How to Learn A Game

Technique #1: Create Cheat Sheets

When I’m learning my way through any RPG with some complexity, one of the first things I start working on is a player cheat sheet, an explainer that hopefully they can refer to without disrupting the game. It empowers the player to know their choices, and takes some load off me during play.

But more importantly, building the cheat sheet is the #1 way I actually learn the rules.

I’m working on my King Arthur Pendragon cheat sheet right now, and really it’s all about the Traits and Passions. Glory has its own appendix in the PDF; I just printed copies of that. But Traits and Passions are where the players have the most authority, the most power, in the game.

This process never fails to reveal weirdnesses or disconnects in the rules text. It requires incredibly close reading of the text, perhaps closer than even an editor or developer gives a draft (especially if it’s like the 17th draft of something and you think you’ve already read all this stuff).

In Pendragon, you’ve got these pairs of Traits (Chaste/Lustful, Just/Arbitrary, etc.). They’re kind of paleonarrativist, arguably simmy (I mean if we must refer to this stuff), certainly flaggy descriptors for your character. When you’re correctly aligned with chivalric values (energetic, generous, just, merciful, modest and valorous) then you’re acting most like a good knight. When you’re not in alignment with those values, you’re being kind of a douche. But whatevs; your character, your choice.

But then there are these things called “directed traits.” And because they’re called a Trait, you know, I sort of assumed they act like Paired Traits. But they’re actually modifiers to traits, special cases that cause Traits to spike under certain circumstances (weakness for blondes spikes your Lustful trait, and probably others as well — reckless, trusting, merciful, etc.) So…why not just call them ‘trait modifiers?” Who knows. 30 years of accretion means it is what it is.

Passions are nifty: they let you wildly overindulge some attitude and get a massive spike for the scene (+10 or more on a d20). But you also risk going crazy, falling into despair, or going into shock should you actually fuck up. I love them. I don’t love that you gain them kind of…whenever you want them. But this prompts a GM-Player discussion, which is maybe the point.

Luckily, everything advances pretty much in the same way: You use a thing, you get a check (provides a chance of advancing during the Winter Court — yeah, intermittent rewards, Vegas-style. Either it’ll sink its fangs into you or you’ll fucking hate this part). Traits are more nuanced (you only get a check if it “mattered,” which isn’t so far off from Burning Wheel discretionary powers), and Passions can actually fall if you use them and fail.

Anyway, cheat sheets. Useful process. Developers should really consider the process for games they’re working on. Teaching is learning.

Technique #2: Reading Tea Leaves is up next.

14 thoughts on “How to Learn A Game”

  1. Excellent advice and you’re right. You know you understand something when you are able to teach it to someone else. You need to have internalized the stuff to do this effectively.

  2. I did this all through nursing school, too. Endocrine system? Two pages of diagrams, arrows, and cryptic text. Cardiac problems? One page, and an index card entitled “DON’T KILL THE PATIENT.”

    It’s personal and has different layers of abstraction — my time as an EMT means I can abbreviate lots of things with “look for shock, but with widening pulse pressures” or “look for shock, esp. tachypnia” or “do 2ndary vitals sweep.”

    On a more gaming note — AW character sheets seem to be their own cheat sheets. Other than making sure to include basic moves, I’m not sure how to make a player-facing cheatsheet for AW hacks.

  3. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, lately. I think cheat sheets should ideally be followed rather than learned. Like checklists, but more complex. If this happens, do this, then do this. One problem is that not all games are procedural: some of them are full of mechanical options which can be activated in very different situations, outside of any formal procedure. And this, in my opinion, is how a game easily becomes complex and stressful to learn. OTOH, a very procedural game can feel heavy and too rigid.

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