Learning the Ropes

Recently, Grognardia noted a Dragon Magazine article by Frank Mentzer about the then-new 1983 Basic D&D set.

James writes

The very first thing Mentzer mentions in his criticism of previous editions is that “you had to find someone to show you how to play.” He notes that, in fact, learning from others who had figured out how to play on their own was the norm previously. That’s because the game had “a devoted following, people who taught newcomers the ways of roleplaying.”

Mentzer put a lot of effort into making the 1983 Basic D&D set one that newcomers could use to teach themselves how to play. With lots of examples, a guided play-along, and easy-to-understand writing, I have no doubt that many readers were able to work out basic play without too much trouble.

This form of writing, while excellent for the neophyte and younger players, was quite off-putting for many of those who already grasped the fundamentals of paper and pencil roleplaying and is a big reason that I prefer the 1981 B/X version of the game over the 1983 BECM edition. Though I haven’t looked closely, I understand that the Rules Compendium version of the game does away with most of the hand holding and sticks to the actual rules, which makes that edition’s popularity with longtime players unsurprising.

In my own homebrew game, I completely dispensed with examples and learning guides. I wrote it for our own use and for others who might join our game, so I wasn’t concerned with whether or not some random person who read the rules could learn to play on their own. This is the extent of the “learning to play” section in the beta version of our game:

Learning to Play is easiest when playing with others who already know how. Teaching yourself the game from the rule book is possible, especially if you’re already familiar with most of the concepts from other similar games. But nothing beats playing a few sessions with those who already know the system.

That’s it, and I think that it should do the trick. There is a quick intro to the game which touches on the whole “what is an RPG” issue, but it’s quite brief:

Wizards & Warriors is a fantasy role playing game (RPG). When playing Wizards & Warriors (W&W), players control characters adventuring in an imaginary world controlled and moderated by the Game Master.

The point is to have fun while imagining fantastic realms filled with danger, mystery, and adventure. It’s basically a session of “let’s pretend” with a framework of guidelines to help determine the course of events.

Unlike board games or computer games, the options are virtually infinite, limited only by the imaginations of those playing.

Clearly, I didn’t put much effort into teaching. My idea was that if someone reads that much, flips through the book, and thinks it looks like it might be fun, the next step is to sit down at the table and join a game. You can learn far more in a one hour session than you can in a week of reading rules and looking at tables.

My own experience has a little of both. My first game was Traveller, and I pretty much taught myself. Though the three little black books are pretty sparse when it comes to how-to, I had Deluxe Traveller which included Book 0: An Introduction to Traveller and also had the freebie Understanding Traveller booklet. Both of these were great resources for a kid who didn’t really know what he was getting into but sure thought it looked fun.

I managed to struggle through quite a few sessions of Traveller with my younger brother and with some friends from school, but it was tough going even with the extra help from Book 0. Still, we had fun and I look back quite fondly on some of those sessions where a lot of crazy stuff went down.

Then a neighbor came home from his freshman year at college for winter break, and he brought with him a hardback book with a big orange idol on the front, a few weird-shaped dice, and a box of little lead figures. He’d been introduced to AD&D at school a few months earlier. We rolled up PCs and headed off to investigate the Tower of the Undead, something the neighbor just winged as he went.

We spent an afternoon of playing AD&D, and about the only time I looked at the Players Handbook was to buy equipment and pick my cleric’s spells. We didn’t have a DMG or a Monster Manual at all; the neighbor just did the best he could as we played.

And after a couple of hours of that I learned almost everything I needed to know about roleplaying. Almost everything else since that afternoon has just been details. And many of those are not only unimportant, they’re counterproductive. I’ve spent years trying to unlearn so many of them.

Learn from someone who’s played before if at all possible. If you play, teach someone new as often as you can. Sit them down, give them some dice and a piece of paper for a character sheet, and just play. As far as I’m concerned, players should be able to have fun without ever bothering to look in a rule book for anything more than equipment lists, spell descriptions, and experience point requirements.

Teaching yourself from a rule book should be the last-ditch, no-other-options-available method of learning.

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1 Response to Learning the Ropes

  1. Greyhawk Knight says:

    I am not convinced. This could be misconstrued as a very elitist stance.

    An approach like that worked during the boom time of the RPGs when they were cool but I can’t see that working in today’s climate. Especially with a niche game. “Great that you accidentally found my game MYTH & MONSTER. Please look for other M&M players who can explain it to you. Good luck.”

    I learned D&D from reading Frank Mentzers explanations (Bargle!) and built my own group from that.

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