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The Reference Guide For Better Understanding

Posted By Walt Ciechanowski On June 26, 2008 @ 7:17 am In GMing Advice | 10 Comments

I am about to start a new campaign. The game itself is unimportant, save that no one in my group has played it before and as far as I know I am the only one that owns a copy. This is unfortunately typical of most new games I run. I am the “gamer geek” in my circle and as such I tend to be the only one that buys new games sight unseen.

Last night I typed out a reference guide for my players. The reference guide covers the basics: core game mechanic, common modifiers, basics of combat, typical manuevers, etc. 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.

A few thoughts on reference guides as a way to better understand the system:

  • While you’d think that a section on the core mechanic would contain everything you need to know, many RPGs scatter their rules throughout different sections.  You may find a rule that you missed on your first or second skim (okay, I skim. Guilty as charged).
  • Reference guides should be as light as possible, which means that you should be able to explain things succinctly in plain English (or Gnomish, or whatever your language of choice) to your players. If you can’t, then you probably don’t understand the rules as well as you should.
  • Some games include a lot of options, such as big spell lists or specific combat maneuvers. A quick-and-dirty reference guide enables you to understand, for example, all of the combat options available to the players and what makes “charge” or “lunge” different.
  • It enables you to troubleshoot potential problems or broken mechanics before starting the game.

In sum, writing a reference guide is like making an outline for the final exam. It enables me to distill all the rules into something more digestable and easier to understand how it all works together. What say you? Do you employ self-made reference sheets? What benefits or issues have you had when using them?

Walt Ciechanowski

About  Walt Ciechanowski

Walt’s been a game master ever since he accidentally picked up the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1982. He became a freelance RPG writer in 2005 and is currently the Victoriana Line Developer for Cubicle 7. Walt lives in Springfield, PA with his wife Helena and their three children, Leianna, Stephen, and Zoe.




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10 Comments To "The Reference Guide For Better Understanding"

#1 Comment By Ish On June 26, 2008 @ 8:16 am

Oooh, Gnomish homework assigment! Ask everyone post their reference guides and cheat sheets!

#2 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 26, 2008 @ 8:28 am

I’ve never made a reference guide for my players, but I think I’m going to give it a try for the D&D 4E game that I plan on running soon. Great post, Walt!

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On June 26, 2008 @ 9:38 am

I’m in the same boat Patrick– I’ll spend time hunting up good sheets on the web, but hadn’t really thought about making a general quick reference for players. I think the only reference I’ve built was for Fate On The Fly, though I have created personalized GM screens.

#4 Comment By Sarlax On June 26, 2008 @ 12:16 pm

I put together a Vampire game a couple years back set in 15th-century Florence. It never got off the ground, but one thing I did was built a two-page reference sheet for the players. I found it to be a very useful exercise.

When I first had the idea, I really wanted to just make sure we could keep the gaming moving without the players having to master a rulebook. I realized quickly that it wouldn’t do much good if it were long, so I chose to keep it to a single piece of paper.

Once I’d set that limit, it became important to figure out what really needed to be there. Rules actually didn’t stay on the page – the mechanics are consistent and it wouldn’t be long before the basics were all mastered, so why waste space on the sheet for that?

Instead, I used the reference page to make small notes on the things that are always frustrating for a GM when the players forget them – setting details. I wrote out notes on what the clans were like in the city, which was most numerous, etc. I gave notes on the covenants of the time. I just wrote up some quick notes for how the mortal government worked. Vampire jobs and titles showed up as well. Next came the unique rules about vampires – not disciplines, but the requirements for feeding, sunlight, etc. Finally, I threw in details about the city itself.

What I ended up with wasn’t really a rules summary. Instead, it was more of a campaign info-pamphlet – a quick guide for someone who hadn’t played so they could figure out what the campaign was about and how it would feel.

It was a good experience, as it forced me to really get to know the campaign.

#5 Comment By Hella Tellah On June 26, 2008 @ 1:16 pm

I did this for a game of Mage: The Awakening, and found it really valuable for understanding the system. The magic system is very complex, and building the reference guide really helped me to understand just how spells are cast. It’s an exercise I’d recommend for anyone running a system that’s unfamiliar to the rest of the players, especially if you only have one copy of the core rulebook.

#6 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On June 26, 2008 @ 4:08 pm

This sounds really handy. When I get SavageHawk off the ground, I’m going to print up a page of Savage Worlds mechanics (and advice) and a page of important ‘fluff’ (NPCs, locations, history, etc) for each player.

I usually put the fluff on a website, but paper is just so much more ‘at hand’ at the table.

#7 Comment By Sandrinnad On June 27, 2008 @ 12:51 am

I’ve done something similar for WhiteWolf – Vampire and Changing Breeds – for a friend’s game with new players who were pretty uncertain about the system and for a game of my own. Both had a chatty little character creation walkthrough for the newbies with explanations of how the choices they were making now would affect the game later as well as page references for further reading/detail and later use. They were several pages long but pretty darn handy :)

Things like this are also a great spot to put house rules and character limits/expectations/requirements (no Malkavians without prior permission, every character must have X skill, characters get Y extra points on creation, or whatever information is useful).

#8 Comment By DarthKrzysztof On June 27, 2008 @ 10:56 am

I wrote a reference guide for a Planescape campaign back in 1994 or 1995, for the benefit of those who had the AD&D rulebooks, but not the boxed set. “Here’s Sigil, these are the planes, these are the factions, here are your character options,” etc. The campaign never got off the ground, and my guide bounced around from floppy, to ZIP disk, to a CD-RW that crapped out (fortunately I still had the ZIP).

Then, in 2007, I finally started the campaign; all I had to do was clean it up, tweak the text for v.3.5, and slap it up on Obsidian Portal.

I still have references I wrote for Al-Qadim and my homebrew world, and increasingly obsolete ones for the Forgotten Realms and Shadowrun.

And I was glad to get the quick-start rules for D&D 4E; saves me the trouble!

#9 Comment By Sektor On June 29, 2008 @ 8:38 am

I always have a summary of the special combat rules for D&D 3.5 (grapple, bull rush, sunder, …) pinned to my GM screen, and a copy of that sheet in the middle of the gaming table (including a half-sentence description of each manoeuver).

#10 Comment By Magnificat On September 5, 2008 @ 12:04 pm

I believe this is a very interesting option for a GM. I am going to do this for D&D 4E, as I am DMing “Keep on the Shadowfell” and pretty often we are stuck with rules checking.
Besides, I keep forgetting soime rules, especially if I am not playing sessions in a row.
Can I ask a favour of you? Could you send me a copy of this reference guide you have been writing for your players? Even though the system is not D&D 4E… just out of curiosity… ;-)


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