Introducing a tabletop roleplaying game to your friends

Do you want your friends to try playing a tabletop roleplaying game? Are you upset that your group only plays D&D and does not seem to want to play anything else? Do you want to slam your fist in the table and tell your group that tabletop roleplaying games are an extremely diverse hobby that covers all kinds of genres and settings and systems and that there may be other games out there that they would enjoy more than D&D? Have your friends played other things before but now settled down in a comfort zone that is difficult to break? Do they think you are annoying, whiny, or a hater for suggesting to play other things? In this blog post, I am going to try to help you introduce a tabletop roleplaying game to your group. It may not work, because every group is different, but I am going to try to cover as many approaches as possible and hopefully you will get something useful out of it by the end. However, before we discuss ways to introduce a new game to your group, we should talk about what kind of reasons a group may have for not wanting to play the game you are pitching.

  • Not a good fit: It could be that the game you are pitching is assumed to not be a good fit for the players in your group. They may not like the genre or the system or the overall playstyle that a game offers, and you may not be pitching the game in a way that appeals to them.
  • Too geeky: It could be that you are trying to pitch a tabletop roleplaying game to a group of players who have not played such games before, and they could picture the hobby as being awkward or geeky; that is a common impression people have. While many get over those feelings in their first session, there are those who will simply never enjoy this hobby and then trying to pitch it to them could be pointless.
  • Too much work: It could be that your group assumes that getting into a new game will take too much work, or it could be that you are trying to pitch a new game without taking responsibility to GM it yourself. If you are unloading a bunch of work on another player for a system they are not passionate about, you can expect resistance.
  • Comfort zone: It could be that your group has developed a comfort zone where they have met all of their expectations already in the game they are currently playing, and adding something new to that would disrupt that comfort. I find that this is often seen among those who exclusively play D&D and have never tried another game. When D&D has met your expectations so far and you do not have experience with other games, it can be difficult to imagine what another game could do else or different or better?

Regardless of if your group is reluctant to or hyped for a new game, it can be an investment for a group to try something new – especially for the GM. Since I think that communication is the key to everything, I think the default thing to do should always be to discuss together with the group what game they are interested in playing before investing time and money in a new product. But if you have a game you are really hyped about and you want to convince your group to at least give it a try, then the first thing you need to do is to sell the idea of the game to them. Some games can be hard sells, and then it is extra important that you think about your pitch and focus on the details you want them to latch on to. My most played game is Exalted, and I have always been hyped to a fault about that game. It is a complex game with a core book that is not particularly efficiently designed, and it has so much player content that new players often get choice paralysis. The game’s setting is huge as well, and because it is so diverse there is so much in it that you can have lengthy discussions about. I have done the wrong way to pitch Exalted many times, and that is to overwhelm new players with information about the game and its setting. My mouth has just gone off and started talking about Solars and Lunars and Primordials and suddenly I get into Sidereals because they are cool and then I talk about the Yozis and the Deathlords and the Charms and the Evocations and how cool it is to have control spells, and I can literally see the players shut down in front of my eyes. Sometimes they are nice enough to humor me because they see my excitement for the game, but end up mostly confused and intimidated by it in the end.

The Elevator Pitch

If you want to pitch a game that you are passionate about, you need to do so in as few words as possible. This is called an elevator pitch, because it should be done before you reach the right floor and the doors open up. Focus on the one aspect of the game you think will appeal to your players and let the other details sink into the background. Instead of talking about every aspect of Exalted at the same time, focus on the one thing that the players need to know: “this is a game where you get to play someone who is extremely powerful already from the start – you are Hercules, you are Achilles, you are chosen of the gods. This is a game where you can challenge the gods themselves in your first session, and no matter where you go in the world, it will change in your wake.” That is all you need to say as an elevator pitch. From here on out, players can go “oh, that sounds interesting,” or they can go “I think I’m looking for something more grounded and relatable.” Not every pitch works, of course, because people have different tastes – but the elevator pitch is the best way to introduce a new idea to someone. Once they are hooked by the idea, you can start adding the extra details.

Take Responsibility

The elevator pitch’s primary goal is to plant a seed of interest about the game within your group. There are more things you need to consider before a game can actually start, though. For one thing, who will GM the game? If you are only a player and never a GM, you cannot expect the GM to suddenly pick up and GM a new game for you just because you want to. Being a GM is a big responsibility. While you can be a GM without having full grasp of a game’s rules and setting, you need to at least have a working overview. To become GM requires reading. So, if you want to introduce a new game to your group, you should expect to be the GM for that game. It could be that you have a nice enough GM to be willing to take on that role and responsibility, but you cannot assume it or expect it. You are the one pitching the game. Be willing to go the extra kilometer and do the preparations needed to run it. Once you have ran it for your group, it is possible that someone else will want to GM it for you later if they like it.

Get Comfortable

Once you have pitched the game and taken on the GM role, the next step should be to make your group more comfortable around the game and its system. This does not apply to everyone, but it is my personal experience that people tend to like the setting more than the system. I am not sure how this applies to D&D players, since it is very system-driven and many (not all) of the D&D settings are bland and uninspiring; at least to me. But I find that pitching a game is usually related to that game’s setting and not to its mechanics. For example, if I want to invite someone to a game of Vampire, I sell them on the idea of vampire intrigue – not on the way hunger dice work. However, should we have three or four different vampire games to choose from, then maybe the mechanics can play a role in the decision. There are exceptions to this, of course. For example, setting-agnostic games such as Fate Core can be an appealing choice because of its lack of setting as well – but I still think that it is whatever story the GM wants to tell that is the main selling point. “Let’s play Fate so that I can tell this story.”

The way to help your group become comfortable with the game you have decided on is to expand the pitch with the information needed to understand the absolute basics of what the game is about. You could sit down and describe some vital parts of the setting that is directly related to the story you are about to tell. Do not tell them the entire history of the world or the intricate details of the land’s political structure. Tell them just enough so that they can get a picture of what kind of environment they will play in and what their characters’ roles would be in that game. Do the same for the rules. Give them just enough of the mechanics to comfortably generate characters and be able to perform general action resolution. Make a cheat sheet or let the players sit with the GM screen instead of you. Don’t even bother explaining rules that won’t be immediately used. For example, while explaining the hunger dice is important for your Vampire game, do not even bother mentioning how Memoriam works.

Another good way to get the group more comfortable is to explain the new game in ways that relate to other games they are familiar with. For example, a D&D group that decides to try playing Exalted may feel more comfortable referring to Solar Castes based on their archetypes. “The Dawns are the fighters, the Zeniths are the clerics, the Twilights are the wizards, the Nights are the rogues, and the Eclipses are the bards.” Now, those of you who know Exalted know that this is an extreme over-simplification of their roles, but over-simplification is what we are looking for. The D&D groups know what to expect from a fighter or a rogue. This at least gives them the concepts they need to start building a framework for what the new game will then gradually reveal through their experiences with it.

Character Creation

The key to introducing a new tabletop roleplaying game to your group is to get started as quickly as possible. A group of pre-generated characters can work for a one-shot, but players often tend to want a personal touch on their characters. This is more important if the character is going to stick around for a while. If I know that I will be GM for a briefer story, I have found that an effective way to both get started quickly and let the players feel like their characters are their own is to combine pre-generated characters with customization. For example, present a few roles with finished stats but without attached personalities. Then let the players modify the character to feel more like something they have created themselves.

If the plan is to play a longer campaign, it can be valuable to let the players create the characters from scratch. Do not ask for too much backstory or extra work, though. You can easily start a game with only some basic motivations and then build backstory as you play. Since players should experience the game through the game and not from reading about it before the game, it is perfectly reasonable to have simple concepts become more complex throughout the narrative of the game. By starting out simple, you also give your players more freedom to make changes without it having a negative impact on narrative. When you are not comfortable with a system and you make a character for that system, you are highly likely to make decisions that you otherwise would not do. Give your players the freedom to make changes to their character once they recognize that certain aspects of the game did not quite work out the way they thought it would.

Starting the Game

The best way to start a new game is to quickly show the players what is exciting about that game. Do not let things drag for too long. Start in the middle of the action. Let them immediately do some action resolution without making things too complicated. You can only learn so much from reading or talking about game mechanics. You need to actually use them, but do not overdo them. If you take Exalted as an extreme example, since the game mechanics are uninviting to new players, I need to make sure to gradually teach the system to the players over the course of multiple sessions, especially when it comes to combat and Initiative interaction.

The best type of game to introduce to a new group is a rules-lite system, but that may not be the type of game you want to play. You may want to play a rules-heavy system like Exalted, because you like aspects of the game or its setting that you think are more important than the game’s challenges or flaws. Exalted is that for me because there has never been a game I am more passionate about, but there are so many problems with its system presentation that it is impossible to argue with people’s criticisms of it. I think Exalted Third Edition is a great game, but I also think it is a poorly designed game, and this can be a contradiction without being cognitive dissonance. I love the game because I have overcome the main obstacles that keep newcomers out. I can now help new players to traverse those obstacles in a more streamlined fashion. And the way to do this is to GM the game in a way that introduces mechanic after mechanic in a way that is simple to grasp and narratively important.

However, while I think it is important to keep things simple, I also think it is important to show a little bit of everything the game has to offer. If you focus on only a single basic thing, the players can easily associate the game with that thing. A better way to retain the players’ interest in the new game is to focus on that single basic thing to get them started, but to show them what more the game can offer. The adventure Hoard of the Dragon Queen for D&D 5th Edition is known as a fairly poor adventure module, but it did one thing right. It let the players go up against an adult blue dragon already at Level 1. The purpose was not to have them win against this dragon. The purpose was to show the players that you are here now, rescuing farmers and fighting kobolds. This dragon is where you will go. That is the enemy you will fight soon. The same could be done with other games as well. Present the challenges where the players are in control but reveal something larger to them in order to build anticipation of what the game can offer. Hopefully, they’ll want to come back for more.

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