Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

4 May, 2016

The newbie tabletop gaming experience
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 7:25 PM

The new player experience is something that gets a lot of attention in computer gaming, particularly in MMO gaming. Recently, I’ve been initiating a fellow gamer into the deeper mysteries of a tabletop RPGs and have been helping her to create a character. Along the way, I’ve been taking a look at what it takes to get someone into tabletop gaming. And, by extension, how to apply these lessons to other games in the future.

As I mentioned before, my current tabletop gaming experience is using the old West End Games d6 space system in a homebrew science fiction setting. These options offer their own benefits and challenges to this process as well.

As I said, the initiate is a gamer already. She plays FFXIV with me and has played a lot of MMOs in the past. But, she is very new to tabletop RPGs. She also listened in on one of our sessions and was excited to give it a try after hearing the fun we had.

An overwhelming initial experience

I won’t sugar-coat it: I know the process of getting into tabletop RPGs is an overwhelming one. There are so many things to keep in mind and keep in balance that it can be hard. Especially since we’re doing this all virtually instead of in person.

The first big issue is the rules. Handing someone a bunch of rules just by itself can be overwhelming. A newbie might feel like they have to memorize all the rules, whereas an experienced player has an idea of what’s important and what can be looked up again later. Even just reading one chapter on character creation can seem daunting, as there are a lot of new concepts and terms being thrown around. It can be overwhelming, even with someone along to lend a hand.

Then it comes time to apply those rules and come up with a character. Picking a character concept, a good background, and an understanding of how the character fits into the game can be daunting. Then it’s time to do a lot of math to create the character; the WEG d6 system has a kinda involved character creation system where you pick attributes, skills (based on attributes), and advantages/disadvantages. There’s a lot to go over, and for someone already overwhelmed by the rules it can feel even more dizzying.

And, that last bit about fitting in with the group is important. Someone might have a great idea… until they realize another character already fits that description. A starship only needs so many “roguish bastard with an optional heart of gold” type characters, after all! But, again, for someone who hasn’t played it can feel a little bewildering to have to balance all these needs on top of learning how to mechanically build a character.

And we haven’t even gotten into the actual mechanics of play. It’s one thing to listen in and then make a character, it’s quite a bit different to be in the middle of the situation and do collaborative improvisational acting with a bunch of other people over the internet.

Guidance and control

As the person trying to help the neonate through the initiation process, I find myself having to strike a balance between guidance and letting her have enough control to feel the character is her own. On one hand, examples and suggestions are often helpful. On the other hand, this should be her character, not mine. What’s the right balance? Hard to say.

For example, in her initial character workup she only put 1 die into Strength; in WEG this determines damage done with melee weapons, the equivalent of “hit points”, and how well you can resist damage. A low score in Strength is likely to make the character more fragile than expected. This is something an experienced tabletop player would understand, but to the novice they may not understand the consequences. So, what do I do?

If I strongly suggest she put more points into Strength, it can feel like her character is being taken beyond her control. However, if I let her make her decision, a rapid character death could lead to a disappointing experience with the game. Striking a middle road by making a suggestion could be the worst of both worlds; taking away some control while setting her up for a bad experience if the character dies.

Now, to be fair, the game has been pretty light on combat and damage so far. But, if that changes, it could be a sudden surprise.

Of course, Ysharros is a good and GM and has been really flexible. She’s allowed us the chance to adjust our characters during the first few sessions in order to tweak our characters. I’m certain that the reality is that the worst that might happen is the newbie character gets knocked out of commission and not fatally removed from the game if combat goes awry for the character with the ability to adjust the character later. But, there’s still the frustration of sitting out while the game is happening.

Another option could have been to give her a pre-generated character. But, would that have been as satisfying? The right answer probably depends on the person in question more than anything else.

Not going with the standard

The WEG d6 system is perhaps not the most graceful introduction to tabletop RPGs. The character creation process is a lot more involved than D&D for example; The classic D&D system of rolling stats in order, picking a race and then a class tends to be easier to get into.

On the other hand, a more involved character creation system can possibly create more investment into the character. Our group has a really great dynamic going, and having detailed characters has been a big part of that. My character, the captain of the ship, is shaped by how I built the character. For example, I don’t have many mechanical or technical abilities, so I have to rely on the ship engineers to keep the things running. I really do need to delegate those tasks instead of trying to be a control freak and do it all myself. I like this aspect of my character, and it’s deeper than “well, I guess I can make an INT check, right?”

Having a home-brew setting is another potential complication. Playing in an established universe would give some common touchstones for understanding. It’s one thing to use a Constitution class starship as inspiration, and yet another to actually be on the USS Enterprise. Some people may prefer to rub shoulders with Skywalkers or face off against actual Shadows instead of being in a setting that borrows from popular shows and movies.

However, the advantage of a homebrew system is that it’s easy to customize some element of the setting with your cool idea. The idea of a genetically modified amorphous gelatinous race may seems strange in the Babylon 5 setting, but fit just fine into our setting and become a potentially interesting plot point in the future. Adding some cool little idea becomes easier when you don’t have to worry about upsetting existing canon for the setting. Trying to introduce actual non-human aliens to the ‘Verse might give a hard-core fan fits, I’m sure.

Examining my own expectations

It’s always interesting how much assumed knowledge gaming requires. I’ve written before about how “intuitive” interfaces are really just familiar ones. Once you’re initiated into some particular aspect of gaming, whether it’s tabletop RPGs, MMORPGs, or other (even non-RPG) games, we start to take certain things for granted based on the type of game.

Of course, this can be both good and bad. It can be good as we designers can focus innovation on other areas once a base is established. We don’t have to worry too much about experienced players trying to figure out some common mechanic in the game. On the other hand, this assumed knowledge can make it hard for new players to get involved. Of course, this can be mitigated by people having friends indoctrinate them to the type of game; from someone guiding a friend through an MMO’s newbie area, to someone taking time to explain the character creation process in a tabletop RPG.

As usual, I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer here. We need MMOs that cater to rank newbies as well as ones that cater to us power players. Likewise, tabletop RPGs shouldn’t have to all be simplified to the point that anyone can pick up a book and start playing without any assistance whatsoever.

What do you think? Do you realize how much assumed knowledge your favorite games require? How did you get over that hurdle initially? Did you have friends to help you along?


  1. I always felt that one of the biggest hurdles to playing MMOs for a layperson was the WASD mouselook control scheme. It’s too easy to overswing or underswing the camera depending on how one’s mouse sensitivty is set, and keyboard turning, while controllable for said newbie, usually results in nonoptimal reaction times in higher level combat later.

    I’ve always advised people to be super duper patient with newbies struggling with this, but I honesty can’t remember unfamiliarity with this from a personal standpoint. It was trained up as a habit in me since Wolf3D popularised first person shooters, and we only had 2 axes to deal with then (though I think we also keyboard turned then. At least I remember controlling 360 directional movement in Descent with keyboard alongside mouse.)

    I can empathise the moment I pick up a console controller and try to control the camera with it, or try to play MOBAs though. Both control schemes are alien, and I end up fighting with them more often than not. The only “advantage” I have is the knowledge that it can actually feel easier, given sufficient muscle memory practice and some effort put into thinking about comfortable keybinding.

    I feel there’s really no way around it, no easy shortcuts, besides ample amounts of patience (towards oneself or others) and time invested practising though. If anyone has other thoughts, I’m all ears.

    Comment by Jeromai — 4 May, 2016 @ 10:49 PM

  2. Surely the real issue isn’t unfamiliarity or specific systems but willingness to learn. Every game system is going to be new to players the first time they encounter it. Unless we posit a world where there are universally applied rules for game design that is never going to change.

    Look at Black Desert. It would seem to be one of the most successful, most popular new entrants to the western MMO market for many years, both a popular and a critical darling against most expectations. And what’s been (outside of the initial hype over cash shop prices) the most widely discussed and publicized trope of the game? Its ferocious learning curve and drastically unfamiliar systems. Almost every “first impressions” piece and early-game review that I’ve read – and I’ve read a lot of them – puts huge emphasis on how alien, unintuitive and badly-explained the mechanics are. My personal experience, as someone with well over a hundred MMOs on my tick sheet and pushing on for two decades of playing the genre, was that it took me the best part of a week even to begin to grasp the basics. After nearly two months I still have only the vaguest idea about much of how the game works.

    And yet that does not seem to be hampering the game’s runaway success in the West. On a much larger scale, WoW’s systems were deeply unfamiliar to many of the tens of millions of people who were drawn to its flame in the first couple of years, and yet they managed somehow. My feeling is that when many players begin a new game they are subconsciously looking for reasons to stop. The designers have to grab new players emotionally, immediately, to have any chance of drawing them through the thick meniscus of the unfamiliar. Easily recognizable tropes and mechanics are a great lever for this, which is why we see so many fantasy MMOs and WoW-clones (or LoL clones) but a much better way of grabbing and holding on to players is to engage and excite their curiosity.

    That way not only do you get to keep your players through the short term of the newbie experience but, by dint of the emotional satisfaction from the commitment they have made in learning the ropes you get an better shot at keeping them long-term as well.

    Comment by bhagpuss — 5 May, 2016 @ 12:04 AM

  3. I played Starwars (West End) with the d6 system and found it really simple to use, if I am recalling it correctly. ALthough I did have experience in a bunch of other systems (Rift, D&D, Cyberpunk, Shadowrun.. etc. etc.. ) so maybe that was more of a comparative. The ‘red dice’ feature still is one of my favourite storytelling accessories =)

    Comment by Isey — 5 May, 2016 @ 7:26 AM

  4. I wondered if you two were cooking something up. It’s been quiet… tooooo quiet. :D

    (And yay!)

    Comment by Ysharros — 5 May, 2016 @ 10:57 AM

  5. Jeromai wrote:
    I always felt that one of the biggest hurdles to playing MMOs for a layperson was the WASD mouselook control scheme.

    Yeah, that’s one of those conventions that has just developed over time and that every game seems to use now. I’m not sure if we could improve the experience, other than making the default ESDF so us touch typists don’t have to remap half the commands and be utterly confused by what the “defaults” are when asked. The other major alternative control scheme, click to move, doesn’t seem to be all that more newbie friendly and tends to turn off hard-core gamers.

    Feels like it’s likely the price of admission for playing a real-time game.

    Comment by Psychochild — 11 May, 2016 @ 7:04 PM

  6. bhagpuss wrote:
    Surely the real issue isn’t unfamiliarity or specific systems but willingness to learn. Every game system is going to be new to players the first time they encounter it.

    Sure, but there are easier and harder to understand systems. As I said, the old D&D idiom of “roll stats in order, pick race/class” is easier than a system that assigns points. Yeah, there will be some learning, but it’s not necessarily the same across different games.

    WoW’s systems were deeply unfamiliar to many of the tens of millions of people who were drawn to its flame in the first couple of years, and yet they managed somehow.

    Well, one thing that definitely helped WoW was the network effect. Friends explaining to newbies what the classes meant helped a lot. Also, WoW had very few choices at character creation; most of them developed in-play. For example, you didn’t even get pets at level 1 for Hunters at launch, it was something that opened up after you gained some levels. Also note that the trend for WoW has been to continually simplify the game. The current system is so, so simplified compared to the original skill trees WoW had at launch.

    That way not only do you get to keep your players through the short term of the newbie experience but, by dint of the emotional satisfaction from the commitment they have made in learning the ropes you get an better shot at keeping them long-term as well.

    I’ll definitely agree here. Once someone has mastered a set of mechanics, they tend to stick with them. Probably why GURPS players stick with GURPS, because they invested a lot into learning the system in the first place! :)

    Comment by Psychochild — 11 May, 2016 @ 7:09 PM

  7. Isey wrote:
    The ‘red dice’ feature still is one of my favourite storytelling accessories =)

    Yes! We’ve been having fun with that as well. It’s fun to succeed but have the wild die show a 1, indicating some complication. I like when failure isn’t always bad and success isn’t always painless! :)

    Comment by Psychochild — 11 May, 2016 @ 7:11 PM

  8. Also, the first game session was a rousing success! The newbie was very enthusiastic about playing again.

    Comment by Psychochild — 11 May, 2016 @ 7:12 PM

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