The Tutorial Adventure for the Tabletop

So, I’m currently in the process of working out the narrative for a new campaign for a group of players, three-quarters of whom have never played any tabletop RPG before. I’ve developed a reputation over the past few decades as a Dungeon Mistress/Game Mistress who has a knack for bringing new players into the fold and helping them learn the ropes in an easy-to-digest and fun format.   And so that’s what I’m going to write about in the inaugural post for this blog:  the creation of a tutorial adventure for a tabletop RPG. The goal of a tutorial adventure is twofold:  (1) introduce players to the major game mechanics in a digestible format and (2) introduce the major figures in the campaign in some fashion. For this post, we’ll talk about how to introduce players to the major mechanics.

Introduce Players to the Major Game Mechanics

The first of the two goals is to introduce players to the major game mechanics that they will encounter frequently.  In general, I like to introduce players to the following mechanics:  skill checks during exploration, simple combat, saving throws, skill checks during social encounters, and more complex combat.  As this is usually the order in which I introduce these elements, we’ll discuss them in that order.  Throughout this post, I’ll be using examples drawn from the tutorial to the Pathfinder campaign that I’ve been running.  The campaign is called “Foreboding Knowledge” and the tutorial is called “Dead Ringer”.

Skill Checks during Exploration

The first thing I introduce new players to is how to use their skills to explore the area around them.  I start with skill checks to help players understand that their characters are more than a selection of combat statistics.  Here is an example:

“After several days of travel, you have arrived at the Dennedar Forest in Lor’Dron. The region surrounding the forest is comprised of several hills and a tall range of mountains that extends from Lor’Dron into the Elven Kingdom of Quel’Thriyan.  The dense forest before you is comprised of ancient, towering fir, ash, elm, and oak trees.  As you enter the forest to search for the ring behind the well, you notice forest animals scurrying about, birds chirping in the light spring air, and long shadows being cast by the gigantic trees. As you wander, now would be a good time for someone to make either a Knowledge Check should you have knowledge of this geographic region, a Knowledge Check if you have specialized knowledge of Nature (specifically forests), Survival, or, if none of you have any of those, Perception.  What do you do?”

In later adventures, I only give the description of their surroundings, but for a tutorial, I let the players know what skills might be helpful.  I didn’t do this the first few times I ran tutorials because to me it was obvious what skills to use. Well, it was obvious, because I had been playing for fifteen years when I first started writing tutorial adventures.  Recognizing that new players can be overwhelmed by choices took a few runs and many conversations with new and potential players. Thus, I have refined my tutorials so that I am clear on these things in the tutorial only. And I explain to the players that after this adventure, I won’t be going so slowly and explaining every option that they have.

After this, I direct the players who choose to make skill checks as follows, “First, tell me what you want to do with [Skill Name].  Player responds.  Now, you will roll a d20 and add your [Skill Name] bonus to the roll.  You will tell me the number, and I will describe the result.”  Then we roll and discuss the results.

At this point, I want to stress that I tend to make the Difficulty Classes for both Skill Checks and Saving Throws slightly lower than would normally be suggested, usually 1-2 points lower.  I want there to be a chance of failure, but I also want the party to succeed more often than not in order for the players to be encouraged by these (minor) successes.

Simple Combat

After the players explore and get accustomed to making skill checks, they have their first combat encounter. I always design this to be between “easy” and “medium” for the first combat session.  The monsters I choose are usually 1/3 to 1/2 the party’s power level and always engage the party in physical damage attacks:  melee and/or ranged. They do not use magic, and they do not use attacks that would necessitate a saving throw.  The goal of this encounter is teaching the new players how to do the following:

  1. Roll initiative
  2. Become familiar with the order of combat rounds
  3. Learn how to move around a battlefield
  4. Learn how to roll for attacks and calculate the damage done

It really is simple, and it’s designed to be easily survivable. I don’t want to introduce the death rules. In fact, I don’t want new players to be afraid of character death in the first adventure, so I usually fudge rolls slightly that would put them in danger.  Also, I usually start campaigns at level 3 to give myself more monster options without having to do the math.  So, in the adventure I referenced above, the first combat encounter had the party (of four PCs at level 3) face six CR 1/2 Goblins with short swords.  Simple, and straightforward.  The party learns the very basics of how to engage in combat.

Saving Throws

After the first combat encounter, the party continues onward and explores the area in more detail.  The next encounter they have will require them to make a saving throw of some kind.  This can be either a combat encounter with a monster with a save-requiring ability or a trap of some kind.  To borrow from the adventure that I’ve been using for examples, this:

“The gate before you is made of wrought iron. Beyond the gate, you see a large, square area with three stone arches at the far end. Within the room you see several fey playing a game that resembles hackeysack. One of the fey looks to be entirely made of twigs, and the other four appear to be little more than ugly, bulbous blue heads.”

When the party enters, read the following:

“As the gate swings open, one of the bulbous blue headed fey kicks the sack toward you. As the sack nears you, it explodes in a shower of brightly colored, sparkling leaves. Each of you must now make a Fortitude Save. For this, you will roll a d20 and add the bonus listed as Fortitude Save.” Fortitude Save, DC 14 or be -1 to all rolls for 1 minute due to being dazzled by the light show.

Again, I explain the process of how to make a Saving Throw by describing the instigating event (in this case, the magical fey hackeysack).  The Save DC is a bit lower than what most saves would be at this level because while I want there to be a chance of failure, I do not want every party member to fail every Save or Skill Check.

Skill Checks during Social Encounters

Now that the party has gained experience with using skills, engaging in combat, and making saving throws, I bring in a few roleplaying elements:  social “combat”, or social encounters that require skill checks.  I have the players encounter a character who may (or may not) pose a direct threat or be able to help them. The goal of this tutorial is to stress that the players are playing characters who inhabit a social world, that their actions have repercussions, and that they can (sometimes) overcome obstacles without violence.  For example:

“You walk through the arch and find yourselves on a beach. The sun’s heat is oppressive as you survey the gorgeous waters that gently massage the sand beneath your feet. The beach appears to extend infinitely in all directions. You notice an attractive young woman sunbathing nude on the beach; her skin is smooth and translucent, and her long, shiny hair matches the sea foam in color. There is a smaller version of a longboat near you on the shore, its prow pointing toward an island in the sea. What do you do?”

Speak to the Young Woman (a Nymph): “Oh, hello! I’m Nariella, and I’m just enjoying this endless summer sun!” “Oh, I don’t know about that Bell, but if you want to leave this beach, you have to get to the island.” “You can use my boat, but you have to entertain me first!” The party should elect the best performer of the group to either sing a song or tell a tale – encourage the player to actually perform and not just roll. Perform Skill Check, DC 17 (can be lowered for an energetic performance by player)

If the player succeeds: “Here, take my boat. Don’t worry about me. I know my way around the water. The boat will guide you to the island.”
If the player critically succeeds (add): “That performance was so good, I’m going to give you a gift: a lock of my hair. It will inspire you to give even greater performances in the future.” Hair of Nymph, +2 to Perform while carried

Then read:

“You step onto the boat and are amazed as the sail unfurls itself. A light breeze begins to blow from the shore, nudging the boat gently across the water to the island.”

If the player fails: “That was the worst song/tale I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard a lot! If you want my boat, you’re going to have to earn it! Boys!”

If the party tries to take the boat without engaging the nymph: “Hey! That’s my boat, you big meanies! Boys! Help!”

“The girl leaps into the water and disappears. As her feet descend beneath the surface, you see three seaweed-covered, bloated corpses wearing rusted chain armor and carrying great axes rise from the sides of the boat. A putrid stench assaults your lungs. Roll initiative.”

Encounter 3: The Lost Vikings

Monster: Draugr (medium, undead)
Number: 3

AC: 14 (touch 10, flat footed 14)
HP: 19
Save: Fort +2; Ref +1; Will +3
DR: 5/bludgeon or slash;
Resist: Fire, 10
Immune: charm, disease, bleed, paralysis, poison, sleep
Vulnerable: N/A
Speed: 30 ft.
Action: Greataxe, +5 to hit, 1d12+4 +nausea (x3); CMB, +5; CMD, +15
Special: Nausea: all damaged by draugr must make a DC 12 Fort save or be unable to act (save for moving) next turn due to being nauseated
XP: 600 each

Treasure: 3 greataxes and 3 chain shirts.

“As you step onto the boat, the sensation that you are not welcome here enters your mind. No breeze blows, and, as you unfurl the sail, you see a large gash in its center. Looking around, you see oars lining the hull. It appears that you will be paddling to the island.”

 

Note that the party has encountered an individual who possesses information that could help them in their journey.  They need to get to that island, and the only way is through this young Nymph’s boat.  She asks only that they entertain her, which necessitates a Perform skill check.  This is meant to be a roleplaying moment where one or more players get to really get into character and engage someone in the world.

There are consequences to choosing negative actions (theft) or to failing:  the party must now engage in a difficult – but still survivable fight.  Could they survive, yes, but the primary focus of this encounter is to engage NPCs socially in a productive manner.  Violence does not always solve problems. Also, not every NPC is an enemy, so learning to engage NPCs as social actors in a grand world is an idea that I would like to encourage in new players.  Primarily, because I want to foster roleplaying in a roleplaying game.  Sure, there are those who just want hack & slash gorefests, but the joy of a storytelling game is getting to tell stories and to interact with the world around your characters.  As such, I present encounters that both encourage and reward roleplaying and social interaction with NPCs.

Complex Combat

The final mechanic I want to introduce is more complex combat.  The players know how combat functions at this point. Now, I introduce something to add a level of difficulty beyond the mechanics of combat and the damage an enemy can do.  This can be an environmental hazard of some kind:  a slippery floor, a multi-tiered combat area, a trap or other hazard in the area (such as a fire pit or an acid pool), or individuals that the party must try to protect.

“As you continue along the passage, you see what was, apparently, a large party filled with satyrs and nymphs. The revelers are in various states of drunkenness, undress, and arousal. In the center of the party garden, standing before the large bonfire, you see a small humanoid figure with jet-black skin and a large, menacing pair of horns with a wicked, toothy grin and goatee standing over the bloodied body of a young purple-haired nymph. The remaining mob screams and runs, trying to find safety. During their blundered attempts at an exodus, one runs into the bonfire, tripping over the kindling, and causing the fire to spread to the eastern hedge wall. The satyrs and nymphs scream in terror and run wildly back and forth across the lawn. Through the whirlwind of terrified, fleeing bodies, you see the black figure snaps his fingers, and a small amount of fire floats from the blaze, stands beside him, and assumes a vaguely humanoid shape. What do you do?”

The party will likely split their attention between directing traffic and fighting the enemies. Organizing the crowd is a Diplomacy Check, DC 19. Getting them to safety will take two rounds, unless the success is a natural 20 – then only one round.

This is a fairly simple combat situation on its own:  Spring-Heeled Jack and two very Lesser Fire Elementals for a party of four.  However, the fact that the party must also work around a crowd of terrified fey who run back and forth creates an environmental hazard.  This type of complexity adds danger (the party’s attention is divided for a portion of the combat) and necessitates strategic thinking.

Conclusion

These are the skills and mechanics I want to introduce new players to in the first session:  skill checks, simple combat, saving throws, social encounters, and complex combat.  As a reminder:  go slow during a tutorial and explain the mechanics as they arise.  Yes, veteran players may get a little bored, but new players tend to appreciate teaching them mechanics in an easily digestible format.  If a system has other mechanics, such as Dungeons & Dragons 4e‘s “Skill Challenge”, I would include that mechanic as part of the “social encounter” section.   Yes, your players should read the core rulebook for the system; however, these books are often very thick and very dense, two things that can be off-putting to new players.  As a teacher, I have learned that thick, dense textbooks do not encourage students to read and learn.  I try to bring that same understanding to new players at my table:  I want to bring new blood into the community; therefore, I have to both entice and engage them from the beginning.

Thus, I treat the tutorial adventure as an “Attention Getter” in a presentation, lecture, or essay.  I want to grab the audience’s attention and give them the basics of what they need to know.  Yes, things will become more complex later on, but for now, I want to be certain that they understand the basics of how to play.  If I can make it simple for them, they are less likely to feel overwhelmed.  Instead, they become more likely to feel empowered to interact with the world of the campaign.  They are also more likely to enjoy themselves and thus return to the table next week.

N.B. Yes, I know that there are “boxes” that provide simplified versions of the major tabletop RPG systems, but as I often run campaigns in homebrew worlds, I find it necessary to create tutorials that are specific to the world.  Also, I like my tutorials to introduce the campaign, something I haven’t discussed in this post but may discuss later.

Role on!