Having begun to run a Dungeons & Dragons game for my eight year old, I realized early on that she would not only need to learn the rules as we went on, but that she would need help in exploring the world into which which she — through her character — had been plunged. Big exposition wouldn’t work well, I needed to get her into the action as quickly as I could, but she would need a guide: an NPC that would not only help guide her character through the adventures until she gained enough knowledge and confidence to work on her own, but through which she could see the rules working.

Her first guide was a boss — a captain of their little unit of soldiers in our version of Arthurian Scotland. This gave her a thumbnail look at the society and job of her character. She got to fight some low level but still challenging monsters and learn how the basic mechanics of the game worked. I let her take the lead of a few adventures, and when she had trouble, introduced a character that was “in the know” about the things she couldn’t be. The new character, a warlock that worked for the Morrigan, let her see how the magic rules worked, but also guided her through the increasingly complex politics and mythology of Celts of the period.

About that time her mother started to play, as well, and just by nature of the players’ relationship, her mom wound up taking on a more central and leader role than was intended. She became the guide for the story elements, but for a while my daughter was the one that was more experienced in the game mechanics and helped her mom.

But answering this prompt, I realized that I have often had a guide for the players — an NPC that was either a commanding officer, a techie or science type for when they didn’t have one, or some other character that was there to aid the characters in coming to grips with the game world they were operating in. Sometimes it might be the friendly native — a Martian scout showing the British around the Mars of Space:1889, or  some other local color; the captain of the starship they were serving on (which also aids to provide a prompt for getting into an adventure); the friendly school librarian or Radio Shack owner in Tales From the Loop.

The characters don’t exist in a story or setting vacuum, but they are often faced with mysteries or troubles which the players might not recognize in a new setting, or which they have no frame of reference to work from. It’s helpful to give them a lifeline.