I am about to start a new campaign. The game itself is unimportant, save that no one in my group has played it before and as far as I know I am the only one that owns a copy. This is unfortunately typical of most new games I run. I am the “gamer geek” in my circle and as such I tend to be the only one that buys new games sight unseen.

Last night I typed out a reference guide for my players. The reference guide covers the basics: core game mechanic, common modifiers, basics of combat, typical manuevers, etc. Over my years of GMing, I’ve found that reference guides are very useful when there is only one copy of the core book at the table.

Another great reason for personally designing a reference guide is that it forces me, the GM, to look critically at the system. What is important to know, and how do the different rules fit together? Before I started making my reference guide, I thought I’d boned up enough on the system. While writing it, I realized that much of my knowledge was incomplete (or, in some cases, outright wrong). After writing the guide, I had a far deeper understanding of the system.

A few thoughts on reference guides as a way to better understand the system:

  • While you’d think that a section on the core mechanic would contain everything you need to know, many RPGs scatter their rules throughout different sections.  You may find a rule that you missed on your first or second skim (okay, I skim. Guilty as charged).
  • Reference guides should be as light as possible, which means that you should be able to explain things succinctly in plain English (or Gnomish, or whatever your language of choice) to your players. If you can’t, then you probably don’t understand the rules as well as you should.
  • Some games include a lot of options, such as big spell lists or specific combat maneuvers. A quick-and-dirty reference guide enables you to understand, for example, all of the combat options available to the players and what makes “charge” or “lunge” different.
  • It enables you to troubleshoot potential problems or broken mechanics before starting the game.

In sum, writing a reference guide is like making an outline for the final exam. It enables me to distill all the rules into something more digestable and easier to understand how it all works together. What say you? Do you employ self-made reference sheets? What benefits or issues have you had when using them?