Breaking the breakdown: an examination on how learning a new system/setting can fail.

Image courtesy of DA user mffugabriel-stock

My gaming group has, collectively, an incredibly short attention span. Everyone has an idea for something they want to run, and most of us have several campaigns floating in the works at any given moment. Needless to say, we’ve burned through quite a few systems on our never-ending quest to give reality the finger. In the course of doing so, I’ve noticed a few reoccurring problems over the years that can cripple or kill a campaign before it even gets started. 

Personal Conflict 

This is a fairly common issue, but it can also be a surprisingly subtle one. Gaming groups can be comprised of a fairly diverse set of people, which means that you’ll inevitably wind up with players that have problems getting along with one another. While the obvious interpersonal problems can be dealt with and left behind (or not,) the more subtle ones can persist and slowly drag a  fledgling campaign to its grave. Let’s look at some of the issues that can seriously impede progress!

  • “This isn’t difficult to understand…” Is just a somewhat more polite wording of “you’re mentally deficient for not grasping this.” I see this issue come up a lot online, and this particular line of thinking needs to die in a syphilis fire. Just because somebody isn’t grasping something, be it rule mechanics or setting fluff, does not mean that they are cognitively handicapped. People have different mental priorities, and different levels of interest in memorizing the details of a system or setting. Expecting an immediate level of competency and lore absorption is unreasonable, and treating someone like they’re stupid for not getting something will only make the learning process harder. You should also consider the fact that they might not be bad at understanding the system, that you might just be bad at explaining it.
  • Bad teachers, bad students. Some people are innately pedantic, and if you work in technical support for long enough, it’s practically inevitable that you’ll wind up that way. Others, conversely, are sensitive towards being talked down to, and will absorb information poorly since their mental energy is more devoted towards resisting the pedantry coming their direction. Inevitably, it seems like the the pedantic person winds up trying to teach the stubborn one, and nothing ever gets accomplished. The best way to work around this is to recognize the people who can’t learn from or teach eachother, and assign them to a more tolerant partner.
  • You’re doing it wrong. Everybody has a pet system. Their favorite, their baby. Some settings are more generic than others, and some people have much narrower ideas of what constitutes a “proper game” than others. As an example, my group has been particularly fractious over our campaigns run in Exalted setting. Some of the players/storytellers in the group feel that Exalted needs to be run, and played, in a very specific way. Others are more interested in the classical adventuring you typically find in other high-fantasy games. This has resulted in multiple tiffs at the table, and while a high-voltage shock collar may seem like the most appealing option at times, it’s much better to compromise between the different views and establish a tolerable medium.


Information without context. 

It is extremely difficult to grasp data of any sort if you don’t have any context for it. This is a very important thing to keep in mind when dealing with lore-dense settings such as Exalted and Warhammer 40k. Trying to rattle off the statistics for a vehicle that they are completely unfamiliar with is pointless, and telling them which weapons are good for handling Tyranids is isn’t going to do any good if they don’t know what a Tyranid is.

When introducing someone to a setting, paint it out in broad, shallow strokes first. Who the different factions of the land are, what they are like, locations of note and a light timeline of events are all good starting points. Once they get a handle on that, start painting with narrower, deeper strokes. For example, it’s a good idea to explain the factions of the Imperial Guard and the Space Wolves to a newcomer before you start going into the deeds and significance of Commissar Yarrick and Bjorn the Fell Handed.

Brevity is the soul of wit. 

You’ll have time for great slews of information once the players are situated and comfortable in the setting. When asked about something in the system, particularly in regards to technical details, keep your answers as brief and to-the-point as possible. Ten minute replies are the bane of swift learning, and if a player asks how much damage a weapon does, just tell without explaining WHY the weapon does that amount of damage, unless it’s directly relevant to the situation at hand.

Show, don’t tell. 

While this is an adage of most every form of fiction, it also applies to learning rule mechanics as well. Rather than giving a twenty-minute explanation of combat, run the players through a choreographed battle designed to showcase the combat system. Use larger amounts of weak enemies to let the players be successful and gain a sense of confidence, making sure they have plenty of opportunity to see exactly what their character can do. Since it doesn’t count for anything, encourage them to use their spells, items, daily abilities, special attacks and the like so they can get familiar with everything their character has at their disposal. Keep the first few rounds to simple melee and/or ranged combat, then throw in elements like grappling, cover, called shots and special attacks until the characters have a rough grasp on the mechanics.



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