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.