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Does the ref need to be absolute Neutral?
A recent game has had me reflect. We had a conditional TPK. TPK? yep…Total Party Kill. How do you get a “Conditional” one then? Well…two players were available, the other two players were steel bucketed. (Steel bucketing protects PC who cannot play. They are impervious from death, but not from bad things…) Anyway, the buckets of player stayed back with a REF PC (Yeah, another post…the difference between NPC, Ref Character and a PC played by the Ref…), and the others got involved in a situation that got them killed. As Ref, I gave them a few fortunate breaks, which is definitely Character leaning, rather than neutral. So, it got me to thinking: “Is it really the Ref’s job to be absolutely neutral, neither aiding the players or the black hats???”
Like so much else, it depends. And this is one of those things that some Ref’s get really up in arms about, so this is my take…but I will at least touch on other views, so you can make up your own mind.
For me, the answer is a definite NO! Everyone is at the table to have fun, and that includes the ref. Sometimes a ref feels sorry for the players, and the challenges drop in scale. That way, the characters will survive, so no hard feelings, right? Or what if the players have just pissed you off, whether on the table or in the game, so to get back, characters start dropping like flies. That’ll learn ’em, right? Both of these are the wrong reasons not to be neutral. As a ref, you are a force of nature in the game worlds, so the life and prosperity of characters is in your hand. It is easy to give them everything or take it all away from them. Your job, in MOST cases, is to enforce the world laws with impunity. The risk of a characters life, health or even livelihood is a significant part of the drama of the game. If a character gets in over their head, they will probably come out the other side worse for wear. My rule for this has always been “I will not kill a character on a dice roll.”
What does that mean? A character should not die JUST because of bad dice rolls. Or Most “Random Encounters” (anything not directly connected with the plot arc) should not kill a character. A character should only be killed in a story arc connection. If a character should understand that they are outmatched, it might be the correct thing for the ref, to let the player know that, in case the player doesn’t realize even when the character should. Sometimes, the dice are just against the players. They can’t get a good roll at all, and so cannot catch a break. Or, they have no way of knowing that the shi……shtuff they just stepped in is a hell of a lot deeper than they had any reason to expect. In those cases, I have no problem stepping in, changing an outcome in the characters behalf. It will usually be bad, but they will probably survive. They wake up naked, in chains, over a cauldron of boiling oil…Or find themselves sold to the mines as slaves…The one thing I resist is altering world laws to make this happen. If they are hit by a Death Star main cannon, It’s not as if they will find themselves recovering in a healing vat…they are, unfortunately, destroyed. What if they die in the middle of a desert from giant scorpion. Could a group of nomads show up, fight off the scorpion and save the character? Maybe…maybe not. But for the moment, lets look at another piece of this argument…
What if the character and the player know they are facing horrible odds, and still feel it is the right thing to get involved with? Slightly different story. In this case, I will often still try to keep them from being killed, but I will be much more neutral. If the black hats are wavering between killing them and using them for experimentation later, then I will aim to keep the characters alive. But, if the black hats have no reason to keep them around, or will even be disadvantaged, then the character buys wholesale agricultural property (Yup…they buy the farm). Why do I save the first set and not the second set? Well, the player has chosen to be a hero. If they survive the challenge, they become heroic, if they do not, well, they died a hero’s death. In my view, as a ref, that is the more fun option. (remember what I said earlier…that is why everyone is here!)
The final issue where refs often become non-neutral is when dealing with significant NPCs. Sometimes, as a ref, you have created a great villain, and the characters completely surprise him and destroy him on two lucky dice rolls. Well…the rules state that they can do it, so…They win! not fun. Think about your villain as a Player Character. Would you be happy for one of your players to be defeated that simply? Well, come up with a survival strategy. Maybe he has “Always had” a secret escape trap door, so that when he falls under that great blow, he drops through and disappears…Or maybe he had a double…But, on the other side of that, just because your players outsmarted your plot, don’t decide that, oh…he wears armor that is only vulnerable to Blue Iron…so that characters cannot harm him as he and his minions now tear them to shreds! This villain may have been your crowning achievement…but where is the fun ending? If several of the players are killed, but the last one has sworn a vendetta against the villain in character creation…well…at great cost…he could win!
Here is my simple rule for this: What is the most enjoyable outcome? When you have one player, and that character is killed, that had better be a satisfactory ending. That single player is killed by the Big Black Hat, but they knew they were not ready, but had no option. Would the BBH, then wish to capture the character to soliloquize over their defeat? Think of that one player who thought their character just died…and after a few moments of mourning, you tell them that they wake up…If all of your players have charged the Light Brigade, but all get killed…is there a successful epilogue that you can regale them with? Have fun. Characters are robbed and killed. That is what our games emulate. But is that what makes a good game? Sometimes, but not always!
A final consideration…The sniper bullet on a dark night in the back of the head. Believable? Very. Particularly if your players have been causing all kinds of problems for a criminal kingpin. Fun…no. The other way? Characters spend two game sessions tracking down the kingpins movements and set up an ambush. Their long gun loads explosive, poison, glass bullets. Shoots him from across the street as he steps into a pool of light. Rolling natural crits, does the kingpin die? What is the funnest outcome? Maybe it wasn’t through the back of the head, but right through the shoulder…or maybe the character kills the kingpin…only his arch rival was waiting for such an opportunity…Follow the Fun!