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Know Thyself: The Importance of PC Familiarity

Most of this post should go without saying, but we’ve all been there…

We’ve all been at a table with a player who has to constantly review his character sheet and look stuff up in rulebooks on every one of his turns.

Average time per turn for this person:  About 3 minutes.  Average turn for everyone else at the table:  30 seconds.  Three minutes doesn’t seem long, but the experience of those 3 minutes is downright grueling.  It’s like experiencing the last three minutes of the last day of school before summer vacation, only you’re doing it once per round for an entire campaign’s duration.

And just when they sort out what their PC is capable of at level 2, they level up and the cycle begins anew.

But it doesn’t have to!  This is a plague on RPGs and tabletop games alike, but there is indeed a cure.

Wrong Game, Wrong Person

Listen:  Sometimes the problem arises because we’ve chosen the wrong game for the wrong person.  Are our favorite games awesome?  Undoubtedly!  Are they for everyone?  Maybe not; and possibly just maybe not yet.

Many of them have understandable learning curves.  The first session is rough and slow, the second or maybe third is marked by a lot of questions for assurance (usually ending with the word right?)…but if the situation isn’t improving after 4 or more sessions, you may well be trying to force a square peg into a round hole.

This isn’t to say there aren’t any great games out there for that person!  Not at all.  Your first task, though, is to make sure you’ve got the right game for the individuals you’re gaming with.  Sometimes it has to do with age, other times it has to do with someone’s ability to manage complexity.  Some folks can hang with Race for the Galaxy, others need Fluxx.  Some can handle Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder while others would do better with a Munchkin variant.

And sometimes you just need to take baby steps!  Someone who is intimidated by DND might be able to build up to it by starting with Munchkin and then graduating on up to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shadows of the Past before tackling 5e.  This is exactly the progression it took for a couple members in my family to feel like DND was within the realm of possibility for them.

Quick Tips

So once you’ve got the right game for the right person, sometimes it just comes down to initiative.  And this time I’m not talking about a d20 roll.

Encourage one or more of the following in the player, or take them yourself!

  1. A pregame review and setup.  Before every session, sit down with your character sheet and pore over everything.  I’ll often set the dice I’ll need for attacks on the weapon’s space on my character sheet.  My Starfinder Gray Technomancer shoots an Azimuth laser rifle that hits for 1d8, so upon that spot, I place a d20 and a d8 (and I’ll often roll them together).  I’ll also review any special abilities my character might have.  I reread it all before every session.  I want to be a pro at my character!  I always feel like a heel when I get something wrong that pertains to my PC because its like a sunburn:  100% preventable.
  2. Cheat sheets!  When I’m not using Hero Lab, I’ll draft up 3×5 notecards for everything my character can do for quick reference.  I’ll write these in pen so I can mark off uses (per day/long/short rest, spell slots, etc) in pencil and erase them when they reset.  I’ll include rules, DCs (also in pencil since they can change), damage dice, etc.  Whatever I need to know when performing the action.
  3. Ask questions before play when possible.  If you just can’t seem to wrap your mind around something your character can do, ask questions before gameplay begins.  That is still considered prep time.  The middle of combat is not prep time.  Sometimes things happen during play that might affect your character or his or her ability in an unexpected way, and that is totally fine and understandable!  But put in as much work as you can to minimize those moments.

Doing any or all of these things will ensure quicker, smoother gameplay and minimize frustration.  Because trust me:  If you’re the person who is unfamiliar with their character at the table, everyone is frustrated on your turns.  They’re just far too kind to say so.

This Goes for GMs Too!

I’m guilty of running games and not being 100% familiar with the enemies I’m controlling.  Halfway through the combat or play, I’ll smack my forehead and exclaim, “Darn it!  If I’d been paying attention…”

And I give myself no sympathy.  There will be no retconning.  It was my fault just like a player not being familiar with their character is his or her fault.  With a little initiative, it can be avoided almost entirely.

A Far Reaching Investment

When you invest the time necessary to familiarize yourself with your PC, you’re not the only one who benefits.  The whole table does!  Those ten minutes are much better spent by yourself before a session than with the group in the middle of one.  You’ll get a confidence boost with the familiarity, and both gameplay and fellowship will improve.  And who doesn’t want that?