by Joe Wetzel (joewetzel at gmail dot com)
Note: I recently introduced a couple of new players to Dungeons and Dragons. Below are some lessons I learned. These points should be applicable to other roleplaying games.
Ask the players to think of a concept for their characters. Briefly describe to the players each class and race. Use some examples where possible such as Merlin and Gandalf would be powerful Wizards, Gimli of Lord of the Rings is a Dwarf, etc. While they probably shouldn’t be encouraged to simply play a character just like a particular movie or book character (a player’s creativity is part of the game) it is fair to suggest that they make a character that is a cool archer like Lord of the Ring’s Legolas, but has the personality of a character from the Harry Potter books.
Ask the players to roll or assign their ability scores according to your group’s house rules. These days there isn’t really one preferred method to generate ability scores. Some groups choose to roll randomly while others assign points. There are many variations with each method. Describe for the players what each ability means and what it is used for. For example, “Strength is your characters raw strength: how much he can lift, carry, etc. A high score adds to the damage he does when fighting hand to hand, with close combat weapons and with some special ranged weapons.” You may need to ask each player what his character concept is and help him assign scores.
Ask each player to think of a name and some personality traits whenever you’re working with other players. The players don’t need to write a novel about their characters. A few bullet points will do for a start. Point out that a particularly high or low ability score can be a great story. For example, DragonLance’s Raistlin has a very low Constitution… why? Because it was drained when he nearly failed a test to become a Wizard. As for names, the main player’s book has some examples. These examples can be used, or they can be split up and combined to a new name. A famous book or movie character name shouldn’t be used because the other players would be thinking about that original character, but that famous character’s name can be changed a little into something unique: instead of Conan, a character can be Kordan by just changing a letter or two and adding one more.
At this point each character should have a class, race, and ability scores. You should have determined what level they should be. To keep things simple you may not want to start them very high, but 1st level characters can be killed just because of some bad luck.
Work with the players on selecting feats. Even if your group is only using the main books, there are a large number of feats to read through and make selections. Based on each character concept highlight a few good choices for each player. The player should make the final decisions if time permits. Give the players some options based solely on the character concept (if the character concept is partly an archer, point out Point Blank Shot, Precise Shot, Rapid Shot, Far Shot, etc.) You may also want to highlight a couple of other good feats that aren’t directly related to the character’s concept but will help round out the character.
Select weapons and armor. Depending on how much the players know about the weapons and armor used in your campaign, they may simply need the chart of weapons and armor, how much money they have and what weapons and armor the character’s class allows. (Note: if the characters will be above 1st level, you may not want to track money for purchasing initial equipment. You may simply tell them to pick what they want with just a couple of caveats.) However, some players will need to be walked through selecting weapons and armor. If so, describe to them the benefits and drawbacks of a few better choices for their melee weapons, ranged weapons, and armor. Keep each character concept in mind.
You may want to upgrade one or more of their weapon and armor choices if they are above 1st level. This is also a good time to determine which magic items (if any) the characters have if they are above 1st level.
Skip selecting other equipment. For the first session, just get a basic character made and demonstrate a sample combat encounter or two. Therefore you don’t need to know who has the flint and steel and that a character has a backpack instead of a few belt pouches. These items can be chosen later. For the first session or two, if an item is reasonable say that the character has it.
Skip assigning skills. This task is very tedious and skills probably can be fudged for the first game session or two, especially if the first session is a demonstration or walk-through of combat. Therefore, push skill selection off. If a skill check is needed before points are assigned, make an informed guess for what the character’s bonus should be for the skill by adding the ability and other racial bonuses for the skill to the typical number of skill ranks a character would have given that race, class and ability score. For example, a 2nd level Rogue would have at least a few points in Search. A character with a high Charisma might be the party leader (or at least the character that speaks for the group) so he would probably have a couple of points in Diplomacy, depending on his level.
Select spells known/memorized. Any spellcasting characters will need to select spells known, or which spells are in a spellbook or which spells the character has memorized that day. The player can read through the short descriptions and choose the spells known, in a spellbook and/or memorized with some help and guidance from you. However, you should check to ensure these choices are well-rounded. You may want to streamline this process by only reviewing the better spell choices (in your opinion) or helping the player choose spells that are a good fit and serve different purposes based on the character concept.
At this point all of the basics (ability scores, class, race, name, personality, feats, weapons, armor, and spells) are in place and you can demonstrate combat with the new players.
Create an improvised encounter which will test the characters (they should take a couple of hits) but won’t be too challenging. On each character’s turn, give the player a few likely options and ask him if he’d like to do any of those or if he has another idea. Allow the new players to tell you what they want to do, then translate it into game terms and tell them how much of what the player described he may do that turn and what other impacts that action may have. (Will it provoke an attack of opportunity?, etc.)
Between sessions, fill in the details. Complete each character by selecting equipment, skills, alignment, and fleshing out the character’s background and personality from the notes the player has already created. The gamemaster may collaborate with each player on the character’s background to relate the background to the game world.
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