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New DM Handbook: The Tutorial Quest

New DM HandbookFor a while now, I’ve been talking mostly theoretical, while including some real-world personal experiences to support my claims. While that won’t completely go away, especially since I have a lot more philosophy I want to go through, I wanted to start talking from a place of experience.

The Tutorial Quest or:

How I learned to introduce new players to Dungeons and Dragons and found a safe way to experiment becoming a Dungeon Master


Pirates make a pretty good foe for beginning D&D players.

As I originally sat down to devise a way to introduce D&D to my friends, or at least 5th Edition, I came upon the idea of making a tutorial, similar to the way video games provide them. Being that you can’t hit the A button to do anything, I had to devise a system that would allow them to be introduced to different aspects of the game they could discover for themselves, but which had easy answers. I also explained it up front to them what I was trying to do, and let them know I was going to put them on railroad tracks for this quest only so they could learn how things work, but I wouldn’t force their hands in the future.

My second goal with the tutorial quest was to get them to level 3 right before they hit the final boss. I did this so they could learn how to play the game, but also to get to their archetypes, and thus their cool stuff, before going on. In doing so, I had to build a quest for a 5-player party, knowing that there was a chance I’d have to fill it with NPCs who would round out the party if I couldn’t get all 5 players to show up.

Being that I managed to only get through the first half of the quest, because I severely underestimated how long it would take (plus one encounter that took way, way longer than it should’ve), and I haven’t gotten to the second half due to the winter break, I will be somewhat vague about the second half just in case my players have actually started reading this site, but I’ve learned a lot, enough that I’m willing to share my findings here. Once we finish the quest, I’ll post my future findings. I’ll also share the tutorial quest that I made in case anyone else would like to use it.

Character Introductions in the Quest

Serenity (film)

For my game, I took a huge risk by having individual introductions of their characters that made sense in my narrative. My solution was to have them be individually recruited. I chose to do it by D&D-izing the crew of Serenity and having them look for people who could help them recover some goods they were smuggling that had been stolen by pirates. I knew I was going to lose them at first because everyone wanted to start rolling dice and hitting things, but it was important to me to establish the importance of role playing in my campaigns.

I also made the choice to separate each of their introductions, but that was a choice I made to set the tone that this is a party that came together, and to ensure they understood the difference between player knowledge and character knowledge. My Dragonborn Paladin wanted to meet up with her friend, the Gnome Ranger, and she kept insisting on trying to go to the bar that my Gnome Ranger was playing dice at. In that exchange I was able to establish that they didn’t know each other yet and that they weren’t able to use player knowledge, using role play alone.

The final advantage of character introductions is it shows new players there’s a wider world outside themselves. They aren’t just murder hobos in a dungeon crawl.  They’re on their way to become legends, and this is their first step.

First Fight with Pirates


The first fight I put in front of them was just two pirates. Two 1/8 enemies isn’t a challenge for four PC and an NPC, but allowed me to introduce my new players to combat in a very safe environment. It also introduced them to the concept of strategy and tactics. I placed the pirates on the other side of a large haystack rock, allowing the party to position themselves in an advantageous way. The party took the opportunity to actually attempt a sneak attack. My Wood Elf Rogue managed to roll a 1 on his stealth check, so that taught them another lesson as he face planted, but the easy encounter achieved my goals. The next battle, which had a higher challenge rating, went by a lot more efficiently than it would’ve if I had started them on that one.

Impossible Situation

They didn’t know it, but I set them up in a situation that they couldn’t win. I didn’t put out a huge creature that they couldn’t beat. That I’m saving for later. It was a lot less threatening.  The tutorial quest I built was an infiltration of a pirate island. A few encounters in, they came across some pirates at a bridge. On the other side of a bridge with the pirates, a small warning bell was visible. They knew they needed to stop the pirates from ringing it. They tried ambushing them, hoping they could kill the pirates before that could happen. However, I set it up that there was no way they could’ve killed them all in time. The bridge was long enough there was no way they could cross it from cover and attack the pirates in the same round, and all three pirates were within 30 ft of the bell.  As soon as the pirates were aware of the party, one of them rang the bell. It was that simple. It showed them that they can’t always win. It also stepped up their anticipation factor. Now they know the pirates have been warned of an attack, which has made them more careful of their actions.

The Long Rest

DMI set up the quest where they would be taking a long rest right after they hit level 2. I did this for a few reasons. The first is in case everything went wrong and they needed it. Frankly, they did need the long rest. In the last encounter before the rest, one pirate nearly obliterated the party through a series of rolls on both sides that went in her favor. She dropped my healer NPC and very nearly took out the rest. My Dragonborn Paladin finally got a solid hit and took her down, but much longer would’ve been a very bad thing.

The second reason why I chose to have a long rest in the middle was to give them a second chance to role play. I knew they’d be impatient in the beginning, so they’d be much more willing to get to know each other’s characters at the long rest. It also gives them the opportunity to level up and get a handle on their new skills and spells.

Finally, the long rest teaches them the importance of standing guard. The way I built the quest, five players could run through it in one go, albeit not without a bit of tarnish. Four players with previous experience and a long rest would be able to do it, too. However, taking shifts over a long rest is going to be more critical later than it is during my tutorial quest, and it’s better for new players to learn the lesson earlier than later.

Most Importantly

If you want new players to stick with the hobby, you can’t start with them riding that fine line between life and death by design. Even if you’re relying on them rolling reasonably well to get through it, which you shouldn’t, new players don’t have a strong handle on what they can do. As an example, during the encounter where one pirate almost wiped the entire party, my Dragonborn Paladin forgot about her Lay on Hands ability. Had she used it on the NPC healer, things would’ve been less scary. Honestly, having forgotten myself that she had the ability, had I not rolled a natural 20 on a death save, there’s a good chance they would’ve had to finish the quest without a primary healer.

If I had chosen to build the quest to be at the edge of their characters’ abilities, it would’ve been above the level of my players’ abilities, and the best way to ensure that they’d never come back. Instead, I have four players who are super excited about the next session, even though it’s been a month since the first one, and one of them immediately expressed interest being a DM when she gains enough experience as a player.

So, play nice with your new players at first. You can always turn the screws on them later when it’s less likely they’ll be fumbling their way through the game.

Stay Nerdy.

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Joshua Brickley

Despite looking so young, I'm in my mid-30s (36, to be exact). Up until I was 21, I focused a lot of my attention on stage acting, mostly local and school theater. At some point, I felt a need to change my life's direction, so I joined the Air Force. After 10 years, where I was an Intelligence Analyst and Mission Coordinator, I was medically retired. I went back to school and got my Bachelor's in English, focusing mostly on literary theory and rhetorical criticism, at the University of the Incarnate Word. In this next chapter of my life, I'm turning my attention towards tabletop RPGs.

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