Thursday, January 8, 2015

D&D: A New Quick Start Tutorial Format

Too Long; Didn't Read?  Start with A Quick Start Primer, Revising the Quick Start and A New Primer for 5th Edition which encompass the primary points.

Several months ago, Angry DM posted a rant about how Wizards has been "challenged" in recent years converting new players into new DMs. Let's face it. DMing is a daunting task for a new D&D player. It's hard enough to learn the game as a player, and the new DM resources aren't the best at really walking a newbie through the hardest parts.

In response, I started to prepare my own primer for new players and DMs, but that hasn't progressed as quickly as I've liked because… reasons. (I'm a father of three who works behind a computer all day. Sometimes side projects suffer as a result).

A Quick Start Primer

Fast forward to 2015 and Monte Cook's peeps are proposing a National New Game Master's Month or "NaNewGaMo" as they are calling it, which lead to this short exchange on Twitter.

+Bruce R Cordell noted: "We're trying to encourage completely new GMs into the fold. A simple quickstart doesn't target or encourage NEW GMs."

(This was really about Numenera, but I'm going to speak about the context related to D&D. The ideas, however, could be applied to any game),

I think Bruce is only partly correct. He is correct in that current examples of Quick Start rule PDFs have not targeted new DMs. However, that's only because RPG publishers have never written a Quick Start with that goal in mind. Quick Starts are traditionally written for existing consumers of other RPGs to try and win their business over to a new system. As such, they are written for the experienced gamer. However, an RPG publisher with the right end goal could very easily write a Tutorial Quick Start PDF that teaches and/or encourages new DMs.

This has been a goal of the D&D Primer that I have been working on (and to which I hope to get back to soon). For full-time RPG publisher, this idea should almost be a no-brainer (I say almost because I understand small press publishers need to target their R&D money carefully). While sales to existing gamers is critical, a modified Tutorial Quick Start PDF for DMs would not be too difficult to develop and could help win new gamers as customers. If done well, one could even use the same Quick Start for both experienced and new players/DMs, perhaps with a sections that experienced players could skip past.

Revisiting the Delve

The idea of a new format for DM Tutorial Quick Start lead me down another interesting thought path… To make a short story long, the "delve" format could be used as a teaching tool for new DMs. Now, you may need to walk with me down this path for a bit because I know there will be skeptics to that statement.

First, let me give you a little background on the delve format. Late in the 3.5 adventure design cycle (and early in the 4th edition development), Wizards of the Coast was playing around with making adventure module layout easier for the DM. The whole idea behind the delve format was to fit everything that was needed for an encounter in 2 pages so that the DM would not have to page back and forth while running the encounter. One could open a book or module to a 2-page spread that included everything.
D&D delve format

In theory, it was a good idea, but in practice, page real estate limited the encounter design. Once you put a mini-map and creature stat blocks onto the pages, there isn't much space for the other details, especially if the combat involves more than one or two creature types. Additionally, because of the space constraints, important details relevant to the encounter's story line were at the front of the module (in the "story" section), while the encounter pages were at the back of the module. This sometimes even lead to confusing and contradictory details between the story line description and the encounter description. So instead of reducing page flipping, it could actually exacerbate it. Also, due to this story line/encounter split, the format biased an encounter toward a combat resolution, rather than presenting non-combat options on equal footing.

Revising the Delve

For the purpose of a teaching Quick Start Primer, the delve format could be revised in a such a way that it avoids the problems it created as a presentation format in an adventure module.
  1. The format excelled at presenting ways to run the encounter including tactics for the opposition, boxed text descriptions and features of the encounter area that could be used tactically. As a teaching tool, those components are critical to equip the new DM with ways to make the encounter interesting and memorable.
  2. Page real estate becomes less constrained, since the encounter presented in a DM primer would be as simple as possible in order to focus on teaching mechanics. Creature stat block could be moved out of the 2-page layout, so that the text focuses specifically on the encounter detail. With the stat blocks moved to a different page, you don't have to omit story-related details relevant to the encounter.
  3. Because the encounter is intended to teach a specific set of mechanics (i.e. - socials skills, class/trade skills, combat), you don't need to be expansive in presenting different possible resolutions to an encounter (i.e. - combat vs. non-combat).

Revising the Quick Start

So, here's how you tie all that back together with a big ol' bow.

Generally, Quick Start rules include the basic game mechanics with an (optional) short adventure at the end. My idea is to provide these examples within the rule explanations prior to the DM starting the adventure. So, in this hypothetical Tutorial Quick Start, Section 1 would be the system mechanics. Section 2 would be the examples and Section 3 DM advice and Section 4 would be the adventure. Alternatively, section 2 might not be its own separate section, but instead be integrated and sprinkled within Section 1.

"But wait!" you might say. "Isn't the whole point of the adventure to teach the mechanics?"

And to that I respond "Yes! But it fails miserably, and my idea is better!" Here's why:

You see, the problem is that Quick Starts currently present all the mechanics in one blob and then throw the DM right into the adventure. This is a terrible way to learn a new game.

We need to admit and own the fact that the RPG learning curve for complete newbies is a steep one. With the Quick Start format, you are basically asking the DM to study all the abridged chapters of the text book in one go, and then take the final exam without any actual teaching in between. Not only that, but the abridged details are usually the ones that a new player or DM needs, because the abridgment excludes all of the assumed knowledge of an experienced player.

If you think back to the text books you had as a kid, each chapter introduced a new concept. The exercises at the end of the of the chapter then showed how that concept works in example problems, and also tied the new concept back into the other concepts taught in previous chapters.

A Quick Start DM Primer should take the same approach.  I.E. - Explain the skill mechanics. Show the skill mechanics in example(s). Explain the basic combat mechanics. Show the basic combat mechanics in an example. Show move advanced combat/tactical mechanics (if the game has them). Show the more advanced mechanics in examples. Explain the healing mechanics…  You get the picture.

If you break up the examples to illustrate each part of the rules before wall-of-text dumping the next section into the DM's brain, you're likely to have more success converting the DM before he throws up his hands in frustration.

Paizo Leads the Way... Sort of.

Of all of the "Starter Sets" or "Basic Boxes" or what not over the years, Paizo's Pathfinder Beginner Box almost achieves the introductory Nirvana of which I speak. The only issue is that it's a $35 box set instead of a free download. However, if you look at the content of the Hero's Handbook and the Game Master's Guide, you are very close to the format I propose. Encounters are shown in 1 to 2 pages in a style similar to the delve format and options (such as skill checks, etc) are carefully illustrated in boxed sidebars.

If you were to take the Pathfinder Beginner Box, cut the page count down to the basics (leave character generation, bestiary, magic items, etc to a different document), and alter the layout slightly, add a few more examples in-line with the rules, you would have something very close to what I envision.

A New Primer for 5th Edition

Using D&D 5th Edition as an example, here's what I propose would be an excellent tutorial Quick Start. Even the D&D Basic PDF is a bit overwhelming for new players, so you'd have to start even smaller. Take the edited down rulebook from the Starter Set and cut it back even further.

Explain the core mechanics, skills and  combat in as small a page count as possible. Refer readers to the Basic D&D PDF for more detail if needed. Add in 4 or 5 encounter examples -- a skill-based encounter, a mixed role-playing and skill based encounter, a combat encounter, and an example combat encounter that could be resolved through means other than combat (stealth, diplomacy, deception, etc). The skill based encounters could probably be placed on a single page. The combat encounters could fit in the two-page modified delve style I noted. Add some DM advice on running an encounter/game at the end, and we're in business.

I think the re-purposed Quick Start format with a little bit of delve mixed in could go a long way to illustrating how to run an adventure for new DMs. The key is to keep it simple and limit the amount of new information you dump on the DM before giving another example. One could even include pre-gens for the DM to "practice" the examples with his friends before jumping into the sample adventure.

A second important point to not miss is to make the DM feel as comfortable as possible.
  1. Explain that this is cooperative narrative game shared between the DM and players.
  2. Rules are not necessarily set in stone and it's ok for the DM to use their best judgment even when it appears to go against the rules as written.
  3. The only way to "lose" is to not relax and have fun.
I'm hoping to get back to my own D&D Primer project as soon as I am able. If there are any aspiring designers that would like to help in this effort, drop me a line and perhaps we can build something together. And if you're a professional game designer, give me a call and perhaps we can work together.  :)

Thanks for reading and let me know your thoughts and ideas on how your ideal "Newbie Quick Start" would look.

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