D&D, New Players, and Complexity

Thanks to my recent move to Seattle, I’ve been able to find a lot of gaming groups. I’m currently running 5e and Starfinder, and playing in a different 5e campaign, and I’ve really been struck by how many of the people I am gaming with are either brand new to the game or returning after a very long time away, typically 10-20 years. I’m also playing with some folks who have moderate-to-serious learning disabilities, which poses some unique challenges. Now, new players are the lifeblood of our hobby, and I love playing with them, but RPGs can be a bit overwhelming, especially the character creation phase. Let’s face it: making a character is much more difficult than actually playing it. You have a lot of decisions to make up front, decisions that require learning a lot of vocabulary and mechanical elements.

The usual approach to helping a new player make a character is to say some variation of, “What do you want to play?” or “What kind of fantasy heroes do you like?” When the player says, “Legolas,” we try to make them an archer character, and when they say, “In MMOs, I always play the healer,” we make them a cleric. But character classes in most editions of D&D (4e, I am looking at you) are not created equal in terms of complexity. Some are more complicated than others. And while a new player may at first feel they’re being condescended to if you suggest a less complex class, many will jump at the opportunity because, frankly, they feel kind of intimidated and overwhelmed by all these options. When we ignore complexity, we are doing new players a disservice.

Let’s start with the basics.

Tier 1: Our Go-To Classes

Barbarian

The barbarian is the simplest class in D&D. At 1st level, you have literally one decision: to rage or not to rage. Every other problem is answered by, “I hit it with my axe.” (By the way, the answer to the question ‘to rage or not to rage’ is: rage. You get 2 rages every day, so do it early and often until you run out, and by the end of the second session you will have a pretty good feel for when rage is needed and when it is wasted.) Don’t assume that a new player won’t want to play a barbarian; veteran gamers, and even new players themselves, will often pigeonhole new folks as healers, archers, or some kind of multi-role support class like the bard, but all of these things are more complicated in D&D than they are in, say, WoW. Does your player like animals? Barbarians have a secondary emphasis on wilderness lore and the natural world; at 3rd level, a barbarian on the path of the totem warrior gains the ability to speak with animals. The path of the totem warrior also keeps decision points to a minimum; all its new abilities work all the time. There are no new resources to manage, no moments where you’re forced to decide, “Should I frenzy, or just rage?” Between simplicity and a love of animals, it’s no wonder that the youngest kid in the D&D cartoon was the barbarian.

Warlock

If your player really wants to cast spells, the warlock is the least-complicated spellcaster in D&D. Pick up eldritch blast and you have a reliable attack spell you can use every turn. You only know two spells and have only one spell slot, so pick up hex and a defensive “screw you” spell like armor of agathys or hellish rebuke. Your single spell slot is your “big whammy,” you get it back after a short rest, and your decision is now easy: if you encounter a boss or multiple foes, cast hex and eldritch blast it to death, then switch the curse to the next target. If, after a short rest, you are out of hit dice and feeling a little mortal, use armor of agathys instead or save your spell for hellish rebuke. Many seasoned players give the warlock short shrift because the class has fewer known spells, but for new players, a short spell list that replenishes every time you rest is a feature, not a bug. The trickiest part of the warlock is the choice of pact boon. Familiars are complicated, and without the hexblade from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, the pact of the blade is a bit of a red herring. This leaves the pact of the tome, which adds a few cantrips to your spell selection. That’s okay though, because cantrips can be cast at-will, which is still nice and simple. Later, you can add rituals to your tome which, again, can be used as often as desired. If your player wants to be a spellcaster, a tome warlock is the clear winner in terms of simplicity. If they want to fight and cast spells at the same time, use the hexblade. (This will change your spell selection, since you will no longer need to prepare hex. Just take both the hexblade expanded spells instead; that’s what they’re for.)

When we’re dealing with new players, or those with learning disabilities, the barbarian and the warlock should be our go-to character classes. Everything else is tier 2 or worse.

Tier 2: Not Terrible

  • Fighters aren’t very complicated, but action surge and second wind makes them more complicated than barbarians. Second wind is especially great for new players, because it ensures a 1st level fighter will go into most battles at full HP. The champion is the obvious way to go at 3rd level, but if your player wants to cast spells or is just a little bored and ready for something more complex, you can turn them on to the eldritch knight or battle master. 
  • The rogue’s cunning action is complicated, and between that ability and uncanny dodge, rogues are designed to take advantage of the entire action economy. This can be a lot to juggle. 
  • Monks have only one resource to track: ki. That’s not bad. The hardest thing about pitching a monk to a new player is they don’t sound very glamorous. Consider repackaging them as “ninjas and benders” instead of monks since, after all, that's what the shadow monk and the elemental monk are.

Tier 3: Avoid Them

Bards, sorcerers, rangers, and paladins all have both spell slots and resource pools they have to manage, making them poor choices for new players, young players, those returning to the game after a long time, or those who have a hard time mastering lots of detail. Paladins and rangers can mitigate this somewhat by picking spells they either use all the time (hunter’s mark for rangers) or never bother with (because paladins convert all their spells into divine smites). Sorcerers are kind of a trap: because they know fewer spells, they seem like a simple version of the wizard. And to some extent this is true; but the introduction of sorcery points and metamagic feats makes them more complicated than the warlock.

Tier 4: It’s a Trap!

This leaves the classes which are either infamous for their complexity, or which are deceptively complex. When we direct new players into these classes, we should be very careful we’re not setting them up for frustration and failure.
  • Wizards are infamously fragile and they have two distinct spell-related decision points: which spells from your book are you going to prepare, and which are you actually going to cast. Familiars are complicated, when they’re not simply ignored. Evokers are, at least, simple in their function; they are here to kill lots of things with fire. Still, consider the warlock instead. 
  • Clerics can prepare any spell from the cleric spell list, each day. In this way, they’re actually more complicated than wizards, who at least can limit their spell selection to what’s in their book. Healing is a simple enough task, however, and the Healing Domain makes your healing spells so good that they become better than most any other spell you could cast, simplifying spell preparation enormously. So if a player really wants to play the cleric, go for the Healing domain and make the character a back-up fighter who just uses all their spell slots to heal. 
  • Like clerics, druids can prepare any spell from the druid spell list, potentially paralyzing some players. And wild shape is complicated. Some new players will be drawn to the druid because of their connection to animals; pitch the barbarian to these players instead. But if they are certain they want to cast spells, use the Circle of the Moon. This turns the druid into a melee warrior in animal form, most of whose spells are used to heal themselves. As a side benefit, this type of character is really, really good at killing things and absorbing damage, which is both simple and fun. 
“This is all well and good,” I hear you say, “but my players, while new, are pretty smart people. If I stick them all with simple classes, they’re gonna get bored.” I am obliged to remind you that most D&D campaigns never make it past 6th level. “Mine do!” you cry. “This game is gonna last for-evah!” My point is: let a player learn the ropes and get comfortable with a simple class. When we slot new players in as bards and druids, we may have the best intentions, but we’re not actually doing them a favor. If the player gets bored, we can always let them make a new character and maybe send the first one off with a proper heroic death.
D&D, New Players, and Complexity D&D, New Players, and Complexity Reviewed by Unknown on Monday, August 13, 2018 Rating: 5
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