Behind the Screens – Learning By Example

Whether you’re a game master, a player, or a designer, at some point you needed to learn the ins and outs of a new system. Recently, I wrote about learning games by writing adventures. That helped me with my adventure writing and my GMing. However, nothing helped me understand the Essence20 system like writing an example for the Equipment chapter of the G.I. JOE Roleplaying Game core rulebook.

Before I get into what that is and how it helped, you might be asking why I even needed to learn Essence20.

Learning Essence20

As a designer of the Essence20 system and author on the G.I. Joe, Transformers, and My Little Pony Roleplaying Game core rulebooks, it’s safe to say I know how Essence20 works. However, while we built the system, I could only presume how certain mechanics would play based on theories and experience with other systems. This was especially true when working on equipment.

One of the early mandates of the system was low Health, low Damage. Another was set Damage, not random. So here I was, writing the equipment chapter with the task of giving players meaningful choices without much room to vary the effects of weapons. Moreover, equipment effectively defined how PCs fight in G.I. Joe, since Joes don’t turn into jets or gain super human martial art powers.

To make that happen, I came up with the idea of alternate effects that required downshifts to activate. This not only distinguished weapons more easily, it applied a leveling system to the weapons. The higher your Skill Rank, the more likely you could pull off a weapon’s alternate effect.

However, would it work? Besides lowering the probable result of a Skill Test by 1, what impact did this rule have on the game? And how could I figure this out?


Playtesting is a tried and true method of working out the kinks of a rule. Any designer who doesn’t playtest their material is doing it wrong. There are multiple playtesting methods, including transparent (the designer answers questions and takes feedback as the playtest progresses, sometimes even applying that feedback mid-playtest) and blind (the designer watches, listening, with no ability to affect the outcome, like watching a horror movie and the teenager can’t hear you warn them not to go up the stairs).

Regardless of method, to playtest, the designer needs to know how to play the game. But I worked with a team of nine designers, working on three different books, and meeting once a week to discuss system change needs discovered during writing. Learning how the game works was a work in progress. Unfortunately, that meant I couldn’t playtest yet.

And If I’m Confused…

OK, I wasn’t confused. But I was worried new players would be confused. They didn’t even know what an Essence20 was, let alone all these Upshifts and Downshifts.  Even if they understood, how many shifts did the weapon rules subject them to per turn? What was the shift ceiling?

But then I wrote a section that we hadn’t discussed or outlined, and the whole system clicked.

Equipment In Action

Equipment In Action dedicated 700 words to illustrating how a few rounds of combat. It broke down every Upshift and Downshift, Edge and Snag, and die roll, related to weapons, battledress, vehicles, and kits. I wanted to make sure all of these separate ideas worked together the way I thought they would. And that required getting all of the rules right.

An example that contradicts the rules can hurt player understanding more than unclear rules. What are you more likely to remember: learning math from a text book, or a teacher contextualizing when and why you’ll use that lesson? Most likely the one that sparks your imagination. So, first I imagined a scenario I might see on an episode of a G.I. Joe animated series, or in the pages of a G.I. Joe comic. Then, I filtered it through an RPG lens.

How This Helped

I tied every action in the story to a Skill Test, with comments about why these character had these stats. All of which required me thinking in game terms, both as a GM and as a player. I explicitly wrote out the ranges of every attack, the relative sizes of attackers and targets, all the minutia that might get handwaved as tedium but that add depth to the system.

I think choosing a situation to write about before picking the mechanics I wanted to cover helped. It showed that these rules worked together organically, and that would help me stumble across areas that might come up in play that the rules didn’t cover. This also helped me think like a player. For example, when I wrote about Frostbite using his Move action to drive only 15 ft so Iceberg could disembark more easily, I realized that left Frostbite with an unused Standard action. Rarely do players end their turns without using Standard actions. So I consulted the Combat chapter and found that setting a Contingency action takes a Standard action. Perfect, that went into the example.

Writing the scene taught me not only the system, but where to find the answers. This kind of rule searching would kill engagement at a playtest. Because it was just me and my words, I could take all the time I needed to get it right.

In Conclusion

As you’ll hear if you listen to this week’s Upshift, Renegade’s new Heavy Metal Fantasy RPG, Gods of Metal: Ragnarock, caught my eye. Not being an Essence20 game, or any system I’m familiar with, I’d need to learn it to play it. I believe the best way for me to absorb the game is to use this same technique: come up with a scene typical of what I expect from this adventure; filter it through an RPG lens; research every possible rule that could come up in that situation. I believe this will help me learn the system faster than reading the book cover to cover, or watching an actual play.

Every two weeks, Ryan Costello uses his experience as a Game Master, infused with popular culture references, to share his thoughts on best GMing practices to help his fellow GMs. Often deconstructing conventional wisdom and oft repeated GMing advice, he reminds his fellow GMs that different players play the game in different ways, and for different reasons.

Ryan Costello

What started as one gamer wanting to talk about his love of a game grew into a podcast network. Ryan founded what would become the Know Direction Podcast network with Jason "Jay" Dubsky, his friend and fellow 3.5 enthusiast. They and their game group moved on to Pathfinder, and the Know Direction podcast network was born. Now married and a father, Ryan continues to serve the network as the director of logistics and co-host of Upshift podcast, dedicated to the Essence20 RPG system he writes for and helped design. You can find out more about Ryan and the history of the network in this episode of Presenting: