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A little bit of background: We are a new DnD group, living in a country where DnD is obscure, at best (the Philippines). We have no prior background to any kind of RPGs except in video games and MMOs. And we don’t have the benefit of having a mentor DM, as suggested for new groups.

Yesterday, we had our [9th? -I lost count] session as a group in a span of about 5 months and I still get the same questions we had on our first or second session:
“What was my hit die again?”
“How much was my attack roll bonus?”
“My Dex modifier?… 15?”
“A skill check? What do I roll for that?"

You get the idea, it’s frustrating. I could live with that for two or three sessions but now that the majority of the group has already gotten to 3rd-level, it’s just astounding that they still don’t know the basics.

To top it off, most of them still haven’t used their characters to its potential:

We have a 3rd level Bard who has only ever used Bardic Inspiration once in 9 sessions, never remembers to play a Song of Rest except when I remind him to, and even forgot his college.

We have a cleric who never casts spells unless I suggest that he cast one, he just loves to smash things with his mace AND has never used Channel Divinity even though there were multiple opportunities to do so.

We have a paladin who keeps looking at his spellbook each turn to see if he can cast something good, wasting everyone’s time as he contemplates (even though I repeatedly told him to prepare what he wants to do on his turn before every round).

Meanwhile, we have a Battlemaster Fighter who is a god-send; he is our newest member but he keeps index cards of his maneuvers and always knows what his bonuses are. He does 16 damage with his Heavy Crossbow with a goading attack, successfully taunts the big bad Owlbear, and then action surges and shoots again for another 9 damage. The rest of the group just gawks at him when they could have been doing the same with their character’s potential.

How do I, as a new DM myself, encourage or punish my players to do their homework on their characters abilities, features, spells and general game mechanics?

I don't know if the problem is the lack time to read; our games are held at regularly long intervals so there’s plenty of time to invest in reading the PHB. And it’s not like they’re not interested in playing: we bought four copies of the Player’s Handbook over the internet and even paid additional shipping and had to [nudge] a few customs guys to get it here because it is next to impossible to find in this country.

I tried to talk to the group about it and they say that they just forget, then the tone of the conversation turns sour so I steer it at another direction lest there be lasting effects.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Related, equally related. I don't think either of them are duplicates, though. \$\endgroup\$ – Miniman Jun 11 '15 at 3:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ ^also related, but not dupe :) \$\endgroup\$ – Robotnik Jun 15 '15 at 6:20
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1. Get a cheatsheet into each player's hands.

You know that godsend player, the one who always has the notecards? Key thing there: the notecards.

You've spoken to the group, and they got upset, but you know they cared enough to get the books in the first place. It's entirely possible that they do just forget, or maybe they're having a difficult time with the rules and don't know how to articulate it. Even if they read cover to cover (and maybe they already have), there's a lot of information to parse and remember, especially for new players. Even veterans forget rules sometimes! Still, fumbling through the book for basic rules is not time-effective. My solution is to create a cheatsheet. This has helped me as both GM and player.

Figure out your most commonly used rules. Type up these rules and print a copy for each player. Try to condense them as much as you can. Strip them to their bare bones so players can find the information they need at a glance. Also, since you'll be distributing the same page to everyone, concentrate on rules that everyone uses. I'll discuss character-specific rules later on.

It's just more practical for you to make the cheatsheet. If they don't have the rules down yet, they probably don't know which ones are the most important. You likely have a better grasp, and you're also the one who wants more efficiency. The best way to ensure that this happens is to do it yourself, and then the whole group will be on the same page.

For character-specific rules, though, it's best if the players do it. This spreads the effort around. Plus, you can use this as an opportunity to help re-familiarize your players with their mechanics. Sit down with them and help them make index cards or type notes from the book. Point out nifty features and answer any questions.

Assure them that it will make their lives way easier, because it will. They probably don't like book-fumbling either. They'll also be more likely to use their character's features if they're always right in front of them in an easily-digestible format. It's hard to achieve your full potential if you don't know where to find it. The key thing is to emphasize how useful it will be for them (in character and out) if they do this, not how much worse things will be if they don't. Make it about them and their potential fun, not your frustration, to avoid further souring.

It's awesome that the Battlemaster Fighter took the initiative, though. If this is something he enjoys doing, you could enlist his help! I'm this player in my own groups, even when I'm not GMing. I love having a cheat sheet, so if I'm making one anyway, why not share? At the least, use his notes as an example (if he's okay with it).

2. Make use of existing resources.

Cheatsheets you make will be the best-tailored to your needs. That doesn't mean you shouldn't use ready-made tools on top of that. People often share their own tools if they think they're especially useful. If you need something specific, search the web to see if it already exists. There's no guarantee that what you find will be useful -- again, you know your own needs best -- but it never hurts to try. If you hit gold, that's time and effort saved.

For instance, here are some form-fillable initiative cards that provide a quick reference of initiative order and PC skills, traits, and actions; here is a larger, longer version of a similar concept. Here's a site that generates spell cards. ENworld has many sheets available. It only took me a few minutes to locate them by searching "5e spell cards," "5e initiative cards," and "5e character sheets," respectively. You'll be more successful if you already know what you need, but you can still try searches like "5e game resources" and "5e player print outs" if you're looking for tools in general.

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    \$\begingroup\$ For D&D 5e, Wizards published a bunch of different character sheet options - you can download them here. I use the one marked "Alternative" because I like how it separates the saves under the relevant stats, but your players might benefit from the one called "Alternative 2" - it has your attacks, and spell options, and class features up on the first page, and pushes some less mechanically important stuff to the second page. I'd present all three options to your players and ask which they think would help them find what they need. \$\endgroup\$ – anaximander Jun 11 '15 at 9:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ Keep in mind that if you are pressed for time, some of these accessories can be purchased pre-built. For example, Gale Force 9 produces licensed spell cards which include all or at least most of the important info for every spell for every class. You have to purchase most of the class decks separately (the Arcane set contains EK, Sorcerer, Warlock, and Wizard classes IIRC), but I found that it was worth it for me to drop $30 to get one of each set off eBay so my players and I can easily reference them without flipping through the back of the PHB looking for them. \$\endgroup\$ – Dyndrilliac Jun 12 '15 at 1:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ We use this link for our spellcards, it's free and easy to use with spell level filters. However, there might be a little errors here and there so it still helps to recheck the PHB. \$\endgroup\$ – daze413 Jun 13 '15 at 0:57
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The Critique

For all of us D&D 5 is a new system; for you and your group it is a whole new concept.

Some of the things that you say are basic are not so basic - I have been playing for 30+ years and I wouldn't know my attack bonus or the modifier for a Dex of 15 without looking them up on my character sheet. Have a look at the questions on this site - if they were all so easy they wouldn't get asked.

I appreciate your frustration but ... you are responsible for how you feel. The player's do not make you frustrated; their failure to live up to your expectations are what's doing that. Lower your expectations; this is a game, people don't want to do homework in order to play a game! Some player's will read the rule books because that is fun for them; if it isn't fun then don't force them to do it or they will decide that this hobby is not fun and stop playing.

The useful stuff

A combat character sheet

In general, the issues where the rules are going to be a problem are in combat. Take they time to lay out a character sheet that focuses on what the character can do in combat; there are surprisingly few actual options. Here is an outline - fill in the details for the specific character:

  1. Move
    1. Climb, swimming & crawling
    2. Jump
    3. Difficult Terrain
    4. Stand up/Lie down
  2. Do 1 of these Actions
    1. Attack: Put to hit and weapon info here
    2. Cast a Spell: List combat related spells with DC/Attack Bonus and effect
    3. Dash: Gives a second move
    4. Disengage: Safely move out of enemy's reach
    5. Dodge: Attackers have disadvantage
    6. Help: Give advantage to a friend
    7. Hide: must be out of sight
    8. Ready: Do something in response to someone else
    9. Search: Look for something
    10. Use an Object
  3. Do 1 Bonus Action
    1. Be specific about the bonus actions that character can do e.g. For the Bard list "Bardic Inspiration" with what it does and what it costs; also list spells with 1 Bonus Action casting times
  4. Be alert for 1 Reaction
    1. Attack of Opportunity
    2. For the Bard: "Cutting Words" with what it does and what it costs.

Only put down what is relevant for that character (e.g. Spells are not an option for the fighter so leave them out, non-combat related spells are irrelevant so leave them off). This focuses the player on what they can do right now and cuts out information overload.

Checklists

You should build a checklist for normal things that they do and run the players through them until it becomes second nature. Some examples:

  1. Short Rest
    1. Song of Rest
    2. Spend hit dice
    3. Wizard regain spells
    4. etc
  2. Long Rest
    1. Whatever
  3. Start of Day
  4. After combat
  5. etc

Remember "How to Play" (PHB p.6)

  1. The DM describes the environment
  2. The players describe what they want to do
  3. The DM narrates the results of the adventurers’ actions

Step 2 should never be about rolling dice - "I climb the wall", "I jump the chasm", "I peer into the darkness" not "I make a Strength (Athletics) check", etc. You tell them what dice to roll and be specific "Make a DC15 Strength (Athletics) check with a d20, your modifier is near your strength score on the top left of your sheet." Of course, even better is, unless there is some risk or time pressure just say "OK, you climb the wall; from the top you see ..."

Tell the players what they can do

It is not cheating to say to the cleric "This would be a good time to Channel Divinity - it does x, y & z". Do not punish the player for not being intimately familiar with the character's capabilities. If you do this a few times you will get a warm feeling in your heart when eventually the player says "I Channel Divinity" without being prompted. Learning is hard, it takes the average adult 50 repetitions of information before they learn one thing.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "The player's do not make you frustrated; their failure to live up to your expectations are what's doing that." -You may be right but shouldn't I expect my average-22-year-old players to at least know ONE number to add to their attacks when they roll... I don't think that's so unreasonable of me. As to suggesting what things the characters should do, I feel like I'm leading them to what I want to happen and I don't want that but if I have to hold their hand for them to get it, I think I might have to. \$\endgroup\$ – daze413 Jun 11 '15 at 9:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ Sadly, you are expecting too much; people learn at different rates and are interested in different things. I have over 20 employees ranging in age from 18 to 78 - I have to constantly remind all of them of things they should know! Suggesting options to characters is not a problem - subverting their agency is but so is providing too many options - this leads to analysis paralysis. \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Jun 11 '15 at 10:13
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Interest creates learning. Sounds like some players are playing classes they are not interested in. The paladin should be a wizard (can still be lawful good alignment if that is why they are a paladin), then casting every turn could become easier to find something useful and possibly more exciting for the player. Your cleric player would be happier as a barbarian (or such) who could then smash away and may explore other benefits of the class for such purpose. Your fighter sounds happy enough with the game. You didn't describe if the bard player gravitates better to something else. Cheat sheets might help too, as others suggested.

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"We'll wait while you figure it out."

It doesn't have to be your job to do all the rules for everyone and make them all custom character sheets and whatnot. You're not their boss, teacher, or mom, you're their DM.

When the time comes up in game and they don't know what their HD is, tell them "look it up." Let other players help them, but there is not a single person in the history of the world that has been taught to fish by you giving them more fish, or buying them neat fishing gear, or what - they have to sit on their butt and fish. They will start to see that they are imposing on the whole group's time when they have to search and by searching, will learn the skill of how to figure it out on their own.

That's what our group does, even with experienced players. "I cast holy smite! It does... Something..." We all just stare at them till they open their book and read the spell. And then the next time, they know.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I like this answer the best because it's more important they figure out how to use the resources available to them, rather than referring to you constantly as their own personal Google. Once or twice should be sufficient for them to really "get" that everything they need is in the book, and now to decipher/apply it. \$\endgroup\$ – rlb.usa Jun 26 '15 at 21:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, I hear people all the time complain that "Player X has been playing 3 years but still every time they roll a save they say 'how do I calculate this again?'" And then what? "Then we do it for them again." So... working as desired from Player X's point of view, then. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Jun 26 '15 at 22:57
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9 sessions in 5 month is one session every other week in average. That's an awful lot of time to forget everything they've learned over and over again. I think your problem is specific not only to RPG but to didactics in general. So in addition to the cheat sheets I'd propose a sort of "bootcamp": A weekend with at least two almost day long sessions in a row so that there's something sticking before weeks long of forgetting.

First thing in this weekend would be creating the cheat sheets for each player/character. Ask the Battlemaster Fighter's player to support you in helping the others, because he seems organized enough and has his cards already.

Then run a demo campaign, which is designed to use the major points of each cheat sheet at least twice. Help them as much as needed on the first day. Practice wheels come off for second day, i.e. scale up difficulty as much as requiring them to use a bit more of their potential than they've been using before, let them fail (non-catastrophically), if needed.

Let me answer your explicit question "How do I, as a new DM myself, encourage or punish my players to do their homework on their characters abilities, features, spells and general game mechanics?" more explicitly:

Don't.

Let them learn by doing. That's way more fun and will help them ease the learning. Try to improve the conditions, so they will remember what they learned.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Learning by doing wasn't really working for us. I did try to run a published demo campaign (Lost Mine of Phandelver), but now we're here: 9 sessions in and still asking how many hit dice his 3rd-level warlock had. Your answer of a bootcamp is out of the question, it's hard to get the group together as it is, let alone a weekend of just DnD, I'm afraid we're just not that hardcore :) \$\endgroup\$ – daze413 Jun 11 '15 at 8:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a good answer for addressing the core problem: people can't learn anything with a schedule like the querent's. Even if a bootcamp isn't feasible, more frequent review of the material will be needed in order to learn it. Short games can be played frequently, you can have a quick review session, or people can study. That's how learning works. \$\endgroup\$ – Jessa Jun 11 '15 at 19:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ My downvote is predicated entirely upon "Don't". \$\endgroup\$ – DCShannon Jun 13 '15 at 1:11
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Eliminate the Game's Abstraction

A RPG is a game where the player takes on the role of a character and makes decisions as if they were the character. In order to make things fair and balanced, the game rules impose limitations, but a character isn't aware of these limitations in mathematical terms, just like your players aren't (usually) aware of the same limitations imposed by real life.

If you take on the role of handling the rules and abstractions yourself and leave the decisions up to the players, they will feel more engaged the the story and the characters and scenarios, instead of being dragged down by the math.

Keep the normal character sheets yourself with your DM gear for reference. Create new character sheets that don't include any math; use plain sentences to describe relative strengths or weaknesses, and state their skills and powers plainly.

Create a more cinematic experience

When the players perform actions, have them describe what they are doing and what they intend to accomplish. If they ask about numbers, tell them not to worry about them. Give them advice about whether they would reasonably expect to succeed, and offer alternative methods more in line with their character's abilities to reach their goals if necessary.

Allow the players to be inventive. One of the things that rote memorization of the rules can cause is a removal for novel and creative solutions to problems. The rules for Skill checks are simple and the rules for Combat are complex, so Combat is remembered more and is used more when it doesn't have to.


I've played with two groups of brand new players that met every other week, and both struggled to learn the rules just as you describe. One group even after 18 months! A session every other week just isn't enough gametime-to-realtime for things to sink in. What I found with that longer-term group was that after I started just doing the math for them they were happier and more engaged with the story that was being told.

There are more than one kind of player, and not every player wants to be a rules-master. Some just want to show up and play, and don't want to be bogged down in the math. This doesn't make them bad players, it just means that if you want to play with them you have to cater to their needs.

One of the problem that I find with players coming to table-top from video games is that they tend to get too rules focused, and stop being creative. You've got the chance to nurture creativity in new players. Even if it means extra math work for you, that creativity will make memorable experiences that will be worth it!


(Using one of WotC's pre-existing characters, here is an abbreviated prototype 'numberless' character sheet.)

Steve is a human fighter. He is 6' 2" and 280 lbs, not counting his armor. He has dark hair, sun-tanned skin and hazel eyes. Formerly a soldier, he has many scars on his arms, chest, and distinctive line on his left cheek. He still holds himself as if he were an officer, and many still serving still address him as 'Lieutenant' when they buy him a drink in the local pub. They often ask for tales of his exploits against the orcs, where he had earned his reputation through skill and dedication, even learning the orcish tongue to give him a tactical edge.

Steve is very strong, and has rarely met someone stronger. He is also tough, and his training make him particularly skilled in completing tasks the require his strength or toughness, especially athletic challenges. Steve is also charismatic, and uses his conviction and strength of character to inspire others but is specifically trained to be intimidating, on or off the battlefield. Steve has a slightly above-average intelligence, and has extensive knowledge of history from officer training school. Steve isn't the nimblest, and struggles performing acts requiring dexterity. Time on the battlefield has given Steve above average perception, though he doesn't have any natural predisposition for or against it.

As an excellent soldier, Steve is trained in all armor types and weapons, but he prefers his old trusty chain mail and longsword. In order to be prepared for the unexpected, he also carries a pike and a handful of javelins into combat, as well as a shield. Between the heavy armor, the shield, and long battlefield experience Steve is tough to hurt in combat, and his strength and skill with a sword make him a force to be reckoned with.

Steve's favored fighting style is a protective one, learned on the front lines where the soldier standing next to you will save your life if you save his. He can use his shield and his quick reactions to help hold off an attack from a nearby ally. Steve's battle-hardened body is used to combat, and can find his second wind when others are losing steam.


Basically, you just describe what they can do. For someone who cares more about their character and the story than the rules and the numbers, this tells a player who their character is and what they are capable of much better than Str: 16 (+3). More importantly, it puts things in perspective, because it's hard to tell just how good a +3 is; yes, every +1 is important, but when everyone in the party has stats in the 15-17 range it's easy to forget that the player characters are exceptional.

A player who doesn't want to learn the rules can use this description to make more creative choices based on who his character is and what the character is good at and capable of, based on what makes sense to the character. A player who wants to learn the rules but struggles with it could use both the descriptive and the mathematical, so that he has a reference point for what the numbers mean.

In my experience, there is one reason why anyone learns anything: the learning has meaning. By attaching meaning to the math the math will be easier to learn.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @aherpcalledFrog I admire your stand on this but this is just too much work on the part of the GM. I might as well be playing with myself! not only do you have to have the numbers for the players, you have to remember the features for each. Although I am genuinely curious as to how you actually handle GMing that sort of game, I agree with Dyndrilliac on this: there are better systems for that. This is DnD, my players knew what we were getting into when we started: numbers, math, pen and paper, we expected these things; it'll just take a while to recover from the culture shock. \$\endgroup\$ – daze413 Jun 15 '15 at 15:42
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In addition to getting reference materials into your players' hands, I recommend the following.

Encourage Cooperation

If you're the one reminding players what to do, they might start to feel like you're playing for them. From your last paragraph, it sounds like part of what you're experiencing is push-back for trying to get them to play the way you want them to.

I recommend speaking to the fighter. He sounds like he might be a natural-leader type. See if he's willing to help coordinate battles (in character). If he can get the monk to heal him, then (hopefully) the monk will feel like part of the gawk-worthy action.

If the others start to follow this player's example, they'll start saying things like "heal me" and "cover me." See if you can get them to speak in character during combat.

If you think this idea will make your fighter uncomfortable, instead add an NPC to the party to fill the same role. Just make sure he or she doesn't overshadow the other characters (which would be especially easy to do with your group). Give the NPC just a few simple abilities, but make it obvious that he or she is a "team player." For example, this character could heal the fighter when he starts tanking a bugbear or assist him to give him advantage on an attack. Maybe this will make it click for the monk and bard.

For example, there was a scout NPC in one of my campaigns who was willing to travel with the PCs when asked (otherwise he would scout the area around the fort). In a particular fight, he climbed on the roof of one of the buildings and started firing arrows. It hadn't occurred to the players to do this, but they weren't offended to follow his example. They managed to make better use of the tactical position than the NPC by throwing bombs over the wall at the enemy.

If the goal is to get players to try different things, sometimes all you have to do is show them different things

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Next to the useful tricks / methods to advice them to learn, here is a highly uncommon approach.

Don't do it.

If they want to play a game, where they don't know the rules, it is not a problem. You know the rules, and it is enough - although it is a highly different game style. On its most extrem approach, you don't give them even their character sheets. You explain them, what their character can and what she wants. They explain, what they want to reach. And you translate their wishes to the language of the rules.

This isn't a very uncommon thing. There are diceless RPGs, for example, Amber is one of them. From their viewpoint, the game will be similar to a diceless RPG.

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Don't. Tell them what dice to roll and ask what the result was (in human terms - "you hut him bad but he's still coming", not "You did 8hp but he's got 4 left") when you need to. The books are there to start you off; if they're not helping then either eject them or work around them, don't force them on the players. If you feel that you have to have players who are familiar with the rules, then you need to find a set of rules they can handle.

I ran a D&D campaign with players who were non-gamers and who never cared or knew about hp, AC, experience, or damage for literally years. The spell-casters had to know a bit more, but generally they just related to their characters and what they wanted to achieve in-game and I told them what happened or what to roll to see if they succeeded.

Who the hell wants to do "homework" for a game!?

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    \$\begingroup\$ I do. This is a hobby and just like any other hobby, you want to get better at it. What I find ironic about my group is that we all played World of Warcraft a long time ago and we did ALL the homework to get the maximum possible DPS, the best possible tanking gear but when it came to DnD, nothing. \$\endgroup\$ – daze413 Jun 13 '15 at 3:12

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