How to not ruin your RPG session

You know what ruins an RPG session?  When the rulebooks get opened up.  You know what ruins it the most?  When the GM is the one opening the book.

While my point could be applied to “rules lawyering,” I’m actually hitting at a more present problem at my gaming table: lack of familiarity with core rules.  As you know, I’ve embarked on a quest to play through many of the classic 1st Edition AD&D modules.  We have one session remaining in T1: The Village of Hommlet by Gary Gygax.  That means after a solid ten sessions, we’re still having to look at rules.  Why is that?

Of course, there is the charge that 1st Edition is too complicated, contradictory, and clunky.  Granted, it is complicated.  There are moments of fuzziness to the point of possible contradiction.  But there’s a charm and personality about the system that helps me to overlook all that.  I’m enamored by the tone of the game.

Beyond the quirks of 1st Ed. AD&D, I think that there are some rules that are simply hard to remember when you first begin playing any game.  They’re not on the GM screen–they’re not readily available–nobody remembers!  And, as a result, you can find yourself digging through your books at the gaming table more than is necessary.

So here’s my solution!

Photo by Dean Hochman

Photo by Dean Hochman

Post-it notes!  That’s right.  It’s simple, it’s easy, find those finicky rules quickly if they’re absolutely needed at the table.  The problem is less the books and more the fifteen minutes finding the rules.

So grab a pack of post-its, whatever RPG book you’re learning right now, and let’s mark our pages together.  Ready?  Here are the top pages that you need to mark right now:

The unique flavor sections

Games that succeed are games that are “the same, but different.”  So besides the setting, what makes your game different?  No, not the setting–the rules!  What rules are unique to this game that new players or GMs might not remember?  For the Star Wars RPG, it’s no doubt the creation of a dice pool and how to adjudicate those dice.  In D&D 4th Edition (yes, I do still play from time-to-time), I found myself looking up conditions like Dazed and Weakened the other night.  They come into play often, but they’re hard to remember.

What are the unique rules that flavor your favorite game?  Maybe there are similar rules in others games, but they’re just different in this one?  Here are the rules I’ll have to mark for AD&D 1e:

Frequency of Random Combat Encounters in Different Types of Terrain: DMG, pg. 47
Random Monster Encounters: DMG, pp. 174-194Random Treasure Generation: DMG pp. 120-125
The Monetary System: PHB, pg. 35
Keeping track of in-game time: DMG, pp. 37-38

Finicky combat rules

Every system has its…let’s call it…”unique” approach to combat.  In the Mouse Guard RPG, you have the interaction between the intentions of the PC and the NPC.  It’s great.  It works awesome.  But it’s baffling trying to explain it at first.  In the Star Wars RPG, it’s the various “abstract” range system.  Again, simple as apple pie, but confusing for the new player.

What is the finicky combat rule in your game?  The last thing you want is a character in the middle of some amazing, epic storytelling moment getting stuck because of a rule that they’re not used to.  So find your weird combat rule and stick a post-in note in there.  AD&D players?  What do we need to mark?

Determining surprise, distance, and initiative: DMG, pp. 61-2
Morale scores: DMG pg. 67

Death, dying, unconsciousness, and revival

I’ve looked this up way too many times in my RPG books.  From FFG’s Star Wars RPG and its near-impossibility to die to AD&D lethal rules, I’ve revisited these over and over again.  Why do you need this marked?

Because when a character’s life is on the line, you don’t want to fiddle around with rules.  Tension is already high.  You need a ruling that will stand scrutiny and you need it quick.  So find it in your RPG book.  Mark it with a post-in note!  If you’re following along in your 1st Ed. AD&D books, here’s what you need to mark:

Rules on death, unconsciousness, and reviving: DMG, pg 82.
Resurrection rules imposed on the player: PHB, pg. 12.

Determining Experience Points

This may simply be wonky for 1st Edition AD&D, but it takes some serious mathing to get those numbers cranked out.  I know later versions of D&D smoothed that out.

But here’s my point.  It’s the end of the session.  Everybody is probably sleepy, hungry, or needs to pee.  Nobody wants to sit and pore over books to get their precious XP.  They just want to get their XP and move on to the next level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  So once more, mark them in your books, especially these pages if you’re into AD&D these days:

XP for treasure and combat: DMG, pp. 84-86

Falling Damage

It’s kind of ridiculous how hard this is to find when it comes up.  Maybe my group is more acrobatic than most, but I feel like it comes up inordinately often.  And when you’re waiting to see whether it’s only a scratch or a broken back, people want to know that rule quickly!  AD&Ders, it’s out of the way, but here’s where you’re going to want to go:

Falling Damage: PHB, pg. 105 (it’s just 1d6 damage per 10 feet to a max of 20d6).

What else should we mark?

I know this will be a help to me!  I literally just put my post-it notes in there.  Mostly because last session, I looked up maybe four of these.  What did you mark?  And what should we all have marked that I neglected?  Sound off in the comments below!  I look forward to marking more essential pages!

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6 thoughts on “How to not ruin your RPG session

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with post-it notes. Great way for quick reference, but I have two more suggestions that keep the game night flowing and the story the focus.

    1. Index cards or official cards for the game. I love having quick access cards that I can read, hand to a player, or throw down on the table with flourish. D&D 5e has the new spell decks and powers/races decks. In D&D or other games I am running or playing, I like to write up my own index cards with pertinent character, monster, and NPC details as well as various modifiers. Rather than having to get out the book, I or my players can quickly reference a card with the pertinent info. And there is something VERY satisfying about tossing a spell card over your DM screen to have it land spinning on the table to visualize the fireball you just tossed into the party.

    2. If you don’t know the rule off hand, just make it up and move on. The story matters more than the rules. The players and DM can have an agreement to interpret a rule in the moment and go back later to look up the rule for later games. With D&D 5e that is pretty easy to do using the Advantage/Disadvantage rule. In other systems, there are rules that can work like just saying +2/-2 or use a Bennie/Fate Point, etc. Yeah, that means a rule might be different next time you play, but in that moment you kept the story and creativity flowing rather than halting it to look up a rule.

    After thirty years of gaming, I have determined the fun, story, and adventure matter so much more than what rules we are using. Being flexible as a game master and player really can help with immersion in the game you are playing.

    • MadCleric says:

      The index card suggestion is new to me, but great! Thanks, T.R.

      I agree wholeheartedly with your second comment as well. In fact, with AD&D you pretty much have to adjudicate stuff on the fly, because there a…”few” holes in the ruleset.

      That said, with the five rules I listed above, I feel like those are pretty important either for the system or for the player experience. You don’t want to rule in a way that kills a character unnecessarily, for instance. Besides maybe falling damage (which shouldn’t be a game-stopper), I think the four rules above are fairly essential. Your thoughts?

      • I agree combat rules are highly important and those should be followed as close as you can. Healing is useful, but you can always rule in favor of the characters if you do not remember the rule exactly. As for falling damage, I guess it depends how often you expect falls. If you have potential falling locations in your dungeon, then yeah, have those rules marked and ready.

        As for XP, I find it best to either do XP via email or at the start of the next game night. That way you can focus on cleaning up and everyone getting home at a decent time. Via email or at start of next session also gives you time to summarize the night and share stories of their heroism and the comedy of their mistakes.

        And for index cards, I also love these wipeable cards for temporary information like conditions, shared notes, environmental changes, initiative, hit point tracking, etc.

  2. Post it notes are a good idea, but I find a copy of the rules in PDF on a laptop or tablet that you can search means you don’t end up with hundreds of post-it notes when your players turn out to be fans of completionism! However that can be awkward to use, although it’s a huge bonus to not needing to carry loads of books round when you’re using non-core books.
    I’ve been known to rule off the cuff on some stuff because it’s not a major thing and I really don’t want to have to look it up as it spoils the flow of the scene. But then I prefer D&D as an exercise in telling a story rather than an excuse to hit things. 🙂

  3. Tadd Mencer says:

    I actually have used the post it note idea as a player too, not just a GM. Before a session I look at the PHB and figure out what pages I should have marked (spells, class information, racial stuff) so I have it ready if i need to reference.

    Someone on your Facebook linked to a cheat sheet – which is also very helpful. Having those on hand enables you to play faster paced games. Matt Mercer (GM for Critical Role) showed his GM screen and how it kind of is a hodge podge of information that he may need. I’ve done similar (though not as nicely as him) when I play with my boys and it helps keep the game moving fast. Which is important when you’re playing with 11, 8, and 5 year old boys! Keep the action and story moving!

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