The masks a Game Master wears in a tabletop RPG are many. They are an authority figure standing over everything, judging the world from their ebony throne. They are one of they players, there to enjoy the action with their friends. But the role that rarely gets brought up in conversation is the one of the Game Master as teacher.
A game is a love triangle between the players, the GM and the rules. In some groups everyone owns the rule books and memorize the rules. More often I see situations where the GM is the only person who has the books and full knowledge of how the game works. So while herding the cats known as players, and trying to get the adventure across, the GM also has to explain how things work and what dice to roll and where.
I know players who keep asking “which dice do I roll?” session after session in games that use only a pair of d6s. And others playing in the same game who have started optimizing their characters’ numbers from the get-go. People learn games differently and at different speeds. And usually you end up in a situation where the “system mastery” willingness of players varies from one to the other.
While it would seem optimal to let the more experienced players be the rules experts and guide the least experienced ones, there is a huge danger of it turning into a game of “you should do this” that quickly draws the fun out of playing. One big fun thing about RPGs is that they’re a safe environment to make mistakes.
In my games, if the game has rule books, I try to give them to the people who are least comfortable with them. They can then read them while other people are doing stuff and learn. This is much better than them toying with their smartphones or reading comics. And when some rule question comes up from any of the players, I point the newbie to where they can find the rule in the book and have them read it to the group.
While this does bring the game to a complete halt, it is a good part of the active learning process. The least-experienced person gets the time they need to get the rule and everyone else can chip in by explaining what it actually means, thus getting a more firm grasp of the whole. Everyone slowly learns what’s happening.
Now, with games like New Horizons, where there is no core book to share, the responsibility for teaching the rules is really all on me the GM. This means that I both can and have to pace the way I let the players in on how things work. I start with the very basics, get them tuned in on those, and then slowly expand the rules as we go along.
My plan was to craft a few tutorial sessions in the start of the campaign. The first games were played with a lighter version of the system. Basic rules like the Moves were used properly, while others, like Critical Damage weren’t touched at all. And some, like Trust and Confidence were made to be easier and more carefree to use so that the players get the hang of them before they had to think about conserving their strengths. I explained the rules as we played through a sample mission.
Looking back, I would probably construct the tutorial sessions differently than what I did now – taking the structure from the Recruitment Job presented in the Leverage RPG core book that is designed to do nothing else than showcase the characters’ abilities. Will remember this in my next campaign.
Also, while +H has no book to consult, the rules are still there to be read. Every Move is written on cards that are in front of the players. While watching others play, you can look at the cards and ponder how to use them later to the best effect. Effectively placing the rule book in all the players’ hands. The writing out of the mechanical rules is another aspect of Apocalypse World playbooks I really like.
And the last but not least teaching aid I have at my disposal is this blog. I try my best to use this as a backdoor channel in explaining the players not only the “what” but the “why” to my players. I’m trying my best to be open about the design decisions, which hopefully allows the players to understand them, and thus get to the core of the game.