In every hobby, every pastime, every area of interest, you have people who know the ins and outs to differing degrees. Hobbies, however, are not purely insular pursuits -- if they were, they would die off along with their fans since the knowledge would never be passed along. Just think how different the gaming table would sound if no one passed along TV and movie quotes at every session! Soon no one would remember that Hawk the Slayer or The Sword and the Sorcerer or the Wizards & Warriors movies and shows ever existed . . . well, maybe that would be a good thing, but you get the idea! The point is that a hobby must propagate itself to survive, grow, and thrive, and to do so it must be open to new "members of the club."
WORDS TO THE WISE:
1. Spread the word. Say it loud: You're a gamer and proud! It's like the slogan for the Masons: "To be one, ask one." Would-be gamers need to know you are one before they'll know to ask you about the hobby.
2. Make them feel welcome. You'd think this would be obvious, but gamers can be bad about overdoing the in-jokes, arcane rules citations, and conversational habits that can make it hard to break in. Extend yourself a little, and it can go a long way.
3. Lend a hand, but don't kill with kindness. New players appreciate some help from DMs and players alike, but in the end they want to decide things for themselves and to shape their character and their style to their vision, not yours.
4. Don't rob from the blind. Don't take advantage of a new player's inexperience. This seems obvious, but it happens, and not just in the comic books. I'm not even going to get into actual player hazing -- if it still exists (you never know, it might).
5. Keep 'em talking. Talk to new players about their experiences. Find out what worked for them and what did not. Try to work with them in helping to grow in knowledge and skill.
Gamers enjoy their hobby, and people who enjoy their hobby ought to feel proud enough to spread the word. A certain subset of the population will get the heebie-jeebies still (or try to give them to you) if you talk about gaming, but if you know that line of reasoning is a crock, then you've nothing to be embarrassed about when you read your latest supplement or module in public. Look, a pretty large number of gamers are already categorized as nerds, eggheads, bookworms, or weirdos (myself included), so it's not like someone knowing you're a gamer, too, is going to give you a bad rap you don't already have! You probably shouldn't wear your "Slavegirls of Gor" T-shirt to a dress formal, but when you talk about or read or web-chat or whatever about gaming, you are really "advertising" for the hobby. D&D and other RPGs are not quite the front-page fad that they were twenty years ago, so potential gamers out there might not hear about the hobby if you don't tell them about it. This is hardly a call to arms for a recruitment drive of new gamers (though Kenzerco has advocated something like this, along with National Gamer's Day, in their Knights of the Dinner Table magazine), but if you think it's important for the hobby to grow, then you might feel a twinge of responsibility for being part of that effort.
If you do happen to encounter an interested soul, invite him or her to your game, or refer the person to another game that might fit his or her needs better. Maybe this person lives on the other side of the city you live in; he or she could come to your game, but it might be a long drive. If you know of a game or comic shop that hosts games or a group that meets over there, put the person in touch with these folks. A number of gamer registries on the Internet can help hobbyists find one another. Personal contacts are best, however, and a warm handshake and a smile are more likely to stoke interest than a URL or a phone number.
Once a new gamer shows up, help the person get acquainted. You won't find this an instantaneous process; obviously, you can't just show up and be instant friends with a bunch of people you've never met (but who already know one another). You and your fellow gamers can certainly make an effort to make sure the new person feels included. You will find this especially important if the new player is different in some way from the rest of the group -- perhaps he is a teenager in a group of thirtysomethings, she is a woman in a group full of men, a Christian or Jew or Muslim in a group of atheists/agnostics, an African American in a group full of Caucasians, and on and on. You will find this no different from any other group situation when someone new enters, regardless of how similar or different they are to the people already there in the group. Sometimes it may be awkward and feel forced. It takes some time to learn one another's reactions and patterns of interaction. The important thing is simply to be considerate -- don't talk past the person like they aren't there or interrupt them when they talk. Avoid constant in-jokes and obscure references that may make the new player feel left out. Most importantly, realize that you're not dealing with only a new person in a group of people, but it is a new gamer in the midst of experienced gamers -- a double whammy.
Setting interpersonal dynamics aside for a moment (and since that point has been covered in previous columns), it requires a careful hand to initiate a new player into the rules of the game. Part of making a person feel welcome is making sure that you or others don't make them feel like an idiot or a millstone around the party's neck. Even if the new person does something that the experienced players think is silly, dumb, or against the logic of the game, you need to have some courtesy and sensitivity in explaining the mechanics of the rules and the probable outcomes of decisions the player might make. The current edition of D&D is generally much more intuitive than its predecessors and therefore less confusing in that regard, but you still have a broad range of choices to make from what can be a bewildering array of options. Even experienced players may have a hard time keeping track and it can certainly overwhelm new players. A helping hand from the DM or other players can be of considerable assistance.
Lending a hand is potentially dangerous, however, because you or your other players could find it too easy to start leading that player and character around by the putative "helping hand," to the point where the new player feels that others are leading around or steering his or her character. When the essential point of the game is to envision a fantastic character and imagine the adventures you want him or her to pursue, what could be more maddening than to discover that you feel you have no control over what he or she does? If those around you constantly tell you what to do, however solicitous they might be in their hearts, you could feel much more like a leashed poodle than an aspiring hero. Like a child with a science fair project, the new player would be happy to have your help, but he or she probably doesn't want you to just do it for him or her. You may do better than the person, and the person may even get a better grade, but the whole experience becomes an empty, powerless, unrewarding, and unsatisfying one, and one the player probably won't repeat if given the option. A very fine line exists between helpful hints and patronizing or even domineering lead-by-the-nose henpecking, and you must tread carefully when helping a new player get his or her feet wet in the hobby.
You should know that not all players (or, vicariously, their characters) have the best interests of new players (and their characters) at heart. All players do not have (or do not perceive themselves as having) an equal investment in the presence or participation of the new player. Sometimes such players find themselves tempted to take advantage of new players, their incomplete understanding of the rules, and perhaps guilelessness. They may try to trick them out of their share of treasure or into making other sorts of unfavorable deals. One humorous example is from the "Black Hands" gaming group (featured intermittently in the Knights of the Dinner Table comic): a "character insurance fund" into which a new player's character pays to finance raising from the dead; upon his or her death, however, the PCs in on the scam simply pocket the money instead. Obviously, this idea is caricatured for humorous effect, but you as the DM should keep an ear out in the interests of the new player and should feel free to nix anything too outrageous. As with other players, you as the DM cannot hold the player's hand throughout the campaign or dictate his or her actions, but you should at least keep a watchful eye on things to make sure no one is trying to get one over on the new person.
A final point about new gamers is that you can't just invite them, play, and then let them wander off. All players should have some interest in new players and their adjustment to the group, but you as the DM have a unique responsibility to talk to the new player about his or her experience, to gauge how well he or she assimilated the rules of the game and at the same time entered into the social patterns of the group. It helps to debrief the new person and try to figure out what he or she enjoyed, what he or she didn't, which parts of the game and the situation felt comfortable and which still seemed difficult. It may be that the new person was just trying the game on a lark, and it could very well turn out that he or she didn't like it. Thank the person for coming, let him or her know the door is always open if he or she wants to try it again, and bid the person adieu. Maybe the person had personality issues with one or more of the players (or maybe even with you); the new person might have enjoyed the game itself, but maybe not the interpersonal end of things. Again, sometimes things just don't work out. Or maybe it's love at first sight for this person and your game. If so, be ready to help him or her along in becoming a part of the group and in becoming enough of a student of the game to make the ideas of heroic fantasy inside his or her mind find expression in the game.
I should point out that all of the above assumes a certain scenario -- an established gaming group comprised of experienced gamers trying to incorporate a single new player, both new to them and new to gaming. Plenty of other possibilities exist, of course, where integration of a new person could come about:
1. A new DM judges within an established gaming group (once a player, now sliding behind the screen). The former DM might have left the group, might have shifted over to playing, or may be running a campaign that alternates with this one.
2. A new DM from outside the group sets up the game. This is far less common than in the old days of D&D, when a group of younger players would sometimes seek out an older gamer to run a game for them.
3. A new player who is familiar with the rules and system used in the group (aside from perhaps a handful of house rules) joins in.
4. A new player who hasn't played D&D (or whatever game the group happens to play) but who is experienced with gaming in other systems joins the group.
5. An entirely new gaming group forms (whether all experienced players, all new players, or a mix).
It may be that your gaming group remains very stable for years at a time, and you never really have to deal with this problem. Some folks are perfectly happy gaming in their homes with a small group of old friends, where the game is really as much an excuse to get together and socialize as it is for trying to "accomplish" something within the game. For most gamers, however, campaigns usually last less than a year, and changing work and school schedules or life situations can cause their gaming group to morph and change over the years. Sooner or later you may be faced with the prospect of having to find new people to game with, and how you deal with these "new kids on the block" will be much less about the global idea of promoting the gaming hobby and much more about finding some space and some friends for your own personal game.
About the Author
Jason Nelson lives in Seattle and is a full-time homemaker (taking care of his 7-year-old daughter, 4-year-old son, and new dog), a part-time graduate student (working on a Ph.D. in education policy), and an active and committed born-again Christian. He runs a weekly D&D game, having just completed a seven-year-long AD&D (heavily modified) campaign set in the Forgotten Realms. He began playing D&D in 1981, and he also plays in a biweekly campaign with a D&D version of his very first character (Tjaden Ludendorff, a psionic paladin) from 21 years ago!