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None of my group of players have read any of the rule books, not even the Player's Handbook. I find this isn't a problem when making rulings, as they all accept my word (and a quick lookup if I'm not sure). However, it does seem to limit their range of actions, as they don't know what's possible. I keep trying to say, "use your imagination and just try things; we'll work out the mechanics later."

Do you think there is a minimum level of rules knowledge for players, or have you had successful games with only the DM being aware of the rules?

Edit: The players have some experience of far simpler RPGs, like computer-based ones, but apart from playing D&D with me, no tabletop RPG experience.

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up vote 9 down vote accepted

I think your players don't lack the rules knowledge, they lack creative thinking. The signs of not enough rules knowledge is slow and or awkward play, caused by constantly having to look up rules for things your character is trying to do (jump, cast spells in melee, grapple).

As far as how much is really necessary:

  • The core mechanic (d20, meets targets suceeds).
  • The HP rules
  • Damage rules
  • Knowledge of the rules for the skills, abilities you need (the wizard needs to know about casting, but the barbarian doesn't).
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The times that I have run games for people new to gaming I have found that lack of rules knowledge actually made them more creative rather than less, because they aren't thinking in terms of the set of actions that the rules allow. Instead, I told them that anything they could think of they could attempt, and then I used my rules knowledge and improvisation to make that happen.

My suspicion is that the computer RPGs may have taught them that there are only so many choices and that you can't interact with every object in any way that you choose.

All that to say that I think the minimum knowledge of the rules is understanding what you mean when you tell them to roll a skill check in response to the action they just described they want to attempt.

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+1 Good point about the computer RPGs. Attak or flee, those are your options. – C. Ross Aug 24 '10 at 15:54
@C. Ross you can always try to jump over the unsurmountable 3 feet fence, or try to break the impassable wooden door. – Adriano Varoli Piazza Nov 8 '10 at 22:07
It doesn't help that there are GMs who run games that are at least as restrictive as any bad PC RPG. – Burrito Al Pastor Apr 13 '11 at 8:37

Some of the most successful games I've run and played in have had the DM as the only person who'd read all, or even most, of the rules. Usually in these cases the rules were very simple. Giving that responsibility to the DM freed the players to think in terms of what it made sense for their characters to be able to do rather than what options were most effective according to the rules.

I agree that the problem here is probably not so much a lack of rules knowledge as it is a sense that there are rules "out there" that define what they can do. Things should get better as they play more and come to understand that there really are no limits, and if they do something that the book doesn't cover that you'll come up with a way to handle it.

If it's been a while and they haven't figured that out yet, you might try switching to a lighter system -- something that doesn't give the impression of 3+ hardcovers worth of secret information. But the best thing to do might be to find a more experienced player to come in for a session or two and model the attitude you want them to have towards the rules.

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A player should not be required to memorize the book but they should have at least read the sections for character generation and combat. While they do not need to understand every combat ability, they should know how the flow of combat works.

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Casters are the classes that need to know the rules of their spells, but even for them it is not required upfront knowledge. It is possible to "learn by doing" in a "tutorial mode" way. Reading the PHB is needed for them to get an idea of the kind of character they would like to have. A rude and quick Barbarian, or a master of the fine arts of magic ?

When I start a new campaign, I organize a meeting with each of them, just the two of us. They can go through the rulebook and read it "by pictures" and have their imagination run wild. Once they get an idea of the role they want to interpret, we roll the dice and fill up the character sheet together. This gives them a brief introduction to the rules. Occasionally, you can organize a quick "phony session" lasting 10 minutes or even 30 seconds to explain a particular mechanics (such as initiative or ability checks).

The first all-together session will be light and with maybe just one small fight, so that they can get into the mechanism slowly. In two or three sessions, they will learn the language and know what to do if you ask them "to do a check for equilibrium". Eventually they will be confused with the die to use, but it's a quick fix. The mechanics and rules will be learned by repetition and direct application.

From there, they can delve into the PHB if they want, but it's not mandatory. You will introduce them to the need to learn a bit more when they level up. It's likely they will level up all at the same time, so half of a session will go for level up. Ideally, if you have an experienced player who can help others it will be faster, otherwise delay the level up to the next session, and tell them different times (by ten minutes) they can be there, so that you can level them up progressively as they arrive. While you level up the newly arrived, those who are already done can put their nose in the PHB or chat about new things their character can do, so they won't get bored.

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Prod them, OOC, occasionally.

If you have, for example, a rogue/bard type player who is trying to interrogate an NPC, you might suggest to them that here is a place they might want to use their "sense motive" ability. After a little while in this kind of tutorial mode, they'll get a better idea of the range of options available, and start asking you if there's anything they can do here to get this result, and you can point to where they could have read to already know this.

Probably. Modulo your group, obviously :)

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When I started playing D&D way back when (let's just say we called all casters "magic users") I had the core rulebooks, but had only read what was in relation to my character.

My DM insisted I read Conan the Barbarian and the first Elric of Melnibone (sp) series before he'd allow me to play. He wanted me to get a feel for how an often brutal swords and sorcery world worked.

I suppose the modern equivalent could be the first Dragonlance series.

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Depending on the edition, they don't need any knowledge. Up until the end of 2e, the assumption was the players didn't know much. With 3e and later, the rules expect at least some player knowledge to be able to desing characters in the first place.

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