Wisdom of the Masters: New Players and Combat
This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Nineteen on 20th May 2020.
Killer DM: Come on, it’s only a small horde.
Ryu: Of gnolls! KayDee they’re new! *Goblins* are a problem for them.
Killer DM: Throwing someone in the deep end so they learn to swim builds character.
Ryu: No, no in this case it kills characters. All of them.
Lennon: It still completely unnerves me when you do that.
Killer DM: Well fear not limey, I’m done here. Ryu simply refuses to listen to my suggestions.
Lennon: I’m okay with that, I think. Suggestions about what?
Ryu: What kind of combat to run for the new players.
Ostron: You asked the KDM for help with that?
Ryu: I didn’t ask so much as she volunteered, but I knew it was a bad idea.
While character creation and leveling up can have a host of mechanics and terms that confuse new players, when it comes to actually playing the game, combat is probably the most complex experience they have to deal with. Most of that is because the usual freedom players enjoy when controlling their characters gets very limited as soon as a combat encounter starts.
The basic concepts of combat are fairly straightforward, so you probably don’t have to worry about trying to leave out any of those rules (but don’t try to start new players on fancy initiative systems, whatever you do). Bonus Actions can get confusing because of the “sometimes you have them, sometimes you don’t” aspect of how they work, so you may need to pay a little more attention there.
Determining what to do on their turn isn’t going to confuse a lot of people but determining what to do with their character may be more of a challenge. If players have a specific idea for a character in mind, you should probably work with whatever it is, but if the new players are open to recommendations, it would probably be easier for everyone if you steered them toward simpler classes like fighter, ranger, barbarian, or rogue.
If a new player absolutely needs to play Gandalf or Harry Potter, it might be worth having a conversation with them during the session 0 meeting. Go over how the magic system in D&D works and see if they get it or they’re having trouble comprehending. Make no mistake; the D&D magic system is atypical; a point-buy system or simple list of how often certain abilities or spells can be used is far more common in gaming in general. In fact, if your spellcasting players are having a lot of trouble with the default system, it may be worth using the spell points variant method of casting on page 288 of the Dungeon Master’s guide.
Beyond recommending simpler classes, it may be worth steering players toward classes whose mechanics you or other experienced players at the table are familiar with. When the players get into combat, there are bound to be a whole host of questions from them about both the combat mechanics in general and the capabilities of their character in particular. If you have the player look the ability up during combat, it will help them learn, but it will also slow the game down. You have to figure out how much delay you want to deal with.
The first couple of combats new players are involved with should probably involve single monsters or very few enemies that will stick around long enough for the players to all get a turn, but don’t have a real risk of killing them. It may be worth fudging some dice to allow for that if necessary, just for the purposes of learning. If you don’t want to fudge dice, consider running a few combat encounters as tutorials or separate from the main campaign where deaths and other catastrophic outcomes won’t be permanent. Most players won’t appreciate it if the first time they discover the wild magic sorcerer can spontaneously cast fireball is during their first combat encounter where everyone has less than 15 hp.
Whether in tutorial form or naturally as a result of progression in the campaign, it will help to introduce the players to how the flow of combat changes depending on the enemies. Make sure they encounter a large beast, a group of melee creatures, a group of ranged creatures, and then a mix. Also, while TPKing the whole party is not usually helpful, allowing negative consequences for unwise decisions or bad tactics can be instructive. If the barbarian is all gung ho about their ability to charge forward and do damage but they leave the more vulnerable characters open to being flanked, that’s something they need to experience.
If you want to go the extra mile and you plan on continuing the trend in your campaigns, you can expand the experience further into the differences between intelligent and bestial enemies. An owlbear, for example, is probably just going to fight until it or its opponent is dead, but a dragon is capable of reason and thought, so not only will it retreat if it’s losing, it won’t necessarily focus on the closest or loudest target if it thinks another one is more dangerous.
An important thing for the characters to discover in combat are the roles of their classes. This is where a consequence-less fight might be helpful, particularly for players with characters that are less defined, like bards or clerics. The bards will need to figure out that while they have the ability to hit up close if they need to, they shouldn’t stay on the front line. Similarly, Clerics will need to discover that their classes are capable of doing more than staying the back and healing.
In this case, don’t be afraid to point out different ways the classes can operate, even if other players aren’t encouraging it. Some people are loathe to have the cleric use spell slots for anything besides healing, but they can and should be able to operate offensively in combat.
House rules for combat are another thing that needs to be addressed early. There are different schools of thought on house rules with new players; some people believe that new players should be run through at least a few unmodified combats before any house rules are introduced so they’re familiar with how the game plays. Others think that starting out with the house rules is fine as long as it’s made clear that they are deviations from how the game is usually played.
Regardless of your approach, when you start using house rules with new players, make sure you can explain how they work in detail. If the rule is one of the optional rules available in an official source like the Dungeon Master’s Guide or Xanathar’s, let them know where it is. If it’s one you completely made up, point out what part of the rules are being changed. Also, describe why you’re implementing the rule; people can sometimes be nervous if changes are being made to a game without explanation.
It will probably take a few different combat encounters before new players really get comfortable with the flow, and even longer before they start branching out and trying new things with their characters, but supporting them and giving them room to experiment will certainly help.
Lennon: And in case it wasn’t clear, “packs of gnolls” are not an experiment, other than “how fast can you TPK?”
Ryu: I know that, tell KayDee.
Lennon: I think I’d rather go to the Scrying Pool and see what the listeners have to say; they usually don’t threaten my life.