Friday, February 20, 2015

Getting Started with the Starter Set, Part 0: Gathering a Group

Hello, and welcome to Pact of the Tome. This article is the first in a series written for new Dungeon Masters who have picked up the Dungeons & Dragons 5E Starter Set and are planning to run a game with it for the first time. The first two articles cover the process of bringing a gaming group together and building characters, and each article after that will cover one "part" of the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure. I will not assume any prior knowledge about Dungeons & Dragons aside from information in the Starter Set rulebook.

Part 0: Gathering a Group
Part 0.5: Creating Characters
Part 1: Goblin Arrows
Part 2: Phandalin
Part 3: The Spider's Web
Part 4: Wave Echo Cave

The D&D Fifth Edition Starter Set is considered by many
experienced players to be the best introduction to D&D
in a long time. If you're considering getting started, I
heavily recommend it - and if you're on the fence, it's
only $20 at your local game store, or $12 on Amazon.
So you've got the Starter Set. Hopefully you've had the chance to flip through the included rulebook, the pre-generated characters, and the adventure/Dungeon Master booklet, Lost Mines of Phandelver. Maybe you've also talked to some of your friends about playing. What next?
In order to play D&D, you need a group of fellow players! At minimum, you'll want at least three players and a Dungeon Master, but many groups include up to 5 or 6 players. Finding people willing to give the game a shot can sometimes be a challenge, but it's absolutely worth it - D&D is best with a good-sized group where everyone can bring something different to the table.

Is it possible to play the Starter Set with one or two players? You can manage it, but I wouldn't recommend it. As a Dungeon Master, it becomes difficult to balance the game for a group this size. Besides, finding more players could be easier than you'd think.

By contrast, although the game's playable up until you hit eight players or so, at that point I'd suggest you pick up a second copy of the Starter Set and split into two groups, each with its own Dungeon Master. The box is pretty cheap, and running it with two groups will guarantee each person more time in the spotlight. It's also a lot easier to run a game as a new Dungeon Master if you're not worrying about engaging a huge group of people.

Finding Potential Players
Here's a secret most people don't know - D&D is really fun, and there are a whole lot of people out there that would enjoy playing. The trick is to get them to sit down and try a game.

When you're trying to form a group, start by asking people you know - family members and friends are the best place to begin. There's a good chance someone you know has prior experience with D&D, and there are plenty of people who like fantasy novels, video games, or even theater who might be interested in playing. Don't discount someone just because they don't have geeky interests, either! Even the most nerd-adverse of your friends may be willing to try something because you recommended it.

If you can't build a group with people you already know, you may want to branch out. Personally, I've gotten to know some of my best friends playing D&D. You can always head to your local gaming store and see if anyone is interested in joining a group - and if you see someone reading The Lord of the Rings at work or in the school cafeteria, go ahead and ask them if they're interested.
Lastly, once you've got someone intrigued, let them know you're looking for more players! They may know or meet someone who'd be the perfect addition to your group.

Although D&D is great fun for a lot of people, it's not for everyone. Don't make the mistake of inviting someone who will make your game worse. If you don't enjoy spending time with someone in your normal interactions with them, chances are they won't be a good fit for your game. Similarly, you probably shouldn't invite two people who dislike each other. Their enmity can create a rift in the game with the potential to ruin everyone's experience.

Creating Your Pitch
You've got some people in mind. Now you've got to convince them to play. Here's the first thing lots of people will want to know: What is Dungeons & Dragons?

If your D&D game has as much death
 in it as Game of Thrones, you might
be doing it wrong. Or very, very right.
D&D is an odd duck when it comes to games.
  • It's got elements of a board game, like Monopoly or Settlers of Catan, but there's no winner or even a competition.
  • It's a bit like acting in a play, but there's no script or costumes and a whole lot more rules.
  • It involves an epic fantasy story like Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, but you play out the story yourself rather than reading or watching it.
  • You control and level up a character like in a video game like Skyrim or World of Warcraft, but you play around a table with friends instead of alone at a computer or console.
The trick is to figure out what your target audience knows and build off of it. If they're a fan of Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, you could describe D&D as "like a board game version of a fantasy novel, but each player plays as one character and you tell a story together." If they love theater, you can talk about D&D as "similar to improv acting, but with some board game elements like dice and a fantasy theme." If they're a hardcore gamer, you could say, "In D&D, you play a character like in World of Warcraft or Skyrim, but around a table with your friends (and you're not limited to a computer's rules!)." And if you don't know what they like, ask!

Naturally, some people will have already played D&D. Chances are, these people will already have a good idea of what the game is and how play works. They might be more familiar with a different edition of the game, so you can specify that you're playing the fifth edition and that you'll be keeping things simple to start, using a pre-written adventure and beginning characters at level 1.

No matter who you're talking to, you'll want a few more details ready. Playing through the first part of the Starter Set adventure, Lost Mine of Phandelver, will probably take around 2-3 hours, and if you're planning to build characters beforehand, it's worth allocating an extra hour for that. If the person you're talking to seems hesitant, it's alright to advertise your first session on a "trial run" basis. That way, they don't have to commit to playing on a regular basis, just for one night. Trust me - after playing once, most people will be excited to get together more often!

The Player's Handbook is much more expensive (to the
tune of $35-50) than the Starter Set, so don't feel
compelled to purchase it right away. On the other hand,
the expanded character options in it can really enrich
your game. To start, though, there's nothing wrong with
the free basic rules!
Experienced D&D players might want to know if they can build their own characters. If you aren't comfortable with this, then feel free to say "No, we're just using the pregenerated characters in the starter set to begin with." On the other hand, creating one's own character can be one of the most fun parts of a D&D game - and if you have the Player's Handbook, then you may be itching to make use of it.

Lastly, there's the chance you could run into someone with misconceptions about D&D. Maybe they played once and had a bad experience, or maybe they've bought into the occasional, misinformed rhetoric that D&D is a "satanic" game. If they're not interested, they're not interested, and there's not much you can do. However, if they're willing to give it an honest try, you might be able to turn them around. Once they see how fun the game is, they may turn around!

Scheduling Your First Meeting
Once you've got a group of people excited to play, all you need is to schedule a date, time, and place to meet up.

Choosing a date is relatively simple. Just talk to the members of your group (perhaps via email or a group text message/Facebook chat) and find a day you're all free to meet. For a lot of people, this will be weekend nights, but don't discount the possibility of a weekday night being the best for everyone.

When scheduling time, consider that you'll probably want a minimum of two hours to play, but allow for extra time for breaks as well as time on the front end for character creation (probably an hour). If you want to intersperse other activities into the game, such as eating a meal, remember to make time for those as well. Ideally, nobody will have commitments right at the end of your scheduled time - nothing breaks a game session like being in the middle of the adventure's climax and having two group members who need to be at a meeting - right now!

Some Dungeon Masters go to a lot of trouble to create the
perfect game room
. You don't have to put in this much effort,
but if you do I can guarantee your players will be very
impressed. And maybe a little bit intimidated.
An ideal place to meet is comfortable, private, and has enough space to set out papers and roll dice. A home, apartment, or dorm room with enough space for a table and chairs is ideal, but if you attend a university or boarding school you may be able to use a study room or an unoccupied public space to meet.

D&D can be greatly improved with the addition of snacks and drinks, so ask your group members if someone is willing to provide them or if you can pool your money to buy chips or order pizza. Typical D&D etiquette holds that since the Dungeon Master does the work of organizing and running the game, others are responsible for feeding the group, but if you want to spring for snacks or put cooking skills to use, go for it!

Once you've found a time and place to meet and confirmed with everyone in your group, you can sit back and relax. Getting a D&D group together is hard work, but the results can pay off in a big way.

That's it for this week! Next time, I'll cover the process of character creation in preparation for the Starter Set adventure. Thanks for reading - I'll see you next week on Pact of the Tome!

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