The Alphastream Game Design Blog

Three Lessons from Emerald City Comic Con

Come in and play!

Recently I had the fortune to co-lead the D&D events at Emerald City Comic Con! How appealing is D&D to this casual geeky crowd? And what lessons can we learn from this experience? Read on.

Full tables, some in cosplay!

D&D’s Potential Growth is Staggering

At Emerald City Comic Con we offered some traditional 4-hour adventures, some 2-hour adventures, and we also offered Learn to Play demos. We sat hundreds and hundreds of players, and more than half were brand new to D&D.

I would never expected as many folks as came in. It helped that we were in the official program. It also helped that I often stood in the hallway, calling out to passersby and offering them “learn D&D in just 30 minutes!” It was unbelievable how often a person or group said, “Sure!”

Most of the time we ran two six-player demo tables. We could have easily doubled (maybe even tripled) our tables and been full all of the time. The number of folks looking for their first taste of D&D was incredible! While there were some folks I talked to who just weren’t interested, only two people out of easily a thousand I spoke with were negative about D&D or Wizards. I found this fascinating given how online discourse can often be negative (even WotC currently has a survey asking people how they feel about D&D and the company).

Here we are, ten years into D&D 5E, and we can seat many hundreds of players to their first ever game of D&D 5E. (A few players had played prior editions, which is also mind-boggling. You played an earlier edition and waited ten years to try 5E?)

The diversity of interested players was again amazing, as it has been at other conventions such as PAX. You could not pick the D&D fan out of a line-up. The age varied tremendously, once you factor in the generally younger ECCC crowd. And look, when an adult and a kid came to me, it was a 50/50 shot at which one was the expert and which one was trying the game for the first time. Lots of kids brought their parents to play. Couples, large groups, you name it.

This is just one convention. I bet we have thousands and thousands of potential players in every state and in many countries, just waiting for the opportunity to try the game. So, yeah, how do we reach those? Both for D&D and other RPGs! I’m seriously pondering this question. (If you are new to D&D, check out the get started section on D&D Beyond, and this information page on the Adventurers League.)

D&D Could Be Less Complex

The demo we ran can be found here, on D&D Beyond. It’s a surprisingly simple scenario. So simple, you might not think it would work, or that the first encounter would fill 30 minutes (or up to an hour with the second zombie part). However, new players liked and needed that simplicity. If you haven’t explained which die is which in a while, or where on the character sheet to find a skill, or what you can do in a round… yeah, that takes time with six players.

The players also really liked the character sheets we use, which present a far simpler visual format than a typical character sheet. I found them online (they were originally provided as a download supporting Icespire Peak), and here is an example for the monk:

Great visuals, simple layout with clear headers, and the bonus action attack is an asterisk in the weapon section. And, check out how at-will spells are handled for the spellcasters. I wish other spells also were summarized on the back, but it just lists them.

When we ran D&D it was absolutely clear that, to a new player, a first level character is intimidating just with attacks, skills, hit points, and AC. Throw in ancestry features and a class feature and that’s a lot. Spells take it way over the top. These players are not looking for a feat at first level, a complex background, or more class features or spells. They want a simpler level 1 experience focused on story and helping them master the rules. Who is my character? How can I express myself with simple rules?

For example, one person I spoke with had played the 30-minute demo twice. I asked how they felt. They told me that they wanted to play it one more time to really get the hang of it. I think we forget what RPGs are like for first-time players and just how many new and casual players are out there, looking for the core of what makes D&D great, but for whom the higher level or more complex spell-and-feature-slinging character can be overwhelming.

You never know who will stop by!

There are Many Terrific DMs

When I coordinate a convention, I walk around and watch our DMs. We had some amazing DMs at Emerald City! GM-wise, RPGs are in a fantastic place. GMs have many resources and examples to inspire and elevate their play.

Great GMs often do similar things. They lean forward. They engage with eye contact, making sure everyone stays involved. They create a safe welcoming place. They root for the players. They know the adventure, but they also adapt it to the group. Walking around, I saw skilled DMs creating fun tables.

When I run at conventions I have a few additional tips. I like to provide players with a name tent. Even an index card folded in half lets each player write their character name so all of us can speak to each other in character. I use an initiative system that is visual. I give everyone a character introduction montage. If you have pregens, make sure to print out spell cards so the players don’t have to look up spells all game long.

It was interesting to me that at ECCC we had several new DMs come up and ask if we had a “Learn to DM” session. We didn’t, but we invited them to sit at a Learn to Play table and watch how the DM handled new players. We told them they could later download the adventure or check out the Stormwreck Isle adventure to read what they used. We also talked to their DMs, to ask if they could after the sessions talk to the new DM and answer any questions, which they did. The new DMs said this was really helpful. Still, this underscores how DMs crave instruction, growth, and mentoring.

Our demos had cool ships!

We also had groups who had just started, but the DM wanted to see how someone else ran a table so they could feel more comfortable. Or parents or siblings who wanted to have someone else teach their group so the next session would be easier. This suggests the starter sets and core books don’t help these DMs get started as capably as we would like.

ECCC was a fantastic experience for me, rekindling my passion for what we can accomplish in this hobby. I hope this will lead to many more experiences where we bring more players into the hobby, playing all kinds of RPGs.

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8 comments on “Three Lessons from Emerald City Comic Con

  1. Daniel
    March 14, 2024

    Nice! Always interesting to be reminded of how high the barrier to entry can be for RPGs. Everyone I know either was introduced to playing the game directly by someone who held their hand the whole way, or bought and read the books but never actually played, often for years and years, until, well, they met someone who introduced them to playing the game and held their hand the whole way.

    I do think this could be handled with fully tiered play, with the 1st tier (first few levels) akin to the “tutorial” level in video games where the players acquire their abilities over time, but there is such a big push back on this which I find so strange. I wish I understood why some players really want to start at level 1 with everything.

    How great a call is that on the “learn to DM sessions”? Such a great idea that I never thought of. How crazy is that? How wild is it that we don’t already have them?

    • Alphastream
      March 14, 2024

      It is interesting to see table after table of Learn to Play desire simple characters, but the 2024 update will likely create more complex characters. I would love to see level 1 *maybe even 2) be simpler, which would also then support more classic/OSR play, and then level 2 or 3 could be where expert players start by default.

      Learn to DM is really interesting. I do think D&D has made some good strides. A DM has some good resources on that D&D Beyond start playing page. But, I suspect few DMs find that unless you put that on a flyer or inside cover of the starter set and the PH.

      • Daniel
        March 14, 2024

        Totally. I would love to see a full tier, 3-4, levels of low powered, basic play.

        Personally I would love to see each tier with its own class advancement. So tier 1 is basic or origin where you can choose only fighter, rogue, acolyte or initiate. Tier 2 has the full suit of classes so your fighter can grow into a paladin or a barbarian etc… Tier 3 is your subclass, and tier 4 is epic class.

        You then fully support this with the system by making adventures tier specific, and including special things that need to be accomplished for a character to move between tiers. I think character creation should be different for each tier too so it is clear that there is no expectation you have to start at level 1. Each tier would have a different level of complexity (feats/spells/equipment etc..) and also different backgrounds that are tier specific. A tier 1 background could be ‘baker’, whereas a tier 2 background could be ‘mercenary’, and tier 3 ‘pirate captain’ etc…

        I feel a lot of disconnect in the expectations of the d20 community comes down to a lack of consensus in what character level “means”. This could help with that maybe. You want high danger, OSR style play? Great! That is tier 1, You want high powered, plane hopping shenanigans? We got you – that is tier 4.

        Maybe. I also think that one of the most exciting choices you can make in 5e is your subclass so it would be fun if you could make the equivalent of that choice more than once.

      • Nat20
        March 16, 2024

        I couldn’t agree more about Tier 1 characters. I’ve taught 5e to some new players and frankly, it takes a long time to walk them through the character sheet and basic rules. I’m amazed you could achieve anything in 30 minutes!

        The drive for the new edition really seems to be to increase complexity in the early levels, presumably impelled by the collective voice of extremely online hardcore players who really enjoy the tactics and optimization parts of the game. This has me worried, especially since many of the people picking up D&D for the first time (at least in my limited experience) are actually more interested in supporting a more narrative style of play as seen in Critical Role, etc.

        The new edition really should offer proper support for starting at higher levels. Another option would be to create either a “Tier 0” or “Level 0” system that’s the equivalent of a stripped-back Level 1 in the current game, but would make experienced players feel less like they’re cheating by starting at Level 3 or 5.

  2. Richard Green
    March 14, 2024

    Was this the fight with the merrow en route to Stormwreck Isle? I ran that at Expo last year – it’s a lot of fun!

    • Alphastream
      March 14, 2024

      Same one! But, I suspect the demo will change in the near future.

  3. Alex Marchant
    March 15, 2024

    Great article again Alphastream! I guess a ‘learn to be a DM’ session would need to be slightly different. A Learn to play session can have people turn up with little to know knowledge of D&D, but to DM you’d need to have read an encounter at least (peril in pinebrook did a great job of guiding new DMs through, but it would still need a bit of a read before sitting down with players (or very patient players!)

    • Alphastream
      March 15, 2024

      There was a really wild and cool event during 4E for the MM III release. Stores received kits that had poster maps (based on Dungeon Tiles), minis, stats for the minis, and instructions. The idea was that DMs took those ingredients and wove together encounters on the fly. They then ran them for players, who could later take a turn creating their own encounter and running it. It was a neat idea.

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This entry was posted on March 13, 2024 by and tagged .


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