I get to play in a Doctor Who game this weekend–Jennifer’s running. I’m looking forward to it for many reasons–though primarily for the group of friends I get to play beside.

We’re tackling a system that’s new to all of us. Jennifer cackled fiendishly as she read the GM’s book, but she wanted to make sure that someone else had read the player’s booklet. Since the book was already at hand, I read through it. And while the system is relatively simple, I don’t want to be the only player to know what’s going on Saturday either. So, it’s time to share the knowledge.

Player Aids

Something that’s common on board game geek is the production of reference cards for players. Not necessarily because a game is overwhelming, or even really complicated, but sometimes a new presentation, some graphic design, or just having things rephrased will make things clearer.

Around the Stew, we’ve discussed cheat sheets before–straight on a time or two, tangentially a few times more. When they were first mentioned (by Walt, in The Reference Guide For Better Understanding), I was interested in finding pre-made references. In my defense, I was mostly thinking about complicated games with lots of details–like D&D or Pathfinder’s list of skills and typical DCs, or long tables of Armor, cost, weight, and penalties. Fortunately, the simple system of Doctor Who shouldn’t demand so much typing.

From a GM’s point of view, Walt made two great points about the advantages of typing it up yourself.

Over my years of GMing, I’ve found that reference guides are very useful when there is only one copy of the core book at the table.

Another great reason for personally designing a reference guide is that it forces me, the GM, to look critically at the system. What is important to know, and how do the different rules fit together? Before I started making my reference guide, I thought I’d boned up enough on the system. While writing it, I realized that much of my knowledge was incomplete (or, in some cases, outright wrong). After writing the guide, I had a far deeper understanding of the system.

At our table, we’re looking at the same issues. Jennifer owns one box of the rules, which–fortunately–are divided in a Player’s Book and a GM’s book, so we can pass around the rules without holding up the GM.

I’m interested in the second benefit–learning the rules by writing down what I know. The game seems simple (Attribute+Skill+2d6 is the core mechanic), but has other factors to incorporate (unskilled checks, the take action sequence, traits), plus there are the sidebars dedicated to making the game feel like Doctor Who (pacifism, “Scan Reveals Nothing”, and “Making Losing Exciting”).

In Phil’s Learning the Game, he explains why he creates screens and references for the players.

Make a GM’s Screen– You can either create inserts for a customizable GM’s screen [LINK], pages to tape over a favorite screen, or a PDF to view on your computer or tablet. The act of copying the tables out of the game and into the screen will help solidify the important tables needed for the game.
Make a Player’s reference sheet– In a few games, I have made a handout for the players that covers some section of the rules, typically combat based. By making these handouts myself, it helped me to really read and understand the rules.

From the comments to Phil’s post, I’d like to have Clawfoot at my table.

It’s the cheat sheets and quick reference cards that I make that help me (and my new players) the most. I find that going over the books, condensing the important, most often-used rules, putting them in my own words, and designing an easy-to-read page/card both cuts down on the at-the-table rulebook-flipping and helps both me and my players learn and digest the bare bones of a new system.

If I’m helping new players, I’ll often also design my own character sheet for them, or at least come up with a “combat sheet” that highlights what they need to know and has all the relevant stats, modifiers and reminders right there for them.

Matthew’s views in Cheat-Sheets: Good for Everyone! seem particularly applicable to our situation. Here’s what he says:

Given my GM ADD, when I do get them to play a game, these are almost always one-shots, so I don’t expect anyone to actually sit down and memorize rules. Instead I make up a cheat-sheet that goes over character building and common action systems rules and types in easy to digest and reference chunks. For simple games, I can usually condense the entire game onto a sheet of 8.5 x 11 paper. For more complex ones, I usually just hit the high points and leave the less common details out.
These handouts help my players understand the game right out of the gate, and reduce the number of “How do I…” questions by a large margin. […] Presenting a game’s rules in boiled down format can also help make patterns and themes more obvious. While a game’s designer may have intended that certain subsystems mesh together in a certain way, fluff and samples tend to obscure the way mechanics interact. Pooling a list of systems together with nothing in between helps sort out synergies and strategies that may have otherwise gone overlooked.

Our situation is similar: for the moment, this looks like a one-shot. It’s hard to expect people to delve deep and master a game they’re only going to play once. A cheat sheet can really help reduce the overhead in learning a new game. While I love learning new systems, that’s not true for all of the players at the table. (Fortunately, our most reluctant player loves Doctor Who, so there’s a great interest/effort trade off.)

Long Story Short

Making references is great for getting people comfortable with a new rules set quickly, and is probably the best method for mastering new rules. It’s certainly useful to everyone else at your table.

I’m going to get back to writing up that reference. I hope the resulting sheet makes our play experience a little better. If you have hints, tricks, or a technique that conveys the information more clearly than lines of text, I’d love to hear about them in comments.

(Here is the first draft of my Doctor Who notes.)