It’s a wide world of games out there, and it’s nearly impossible to truly experience the richness of the RPG hobby if you only play one. Even if your group is set in their ways, or deep into a multi-year campaign, you can still take a look across the hobby and see what new ideas are cropping up (and have been cropping up for the last four decades). Reading some games can seem daunting, and certain incumbents in the industry benefit by making the whole process of reading in the hobby seem more difficult than it actually is (you know, the incumbents that make you buy three books to run their game). That said, role-playing games are not as difficult as some would make it seem, and 400 page books need not scare you away.
At its core, a role-playing game is an activity where you take on the role of a character and determine what that character does (and often what they think and feel). The rules of pretty much all role-playing games are intended to do two things: Describe what sort of characters the players play, and describe how the setting these characters inhabit works (especially in response to what the characters do). This is accomplished through a combination of rules and setting material, and how much of it you need to read is heavily dependent on what you intend to do.
The Rule Zero of Reading RPGs
Rule Zero of Reading RPGs is simple: Role-playing games are supposed to be fun! Even if you don’t want to read a 400 page book, even if you don’t feel like you’ll retain enough information to play, the act of learning a new game should be fun. Now, most people who are trying to read a new game efficiently are doing it to later play that game; if RPG reading is your hobby you should just read the thing cover to cover and enjoy it. If you’re trying to play the game, though, you should be able to see why the game is going to be fun before you’re done with it. It should be exciting to read a new game, especially in advance of playing it! If reading the rules is truly a slog no matter what you do, you need to circle back with your group and/or GM. If the game rules don’t grab you, there’s a strong risk the game won’t grab you at the table either. This conversation might end with the group picking a different game, but it might just end with other players sharing what excites them about the system. Hopefully this should help you perk up and find things that excite you as well.
The other implication of this is that you should read around a game and find the things you think are neat. Maybe that means skipping to the gear lists, or magic rules, or combat rules, whatever you particularly like. The guidance in this article is not intended to limit your reading of a game, merely to help lighten the load so you can read more games more easily.
Table of Contents
Like any non-fiction material, the first part of an RPG you should read is the Table of Contents. From here on out, I’m going to be using an RPG I picked off my shelf for examples. Savage Worlds Deluxe is a solid example of an RPG you might be asked to learn, given its generic foundation. It also has a good blend of design and layout elements (both positive and negative) to serve as examples. The Savage Worlds table of contents highlights the two main sections that a player will need to read in order to play in a game, Characters (chapter 1) and Game Rules (chapter 3). It also highlights exactly how most RPGs are *not* designed to be read cover to cover, because the core mechanic of the game is not covered in detail until page 70! This is, unfortunately, the norm in many traditional games, but given some reading of the Table of Contents you can generally find this fairly easily. The core mechanic of a game is the dice roll which most or all tasks are based upon; in the Savage Worlds table of contents these are called ‘trait tests’. Looking for ‘tests’, ‘checks’, ‘rolls’, and other descriptors as such are a good start, some games will actually use the term ‘core mechanic’ as well. In the case of Savage Worlds, you turn to page 70 and learn that the base test is to roll the die associated with an attribute, looking for a target number of 4. Now that you’ve read this, you can go back to character creation. When you do, you’ll see that character creation involves buying up stats and skills to certain die values. While you could go through character creation not knowing exactly how these die values work, having read the core mechanic first will help everything make a lot more sense, and help you more quantitatively understand how a d6 is better than a d4, and a d8 better than a d6.
Character creation is arguably the most important section of a game to read as a player, because it’s the one that enables you to, well, play. After you have an understanding of the core mechanic you should go back and read through the character creation section. First, see if there’s a summary, because that’s going to provide the most information about the character creation process in the fewest words. Savage Worlds Deluxe does not have a summary, per se, but that’s because it lists out the five steps of character creation on the first page spread of the Characters chapter. The five numbered headings tell you what you need to do, and luckily Savage Worlds is mechanically simple enough that all the details of what you actually need to do are contained here in their entirety. The rest of the Characters chapter consists of lists. Now, while these five items, Race, Traits, Edges & Hindrances, Gear, and Background Details tell you what you need to make a character, there are elements here which are glossed over. It’s mentioned that Edges include special powers, but there is no callout here that Savage Worlds uses Edges to gate its power systems, including magic and psionics. This is, though, where you’d circle back with any setting-specific materials your GM has already created. Savage Worlds does well with providing a foundation by having the character creation steps correspond to places where the GM will add or change rules. If your GM were to run Savage Worlds, they’d tune it through Races, Traits (skills specifically), and Edges/Hindrances, so as a reader you can very early on connect campaign notes to your understanding of the game and your character.
As I noted earlier, the rest of the character chapter is lists. You don’t need to read these now, but if you think, say, the Edges sound cool and you want to find out more, definitely check them out. You’ll be returning to these lists once you create a character but unless you want examples to ground the descriptions on the first page spread, you don’t need to read them now.
At this point, if there’s a generalized game rules section, you’re going to want to read that. For Savage Worlds we’re going to go back to the section where the core mechanic was located and then we’ll keep reading. This both tells you everything you need to know about general gameplay, extending the core mechanic to describe both the Wild Die and Bennies, as well as tell you what the game and rules want to focus on, namely combat. Combat systems get a lot of love in traditional games, but in many newer games this subsystem is less important. In Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) games, for example, you’re more likely to read about relationship mechanics than specific combat mechanics, though there it does vary. Still, the rules contained in whatever the core ‘game rules’ chapter are going to be the ones which reflect the focus of the game. Once you’re done reading those, you should have enough of an understanding of the game to at least sit down in a first session and catch the flow of what’s going on (and hopefully you should have read less than 50 pages at this point, possibly a lot less). Now you want to do some targeted reading.
There’s two ways to do a targeted read through the rest of the mechanics. First, simply figure out what questions you have. What special cases haven’t come up? What specific mechanics are you expecting to see? Then, use either the table of contents or index to find mention of these items. The other way is to consider the character you wish to make. If you want to make a wizard you likely want to read the magic rules. In Savage Worlds, you’d turn to the Powers section. Now here a generic ‘Powers’ rule framework is used for multiple different flavors of ability, so we’ve once again reached a point where you may need to circle back with your GM if they haven’t provided their own notes on magic already. If you’re not reading for an upcoming game, reading the entire Powers section will be necessary to understand how you would implement the rules for a given setting. This sort of structure quickly becomes a liability for generic systems; a player needs to understand an entire block of rules and then a layer on top of them for a given game in order to use them. Savage Worlds has many fewer rules than other generic systems, but you can still see how magic may be more difficult to understand here than in a game with a constrained setting like Dungeons and Dragons.
By following these guidelines, you should roughly understand how to play a game, how to create a character, and which specific rules apply to the character you have in mind. From here, the gaps that you personally want filled should be apparent; you should have read enough to know what you don’t know. This is a key goal of your first reading, because the game is no longer just a monolith entirely made of stuff you don’t know! Also, games with good layout will be able to answer all of your questions with just their index and table of contents. Games with bad layout still comprise a large portion of RPGs sold, but here it should still be possible to drill down to what you need, albeit with more help from either online reviews or a fellow player.
Now, you may note that for a setting-driven game we’ve probably left 75% of the book unread. This is where your curiosity should drive the remainder of your reading, especially for parts which aren’t driven by rules. When it comes to reading setting material, the only consistent rule is Rule Zero: only read the parts you’re going to have fun reading. When I read new games I routinely skip the in-universe fiction and generally skim setting until I can tell what the game considers most important. The only exception here is if your GM has highlighted certain aspects for their campaign, but that too serves as a guide to help narrow your reading.
Learning how to skim is an important skill for actually reading a lot in a small amount of time; it is in many ways a more generalized version of the procedure I’ve outlined above. Using headings and some understanding of how a document is structured, you identify the most important segments and then superficially read the rest until you have the information you need to absorb from the document. It works just as well for role-playing games as it does for reading, say, ten to fifteen thirty-page scientific journal articles in a week, but better, more detailed skimming strategies are a bit out of scope for this article. Still, it’s a skill that will serve you in any area of life that requires reading. My ability to read 400 page RPGs and turn around a review in a week is built upon skimming skills I learned in college and kept using; this article will likely not get you to the point of reading as fast as I do but it will significantly reduce the amount of effort needed to prepare for an upcoming game.
The important thing to remember about RPGs is that they are reference documents and aren’t meant to be static. It’s likely that you will need to return to the book as the game progresses, maybe to absorb new rules or maybe just as refreshers. As the key rules for the game are located in a relatively small portion of the book, it can be immensely helpful to use play aids like GM screens, or make your own by printing out rules summary pages or certain page spreads you keep going back to. When my group runs Powered by the Apocalypse we put all the moves sheets out on the table, usually two to three copies so no one is waiting. It keeps the game moving by reducing book flipping, but it also normalizes checking things during the game; this isn’t a memorization exercise, and you won’t memorize everything from your first (or twenty-first) read! Remember rule zero again: it’s supposed to be fun. Any GM who treats a role-playing game like a closed-book test should be kicked to the curb.
Games are supposed to be fun, and even a relatively dense game like GURPS can be comprehended relatively quickly by using your table of contents and focusing on core rules, character creation, and then specific mechanics that are important for you. The key is to read enough to get you started and then go from there; you’ll both learn more from play as well as gain a better understanding of which questions you need answered. And if your game is fun, you’ll be more motivated to keep reading and gain more understanding as you go on. And fun is the key; this is a hobby, even the reading is supposed to be fun. And the less reading you feel like you need to do to start having fun, the more reading you’ll want to do as you keep going.
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