Friday, July 22, 2011

Advice for new referees, Part One

I'm writing a short essay for people who are new to Old School gaming, but who are considering running an Old School campaign.  There's lots of good advice out there about doing that directly, but not as much about how to think about it - Matt Finch's excellent Quick Primer is good, and if there are other examples, I would like to know about it.

What follows is a sample from what I've written so far - constructive comments welcome!

Some Advice for New Referees
By Victor J Raymond PhD
Copyright 2011

This short essay is not about how to set up your campaign but rather some principles and reminders about how to think about what you are doing as a referee.

There are no “Edition Police”, except in your head.  Occasionally, I’ve heard gamers with less experience than myself say things like “why would you want to play an older edition?  That’s so – backward!”   Sometimes, referees new to Old School gaming will have this misconception, as well. It is a fallacy to think that successive editions of the game have been wholly agreed-upon improvements on previous versions – or that paid game designers automatically know better than you what you should be playing. It may come as a surprise, but Wizards or Paizo do not have patrols going around issuing citations for playing older versions of D&D – except possibly in the peer pressure you might experience from other gamers who want to justify their ongoing 3.x or 4e spending habit.  It’s probably more accurate to say that each edition of D&D represents a different style of gameplay, which may be why there are people still playing every edition of D&D ever produced.  At last count, there were retro-clones (a game which reproduces the mechanics of an older role-playing game) for all editions of D&D ever produced.  The important point, though, is that new doesn’t always equal better.  What you’re playing isn’t outdated – it’s different.

Take the game and its rules on their own terms.  This is mostly a matter of unlearning things you’ve picked up from the games you’ve played already.  From an outsider perspective, most versions of Original D&D have fewer defined features, a much more abstract combat system, and a lot of things that “everybody knows” don’t work.  But like so many things of this sort, what “everybody knows” isn’t necessarily true – and this is particularly the case when it comes to roleplaying games.  The relatively “bare bones” approach of many Old School games isn’t a lack of definition or “crunch” (a term I dislike, along with “fluff”); it represents an opportunity for you to add in your own ideas and make the game your own.  For that to happen, you need to play the game figuring it out as you go, setting aside your preconceptions of what works and what doesn’t. Rather than immediately house-ruling everything to make it closer to what you are used to, start off playing the game as it is written, and see where that takes you.

Random dice rolling is not a flaw – it’s a design feature.  Random character generation is often singled out as one of the “bad” things about Original D&D – particularly the idea of “roll 3D6 and write ‘em down in order.”  It supposedly short-circuits the creative process.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Consider: how often have you observed another player generating the same “sneaky assassin Dark Elf” or “aloof, stand-offish mage” or “mighty-thewed barbarian” over and over again?  That’s the “creative process” supposedly being subverted?  I think not.  To be fair, sometimes people do have interesting and worthwhile character conceptions – but not all the time. What random dice rolling does is give your imagination a chance to try something different – to come up with something you might not have thought of in the first place.  Sometimes people object that their rolls were “too low” – which really means that they think they can’t do well with that character, conceding defeat before starting game play.  Sometimes people simply don’t like what they have rolled.  In either case, there’s nothing saying someone cannot roll again – but don’t blame the dice; blame player preconceptions of what they are “supposed to” get.

(more to follow)


  1. Great post, looking forward to seeing more!

    2 Things:

    1. Comparing new versions of a system (D&D 1st/2nd/3rd/3.141592nd edition) and the Elder Scrolls series - I think there could be a corollary here. Morrowind and Oblivion are both rich games with updated/changed mechanics, yet Stats, character advancement, and inventory management don't make the game - the story does. I'm not terribly familiar with the series, but I bet you could swap the game engine and have just as good of a time!

    2. Random character creation: I don't know if I'd call it a flaw, but certainly a limiting factor. For instance - the DM offers up a setting and background for the players to get excited about, the players come up with some character concepts... and the random in-order rolls start to dictate your class options. Sure it's a matter of perspective ("stuck playing a character type that I didn't want to explore" / "unique opportunity to try something different"), but it still removes the player's option to chose how they initially interact with the proposed setting.

  2. Good stuff keep it coming.

    You might want to include in the future an over arching paradigm shift for those brought up on computer controlled rpg's. That is that it is the job of the Judge to create the story and allow the players to have some say in it's outcome. More properly it's the job of the referee to create a setting for the players to explore. The story comes from the players and how they interact. It's a frustrating limitation of computer games that the story must of necessity be enforced -- computer games can only account for a few routes but people can account for limitless possibilities.

  3. ...but it still removes the player's option to chose how they initially interact with the proposed setting.

    Well, no, it doesn't.

    The dice rolls are part of interacting with the proposed setting. If you don't like your dice rolls, you can re-roll them. That's been true from pretty much the beginning. From my perspective, the pendulum has swung rather completely from "random character generation" to "design your character from the ground up" - so much so that people miss the positive aspects of random character generation.