Do you have tricks or techniques to remember all the rules to the games you're playing? I would like to run my first game as a gamemaster, but I'm struggling with remembering all the feats and competency rules.


12 Answers 12


For D20/D&D3.5 - things like grappling/sundering/size disparity/jumping I often get it wrong.. so I would often rely a lot on the collective mindshare of the other players. If I come to a point that I can't remembrance, I usually offer something like "I seem to remember that it works this way.." give my solution and if nobody objects, well, that's the way it works. So the first tier is "Proposed DM solution"- You have to make it clear that if your way is wrong, you'd be open to correction.

Usually/often I have had someone (sometimes two or three people) who was way more into the way the rules worked (perhaps because they had built charaters around those rules) and they would clarify the procedure before the dice roll. The second tier is "How Joe the expert is pretty sure it works"

Checking the rulebook at that point becomes the third option - only if everyone agrees that they don't know how it works, but that my proposed solution was wrong, and that the situation is serious enough that it warrants a rule vice a ruling.

I always hope never have to get to third tier.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for collective mindshare. I'd +1 again for Epic level if I could. \$\endgroup\$
    – C. Ross
    Commented Sep 12, 2010 at 17:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ This. You don't have to know all the rules - you just have to have somebody in your group who does, and who likes to share that knowledge. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 13, 2010 at 6:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ A variation of the third tier is to have one of the other players not immediately involved do the search as the game play continues. I have 4 players at the table. We can go with the First Tier mentioned above as it is researched and double checked to see if we were off base and to what extent. Then we correct in the future. This keeps the flow going well for the most part and enables the whole table to learn. It is my experience, that an event we had to look up during game play more readily comes to mind the next go. \$\endgroup\$
    – EFH
    Commented Sep 24, 2012 at 19:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ @EFH I think that could warrant it's own answer; it's a good idea. I'd certainly also upvote that. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented Jul 29, 2013 at 19:50

First off: you don't need to remember them. It sounds like you've tried to commit them to memory, which means that you've read it all: good, that's the right place to start. That gives you the knowledge of where to look up things in the book, and be able to do it quickly. When you're in the middle of a game and you know exactly where to flip to answer a rules question, you can do it quickly without disrupting the flow of play, refresh your memory, and get back to the game.

Second, being able to rattle off statistics and details of complex rules will come with long experience using it. Your best study method for learning the game is playing and running it. Your players are going to be doing the same thing, so they will remember bits that are relevant to their own characters. With passing familiarity, you'll be able to say, "Oh yes, you're right. That's how it works," or say, "Hold on, I remember it differently. Let me look it up."

Sometimes you'll not be able to find something in the rules quickly enough. Then you should make a temporary ruling, and defer sorting it out until after the session has ended. Make a note to look it up after if that helps. Most of the time it won't make a huge (or any) difference in how the session went, and reviewing it after will cement in your mind for next time how it's supposed to work.

Occasionally, it will make a difference. Some players won't mind, other will. This is one of the hard parts of GMing: you'll have to either stand firm on how it all happened, or make up the difference to the player next time. Much like learning the rules, judging how to handle that will come with experience.

Good luck, and remember to enjoy yourself! You're a player too.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'd say "+1 for the 'You're a player too,'" but I'd already upvoted. Absolutely right here. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented Jul 29, 2013 at 19:52

It's not the same with every other game. D20 and it's derivatives have lots of detailed special case rules (the Feats), and particularly detailed mechanics for combat movement. SW Saga is a D20 variant, and shares those traits.

Step 1: is to realize that you don't need to know them all right off. In many cases, you just need to know where to look, and your players will know how to use their feats.

Step 2: make a cheat sheet (using ye olde photocopier, or scanner and printer, or by retyping) with the feats your players' characters have. Keep it handy. The more they use them, the more you'll remember.

Step 3: as more and more feats come into play, add more cheat sheets; you'll be using the originals less, hopefully, so you're just really relying upon it for the new stuff.

A few common tools for memorization include:
• Transcribe, rather than photocopy
• Read when rested, read again when tired, repeat often.
• Write a paraphrase of what you need to know; in rewording it, you often remember the original better, as well as the paraphrase.
• if you drink while gaming, drink while doing some of your rereads; memory is very intoxicant state dependent.
the more you work with it in prep and play, the better you know it

Also, the more you run it, the easier it gets for any given game.

There are other games with fewer and simpler rules; there are also longer, harder and more complex games. So if you find it a problem to run SW with the special cases, find a simpler game that you can run it with. But try it first, with memorizing only what you need to: the core mechanic and the basic combat rules.


If you have read the rules, just play until you hit a road-block.

If you have the book nearby and you know where the rule should be, look it up.

If you have to look for more than a minute make a decision:

  • Poll the players although by now they would have hopefully volunteered if they knew.
  • If it is a little thing, use your intuition and wing it so it becomes a house rule.
  • If it could possibly impact the rest of the game in a fight, delegate it to the last play who went so they can look it up while you continue the game until it is their turn again. If they still have not found the rule, see above.
  • If you don't want to do that, before the game starts build/find yourself a set of cheat sheets.

For the cheat sheets the Rules Compendium is my baby for DND3.5 but for other systems I built my own sheet. I have about 5 pages in my file with the WOD Vampire rules summarize on them in one place, same for ShadowRun, etc.

The other piece of advice I can give is don't try and summarize all the rules at once if you are making your own cheat sheets . If there is no one in your party with Mounted Combat feats, don't bother looking them up until someone starts taking them. I learned that the hard way...


Steer clear of digging through the rulebook during game.

  • With a group of experienced gamers, expect them to know their own abilities
  • If it's going to hold up the game, wing it. RPGs are about improvisation. Decide what you think seems right, and look up the actual rules later.
  • Make an index card by hand for each enemy or NPC. I find it helpful to doodle a little icon on the top left corner of the card, so you can find it easily. Include only the minimum stats necessary (AC, HP, attack bonuses and damage, special abilities). If any math needs to be done for the character to use an attack or ability, do it ahead of time. (For example, scorching ray produces 1 ray +1 ray for every 4 levels or whatever. Figure out how many that is, and write it on the card.) You can also use the index cards for initiative.
  1. Read the rules.
  2. Run through the important subsystems by yourself. For example, run through a combat.
  3. Imagine the things your players will actually do during the game. Imagine how the rules will work. When you're not sure, check.
  4. Once you're done that, run the game, trusting that you know the rules pretty well. If you're ever unsure, make a rules call on the fly.
  5. Afterwards, check any rules issues that came up during the game.
  1. Trust your players. While you should have a general understanding of the rules, as GM you biggest rule concerns should be with how the game runs. For character specific options and rules place the responsibility on your players, but don't be afraid to look it up (or have them do it) if something doesn't sound right
  2. Bookmark your books. Just like players know what class abilities are available to them before they play, as a GM you will have a good idea of what seldom used rules might come up as a result of the adventure/campaign. For example if you know you're going to expose players to severe weather, place a bookmark in that section so when the time comes you can open up right to it and read off the conditions. This goes double for enemies. Which brings me to my final point...
  3. Have multiples of key books. A more expensive option, but if you can afford it you can greatly cut down on the time needed to flip through books. Spell books and Monster Manuals are great books to have multiple copies of.

If you've read the rules, you're doing good. There is no need to remember them all. The play is the thing, rules are just there to help keep everyone on the same page. Getting the rules perfect right out of the gate is not necessary.

Do your best, when you are unsure of a rule poll the players. If a few have glanced over the rules that would help. After the poll, make a ruling.

  • Assign a player to keep a list of rules questions
  • Keep the same ruling for the remainder of the session
  • After the session, get the list of questions and find out the answers.
  • Send out an email with the questions and what you found out.

Within a few sessions, you'll have found most of the main areas of concern and should be down to a couple questions every session dealing with particular edge questions.

My group has been playing together now for 10 years. Thru DnD 3.0, 3.5 and we jumped into 4.0 upon release. We still come up with 0-2 questions a session. But we are a bunch of barely sociable rules lawyers :) If your group is a bit more easy going, you should reach a stable rules basis pretty quickly.

Good Luck!


You don't have to remember all the rules, simply must remember how to remember the rules.

This seems tautological but its not. The easiest way to make sure you get all the rules right is to have a quick and easy way of catagorizing and finding the rules. Personally i use a cheat sheet for 4th edition that answers most of the niggling questions on one page. In the past I would dog ear (or mark or have bookmarks ) to certain sections of the book (such as grappling).

The only problem with this method is that it requires you to know what you are going to need (and likely have forgotten ) before actually doing so. Its not for everyone, but often a little prep can pay off 10x its weight in results.


Don't try to remember ALL the rules, just try to remember the core rules you'll use all the time. The rest of the rules? Make referencing them easy:


What I like to do for games, is set up a "quicksheet". I look at the rules that I end up having to reference the most or tend to slip my mind the easiest - charts, weird exceptions, and I type/copy them up into a 2 page document - so I can print it front and back and have it at the table to play with.

The nice thing is that you can have a few copies of this, and it works to help the players during play, or when you are first teaching the rules, give you a basic run down to go through.

This will cover the general stuff that you use/reference all the time.

Tabbed Pages

You can go grab little colored sticky flags or cut up Post-It notes and put them in the book at sections you may reference often. Try to pick at most 5-7 sections, otherwise you'll be dealing with enough tabs it won't be useful. Different colors at different heights also helps.

If there are multiple copies of the rules sitting around, have them all open or bookmarked to different sections. "Pass me the magic book" "Ok, I'm done, you can look at the combat book" "It's page 152" etc. It makes it easy to either find one section or have someone call out the appropriate page.

Player Responsibility

If a player has weird rules pertaining to their character that most of the party doesn't have (usually magic in a game), I make the player have to be able to regularly pull it up in the book. Usually this isn't an issue - the players are usually on top of their own abilities and can just tell me, but if they sound unsure or it sounds too good to be true, "Hey, what page is that on? Can you show me?" and they look it up.

Player Rules Packs

If the game is somewhat ridiculous in the exceptions/specifics of rules and characters are high maintainance, I might have photocopied specific power sections or copy/pasted them on a page or two for that player. Then it's right there for both you and them.


Whenever I start a game I reread the rule book. Any important rules I don't know get written down in the first few pages of my rule book. Now I have a quick reference for things I know I've had trouble remembering.

When I write a game session that includes weird rules (ie underwater movement) I lookup the rules during prep time and make a note with the book and page number. I'll probably remember the rule, but it's nice to have a reference ready in my back pocket.


I play in a group where we all alternate the DM role and vary the game based on who is the current DM (for example, George runs Shadowurn, Sally runs Vampire, I run Pathfinder, etc.). Some tips:

  • Terminology be damned. Sorry. We play many different systems. If you want to not act during your turn but act later, we call it "delay". Systems have called it "delay action", "pause", etc. We call the person running the game DM. Yes, our Vampire referee is still called the DM even though we play in modern nights, and none of our vampires have ever spent any time inside of any subterranean facility stocked with monsters. Another example is Shadowrun(older versions, don't know about 4 and 5 editions) breaks down actions as "free, simple, complex". We all sort of fell into calling all actions like that.
  • Read the book. Know how to do make a character (if the players have never played this game/version before), know the obviously broken things that you want to encourage/discourage. When I'm DMing or preparing to DM, I will read the rulebook(s) for a little bit every evening in the prep/run phases. It ends up that I read through the book generally once all the way through while prepping and again while running.
  • Know the main rules. Let's face it, you will likely need to know how to stab a bad guy with a sword many more times than you will need to know how to do a called-shot, or grappling, or whatever. Most games have a "normal" mechanic that gets repeated very often. Vampire (OWoD) you roll things like Quickness + firearms to shoot a gun; Perception + Alertness to find the guy to shoot at, etc. You end up rolling a dicepool of an attribute plus a skill to find out what you can/cannot do. Know the general mechanic, and you can BS most of the rest.
  • DM Helpers, saints or sinners? Some groups treat a player who looks up the rules on some action at the table as a helpful person "I want to do {action}. According to the rulebook, it says {rule}." Others see that as the worst thing a player can do as it breaks immersion. Most groups have a rule to this effect and I prefer the former.
  • Almighty Rule-0. OK, you can't find the rule, or you don't want to break immersion long enough to look up the rule? Pull out rule0. You simply make a declaration that is fair (generally a +2 or -2 modifier to a dice roll). Say something like "well, to keep the game moving we'll do [ruling]." Now, I will write down anything I have to rule0 just because I like to know the answer to the question and then look it up after game. Then I decide (with the affected player(s) help) whether the ruling or rules are "better" and go with the decision.
  • If you want to do it, you need to know HOW to do it! I said above to know the "main" rules. For the other edge cases, the players are in charge of knowing their characters' feat/skill/gear/class abilities. Off-load as much of the memorization onto the players as is reasonably possible. Meanwhile, your players will find the wonderful things that their characters can do that they like. They will do them repeatedly. Rote memorization will help you learn those things faster.

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