Referee Agendas for Old School Gaming
- Know what the game asks of players - remember the player's agendas, because yours support theirs:
- Dig into the fiction
- Engage the fantasy as real
- See a dead end as an opportunity
- Let your unique creativity flow
- Know when to run
- Play to win, but delight in losing
- Be fair to the players, and fair to the game - Referee is a great word for our role at the table. A referee in sports is an (ideally) impartial arbiter between two teams. Likewise, we are not at the table as an opponent to our players. As referee, we arbitrate an antagonistic relationship between a hostile game world, and creative players. Sure, maybe we made the game world- but our role is to be honest, open, and fair to both parties in equal measure: the players, and the game world.
- Engage everyone at the table - Take the time to shift to a quieter player and ask what they make of the current situation. When one player is performing a long search, turn to the others- "What are you doing while she's occupied?" You can even do this in your prep- build a world you know will engage each of your players.
- Paint your own dark reflection - What scratches at the surface of your brain? Installation art? Korean horror films? The hikes you took in the forest as a kid? The adventures you create are a reflection of you. Find what inspires you, and let it push you in ways no one else can anticipate. What's weird about your world in a way you just love? What's familiar with unexpected bits? Reflect the world, but twist it in ways that are unique to you.
- See your world as real in your mind's eye - This place you've created, or are reading about- it's a real place. It exists! You could go there, if you had the technology! You don't, though, so it's up to you to communicate it to others. What do you see, when you're there? Hear, smell, taste, feel, sense? What do you know about that's hidden, and what subtle signs are there? The players will be probing your vision of this place for useful information. Put your mind into that world, explore, and bring back what's valuable. Likewise, apply a real world logic to populations and challenges, rather than building a carefully balanced sequence of fights. If an encounter is too tough to fight, it's up to the players to deal with some other way.
- Build onions - What are the PCs aware of already? What do they notice at their first glance? Which of those "first glance" things hides information on closer inspection? How would players get that information? Does that information lead them somewhere else, or deeper? What's obvious, what's subtle, what's hidden, and what's invisible? Create layers of information for the players to peel back and explore.
- Make your details matter - When you're seeing your world as real and building onions, also remember to keep details of your world gameable. Players should be able to act on the information you're telling them: "Her eyes are a shifting mottled green" helps players remember the NPC, sure- but "... and you notice she never stands more than one long step away from the table and its contents" gives them information they can act on. "The pillars are ornately carved marble" - "... the furthest one is crossed with a latticework of cracks." Your details should allow players to make informed decisions and take effective action. You can hide these details within your onion for players to discover, but remember to make them matter.
- Build ecosystems - What parts of your world are used by other parts? Produce things for other parts? Are there waste products? Where do those go? Who's friendly to whom? Who relies on whom- who's symbiotic, and who's parasitic? Who's opposed? If one element is removed, how do the connected elements react? Before players, your world is operating like a swiss watch, in a careful balance- it's reached a steady state. What can the players push out of balance gently? How does your world compensate or react when the players remove components entirely?
- Build challenges with answers... - "There's a magically locked iron gate the players have to get past... how could they? I guess one of the NPCs has a key... and there's a potion of Eat Metal hidden in room 12c." When you build your adventures, seed them with challenges that you know the answer to. Maybe the player characters have a core capability to get past the challenge, or maybe you've just placed the solution somewhere else for them to find. Use these to encourage players to dig into the fiction, and explore. If a challenge is critical for the continuation of the adventure, consider placing a few solutions- 3 is a good number. "Okay, a key, a potion of Eat Metal... and if they befriend the Bisected Serpent, it can bore a hole through the stone."
- ...And challenges without - "The deeps are stalked by a living maelstrom of ravenous psychic energy. If the players want to get the Golden Falcon they'll have to get past it, but I have no idea how they'll manage that." These are critical for old school gaming. These exist to force players to be creative in ways that surprise everyone at the table. Be cautious with placing these as challenges critical for the continuation of the adventure (unless you intend for players to retreat and come back later), but sprinkling them around can surprise everyone at your table.
- Kill them - Remember, we're not antagonists to the players- but their survival is on them. If they don't do the work, or if they're just plain unlucky... kill them. I'm sure you've got a weird cleric in need of some hazard work up your sleeve.
- Make them stronger - Every once in a while, even if it's just to see them freak out... give them exactly what they want, no strings attached. After all, they've still got to get it back home.
I've kept mulling over Jonathan Miller's "Bryce Lynch's Adventure Design Tips" - I might start a series digging into them one by one. Or I might just open the monster manual and do an A-Z "weird version" of every monster. We'll just have to find out!