Learning a new TTRPG system

Choosing the system for your group is only the beginning of your adventures as a GM. Once you’ve chosen one or more systems to try, you need to figure out how each system works.

This post suggests some tricks for learning a new system. In this case, it also helps me by forcing me to follow my own advice. As I mentioned last week, I am running a system I’ve never run before at a convention soon. So I guess you can consider this both Part 2 of Preparing to Run Convention Games and as Part 3 of How to choose a TTRPG system.

While I was planning I found a video that has solid advice. It’s by Seth Skorkowsky, an experienced GM who runs several different systems for his group. He did a whole series of videos about running a specific game system that I was learning, and I found them quite useful. This video is about about learning a new system . I’ve summarised the main steps he describes, and added a few pieces of advice for people who do not have an existing group to join.

In this video, he describes how to learn a system from the beginning. He breaks this down into a series of steps, with further advice about each step:

  • Read the rule book – after you figured out which books you need, and how many you need
  • Create a character – an important first step in understanding the system and how the rules fit together
  • Make one or more cheat sheets – Summarise the rules while you read the rules, to make it easier to teach the game to new players
  • Combat practice – Ugh, but okay
  • Character creation one-on-ones – Helps you prepare for the specific group you will be playing with
  • Run a practice adventure – The video contains a lot of advice about different ways to do this
  • Review the rules – Add any feedback, additions, or corrections to the cheat sheets
  • Run the first full session
  • Review the rules again
  • Review any missed rules with your players before the next session

To summarise: read the rules, try to summarise it for yourself, then test out the system a few times (including with your players) to make sure you understand it, and keep updating your notes as you go.

You can find the video below. You can either watch the video first and then keep reading, or leave the video for later. Either works. He assumes that most people will play games that include some form of combat. If your game system of choice does not, see if there is a different set of rules that you need to focus on instead.

Regardless of how well the rules are written or how simple the system is, it is incredibly useful to have a cheat sheet of the most important rules. This is especially true if you need to consult more than one book, or if several people need to consult the same book at the same time. And a cheat sheet is supposed to be short, so it’s generally cheap enough to make copies for all the players.

Keep in mind that not all rule systems are clear or well-written. Having a cheat sheet helps to ensure that you don’t forget important rules or leave out steps. It’s also a good opportunity to clarify confusing or ambiguous rules.

If you’re going to be running the game, I would also suggest that you create a separate sheet for yourself. Keep a list of things that you need to do or to watch out for during the game. Think of things that the players do not need to know, or that they should not know about.

He also suggests that you find someone to help you test out the rules. If you know someone who is an experienced player, you can obviously ask them. Of course, you may not know anyone, for example if you want to play the game with people who have never played before. If so, ask your prospective players whether any of them is particularly good at understanding technical information, or is especially fond of maths.

Alternatively, if the system is more story-driven, find out whether any of them have experience with creative writing, or even improv acting. (It doesn’t matter if they are published or if they’ve acted on stage – it’s enough if they understand the basic principles or have tried to apply them.)It also helps if you and/or your play-testing partner have some experience analysing movies, books, or other forms of storytelling.

He gives some great advice for how to manage expectations around the table, but I’ll add a longer blog about that at some point.

The video includes a bunch of links to existing cheat sheets. I’ve also added an example of a cheat sheet I created for a 7th Sea game I want to run soon. Even though it’s only two pages, it took me a long time to put together. But reading it should give you a pretty good idea of what it would look like to watch someone play that game.

For the game I am running at Dragonfire, I am creating a set of cheat sheets for players (and myself). I will be running a preliminary one-shot on Saturday evening for some friends. I may upload one or more of those files later on. But in the meantime, have fun – and let me know if you have any great advice you’d share with prospective GMs.

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