Designing the game to be learned vs. taught

August 7, 2022

Over on Twitter there’s a couple of nested conversations going on about the difference between people learning how to play from the text vs. learning from a GM explaing how the game works. As someone who was in elementary school and had to teach myself D&D from the Red Box, I have a lot of both experience and ideas about this.

Learning to play from the book

First, the only games where it can be a fair assumption most or all of your groups will read the rules to learn to play are those 1-4 page RPGs. A trifold brochure game, or something like Lady Blackbird. Every other game, you can assume there is a split between the group.

The first group will read the rules and try to know how the game works. This ranges from “I get the basic mechanics and am fluent” to the player who makes a chart for ideal builds based on math or whatever.

The second group is skimming the book mostly looking for cool ideas to inspire their characters, think about the type of cool things that happen in the game, etc. Functionally what happens in play is that this group is still taught the rules by the GM or players more fluent in the mechanics, anyway.

As a designer, it’s key to recognize you have both types, and often enough, it may just be the GM who read the rules and now has to teach them.

Teaching how to play

Teaching how to play is a different matter altogether. The rules as a text reference may have all the rules for say, magic, in one section. However when you teach the group how magic works, you probably don’t need to explain the WHOLE section – you probably only need a very basic introduction to start it off and to come back and get deeper with it as needed.

The questions in teaching how to play are:

  • What order to we introduce concepts?
  • How deep do we go into any set of rules vs. put to the side for later?
  • How much does anyone need to know about the structure of play and how to use the mechanics to generally TRY to get the outcomes they want? (fluency)

Examples to check out

There’s no one answer, but I think there’s several games that have great examples worth looking at. Probably the most recent, and strongest standout game that teaches the GM how to teach it, is The Green Knight, which I’ve written about recently. Thirsty Sword Lesbians has the hands-down best teaching/reference handout pages I’ve seen so far. It walks you through setting up the game, teaching the basic rules and running a session. These sheets for Primetime Adventures worked great as quicksheets for the rules and as teaching aids. I know they were designed to be cut up into cards but just using the sheets as is worked better for my games. Dogs in the Vineyard had a great idea of putting the relevant mechanics directly on the character sheets and we can see some of the mirrored with the Playbooks in Apocalypse World.

Nowhere near the Same Page

And all of this is before we get to the common issue of “I read part of the rules and assumed the rest of the game works like (other RPG)” which happens quite often. It’s frustrating to design your game having to explicitly communicate where it differs from D&D, but unfortunately it is a common experience that can avoid some of the problems for new groups.

Now mind you, I’m not saying the designer is god in all of this; however, as the designer, you’re charging money to give people your game… and frankly, the RPG space has been full of decades of “well the group (aka THE GM) will figure it out” lazy design which has led to a lot of problems. Being clear about the baseline assumptions for your game make it easier to teach, and, easier to houserule.

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