Thursday, July 2, 2020

Tools for learning new RPG systems

"Game" by Katrina_5 from Pixabay
While surfing my Twitter feed today I ran across a post by a user called @artplebe. They were experiencing a lot of stress and frustration because they were having trouble learning new role playing systems. They felt that if they can't learn a new system, they likely won't have the confidence or the understanding to create a podcast on RPGs.

They also worried that if they couldn't learn new rules that it might make them a bad DM, and then it may be an indication that they aren't ready to create content for role-playing games.

In another life I was a life coach. I helped men build new careers, get out in the dating scene, and get healthier. It was a great career, and had it not been for a series of tragedies in my life, I would still be doing it today. As it is, I still cannot stand to see another person struggling and feeling so frustrated without wanting to help them out.

So, with that in mind, I want to offer some pointers on learning new role playing game systems that might be helpful to @artplebe, and pretty much anyone else who is struggling to learn a new role playing game.


The first step is universal, it doesn't matter why you are having trouble. And that is to remember that most people don't learn Dungeons & Dragons just by reading a book. Most people are taught how to play buy more experienced players. And, they rarely learn it all at once. They learn the bare minimum to play as a player in one character type. Then they expand their knowledge as they play.

Different learning styles engage with game rules differently. If you are struggling, the odds are that you simply don't learn by just reading a set of rules. There's nothing wrong with that. Not everyone has the visualization techniques and the text-oriented memory necessary to put a set of rules together in their head and run a series of examples of play without the help of other people or other techniques.

Think back to how you first learned to play Dungeons & Dragons. For whatever is your preferred role-playing system. Did you really just read the rules? Or did you play with a group? Did you play one-on-one with someone willing to teach you? Did You observe other people playing? Were there Miniatures involved, or did you play theatre of the Mind? I'm betting that it was a lot more than you and a book.

So, with that in mind, I'm going to create a list of some of the tools I have used, and some of the tools that I have seen other people use to learn a tabletop role-playing game system.

1. Watch other people play

Watching other people play as system can really help make the game make more sense. It's one thing to see rules for a situation on paper. It's a completely other to see it play out. Many larger Publishers, like Wizards of the Coast and paizo have a live play events that anyone is welcome to attend either to play, or to spectate. 

YouTube and twitch have numerous channels featuring groups playing games. Some channels focus on playing one particularly popular game, others run whole campaigns and smaller press games, and a few change games every few weeks just so that you can see how numerous games are played. I enjoy watching people play, and when I'm having trouble figuring out how a game would look when it's played, there is nothing like watching someone else run the game. Often you can see its own developer running the game.

2. Learn by Doing

Most people learn role playing games by playing. They get a cursory understanding of the rules from a brief skim of the manual and a little walkthrough from a fellow player; they build a character or have one built for them, and then they show up at a table and play. All of the learning takes place once they are sitting at a table with a GM who is patient enough to help new players learn.

Thanks to online tabletops like roll20, websites like Meetup, and even role playing games Pacific meet up websites like tabletop North America, it's pretty easy to find a group that is playing the game you want to learn.

I do believe that one of the smartest things the Indie role-playing game community could be doing for itself right now is to organize some kind of Network or exchange where people can set up learning game sessions for the game of their choice.

One of the most innovative ideas that have hit role playing games in the last 2 years is the notion of a learning dungeon. The first one that I'm aware of is Tomb of the Serpent Kings by Skerples. These are dungeons very specifically designed to teach a number of play concepts and showcase a number of mechanics, so that the people playing through them get exposure to a most of the play loops of a given game, and learn important lessons about the preferred play style of that game.

3. Run it with a Sidekick

A few years ago, one of the players in the group that I ran Temple of Elemental Evil through wanted to run a Homebrew campaign setting she had developed. However, she did not feel comfortable DMing. She didn't feel she had the rules mastery.

I offered to be her sidekick for running the game. When she ran into a rule she didn't feel she knew, she would check with me and I could give her a page number, and run through it with her. I learned to do that quickly and in a way that taught as I went. The rest of the players, happy to try something new, agreed that it was worth the occasional slow down to have an extra dungeon master at the table.

I also found it was very helpful to walk through why I would make a ruling in a particular way when she needed to make one, and be very open about my logic. That way, she could decide whether she agreed with me, or whether she wanted to go a different way. 

By the time we had run through the third adventure, she barely needed my help at all. By the time we ran through the 5th, she was running Homebrew content that she no longer needed to run by me. She had a real flair for adventure design. By our 7th Adventure, we agreed that my role is sidekick could be narrowed down to just reminding her of page references.

4. Create a Cheat-Sheet

Most Dungeon Masters run with a cheat sheet somewhere around them. Almost nobody perfectly remembers the rules. This is the whole reason for Game Master screens: they can hide your reference material and your dice rolls if you want, but their real function is to have a surface where an organized summary of the rules can be kept at hand.

If you have a favourite DM screen, use it as a template, and write a similar DM screen for the new system as you read it. If you don't have a DM screen that you like, write your own crib sheet for a game you are familiar with and love. Play with its layout until you find the most useful information for you displayed where you can find it as quick as you need to. Then take that cheat sheet and trade the rules you have written down for your favourite system with the equivalent rules for the new system.

While I generally have very good rules comprehension, I find there's nothing quite so helpful as writing a cheat sheet as I learn the rules. For exceptionally difficult systems like GURPS and Shadowrun I write out a fresh cheat sheet every time I purchase a new edition.

5. Look for Tutorials

Some game designers are happy to go over how this system works. YouTube has a number of fantastic videos of different developers explaining the finer points in their system. I have an upcoming interview with the game developer Venger Satanis, who has a series of absolutely brilliant videos where he explains how to play his game Alpha Blue.

6. Play the Game Solo

I also have an upcoming article where I'm going to feature a website called Donjon, that features a range of random dungeon, world, adventure, and character generators. While it is focussed on Dungeons & Dragons, you can easily use it to generate the dungeon, and then try to play the randomly generated Adventure on the fly using a handful of characters you run. Figure out how they overcome each challenge placed in their way in the dungeon as if they were played by very Savvy players.

You might also want to consider using popular module designed specifically for the system.

Alternatively, you could also take a few of your favourite scenes, and counters, and dungeons and try to reproduce them in the new system and play them through yourself. There's a wonderful video of hanker infernal doing just that when he was first learning dungeon world that I will share below:

7. Convert Material

Along the same lines as playing through some of your favourite Encounters in scenarios in the new system, converting characters, Adventures, for favourite monsters into the new system so that you can see how they might play differently gives you a more concrete understanding of the game.

I have a love affair with the gelatinous cube. Any time I learn a new game system, I look at the rules and try to figure out how to make a gelatinous cube work in that specific game system. By the time I've created a new gelatinous cube, or made study of the analog in the game, my understanding of how the monsters work is usually pretty solid.

8. Play with Automation

The guys from one of my gaming groups are very resistant to new systems. They don't like having to learn them. When I wanted to get them to play Dungeon Crawl Classics with me, part of my pitch was that we would be playing on roll20, where most of the rolling was already handled for them. Generally, all they have to do is hit a button, and the dice rolls is calculated out for them.

I have observed after three months of playing this way, is that the players are now all pretty confident in Dungeon Crawl Classics, despite the fact that none of them have ever even looked at the DCC core rulebook.

9. Listen to the Fans

(@artplebe themself reminded me of this one.) Many games have podcasts created for- and by- their fanbase. Because these podcasts are all about one particular game, they tend to go wild exploring it. "Spellburn " for Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG and "Discern Realities" for Dungeon World are prime examples. 

10. Train Your Brain with Light Systems

The more you learn new rule sets the easier it will become. Start with light weight ones to build up your game-learning muscles, like Tiny Dungeons 2e, Tunnel Goons, or Lasers and Feelings to get intonthe swing of learning new games before you hurl yourself agsinst Pathfinder 2e

Its Dangerous to Go Alone...

TTRPGs are a sophisticated hobby. They take a huge amount of mental effort to master. Trying to so with just the core book in front of you seems like it should be easy, and gets frustrating when it isn't. Don't be fooled; these games are harder to learn than they seem. Equip yourself with tools that help you learn. Or find a little help. 

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