You’ve gathered a party of hearty friends, packed your rations, your casks of ale, acquired strangely shaped, mystical gems and descended into the subterranean lair of the Ginger Giant. With indecipherable sheets of parchment clutched in your hands, you find yourself before a strange goatee'd frog creature, who is goggle-eyed and drooling, clutching a dozen worn tomes, full of arcane charts, jumping from foot to foot and cackling manically “You don’t know what you’ve gotten yourselves into… bully…wug…bully…wug” in between belts of some foul smelling liquor. Before you can figure out what is going on or what you’re supposed to do, you hear the booming voice of the Ginger Giant, “Roll… for initiative…”
For the uninitiated tabletop role playing games can be every bit as terrifying as the flavor text above, especially when joining a group that has experienced players, who sometimes are Lawful Evil jerks who treat newcomers as ignorant and in the way of the game and the story, or who use the PCs of new players as disposable cannon fodder or gullible marks, instead of taking the path of Good and mentoring new players. It can be daunting to look at the 200+ page Player’s Handbook, not to mention the dozens of other ancillary rule-books and to wonder just what you need to know to play the game. Here is my take, both as an experienced player of D&D and a longtime Dungeon Master, on some tips, hints and tricks that will improve your first Dungeons and Dragons experience. A word of caution, too, before we begin… In addition to being a seasoned player and DM, I am, of course, also a crazy person (demonstrated by the tortured structuring of this poor, mangled sentence), who, as this blog attests to, spends entirely too much time thinking about these sorts of things. That said, I do think that keeping the things below in mind, whether you decide to follow the trail of breadcrumbs I lay down or not, will help you as you take your first steps into the nerdy abyss that is tabletop role-playing.
KNOW THYSELF, OR AT LEAST THY CHARACTER SHEET
There is nothing as annoying for an experienced player or DM as the sound of paper rustling and “umms…” that accompanies a player searching through their sheet as a player struggles to decide what action(s) their PC will take and play grinds to a halt. Don’t misunderstand me though, this, which is among my greatest RPG pet peeves, is not limited to new players, as it strikes veteran players as well. I understand that as combats or encounters progress that one cannot always plan out three turns ahead, and that sometimes the turn right before your own completely derails a meticulously plotted action, but as a player (and a DM), you should strive to be able to decide quickly what you will do with your turn. My solution to this problem is two-fold: the Character Sheet Audit and 5 Minute Sheet Meditation
THE CHARACTER SHEET AUDIT, NOT JUST FOR LEVEL FOUR ACCOUNTANTS:
I conduct a character sheet audit for each new PC I play and repeat the audit each time I level the character up. Now you don’t need a degree in RPG rules lawyering to conduct an audit, it’s not some long complicated process, it’s actually really simple and it’s based around these two truths about fourth edition: (A) Part of 4E D&D is resource management, your character can use some powers only once an encounter or once a day, and you might have some single use disposable items, like potions of fire-breathing. (B) The official character builder is great at helping you build characters easily but kinda terrible at helping you play characters easily. The builder will calculate your attack bonus, but does not always include conditional bonuses for feats. For instance, if an expertise feat gives you a +1 bonus to damage when you hit with a Charge attack, the builder often doesn’t calculate that. The builder is also notorious for not providing the full text of all feats and racial features, so it’s well worth your time to take 15 minutes the day before the game to make sure you have the full text of all your class and race features, feats and powers.
What do I look over for a character sheet audit?
- What’s Missing?
- Do I have the full text of all my class and race skills handy? How about feats and powers? Is everything legible? Not only is the official builder notorious for not including the full text, it often shrinks the text of complicated powers so small as to require a magnifying glass to read all of it. If it’s missing from my sheet, I’ll just copy and paste it from the D&D Compendium into a word document that I print and bring.
- What Interacts With What?
- When you built/leveled up your character maybe you took a cool feat that gives you a situational bonus, like a +1 to hit a bloodied enemy or a bonus to defense when you’re in rough terrain. Put that shit on a 3x5 notecard or write it on the 1st page of your sheet or on the affected powers, because nothing makes you feel as dumb as getting through an encounter and realizing that you could have hit with that awesome power but didn’t because you forgot to apply your feat bonus.
- How Does Your PC Affect Others?
- Do you give lots of buffs that last a turn? Give an ally a +1 to hit or a +2 to defenses for a turn? Write the bonus on a 3x5 index card (or my favorite, the rarely found to purchase but easy to make 1/2 index card) so that you can hand it to the other player. This helps you and them to remember that they get that sweet bonus. Do you have something that’s always on? Like a Half-Elf giving a bonus to Diplomacy checks to the entire party? Borrow a sheet from terrible corporate team-builders and make your PC a little folding stand-up name plate and just under your PC’s name toss on +2 to Diplomacy checks.
5 MINUTE SHEET MEDITATION, OMMMMMM...
Even if you don’t do the character sheet audit, I really, really recommend this activity, the 5 Minute Sheet Meditation, it's really just reading or studying, but that sounds less mystical and less like communing with your character. Before game, ideally just before game, but practically I guess doing it the same day as the game is fine. What do I meditate on?
- Remind yourself of the skills that you PC is trained in/excels at. If your PC is fantastic at acrobatics, you definitely want to showcase that. I actually made it a goal, when I played Kam, to use Acrobatics/Athletics as part of as many of his move actions as I could and the constant jumping, tumbling, falling prone and other crazy acrobatic attempts where one of the things that made that character memorable and incredibly enjoyable to play.
- It’s good to know whether or not you can understand what the goblins are saying before you risk everything to sneak up and eavesdrop on them...
- Race/Class Features
- Kinda a duh thing, but remembering that your Cleric can use Channel Divinity to Turn Undead could literally turn that zombie tide when you need it most. Knowing that your elf can ignore difficult terrain when shifting may not come up each session but can be a lifesaver when it lets you get away from that ogre’s club.
- As in the Character Sheet Audit, knowing the full text of your feats and knowing when they apply is very useful.
- Don’t forget that you’ve got 50’ of rope, or a lantern. Or a bottle full of Halfling Whiskey that can be turned into a Molotov cocktail.
- Powers as Resources
- Remind yourself what your At-Will, Encounter and Daily powers do.
- At-Wills are especially important as your go-to powers that can be used over and over and over. Knowing that one of your At-Will’s is a Burst 1 with a Range of 10 that affects Creatures and the other is a Blast 3 that affects Enemies will help you decide each turn which you’ll want to use. Especially with At-Wills you really should have no reason to look at your sheet to decide which to use, look at the sheet for attack bonus and damage, sure, but you should know off the top of your head your two At-Will attacks.
- Which isn’t to say that you don’t want to know your encounter and daily powers too. Pro-Tip: Try never to end an Encounter with an unused Encounter power. Since you get them back each encounter, there really is no reason not to use them each and every encounters. Seriously. Once I had a player who had a bow ranger PC who we’ll call Gump. Every turn, almost every encounter, almost every session when it was Gump’s turn, he would use his “At-Will: Careful Attack” power. Every turn. Because it gave him an extra +2 to attack. Each time he leveled he got more cool encounter or daily powers, but nope, he used Careful Attack. Even after determining that the Ogre had an AC of 14 so he needed to roll a 7 or better to hit, did he use a flashy encounter attack to do double damage? Nope, he used Careful Attack. Don’t. Be. That. Guy.
- Which brings me to Daily Powers. Daily Powers are usually cool, and they usually do something slightly less cool when you miss. Not as cool as the hit, but still cool. Don’t be afraid to break out the dailies. Most people want to save them for the Boss Fight or when the fight is tough but that’s not when you should use a daily... You should use a daily when it’s effective and/or cool. Using a huge fireball to take out a dozen goblin mooks across the chasm who’d otherwise be peppering the fighter with arrows is usually just as good or better as using it to try and hit the single triceratops that is the boss monster.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE GORRAM ROLE-PLAYING? I HEAR YOU THINKING...
Ok, so all that shit above doesn't address role-playing, why not? Because role-playing ain't as easy to give glib advice about. Honestly, if you know your sheet, if you can decide in combat what to do, if you know your character is good at stealth, the role-playing becomes easier because you can describe how bad-ass your fighter’s Cleave attack is instead of being paralyzed trying to decide what to do. Role-playing is harder to describe, it gets all touchy-feely, like put yourself in the shoes of your character, try an accent, blah-de-blah-de-blah... As you know, I think a lot about role-playing, and really, I don't know that I can get any really good, succinct advice on how to do it for a new player. It's pretend, for Ialdoboath's sake, and mostly it's much easier to do than explain. And it's much easier to demonstrate than explain.
All that said, here’s my two pieces of role-playing advice:
- Remember those Personality Traits?
- Go back through the Personality Traits you chose during character creation and don’t just read the list of traits, read the question that prompted the trait, it’s one thing to remind yourself that your PC is “Steady”, it’s much more useful to pair it with the question that prompted it: “When faced with Dire Straits my PC is Steady.” The personality traits are great too because they remind you how you want your PC to (re)act in particular situations, which makes them easier to stick to than a more general trait, like my PC is Nice, because what the bagropa does that mean? Make going over your alignment and Personality Traits part of the 5 Minute Sheet Meditation too, why not?
- Treat everything as a Role-Playing Opportunity
- Just because combat starts doesn't mean that role-playing ends. One of the important reasons to know your sheet and the choices your character has is that it lets you turn those choices into role-playing. Perhaps your fighter screams “For Gold and Glory” whenever she charges, maybe your sorcerer refuses to let the rest of the party keep him off the front line, regardless of the consequences.
OTHER HINTS FOR THE FIRST TIME, OR THREE DON'TS (BECAUSE I'M NEGATIVE)
- Don't Be Afraid to Ask Questions or Seek Advice
- Unless they’re total dicks the DM and experience player’s will answer them. As they say, there are no dumb questions, but it is dumb to ask the same question again and again. So be respectful and remember the answer or ask for more explanation if you don’t understand the answer.
- Don’t Be Afraid to Make Mistakes and Take Risks
- I am a big proponent that the least fun characters to play, and the least fun players to play with, are those who never take risks. Yes, your character might die. So what? If you like that character, the DM will be a kind and benevolent deity and somehow let you bring them back to life. If you don’t like that character, here’s your chance to play something new. You don’t need to always be having your Don’t be Afraid to ask questionswizard flick the ears of passing Ogres, but it’s no fun if the game crawls because everyone takes out their 10’ pole and checks for traps before they move a square. Likewise, if your only concern is that your character take the least amount of damage possible in a fight, you’re missing out on a ton of fun. Nobody talks about the combat where their Ranger cowered in the back, plinking at the ogre with at-will arrow attacks, everybody talks about the combat where the Ranger held the Ogre off with flashing double axes and was knocked unconscious but bought time for the sorceress to get into position with the Burning Hands that finished the Ogre off. Even if you’re playing a timid Half-Elf cleric who is terrified of the sight of his own blood, it’s no fun unless every once in a while you put him into a position where he is going to get bloodied and at the end of the encounter has 5 hit points and suddenly realizes that he’s covered in blood and wounds and faints just after the last monster goes down.
- Don’t Get Paralyzed by Choices.
- In D&D you can do ANYTHING, well, close enough to ANYTHING that it can be terrifying. Don’t get bogged down in that. Don’t worry about coming up with the most creative solution or the flashiest description. Inspiration will strike when it strikes, instead be decisive. The game is more fun when all the characters are doing things instead of when the players are staring blankly at their sheets weighing their options for many long minutes.