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Taking Baby Steps

A few weeks back my wife’s pregnancy was taking its toll and she had to take a break from gaming until after the baby is born (it should be this week!). Rather than cut out gaming completely (mostly because we’d miss the socialization) I decided to run a game of Hellfrost [1]for the rest of the group. I just had three problems.

First and foremost, I’d never played or run Hellfrost before. Secondly, I’ve only had very minimal experience with the underlying Savage Worlds system (and that was as a player being told what to do during a game). Finally, I had to shift my GMing combat style from abstract to battlemat. What made these three points even more daunting was that Hellfrost required Savage Worlds to play, which not only meant that I had to flip through two rulebooks but I had to be mindful of the changes Hellfrost made to the system.

I came up with a few techniques that are working out well at our table and I hope that, by sharing, you’ll find them useful when a similar situation comes up at your table.

1. Emphasize that the first adventure is a standalone adventure. Be upfront with your players about your lack of experience and that you need a few sessions to make sure you can run the game smoothly. Also emphasize that the players aren’t going to be penalized for not knowing the rules either.

2. Use a published adventure. There’s nothing worse than wasting time designing an adventure that goes to pot because you forgot rule X, Y, or Z. If you use a published adventure then you may be out a few bucks, but you didn’t waste hours of prep time. Also, presuming the adventure is published by the same company that produced the game, reading the adventure will give you an idea of the kinds of challenges that the designers expect the adventure to have and what types of PCs are suited to play in it.

3. Use Pre-Gen PCs. You’re going to make mistakes in the first few sessions and PCs are going to die for it. Even if your players buy into your proposal, they still may get attached to their PCs, especially if they spent an hour designing them. By offering a balanced pre-gen PC party (with several backups), you’re indicating that the adventure and learning curve take precedence over the PCs.  I went the extra step of having my group play two characters each, which made them less likely to identify too strongly with one PC.

4. Learn the basic mechanics and stick with them for the first session. I threw this game together within a week; I certainly didn’t have time to read two rulebooks. Instead I skimmed them and made sure I knew how the basic mechanics worked (roll your appropriate die and a d6; if it explodes roll again; keep the best roll; pray you don’t get snake-eyes). I also made sure I knew how spells were cast and how bennies worked. That’s pretty much all I used for the first session.

5. Add the rest of the rules incrementally. After each session I’d read through the rules and add in a bit more, especially if I knew a special case was due to come up (e.g. how to handle swarms in combat). It’s much easier for my players and me to grok a few new rules each session and it actually cuts down on the amount of time that I need to flip through the books during play. “I’ll read up on it and we’ll fix it next session, let’s move on for now” has become a mantra.

So far, things have been going great! My players are really enjoying trying out a new game and we aren’t sweating the small stuff. That will, of course, change if we decide to keep playing!

So how about you? How do you introduce players to a system that you’ve never run before? Do you have new tips? Have any of the above tips worked for you or failed in some way? Did your introduction lead to a long-term campaign, a short-term diversion, or an epic fail?

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3 Comments (Open | Close)

3 Comments To "Taking Baby Steps"

#1 Comment By Roxysteve On April 9, 2012 @ 10:21 am

Congrats on the baby Walt. Word to the wise: Right now foot rubs will have a currency beyond any other form of Spouse Worship.

As for Savage Worlds, here is my quick get-up-to-speed primer:

1) In almost every case it is the fact of a raise rather than the number of them that matters. By all means allow your players to roll on and on, but once one raise is had, that’s the special result. The only common case where this is not true is in the “soak” roll, where each raise is a wound shrugged off.

2) No player ever has “D4” in anything. You will hear complaints about pregens on the grounds they have too many “D4” skills. Mock those who complain.

3) Anything but damage can be bennied into a “do-over”. There is a feat that allows damage do-overs, but no-one ever takes it.

4) Though the grid is often a good way to do combat, it isn’t mandatory since everything is easily figured out in yards. In my Space 1889 games we go roughly 2/3 grid, 1/3 abstract combat.

5) Hand out bennies for rewards in-game, but do so sparingly. To many bennies spoileth the game. Don’t hand them out just because a player has spent all his/hers.

6) Don’t forget to subtract penalties for wounds and fatigue. Penalties are expressed in gradations of -1 rather than -2 of another popular system. Fatigue is good for making players fall asleep while on watch too.

7) Make sure the players indicate which is the skill die and which is the wild one when they roll. A one on a skill die is sometimes bad news irrespective of what happens on the wild die, and cause for bennying the roll. This is important when the shooting starts.

7+1) Don’t shuffle the initiative cards unless you get a joker. I shuffle at the start of an encounter. Some don’t.

9) Give your NPC wildcards Agility D8 and the Quick edge (character never takes a card less than a 6). Nothing educates the players in how initiative can be gamed like seeing the bad guy do it. “You can never go wrong with “Quick”.

10) Write out and learn how soak rolls and recovery from shaken status work. They are a central part of the combat and you need to understand how they are done. A crib sheet is useful for the first couple of games. These mechanisms more than any other factor will color your self-made pregen NPCs once you understand them.

One piece of advice:
Download, print and laminate the player mats which give lots of advice on how to be really clever in combat. Make one for yourself or you will go mad trying to keep up with the players’ kung-fu.

One caveat:
The magic system is … disappointing. The SW framework is best in those settings where magic is little used or replaced wholesale (As with Realms of Cthulhu and Necessary Evil).

In fact, the magic system is a jarring departure from general spiffiness of the game system in my opinion. The lack of Oomph is most noticeable in Weird Science-heavy settings like Space 1889 and Deadlands, where the sad fact is that you will usually see only about four different types of device* because it simply isn’t worth the points to build a device to, for example, light a match or blow out a candle. Uninspiring to say the least and it draws lots of negative comment from players along the lines of: “According to this I can *never* build an ornithopter worth the time and effort, no matter how high a level of experience I get“.

* the four popular devices: Cone-effect gun, Blast-effect gun, energy shield and healing device.

#2 Comment By BishopOfBattle On April 9, 2012 @ 12:00 pm

That is very similar to the process I learned when I started running Shadowrun with my group. I had no experience with the Shadowrun system and very little experience roleplaying in general.

While our first ‘session’ right out of the gate wasn’t a published adventure, most of the ones that followed were. The first session was tailored specifically to a new group learning a new system, contained only the most minimal of barebone plots and was really just a series of scenes meant to excercise basic gameplay concepts (social interaction, combat, vehicle combat, etc.) that I expected to be encountering throughout our sessions.

After that we started adding in rules as they came up or our experience allowed us to keep track of additional things. In the interest of keeping things moving, we tend to spend as little time as possible looking up rules during the game and I tend to make a call that I feel fits with the spirit of the rules. This means we ended up unintentionally “house ruling” a few things for awhile, but we’ve been going back and cleaning up our understanding of the rules and exactly how they work as we go along.

#3 Comment By Tsenn On April 13, 2012 @ 4:44 am

I just wanted to thank Walt and Roxysteve foe their excellent advice. I’m even thinking of getting Savage Worlds back out for another spin!