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Learning The Game

Posted By Phil Vecchione On August 25, 2011 @ 4:00 am In GMing Advice | 6 Comments

Those who know me know that I am a polysystemist; a lover of multiple game systems (turns out poly-gam(e)-ist, means something else entirely). While I can remain faithful to a game system for about 6 months to a year, all games eventually are cast to the side for the “next game”. Those same friends also know that when it comes to game mechanics I am kind of lazy about learning them; relying much more on crafting a compelling story with the campaign setting, than memorizing combat mechanics. This has over the years produced some frustration in my players, who are often left picking up the slack and becoming the rules experts, while I spew stories and plots.

As my Corporation game is winding down (3 sessions remaining), I have picked my next RPG: Triple Ace Game’s All For One. My plan is not to start the campaign until October, after my Corporation game has wrapped up, so I have plenty of time to learn the rules and set the campaign up. As I started to think about what needed to be done, I realized that I don’t really have a good way to learn the rules.

Getting My Learn On

Like much of my generation of gamers (Moldvay D&D), I learned the game at a young age from another GM, and really did not spend a lot of time reading the rules. I think that may be the root of my issues; as I tend to rely on someone to be the “rules master”. This turned out to be a great way to leverage a Rules Lawyer; making them my in-game resource (a topic for another day…).

Over the years, and many, many games later, I have evolved a general methodology to learning new games, and it looks like this:

  • Read rules– just what it means. Cover to cover.
  • Read example adventure– I find that the sample adventure gives a lot of clues about how to prep the game, what things you need to include, and often some handy syntax for writing up things like skill challenges, etc.
  • Have players make characters– I will typically oversee this activity and be on hand to help people with any questions they have.
  • Play short adventure– I don’t often run pre-gen stuff, so I will make my own short adventure and make sure I put a few different types of scenes in it to highlight some of the mechanics.

This often results in a lot of page flipping, looking things up, and makes for a kind of slow and somewhat painful experience. It works and in a few more sessions I get the hang of the game, but I have to imagine that there are some other things I can be doing that would help flatten the learning curve.

Putting Those Circles To Use

So I started to think that there must be some tips to quickly learn a game. I put the word out on Google+, and got back some answers (thanks to those who answered):

  • “Make a character yourself. If you have time make a few. Run a mock combat/conflict between them. When done, besides learning some key rules through play you will have some perfectly statted out NPCs.”
  • “Read the rules cover to cover, then read them again. When you read about a particular mechanic, imagine its contours: The probabilities of success, which dice are involved, when it will come up, etc. After that, visualize that mechanic being used at the table. “
  • “Post-it notes or index cards. I always find while reading rules that I get all kinds of ideas for the game. Situations I want to see etc. Make notes of these before you forget them. Not only do you get some great gaming fodder (for this game or the next) but you also end up remembering the rules better as you are focusing on them to make these notes.”

I am incorporating many of those tips now, while I read All For One, starting by making my own character just to try out some of the mechanics.

Some Other Thoughts

I also have a few tips of my own, from some past experiences.

  • 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.
  • Run Sub-Games– Similar to the G+ comment about running a mock combat, if your game has distinct sub-systems: personal combat, ship combat, social combat – run mocks of each one of these, as separate events. This way your focus is only on one part of the game.

Study Tips

In the course of your RPG career, how do you learn a new game? Are there little tricks to learn a game quickly? What rules or systems are the most important for you to learn first?

About  Phil Vecchione

A gamer for 30 years, Phil cut his teeth on Moldvay D&D and has tried to run everything else since then. He has had the fortune to be gaming with the same group for almost 20 years. When not blogging or writing RPG books, Phil is a husband, father, and project manager. More about Phil.




6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "Learning The Game"

#1 Comment By Jeffrywith1e On August 25, 2011 @ 8:03 am

About obsessing over one game’s rule set and then moving on: I completely relate to that. My gaming group won’t leave 3rd E/Pathfinder and sometimes I just want to play any other system but that. I figure when it’s my turn to run, that’s when I’ll have a system all figured out and ready to go.

#2 Comment By Clawfoot On August 25, 2011 @ 11:08 am

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.

It helps that I’m a technical writer by trade and so I’m very used to summarizing and condensing lists of instructions and designing quick-reference cards and the like.

#3 Comment By Roxysteve On August 25, 2011 @ 11:13 am

May way:

First and best choice if at all possible:

1) Sit in on a game that someone else is running.
2) Have the rulebook on hand while doing so.
3) Make your own character if you can do so easily, otherwise beg a pregen from the GM and ask for post-game time to discuss how-and-why of choices made for it.
4) Using your rulebook during a game, figure out what the GM is doing “wrong” and make a quiet note of it. Post game, one-on-one ask if it was deliberate and if so, the reason.

If running cold:

Use a freebie one-shot from the game publisher – if offered – as our intro to the game.

Skim the rulebook. Build two characters. Put them into situations and find the rules dealing with the specifics. Make them fight each other. Do all this on my commute to save time.

Now read the rulebook, but not cover to cover because I’ll never remember it all and I haven’t the time. Get the gist, get a very good gist and trust my instincts. It’s nice that the rules cover boat chases but my game will be set in the Sahara Desert so, you know, that bit can wait.

Avoid online forums until the game is over. People scream about the strangest things online, and some of them are products of mis-using the rules in some common and popular way (massive damage under D20 springs to mind). When I’ve played I’ll know what caused the players heartache.

The fact is that the broad specifics of a rule system can be predicted. There’ll be rules for conflict and/or combat, rules for doing stuff to things and rules for interacting with NPCs. The experienced GM will gravitate to these in the order they personally feel is appropriate.

I’ve been told by some people that any GM can run any system at the drop of a hat, but what these people are really saying is they can take the surface details of the system and the setting, and morph it behind the screen into whatever game system they are comfortable with.

I consider this to be a total gyp, as players who sign up for a game under a given system have a right to expect that the game will conform to that system, and that given in-game stimuli will produce a given game-mechanic reaction.

I’m currently running BRP, D20 and Savage Worlds games on a monthly basis. Of them all, BRP is the easiest, Savage Worlds my favorite and D20 the one I have to research the most.

I’ve also gotten my feet wet as a player in All Flesh Must Be Eaten and am looking forward eagerly to Trail of Cthulhu in about 6 weeks. AFMBE isn’t one I shall be running myself because I don’t think I engage with the subject matter closely enough to do a good job. It *is* more fun than I can shake a stick at, and I’ll be playing again.

ToC is one I shall be running in about a year or so, once one of my other games slides off the schedule, and the chance to play is gravy as the system is completely new to me.

#4 Comment By Roxysteve On August 25, 2011 @ 11:15 am

@Clawfoot – All great ideas.

#5 Comment By evil On August 25, 2011 @ 12:53 pm

One of the ways I really get into a system is by writing down the key points and then teaching them to someone else. Just the act of having to put them from the author’s langauge into your own is usually enough to get the gears moving. Even if you don’t know the system well enough to teach someone (I have a person I keep around just as a non-gaming sounding board), you’ll usually get some questions about what you just said or what wasn’t clear. I especially like doing this if the person I’m talking to isn’t a gamer; you’ll get some interesting responses and questions that way.

#6 Comment By Riklurt On August 26, 2011 @ 6:56 am

My favoured method of learning a new system is to make a practice character, once I’ve read through the rules. I try to make this character as complex as possible, using as many strange rules as I can muster – if the system is very complicated, I might make a simpler practice character first. Then I basically just test how the character holds up in a variety of different situations. It helps teach the basics, and also gives you insight in some of the more complicated rules.


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