Are OSR Games Good for Introducing New Players To the Tabletop RPG Hobby?

Yes.

Why?

  • Players don’t need to know the rules to play.
  • Character creation is fast and easy.

Players don’t need to know the rules.

One of the most important features of classic adventure role-playing games is that the players don’t need to know the rules.

The game master describes the situation in natural speech, the players ask questions and make decisions based on game master responses. When there is a need for a die roll the game master can tell the player what to roll or what to look at on the character sheet in that moment.

Some my most enjoyable gaming experiences have been running games for people who never played a tabletop RPG before. It was precisely because the players didn’t know the rules. Sometimes not knowing that what you are attempting isn’t in the rules leads to very imaginative play. Remember, almost all other types of games are games that only allow you to do what the rules say you can do.

Most people have only played those types of games. When they figure out that the role-playing game allows them attempt nearly anything, new players embrace the concept. They earnestly test the limits of this new found freedom. It is delightful to referee the game when this happens.

Because they don’t know the mechanisms, they interact with the only thing they know about the game; the shared mental construct that’s been created through the dialogue between referee and the players.

Fast & Easy Character Creation

Most Old School Renaissance games have a simple and straightforward character creation process. You roll some dice, write down the numbers and assign them to a series of abilities. There are a few decisions you have to make about class, the character’s species, and gear. The character sheet is easy to understand and you can quickly get to play, which is what you are there to do.

A limited number of decisions eliminates choice overload.

When human beings are presented with too many options to choose from, they get overwhelmed. Some studies suggest we end up being less happy with our choices because we imagine that the other thing we didn’t choose might have been better. By limiting the decision points and number of options a player can make during character creation; the player doesn’t experience anxiety about making a character because the dice have narrowed the available options. Picking one out of three is a much easier decision than picking one out of dozens of options.

It isn’t hard to explain a character and what they do in OSR games.

I’ve run B/X games for groups of children who never played a tabletop role-playing game before in their lives. We went over character creation as a group. It took about an hour to walk them all through it but half that time was answering the kind of questions that kids ask (Can I have a pet? Where did you get these cool dice?) and wrangling a few of the less attentive ones back to the table. Also included in that time was character illustrations and snacks. If a half dozen 10 year olds can manage to create characters, anyone can get it.

This is a fighter. They are very good at fighting.

This is a cleric, they are priests that fight evil and advance the interests of their religion.

These are not ideas that take a lot of explanation.

You have a sword. You can stab people with it.

There are a few game mechanisms that appear on character sheets like hit points and armor class. Those concepts are familiar to most anyone who has played a video game, which is most of the population at this point.

Because new players don’t need to know the rules to play, it is easy enough to explain the relevant rule as it comes up in play. You can explain unfamiliar concepts like saving throws when the PC gets bit by a giant centipede or a ghoul.

Tips for introducing new players to the hobby with OSR games.

Keep it simple.

Those of us who have been in the hobby a while have a tendency to complicate things. We add house rules, new character classes, invent spells, borrow mechanisms or concepts from other games or blogs. That’s part of the fun of the hobby.

When you are introducing new players to tabletop role-playing games, keep it simple. The concept of role-playing is simple but the execution of that concept can be very complicated. Keep the player focused on playing their character. If they like that then they will come back and start to dig into the minutiae of the game mechanics later.

New players in established campaigns.

The best way to introduce new players is in a group of new players. Since everyone in the group is new, they are less likely to feel like they aren’t “playing it right.”

When you introduce a new player into an established group in a campaign already underway there are some challenges.

Some veteran players will have a tendency to tell the new player the best course of action for their character. The new player will often ask for that advice from more experienced players. As referee, I try to stop this before it gets started. I’ll remind the players that this decision is for the new player to make.

It is OK for veterans to lay out a few options for the new player. I’ll often suggest courses of action to players when they look like they are getting stuck, “You can attack the monster, run away, try to talk to it, hold the halfling in front of you as a shield or if you have a better idea we can try that instead.”

Occasionally, it is necessary for a player to understand a rule.

It is important that the player doesn’t feel like the referee is being arbitrary. The rules are often simple enough that the referee can explain the pertinent rule in under a minute. When a player is uncertain about why one of their decisions has gone sideways, explain it to them.

Players must understand and believe that they have agency over their character. They need to feel in their bones that the choices they make have consequences for good or for ill. Sometimes players coming from video games or interactive narratives don’t realize this. It’s a new experience that their characters actions can’t be walked back after the fact, there are no save points and, their character can die.

When players do something for which there is no rule, the referee should explain to the player their logic for the ruling they are making. This builds trust. Trust is key.

Sometimes you need to be proactive about teaching a player a rule or procedure. Be careful not to play “gotcha!” If a player is doing something out of ignorance of a mechanism, let them know before their character falls down a well and takes 10D6 damage. If they choose to continue to do the stupid thing after you’ve told them the potential consequence, that’s on them.

Listen, Watch, Communicate

It’s easy to forget what it is like to be a new player when you’ve been doing this for years or decades.

It takes a few encounters for some players to get the feel for what their characters can do. Don’t assume they understand what is going on.

Take your time and listen closely. If they seem to be making incorrect assumptions, missing opportunities, being incautious where they should be or being overly cautious where they should be aggressive; the player may find it helpful for you to give suggestions or point out that they have options they aren’t exploring.

Watch the new players and be aware of their non-verbal cues. Are they scowling? Leaning forward? Looking at their character sheet in confusion? Smiling? Stacking dice? These are all clues to what they are thinking and feeling. You may need to ask them what they are thinking or feeling so you can help them get into the game or so you can make an adjustment to what you are doing.

Be sure to communicate. Just because you’ve said something doesn’t mean communication has occurred. If someone seems lost, frustrated, or not having a good time; take a moment to make sure you understand what is going on and try a different approach to explain what they seem to be missing.

Make sure they understand very clearly that this is a game that allows for making things up as you go along. No other type of game allows that. This openness is one of the critical elements of a tabletop role-playing game.

Conclusion

Are Old School Renaissance games good for introducing new players to tabletop role-playing?

Yes indeed.

Players don’t need to know the rules. Characters can be quickly created and are easy to learn.

This reduces the resistance a player might feel by making their personal investment of time and effort very small. If they don’t have to spend an hour creating a character or many hours reading a thick rule book, they are more likely be willing to give it try. Once they get going, the simplicity of the system and the agency they feel in playing their character will allow them to quickly be immersed in the game world.

Being focused on character and not the system will allow them to have an experience that is very different from other forms of passive entertainment.

7 thoughts on “Are OSR Games Good for Introducing New Players To the Tabletop RPG Hobby?

  1. I think there’s a third advantage, compared to some other RPG styles: OSR can effortlessly support different styles of play, even concurrently.

    You’re a natural born actor and like to speak in character with a colourful accent? That works.
    You’re shy and prefer to describe your PC’s actions out of character? That works.
    You’re very imaginative and like to describe your actions with flourish and vividness? That works.
    You’re action-oriented and focused on the problem solving aspect? That works.
    You feel proactive and want to define your own goals? That works.
    You’re tired from a day of hard work and want to enjoy the ride in a more reactive way? That works too.

    The style of play that OSR isn’t meant to support well is the heavily authorial one, where the players invent stuff out of the blue. But that’s a style that is less “newbie-friendly” to begin with, in my opinion.

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  2. OSR games are an excellent learning tool for D&D for all the reasons you’ve listed. That the rules are relatively simplistic and primarily GM-facing is a huge boon. Once players become accustomer to the system, however, many D&D gamers (myself included) do find slightly crunchier gameplay more satisfying. Although I’ve not had the opportunity to play many, there are a number of OSR games that do provide for this (Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea comes to mind, along with Adventurer Conqueror King).

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  3. As someone returning to the hobby after being away for years, this is something that I had not considered. At 52, I find that the lion’s share of my players these days are new to RPGs entirely or perhaps had a brief encounter with them in college.

    Running games for groups like this, I’m often feeling a good deal of self-induced pressure. To my players it may just be a random Saturday night but for me, I feel the need to keep everyone wildly entertained (to ensure future sessions.)

    I’ll admit that up to this point I’ve avoided OSR games in favor of “heavier” rules sets. I imagine this was out of a feeling that it would help to hook new players with the wealth of available options. While I attempted to expose new folks with bite-sized chunks, I can see how this might have been overwhelming.

    You’ve made some really good points. May have to spend my Saturday afternoon perusing OSR offerings.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading! There are lot of great options available for you to try. I suggest going with a ruleset closest to what you are accustomed to. There’s a lot of clones of the old TSR versions that are in print and many ways easier to use. Good luck!

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  4. Ricky Moore

    I play D&D and it’s kin as straight war games. Roleplaying is part of the strategic end, more than the center of the game. New players will be expected to eventually learn the rules for their characters. I don’t really see D&D as an RPG in the sense Burning Wheel is. Players should basically cooperate, use their player skill, to be effective at the he’d/dungeon crawl, and I take a very neutral referee position with no fudging or cheating for my or their convenience. I always tell new players it’s a flexible tabletop wargame, I don’t consider it an RPG where the point is play acting and the narrative about these special snowflakes. They’re not special, and will only become so by luck, persistence and intelligent application of logistics and tactics. While roleplaying and setting exploration are essential and one of it’s unique features, the ‘real goal’ is always to effectively accomplish adventures and gain power , all I a sandbox environment.

    I think modern games and gamers get lost in creating unique characters and focusing on drama, and I don’t play D&D like that. There are much better games for that, and I usually just don’t find them as much fun as grognard hardcore mode campaigns in the classic sense.

    Domain games are the ultimate goal in my campaigns.

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