With first-time players, learning the rules may seem like a burden and rolling up characters can be glossed over. A GM handing out prepared character sheets is never quite as desirable as the real thing. In another thread I have described an adventure my group has just run with three GMs and seven first-time players. We used a new method for explaining the rules and creating characters which the Harry Potter-setting made possible and which I would recommend using in other adventures. Not only did it teach them how to play, it did so by immersing them in the adventure-world and therefore created the atmosphere of Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft.
Obviously since the setting was a school we could have classes. In one class they were taught (by a very convincing Professor Snape, for those who have read the book/seen the film) how to make potions, mainly as a way of easing them into the idea of roleplaying (it’s amazing what colour a few bath-liquids can go) and also because we knew they might need to make insect repellent later in the adventure to get rip of some giant wasps.
Then in the second class (with a falsetto Professor McGonagall) the arts of die rolling were explained to them, with volunteers to enact battles. I started that class the same way some teachers start with new pupils, asking them to tell us a little bit about themselves (though obviously they’d have to make it up first). This worked to establish their character. Obviously the rule system we used was very simplified (combat involved rolling 1d6 and adding modifiers to see who gets higher) but this is all first-time players need if the object is to have fun.
Better still was the freeform magic we employed. The third class (with an oozingly self-absorbed Gilderoy Lockhart) taught them a few spells: they were told the words and shown the gestures they had to make with their wands. Since the combat system was fairly basic, the main part of a hostile encounter was to use the spells they’d learned in a creative manner. Then two of the teachers fought a magical duel as an example for how the spells worked. This bit actually got a a round of applause from the PCs.
The best part was that instead of learning dry rules about THAC0, hit dice, XP, morale or initiative checks the PCs were messing around with liquids, waving sticks around and saying funny Latin words, which they found more accessible and enjoyable (and it was fun to teach too!).
It is easy, then, in the setting of a school or university to explain the roleplaying rules in a way which is entertaining and sets the atmosphere. Is it possible to do this in other settings? Here are some suggestions…
New recruits training: in the city watch, army or maybe in a rebel camp;
Apprentices learning “on the job”: thieves in a city, rangers in a forest;
Can anyone think how to incorporate this kind of active training into other situations?