Game's Afoot! It looks like I've got all systems go for my first Swords & Wizardry Session next Tuesday! Three players so far: one, my 4e DM who has no experience of D&D before 3.x and, two others with no roleplaying experience whatsoever.
I've been trying to streamline the rules for a complete novice, especially adult novices, who I think will have much less time and need to have a good first impression to decide to devote their time to playing more in the future.
Today I re-read Ed Greenwood's Article "Keep Em Guessing" from Dragon #49. It's about this very subject, introducing complete novices to D&D. He suggests having the DM handling everything and just narrate what the results of die rolls are, even to the point of not letting the player see their stats.
I agree that this could work, but . . . I have some big reservations here. First, by introducing new characters to the game this way, you aren't really introducing them to the game, but shielding them from it. I think the reason I'm so nervous about DMing novices is that my last DMing experience, about 3 1/2 years ago involved novices and I handled it all wrong. One of the things I did was give the novices pre-rolled characters. This might be the first thing that comes to peoples' minds as a logical way to start newcomers: "Cut to the chase," "Jump right in to play." But what it did was put inert pieces of paper into their hands that they didn't really understand.
Novice players will understand better what is going on by rolling up their own characters. This is an introduction to a lot of subtle things about the game. First of all, that it is a game; we won't just be playing pretend, their are baselines and boundaries. Just seeing stats will, for example let you know you have limits on your strength and how many hits you can take in combat.
Even something as simple as rolling the dice can give a novice a preview of the unpleasant possibilities of dice outcomes "I rolled a 5 for intelligence!" I've read elsewhere that an important part of game design is letting players know their chances of success so they can make informed choices. It seems small, but getting a feel for the randomness of the dice may help them to understand that they won't be hitting every time they swing their sword and all the implications that follow from that.
I think character creation also gives players the first sense of the power they have to shape the game in ways they will enjoy. They have to start thinking about whether they would enjoy playing a sword swinging Saxon, or whether the idea of magic intrigues them. And with this, is the implication that there are more ways than one to approach the game, and that they will be able to try another approach later if they like.
Character creation can also be a subtle foreshadowing of the challenges that lie ahead in the fact that players have to decide: "Will I need missile weapons?," "Having torches, implies we might end up in darkness. . . right?" "What spells should I memorize?"
So I guess after all that, my conclusion isn't profound, it's just if you want to introduce players to a game, you need to introduce them to it. And Ed's article was more sophisticated than just hiding the game from newbies; he actually suggests slowly introducing them to the rules over many sessions and touches on some other issues. But for me, I think time spent creating characters is time well spent, at least with something as simple and clean as Swords & Wizardry.
That being said, I think there is wisdom in streamlining the novice experience. That's the reason for my work at boiling down equipment and weapon lists in previous posts. Along those lines I think I will avoid demihumans for now. I'd like the players to get a sense of what humans can do first and I envision demihumans uncommon in my campaign world anyway. I'm thinking for the same reason to leave my Choose Your-Own rogues out of the mix for now. But we'll see.