The RefMentor Cries a Little

Even though I consider myself a pretty good GM (and I am not alone in that!), I have done things as a ref that have not set well with me.  To the point that they often come up as I think about these posts, and what I could have done instead.  So, I figured I might bare my gaming soul a bit, and tell you of these personal fail moments as well as ways I might have done them better.  Take away what you will, either my catharsis, or a bit of advice!

I have often said that I am not so good at ending campaigns.  Usually I can write this off as my thinking the game world continues, with one of it’s problems solved.  But not to long ago, I was playing the original Plot Point Campaign in Rippers (A great Savage World setting).    We had come to the final story beat and I screwed it up…Big!  Now, because this is the final event in the story, I don’t want to give away any spoilers, so I am going to have to talk around it a bit, but I will try to be clear.  A little earlier in the campaign the players did two things that I forgot to take into account in this event.  First, an NPC escaped them, and then they, shall we say, left a door open that should have been closed. (For those that know the PPC that should be clear, without giving much away).  These two things should have had a HUGE impact on how this final scene played out.  But for whatever reason, I went to run the final scene as it was presented.   Because of this, the climactic encounter flopped.  The world should have changed for good or bad, and it didn’t…and then, I basically wrapped the campaign, rather than embraced the change and added my own adventures to reach that conclusion, because I was mad at myself and was soured on that story.  Wrong, Wrong, WRONG!  Now, I kick myself and bawl myself to sleep over it.  How could I have avoided that?  First and simplest; Preparation.  I should have taken a few moments to look at what had happened to lead up to the final encounter, which happened either way.   But now, the door that was left open had consequences to the escaped NPC and to the number and type of opponents the PCs would have encountered.  Since I didn’t do that, I should have taken the time to decide what would happen when the primary opponent escapes.  This could have added several more adventures to this game!  LESSON HERE: Prepare enough to keep the story line consistent, and when a mistake happens, gloss over it and carry on!  The world didn’t end (Probably!)

As I have mentioned before, the story set-up and setting is the purview of the referee.  As such, there are times that one needs to take over the story.  (This is not just the ref’s story, so this needs to be kept to a minimum to help set-up a better game experience!)  In a fantasy setting of my own creation, my players were going to explore some reported goings on at a outlying holding.  When they got there, the Garda (The holding keeper) offered a banquet!  But all was not as it seemed, and they had been drugged!  I had everyone roll drug resistance, and expected they would all fail.  Of course, one of the players succeeded very well…and then I declared the drug was plot strength, and even he was affected.  While I did give him a bit more info after they woke up in a pit, I wail and gnash my teeth about how that happened!  I easily could have either declared it plot strength from the beginning to move them to the next scene I had created; Or the one PC could have made his roll, and we could have played that out!  I almost decide to let the player have it, but decided that would probable spend too long in game time on just one player…Which it may have, but it might have simply been “i will run into the woods, and watch what happens…”  LESSON HERE: If you are going to let the dice decide, let them decide!  If you have considered carefully and decided that it is important for the GM to decide how a beat plays out, just DO IT!

The last nit i wish to pick is another fairly recent game and an ending.  In this game, an epic game of Role Master Standard System, in a world of my own creation, the game was reaching it’s climax, but I had begun to bore of the setting.  Because of that, I was not putting the energy needed into the play, and the final battle ended, not quite as I had expected.  The final battle with the enemy never happened, but the last of his forces were defeated, so he raged impotent in his hidden fortress!  So, not a bad ending, but not what I had expected.  So, I tried to wrap the game up, and ended up with an unfulfilling mish-mash for my player.  It kind of left a sour taste for a favorite setting for me as well… LESSON HERE: Stay Energized!  If you are not having fun as a ref, it will reflect in your game.  Think about this.  Is it because you are burned out as a ref, on the genre, on the system, or the setting…or something else.  You need to figure this out, to see what they correction is.  It may just be have a conversation with your players and switching games for a bit, or alternating games…or letting someone else ref (I plan on doing a post about this, if I get around to it!)  Whatever the problem get it fixed.  If you can’t then the other players at the the table will feel that lack, and no one will get the fun they want from it.

As a second comment on the last whine, in retrospect, I should have stopped the game.  I let it play about 4 sessions too long that were simply waiting for things to pick up again.  I should have asked the player, yes it was a game with my Lady Wife, how she would like this story to end.  We could have worked out a good ending, with a good reason to come back.  As it is, we do have a reason to return to the story, but I’m not sure the desire is very strong.  TALK WITH YOUR PLAYERS!  Your table knows what they like.  They, including you, as you are one of the players, just with a different role, can come up with what is your BEST FUN!

I hope that these few glimpses at my whiny side help you look at some of your problems or issues.  I am here for advice on this or any other topic.  Feel free to ping me about it.  Who knows, maybe it will inspire a whole new article!

Keep rolling, and enjoy your “Rich Fantasy Lives!



Genre Acceptance

I was considering a Halloween game. Based on an old The Dragon magazine enclosure, about a group of scouts in a Haunted House.  I considered it, then discarded it, as i didn’t think any of my players would like the idea.  (Also, I didn’t have the time to play)  But…it definitely got me to thinking about playing characters who might do something that experienced players would be unlikely to have their characters chose to do…

When setting down to a gaming table and working out the social contract as well as what you are playing, it might be needed to consider the genre tropes you would expect.  For instance, there is that recent GEICO commercial where the kids are hiding in the woods and one of them suggests getting in the running car a drive away, but the others decide to hide behind the running chainsaws…This commercial is obviously poking fun at a great number of the slasher flick tropes.  The one character is the voice of common sense…Most players would normally play this character.  But, if the game you are getting ready to play is the Jason Vorhees story line, the players need to accept that their characters are blind to, or completely accepting, of the trope of this kind of story.  There are many fairly obvious examples of this, and some that may not be so obvious.  Lets consider this, As well as the player types and how they might be convinced to play these genre appropriate characters!

OK…Slasher horror flick, pretty obvious.  Your character need to not think about the general survival rules of these shows…never have sex, never separate, never go downstairs to investigate the noise or look for a weapon…Because, to play in this game, it needs to be understood that most of the characters will die.  Of course, the GM can just force them into the kill situations using tricks or just saying “after smoking the weed, you find yourself in a dark bedroom upstairs in just your underwear…roll to see if you notice the closet door opening!”  What about any zombie story since George Romero?  Every person who has the slightest understanding of modern fiction knows that they need to have their brain destroyed!   Again, the ref can change that by saying that his zombies need to have the heart, or the left pinkie toe destroyed…so the players are as clueless as their characters.  How ’bout we consider a favorite setting of mine: Deadlands.  Once the players have played for a few session, and likely from the moment you set down to discuss this setting, the players will know that evil is afoot.  And, If they finish a story arc, they will have a very good feel for what is going on.  But what about their next characters?  The classic Will-o-the-Wisp:  How many experienced players are going to go traipsing off in a swamp to check out the oddly flickering lantern?  On the other hand, if the character is youthful, and has heard that some treasure hoarding  fairies can be spotted at twilight in the same swamps…The wisp becomes an obvious threat again.  (Unless of course they have heard the legends or had an ex-adventure that took an arrow to the knee tell them about when they lost the thief when he went after a thief’s light in the swamp…

Horror type stories are obvious for this type of acceptance, but any setting, like superhero, or exploration need to have this acceptance.  So, to make these game better reflect their source material, or to maintain the replayability of a setting, players need to be willing and able to accept this.  Like the difference between Player and Character knowledge, this is a matter of suspending disbelief for the sake of playing the game.  The player may know that going into the rat infested cellar is actually a way to get them into the cellar and trapped in a caved in sewer, they may avoid it, unless that is the way the story starts.  It may seem that experienced players would be hard pressed to fall for some of the genre tropes that a new player might, even if they are playing the young and inexperienced new adventurer.  But take hope!  Experienced players will likely willingly embrace these tropes even easier than someone who does not have much practice at suspending their dis-belief, if appropriately baited enticed!

If that’s the case, how do we lay the groundwork.  Well, let’s go back to our player types!  The Bestest character type may be the hardest to convince to play with a handicap, such as not being aware that zombies are only vulnerable in the head.  How can they be the best if they have to wait like everybody else to learn that?  These characters need to understand that they can BECOME the BEST, but need to start behind the power curve like everyone else.  Once the characters start learning the secrets, then they can become their goal.  Until that point, they may become the mad experimenter…the best at figuring out how to deal with the issues…But in general, for the good of the game, they will have to delay their gratification.  Sorry.  The rule about a lot of things for them to do can keep them distracted!

How bout the escapist?  They are pretty easy!  Because they are often not at the forefront of action, they can easily accept that they don’t know that crossing the streams is really not as bad as expected!  Weather a tag-a-long or a dabbler, let them play the character who is there just to learn how the story turns out!

The Active explorer, profiler and storyteller may be your easiest to convince.  They play the game to explore the world and/or their character…so it is just natural for them to separate what the player knows or doesn’t from her character.  When you discuss with them the tropes of the game, particularly the latter two, they will likely embrace the challenge and the entertainment they derive.  The exceptions are probably the troublemaker and the avatar.  The troublemaker tries to break the setting, or at least test the boundaries.  For them, the ref and the other players will simply need to remind them that breaking the trope is not the same as breaking the boundaries.  As long as they keep that i mind, they should be controllable.  The Avatar is probably as difficult as the Bestest for this, maybe more so.  No body want to play a different version of themselves that has obvious dangerous flaws.  The avatar player is likely to be one of the least likely to embrace a character’s death or major flaw, and by defining their character with this weakness will be nearly anathema to them.The best way to deal with them is probably bribes!  The other option for the Avatars and Bestest might be for them to play the more sensible characters.  The Stick-in-the-mud virgin in the horror story, or the grandparent who doesn’t “ken to no nonsense” or the nerdy scientist type.

All of these thing considered, this really is just a form of Player vs Character knowledge.  When playing any game, part of the enjoyment is transporting everyone to some-PLACE else.  If you bring a modern player into a medieval setting, the player may know how to make gunpowder, rendering most of the armor useless.  You don’t let them do that, because it goes against the spirit of the theme.  This is exactly the same issue.  Most players know that getting in the running car and driving away will keep their character alive to fight another day.  But if the trope of the game is we need to tough this out and survive til morning, then hiding behind the running chainsaws might seem a perfectly viable plan!  Of course, no one would want to WIELD one as a weapon, (Too dangerous, I’m sure) until they are the last one standing and must face down the machete wielder! (Lets hope they haven’t run out of gas!)

3 Times the Charm

Many people who have played at my table know that I usually allow players to alter their characters for three game sessions, without restriction.  However, many don’t really understand why, so…let me ‘splain! I’ll start with the 3 game limit and how it works, then we will talk about the why.  In most games, I will let a player modify their character.  They can change anything or everything about them.  The other player’s characters will never notice any change.  This could cause some problem, such as a character that starts as an orc Assassin, who then changes to a human healer, but I would normally allow it. I generally only allow this when we start a campaign, but there are times I might allow it for replacement character, but I will discuss that later.  Like character creation, any changes need to be approved, but, once again as most of my players know, I will allow just about anything, as I mostly feel that fitting people together is my job…but, of course, I probably try too hard to make a group from some characters that will never fit…but that is another post.  🙂

Simple, eh? OK!  Now, Why?  This is the most useful tool I have found to make sure that a player has a character that they want to play and that fits the world.  In any game system, when a player creates their character, they usually have some idea of the character they want to play.  Some player motives may be less inclined to create a specific character idea, but others will definitely have more than a vague idea.  And this is where we can find a breakdown. Sometimes the players’ idea and your idea of the setting are different. Even after they’ve created a character in a setting maybe they didn’t understand how a rule worked that is important to their new character concept. This is where this concept comes from. This tool allows the leeway needed to make the right character.  Although I will repeat and clarify this in a post about making characters, I feel it is important to help the players create the character they want to play.  Sometimes this means I will recommend changes to a character.  But whatever the reason, even if there is no real reason, it’s just something they want, such as “Oh!  I didn’t realize how important the NOTICE skill would be, so I want some points in it!”  Let them do it!

This does bring about a bit of a conundrum: What if the character dies in the first 3 games?  You can handle this 2 ways, right?   Either make them create a new character, and start the 3 play clock again, or allow them to be not killed.  Normally, as I pointed out in this post, character death is a touchy, but needed issue.  However, particularly in an epic game, I would recommend NOT killing a character in this window.  The loss of such an immature character is a pointless exercise in character creation.  Only rarely will the player, or other characters for that matter, bond with that character in such a short time.  Let people get attached before you put them under dire threat!  As far as replacement characters, I will usually only offer 1 or 2 game sessions before they are locked into their character, because the player should be more comfortable with the setting as well as the rules used.  However, there are exceptions, such as a fairly complex system, more to the FGU end of the scale, or if the player is playing way outside their comfort zone.  But either way, I have yet to see a need to have more than 3 sessions!  (I have allowed 4 on a couple of occasions, but then one game  usually lasted less than an hour, and in most cases only about 30 minutes, so i just didn’t count it!)

For my games I have found that any time before the start of the 4th game is a reasonable time to create the character they want.  In your play, you may find that is to many, or not enough.  Obviously this is suited for long-term games only!  If you have a story line that is expected to play out in less than 6 sessions, you can’t waste 3 for character perfection!  I would still recommend at least one game where they can “Try on” the skin of the character before they are stuck with it…but like all of my other suggestions, if you do its up to you!

Finally!  A short one!  That has taken me almost as long as it took to post ALL of the others!  Well…I think I can get back on the once a week schedule now… (Yeah, right!)


The scale

In the Common Ground post,I mentioned the TSR – FGU scale. This scale was something I used to use to describe the system complexity, but also to gauge the realism reflected in the game.  As a general guide, the more realistic you make a system, the more complex you make the rules.  Some examples:

  • Hit points vs localized wounds:  Hit points are a very generic and highly abstract means of tracking a character’s health.  As such, they are a fairly simple mechanic.  With hit locations, and damage distributed to each one, you have vastly increased the realism, because now you can track if an arm is broken, or a leg muscle shredded, and the sharpshooter character becomes a very powerful character.  But now, you need rules for distributing damage capacities to each area, a way to determine where a hit lands, how aiming works…you need to determine the granularity of your system…limb, torso, head, or left hand, left fore arm, left upper arm, left shoulder…This can be even more realistic by looking at types of damage…a cut versus a club or a bullet…does the bullet penetrate or get lodged in the body. You can see how the rules ramp up pretty fast.
  • Level Vs Skill: In a level system, you need to create a means to level up, usually an experience system.  Then the character, upon defeating enough challenges (traps, missions, fights…) they gain an incremental bonus to everything they do.  So basically two rules:  awarding experience and benefits on leveling.  A skill based system becomes much more granular, and forgoes the unrealistic leveling system.  You advance skills as you use them.  Now you need to create an experience system that tracks individual skills, and create a rule for advancing those skills.  On first view, same amount of rules.  But now you need to look at the finer system.  When leveling, usually all, or a given number of capabilities improve, and usually all of your players will improve at about the same time.  In a skill system, this becomes much more chaotic, and characters tend to become highly specialized in a small set of skills while the others tend to languish.
  • Character Creation: This is really the basis of all the rest of your system.   A character creation system with 2 characteristics, say Body and Mind, based on a 1-6 range is very quick and fairly easy to create and conceptualize, but not very granular.  This system would give you a total of 36 types of people.  A game based on those two attributes could be fairly easily understood.  Now, a system with 10 characteristic, say 5 mental and 5 physical based on 1 – 100 gives you a hugely vast variation from the character with all 01s in all 10 scores, (probably dies of a mosquito bite before he is a day old) to the one with 100 in all 10, and becomes a challenger of the gods.  2-12 points total in the first system, 10 – 1000 points in the second.

Even though this scale been broken by many games as our hobby matures, by using hybrid level/skill systems or making combat cover hits and wounds, or by including optional”Advanced” rules to address some of the simpler systems the concept still holds water for comparison.  In may not be TSR or FGU anymore, but when looking at the very surface of the system, it can give you a feel for what it is.

Is either end of the scale better than the other?  All depends on what you want in a system.  If you want realistic combat, then roll a D20, beat a given armor class, deal so many points is not very good.  If you want a fast and abstract (but workable system) Rolling up to 11 D100s to determine the outcome of a hit (maintain your saddle, score a hit, determine hit location, determine shield damage, determine damage past shield, determine damage to rider, determine if either rider is unhorsed, determine falling damage…) is probably not what you are looking for.   This is before we even look at how to determine how good you are with the weapon, and the riding!

Many of the more modern games use some variation of these systems to determine character resilience and capabilities.  Are they better than the earlier games?  In many ways yes, as they have evolved the systems.  With that in mind, is there ways to improve?   I’m sure they will come along…  (by the way, both of the character creation systems are real, and I have played them.  You might wanna wait around for the reviews of some games, eh?!)

How to ref

How to be a Successful GameMaster

Probably the only reason you’d be reading this!

2 Rules:
Play to your strengths: 

When Ref’ing, do what you feel comfortable with!  Of course, throughout this blog I will be offering tips on how to find that, ways to stretch what you find comfortable, and when (and if) you should break the first rule…

If you prefer stories that are rapid fire, action after action, flying through space, you will be less successful if you ref an epic saga of a single character, lost in the enchanted forest.  There are ways to temper that, and to fool players, but in a lot of cases, if you are doing those things, you are not enjoying GMing as much as you could be. And, here is a KEY CONCEPT: The game doesn’t get played without a ref!  So, if you get burned out, or are not enjoying yourself, then the players won’t have much fun.

Play what your players want:

This is the age old rule of presenting…Know your audience.  Sometimes this is very easy, as you game with friends.  But, say you are reffing for a new group. You don’;t know what they want, so how can you play to it.  Not true!  If you tell the players what you are playing, they will come play if they are interested.  You may not know favorite colors or flavors of pizza, but you know they are interested in playing a particular genre, and using a specific rule set.  (subject for a later article: House rules!!!!!)  

One of the things we used to do, was the “Scare the Gamers Away” Speech,  (So called by MLW).  In that, we invited prospective gamers over for dinner, and then talked with them about our expectations, and what we get out of game, and what we wanted from our gamers.  This allowed us to listen to how they talked about their previous games, and characters and learn if they would fit in our game.  A bit extreme, maybe, because lots of gamers did not get invited back.

Most of the time, the people you are gaming with, you will know something about.  And, to fill in your gaps, try the revolutionary concept of: Asking!


A few other things, that all pale from the TWO RULES.

–  Know your game system.  The better you know the rules, the smoother the play.  If it is a game you have read the rules once a year ago..well…it gets kinda rough.  (Another subject for several entries)  

 – Decide if you need or want any special props or settings, such as player hand outs, background music, or puzzles.  

 – Table rules!  What is off limits at your table, are there any expectations?  These can make or break a group!  Who brings the munchies?  Is dice touching strictly off limits?  What about cross adding (reading you neighbors dice and adding, subtracting or otherwise determining the outcome)?  Sex? Drugs? Rock and Roll?  Some games, because of the ref or the players, must have these subjects, and others will bring a smooth game to a screeching halt if not handled correctly.  (Do two players go off to a room and come back relaxed, or should it be graphic?)

Well…that wraps up the simple overview of How to ref!  Don’t worry.  I will be touching on just about everything here and dissecting some things in multiple ways.


Any comments? Critiques? Criticism?

That’s my story…take it or leave it.  My trucker buddies, they believe it!