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Wisdom from the Masters: Non-combat Roles

This article was first broadcast in Episode Seventy Eight on 26th June 2019.

Ostron: Ryu? Why are you teaching Lennon how to pick the lock on the vault?
Ryu: Oh, well, I’m going to be DMing a bunch of new players so I wanted to brush up on how to teach people new skills.
Ostron: I thought we have a policy against you DMing new people?
Ryu: You have a policy against KayDee DMing new people. It’s just going to be me.
Ostron: What’s that bunch of white and red fuzz I can see in your pocket?
Ryu: What? Lint! I’m sure it’s just lint. I washed these pants with some fuzzy towels. That’s beside the point.
Lennon: Regardless of… that… Ryu, gotta be honest, I don’t think this kind of thing is the best way to teach new players about non-combat activities.
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One of the hardest parts of playing DnD is learning what to do in various situations. Or more accurately, players learning what characters are allowed to do, which is basically anything.

Players who are new to DnD frequently get overwhelmed by the complexity of the game. You will probably need to spend some time explaining the basic game loop: The DM describes something, the player or players choose what to do, and the DM narrates what happens.  The hangup, however, frequently comes when the players don’t know what they should do, or how much agency they have.

Simply telling the players they can do whatever they want, whenever they want can be overwhelming for some and can be a hard concept to grasp — especially those that are used to roleplaying in a more confined medium, such as video games. Most adventures are going to have a specific hook or path to lead the players on the adventure, and the idea that they can veer off and try different approaches won’t occur to most players. They will either need some guidance, or can be too timid to ask for help.

Overcoming this can be challenging, but there are a few easy tools that may work. Rewarding players who speak up or ask questions is a good way to encourage people to take initiative. Simple verbal encouragement is probably enough to start basic conversations, but when you start trying to run sessions, giving players in-game rewards for embracing the experimental nature of the game may help to break some of the timidity.

Another option is to present a few different choices for them to follow, rather than presenting them with just the obvious story hook. In general if people are uncertain, they’re going to latch on to someone telling them where to go and what to do, so anytime you as the DM present them with an obvious path, they’ll probably follow it. Presenting them with several paths doesn’t leave them in the sea of uncertainty that no direction represents, but should clue them in that they have direct influence on where to go and what to do.

Having an NPC around to nudge the players when necessary is also a good option, because it allows you as the DM to directly influence the player’s behavior but demonstrate role playing at the same time, since you’re giving advice or hints through the NPC rather than as the DM.

Helping players figure out what their specific characters can do also helps encourage more experimental actions. Though you should avoid suggesting classes are only capable of certain things, describing the main focus of various classes will help players determine what their role in the party is.

During play, it’s a good idea to reinforce the roles until the players get comfortable with the characters. Presenting them with otherwise obvious or simple challenges specific to certain characters’ expertise will help with this.  A weird magical symbol or effect is an excuse for the Wizard to show off their arcana knowledge, while a locked door will let a bard or rogue get to use their lockpicking, and an old religious artifact can let the Paladin or Cleric pull out their bonuses to their religion skill.  The goal is to give the players a series of wins that demonstrate what the class, and therefore by extension what the characters can do out of combat, helping them start to put the pieces together and slowly building their confidence. This is another area where NPCs can help nudge the players, possibly by calling out which player should have a look at a problem. Most importantly, be sure to reward new players for thinking outside of the box. At this point, innovative and creative solutions or approaches may be worth an inspiration die.

The most important thing to remember is to avoid telling players “no” or “you can’t do that” as much as possible. To borrow a phrase from Matt Mercer: “You can certainly try” is a much better alternative. While some actions may not be possible to perform, in the case of new players it’s actually more instructive to allow them to attempt and fail rather than interrupt their idea. Note that means you’ll probably have to come up with a few skill checks and DCs on the fly. Also if any of the actions would result in injury, it’s better to avoid a chance of serious death unless that would get the point home. For example, a player jumping off a cliff “just because” should still die as a result, but tripping up climbing a wall should probably only do a couple of points of damage. You want to reinforce that choices have consequences, but you don’t want to punish experimentation.

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Ryu: All right, fine, unlocking the vault door was probably too much, especially that part where it can disintegrate you.
Lennon: What? You didn’t mention that!
Ostron: Speaking of things you didn’t mention, I’m going to need you to empty your pockets.
Ryu: I don’t look like Gollum, so I’m not going to play “guess what’s in its pocketses”!
Lennon: Well luckily before this devolves any further, I’m going to need both of you to come with me to the Scrying Pool so we can see what the listeners have to say.

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