This article was first broadcast in Episode Sixty-Eight on 10th April 2019.
Ryu: Lennon…why are you trying to slide a ruler under the door to the Gnomish Workshop? If you’re trying to pick the lock that’s definitely not the way to do it.
Lennon: No I…Ostron locked me out.
Ryu: What did you do?
Lennon: Nothing! I was just trying to help!
Ostron: Standing over my shoulder making random comments is not helping!
Lennon: but, I mean, that gives him advantage, doesn’t it?
Ryu: Well, no, in combat you’re actually supposed to stand over the *enemy* to grant your allies advantage
The easiest situation for D&D players most of the time is if they’re playing with a bunch of people who have about the same experience with D&D as they do. Everyone’s familiar with the same editions, they have a similar take on how to play the game and the level of roleplaying to use, and their rules knowledge is about the same as the person next to them.
Where people start to get uncomfortable sometimes is if you’ve got beginners sitting next to veterans. The beginners usually know they’re beginners, and the veterans know the beginners’ presence is likely to slow down gameplay a bit. However, the veterans know how to solve both problems: they’ll just lend their expertise to the beginners during the game!
And that can easily be when everything goes horribly wrong. Any professional educator will tell you that there’s a vast difference between teaching someone, and telling them what to do or just intimidating them with your knowledge. Everyone involved can have the best of intentions but if the approach is wrong then the teacher’s going to be frustrated, the student isn’t going to learn anything, and pretty soon emotions will flare up and result in nobody having fun on either side. Since D&D is supposed to be a game, that’s not a good place to be.
But all is not lost; there are ways to be helpful to newer players or to ask for assistance from more experienced ones. Now we know this comes up practically every time we talk about playing D&D but that’s because it always applies: Talk to your DM. If you’re less familiar with D&D, ask them who might be the best person to give you pointers if you want them. If you’ve got quite a few campaigns under your dice, check with the DM and see if they want you to keep an eye on anyone.
Also, and this is important for any player, make sure you know whether the DM minds you helping them out in the middle of the session. If you’re in a deep roleplaying campaign and the DM has lots of information to communicate, they might want you to save the pointers about positioning and spell slot maintenance until after the session.
Now if you’re sitting at the table as the font of all wisdom and a newer player falters, resist the urge to immediately dive in to “save” them. There are three ways that can end, and two of them are bad. Best case, neither the DM nor the player will mind you helping and everyone moves on.
However, in general correcting players is firstly the responsibility of the DM. There may have been conversations between the player and the DM where the DM said the player should ease into it and isn’t going to focus on all the rules yet. Or if it’s more of a borderline case, the DM may have a different approach to the rules than you do. This is again why you should check with them before the session. You don’t want to undermine the DM’s authority, particularly if your DM is a certain friend of mine.
The other problem you may encounter is from the player you’re trying to help, although those usually have more to do with how you present your information. If you simply correct them and then inform them of the appropriate course of action, they may resent it because they want to figure out how to play the character themselves rather than having someone dictate it to them. A good way to avoid that is to present the information as a question they have to answer. For example, instead of “You don’t get advantage on that because of A,” try asking “are you sure you get advantage there?” That gives them the opportunity to double-check themselves, and if they’re still incorrect the DM has the opportunity to correct them.
Another thing to remember regarding how the information is communicated; avoid telling the player what to do unless specifically asked to. In general players should be allowed to figure out their own playstyles and organically learn what their characters can do, otherwise you’ll end up handholding them through the entire game. Now some players may actually prefer having a personal minion doing their bidding on the battlefield, but the minion and quite possibly the other players may balk at that type of behavior.
So yeah, step 1, don’t order the newbies around. Instead, if and only if a player directly asks you what they should do, come up with a few options for them and let them decide. Even better, if you have the time, is to look over their sheet and help them to identify abilities or actions that would be valid and helpful. But remember to be conscious of the game pacing and the amount of noise you’re making when you do that. The DM may not mind if you’re helping the player between turns, but probably not if you’re doing it loudly enough to drown out their narration.
Lastly, try not to include metagaming into your assistance. “You may want to try something that has the creature make a Dex save because they’re giants and their dex score is probably not high” is fine. “Hill Giants’ Dex mods are -1, so use Sacred Flame on them” is less so. Even if your DM is okay with you metagaming, it would be better for the newbie’s long term career with D&D if they didn’t get into the habit.
Now as for what to do if you *are* a newbie, first of all, don’t panic. Everyone was in your place at some point, sitting down to play for the first time. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you don’t know something, even if it’s something about your own character. You should ask the DM first, but they might point you to another player who can help.
You do have a certain amount of responsibility yourself, though. People will be fine with you taking your time and learning your character for a while, but if you’re not getting better people may be annoyed. Make sure to read up on your character’s abilities if you have time, and try to get familiar with what your class focuses on and what abilities you’re going to use a lot.
Now we do want to stress this is general advice for helping out players and we tried to make it as universally applicable as possible. Everyone has different ways of learning and learns at different speeds, so some of the things we suggested here may not be appropriate in all circumstances. Usually, again, the DM will be aware if special circumstances are present and will have some method to guide you if there are extra considerations you need to be aware of.