Confessions of an RPG Nerd, Part 3

By Christine Martin-Resotko

Break it down.

After writing the first two blog posts, I realized that gamers use a lot of abbreviations and strange terms.  I could sit and talk about GM screens, the PHB and DMG, hit points, and stats all day, but I think most non-nerds would get a glazed look on their faces or just hit me.  This time we are going to break down different RPG book terms and the anatomy of a character sheet.

Let’s go over book terms first. 

  • In every game system there is always a basic rule book.  Some are referred to as just that, “Basic Rule Book”.  This will have the most basic version of the rules that players should know or need to reference during a game.  It can be called a Player’s Guide, a Player’s Handbook (PHB), a Core Rulebook, or several other terms.  It is always the first book any system will tell you to purchase. 
  • The next most important book for a system is the book for the person running the game.  It can be called the Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG), the Storyteller’s Guide, the Game Master’s Guide, or other.  There are systems that do not have this type of book, instead they have a section in the basic rule book that is for the Game Master (GM) or Storyteller.  Players aren’t supposed to read it, but they always do.  Who doesn’t want to tell their own story? 
  • The next most important item is a GM or DM screen.  This is a 3 or 4 paneled screen that unfolds and can be stood up on a table.  This screen has art on one side and game system information on the other.  This blocks the players’ view of what the GM has on the table.  This lets the GM keep notes and dice rolls private.  You can purchase one that goes with your system or make your own and put the rules that you find most important on the GM side of the screen.  I use one all the time because I like to keep my rolls secret so I can alter, or “fudge”, my rolls to the players’ advantage.  I am also not above rolling dice and making a face just to make my players worry.
  • After this, there are sourcebooks and modules.  Sourcebooks have information on a specific subject for the game, such as information about the setting or books full of monsters.  Modules are prewritten adventures that the GM can use to run their game, instead of making everything up themselves.  This is a time and sanity saver when running a library RPG club.
  • Make sure you pay attention to what edition of the system you are using.  Most of the time, different editions are compatible, but some conversion will be required.  Often, it is noted with an “e” after the edition number, like D&D 5e.

It is now time for our lesson on character sheet anatomy.  A character sheet holds all the information that a player needs to be able to play their character.  Different games have different information, but all have a few things in common.

  • Attributes – These are a numeric value for a character’s ability in a natural born statistic.  They can also be called Statistics or Abilities.  These are things like Strength, Constitution, Intelligence, and more.  Typically, the higher the ability score, the better the character is.  They can be modified by things in the character creation system, like race or background, but that is specific to the system. 
  • Skills – These are learned abilities, normally modified in some way by Attributes.  They can also be called Focuses or other terms.  An example of this in the Fantasy AGE system would be as follows: a character has an Ability score in Fighting of 3, which makes them pretty skilled naturally.  Because they have Focus in Spears, they get to add 2 to any roll involving spears.  So, when they fight with a spear, this character would start with a total of 5 (Fighting + Spears) before they even roll dice.
  • Advantages and Disadvantages – This where any special bonuses or minuses your character gets through the character creation process are typically recorded.  This can also be called Talents, Quirks, Limitations or any number of other terms.  These can add or subtract to different tests, give you an advantage in certain circumstances, or just cover a natural ability.  An example of a disadvantage in Champions 6e would be a character with a Strong fear of heights.  Every time this character gets near a ledge, they would have to make a roll against their EGO statistic to see if they have the mental strength to not clutch the nearest support poll and refuse to let it go.  An example of a natural advantage in Dungeons and Dragons 5e would be Darkvision, which is the ability to see 60 feet in dim light like it is bright light and in darkness as if it was dim light.
  • Hit Points – This is a character’s ability to take damage, mental and physical.  This can be subdivided into several categories, depending on the system, such as Stun and Fatigue.  The higher the score, the more damage you can take in that category.
  • Defense – This reduces the amount of damage you take.  This can be armor, natural defenses, force fields, a bonus for a high Dexterity Attribute, or many other things.  This can be a straight score from character creation, or can be calculated from Attributes, Skills, and other Advantages or Disadvantages.
  • Weapons – This will be where a character has their attack and defense skill and damage written down for each weapon they can use.  This will typically include a spot for range for things like bows or guns.
  • Equipment – There is always a place to write down your stuff.  A character acquires a lot of stuff along the way.  Money, armor, a weird piece of fungus that you found in a cave that you want to research later, and any number of other things that you pick up will add to what equipment you get from character creation.  I always tell my players “Write down your stuff or you don’t have it.”  I am always losing things in real life, so players can lose stuff too.

This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms.  There are terms for every genre, and some games have conversational slang glossaries.  Take your time and use that index and glossary in the basic rule book to the fullest or go to the internet and look it up there.  I know it is a lot, but you will get there and have fun doing it.

What RPG terms do you find confusing?

Christine Martin-Resotko is a Library Assistant with the Mason Branch of the
Capital Area District Libraries in Michigan. She has been a lifelong nerd, starting
when she saw Star Wars at the age of 5. She started playing RPGs when she was
in college, and within 4 years was invited by a gaming company to run their game
at GenCon, the biggest gaming convention in the country. She has run games in
over a dozen systems, and personally owns more than 30 game systems at this
time. Christine created the CADL Adventurers Club for her library system, which
encompasses a teen chapter at her branch which she runs and adult and kids
chapters at another branch that she assists with. Christine has a B.S. in
Anthropology from Michigan State University. She lives with her husband, son,
and their crazy cat.

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