience it works pretty darn well.

Another Tipp for you as a DM: Learn the basics of Game Design. What defines an interesting encounter that teaches your players how to play the game?

There are many things to know about that topic and no clear rules to design that, but many, many possibilities to accomplish what you want to teach your players.

Here are some YT-channels (for YOU, not your players) that teach you some stuff about game design:

Extra Credits

Game Maker's Toolkit

Adam Millard - Architect of Games

Game Developers Conference

There's actually plenty of good stuff about that topic on YouTube and it helps you to become a better DM. Because that's actually the quintessence of your question: it's not about your players about learning the game it's about you introducing them into your fantasies.

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@Greenstone Walker has the best answer. I would like to just add a suggestions as to how to play the game with a new player.

1 - Use an online platform or other tool

A lot of people see DnD as this scary set of rules and math. Most online platforms such as Roll20 (#NotASponsor lol) have a lot of the rules, such as advantage, attacks, and damage already built in. Bonus points to any DM willing to learn all of the other useful things you can do, such as creating additional macros to help new players.

2 - Encourage them to play simple to play classes

This section will probably upset a few people, as which class is the "easiest" is obviously a debate between players across the board. So please keep in mind that when I say easiest, I mean easiest to play, not to build.

This being said, unless you have a macro ready for rage, avoid barbarian, and all caster classes. I would recommend playing either a monk or a fighter, as they have less "things" to keep track of, and not too many finicky mechanics, if you build them that way.

If the player is hell bent on being a spell caster. I would encourage paladin, and starting at level 1 so they have a chance to learn the basic mechanics before adding spells.

3 - Help them build their character

The scariest part of DnD for most new players that I have DMed for, is character creation. It makes sense, it's a large blank canvas with a lot of boxes, that requires you to memorize this giant 200+ page book cover to cover (obviously not true, but you must remember your first character).

Many new players just want to play a character you made for them, and that is 100% fine too, but if you instead walk them through the character creation, it gives them a chance to demystify the character sheet, and will help avoid the "where is my HP at again" problem that slows down the game, and therefore the fun!

4 - Play the game

See Greenstone Walker's answer. They have the rest detailed very well!

Good luck, and don't forget to have fun!

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I agree with all the learn by playing advice above. I also have a few more bits of advice from teaching lots of new players, including in workshops. This advice also applies to players who know the basics but have trouble learning or remembering rules. There are plenty of folks who find this difficult for a variety of reasons, but as long as they’re making an effort and staying engaged, we should encourage and assist them where needed.

Teach rules when they become relevant

Don’t try and teach them everything before they are in the game. Explain things as you go. So the first time someone makes a roll at the table, explain what dice they’re using, and what number they’re looking up, and how that affects the narrative. The first time someone casts a spell, explain that spells in Dungeons & Dragons have very specific effects, each one is different, and they use up the caster’s magical energy, as represented by spell slots (or otherwise).

This way they learn by watching and by doing.

Get the whole table on board

Check in with the other players and make sure they are enthusiastic about introducing a new player. This shouldn’t mean everyone tries to explain rules, as that can get confusing and difficult to manage, but it’s good and healthy for a group of friends to be open to new people and to want to help those née people learn the ropes.

One technique that works well is each session, once you’ve started, have one other player volunteer to help the new player when they have questions about rules they’ve already learned (as they inevitably will). This relieves the DM of that job some of the time, and also helps to relieve the feeling of anxiety some folks feel about getting it wrong and annoying everyone, because they’ll know that everyone is happy to assist them.

Another way you can do it is have players volunteer to be subject matter experts - maybe the Wizard player is the go-to person for magic and spells, the fighter is the helper for combat, the multi class optimiser assists at level up time (without being pushy - see below) etc. This lets other players show their knowledge and give a united front of helpfulness.

Make or help them find play aids

There are plenty of rules summaries and cheat sheets available online (I have some I made on my own website), though often encouraging someone to make their own - or assisting by making on tailored to them - works best.

Let them ask for help and make sure they know that’s welcome

Don’t help a player who isn’t asking for help! But make it clear that no-one has any problem with that, and that they can ask for any time.

Don’t penalise player mistakes

Characters mess up and get into trouble all the time. That’s great. But players should always feel that if they make a mistake, they will be helped at an appropriate time and that things will get sorted out afterwards, rather than them ending up doing nothing or blowing themselves up etc.

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Do a brief, verbal explanation of what the game is about

You can just dump players in, but they're often confused about how to interact with the world. As such, explain the basics of social interaction, skill interaction, and combat interaction. If they have fluency in an existing medium, I might explain it in terms of that.

"It's like skyrim. You start off in a village a lot of time, and can use your social skills to get cool items, negotiate quests. You have skills like diplomacy and deception to do that, and resources like gold. You then go out into the world and use your abilities to get to wherever you want to go. For example, you might use athletics to climb to the top of a tower where a dragon is waiting. When you get there, you can try to negotiate with the monsters, or sneak in and take their stuff, or do lots of things, or you can fight them. You want to use your weapons and spells to defeat the dragon so you can then take all their loot and go back home. To do stuff, you roll a d20, and higher is better. Your special abilities and items add a number to this, generally between -1 and 5. "

On the day, offer them a few pregens, and cards for each.

It's hard remembering how characters work, and how the mechanics of abilities work, so offer them a few options of pregenerated characters they can tweak to use. To make it easier for them to use their mechanical abilities, print them out on cards, and give them to them, or draw them yourself. Give them a card for each of their proficient skills, for their stats, for any spells, for their hitpoints, for their normal attack, and for any special class abilities they have. This means they don't need to memorize their abilities. If they don't like reading, they won't.

If you don't have time for multiple character cards, just ask them to pick their character first, and make them after.

During the game, make it a fairly simple campaign, and make heavy use of visual props and clear description

Theater of mind is much more complicated for new players. Having a simple map and some tokens can help a lot with letting them decide what to do. Likewise, complex campaigns which need heavy use of campaign abilities are difficult. Go for something that is easy to represent and follow. It's a lot easier to say "I stab the orc" if the orc has a token.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I was thinking of answering, but you advocacy for a pre gen, and a few other points, covered what I thought was missing, so +1 for saving me the work. 😊 \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast May 5 at 15:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ Another +1 for mentioning cards. It's hard for new players to know what parts of the PHB are going to matter, but it's easy for a more experienced player or DM to copy the important bits onto cards or a cheat-sheet. I'm not sure I'd want to risk overwhelming them with quite so many cards (hitpoints??) - I'd rather teach them the basic mechanics for e.g. their basic attack, and provide cards for special abilities. In my experience, cards can be better than cheat-sheets because players will end up reordering them, putting the ones they've memorized aside, and making the stack that works for them \$\endgroup\$ – A C May 6 at 5:38
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Make a complex system simple

  • Take over all systematic aspects of the game - rolls, checks. The player should experience the game's dynamic before he faces the technical parts.
  • Think of what you'd do in the players shoes and ask him before he does something what would he want to do. Give him 2 or 3 good choices what would be a good thing to do and describe the possible results according to the situation. Only explain the chosen action in terms of how it translates to actions the player does.

For example, if the player is in a fight tell him about fighting or running away and what is likely to happen. if he wants to fight tell him according to his character what's the best attack. You roll initiative for him and don't focus on that too much (you don't want to swamp with new information). Tell him what die to roll and only focus on main systems like hitting and damage. The small details are best learned over time.

  • Be very forgiving with the results. Don't kill your player when he doesn't really know the full range of possible outcomes to his actions.

For example I have a game with new players and instead of death saves by 0HP they all transport into a dream world, which is an individual really short one shot. Basically they must preform a task, solve a riddle and such in order to return with 1HP. It's more work for me as a DM but they don't works together and some of them die almost every fight. They do things like trying to check the genitalia of an attacking bear during its attack. I let them because they learn that's not a very good idea but I don't punish them with the help of my no-real-death system until I feel they know enough to stand on their own.

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Find or create a very small dungeon, and run a one-on-one session with them to show them the ropes.

Why one-on-one?

  • you don't want other players trying to talk over you to explain things

  • you don't want the noob to get distracted by other players

  • you don't want multiple people fast-forwarding through the game mechanics and confusing the noob before the noob's had a chance to understand each game mechanic at their own pace.

  • you don't want players telling the noob WRONG information, which then wastes your time to correct / clarify

EG: your noob finds a potion. Player X starts talking about how potions come in different varieties, then gets side-tracked talking about treasures, and before you know it they're going on about sentient swords and other crap that's way beyond the scope of just showing the noob the basic ropes.

EG: your noob wants to do something. You tell them to roll against a certain skill or something. Another player interjects and says "akthually" it should be against some other skill. Argument ensues. Noob is left wondering who to trust, but, more importantly, is left hanging, bored, while you folks hash your conflict out.

You might be able to find a pre-canned intro dungeon online. But, you can easily make your own.

  • Shouldn't be more than 3 or 4 rooms... like a small crypt or goblin/kobold cave

  • It can have an entrance, and rooms lined up to work their way through to an exit point, with each room introducing a new mechanic.. or just have a hall junction that branches to each room and player can explore as-they-see fit to learn about each mechanic (this might be better, so player learns they get to make choices, not just get railroaded by you forcing them down linear paths).

Not to be cliche, but give them a basic fighter to start with, so they can learn basics w/o getting overwhelmed by extra character details, like spells or sneaking / lockpicking.

It should cover the basics for D&D:

  • how the DM describes an area, and asks what the player wants to do
  • a small combat (probably 1-vs-1, like a small skeleton or goblin/kobold)
  • a non-hostile NPC the player can chat with, possibly learning that different alignments mean characters act a bit differently, which may conflict with the PC's alignment / motives (maybe they free a prisoner stuck in the crypt/cave)
  • finding loot, but tell them since the character is in hostile territory, they'll just bag it up for now and count it later at the inn so you can move on without going into that detail yet
  • magic items & usage.. like a potion of healing they can drink and identify
  • skill test.. like maybe a strength test to bash a door
  • saving throw test (do they still do saving throws?) to avoid something, like a spring-loaded trap in a chest with a mild poison that hurts them (good time to use the potion of healing)
  • maybe encumbrance if you use it (most games I've played, DM's ignored encumbrance unless players got really abusive, like trying to haul around canoes on their backs)

It should also cover the basics of the play-style you prefer players follow:

EG: when folks first get into D&D, they just think "kill all monsters". But, as we mature, we learn that not every monster is hostile. Some can be chatted with, and a fight can be avoided. Maybe even valuable info is learned by doing so. So, if you prefer players try to be non-violent first, then you could have an encounter with a goblin or something that teaches that. They could come across a goblin child, and choose to kill it or let it go or help it. Who knows. But, it lets the player know they have more options than just munchkin-style "kill all monsters and reap the eeps!"

If your campaign uses some special basic thing every character would know about.. it would be a good time to introduce it to the player.

EG: if you had a sci fi game where forcefields hurt people when they touched them, you could have a forcefield in the intro dungeon that the player could push a monster into for damage, thus the player learns how forcefields work.

Just very basic stuff that would need to know, so they don't make a stupid mistake at the very start of a real adventure with a real character.

At the end of the adventure, that's when you teach them about the wrap-up...

  • splitting loot... now's the time to count the coins, and divide the loot. Maybe they learned about the crypt/cave from an NPC that they agreed to split the take with. So, they learn about splitting loot with others.

  • experience ... you've tracked what they earned from "defeating" encounters (either by killing stuff or evading it or talking with it non-violently), and maybe they get an overall xp award for an adventure completion. It should be enough for them to go up a level, so you can then discuss how characters gain levels and can look at new skills and such.

  • downtime... old-school D&D that I played just have faux down-time the DM and players would just assume stuff got done in, but I hear new-school D&D actually organizes downtime better. You could have the player go over something they wanted the character to do in downtime.

Downtime might actually be a good thing to START the adventure with... by letting the player know their character has an adventure coming up, but has downtime to prepare for it. So, they can decide how to use some downtime actions, and depending on how they decide, it will impact how prepared they are. Do they want to go shop for a new weapon or shield? Do they want to buy a torch or rope? It can help them learn how to use downtime and also shopping.

This adventure shouldn't take more than an hour to run through, and shouldn't be all that confusing. EG: a 1v1 combat with a goblin can teach mechanics without over-whelming the noob.

But, at the end, they should have a good grasp on the basics, and can be ready to draw up their own character.. which you could walk them through to prep it for joining the other players during a regular session.

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