Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Refereeing and Me

A number of people expressed surprised at my report of my most recent Dwimmermount session, because I allowed the PCs to raise the dwarf Vladimir from the dead. In part I believe that's because I've given the false impression that I'm a cruel and unforgiving referee. In the interests of engendering discussion of several related issues, let me explain my philosophy of refereeing OD&D.

1. I let the dice fall where they may. I roll them openly and don't fudge them. Consequently, battles go as the dice say they do, not as I or my players wish they might based on some sense of "drama" or "story." There have thus been melees that ended anticlimactically, just as there have been wandering monster fights that were unexpectedly epic. I like randomness and see it as an essential feature of old school gaming, so, in this sense, maybe I am "cruel."

2. Though not fond of the cleric from a purist swords-and-sorcery perspective, I have not banned the class from my campaign nor have I in any way altered the way the class works as written in OD&D. My general attitude toward the rules is that, while they are my servants, not my masters, I am generally reluctant to disallow anything that's included in the three LBBs. The supplements I freely use or not, according to my wishes, but the LBB material is all accepted, at least broadly. Raise dead isn't a later addition to the game from a supplement or Strategic Review article; it was there ab initio. To my mind, that means it's more integral to the "essence" of old school D&D play than are the thief and magic missile, two genuinely later additions that most people have a hard time imagining the game without.

3. Finally, though I am the final arbiter of what is and is not allowed in my campaign, once I have allowed something, it's fair game for the players to use to their advantage, provided they can convince me to permit it. In the case of raising Vladimir, I could think of no justification to disallow it, since it's an established fact that raise dead exists as a spell and Brother Candor had already gone to some expense at establishing himself as a member in good standing of the church of Tyche's hierarchy. If anyone should have access to the spell, it was he -- a spell, I might add, that still cost him and his companions yet more funds to secure. I reasoned that if the players wanted their characters to drain their financial resources in order to bring a mere 2nd-level character back to life, who was I to say otherwise?

A cold, hard analysis of the situation suggests to me that my players were foolish to waste so much money on an easily-replaced character. They're now no longer in the position to be able to raise anyone if another death occurs, which means they need to be even bolder within Dwimmermount to acquire funds, the very act of which may result in yet more deaths. But, as referee, it's not my place to make such decisions for my players. They let sentiment get the better of them and it may prove a costly mistake. Or not. Ultimately, the true price of their action will only be borne out through campaign play, which is as it should be.

I have no grand story in mind for any of the PCs and the campaign setting itself remains very vague outside of Dwimmermount/Muntburg and Adamas. I can thus afford to be flexible in my portrayal of the wider world, so that it accords with what is established through play. I suspect that some of the surprise at my allowance of raise dead had to do with a sense that the spell somehow "breaks the frame" of the world I'm establishing, given my swords-and-sorcery proclivities. In reality, it did nothing of the kind, because, as I said, I build the world as needed, which means I can make anything fit at this stage. After three months of continuous play, I still have a huge amount of leeway when it comes to adding details.

That's the real key to my current refereeing style: creative leeway. I don't fill in any more details than are needed about anything, whether it be the setting of the game or the rules that govern it. My feeling remains that, if there's no immediate need to establish a fact or make a ruling, it's always better to refrain from doing so. That may make it seem at times as if things are "incomplete," but I prefer to think of it as leaving "room for expansion." One of the real reasons I've come to detest most pre-fab campaign settings and bloated rules sets is precisely because they establish facts and rulings outside of the context of play, which, for me, is utterly backwards. Indeed, I think one of the signposts of a game's leaving old school territory is the extent to which it provides details before play that would be better established after play, but that's a topic for another day.

17 comments:

  1. "Indeed, I think one of the signposts of a game's leaving old school territory is the extent to which it provides details before play that would be better established after play, but that's a topic for another day."

    I'm looking forward to that day!

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  3. No one need to apologize for how he runs his games. Just do it your way James!

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  4. "Though not fond of the cleric from a purist swords-and-sorcery perspective, I have not banned the class from my campaign nor have I in any way altered the way the class works as written in OD&D. My general attitude toward the rules is that, while they are my servants, not my masters, I am generally reluctant to disallow anything that's included in the three LBBs..."

    That's certainly how I felt up until my "breakthrough" about a year ago. I'm hopeful you'll still come around at some point. :)

    Side note: Even if you ban clerics, you still have the wizard's reincarnation.

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  5. If there's a need to establish a list of Old School fundamentals, "creative leeway" should be first on the list, if not encompassing its entirety.

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  6. A cold, hard analysis of the situation suggests to me that my players were foolish to waste so much money on an easily-replaced character.Whereas I believe that you have just witnessed a moment akin to the birth of our hobby. While it is quite possible to roleplay a wargame (I do so quite frequently*), it's moments like these that distinguish the hobby of role-playing games from that of wargames. When the cost/benefit analysis is irrelevant to your decision, and you act purely from an emotional response, it is the very moment at which roleplaying seperated itself from it's wargaming forebears, and even subsequent dungeonlike boardgames (such as Heroquest).

    After all, if you had the chance to bring back a friend and companion (and if they are not your friend, then why are you trusting your life to them), wouldn't you want to do so?

    [* When I was first taught the art of wargaming (admittedly by a professional military officer rather than a hobbyist), I was told "as their commanding officer it is important to remember that you will have to be writing a letter home to their family explaining why their son has just died on your behalf." Good advice, which has served me well to this day (although it does mean I can't play computer games that rely on hurling hordes of creatures at a target to drown them in the corpses of the dead).]

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  7. I don't believe anyone who knows you through Grognardia would think you were capable of being a 'cruel referee'!

    I had two reasons to be surprised at the use of raise dead.

    First, it seems to me that the principle of absolutely obeying dice rolls wrt character death does not achieve its intended frisson if characters can be raised from the dead or replaced by a 'relative'. If the player suffers no sense of loss then surely he won't experience the increased fear when in danger promised by some advocates (not necessarily you) who always abide by killing dice rolls. I only accept the importance of this principle when those two means of replacement are rejected. I prefer to kill less often than the dice would indicate but for that death to be meaningful to the player, no replacement. I think it's harsh to suggest that if every last die roll isn't obeyed then the DM is aiming for "story" so I don't think "story" should be evoked every time rolling die in the open is discussed. I believe the degree of arousal in players is the best measure of how well dice are being employed for this aspect of a game.

    You have clearly said you are merely following the OD&D rules so my comment is more an observation.

    Second, we share in our campaigns a similar attitude to deities as inherently unknowable in order to, for me, more accurately reflect the religious experience and ideas like faith. Even though you have explained before that your clerical spells are magical rather than divine in their origin raise dead has a distinctly divine flavour in my mind and dubious about seeing it in a Vancian spirit.

    Again raise dead is in the OD&D books, sure. [And available to a 6th lvl cleric indeed!]

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  8. Sorry for getting a little off topic James, but I sent you an email late sunday on that project. Just making sure you got it.

    Rob

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  9. ... in my games, the PCs can't even find someone to remove a curse!

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  10. Hey, it's your game! Include whatever you want.

    I'm not a big fan of clerics for the usual reasons, and I'm especially not a big fan of Raise Dead. I don't like it because it really overturns what strikes me as the "consistency of the world". As someone who lost an important family member a few years ago, I can attest that I'd sell everything we have to get him back. I expect that many people would do the same. And the rich and royal would be almsot immortal once you also factor in Cure Disease.

    I just don't see such a world "working". But if it works for your game, it works.

    As an aside, I was messing around with rewriting the spell lists to delete clerics and put their important stuff in the MU lists. Then I realized that it was only slightly less elegant and a lot easier to just say that MUs can memorize spells from the Cleric lists, too. Doing that, Raise Dead would be limited to Magic-Users of level 9+. I can kind of see that, since we all know that high level Magic-Users are required by their professional code of ethics to be total jerks. Plus, maybe such a process requires chemical vats and weird materials, and the raised individual ends up looking like a dessicated corpse. I kind of like that.

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  11. Heya, great blog you have here. I was just wondering about your opinion on level limits. Do you believe they should be enforced for a balance to the game?. Or do you find it restrictive for the characters?.

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  12. I applaud your courage - IMHO Raise Dead's about as tricky to handle as time travel in the players' hands. If I were DMing I'd restrict it to one-use ancient scrolls or have it carry hidden costs, per Korgoth's suggestions... does it taint the one Raised with Chaos? Is there a price to be paid (in degeneration, or forced labour) over time? What if anyone Raised could subsequently be Turned, or became vulnerable to control by Lich lords or similar?

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  13. Your last paragraph is one of the reasons I enjoy this blog so much. For several years I have been tending towards Creative Leeway, but never had a real name for it, or a clear description of what it is, and why I liked it.

    I do not think of myself as an Old School gamer, in terms of the games I play, but I have found that I have a stronger affinity to games that support Creative Leeway.

    Perhaps in that way, I am Old School....

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  14. No one need to apologize for how he runs his games<

    Unless you're at rpg.net heh heh.

    I like clerics, but raise dead and it's ilk always bothered me. But death in my games seems to be fairly rare (I'd say about one every 20 games or so is the average), so it doesn't enter into it. And keeping it very very expensive is a good reason why everyone just doesn't have Aunt Petunia raised every time she has croaked...and why most characters would not want to part with their hard earned blood money to bring a comrade back to life.

    I think it might be best to judge it based on frequency of character death. James, in your games & much like the original D&D, death is common and almost an every game event. And when poisonous creatures are about and you go with instant death in that case, death quantity can sky rocket. So raise dead and such should maybe be easier to come by.

    Hey, you went with your gut and let the players do something that made them feel good. You haven't compromised the integrity of the world, and it doesn't have to have set a precident. Just do it on a case by case basis.


    Not to go overlong here, but I want to mention that a raise dead helped me out of a personal jam in the late 80's. My beloved fighter/magic-user went out and got drunk with a party member, who turned out to secretly be an assasin, and slit my throat when I passed out for a price the slave guild put on my head. The other player didn't like me much, and was pretty happy with himself as he said "let me see your character sheet" so he could take my stuff.

    Another party member took my body to a temple, plunked down his savings, and got me brought back from the dead. The next game session I came back with a vengence, using flight spell to soar into the assassins inn room, beating the shit out of him, and cutting his head off for a trophy. The player was shaking so hard as this went down, he could barely hold the dice in his hand. I smiled from behind sunglasses I was wearing for the occasion, as I smugly said to him "let me see your character sheet".

    I was so glad that DM allowed the raise dead! Had to be my all time fave character moment.

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  15. For my part, I view raise dead as performing an essential game function, and I think it is no accident that it is in the original game. In the structure of D&D, the character is the player's primary conduit for creative input and investment into the game. Losing up a character then is not just a matter of losing access to some mechanical advantage within the game, but also losing direct control over a body of creative input that the player may have built up over months or even years of play.

    Raise Dead then, present as a mid-power resource that is directly available to mid-level characters or more indirectly to lower level characters allow a prudent player to hedge their bets against loss of such a significant investment by caprice. In fact, at mid to high level it essentially converts permanent character death into a concious choice. And as much as such thinking may be reviled in these parts, such choice is, I think, a valuable tool for preserving player enjoyment.

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  16. I charge raise dead out at 1000gp times the character's level in my Labyrinth Lord campaign and raised characters become psychologically damaged, gaining a roll on the Disorder's table... the effects of which cannot be or cured removed...

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  17. and raised characters become psychologically damaged, gaining a roll on the Disorder's table... the effects of which cannot be or cured removed...<

    Goddamn clerics. They need to do their job and earn the money, instead of burying them overnight in that pet cemetary out back.

    I think 1000 times level is a good stick. A lot of dough for a 1st or 2nd leveler, but they might be able to scrape it. At higher levels it hurts too - you really wanted to spend your 7000 gold on creating that new flavor of the month spell, not waste it on that asshole bard who thinks he's such big shit with the chicks. Never liked that guy.

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