Friday, February 19, 2021

"Groups without a referee"

While reading issue #22 of Dragon, I came across this advertisement from GDW relating to Traveller. The ad is for the game's first two supplements, Animal Encounters and 1001 Characters. Both supplements consist of pages of pregenerated material for use with the game. Over the years, I've found them to be great time savers, though nowadays I imagine that an online program of some sort would better serve the same purpose. 


 What's notable about the advertisement, though, is the way that it states that the supplements "are also useful to the solitary gamer, and to groups without a referee." Traveller's suitability for solitaire play has been remarked upon (and advertised) since the start and I can attest to how much pleasure I've got from simply rolling up characters and subsectors. It's not the same as playing an adventure or campaign with other people, but it's an enjoyable diversion nonetheless. On the other hand: "groups without a referee?" What does that even mean? Truly, I find myself baffled by this turn of phrase and wonder what such a group would look like. I'd be curious to hear others' thoughts on the matter.

11 comments:

  1. While I never played in one myself, I know one of the local Traveller groups way back in the late 70s played for a while without a GM. If I understood what they were doing correctly (and I was in my early teens, so maybe not) they'd take a module like Horde/Channax Plague and use it as kind of a choose-your-path adventure book, with one person reading descriptions till someone wanted/needed to make a choice and then pausing to resolve that as a group before going back to the module for more description and options. It didn't seem much like roleplaying to me at the time, more like a cooperative miniatures game (they were very big on using figs, a novelty for me at the time).

    They're the only people I ever saw try this, and they went to a more traditional GM-and-group format within a month or two of when I started going to that club, so I'm guessing it wasn't a common or very workable playstyle. Maybe GDW knew something I don't, though.

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  2. A couple of the early Double Adventures (Across the Bright Face and Mission on Mithril) were very procedural (and bland) - the group just crawls from hex to hex having random encounters until they get to their goal. Something like that could pretty easily be played without a referee since it doesn't have any secrets or mystery element or any NPCs that need to be personified. You'd still need someone to roll the dice for non-player actions but presumably that could rotate around the table. A game based entirely on trade and commerce and trying to earn enough from speculation to keep the bills paid could work the same way. Possibly even a mercenary campaign if the players were on opposing sides of the conflict.

    I imagine it would get old pretty quickly since it neglects a very large part of what most people find appealing about rpgs, but especially in 1977 before the "rpg genre" was as firmly established as it eventually became and I can see why GDW might have thought it made sense to support that mode of play.

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  3. GDW also published En Garde!, which is a role-playing game of sorts that doesn't need a referee. I suspect that the other posters here are generally right that "groups without a referee" are engaging in planetary hexcrawls, either from modules or randomly generated. In the latter case, Animal Encounters would be particularly useful.

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  4. Funny, I am currently rereading the LBBs for a potential Traveller campaign in the summer and ran across this very same advice... rules for playing without a referee. I haven't looked at those books in probably 30+ years and was surprised at how much was still intimately familiar to me, but the occasional thing stood out that I didn't remember at all, that notion being one of them. I imagine the reasoning is much like how others here have already posted, that it was the early years of the hobby and the concept of what a RPG was exactly was still in flux. Hard to wrap my mind around though!

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  5. I don't know if you're aware, but "solo roleplaying" has become its own niche within the hobby. As you say, Traveller seems to have been advertised suitable for solo play from the start; there was some discussion of this on the solo rpg subreddit a month or two back.

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    1. I am not aware of many things these days. :) Are there any contemporary games that are specifically advertised as suitable for solo roleplaying or is this niche something that one kit bashes out of existing RPGs?

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    2. There are quite a few out there, and it's a little hard to say where the subgenre stops. For ex, are "journaling" games solo RPGs? Are Choose-you-adventure-path books? Probably some are, some aren't. There's a whole subreddit out there where part of the community can be found:

      https://www.reddit.com/r/Solo_Roleplaying/

      If you search Drive Thru RPG for "solo rpg" you'll get quite a lot of samples of the subgenre.

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    3. As several people have mentioned, there are indeed a number of solo-specific RPGs. Kevin Crawford's Scarlet Heroes is a good example of a solo game intended to create an OSR-ish experience, with procedural generation tools for wilderness exploration, dungeon crawling, and more plotted "urban" adventures. To be sure, there is also a lot of kit-bashing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, lots of solo RPG players are inveterate rules-tinkerers

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    4. I've known of Scarlet Heroes, but I've never actually looked at it. When time permits, perhaps I'll change that.

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  6. 5150 Fringe Space is an example of a modern Traveller-like solo-compatible RPG, and there's always Mythic GM Emulator to bolt on to any game. The idea behind Mythic is that the system acts as an "oracle" to answer questions like a real GM would, but is run by random rolls modified by a "chaos factor" which tries to provide dramatic tension.

    Given the way early Traveller's sandbox worked, where the word "referee" was carefully chosen, I can see a group of players who trusted each other's judgement being willing to rotate the job, maybe even per scene. Lots of 70s RPGs were clearly meant to be detailed simulations of people's lives in contrast to the improvised play-acting and dramatic plotting the hobby later embraced. En Garde was already mentioned, but I think SPI's Commando is the purest example, having no rules for anything other than tactical man-to-man combat missions but still using a GM to run the enemies and adjudicate situations. You could argue that Golden Age D&D was similar, as almost all action took place in the dungeon. The GM was necessary for adjudication and for keeping secrets -- both big jobs, but nothing like the later editions' workload.

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    1. I think it would be relatively easy to play cooperatively if you treated it as more of a wargame. Having a clearly defined mission structure (the dungeon, the skirmish, etc makes it easy to trade off refereeing duties between sessions. Really, if you have clear rules for enemy behavior, you don't even need a GM per se. You just sketch out the scenario and start playing. I've played some narrative-wargame hybrids cooperatively with my brother in this way. It's when people become really invested in their character's long-term progression that you start to need an impartial referee

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