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How Do You Learn a New System?

Posted By Patrick Benson On October 28, 2011 @ 1:00 am In GMing Advice | 14 Comments

Variety is the spice of life. You may have your favorite game system, but it does not need to be the only game system that you play. One of the joys of this hobby is that by using a different set of rules you can have a completely new experience at the game table even if you are still playing in the same setting. Trying a new set of rules out is the GM equivalent of a chef tasting different types of cuisines in order to expand her palette.

But how do you go about learning a new set of rules? Reading the rules is a good place to start, but reading is rarely enough to develop fluency with the rules. Here are some simple things that you can do in order to develop a greater understanding of a new system:

  • In the Savage Worlds Deluxe¬†edition there is a short but elegant section on what a person should do in order to prepare to GM a game of the system. The authors advise a new Savage Worlds GM to make a PC and run through a combat with a few NPC enemies before running the game for the players in order to understand how combat works. This works for any game system though, and it not only helps you to learn the rules but it can also inspire you to develop smarter strategies and tactics to use in actual play.
  • Fellow gnome DNAphil¬†recently told me how he creates a character by himself in private for any new system that he plans to run before asking the players in his group to do so. This is a great idea, because character creation is usually what defines a player’s first impression of a new game system. A GM who understands the character creation rules will be better prepared to answer player questions, and will probably have some insight into why the players chose certain traits and items for their characters. Phil also runs a “training session” with the player once a character has been created that is not part of the actual game itself, so that both he and the player have an understanding of how the rules work before the first game session begins.
  • I am preparing to run a game of Where No Man Has Gone Before 2.0, which is a Microlite20 game set in the Star Trek universe of the original television series. In order become familiar with the rules I am creating my own custom GM’s screen for the game. This helps me to not only learn the rules, but it also is helping me to think about which rules are most likely to be used in order to produce the type of experience that I want the players to have at the table. Likewise, creating a player handout in the form of a rules “cheat sheet” can have the same effect.
  • Flash cards are a great way to learn anything, especially if you read them out loud while studying. If I am having difficulty committing something to memory I write it out on an index card in the form of a question on one side and the answer on the other side. This has helped me with my education, career, and even my role as a GM. Creating and using a deck of custom flash cards is a great way to internalize new knowledge.
These are just a handful of ways in which you can learn a new system, but I want to hear from our Gnome Stew readers about how you learn new rules. Tell us your favorite tips and tricks for mastering a new game system, and as a bonus tell us what RPG rule books were the easiest (or worst) to learn from and why.

Have you tried any of these techniques for yourself? If so, what was the result? Leave a comment below, and share your insight with the rest of us!

About  Patrick Benson

Patrick was born in 1975, and is more or less your typical American male for someone of his age. Except he is a tabletop RPG gamer and a damn fine game master! What else matters?

14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "How Do You Learn a New System?"

#1 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On October 28, 2011 @ 5:18 am

As I may have made notes of before, I make cheat sheets for new systems. Both of my and my players benefit.

#2 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On October 28, 2011 @ 6:29 am

I usually make a 1 or 2 page cheat sheet. Not only does it force me to peruse the rulebook to identify core mechanics and the most useful rules, but it’s a handy reference during the session (I print out enough copies for everyone).

In addition to core mechanics and most-used rules, the cheat sheet also has stripped down versions of special abilities, such as a PC’s initial spell list, that don’t easily fit on a character sheet. If this is too involved, I’ll make different cheat sheets – one for rules, one for spells, one for unique combat maneuvers, etc.

#3 Comment By Dunx On October 28, 2011 @ 6:51 am

I’ve certainly done the combat run through thing, although it was with the sanity mechanics in Realms of the Cthulhu (the Mythos setting for Savage Worlds). They aren’t really any more complex than the combat rules, but in Gritty mode especially they are sufficiently different that a specific run through was needed.

In the end, the sanity-blasting effects of the Chthonian were rather less damaging than the picking up of characters with tentacles and smashing them on the walls of the cave.

#4 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 28, 2011 @ 9:40 am

@Matthew J. Neagley – Cheat sheets are essential I think for a new group playing a complex game for the first time. When D&D 4e first came out our group used them quite a bit. It definitely shortened the learning curve.

@Walt Ciechanowski – Good point. One cheat sheet may not fit all.

@Dunx – Sometimes you just have to get your hands, err, tentacles dirty… ;)

#5 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On October 28, 2011 @ 10:02 am

Savage Worlds taught me to run a game as written before tweaking it or making too many assumptions about it. It also taught me that if something doesn’t seem right in a professional system, then I’m probably missing something in the rules.

For new systems, I set up a one-shot, even if it’s with myself or just one player. I do find that more minds tend to understand the nuances of the rules better than one alone.

#6 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On October 28, 2011 @ 10:28 am

@Kurt- your comment reminds me of the mid-90s, when GURPS was our system of choice. It’s not a very difficult system and we ran it RAW, but it seemed like every session started with “I was re-reading the rules over the week and we’ve been doing this wrong…”

#7 Comment By BishopOfBattle On October 28, 2011 @ 11:04 am

My method is typically to read through the rules and take notes. Copious amounts of notes. More notes than are practical for any actual use during game. The point isn’t to generate a cheat sheet or anything like that, but I find, as with studying in school, that the simple act of writing things down helps me to remember the key points and after that I rarely need my notes.

@Walt Ciechanowski – Still, I tend to wing a lot of the more obscure systems or less called upon rules starting out, in the interest of keeping things moving. I’ve been running Shadowrun games for almost two years now and I still keep finding that I’ve been running grappling rules wrong, miscalculating falling damage or any number of other small rules. When I find them, I make note of them for the next session (I’m usually looking them up again because I expect them to come up in the next game) and make a mental note to fix them.

#8 Comment By Dunx On October 28, 2011 @ 12:11 pm

@BishopOfBattle – grappling rules: that’s another one where I did a run through before setting a Chthonian on the PCs. They always seem to hard to grapple with.

#9 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 28, 2011 @ 2:55 pm

@Kurt “Telas” Schneider – I like the idea of running a complete one-shot adventure for myself in order to learn the rules. Most games seem to come with one complete adventure in the back of the book anyhow, so why not?

@BishopOfBattle – The science of the brain suggests that you are right! Writing activates different parts of your brain than reading does. The combo of reading and writing notes seems to improve a person’s ability to retain information and actually use it in a meaningful way.

#10 Comment By Redcrow On October 29, 2011 @ 2:00 pm

I like to create a couple of different characters usually covering the basics (e.g. fighter, thief, mage, priest) then set them up to fight in an arena style environment and try to utilize all the various attack types like melee, ranged, spellcasting, unarmed, etc.

If there is an odd rule or something that is likely to come up that I might need to reference during the game I use post-it notes to make tabs in the rulebook so I can flip right to the rule for a quick refresher when it comes up. Although these days I’m finding bookmarked pdfs work wonderfully for this.

While not always an option, my number one preferred method of learning a new game is to be a player in a group that are already experienced with it.

#11 Comment By Roxysteve On October 31, 2011 @ 11:07 am

@Kurt “Telas” Schneider – Amen to that! I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people complain of the failings of a particular system, only to find that the GM (and Players) decided to “turn off” the very rule that acts to limit those very failings because it “didn’t seem fair”.

I consider this to be the major reason why people wrongly believe that one cannot run a “proper” game of Call of Cthulhu using the D20 version of the rulebook, for example.

It’s interesting. When, at the second battle of Kharkov, Anjum’s untried mounted Russian cavalry overran my veteran Panzer III’s with ridiculous ease, we laughed, then went back to the rulebook because we assumed we were doing something wrong (and we were right in that assumption). When a GM feels that he/she spends too much time upshifting the monsters for a D&D game, they typically assume (in public) that the system is broken and “only works for low-level characters” rather than that they have removed some vital veeblefetzer from the engine and thereby initiated the RPG version of The China Syndrome.

Plus, there’s the attention-span problem. Modern gamers don’t seem to want to apply any. This is why the Savage Worlds crew put out their excellent placemats, a Godsend at conventions and any other game in which a player might point a weapon at someone or something better left undisturbed. Rulebooks only get read when the GM rules against one, and then only to win the point. If God had meant us to read rulebooks, he wouldn’t have created the GM.

Paradoxically, this attitude works for me when I GM BRP Call of Cthulhu (which is quite easy to run old-school), but not when I run Savage Worlds, D20 or Unisystem, where I expect the players to be conversant with the rules they want to leverage in their favor. This goes factorially when I run Dresden Files. 8o)

Another great topic I’d like to discuss in person with some of the Eaters of Stew over a beer.

#12 Comment By Roxysteve On October 31, 2011 @ 11:31 am

I think the character creation process tells me more about how the game will be approached by those on the other side of the screen than anything else, which is why I find it hard to get into games where the character generation is several chapters in from the start of the rulebook (Star Trek springs to mind).

Perhaps this is because I am stuck in “old school” style RPG mode. I dunno. I want to see the game as a player will before I figure out how I present it.

The GM sheet is often a great guide as to what will be important for the GM (Duh!) but just as often isn’t. I’ve criticized a number of products of this sort for leaving off vital information while listing unimportant stuff.

The latest Call of Cthulhu screen lists idiotic information that no GM will ever require “on the fly” such as the definition of the primary attributes (Really, you think I won’t remember what “strength” means?), and skimps on the firearm tables. Grappling actions are listed, but not the sequence to actually get the grapple on in the first place.

The Conan and D20 CofC screens do not give the grapple rules at all (D20 screens are often very crowded and very deficient due to space constraints; I reckon you need four landscape panels to do D20 justice in this regard).

If I could list one thing above all others that speeds the process of climbing the learning curve and arriving where the designers intended me to be once I have, it would be to spend *lots* of time on the organization of the rulebook, even if it means foregoing the “clever” planned graphic design elements due to production schedule constraints.

Keeping main rules out of sidebars, giving some real thought to how information will be accessed during the learning curve and then during play (which might bring two very different approaches to the table) and a properly designed index tuned to the needs of the harried GM needing to find things quickly are what I consider to be the foundations of a great game adoption process. In-game rulebook flipping is death to an RPG for me, and I’m not alone.

These guidelines also apply to boardgame rulebooks too (I’m speaking to you, FFG). The nice art will be appreciated once, when the rulebook is read for the first time. After that, the rules will be read in circumstances when everyone just wants the specific piece of information as quickly and painlessly as possible. No-one wants a voyage of rulebook discovery when they could be, you know, playing the game itself.

#13 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 31, 2011 @ 11:51 am

@Roxysteve – I agree that a lot of GM’s screens lack the information that I want to have readily available. That is why I usually end up making my own. I’m a big fan of Hammerdog Games screens:


The six panel 4×6 model is awesome for convention games when I want to cut down on the weight of items that I will be carrying all day.

#14 Comment By metalheadben On November 7, 2011 @ 1:10 am

This is probably the wrong way to go about answering this question, but my hard and fast rule about learning new systems is, I don’t run anything I haven’t played. Playing a game, with a GM who knows what he’s doing, has always been the best way for me to figure out how to GM a system.

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