More people should be roleplaying.
If you agree with this statement – for whatever reason – you should probably care, at least a little, about how to make more people into roleplayers. Here are my thoughts on the matter.
Let’s begin with an important definition: This article discusses the muggle, a person who isn’t a gamer, perhaps not even a geek. The term “muggle” comes from Harry Potter, referring to people who aren’t wizards, and more importantly, unaware of the wizarding world; it’s occasionally used by geeks to refer to people who are not geeks. In our case, muggles are people who aren’t aware of the roleplaying games as a hobby, or, if they are, they don’t know it from the inside. This article aims to provide an overview of what we should do when we try to welcome the muggle into our hobby, hopefully by providing a mindset of an educator.
There are three stages to the process of bringing a muggle into the hobby: The first encounter, during which we need to convince the muggle that this experience is worth having; the entry game, during which they experience roleplaying for the first time; and the introduction to the hobby, during which the muggle starts seeing themselves as a “new player”, entering a wide world of possibilities and online communities. Each of these stages deserves several articles on its own, but for now I’ll try to focus on a specific conglomeration of the first two: The act of convincing someone to have their first game, and running the game in such a way as to leave them wanting more.
From the Muggle’s Point of View
Whenever we come to convince someone in something – and it doesn’t matter if we’re trying to sell them something, try to convert their religion or try to present them with a leisure activity that we’re sure they’re going to enjoy – we should consider several elements, such as rhetoric (the art of convincing using language), their emotional state (calm and receptive vs. haughty or confused), the environment (allowing them to remain attentive and supporting our message) and several important lessons from social psychology (for example, people’s memories of an experience are mostly coloured by how it ends)
It should all start with this: Think about the situation from the other’s perspective.
If we look at the process that the muggle goes through when encountering the game for the first time, we can identify several “obstacles”, and I put the word in quotes because they’re more like speed bumps: They make the drive more difficult but don’t actually stop it. If we notice these bumps beforehand, we might be able to cut around them. Keep in mind that the muggle needs to digest (grok) several alien concepts at the same time, and rapidly. Therefore, we should make it easier for them by avoiding as many non-necessary concepts and placing the necessary ones in an orderly fashion.
I always start with the most basic concept that stands at the basis of almost all roleplaying games: “I’m the host, you’re the player.” (I avoid the word Game Master, because “master” is misguiding here). I continue with some explanations: You’re free to act as you wish, and I immediately react to your actions. We tell a story together, we simply have different roles while doing so. The next concept to introduce is the rules, and they’re very important. The rules help the muggle connect this weird new experience to something that they already know (other types of games) and define it (rules are a constant and non-subjective. Simply having them is grounding and calming).
Now that we finished with the introduction – which should take between 30 seconds to three minutes – I run a short game. I’ve got a whole article about it: A Scenario to Present Dungeons & Dragons.
Throughout this process, there are several points you should always have in mind. In fact, you should consider them way before, when deciding on you format – which we’ll get to after this.
Dos and Don’ts
“Game” or “Movie”, not “theatre” – Some people like to introduce roleplaying games as “interactive theatre”, or “a type of improv theatre”. The problem is, the word “theatre” usually has connotations of quality and standards, hinting that I’m being tested on my acting ability. We try to avoid creating unnecessary pressure on the player, keeping them in a comfortable mindset. Placing some responsibility on the muggle’s shoulders is a good thing (it helps motivate action), and we’ll do so in some of the other entries below, but whenever we demand something of them, it should be constructive, not destructive. Implying someone is being judged is definitely destructive in our case. It’s better to use the classic example of “it’s like a movie but you get to decide what the hero does”. It’s not a perfect description, but the description should only be the first part, followed immediately by a short (even 30 seconds) demonstration of a game.
Keep to positive connotations – Continuing from the previous point, I suggest not to present the game as “it’s like the sort of make-believe that we used to do play as kids” because it might place the game in a place of disrespect – so is it a children’s game? Thank you, but I’m an adult. I usually use this sentence only after we’ve already started playing and the muggle has some understanding of what’s going on, and they have this moment of enlightenment when they realise we’re essentially creating a new story together. Because we already established a positive reaction to the game – which was just strengthened, when they came to an interesting realisation about the experience, on their own – then the childish connotations are no longer relevant, and instead their mind focuses on the connotation of “this is an experience which is based on my own free imagination”, which is accompanied by positive emotional reactions, since this is what we all liked about those make-believe games. If the muggle raises the comparison to make-believe games by themselves, I immediately make it clear that while the basis is similar, the implementation is completely different, just like while there are children’s books in the world, they’re not exactly encompassing everything that can be done with books. I make it clear that roleplaying games are a medium, and as such, they can be used in a million different ways, some are more fantastical, others educational, and yet others emotional.
Lots of action, zero waiting – When explaining the game, don’t leave them hanging. When running the game, don’t have them wander around. If five minutes have passed and nothing significant has happened in the story, then roleplaying games are boring and what am I doing here, there must be something more interesting to do somewhere else. Again, place yourselves in the muggle’s shoes: How much time are you willing to give to the salesperson who caught your attention for a moment while walking in the mall? While your case is probably different, it might not be that different. If you give people the time to let their thoughts wander, they’ll wonder what are they doing here. The muggle’s attention is finite, don’t push it to its limits.
Approach them in their native environment – It’s best to engage the muggle in an environment they’re comfortable in. First, because they might won’t be willing to invest the effort to come to you, and we want to minimise the amount of effort required by the muggle. Second, because when the muggle is in a familiar environment they feel they’re in control, which is very important because in a moment you’ll be telling them they’re an elven cleric born in a magical forest, an experience they know nothing about, and one that you are obviously in complete control of. They should have some sense of control, it’s comforting.
Avoid jargon – We all know what a d20 is, but to them, “a 20 sided die” is much more comfortable at first. Keep saying Armor Class until they say it themselves, and only then switch to AC. Say “in-play” only after you actually have some in-play experience. A “game session” is better than “session”. Instead of “You get to add your proficiency modifier to your Wisdom saving throw against the enemy’s 2nd level spell” you should say “She’s to paralyse you with her magical incantation! You can try to resist with a saving throw, [short explanation here]. Roll this die and add 2″. Explain what is happening and why, but do so with simple words. As you get into the game, the terms become more common – it’s important to stop and repeat their meaning every time, and always stop to explain any question. And it’s D&D, not D&D 5 – there’s no need to explain the 5, and they don’t care.
Use physical aids – A clean, well-designed, colourful, non-cluttered character sheet that provides all of the necessary information and doesn’t include non-necessary information, can be the difference between “tell me more” and “no thank you”, even before talking to the person. You can use different coloured dice, and say “use the red die” instead of “the 20 sided die” – every term we saved the need to learn until a later time (when they’re more comfortable with the concept) is another speed bump we avoided. A colourful sheet of paper on the table or a nice poster hanging on the wall that lists the basic rules in a shortened form is an amazingly powerful aid. If you use points of any kind, like Fate points or Bennies, use tokens. Write as little as possible, but have them do it if needed.
Only the basic rules – If running D&D, use 1st level characters, avoid opportunity attacks, feats, maybe even saving throws. Remember: You’re not trying to teach the system, you’re trying to turn a muggle into a player. Add whatever mechanic they seem to enjoy, remove any that seems confusing.
Use a fun, simple ruleset – You should present the hobby using a system that offers a single type of roll (d20), a single target number (Savage Worlds), or in which the rules are mostly used as a step-off point for innovative interpretation (Most Apocalypse Engine games; Star Wars or Genesys). To make the game more exciting, consider stealing cool things from other systems: The One Unique Thing from 13th age, the Mighty Deeds of Arms from Dungeon Crawl Classics. It’s important to run a system you enjoy very much and know well, so you’ll be comfortable with making snap rule decisions. Again, you’re not trying to teach the system, and the muggle won’t know if you’re “not playing by the book”. Being correct is not very important, but maintaining a smooth, fast-moving experience, is.
Exaggerate the basic tropes – After starting on a strong note (hopefully), you should continue into clichéd or exaggerated places. The muggle is playing for the first time, they have no established expectations – to them, everything is new. They can immensely enjoy the feeling of saving royalty from a dragon – it’ll be the first time in their life that they’ll avoid the flaming breath, or hear a touching “thank you” speech from someone they saved themselves. The play experience is a lot more important than the story’s quality. In fact, there’s even an advantage in using relatively known stories or worlds. A complicated revenge tale across two time periods in a steampunk setting is simply way too much to take; It might be cool for you, which is great (and see the last entry), but too confusing to the average muggle. Stick to the basics, unless you have excellent reasons to believe the person in front of you can enjoy a more specific experience (for example, playing in a fandom beloved by both of you).
Diversify to show potential – Roleplaying games can be a lot of things, but you’re only running a single game right now, so make sure to hint at other possibilities to keep the muggle intrigued and surprised. If the muggle is playing a plain fighter, give them a talking magical axe of ice, to have cool magical action and some fun NPC interactions. If they’re fighting orcs in the forest, let them free a captive who’s a politician from the desert lands, and have a short conversation about those strange, far off lands. If the muggle suggests something, “yes and” it, while keeping the general frame of the story intact. Most importantly, finish on a cliffhanger.
“Sure,” and refine with questions – Can I have a wolf? Sure, and does it know how to fight for you? Or: It has a scar; how does it look, and what is it from? Or: What’s magical about your wolf? Try to match the answer to some rules, or create a simple one on the spot. Make it clear that the story reflects rules and the other way around.
Get excited – Excitement is catching. Show that you’re doing something you’re enjoying, make it clear. Don’t force it, but be ready to make fun of yourself. When the muggle sees you doing funny voices for the kobolds, they’ll feel comfortable to do funny voices as well. When they hear your excited descriptions, they’ll start giving descriptions themselves. Take it easy, have fun.
Muggle-friendly Game Formats
There’s no single format for every use, because every format is designed for a specific audience, shaped by your resources and goals. Running an entry game to three acquaintances from work is very different from trying to get fellow students from college into the hobby.
First, decide on your goal. Are you trying to recruit to a local RPG club? Are you trying to convince a friend to listen to an Actual Play podcast that you like? Are you attempting to sell your game? Do you just want your mom to understand what’s all the fuss is about? Every decision you make while creating the format and during the encounter itself should, in some way, help bring about the goal.
Second, define your audience. If you’re targeting kids with their parents, you are not targeting kids, nor parents. You’re targeting both of them together, and they have a different dynamic, and different thought processes, compared to when they are separated. If you’re targeting your mom, does this also include other people around? Are you trying to approach her while you’re all in the middle of some vacation, probably with uncle Pete around as well, or are you having a conversation in her living room some evening? You’ll require different approaches for these.
Think of things from your audience’s perspective, and imagine their wants and needs during the three stages – first engagement, first game, and providing further tools. Feel free to contact me for suggestions based on your specific cases.
Here are two formats I’ve used on various occasions. I have several others, but this article is long enough as it is.
D&D Encounters/Adventurers League Games
This format was created by Wizards of the Coast several years ago to support D&D 4, later evolving to become the default for the Adventurers League. It is very easy to get into: each game lasts only two hours; all the rules are available online and pregens are available on the table;, the DM guidelines are very inclusive (there’s a code of conduct); each 2-hour session stands by itself, usually a straightforward and well-built scenario, with a satisfying ending – however, it’s also part of a serialised whole, allowing the muggle to participate in an ongoing story (or some of it, if they can’t make it every week).
Anyone can be a DM, but WotC encourages stores to run games, to create public, open opportunities. The format encourages anyone to try and DM by providing cheap, easily accessible and solid adventures, with a simple gamification system that has seasonal achievements.
Days of Charlie Spencer
This is a format I developed in order to reach out to students during my time in university. I tried to target the audience of “Yeah, I used to play when I was little”, those people who remember the game very fondly but are not necessarily aware it still exists and playable by grown-ups. This was before streaming was a thing, before the rise of D&D in popular culture (These days I’ll probably target the general geek crowd, those who know a bit and would like to try but “never really got around to it”). It was also in Israel, where a whole generation started playing in the 80’s and 90’s and then stopped around the early 00’s because of the mandatory military service.
My goal was to allow for minimum responsibility on the part of the muggle – to make them feel as comfortable as possible, while at the same time delivering enough of the experience to hopefully pique their interest in trying roleplaying as a hobby.
Charlie Spencer (the name of the format means absolutely nothing, I just like the song) was a weekly event, always in the same location (cafeteria) during the same hours (12:00 to 18:00), in order to make it easier for students to know when and where it is (because I mostly promoted it on one-way media, like posters around the campus; I had no way to contact interested parties. This was also before Facebook).
The game ran for six hours each week, a single adventure from beginning to end. Each week had a different adventure, not necessarily connected to any of the others. I used especially designed pregen character sheets, using D&D – the name was important because the students know it, so I also printed a colourful tent sign to place on the table.
Players were allowed to come and go as they please during the game – no pre-registration, only available seats. The narrative had to allow for it, of course. I even had this one person who came to play three different times during the same day, each time for only 10 minutes.
I had to have at least one person at the table at any point – there’s nothing less inviting than an empty table – so I had a friend with me at all times. Yes, this was a two-person job. The second person had another important role – when a new player sat down to play, attracted by the colour, the excitement, and the laughter, the second person would explain the basic rules and give them a character sheet, allowing me to continue running the game without interruption. Three minutes of explanation and watching the others playing – and you’re in! With everyone around you just as clueless as you are, so you’re in good company.
The final stage was handing the player, just before they leave, a flyer with the time and place of the game, links to the most prominent online forums, and a discount at the local game store.
Let’s Make More Players
We can say “go and watch Critical Role”. We can say “come with me to a convention sometime and we’ll register to a game.” We can buy them the D&D Starter Set (which is excellent) for their birthday. These approaches might work, and in some cases, they might be better than engaging with them directly and running a game. But most of the time… it’s better to engage with them directly and run a game. Even a short one, even if you’re not usually a GM. I hope I showed that the approach, rather than the quality of the game, is the most important factor in the question of will they want to play some more. And maybe, after that, join the best hobby in the world.