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Player References for System Mastery and Quick Play

Posted By Scott Martin On August 30, 2012 @ 1:00 am In GMing Advice,Tools for GMs | 15 Comments

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.)

About  Scott Martin

Scott is an engineer turned gnome and game store owner. He lies awake at night building intriguing worlds and plotting your character's demise.




15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "Player References for System Mastery and Quick Play"

#1 Comment By Orikes On August 30, 2012 @ 2:18 am

Funny. I was recently working on my own cheat sheets for this exact game system. Doctor Who has an exceptionally easy mechanic, but when running it, I’ve found there are a few things I regularly reference in the book that I’d like to have quicker access to.

I think if you have the time, it really does help to create your own cheat sheets. For me, it always makes the rules come into focus much more clearly than just reading the book.

#2 Comment By amazingrando On August 30, 2012 @ 6:18 am

I’m a fan of cheat sheets even for well-known systems, like d20/Pathfinder. As a DM I create a folder for each player and inside is a printout of everything relevant to their character—class(es), feats, spells, etc.

I like to make sure that when questions arise, and they do, that they can be resolved quickly with a minimum of fuss.

Additionally I maintain a gaming wiki where each character has all of the relevant information either on their page or a link to the description. My group is computer/tablet heavy.

#3 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On August 30, 2012 @ 8:38 am

There’s a good cheat sheet in the Pathfinder GameMastery Guide that you can photocopy and distribute. And the best part of playing Doctor Who? Lots of talking, and then some running, and you fight only when you have to (unless you think you can talk some more)!

#4 Comment By Roxysteve On August 30, 2012 @ 8:54 am

When I played in ASOIAF recently I bought a GM shield for a reference card because it is such a twisty system mechanic. Seriously, have you *seen* that GM screen? It looks like a slide from an advanced Physical Chemistry class from a distance.

Cheat sheets are fab, especially ones like the player mats for Savage Worlds that cover little-used and therefore little-known contingencies. These can change the whole nature of a game too. I laminate mine and give out one per player so they can annotate them with markers.

I’m not a fan of wikis or anything else that promotes players digging out their portable electronics because that is all too likely to lead to e-mail answering and surfing the links to exploding monkey videos and cat pix they’ve been sent.

#5 Comment By Roxysteve On August 30, 2012 @ 8:56 am

When I played and loved D&D 3.5 I made my own character sheet using a spreadsheet program and kept my own list of available spells carefully reworded to the character’s needs. I never held up a combat with ten minutes of figuring out how some awesome spell worked because I’d already gotten the gist when I reworded the fluff paragraph.

#6 Comment By Scott Martin On August 30, 2012 @ 8:57 am

You wouldn’t happen to have created those sheets already, have you? I wouldn’t mind a model, to see what I’d otherwise overlook.

#7 Comment By Scott Martin On August 30, 2012 @ 8:58 am

That’s exactly what I’m looking forward to on Saturday!

#8 Comment By Scott Martin On August 30, 2012 @ 9:00 am

For a tablet heavy group, your wiki sounds perfect. If we all had tablets, I’d be sure to have links off to PFSRD for spells–that’s got to be faster than looking them up in the book.

#9 Comment By Scott Martin On August 30, 2012 @ 9:03 am

I haven’t seen Ice n Fire’s mechanic, but it sounds like it sings out for a screen or good reference.

Cheat sheets with pictures/blocks/flowcharts are great. There was one for 4e that I really liked; your HP were beads divided into two piles so it became clear when you were bloodied, plus it saved a lot of erasing. It turned out to be more interesting in theory than practice (because everyone picked it up quickly enough that they didn’t need a play mat), but I thought it was a great way to get people started.

#10 Comment By BryanB On August 30, 2012 @ 9:57 am

In watching the show, there does seem to be a lot of running around. I mean who actually wants to take on a Dalek directly? That’s not really my idea of courage. :D

#11 Comment By BryanB On August 30, 2012 @ 10:03 am

Cheat sheets are great things. I don’t think I would have picked up Spirit of the Century so well without the excellent reference sheets I could look at while flipping through the rulebook.

GM Screens (when done well) can also be a form of cheat sheet for avoiding the constant page flipping one can face when playing a system for the first time.

I am also looking forward to playing the system mostly because my better half is as big a Dr Who fan as I am a Star Wars geek. That kind of enthusiasm is contagious at a gaming table. In a good way…. :)

#12 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On August 30, 2012 @ 3:47 pm

If you have the pdf version of a rulebook, screen captures or copy-pastes of the items on the list of tables is often a good place to start making your cheatsheet.

#13 Comment By Lee Hanna On August 30, 2012 @ 8:19 pm

I’ve done a little of this. I have a one-page summary of rules when I run Twilight:2000 at convention games. I’ve also started putting weapon data on index cards, so that they can see the numbers themselves, rather than asking the referee all the time. Adding check-boxes fro ammo used turned out to be very useful, scanned pictures of the guns were just icing on the cake.

For a Traveller game that I’m starting this weekend, I typed up index-card summaries of what each character could do in space combat, i.e. the rolls a gunner needs to make with Weapon A and Weapon B, what a pilot or engineer might have to roll for, etc.

#14 Comment By Orikes On September 1, 2012 @ 11:51 pm

I don’t quite have it done yet, but this is inspiration to get it wrapped up. I’ll share a PDF of it when I’ve got it finished. :)

#15 Pingback By Links for the Week of September 11 | intwischa.com On September 22, 2012 @ 6:01 pm

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