Using a micro-RPG to "ramp up" new players into D&D

TL;DR: I wrote a simplified version of D&D that evokes the feel of the game, without the nitty-gritty. It’s great for new or hesitant players, gets up and running in five minutes, and is free to download here.

Choosing whether or not to play Dungeons & Dragons in 2018 (soon to be 2019) is an interesting dilemma. Independent games are on the rise across the Internet and local game stores, and offer fresh, exciting, and arguably more “fun” takes on the tabletop role-playing game genre. Meanwhile, despite several attempts to streamline Dungeons & Dragons for new audiences, the game requires books with hundreds of pages, and a minimum investment of $180 USD for a new group to get started. Not to mention the hours on hours of reading, explaining, and re-reading those rules to get started. For many groups, the first session of D&D involves one player walking the rest through character creation for three or four hours, while trying their best to convince them that it will be more fun once they actually start playing. The current creative director of the D&D franchise has even gone on record on Twitter stating that the Dungeon Master (the player who “runs” the game by putting forth obstacles and playing many of the characters in the shared imaginary world) shouldn’t have fun while playing the game.

And yet, we continue to want to play Dungeons & Dragons.

For those of us who played through the days of Satanic Panic (which I was fortunate enough to only see the tail-end of, and is high on my list of “Things to Write About” in 2019), continuing to play D&D might be a show of loyalty. Many, in more ways that one, have earned the right to continue playing the game that has been accused of summoning demons (or worse), and don’t want to let those days go to waste.

It’s also a matter of investment. While packing up to move to the UK, I realized that I had conservatively $800 worth of Dungeons & Dragons material, which now sits in a storage space back in Oregon. This is a low number for a lot of people, too, as I’m not including many of the 3.5e books that were given away (or ruined), and I didn’t buy anything for 4th edition. Lauren and I have collectively spent something like $400 on 5th edition alone, just for the core rules and a selection of campaign reference books. This also doesn’t count the time and emotional investment that goes into preparing for Dungeons & Dragons, especially if you are creating any content (adventures, maps, character races or classes) for yourself. The homebrew community for Dungeons & Dragons represents its own kind of investment in the hobby, and transmogrify it from the game that you read about on the back of the box, into something else entirely. For players who have invested anything above and beyond the norm, be it financial or otherwise, continuing to play D&D reflects a sort of “making good” on those payments.

Lastly, thanks to its years of market domination, media references (like some great episodes of Community), and the recent rise in “actual play” podcast and live streams, Dungeons & Dragons is what new players have actually heard of. Unless they’re already in the role-playing game community in some way, it’s likely that most people will know the Dungeons & Dragons brand, and not much else. For the most part, new players don’t ask, “How do I get into role-playing games?” Instead, they’ll express interest specifically in “learning Dungeons & Dragons”, because so far as they know that’s the only game in the genre. And, to me at least, it feels disingenuous to give them anything else.

The trouble for me is that, when it comes right down to it, I’m not sure that I want to be playing D&D over other games these days. I also worry that new players will be repelled by the text, or the hours of character creation, or the maths that may not come easily to everyone. It’s a big ask to get someone who has never played a TTRPG before to come in and play “real” D&D in their precious free time. At the same time, I don’t want to be the person keeping new players from that experience, if it turns out that is what they want. I also don’t want to disregard the legacy of D&D, and its importance in the larger games space. The real trouble, then, is finding an easy way to bring new players into the world of Dungeons & Dragons that gives them a real idea of what the game is like and do it fast enough that they feel like they’re actually playing a game. If they leave the table not knowing what D&D is, or like they spent the whole time solving some word problem, then I’ve failed them.

In past games, introducing new players to the game has looked like doing the majority of the prep work for them. Lauren and I will typically roll up new character sheets, or print the pre-made sheets from the WOTC website (the existence of which prove the necessity of what I’m talking about), and present the new players with a selection between two or three options, rather than twenty-plus. We then attempt to introduce the rules of the game to the players as we play, so that they don’t have to stress about reading or prep beforehand, and can leap more-or-less directly into the game. While this meets the “actually play the game” criteria, it fails in a couple of important respects:

First, part of the experience of playing Dungeons & Dragons is making your character in a tangible, hands-on way. The mechanics of rolling for stats, selecting race and class, and debating the various pros and cons of equipment choices helps the player build a more concrete understanding of who their character is, and how they operate in the fictional world.

Second, while teaching rules as they come up keeps the paperwork at a minimum, we’ve seen it limit the options that players feel they have at the table. While the rule of thumb given to them is always, “Just say whatever you feel like your character would do,” many players don’t assume that anything is an option, unless a word on their character sheet prompts them. For some classes, such as Paladin or Barbarian, this isn’t an issue, as most everything the character would do is there in the text. For other classes, such as any of the spellcasters, the choices aren’t so clear. When the choices are unclear, often new players will default to inaction.

When friends approached us recently with a desire to learn how to play D&D, the opportunity presented itself to try and resolve these two issues. Once we had figured out schedules, it would be myself as the DM, along with Lauren (who’s been playing for as long as I have), two people who had never played, and a fourth who had played before, but felt that they “weren’t good” at D&D, and were a little hesitant to get back into it.

This became the brief: develop an experience that would show new players what D&D felt like, a player who had less than ideal past experiences that the point isn’t to “be good” at D&D, and still be entertaining and interesting for an experienced player. You can download the finished product here:

While I initially only wanted to create a simplified character sheet, the end result here is a sort of micro-RPG that uses the terminology of D&D, gives off the feel of D&D, but relieves the pain points of getting a new player into the game.

Character creation is done by selecting one “look”, and “training”, which replace race and class. The names give a better idea of what they mean for the character, and each come with a selection of what the character is “great”, “good”, or “bad” at. This gives a new player a one-line synopsis of what they’re getting themselves into with their selection. They also pick two pieces of equipment that are more-or-less exact replicas of their D&D 5e counterparts— they do the same damage and damage types, though we’ve gotten rid of cost or weight, for sake of simplicity. Finally, they select between “Great”, “Good”, “Okay”, or “Bad” for each of the classic D&D attributes (one great, two good, two okay, one bad).

Notice that we’ve completely gotten rid of numbers in our attributes. I’ll be honest, this is 75% because I’m tired of explaining the difference between attribute numbers and modifiers. The other 25% is because this let me right an explanation of what to roll right there on the sheet: if your attribute or skill is “great”, you roll three times, and use the highest result. If it’s “good”, roll twice and use the highest. “Okay”, roll the once and take what you get. Lastly, if it’s “bad”, roll twice and take the lowest.

Those with experience in D&D 5th edition will recognize this as a modified take on the advantage/disadvantage system. What it allows us to do is keep challenge difficulties the same, monster AC the same, and players are given agency in determining how likely they are to accomplish certain actions. I’ve also listed the relevant skills underneath each attribute, which (at least in play-testing) helps alleviate the issue where players don’t know what actions to attempt.

Spellcasting has had a revision since the last test, as initially it had a more PbtA-style fluid vibe. Originally, you could choose what effect you wanted the magic to have, and that would affect the roll’s difficulty. In this version, I’ve created a pared-down spell list, with basic instructions for casting each spell. This further helps give players the “feeling” of playing D&D by bringing in classic spell names, the proper spell terminology (like “saving throws” and “spell slots”), and at least a bit of distinction between different kinds of training.

Finally, the advancement table is listed directly on the character sheet. The rolling system lets us keep all of the same difficulty classes, so we can keep the same XP goals for each level, which helps DMs a bit. Because all of the classes are on the same sheet, the advancement is an approximation of what all classes have in common. At level 3, they may select another training to act as the “specialization” offered by traditional D&D classes, At level 4, they can improve an attribute (maybe someday I’ll feel like writing up a list of feats to choose from instead), and at level 5 they gain an extra attack. While this isn’t 100% accurate for all classes, it provides a close enough representation of what it feels like to advance to level 5. By that point, hopefully the player has a good enough idea of whether they want to play “real D&D” or move on to something else.

So far, this has been pretty successful, especially with new or hesitant players. Character creation is typically done in about five minutes, and we’re able to play fairly intricate one-offs, with the players driving a lot of the action (which is fun for me as a DM). I’ve used monsters straight out of the book with minor editing, and the “feel” of play is very similar to real D&D on both sides of the screen. Up next, the goal is to use these sheets along with official campaign books, editing as little as possible from the text. Something like “Dragon Heist” should play quite well, though if I have players who are into the idea, I may try for “Curse of Strahd” to see how it translates.