BASIC IS STILL EXPERT: At Introducing New Players To D&D

I got a text from a friend of mine that they were going to play their first game of D&D with 3 other people of which the designated DM has only played 1-2 times before.

Although not told the edition, I was 90% sure that they were going to play 5e and I was 95% sure how this attempt was going to play out. This group of four would sit down to learn 5e D&D, make new characters, and run out of time before even rolling a single die outside of character creation.

And that is exactly what happened.


Fifth-edition character creation with its myriad of options took the entire 3 hour period. My friend left with a pretty "meh" impression of the game. And it is my impression this is a likely common occurrence with 5e. 

When your friends agree to sit down to a game of D&D, they want to *play* D&D, not learn rules or have to make dozens of choices they don't really understand. That's nerd shit. They want to start having these thrilling adventures, funny moments, and participate in the experiences that they hear you rave about. Or maybe see in video or hear about on podcasts.

In fact, this is where a lot of video games have an advantage over pen-and-paper RPGs, you start the game and in roughly ~5-10 mins you, the player, are *playing* the game. You wiggle the joy-sticks and stuff happens. Often aided by helpful on-screen prompts that pop up as you are doing things.

I could not let this impression stand. D&D is just too fun. And I knew I could accomplish more in half the time.

YEAH! Let's kick some chthonic chinchilla ass!!
Maybe kiss that pointy-eared thing!!!
('cause I've played BG3)

When my friend was over a few nights ago I announced we were going to play D&D. Literally roll characters in ~15 min and then actually *play* D&D the rest of the time. 

So out came Tom Modvey's Dungeon & Dragons Basic Rulebook (aka 1981's BX D&D). We went 3d6 down the line, I briefly explained the available classes (fighter, wizard, thief, cleric, halfing, elf, dwarf), and players rolled on a d6 background & equipment table I for each class to give them a little flavor. 

The group ended up with a guard (fighter) and two grave-robbers (thieves). All written down on 5x7 index cards. And since I had a copy of the first level of inplacesdeep's Nightwick Abbey close at hand, I used that.  Next, to kick off the game, I asked two questions. For the guard: "What did you do to piss off the crown so much you were not killed, but forced to guard a hideous monument to hubris?" For the thieves: "What did you do previously that you own the Thieve's guild 2500 GP each?"

The players came up with a story that the two grave robbers attempted to steal from the kingdom of Bellagio, got caught, bailed out by shadowy benefactors, and now were bribing a hapless guard to abandon his post and let them down into the devil-besotted Abbey- for money. Deal!

30 minutes had elapsed at this point.

Down they went creeping through a terrible place, listening at doors, getting slimed, trying to figure out what the bas-relief of a shushing old man meant. Then, finally decided to move toward a door where incoherent screaming was coming from. A short combat later, where oil was thrown, backstabs were attempted, and thieves were bifurcated, the lone guard ran out of the Abbey. Game over. Smiles around along with playful accusations of who was to blame. This is a good time with D&D!

1.5 hours had elapsed at this point.

TLDR Takeaway

My big takeaway is still that the best way to get people to like D&D is to get them playing D&D in as short a time as possible. And by "playing", I don't mean sitting around in ye olde tavern shooting the shit. I mean making impactful choices and taking risks. And for me, 1981's Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rulebook by Tom Moldvey does that beautifully.

But its hardly alone. Into the Odd, Errant, Mothership, Cairn, Mouseritter, and Shadowdark are all capable of doing the exact same thing.

You can also get 5e to do it as well as long as you don't get caught up in trying to get new players to understand all the rules. But instead only as much as they need to know to get playing. I tried to summarize that here. In terms of what 5e might look like stripped back, look no further than Traverse Fantasy's latest blog post.

[Edit] To cap this post off better. The reason why this matters to me is that at a time when more and more people are exposed to D&D (Stranger Things, Critical Role, the movie, & Balder's Gate 3), its seems we've landed on an edition and adventure design that doesn't easily move potential players from a state of interest in the game to a state of actively playing the game sans veteran intervention. Seems like a lost opportunity to me.

[Edit 2] So what could be done to help accelerate interest-to-play with 5e? Well, I think some sort of document or section of the Player's Handbook that was written with the same brevity as Here Is Some F%*^&ing D&D. Just enough to get players equipped and going as I did with BX. Then a ~25-room looped dungeon with some interesting takes on monsters, traps, treasures, and aspects of Arnold K's dungeon checklist. But could be prepped in ~30 min.


  1. I legit experienced this first hand myself last weekend. Chris Kutalik has started a 5e Hill Cantons game inspired by BG3 and wanting to see if there's anything in 5e worth dealing with, and out of curiosity. So 3 players and 1 GM, all of various experience with RPGs, and using only the basic document from WotC that has just 4 races and 4 classes...took us about an hour to make characters. It's nuts. Every time I thought I was done, I would look at my character sheet and there was yet another thing I had to fill and look up in the document.

    So yeah, the actual game was fine enough (mostly because we staunchly ignored a lot of 5e's nonsense of adding like 3 different things to any simple roll) but character generation was just bleh.

    1. Thank you for the read! And yes, I too continue to have a similar experience with 5e. Every time I try to jump in a game I feel char-gen drags. Also, I too always feel ~75% of the things I am writing down will really mean nothing practically in play.

    2. I suppose I do get why people enjoy building characters for 5e by themselves, and not at the table, since then you can take as long as you need. But for actually playing games...yeah no I am happy to stick to B/X, OD&D or whatever stripped down version of choice people have for D&D. Or, I suppose, just using something like Cairn, Mausritter, Into the Odd or any other more simple system.

  2. Love these insights. My school club recently switched from 5e to OSE and have found it to breezily get everyone to playing quickly. Any chance you could share your background/equipment table that you mention? It sounds like the kind of thing that will get players much more interested in their characters.

    1. Thank you for the read! And yes, this rapid transfer from interest to play is especially important I think in a school club setting.

      I'll be sharing the equipment & background stuff soon!