Learning the Game, or Why Does My Brain Hate Me?

A couple of experiences in the last few months have brought something to the forefront of my twisted gamer brain.  I realized a long time ago that the perfect reference product for an RPG was much different than the perfect book to read in order to learn the system in the first place, and I really empathize with anyone trying to walk the line between the two and put out a good product to break into the RPG marketplace.

But I was reminded of this divide between learning and reference over the last few weeks when looking at a few products.  I’ve been running Edge of the Empire for a few months now, and I really enjoy the game.  I do remember that when I first picked up the Beta rulebook, it took me a while to really comprehend how to do everything.  It’s not that the system is complicated, but it just seemed like there were so many new concepts being thrown around and only causally touched on, that I felt lost.

It didn’t feel like the game introduced something, made sure I was familiar with it, and then introduced the next term.

Fast forward to my reading of the Dresden Files RPG, and I felt something similar going on.  I loved how it presented the source material, and I was really interested in creating a city and getting some collaborative input from the players as part of that process, and it kept me reading.  But each time I read about some concept relating to a game term that I wasn’t familiar with, I felt a little lost.

Now, I will fully admit, I have Gamer ADD  (not to mention the “real” non-gamer version), and when I see a concept introduced, I want to know what it means, and I want to understand that mechanic and to “master” it.  When I have too many concepts floating around half understood, I get frustrated, and sometimes it’s hard for me to stay patient and trust the rulebook to introduce these things to me when the time is right.

I know that I can skip ahead and read about those concepts, but then my problem becomes even worse, because once I start skipping around a rulebook, I continue to skip around a rulebook, chasing after terms and pictures and concepts like a dog chasing a squirrel wrapped in bacon.  And once I’ve read a section, out of order, I don’t feel like rereading it, but if I don’t reread that section, then I feel like I’m going to not fully connect things because I’m not reading that section in context.

Probably just me, I know.

However, what reminded me of the split between learning/referencing was that in both of the above cases, I have read something recently that alleviated the problem I as having with comprehending the game at a pace that wasn’t frustrating me, versus the number of new concepts being introduced.

When it came to Star Wars, I had already essentially gotten a grip on the system, but upon reading through the 48 page basic rulebook in the Beginner Game, it occurred to me that introducing just the rules, the concepts, and how everything worked, minus character creation and obligation and most (but not all) of the setting information, it clicked very quickly how everything worked together.

Similarly, when I started reading the Fate Core rules preview that I got for backing the Fate Core Kickstarter, a lot of the concepts that were introduced but not really fleshed out until later in the Dresden Files book really started to gel for me, just seeing the system itself.  The system, by itself, without the bells and whistles that are setting specific, and without the pauses that are set into the book for tying the setting to the rules, made much more sense, from a purely “comprehending the game” point of view.

It makes me wonder how much harder it would have been to understand AD&D if the Forgotten Realms setting had been hardwired into the rules in a stand alone book, with a discussion on the Weave and a history of wizards as part of the class description, for example.  I have never ready through them, but it also makes me wonder about how quickly I would have picked up Savage Worlds if I had been exposed to it as part of the Solomon Kane stand alone rules instead of getting my $10 Explorer’s Edition that just presented the rules by themselves.

I’m not really proposing an answer to this problem, or even really proposing that this problem afflicts anyone other than me.  Heck, I don’t even want to say “or people like me,” because I don’t want to wish multiple versions of myself, in any degree, on the world.

Selling a discreet set of rules as the Dresden Files RPG is going to be a quicker sale than selling a Dresden Files sourcebook for the Fate RPG, for example.  I mean, I know I started looking at Fate because of the Dresden Files, and not the other way around.  I really enjoy just reading how Fantasy Flight presents setting material in their 40K books, and I’m assuming Star Wars will be no different.

But part of me does wish that the RPG industry was big enough that it made more sense to have “teaching rules” and “reference rules” and even “integrated setting/game rules” all as discreet, viable options for more games across the board.  I am interested to see that this does appear to be happening a little more across the board, and I’m hoping that eventually I’ll be able to check out Green Ronin’s AGE system or the Chronicle system as base components minus the Dragon Age and Song of Ice and Fire trappings  (not that there is anything wrong with them).


  • Thanks for your post. You have given me something to think about.


  • I've experienced some of the challenges you're describing while reading RPG rules. And I'd love to see the AGE system decoupled from Dragon Age. Lots to love there. Having tried rule-writing a bit myself, I know it is extraordinarily difficult to be concise, clear, and structure all that in a way that fosters ever-increasing comprehension of a system.Thanks for posting!


  • Methinks college taught you some bad habits.


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