Friday, April 16, 2010

The Referee as Player

In his comment to my post about RuneQuest, Rob Conley said the following:
It['s] fun to play around with a system [that] has the elements of GURPS I like (skills, detailed combat, etc) but feels closer to the roots of the hobby (random rolls, death looms, etc).
Rob's inclusion of random rolls among "the roots of the hobby" triggered a realization in my mind: all other issues aside, what I really most enjoy about old school games is their implicit recognition of the fact that the referee is a player too.

Let me explain. Much as I enjoy mechanically simple games, mechanical simplicity isn't necessarily a make or break thing for me when it comes to enjoying a game. Certainly I have a lot less tolerance for complex games than I used to, but I wouldn't reject a mechanically complex game out of hand, if I felt that complexity gave me something I couldn't get through simpler rules. And the main something that could grab my interest these days is, for want of a better word, surprise.

As I see it, a good part of the enjoyment in being a player in a RPG campaign stems from ignorance. You don't know the details of the adventures the referee has planned; you may not even know much about the wider setting in which those adventures are based. In many old school games, you don't even know what sort of character you'll be playing until you roll some dice and see. Over time and through play, all these instances of ignorance are lessened to some degree and the process of doing so leads to much fun.

The referee isn't quite so lucky. He creates the campaign setting and adventures set therein. He's by nature a keeper of secrets and so possesses something akin to omniscience -- at least from the players' point of view. Consequently, the scope for his being surprised is much more limited. It's always there, of course, because it's impossible to predict what players will do, but, even then, there are (generally) limits to the unexpected mayhem they can wreak. After all, the referee establishes most of the conditions under which the players make their decisions in the first place and so already has a leg up on planning to deal with consequences.

That's why, these days, I like games with a lot of randomness -- the baleful "swinginess" that so many modern game designs are trying to eliminate as "un-fun." Such randomness may be irksome to players, but it's essential in my opinion for the enjoyment of referees, as it presents a factor that's wholly out of their control. This is also why I also shy away from "story" in adventures, preferring instead something much looser. As a referee, I often find it frustrating enough knowing all the details of a dungeon level beforehand, but throw in a plot with pre-determined scenes or events and I start to feel as I'm not playing a game anymore, or at least not the same game as my players.

Perhaps I'm not. Perhaps one of the trade-offs in being a referee is you don't get the chance to be as surprised as the rest of the players. I'm not convinced that's true, though. My Dwimmermount campaign has gone off in a number of directions I didn't expect and all because I purposefully limited my "omniscience" and allowed the campaign to take on a life of its own, where random rolls and on-the-spot decisions in response to them played as big a role as careful forethought on my part. The result has been, in all honesty, one of the most enjoyable RPG campaigns I've ever run and the first in a long time where I've felt that, as referee, I was every bit as much of a player as the rest of the people sitting round my dining room table.

I certainly wouldn't claim that any of this stuff is inherent to old school play. After all, I've played in plenty of campaigns where this wasn't the case. Likewise, I don't think more modern game designs make it impossible to run a campaign like the one I'm running right now. However, I do think that older designs make it much easier to do so, as they were created in an environment in which "gamey-ness" -- such as randomness and player skill in responding to it -- was a given rather than merely one option among many. These are games from a "pre-theoretical" world, when designers still largely saw RPGs as contiguous with their precursors rather than divergent from them, if that makes sense.

This has turned into something a fair bit more rambling and incoherent a post than I'd intended but that's the nature of thinking out loud, I suppose. I guess all I'm really saying is that I like playing games whose mechanical underpinnings afford the referee a greater scope to be a player of the game rather than its "master" (never mind "storyteller," "narrator," or anything of that sort). I think the shift away from that, which you can see even in late OD&D, is one I don't find especially congenial and that I've happily cast off over the last year and a bit. Thank goodness.

31 comments:

  1. I have to admit that my players consistently manage to surprise me time and time again. Usually in how they manage to get out of the problems they get themselves into. But then, as the saying goes, once you have enough problems they start solving themselves...

    But seriously I find I'm there not to narrate my story but to hear the player's stories. Which is why I tend to equate my job with being a stage manager or director. I can control the lighting to some degree, and possibly even convince players to hit their marks (usually by the strategic droppin g of sandbags), but what emerges comes from the players. Another comparison is that of composer, especially when working with very experienced players.

    I admit that it's a lot of work getting players engaged enough to act, rather than expecting to react to me, but the experience when they take control of the game is exhilarating.

    [It's probably also why I'm terrible with any less than six players, but have the best fun with over a dozen.]

    ReplyDelete
  2. You should check out Or! the Role playing Game. It's a great "Beer and Pretzels" game in which all rolls are opposed by the GM.

    http://www.rpg.net/news+reviews/reviews/rev_3897.html

    ReplyDelete
  3. Check out tomorrow's post on part II of a Demon Wolf at the Gold Star Anime for what happens when one blown stealth roll turns into one of the most dramatic moments in a D&D or RPG game I seen in a long long time.

    ReplyDelete
  4. oh my blog is at http://batintheattic.blogspot.com

    for those that don't have the link handy

    ReplyDelete
  5. "And the main something that could grab my interest these days is, for want of a better word, surprise."

    You know, without having said that about RPGs specifically, that's exactly the criteria (surprise) that I use for movies/TV shows nowadays. Most mass-entertainment is so wildly predictable that if I just run into anything I can't predict in advance, it gets the thumbs up from me. Now I'm engaged, present, and honestly interested. It's kind of rare.

    I got even looser with my DM'ing at the convention last weekend. Trusting the players and the random encounters and die rolls... all that stuff is telling me what tonight's game is about, and it's better than fighting all that stuff in a different direction.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Yes, for the referee to have fun he or she has to find a balance between randomness and planning. As you note, it is far too easy for a referee to end up spending all his time planning, so that the adventures that result have at best minimal surprises.

    When we were children and had so little control over our lives, maybe the exercise of endless planning was more interesting. I don't remember clearly. But as an adult whose job has required meticulous planning for twenty-six years, I don't find planning a recreational end to itself any more.

    Shifting DMing back toward refereeing, shifting back to a balance between planning and surprise, is a major part of the changes I'm trying to make in my own D&D games these days. If the DM doesn't also get to relax and play, then D&D just becomes another job we have to escape from to get some fun.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Nice post. I agree and I think that knowing it, it's interesting to think about ways you might capitalize on it.

    Maybe something as simple as generating treasure/traps when they are discovered. Maybe as extreme as using a variation of Greywulf's 6 hex idea to generate your whole game world as it gets explored in-game.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Random rolls are things I live by as a Referee for exactly the reason that you give, James — surprise. When I go into a situation not knowing exactly what is going to happen and allow a die roll to tell me what is going to happen not only do I get surprised, but I am challenged as a player to make this all fit into the adventure. In my current campaign, all the best encounters and even whole adventures have been the result of a die roll.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Judging for your post I think you should try at least one RPG of the indie movement (another small niche in the RPG world, like the OSR).

    I say that because the whole point of the indie games is taking part of the narrative control from the referee and giving it to the players.

    I love these games and my experience with them is that I always end surprised by the way the story evolves. In fact, as an experiment, I made the same adventure using Mouse Guard (one of these games) to 3 different player groups, and the resulting stories were completely different.

    I love Old School, but I also love indie games, and I try to exploit the modular and homebrew qualities of the old school games to add a lot of concepts from indie systems.

    In case you want to try one I'd recommend you to take a look to Mouse Guard or any game based on FATE like Spirit of the Century or Starblazer Adventures.

    ReplyDelete
  10. In my latest campaign (a LL/AEC campaign for a bunch of people who have only ever played 3x) I began "limiting my omniscience" even before the first session.

    As I was designing the campaign I decided where the political units were going to be and very, very, very general ideas of what these units were (mainly ideas of racial composition). I then statted them up as characters -- straight 3d6 in order. This told me which political units were stronger than others, made wiser decisions, more intelligent decisions, were more robust as a polity, had a greater magical presence, were more mobile in response to threats, etcetera.

    I haven't done this in years! Even back in the early 80s I didn't see myself as constrained by the dice results when I did this, but this time....

    I thought that since I was asking my players to accept the dice, as they rolled, I would as well, and it was a blast! I loved the surprise results that turned up. My favorite political entity (as I was designing them) got nerfed hard by this, and they are even more my favorite because of this randomness. This lack of control in the design has, I believe, led to ideas and situations that would not have occurred to me if I had been designing things as I have for the last 30 years. I wouldn't say this is a better way, but it was definitely fun to do.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I've been GMing a Great Pendragon Campaign, a scripted campaign if ever there was one. What surprises me the most is how much surprise there is in the game - if you let the dice fall where they may.

    The players are all knights (no wizards, theifs, etc.) The world setting is legend of King Arthur, following Sir Thomas Malory's writings fairly closely. Yet all my machinations and the printed campaign material cannot confine the players. For example, in the last two sessions I've (1) introduced a long term villain that was promptly slaughtered; and (2) introduced a long term NPC and companion to the players that was also promptly slaughtered. So every week leads to significant twists and surprises within the scripted campaign.

    I wonder if Arthur will even become king at this rate! Whatever happens, I'm rolling with the player moves and the dice - which adds such a wonderful element of surprise for me as GM.

    In short, even story-based games can have significant surprise for the referee if you let them.

    ReplyDelete
  12. wachinayn: "I say that because the whole point of the indie games is taking part of the narrative control from the referee and giving it to the players."

    Giving narrative control to the dice is enormously different from giving it to the players.

    As a naturalist, I personally can't stand the techniques that do the latter.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I thought that since I was asking my players to accept the dice, as they rolled, I would as well, and it was a blast! I loved the surprise results that turned up. My favorite political entity (as I was designing them) got nerfed hard by this, and they are even more my favorite because of this randomness. This lack of control in the design has, I believe, led to ideas and situations that would not have occurred to me if I had been designing things as I have for the last 30 years. I wouldn't say this is a better way, but it was definitely fun to do.

    Exactly. And I think James has said something similar in the past. Randomness stretches my creative muscle in ways that I would otherwise never exercise. That leads to a better story overall and much more fun for the referee.

    ReplyDelete
  14. That's why, these days, I like games with a lot of randomness -- the baleful "swinginess" that so many modern game designs are trying to eliminate as "un-fun."

    It's good to make a distinction between 'swinginess' that destroys any possibility of planning/strategy/detailed tactics, on one hand, and random elements that are in fact the game's best test of mastery (consider the random block-assortment in 'Tetris'). In OD&D at the table, the random elements test the players' resource-management, planning, and tactical improvisatory skills. In chargen, on the other hand, 'swingy' randomness arguably cuts into a crucial source of affective connection between player and gameworld...

    'Swinginess' in a game like Magic: the Gathering' can be annoying; half the fun of the game is contingency planning and construction ability, as I understand it. But chance has a key role to play as part of a unified skill-testing strategy, y'know?

    My point is only this: don't use too broad a brush w/r/t 'swinginess'; modern (especially decidedly 'new school') designers are asking pretty sophisticated questions about it, and there's a lot more to dislike of 'swinginess' than 'children should not be made to suffer.' Your rhetoric veers close to simplistic 'get off my lawn kiddies' emptiness on this subject.

    ReplyDelete
  15. These are games from a "pre-theoretical" world, when designers still largely saw RPGs as contiguous with their precursors rather than divergent from them, if that makes sense.

    This is a crucial point and I'd love to see you write more explicitly about it in future, but note that History does not share your value judgments about that contiguity. The (e.g.) wargaming roots of RPGs are, for many players, wholly irrelevant, not because they hate the past or their ludic forefathers but because modern RPG norms have much to recommend them that simply can not be found in those old games, like explicit/systematic shared narrative control, genre emulation at the level of plot structure, etc.

    The fact that many new RPGs try to do things early RPG designers literally could not imagine is a strength of good modern RPGs. That's absolutely not just about 'theory'!!

    ReplyDelete
  16. The other important thing is that random tables are vital for sandbox play. They quickly provide the seeds needed at a moment's notice to prevent dead air.

    The obvious example are wilderness encounter tables, which have heavily shaped my campaign. I use an old set from The Journal (back when it was newsprint), which I liked. But the preponderance of dragons forced me to develop the nature of dragons. Encounters with dwarves led to the creation of whole new parts of the map and history that I hadn't expected (the infamous Gold Rush of '08).

    A lot of modern gaming is down on such things, saying that the encounters should serve a purpose, but I find the fun is weaving the purpose into the game. My prime example is Ed Simbalist's Monsters are people too! essay in the C&S Sourcebook, and the lost goblin patrol. You can have lots of fun twisting the random encounter to the game you want.

    For example, if you roll an ancient Red Dragon you could have it stomp your 1st level party. Sure. Although having it fly overhead on the way to ravage somewhere else creates a story. [Too much work to chase down those puny little humans individually.] Or you can have even more fun having the dragon fly down before them and demand their help with a particularly obnoxious princess he's having problems with [OK I only did it once to a 10th level party, but I felt justified.]

    And sometimes creating your own table for something can help if you really don't know what way you want the story could go. It allows you to approach each idea without bias and think of the possibilities uncontaminated by the other possibilities.

    Bushido (at least in the original pre-FGU edition), was another game where you could easily encounter random villages, towns, temples, and cities in your travels. Although the FGU edition essentially changed this to a domain generation system.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Is randomness the best source of referee surprise? For me the problems with "story-based" adventures are that 1) the story starts with the referee and 2)there's just one story with PC succes dependent on "discovery" of the intended story. The best surprise for me is when the PCs "depart from the script" based on their own interests, rather than simply by responding as best they can to a series of unrelated events.

    If the referee takes the time to imagine multiple general plot lines (e.g. what might happen if the PCs decide to keep blackrazor? or to destroy it? or plant it in the house of a political enemy?) then surprise may come from what the players do rather than from the dice. Random tables seem best for generating the background. in play, PCs should be discouraged from waiting for something to happen.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I agree with you 100% about the value of surprise and fun for the GM, but I have to quibble with one thing.

    You wrote:

    "This is also why I also shy away from "story" in adventures, preferring instead something much looser. As a referee, I often find it frustrating enough knowing all the details of a dungeon level beforehand, but throw in a plot with pre-determined scenes or events and I start to feel as I'm not playing a game anymore, or at least not the same game as my players."

    I had a long-standing WFRP 1E campaign in which I never rolled for random events, in the sense of wandering encounters or "dungeon dressing." In fact, I relied heavily on pre-written adventures with a story and the dreaded "predetermined events," yet my players were constantly surprising me, forcing me to adapt and often leading the adventure way-away from what the authors had in mind. To me, a "story" was a general outline, to be written in final form only through the interactions of GM, players, and dice. (Since WFRP was a skill-based system in large part, those rolls often functioned as "course changers" and event-creators much like rolling from a table in D&D-type games.) Even predetermined events weren't set in stone, because player actions might short-circuit them.

    In other words, I didn't know all the details beforehand and didn't feel like I was playing a different game from my players, even though I was using an adventure with a strong story. All that said, you've gotten me interested in trying a much more "go with the roll" style the next time I run something.

    security word: "mants:" the hideous hybrids in the unmade sequel to "THEM!!"

    ReplyDelete
  19. Hmm. I have for some reason never thought of it from that viewpoint. A good observation, James. Thanks!

    I agree with wachinayn that those wonderful surprises for the referee almost seem to be designed in some indie games.

    ReplyDelete
  20. One of the best observations here this year.

    Explains why I always preferred winging it as a GM - and systems that allowed me to do that - to elaborately prepared choo-choo plots with boxed text, monster tacticals, and so on.

    There's a symmetry in that with elaborateness of player character generation. On both sides, the more someone has to lose, the more you constrain the other side. If the players are running characters that took an hour to generate, you should feel bad about killing them off. If the GM is running a prepared adventure that took six hours to generate, you should feel bad about going off the yellow brick road.

    ReplyDelete
  21. A lot of modern gaming is down on such things, saying that the encounters should serve a purpose, but I find the fun is weaving the purpose into the game. My prime example is Ed Simbalist's Monsters are people too! essay in the C&S Sourcebook, and the lost goblin patrol. You can have lots of fun twisting the random encounter to the game you want.

    A copy of this essay used to be online, but sadly Google is failing me.

    ReplyDelete
  22. I completely agree with the ref being a player as well. I think that is why lately I've been doing more published adventures. I found all the book work that goes with the ref job a chore that was draining the fun out of the game for me. So for right now I've been running old published adventures, and its been a good fit. Some surprise for me, some for them. A good group can always roll with the punches.

    ReplyDelete
  23. I agree completely.

    Except that it's actually why I don't use the term "referee." My experience with "referees" is mostly to do with school sports. Where the referee basically can't have any of the fun, can't make a judgment call without justifying it by a rulebook, and is somehow expected to be above the game and the players.

    And that's great, if you're playing frisbee. You need that guy. But if I'm sitting around with my friends making stuff up, I'd rather they give me some silly title to match the names they've made up for themselves.

    To call the referee the "Dungeon Master" or the "Labyrinth Lord" or whatever adds a certain playfulness.

    I'll admit, though, a sentimental and hypocritical fondness for the name "judge."

    ReplyDelete
  24. I'm going to completely muff this, but bear with me.

    In the old days, the referee could completely create a story-heavy game in which he or she was omniscient and there were few surprises (except for those handed to him by the players). However, there were also tables, for those who wanted or needed them. For whatever reason, and I'd be curious to find out if this were a philosophical choice or if designers back then simply didn't know any better, they included all manner of tables.

    Modern games completely disallow or discount the need for tables. They eliminate randomness. When I was designing games, it never entered my mind that the referee wouldn't have a story to tell. That was the referee's role in the game, as a narrator. I'd never used the dungeon design random tables, and generally discounted the treasure tables, too. They seemed, not like a crutch, but something wholly unneccessary.

    Nowadays, I think modern games are wrong in their philosophical underpinnings. The players and the referee are there to create a story together. Story happens at the end, when you're all sitting around and talking about the night's adventure, and you see what was important to the tale in the telling. Indeed, each player may have a very different take on the "story" that occurred that night. Modern games, however, think that the players are there to play in the referee's story; story happens first.

    In large measure, those random tables help the referee to create events ad hoc. The game becomes as much as a surprise, and fun, for him as it is for the players. It helps take the pressure off, and let's the referee "play", too. Tables allow the referee to guide events, not control them. They allow the referee and players to create story together.

    I wonder what a modern game would look like that embraced random tables. That explained the philosophy and made random tables a central theme of the game. That presented a series of tables and defined when the referee could use them. In other words, I wonder what a game would look like that took random tables to heart, and explained their use in the contemporary manner.

    I'm trying to imagine what Vampire would look like with random tables...

    ReplyDelete
  25. there were few surprises (except for those handed to him by the players).

    as is often the case, what's in parenthesis cannot be overlooked. it's what the other players do that make a game a game. and the error of modern games is not in ignoring the dice but in ignoring the players.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Story happens at the end, when you're all sitting around and talking about the night's adventure, and you see what was important to the tale in the telling. Indeed, each player may have a very different take on the "story" that occurred that night. Modern games, however, think that the players are there to play in the referee's story; story happens first.

    I think you're smearing the crucial difference between 'plot' (which is only a set of mechanisms and markers) and 'story' (which is more about affective connection). Narrativist games take a hands-on approach to structuring plot, but story always emerges from player interactions. Old-fashioned D&D was all about deliberately unsophisticated, simplistic plots; but the stories people took away were another thing entirely. D&D 4e tends to involve a somewhat more comprehensive approach to plot than OD&D and AD&D, yet player experience (narrativized into 'story') remains rich. Different but rich.

    Modern RPGs share the realization that plot doesn't have to be trivial in order for story to be meaningful. If the plot's all the same to you, a random table is as good as anything else for determining What Happens Next. But plots needn't be all the same, y'know?

    ReplyDelete
  27. You know, the more I think on it, the more I think the existence of books for players is where it all went wrong. Let's face it - they were made for commercial reasons and have enormous dollar value to RPG publishers, but for referees they take away a lot of surprise factor and make the entire game system open to rules lawyering. Without the player's book, the referee really does have final say.

    ReplyDelete
  28. This is an interesting post. It's not as clear cut as I think James realises by the end of his post. I myself run Labyrinth Lord by fleshing out my adventures with descriptions of places and events that go way beyond what you find in a common garden adventure module, but leave player choice as their own. I use randomness more for treasure, but control it by using three different treasure decks, one for normal drops, one for better drops and one for near death fight drops which has the best stuff in of all. Encounters I plan out before hand, but have to scale for 1-6 players depending on how many turn up from one week to the next. I let the dice fall where they may and roll in front of the players. I find this works very well and I feel I am a player also, especially in the battles that emerge and the way I try and clue the players into danger, warning them subtly away from bad ideas but letting them explore them fully if they wish to. It's a lot of fun running a game session every sunday :-)

    ReplyDelete
  29. @Ross A. Isaacs

    "Modern games, however, think that the players are there to play in the referee's story; story happens first."

    Well, games from fifteen or twenty years ago. D&D these days is pretty much agnostic to how you create your story, but puts a lot of power in The Rules, which influence the round-to-round narrative of the game. The current edition of Vampire's got some loosy-goosy notion about collaboration that's never been fully articulated. Exalted was deliberately designed to make player characters too powerful for the referee to control.

    Mandates for movie-like linear storytelling are largely an artifact of the mid-90s. (And they were never universally accepted then, either.) Modern games are dominated (by volume) by small-press indie games that reject that model in one way or another. On one side, you've got the OSR, which hands the referee absolute power but trusts him not to abuse it, and on the other, you've got the story games and gamey-games popular at places like The Forge. These latter tend to share power over the story between player and ref in a very formal way.

    Side note: the first time I saw the term "old school" applied to gaming was Donjon (http://open.crngames.com/src/donjon.html) a shared-narration game of dungeon-bashing. If you read the introduction, you'll notice that the impetus was putting more improvisation into the conventional dungeon.

    ReplyDelete
  30. I take everyone's points to heart. The only way to refine one's thoughts is to listen to other people's opinions.

    When I said that modern games put story first, I am indeed thinking about the '90s. That's when I designed games, so that was the sea in which I swam. I know that there are as many different flavors of gaming as their are ice cream, but what seemed to take hold of gaming was the idea that the referee was supposed to sit down at the table with a story already in hand. Not a rough plot or plot elements, but a fleshed out world and story through which the players were supposed to move.

    I am thinking consciously about White Wolf, and how in the '90s many game companies took that model to heart. There was a metastory presented in each of the splatbooks, and storytellers were encouraged to fit their stories into that milieu. If this is no longer the case, then huzzah!

    Again, thanks for helping me to shape my thoughts.

    ReplyDelete
  31. I don't know if this is comforting or horrifying, Ross, but if those were the waters you swam in... they've dried up now. Some people like metaplot, but nobody at White Wolf these days particularly does. Nor are any of us especially enamoured of non-interactive storytelling. The question the brass always ask, every damn day, is "how can we give people tools to tell their own stories?"

    Doesn't sound like the White Wolf you knew? I can't really speak to that.

    People change, and not everyone is the same. I'm a fully second-generation designer there, someone who grew up on Vampire and the Rules Cyclopedia, working in one building with old school giants like Paul Jacquays and new wave maniacs like Chris McDonough. Kinda like that kid who sings for Journey, the one they found on YouTube. I'm a middle school gamer, and no mistake.

    And, well, things have changed a lot since middle school. The industry went and died messy in the bathroom. No one's sure who really killed it, like Nancy Spungen, or the chauffeur in The Big Sleep.

    Roleplaying games, though, are a lot like punk rock. There's always going to be some kid in the garage reinventing them. Forum roleplay, small press RPGs, old school revolution. There are always going to people who want to rage against machines and publish zines, and if they're on Drivethru and Lulu instead of the corner gaming store, well, that's change for you.

    There's always going to be somebody to pick up an old Sex Pistols album and find the turntable to play it on and say "fuck, I want to do this, but I want it to be mine."

    That's who we are. Punks, dreamers, and precious little messes. Say you want a revolution? Here it is. Start rocking.

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.