D&D: Shaking bad habits out of new players

dungeons_and_dragons_40_ampersand_flat_thumb.pngI’ve been running a game where all the players are D&D noobs. But most of them have played MMOs, other computer RPGs, or even have read D&D novels, and some of this comes with some bad habits that need shaking once they play the real thing. So what are some of the more problematic bad habits that you will encounter?

Your character is more than a set of numbers

Games, to a non-roleplayer, are about mechanics. From your DPS in World of Warcraft, to your number of sheep in Settlers of Catan, they’re all just abstract representations, and they’re what the whole game is about.

Computer roleplaying games tend to be pretty short on the roleplaying part, and players are practically encouraged to care just about numbers, like how much damage they can do. There are few MMOs that make any effort to make the player present any personality.

The background system in 5E does a good job pushing players to make early decisions about who their characters are, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. You should then prompt them with questions during play about why they are doing things, and how they interact with other people in the world. Make them think.

The key thing is this takes time. For some players they can evolve their first characters into having personality and feelings, for others it’s easier for them in their second and third characters, as they can build them from the ground up. I’ve seen both, and you just have to be patient.

You don’t have to kill everything

You don’t have to kill things to get XP and gold. Killing things is not required, or necessarily normal. This is a problem I’ve seen in many new players, who have this type of behaviour drilled into them by MMOs.

You need a bit of both positive and negative reinforcement for this. Quite early, you should give XP and rewards for doing things that are clearly not killing things, and explain this. But if they start killing people or monsters for no good reason, you need to smack them down and quickly.

Start by asking them why they are doing things. Play on their morals (…although, my group has none). Give them pitiful XP and gold for pointless actions and explain why. Have NPCs question their actions. Make them understand the key point at the start: killing stuff isn’t required. If that doesn’t work, you can use negative reinforcement like lost items, imprisonment or even character death to quickly demonstrate that the RPG world is much more realistic than a computer simulation.

Of course, this needs balancing. If you’re running a hack-and-slash dungeon crawl, then tying XP and gold directly to brutally murdering monsters is fine. But for my games, I intentionally give larger rewards for non-combat activities, as the players’ own psychopathic bloodlust is already more than enough incentive to kill things.

You don’t need a quest marker

I learnt this the hard way. My normal group consists of hardened veterans, who will ignore any obvious railroad tracks and blissfully go out of their way just to make things interesting. And it’s great.

New players, though are a completely different kettle of fish. My recent campaigns have had only subtle railroading, with vague prompts, multiple possible plot directions, and very flexible long-term outcomes. Not pure sandbox, but relatively open. My new players got confused. They literally had no idea what they were meant to be doing. There weren’t quest markers, they couldn’t tell who the important NPCs were, and they kept asking me what I wanted them to do.

This isn’t their fault. The type of game that D&D is is just so different from other experiences, that the idea of “you can do anything” completely overwhelmed them. I eventually started dropping more hints about things they could do, and eventually they latched on to a couple and started pursuing them. They’re not there yet, but they’re getting better. A few sessions ago they managed to go completely off track for the first time. They kidnapped an innocent lady, tied her to a door, dragged her across the countryside, and threw her in prison without telling anyone she was there. It was wonderful. Evil and wrong, but wonderful.

What should you get from this? Well, you should try and adjust how railroady or sandboxy your campaign is depending on the players’ roleplaying experience. A pure sandbox game with newbies will just confuse everyone, and a pure railroad game with hardened veterans will frustrate them. Look at how your players are dealing with the situation, and try to change the game on the fly to cater to how they’re handling it.

Not all worlds are alike

One of my players, despite having never played D&D, has played Baldur’s Gate and read various Drizzt books, which gives him some level of understanding of a D&D world, or, rather, the Forgotten Realms. This is the problem.

You see, my world is nothing like the Forgotten Realms. Magic isn’t particularly common. My Dark Elves aren’t always evil, and there’s no Underdark. Dragons aren’t colour-coded for your convenience. And so on.

To deal with this, you need to take a few assumptions, and break them. Break them hard. After they’ve just brutally murdered a pile of goblins, show that the goblins are actually the good guys. Take their meta-game knowledge of creatures and spells and injure of kill their character with them. Show them that they can’t rely on what they know. Tell them they’re wrong. Then turn around and show that their assumptions were right even though you told them they were wrong. Just to mess with them and put the control back in your hands.

This isn’t just a problem with new players: it can be a problem with D&D players moving between settings. I’m currently playing a Dark Elf character in a game run by RupertG, and I’m treading a fine line to try to keep some the cool thematic Dark Elf stuff consistent without imposing Forgotten Realms assumptions on his setting. As with many things, the best solution is for the players and DM to talk about any problems and cooperate on the storytelling and worldbuilding.

So much more…

Anyone who’s played both D&D and an MMO could write pages on the differences. The key task for you as a DM is to make sure you take and keep control, and teach your players to play D&D as D&D. Stamp out the bad habits, and the players will understand what it’s like to play a roleplaying game.

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About Duncan

Ellisthion is currently loving 5E D&D, whilst still running the original 1st Ed AD&D Temple of Elemental Evil. He's also spending way too much time playing Dota 2.
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