This entry is part 3 in the series Rules Mastery

Back when I was first given a copy of the Champions Game System, it was only the third genre of game that I had ever been exposed to: The first was FRP (In the form of AD&D) and the second was Science Fiction (in the form of Space Opera). As a comics fan from way back, I was immediatly super-enthusisastic, which made learning the rules a breeze.

For the next week, I did nothing but learn the rules, and in the process created a campaign background. But most people can’t game 24/7 and certainly can’t do it for six days straight.

Nevertheless, the fact that I ran myself through 32 scenarios of solo play in the course of that week means that a more manageable version of the same approach should be within the reach of most people. I’ve divided the process into 18 key sessions, which represent what I did in the first 24 hours or so of my Champions marathon; some will take half-an-hour or so, some will take a couple of hours, but most will be complete in minutes. You don’t have to do these back-to-back, but I would try not to let more than a couple of days pass between completing one and starting the next. If you can manage that schedule, then you can learn an entire game system in a month.

Session One: Create A Character

The first interaction that most of the players will have with the game system is character creation. So you, as GM, should go there first. This character should have something that he’s good at, something that he’s bad at, should be capable of the different ways of getting around within the system, and should otherwise be modelled on some character that the GM knows well. For my superhero game, I chose Superman, because I wanted to be able to run scenarios with that sort of power level. For a fantasy game, I might have chosen to do a psuedo-Aragorn – knows how to ride a horse, knows how to handle a boat, but spends most of his time on foot; good in a fight, but not weighed down with a lot of armour and weaponry. For an SF campaign, I might have chosen Ripley from Alien, or Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica, or Luke Skywalker. These are characters that I wouldn’t have to think about very deeply because I already knew them pretty well.

The first “session” was spent on character construction, following my nose while making no real attempt to understand more than isolated snippets of the rules – My Superman-analogue had to be strong, so I had to know what “Strong” was in terms of the character stats, and so on.

Session Two: Getting from A to B

The second step is to figure out the rules covering movement. Slopes, slippery surfaces, rough surfaces, unstable ground, how fast can you run, climbing, swinging from chandeliers, swimming, flight, and animal handling. Once you’ve looked at those – and we’re generally talking 4 pages of rules or less – add in how much you can lift, and how that affects movement.

Session Three: Hitting A Target

Next up, start figuring out what you’re likely to want to do in most RPGs after you finish moving – hitting something! Start with a generic punch, then a knife, then a length of 2×4, then some sort of ray blast or gunshot, and so on. Get used to how the combat system works. Once you’ve done those things, start looking at how environmental conditions and other adverse factors affect combat.

Session Four: Using Your Head

For the fourth session, it’s time to learn how the skill resolution system works. One of the best ways of doing so that I’ve found is to lead your character through the process of making a cup of tea or coffee. That’s looking for a cup or mug, locating the sugar (and not getting mixed up with the salt), making a fire (operation of a gas burner or stove), adding the right amount of sugar, locating and adding the right amount of milk, adding the boiling water, stirring, checking for how good a cup you’ve made, then trying to convince someone else that the coffee is better than it actually is, or worse. Yes, all of these are trivial tests – but at the end of them, you will know how the skill system works. Then you can look at how much harder it might be in, say, lunar gravity – which will quickly give you both a baseline and some feel for how more difficult tasks are different in their handling.

Session Five: Exotic Powers

Next up, pick one or two exotic powers and learn the game mechanics of using them. It might be turning undead, or firing a blaster, or using a teleport, or programming a computer, or setting a starship course – whatever is appropriate to the game genre.

Sessions Six-to-Ten: Create an Adversary

Now it’s time to get more serious. Create an adversary so that you can have a couple of one-on-one fights with them. Give the adversary one ability that is opposed by a strength of the original character and one ability that targets a weakness. Otherwise, make the two as opposite as possible.

Session Eleven: An Off-The-Cuff Encounter

Next, Referee a casual encounter between the two. No context, no preliminaries – someone goes first and the other person responds. This will give you a basic understanding of the initiative subsystem and a preliminary feeling for how characters interact, as well as the damage handling and recovery subsystems.

Session Twelve: Revenge Is Sweet

Follow this up with a second encounter, in which whoever lost the first encounter either goes looking for the winner for a rematch, or lays a trap for them. This gives you your first taste of how characters interact with the world around them.

Session Thirteen: Make Some Notes

Okay, so now you’ve developed some notion of how the different rules systems work. It’s time to start analyzing the results. Look for commonalities – do you always have to roll low in order to achieve something? Or have the designers hedged against biased dice by requiring some rolls to be low and some high? Are there any quirks to the system that you’ve noticed? Does +1 or +2 seem to make a huge difference, or is this a fairly small change? Is there anything that seems to have a disproportionately large effect?

Session Fourteen: Redo The Character

You will also almost-certainly have noticed a difference between the character you intended to create and the one you actually ended up with. With some experience under your belt, it’s time to redesign the character with the benefit of a little hindsight. Once you’ve finished doing so, make some more notes – every change that you’ve made to the character encapsulates some lesson in the way the system really works. It might be that some characteristics are more, or perhaps less, important than you thought, or something is less effective.

Session Fifteen: Revise The Adversary

And the same will be true of the adversary, as well. So redesign him using the lessons learned from redoing your test character.

Session Sixteen: A proper plotline

The two quick encounters, and the character redesigns, should give you enough ammunition to run yourself through a proper adventure, with beginning, middle, and ending. At the end of which, you need to assess the performance of the combatants and reward them just as you would if they were PCs being run by someone else.

Sessions Seventeen & Eighteen: A larger adventure

And with that under your belt, you should be ready to tackle a larger adventure. Grab one off the net or use an old pre=-packaged module if you have one handy – the practice at converting characters on the fly will help reinforce the understanding of the system that you’ve gained.

The Key To The Process

…is to not go cover-to-cover (which I have already described as the worst way to learn rules), but to learn by having your ‘character’ DO things. Learn the game by making small, practical steps. Ten minutes a day is enough for most of them. By keeping your attention focussed, and having an immediate gain from each session, you can divert attacks of the yawns. And before you know it, you’ll be well on the way to mastering the rules of your game.

There will be more of this series in 2011, but for the moment it’s time to switch into “Holiday Season” mode for me, since my next post is due to go out on December 23rd and the following one on the 30th…

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