This entry is part 2 in the series Rules Mastery


Last time around, Johnn described (via exerpted email) his difficulty in getting enthusiastic about reading rules.

Johnn has been making a common mistake, and it’s one that I have been guilty of myself in the past.

When reading rules becomes tiresome, we avoid reading and re-reading the rules because we have the impression that we have to read them in one solid block, from cover to cover.

Because we avoid reading and re-reading them, the nuances fade from memory – if they were ever known to begin with; if learning a new game system, even that might be going too far.

Cover-to-cover is the worst possible way to read rules, in my opinion.

A far better approach, and one that can quickly overcome any aversion to the reading of rules, is to take a lead from what players do: they don’t read the whole rulebook, they read the parts that are relevant to their characters. And reread those sections. They look for any advantage or capability that they can take advantage of in those rules. Everything they read is taken from the perspective, “how can I use this to benefit my character?”

For a GM, the equivalent question should be, “How can I use this in my game?”

There are two approaches: the directed and the random.

Directed Rules Search

When you know that something is likely to come up, take a good hard look (in advance, preferably) at the game rules that deal with that event or condition.

You don’t need the grappling rules most of the time. But if you seed an encounter with a creature that has to grapple in order to use it’s special abilities, or if a PC has a bout in a wrestling match coming up, that’s when it’s time to bone up.

Make A Simple Procedure Checklist

Whenever you’re learning a new procedure, it’s a great idea to make yourself a bullet-point summary of that procedure. Make sure to include the page number where that step is discussed in detail.

If the procedure is not something that comes up very often, you can then file the summary away in a binder somewhere until the next time you need it; if you find yourself referring to the card frequently, you will soon learn the ins and outs of that rule.

Random Rules Search

Another favorite technique is to flip through the rules book until something catches your eye – then read that in detail, asking yourself the question, “How can I use this in my next game session?”

For example, your eye might fall on a particular spell. Learning the mechanics of that spell will not only give you a nice little plot element that was completely unpredictable, it will offer a refresher on spell use in general.

Keep A Page Log

Another technique that is often useful is to keep a page log. Each time you have to look something up in the course of play, jot down the page. At the end of the session, add them to a text document and sort it numerically from low to high. You’ll soon find that there are certain sections that seem to be consulted all the time, either because that game mechanic is complicated, or because of a recurring usage pattern.

The frequency of occurrance on the list is exactly the same as the reward for making more intensive study of that particular game rule section.

Look For Patterns

Game designers aren’t lazy, but when they develop a game mechanic that works, they will tend to repeat variations of it all over the place. The procedure for making a saving throw is usually very similar to the process of making a skill check. Whenever a game mechanic comes up in the course of play, try and associate the rules regarding that mechanic with something similar. If a player is using a certain part of the rules that you don’t know well because the mechanic is related to their shtickh, get them to show you where it is in the rulebook so that you can follow along as they trumpet their expertise – this makes it easier for you to learn those rules.

The Common Theme

The common theme to all of these is to make your study of the rules immediately useful, and hence immediatly rewarding, instead of studying the rules for the sake of studying the rules. Besides the immediate benefits of having studied the rules in question, the reward means that ‘rules burnout’ is not a problem; your enthusiasm is maintained and even reinvigorated.

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