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As DM, how much should I coach a party (composed entirely of brand new players) to consider things like assigning someone to stand watch while the party sleeps, covering/hiding provisions, recovering arrows, checking for traps, considering interrogation rather than just killing enemies, etc? These are things a novice usually picks up from adventuring alongside veteran players, but in this case, the DM is the only veteran.

My first thought is that this is a DM preference, and so far I have been letting the party make most of these (avoidable) mistakes so they can grow wiser on their own. That's what "experience" points are for, right? But I wonder, at moments, if I'm being unnecessarily strict about that. A hint here and there, even if delivered slyly through an NPC's dialogue seems allowable, and could save them some heartache, just as learning from a seasoned gamer in their party would. Would this be cheating players of their chance to learn at their own rate, no matter the time & sweat required?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Is this about if they are aware they can or that they should? Some of those things, coming from a videogame background, aren't always things you even can do. If they know they can but don't think they should that is different than them not knowing they can. \$\endgroup\$ – Captain Man Sep 22 '16 at 14:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ Good question. I'm concerned of times that they are unaware, even, of the possibility. Maybe I mean both can and should. \$\endgroup\$ – sparrowhawk Sep 22 '16 at 15:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ Related Question: How can DMs effectively telegraph specific dangers in D&D? rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/3548/… \$\endgroup\$ – sparrowhawk Sep 22 '16 at 15:55
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The first thing to do is Find the Fun.

I ran a campaign in a bygone century with all brand-new gamers. They made every mistake in the book. But to this day, you get that gang together, and they will start laughing about every failed rescue mission and chaotic retreat.

They enjoyed the feeling of doing something entirely new and being a little at sea. Me leading them by the nose towards the right answers would not have been enjoyable for this crew.

On the other hand, if folks are getting frustrated and confused, then judicial hints are in order. You have the right idea, but don't let an NPC become too much of a hint machine — either the players will resent the “nanny” or they may become too passive and let the NPC guide them.

Can you adjust your campaign to their skill level?

How much help you need to give will partially depend on your campaign. If you are running a homebrew, you can dial back the danger so the party can survive.

If you are playing a published campaign (especially a non-introductory one) then the danger may ramp up more quickly than the players are ready to cope with. You might either need to give more frequent hints, scale back the hazards in they encounter, or hand out more treasure (like healing potions).

Are they missing out on whole parts of the game?

If the players are just not figuring out the basic things they need to do, and are missing out on part of the game, then a little guidance is needed. (Sometimes this happens when folks have played video game RPG’s, which provide a simplified play experience compared to “real” D&D.)

For example, players should know:

  1. There is secret stuff in dungeons they should search for.
  2. NPC’s are worth talking to. Unlike some video games, they may have more than one thing to say.
  3. Players can contribute to the story, rather than just waiting for it to be revealed.
  4. Combat is tactical; a plan can be important.

There are tutorials out there

If you feel your players could benefit from a little general background on how D&D is done, there are lots of options out there that Googling "How to play D&D" will turn up.

My favorite crash course for learning about D&D is the B movie, Gamers: Dorkness Rising.

Judging fun and frustration

It can be a little tricky judging whether a little exasperation during the game is unhappiness, or just immersion in the tricky situation (especially for a DM, who needs to juggle lots of mental tasks at once). But stopping the action to talk about everyone’s feelings whenever anyone sighs or frowns would wreck any immersion you’ve got going.

Usually any little break in the action is enough to level-set this. When the pizza arrives, the players are leveling up, etc., ask if everyone’s having fun. Let them know that you feel your challenge here is getting the difficulty right for new players. Watch everyone’s reactions. If anyone’s quiet, follow up by asking what they think.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Would you recommend talking to the players before/after a game session to see if they think they might like some tips, or want to try a session with some tips? My actual playing experience is small, and never included any veteran players, so IDK if too much meta-discussion about the game ruins it for people or is too time consuming when you could be talking about something cool. \$\endgroup\$ – Peter Cordes Sep 22 '16 at 8:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ @PeterCordes it is definitely better to give them hints after the game than during. But only if they bring it up. \$\endgroup\$ – András Sep 22 '16 at 9:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is all great stuff. On the NPC piece, I agree that it's a good way to go, especially if you frame it as a more powerful mentor to the group (eg. Gandalf). Like Gandalf, you should eventually kill him off. That scene should be a real "oh, shit" moment for the party. \$\endgroup\$ – Paul Sep 22 '16 at 20:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ either the players will resent the “nanny” or they may become too passive and let the NPC guide them. or they may decide to have some fun and gang up on the NPC and kill him BWAHAHAHAHA \$\endgroup\$ – Michael Sep 23 '16 at 21:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Michael, and once they turn on their guide, you know they’re no longer beginners. \$\endgroup\$ – Tim Grant Sep 24 '16 at 0:08
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If you are not haplessly slaughtering your players' characters, and if your players are having fun, and they are learning, there might not be a need to do anything at all. Why mess with success, right?

That said, if your players are total flailing newbies (as we all were at one time or another-- if not about RPGs, then about something) and you feel compelled to deliver advice or training to them, then study modern video games.

When I was a kid, playing Ultima games on my basement Babbage Machine, it came packaged with all sort of instructions-- install instructions, basic movement instructions, spell lists, etc. Modern video games don't do that at all. They have integrated (and very overt) tutorials at the front of the game, walking players through the various mechanics and idioms of the game. This technique can be adapted to table-top RPGs in many situations.

If you want to train them, per se, on keeping watch while sleeping, have their first night time encounter be scary, but ultimately harmless as a pointed reminder that things happen while they are sleeping. If you want to train them on trap checking, have the first trap be scripted as a near-miss or a dud trap, or frankly have them come across a previous dead adventurer who sprung the first trap. You can set the expectations and establish the genre without being lethal on the first shot.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Great point on using NPCs in the narrative to provide grim foreshadowing of why it's important to stay alert. +1 \$\endgroup\$ – sparrowhawk Sep 22 '16 at 6:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ The in-game recommendations align with the ideas of "Show signs of an approaching threat" and "Reveal an unwelcome truth" from Dungeon World -- you need to inform the players of the fantastical dangers in your world since, unlike their characters, they didn't grow up in it. \$\endgroup\$ – Dave Sep 22 '16 at 15:54
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The stove might be hot...

Some folks can read something and get a really good idea how to use that information. Others are the same with watching things in action, or hearing it explained. However, there's only so much education that happens that way. Hands-on learning does many things, but one thing is that it demonstrates the consequences of choices. An adage I've heard and used is that you can't teach a child that the stove is hot. But they sure do learn it.

Fun is the point

If they're having fun 'floundering', then keep it up. If it seems un-fun, try to fix it.

Try not to lead by the nose

If you're concerned about the players not taking proper precautions, try just talking to them out of character, saying it pretty much that vaguely.

"Guys, treat this like it's a military adventure we're writing. What do you think people in dangerous, unfamiliar or enemy territory would do in the situations we're running? Try to think in those terms, especially for the martial or survival oriented characters. Heck, it might even be really in-character for your non-martial and city-bred characters to be completely clueless about safety, stealth and survival..."

Obviously that's really long-winded (It's just how I roll), but something like that will showcase your concerns without them feeling a nose-ring.

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An experienced DM with a group of new players has an ethical obligation provide an enjoyable experience.

By and large, failing spectacularly due to not understanding the rules of the game is not fun: this includes strategic and tactical rules as well as mechanical rules. Player's placed in this situation would justifiably feel cheated and misled by a DM who exploited their lack of knowledge of how the world works to harm their characters.

In general, people do not learn new skills by trying and failing: the learn by being taught. Once someone has grasped the rudiments of a skill then failure can help hone and polish it but it cannot give the basics.

To draw an analogy with teaching sport, you do not hand someone a tennis racket and ball and put them on the court with Roger Federer to lose 6-0, 6-0, 6-0 in 3 minutes and 25 seconds and possibly suffer fatal blunt trauma injury from his serves. You teach them how to hold the racket, how to hit the ball: the basic skills that allow them to hit the ball back and forth over the net. This is not an aspect where failure teaches - failing to hit a tennis ball tells you nothing about why you failed; coaching does this. When they have gained some level of competence in the skills of tennis you introduce them to the game of tennis against opponents of similar skill because, while winning isn't everything, losing sucks. Again, failure at this level teaches virtually nothing. Once they have some grasp of the game you then introduce them to the tactics: where to stand, when to move up to the net, shot placement etc. It is only at this level of play, where the player understands the skills and the game that there is some prospect that they can use failure to improve their tactics, notwithstanding, coaching will get them there faster.

In the absence of someone on their side of the DM screen who can teach these skills then the obligation falls on you.

Further, players do not gain XP; player characters do - so that is not what they are for. Players gain experience but only if they find the game fun enough that they keep coming back.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I disagree that "people do not learn new skills by trying and failing". That is definitely one way that people learn, and it is the core experience of Dark Souls and the other Souls games. Presentation definitely matters, and you can't punish player ignorance TOO harshly if you want them to keep playing, but punishing ignorance is not inherently bad. \$\endgroup\$ – GreedyRadish Sep 22 '16 at 2:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @GreedyRadish You are operating at a higher level - Dark Souls presumably teaches you which buttons to press on your controller to do things, or is that part of the exploration? \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Sep 22 '16 at 2:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ I would compare knowing the controls in Dark Souls to reading through the PHB once in D&D. You have to actually play the game to master the controls, but the basics are all laid out for you when you start. Similarly a new player to D&D will not be familiar with all the ins and outs of the system, but they should at least understand the very basics of the game. \$\endgroup\$ – GreedyRadish Sep 22 '16 at 2:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ Appreciate you standing up for the unshepharded novice. I agree that there seems to be an ethical duty here. At the same time, I disagree that we do not learn from character setback. Better believe after getting blasted with a poison dart, I began slowing down to examine chest mechanisms before yanking the lid off to dig for coin. And trust that a party that gets robbed of provisions will never again neglect to secure or conceal them before sleeping. But I do agree that they need to have fun. This balance is what I am seeking. +1 for words on ethics & mundane game mechanics & fun. \$\endgroup\$ – sparrowhawk Sep 22 '16 at 3:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ Remember that missing provisions after not standing watch does not mean they are necessarily lost forever. Getting hit by a poison dart does not necessarily mean that there is no (expensive) antidote, or that it is lethal. I read this answer as: Don't put a hallway full of lethal traps, with a way to avoid it by climbing, without actually letting the players know that climbing is a thing they can do. You could let the players run into the lethal traps, but they don't learn they can avoid those traps by climbing. Or disarming the traps. Or throwing explosives at them. \$\endgroup\$ – Sumurai8 Sep 23 '16 at 16:56
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Player characters are usually more than competent adventurers. This means if they have a skill then the character knows how best to use it. A scout would know how to scout, and an adventuring party would know the precautions necessary to make camp safe.

In the same way that you don't ask a player whose PC is a Fighter to demonstrate that they can effectively handle a long sword, you shouldn't expect a player whose PC is a scout to personally be able to demonstrate the skills and knowledge linked to being a scout.

So yes, as an experienced DM I believe you should do some hand holding to help your players with the basics of what their characters would know in game.

However, there are situations where the line is a little more blurry as to what constitutes 'basics', and you will need to exercise your judgement as to what is going to be the most fun for the players, as described in other answers to this question.

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My technique is to give information as an aside. I let them come to a decision they want themselves, then I step into an aside and I will help them understand what each skill they have could be used for.

So, if they're about to head to a tower two weeks away in a frozen wasteland, I might say:

OK, so you all decided to head to that tower right?

It might be worthwhile thinking about how you get there. Someone who's good with people might be able to find someone in town with information, or someone who's used to the area might know the dangers of the route.

Just take a look at your character sheet and note the skills, abilities and backstory you've given them, and think about how that could be useful planning for what might be a long and dangerous journey.

Remember, you might not know the path to the tower, but depending on your character's background, they might know that kind of stuff.

Feel free to always just ask me questions like "Does my character know anything about how dangerous the path is?" and I will let you know how you can figure that out.

I have found that this kind of talk let new players back away from just saying "Yeah, we're going to the tower I guess" to actually thinking about how their specific character would be feeling as they're about to spend two weeks trekking through the snow. Once they're thinking about that, I find they'll often have tons of questions about what they can and can't do.

Finally, sometimes they might legitimately not think of something like protecting their food. I would make note of these concerns on a list and let them off easy the first time. For example, if they don't protect their food, have some thieves try and steal it on the day after they left town. If the thieves are successful, then the group may lose a day and some money, but they learned a lot and won't end up rolling a random encounter a week down the road that leaves them stranded and dying.

When that random encounter does show up though, pull no punches. If they continued to be risky with their food, they may really end up in a bad place, and those situations are often what make D&D fun :)

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It depends on the play group. If your players are okay with learning through their mistakes and possibly dying for those mistakes then it is fine to let them bumble through their first adventure and walk into loads of traps and ambushes. If that is not something they would enjoy then it is fine to pull back and try not to penalize them as hard.

In a situation like this where the GM is the only experienced player, it might be helpful to add an NPC companion to the party that can make suggestions on tactics and concepts that the players are not familiar with. I know the GMPC is an unpopular idea for some tables, but if you play it well and don't let the character hog the spotlight it can be a helpful addition to the group, plus if the players end up growing attached to the GMPC you can use his death or betrayal as a powerful story hook.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Re GMPC death: Love the flex and priority of story/creativity to turn a downside into a positive. +1 \$\endgroup\$ – sparrowhawk Sep 22 '16 at 3:08
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This is a special opportunity they will never have again. As a GM I have at times given a group of new players characters that did not have a lot of experience adventuring. Otherwise the mistakes they will make don't make much sense in character, so you end up having to give them lots of "well, you would know that...", which can destroy some of their agency as players.

On the other hand, giving them characters that themselves are inexperienced turns the player's problems into good role-playing, and, hopefully, sends the players the message that their "mistakes" are not a problem, but part of the fun.

As always things like this are a matter of taste, and some players would feel like they are the butt of a joke and hate it. But it can work out and with a lot of new players it's always something I consider, because this is literally their only chance to play as a complete neophyte and they might as well experience the upside of that, if it's something they would like.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I really enjoy the creativity at work in this solution. +1 \$\endgroup\$ – sparrowhawk Sep 22 '16 at 20:53

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