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New Gamers in the Apocalypse

Editing note: added our experience with Gauntlet-style character keepers.

A few months ago, some friends of mine who hadn’t done much/any tabletop gaming said they wanted to try D&D. I had plenty of free time and felt like it’s somewhat mean to make non-gamers learn D&D in a virtual setting, so I volunteered to run Monster of the Week for them. It’s gone great — we wind up playing about once per month, and everyone seems to be having fun.

I haven’t GMed for new gamers since I was 17 and trying to show my hippie father what those weird books were about. That time I went for Monsters, Monsters. It went terribly, albeit in party because I was only 17. “You want to… just… talk to the human whose threatening you? I don’t know what happens now. Um… let’s have dinner, I guess.” Looking back on it, if I’d been smarter I could have beaten Golden Sky Stories to the non-violent tabletop punch by decades. Alas.

Logistics: we’re using Telegram for persistent text chat, because everyone’s familiar with it. Alas, it doesn’t have video chat for groups, so we’re using Zoom for video and voice. Telegram supports bots and Roll ’em Bot is perfectly good for basic 2d6 + whatever dice rolls. My goal was to keep the logistics as simple as possible; I didn’t want to ask my newbies to wrap their heads around collaborative fictional games and a more complex virtual tabletop at the same time.

A couple of sessions in, I grabbed the character keeper from the collection of Gauntlet play aids. This was the first time I’d used one of those. It’s been mostly useful, although since everyone can see everyone’s sheet, we have a tendency to drop into “who would be best at this thing?”

Simplicity is also why I chose Monster of the Week. (Plus I’d been yearning to try it out.) If you say “it’s like Buffy, X-Files, or Supernatural” almost everyone in the US will understand at least one of those references. The playbooks are stupid simple to pick up and use. Again, the principle was minimal friction and maximum familiarity. And no need for a battle map! I can just drop pictures of Tucson into the Telegram chat.

Quincie Douglas Library, Tucson AZ

A few notes from the experience so far:

I ruthlessly pruned the Monstrous and the Spell-Slinger playbooks from the initial playbook selection for the sake of a) easier group cohesion and b) less complexity. In retrospect I coulda left the Monstrous in there, my players get that they’re responsible for figuring out why the group is a group. Instead of handing out a bunch of playbooks to read, I just listed the character types with a line or so of explanation, to cut down on decision paralysis. I wanted to force someone to play the Luchadore, but I restrained myself.

I started out the first session with the lines and veils safety conversation, followed by an explanation of the X card. Absolutely do this. Always do it, but do it especially with new players, because they are trying something new that has emotional weight and you need to make their experience safe. I checked in on tone after the first session, and I try to keep checking in from time to time.

Be ready for people to want to play themselves, especially in a modern game. A couple of my players did this. Initially I was all “nooo, be someone different,” but that was my gatekeeper speaking. It’s totally fine. Some people may want to branch out later, but who cares if they don’t? Self-inserts are a perfectly good tradition.

I’ve read some claims that new tabletop gamers will immediately understand and leap into the concept of shared ownership over the fiction. This is not true. Some of my players dig the idea that I’m telling the story as a GM. Again, it’s fine; people need to ease into new stuff. Just make sure the choice is there. I say stuff like “Do you think there could be a baseball bat there?” a lot, and that’s working fine.

Going cinematic with descriptions is excellent. I’ve been leaning into the opening sequence / closing credits bit from time to time, and it really sets the stage nicely.

Be aware that new players may be trying to read your face to figure out what you think their characters should do. Tabletop gaming can be nerve-wrackingly open ended and right now there’s a lot of uncertainty in the world! It took a session or two for people to buy into the idea that I was, as the book says, a fan of their characters regardless of their choices. I’ve also developed a technique for giving two possible options when they really want me to suggest something, and over time I think that’s helped everyone realize there’s no bad choice from the perspective of the players.

MotW has more support available than you might assume; I can always be lazy and yoink something out of Tome of Mysteries or the subreddit. Also, shoutout to Zombiefest Double Features which my players loved.

I expect to run a couple more mysteries and wrap the arc. I did not use the full on arc structure described, in part because I wasn’t sure how long we’d wind up going and in part because I’m lazy. I am pretty sure I could retrofit an arc onto the play we’ve done, though.

It’s been a great experience. I’d recommend MotW for new players, and I think probably also for new GMs. As with any good Powered by the Apocalypse game, you just follow the GM principles and make the moves as they come.

2 Comments

  1. “I started out the first session with the lines and veils safety conversation, followed by an explanation of the X card. Absolutely do this. Always do it, but do it especially with new players, because they are trying something new that has emotional weight and you need to make their experience safe.”

    Took a few clicks to get to that safety checklist, but wow that is a great triggers / trauma / oppression workshop all wrapped up in one list! Trying to imagine back to my first game in high school and what the reaction would have been. So far off the radar I’m honestly not sure what would have happened. (A campaign in which casually killing other PCs for XP became a thing for a while. :-P)

    • Yes! Safety tools are amazing and I wish we’d had those way back when. Even if you never run into any of the boundaries, it helps make sure everyone’s on the same page in terms of tone.

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