Simplifying The Start
Fifth edition is probably the easiest iteration of Dungeons & Dragons for beginners. This is not only due to making it an intentional goal of the game design process, but also through the release of an affordable Starter Set and free Basic Rules. Here are a few changes I'm trying out to make it even easier for an absolute beginner to hit the ground running.
Part I: Pre-generated Characters
While character creation is often the most enjoyable part of the game for experienced players, I think it should be almost skipped entirely for complete novices. This means I am a believer in handing out pre-generated character sheets. Even if players already have an idea of what sort of character they'd like to play, they lack an understanding of the rules necessary to make informed decisions as to whether that character should be best represented in the game as a ranger, rogue, fighter, etc. So how many pre-generated characters should you have prepared?
A lot of this is going to be inspired in part by Miller's Law, a psychological principal suggesting that humans can hold around seven "chunks" of information at a time. As with anything in psychology, there's some pushback on this, but I think everyone can agree that the options available in the Player's Handbook are overwhelming: 9 races (14 with subraces), 12 classes, and 13 backgrounds. Clearly having the 2,000+ combinations prepared for the players to choose from doesn't actually make anything simpler. You could just grab seven random level one characters off the internet to use. I of course insisted on making my own set from scratch. So what did I end up making?
Let's start with classes; it's the decision that probably has the greatest impact on character. If we cut it straight in half, we'll have a nice six options. Cleric, fighter, rogue, and wizard are the iconic adventuring party— each with a clear and distinct role— so let's say they're a lock. That means we have to remove three-quarters of the remaining classes.
In my opinion, sorcerer and warlock are first on the chopping block. Their flavor is pretty close to wizard, or possibly cleric for warlock. Druid— especially without wild shape— is essentially a cleric. Ranger and paladin are covered by fighter. Barbarian is quite distinct from fighter, but I'm going to axe it (for d12 damage) for now to get to six classes. If you want a seventh pregen, I recommend barbarian, maybe druid.
This leaves two of my least favorite classes: bard and monk. However, they both have abilities and play styles right out of the gate that are difficult to recreate with other classes. Bard also brings some charisma focus back to the table that was lost by cutting sorcerer, warlock, and paladin.
Choosing races is a lot simpler. For introductory groups, I try and keep things as "vanilla" D&D as possible. It draws from what's familiar in the public consciousness already. The Player's Handbook describes dwarves, elves, halflings, as being the "common" races, so let's just draw the line there. It makes it easy to divide up the classes into each of the subraces (excluding Drow), as the racial bonuses match very well with our chosen classes.
I'll also make a human version of each class, for twelve characters. That's enough that if you're really OCD, you can use all but one of the backgrounds and not have any repeats.
Obviously this is back to twice the number of options I was shooting for. I have a one page handout with descriptions of the four races and six classes. Each class lists both racial options. I feel this still keeps things simple, while still giving some freedom of choice.
Part II: The Character Sheet
Oh look, it's our old friend, the blank character sheet. Overall, I think this is pretty nice work by its designers. But this is made to be forwards-compatible with a character of any level. What if we made one specifically for the lowest levels and newest players? What would that look like?
The standard sheet is three pages long, but let's focus on the front page. Ideally, everything a player would need to reference would be right here, along with a short description of what all this crap actually is. Anything I highlighted yellow or red means I think the information can either be rearranged, refocused, or dropped entirely. Here are my reasonings:
Passive Perception - I think of this mostly as a tool for dungeon masters. They are the ones who need passive perception recorded, not players.
Inspiration - This rule is already kind of wonky and often forgotten by experienced players. I like to use physical tokens or extra d20s to remind players of their inspiration. Even if you play it 100% rules as written, I think it's a bit much to throw at a new player.
Personality/Ideals/Bonds/Flaws - Similarly, I love that this is on the front page in this edition. However, I think this is something new players should discover about their player as they play. I have them start thinking about these aspects of character, but don't force them to write anything down.
Initiative Bonus - 99% of the time, this is just the character's Dexterity modifier. If we're trying to free up real estate, this is a good one to cut.
Temporary Hit Points/Death Saves/Hit Dice - Aside from Hit Dice, which just can be moved someplace less prominent, these don't come up often enough to necessitate inclusion. Cross the death saves bridge when you come to it, and just have the player make check/x marks in the margin for goodness' sake.
Proficiency Bonus/Saving Throws/Skills - Surely this can be condensed, right?
I am not a graphic designer, but here's what I whipped up in Google Sheets
In addition to some of the changes mentioned above, I moved the "Spell Save DC" and "Spell Attack Bonus" information to the front and included spells in the same big box as proficiencies, languages, traits, and features. It's a lot to include in one spot, so I usually put the important class features on the front, and traits like elf trance and proficiency with shortswords on the back. I consolidated the saving throw/skill proficiency section to only include those that the character is proficient with.
The important thing to remember is that NOTHING you do at the start of a campaign can't be changed later on. If someone started out playing a wizard, but their character is clearly more of a sorcerer, just have them make a different version of the character at level 3 and put it in as if nothing happened. If you want to put bonds and flaws front and center so that your players focus on roleplaying and using inspiration, do it! But I think that every accommodation should be made to brand new players to make their first experience as smooth and fun as possible. I'm hoping this new system does that.