When I first was teaching D&D 5e to my group, one of my friends (he mostly had experience with 2e and OSR) kept getting confused every time I asked for a saving throw, because he believed he hadn't written down those stats yet. I realized that he was expecting special saving throw names that were modified by the 6 abilities (rather than using the 6 abilities themselves), because I did not specify clearly enough the new changes to saving throws.

I want to avoid this problem (of confusing older edition concepts with 5e ones that appear/sound superficially similar) the next time I explain the game to a mixed group of people (they will have played with 2e, 3.x, or 4e), without boring them to death by going over every single detail, especially for aspects of the game they already know.

Assuming players will default to knowledge based on previous editions, where applicable (such as "Saving Throws"), unless they have been told how 5e really handles it:

How can I do this better next time? What strategies have you found to be successful?


Make a Quicksheet

You don't need the full rules, just the ones you use a lot. A short, 1-2 front & back sheet of paper with the important references. The value of this isn't just reference, it's because it's a thing for the players to look and fiddle with while they're playing - sometimes you need constant exposure to get things through. But it also means that whenever it comes up, you can point to the spot on the Quicksheet and go, "And here, we can see this rule works like X" to get it ingrained in their minds where to look.

Walk through the steps until things click

"Make an Intelligence Save against DC 14."

"I can't find it on my sheet."

(grabs a sample character sheet) "Ok, Saving throws are adding your Intelligence modifier (points on sheet) and your Proficiency bonus (points on sheet) and if you meet or beat a 14, you succeed."

You'll need to do this a lot. It's useful for new players in general, but they pick it up quicker because they're not defaulting to ingrained habits from before.

The other value is that other players will see this and it slowly absorbs for them, as well.


Teaching a game isn't really something that gets accomplished once at the beginning of the first session. It's a process that will last several sessions, even with experienced players.

It's also important to remember that learning is also a responsibility... If your group aren't being good students you'll run into problems just as surely as if you weren't being a good teacher.

Finally, this post is assuming a group of players that are experienced with RPGs and/or D&D already.

  • Don't get too stressed out if players need to be reminded of a mechanic.

    People forget things, particularly new things. Just take the time to walk them through the process when they ask. If they seem to be asking a lot, make it a dialog... See if you can figure out what the underlying confusion is.

    Your players will probably still be asking you how to do things for the first few sessions, even simple things. That's just the way people work.

  • There is no way to avoid (some) mechanic confusion.

    No matter what you do, no matter how detailed your pre-game briefing, regardless of whether or not they've read the books, players are going to forget things and do things wrong.

    It simply takes time to build new neural pathways in the brain, and different people will grasp different things at different rates.

    Having experienced players is a double-edged sword here. They'll grasp the similarities and basics more quickly, but the changes and quirks will take longer to lock down.

  • Ask them where numbers come from, even if they seem right.

    The first few times a player gives you a number, ask them how they came up with it. This helps show the group how everything fits together, and takes pressure off some of the weaker players.

  • Verify any change to the game state imposed by players.

    If a player casts a spell, read it. If they used an ability, double-check it. But have them explain what happens to you, asking questions where necessary.

  • Make time to regularly check mechanics.

    You should periodically be looking rules up from the book, even rules you're fairly confident about. This is especially true for new editions of old systems, where it's difficult to tell what still works as you'd expect it to, and what's new and changed.

    You'll discover that you or someone else has done something wrong. Just roll with it. If there's an ongoing issue with the rules being misunderstood (e.g. the mage memorized Magic Missile twice), fix it in the simplest way possible and move on.

  • Mechanics.

    Since you asked for mechanics, here's what I'd either mention early, or be sure to verify when appropriate:

    • AC calculation

    • Spell preparation

    • Proficiency

    • Concentration

    • Resting

    • Ranged attack penalties

    • Opportunity attacks

    You'll notice that saves aren't on this list. I find it easier to just respond to a player who asks "how do I do that?" by telling them: "Take your ability modifier for the ability I named. Did your class give you proficiency in this kind of save? Okay, add those together and roll a D20."

    Generally items end up on this list if I feel they're likely to radically change the strategies of the players, or lead to a "gotcha" moment.


People learn via practice. So you will need to be specific when talking to your players, and you will have to repeat your instructions each time. After a while they will start remembering what needs to be done and doing it automatically.

To use saving throws as an example, don't say:

The wizard casts a fireball at you. Roll your save.

Instead say something along the lines of:

The wizard casts a fireball at you. Roll a dexterity save, that's a d20 plus your dex modifier. Rogues add your proficiency bonus.

After playing for a few games your players will learn what the system means when it asks for a saving throw, and you won't have to describe what a saving throw is each time.


From my experience, experienced players are frequently confused by:

  • Spells (including why power level aka spell level is not same as character level)
  • Saving throws
  • Proficiencies
  • Movement and Opportunity attack
  • Action / Bonus action / Multi-attack
  • Conditions

But they can also be confused by just about every rule. The more they assume, the more they assume wrong. Cutting corners wastes everyone's game time.

The only successful strategy I have found is to ask them to assume nothing, then:

  1. Get a well-respected and well-behaved rules lawyer into the group. It can be the DM, but best if it is not.

  2. Ask everyone to read the rules, every page, from start to end, and to not assume anything from previous editions.

  3. Print out the rules and hand it to the rule lawyer, if they don’t have a physical copy.

  4. Whenever someone assumes something that is wrong, have the rules lawyer flip to the page and politely show it to that someone.

Example: The mage loses concentration and the haste on the fighter ends as a result, and everyone assumes the only thing that happens is that the fighter is no longer hasted. The rules lawyer flips to haste and shows the group that, according to the last sentence of the spell, the fighter also effectively loses his next turn.

If the rule lawyer hasn't read and remembered the fine print of the haste spell, players would assume the same from 2e/3e/4e and the mage will not be as careful as the game intends them to be.

So, there is nothing you can assume, even as simple as "haste spells end without additional effect".

  • \$\begingroup\$ Is your example important to tell players to be sure that they read the spells and abilities carefully, or do you think it would apply to non class specific rules as well? \$\endgroup\$
    – GMNoob
    Jul 16 '14 at 12:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ I dont think there is really a "right" answer to this question, but the suggestions here are, IMO, the best way to handle it. Make sure they understand before starting that the rule ARE different. I would advise them to read EVERYTHING pertaining to their character, class, spells, skills, equipment they want to use, combat if thats their thing, spell casting if thats their thing, etc. Then, have someone most familiar with the rules, ready to look up questions or point out possible mistakes as they come up. Any action they do, ask them to double check the rules so that something wasnt missed. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mayshar
    Jul 16 '14 at 12:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Ask everyone to read the rules, every page, from start to end" ...really? \$\endgroup\$
    – DCShannon
    Jul 18 '14 at 3:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ What's the problem with that, @DCShannon? I think expecting every participant to have read all the rules is a fair expectation. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 23 '14 at 4:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GreenstoneWalker I disagree with every point in this answer. I have an experienced 3.5 player in my 4e group, and I don't think he's even cracked the 4e Player's Handbook open. If he thinks something works one way, and it doesn't, then I just tell him that and he gets it right from then on. Having everyone read the rules would not only waste their time, since only a small portion of those rules come up in any particular play session, but it would also be counter-productive because now we have several different interpretations and time is wasted arguing during the session. \$\endgroup\$
    – DCShannon
    Oct 23 '14 at 18:39

You are trying to do something that should not be done, which is try to have a bunch of people seriously play the game without having read the rules.

There is no way to "just explain" a hundred-page trad RPG ruleset to a group of people. It's especially true if they may have misconceptions about mechanical details based on previous-ed information.

You could just run the game and then correct them with every single roll/rules-based decision they make until it's all correct. But why would you do that? What is the motivation to have people play without the basic investment of reading a PDF, or at least having it on hand to refer to during play?

By trying to do this, you are wasting your time and reinforcing bad habits in them that some other DM in the future is going to roundly curse your name for. Stop asking questions about it, unless it's "How do I get my players to read the rules" or "How do I teach someone the rules if they won't read them?" (Hint: the answer to the latter will be largely identical to these answers). The questions are too broad and suffer from the XY problem (you're not asking about your real problem, but a poorly conceived solution to that problem).

You could also choose to play the game rules-light, in which case even 5e isn't really the best bet, just have people roll stats and add +level to everything and GM-adjudicate the rest. That worked fine for us back in "gaming in the car going to Scout camp" days, and neatly solved the "no one's read the rules and it's too dark for books anyway" problem.


Keep it realistic as you can, and the rules will be intuitive when you introduce them. If you just keep the game running at a smooth pace, the players will be caught up in the believable action and will see how the rules, when applied well, just parallel what they already believe about events and environment in the game, instead of being overwhelmed by a large list of rules divorced from their playing context. The less you "play and learn" and keep the game moving fast, the more they'll learn by doing. Like marital arts are learned by doing, the game is learned through the experience of the game world and the skill of the game master. They'll learn progressively, just like in an experiential learning context like a martial art: they must master the basics before building on that base with the next lesson "taught" (by doing) by the game master.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Could you discuss how "realism" helps people learn the new system? It sounds like you're recommending to simply not use the new system... \$\endgroup\$ Jul 17 '14 at 9:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ @BrianBallsun-Stanton Amazingly I understood it. I gave it a rough translation. They're basically saying that people learn by doing, so focus on keeping the game moving. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 17 '14 at 16:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1, This is how my games are run, and it's fine. In fact, it's probably better than if they had all read the rules from front to back, because I can just say how it ought to go, and I don't have 5 different interpretations of the rules to worry about. I just make a ruling and we move on. \$\endgroup\$
    – DCShannon
    Oct 23 '14 at 18:34

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