Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Learning the Rules from the Bottom Up

Where Man Meets Magic... and is totally
I have a run a number of different game systems over the years.  Learning a new game can be a very enjoyable part of this hobby.  It can also be a hugely frustrating process.  New rules systems can be confusing even when they are well written.  Concepts that are easy to practice at the table can be ridiculously hard to put into text.  The learning curve is steeper for some games than others as well.  This becomes a barrier to entry for some games.  I have mentioned before, but it is germane to the point:  I really like the concept of Shadowrun, but the magic rules, and the hacking rules to a lesser extent, were so dense that I gave up on them years ago.

The game master needs to know how the rules work.  I, as the GM,  must be able to explain them to my players. Without a solid grasp of the rules, I cannot properly create material for the game.  As the final arbiter of the game, I must fairly apply the  rules to determine what happens when a player takes an action.  So that begs the question:  how is the best way to learn the rules of a new game?

Yup.  This guy is my welcoming committee for
every new game.  
The best way I have ever found to learn the basics of any game is to create a character in the new system.  Not just any character, I always design the same one: a basic thug.  The genre of the game does not really matter for this to work.  In every game, there is someone that the players, especially beginning players, are going to pound on.  Most games provide the stats for this type of character already, but I always go back and do it myself anyway.  By using the character creation system to generate this basic cannon fodder, I learn some interesting things about the system.

The first, and probably most important, thing that creating a very basic fighting character in any system teaches me is how the character generation system will work for my players. Once the players have accepted your campaign pitch, creating  characters is often the first time that the players will encounter the new game you are proposing.  For many players, the character creation process is one of the great joys of the game.  A new character is a blank canvas, one full of possibilities.  If the players find the character creation process difficult, however, it can sour them on the game before the first session begins.  Taking a trip through the character creation process ahead of the players can alert me to the problems that players may encounter when they generate their own heroes.

The second reason to create a thug is to see how the character stats work within the rules.  Until I understand the rules, a pre-generated character is just a bunch of numbers on a page.  By engaging in the character creation process, I can see how the character stats mesh with the task resolution systems.  The most important things that a rule system can do is provide a method for PCs to do stuff and fight stuff.  By creating my own character, even a violent and not very bright one, I can use each step of the process to see how the various attributes, abilities, and skills work within the system to allow characters to achieve both these things.
Or... at least I will when I finally
level up.

Finally, drawing up a new fighter from scratch gives me a good idea of the power level the system allows to new characters.  This permits me to scale challenges, both combat and otherwise, to the abilities of my new characters.  If the statistics for my generic thug will likely struggle with a challenge, then the (presumably more competent) players likely find it challenging as well.  If my beginning bruiser cannot succeed at all, then my challenge may be too difficult for new players who do not yet know how to optimize their characters.

At the end of this process, I have learned quite a bit about the system.  Less than I will likely learn in the first session of play, but certainly more than I will learn by reading the rules alone.  In addition, I have some idea of how to utilize the character creation process.  Since I will be using that system to create NPCs throughout the campaign, that is a very useful byproduct.  And, if nothing else, I have a new useful stat block for an NPC that I can throw at the players any time there is a need.  


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