Chapter 14. How to Referee
As Dungeon Master, you have the responsibility of coming up with enough chairs, popcorn, and pencils for the adventure. You have to have all the material goodies ready for play, so it can go on without interruption.
You will, of course, need to find a place for your game. The main requirements are good light (especially if you have one of the rulebooks printed in microscopic type), a sufficient number of chairs, access to a bathroom, and a playing surface.
The playing surface varies according to the type of campaign. If you don't use miniature figures, then all you need is a place to put the campaign map, character sheets, and dice. If you use miniature figures, then you need room to deploy them as well.
I have found from experience that there are several places where fantasy role-playing games work poorly, if at all. One is outdoors. Unless the air is absolutely still, the wind will blow the paperwork away, and all the maps, character sheets, room descriptions, and notes add up to a lot of paper.
It is also unwise to play where there are a lot of passers by. Fantasy role-playing games have a tendency to attract spectators and the spectators tend to disrupt the game by asking questions. If you play under these conditions, try to appoint a victim to answer the spectators' questions or the game can slow to a crawl.
Dice. One is dice. There is no such thing as a DM with too many dice. Most of the games use a variety of dice with 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, or 20 numbered faces. Even the games that only use conventional six-sided dice require large numbers of them.
Dice are used in combat, for random events such as wilderness encounters, for paper weights, or markers (monsters can be represented by dice when there aren't enough figures, or they can be trees, rocks, or treasure chests). Since they're often needed for several jobs at once, a large number of dice helps speed up the action.
Paper. Paper is necessary in all role-playing games. The players need to write down lists of treasure, notes on features they might forget, maps, and notes to both you and the other players when trying to keep some action secret. You need a pad of quadrille paper and some smaller sheets for notes.
Character Sheets. Character sheets, which can be either printed forms or plain sheets of paper, are vital for keeping track of the characters' abilities and possessions. Printed character sheets work best; they save time and present information the same way for each character.
Pencils. Players are totally incapable of bringing a pencil to a game, although they're perfectly willing to take your pencils home with them. Yield to the inevitable and buy a large number of pencils and bring them (sharpened) to every game. They'll soon vanish but the game won't stop every time someone wants to write something down.
DM Screens. The characters shouldn't be able to see your notes or the results of your die rolls. Many Dungeon Masters use a screen made of cardboard to block their end of the table from the players view. There are commercial DM screens for a few of the games; these have game statistics on the inside, which lets the DM find information without leafing through the rulebook.
Many campaigns make use of miniature figures. Miniatures are small lead castings, usually about an inch tall. Fantasy miniatures are available in an amazing variety of character figures, covering practically every conceivable combination of arms and armor for both sexes. There are also miniatures representing a huge array of monsters.
The advantage of using miniature figures is that they give the players some visual information as well as narration. Players are often confused by verbal description; many rooms are difficult to describe quickly and the players have difficulty keeping track of the positions of their characters, let alone everyone else's.
With miniatures and a good playing surface, the Dungeon Master can draw in the terrain and the players can place their characters figures in the room. Everyone can see what's going on and play is more orderly.
There's nothing to keep you from using something other than lead figures for this purpose. I used to use chess pieces labeled to show which piece represented which character. Any marker will do. But miniatures have advantages. For one thing, you can be fairly sure of the scale when using miniatures; distance can be gauged in relation to a figure's height. This doesn't work with chessmen.
Furthermore, miniatures look like people and promote identification with the character. In fact, some of my figures have such a strong association with a particular character that I won't let them be used to represent anyone else. A miniature gives everyone a mental picture of the character. The net result is better role playing.
Finally, miniatures make the situation look realistic. It is easier to create a mental image of a conflict if you have something to work from. It is especially easy to picture a dungeon setting when the characters and the outline of the walls are in front of you. And when a huge dragon figure is plunked onto the board in front of your puny character, you don't need more than your eyes to know that you're in big trouble.
Paper. A simple battleboard is a large sheet of paper. The DM draws the terrain on it, usually during play. When the players look into a room, the DM draws what they see. Nothing is known about the terrain until the player characters can see it.
Preparing a complete map beforehand saves time during play, but this lets the players see unknown terrain before their characters get there. Since part of the fun lies in exploring the unknown, putting a complete map on the table kills the thrill of exploration. Covering the unknown areas with Post-It Notes can help avoid this problem.
One advantage of using a big sheet of paper is that you can keep it as a grisly memento of a battle by drawing in a little stick figure every time something is slain. Particularly blood-soaked expeditions can be memorialized by being hung on the wall.
Formica Boards. Light-colored formica tabletops or whiteboards make good battleboards; grease pencil and water-soluble pen work on them and the map is easily erased or corrected. Whiteboard markers are less satisfactory because the lines tend to get smudged during play, often to the point of complete erasure.
Still, drawing on these surfaces involves a lot of measurements and lines drawn with a ruler. The amount of time involved in drawing even simple rooms can be quite large. When I used formica sheets for my battleboard, the worst time waster was measuring room dimensions with a ruler.
The Grid System. The way to get around this is to mark off your battleboard in squares; one square to the inch is the most common. The grid lets you get the lines parallel without a straightedge and lets you make them the right length without measuring anything. This doubles or triples the speed with which rooms are drawn.
Cardboard Cutouts. This method is a one-shot proposition but has some advantages. Instead of drawing the room outlines during play, you can make them in advance by cutting them from poster board, with a separate piece for each room. Room numbers, objects, and initial monster placement can be drawn on the pieces so everything will be ready in advance.
These cutouts can be used in less space than conventional battleboards, since room cutouts can be removed from the table when the adventurers leave a room. You could do this by erasing your battleboard every couple of rooms, but that would be too slow.
This also gives the adventurers every opportunity to get lost, since the room pieces disappear when the characters move on. When the whole map is drawn on the battleboard, the players have a map of their travels right in front of them--at least until the DM runs out of space, erases the map, and starts over.
I have never used cutouts for anything but floor plans; there isn't much incentive to use them for outdoor scenes. I tend to cut a new set for each adventure but, since many rooms are alike, they can be saved for use in future expeditions.
After experimenting with various schemes for providing munchies, I have concluded that anything more elaborate than soft drinks and popcorn is both too distracting and too expensive for all but the filthy rich.
Having nothing at all doesn't work, since after a few hours of play everyone begins to get hungry. If you want to keep playing, food will have to appear from somewhere. If not, then having an empty larder may be a good stratagem for getting everyone to go home at a reasonable hour.
At some point, the players will arrive, At the beginning of the campaign, they will be blissfully ignorant of the nature of your world and the scenario will have to be described to them. They probably won't have any suitable characters. If they are experienced players, they may try to persuade you to let them play an unsuitable character from another campaign. If they are novices, they will need help. In any event, chaos will reign.
The easiest way to keep the confusion level down is to have only a few players. I am comfortable with six experienced players. Three or four is ideal; everyone can keep track of what everyone else is doing and everyone has a significant piece of the action. With more players, the game gets noisier and the shy players tend to be lost in the shuffle.
One way to reduce the confusion is to give the experienced players a description of the campaign several days before the game. This will give them time to come up with an appropriate character. Let the players generate their characters' ability scores; you have more important things to do than look over their shoulders to see if they're cheating on the die rolls.
Novice players should be given a small selection of pre-rolled characters to choose from. These characters should be described on simplified character sheets, which ignore all of the complicated statistics and just give the basics. The sheets should also avoid abbreviations; all gaming jargon should be spelled out and explained.
Some DMs like to hand the players personality descriptions of the characters and expect the players to fall into the role. This may be acceptable for novices, who are too busy trying to find out what's happening to develop their character. On the other hand, it can offend experienced players, who figure that characterization of player characters is none of the DM's business.
They're right, too. Finding a comfortable role is the player's responsibility and the DM should only step in if the player is having difficulty--and then only as an advisor--or if the player has chosen something totally incompatible with the campaign.
Players often want to run characters from other campaigns. This sometimes happens because the player always runs the same character, regardless of circumstances. Sometimes a player has a character who is stranded; the campaign he was in no longer exists or he or the DM moved.
Don't let a habitual world hopper bring his character into the campaign. He'll just leap back out again, play in 17 other campaigns, and return to your next session with ridiculous amounts of treasure, magic, and power.
You can, however, let them run a "clone" of their character, someone who is identical in physical ability and personality but was born in your campaign. This way the player can fall into a familiar role, but won't be able to bring his other character's goodies in or take his new character out of the campaign.
Stranded characters are less of a problem. You can either use the clone excuse or think up a reason for their sudden appearance in your campaign. If the character has too many powerful magic items, take them away from him. If he has too much magical or combat skill, take enough away to put him on about the same level as everyone else. If the player doesn't want to take this kind of beating, he can always start a new character. Hopefully, he wants to play the character because he likes the role, not because of the nifty loot he has obtained, and the loss of goodies and combat ability won't bother him much.
They need to find out enough about the adventure to outfit their characters. Tell them as much about the area around the adventure as you think would be common knowledge and start play with their discovering a chance for fame and fortune.
Any characters that didn't suddenly appear from another world will know many things about your campaign; growing up in the campaign world exposes them to a great deal of information. Thus, you can't assume that beginning characters are ignorant of such things as the local government, monetary system, or common wildlife.
On the other hand, the characters are ignorant of the players knowledge. The characters don't know anything about submachine guns, microwave ovens, or the germ theory of disease. They may well be illiterate and any math more complicated than counting may be beyond them. However, they would have some knowledge of many crafts that are now largely unknown. The characters are creatures of the fantasy world, not this one.
The Dungeon Master tells the players what their characters see, smell, hear, feel, and sense. Some of this can be done with props (miniature figures, sketches, and maps) but most of the information is verbal. The Dungeon Master describes everything that happens and should do it clearly and concisely.
Visualize. It's impossible to describe something well if you don't have a grip on it yourself. Try to picture terrain as being real rather than just marks on the map. Imagine what your dungeon really looks like to a torch-bearing adventurer. It's too easy to treat the encounters as abstract concepts because they are. Still, they're supposed to feel realistic. So picture the scenes carefully.
Describe in detail. If you haven't written any details in your notes, make some up. Everything should have at least enough detail to move it from the generic to the specific. A minor heap of treasure should never be "a minor heap of treasure," but something like, "a rotting yellow carpetbag with greenish copper coins that have fallen out of rips in the side, with here and there a silver coin, tarnished almost to black" or "a nest about four feet across, made from straw and sticks and fragments of shattered furniture, with several inches of beautifully polished copper coins and bits of ironmongery at the bottom."
Be concise. This does not really clash with detail. You want to tell them what's going on and what's around them. You don't need to count the bricks in the floor for them. Try to describe things fully in a few words.
Don't identify unknown objects. The players may run into a magical device, for example. Tell them what it looks like; don't tell them what it is. "A blackened short sword with a disturbing gargoyle face with ruby eyes on the pommel," not "a +2 short sword, +4 against trolls." If they should know a legend about it, you should tell it to them before the adventure starts, not when they run into it.
Don't identify unknown creatures. If the players have never seen a Minotaur, don't announce, "You see a Minotaur;" say, "You see a monster that looks like a huge, hairy man with the head of a bull." Similarly, a werewolf in animal form appears to be a large wolf and in human form looks like a human.
Don't give hints. Try not to grin evilly when the characters are about to die. Don't look dismayed when they demolish your best trap without noticing it. Keep your secrets to yourself and the players will never know if they're safe or not.
Combat, for instance, can be run on a "he hits, then you hit, then he hits again" basis, where the mechanics of rolling dice dominate the action. This sometimes manages to be exciting in spite of the DM.
A good DM throws in details and actions that aren't strictly necessary. The "he hits, then you hit" narration can turn into "He slashes down at your head. You duck, but he nicks your shoulder. Before he recovers, you manage to slash him in the leg...
Jazzing Up the Action. But dramatization doesn't stop there. Jazzing up the blow-by-blow is nothing compared to jazzing up the action itself. Make the opponents interesting; think up sneaky tactics for them, give them nasty surprises. Be creative.
For example, assume a few adventurers are trying to kill off a group of plunderers who have taken over a large stone church. The initial assault was successful; in a few bloody rounds of combat, entry was gained to the church and the main body of bandits was slain. Many of the adventurers were wounded.
The bandit, bleeding but triumphant, stomps on our hero's left hand. The fingers break and he can only hold on with his right. As the bandit moves to stomp the other hand, one of the wounded adventurers, who had crawled up the stairway, shoots the bandit in the leg with a bolt from his crossbow. The bandit falls screaming to his death and the archer somehow manages to pull his friend back to safety.
Do such complicated cliffhangers really happen in fantasy games? Yes, but only when the DM is on his toes. A DM who wasn't looking for good bandit strategies would never have thought of sliding down the bell rope. In fact, most encounters would be too weakly visualized for the DM to have realized that churches might have bell towers, and bell towers have bells and bell ropes, and these facts might come in handy.
In the example above, there are several points at which the rules aren't going to cover the situation very well. How easy is it to catch someone with a carefully times shove of a bell? What are the odds of catching a ledge on your way out of the belfry? Well, it all depends. Do rule systems have a specific way of handling the effects of a villain stomping on your fingers? Not really. So to a large extent the DM is on his own, anyway.
The easiest way of dealing with these situations it to roll dice but not pay any attention to the result. This gives the impression that you're following standard procedure, when in fact you're running on pure improvisation. But I rarely stoop to this myself.
Almost as good is to assign a high probability of success for whatever outcome you think is most interesting, but roll dice to see if something else happens anyway. If the villain shoves the bell at our hero, but the dice say he fails utterly, perhaps he gets hit by the returning bell and knocked out of the belfry, or perhaps he shoves the bell too far and overbalances and falls down the hole in the belfry floor through which the bell-ropes pass. If he succeeds very well, our hero is going to be flung out of the tower as desired, but maybe a steep roof or a cartload of manure will break his fall, and he doesn't actually die.
As a general thing, rules systems kill off characters more often than they should, and leave them incapacitated less often than they should. In real battles, the ratio of wounded to killed is often ten to one, but you don't often see this in fantasy role-playing games. And don't think that having to be nursed back to health doesn't have its upside. The gallant soldier being nursed back to health by the beautiful young nurse (often a princess) is a plot element as old as time. If the battered hero isn't careful, he'll be sweet-talked into going a quest far more perilous than the one that broke both his legs as soon as he can hobble again.
Giving second chances. Things that you don't want to happen can be divided into a series of actions, each with a separate die roll, rather than just one. This tends to reduce the odds of the undesired result happening, and by stretching out the time involved from, say, one combat round to three, the other player characters have a better chance of coming to the aid of their beleaguered comrade. Alternatively, chances for last-minute saves can be invented, such as falling against a narrow ledge or a gargoyle just below the belfry.
Altering outcomes. Having the falling hero land on a passing manure cart instead of on the cobblestone street probably uses too much slapstick for this scenario (but it's a great gag and you should be sure to use it someday under more favorable circumstances), but crashing through the roof of an unregarded shed on the side of the belfry, coming to rest on a heap of old sacks will work okay, especially if he breaks a few bones in the process. No one will quibble. Alternatively, a very unfavorable die roll can be interpreted not that the hero is flung out into space, but is hammered between the bell and edge of the belfry window, doing unpleasant things to his ribs and causing him to slump unconscious to the floor of the belfry, but not fall to the cobblestones.
When nothing much is going on--such as during a journey through civilized territory--the flow of game time should be sped up as much as possible. A journey through peaceful farmland might be accomplished by rolling dice once to see if anything unusual happened; if not, you simply announce, "The journey passed uneventfully."
As the chance for action gets larger, the intervals of time that can be swallowed at a gulp get smaller. In monster-ridden forests, encounter dice may be rolled as often as once an hour. When an encounter actually appears, time suddenly gets divided into tiny slices to allow individual action on a moment-by-moment basis.
There are two reasons for this. First, to keep the game exciting, the boring parts should be disposed of as quickly as possible. On the other hand, the exciting parts involve danger and the players want to be able to do intricate tasks. These can't be done on a broad time scale; asking a warrior what he does in the first day of a duel is ridiculous. Dividing the time into chunks much larger than a minute is questionable--combatants can do too much and it becomes impossible to referee. Realism demands small increments of time during combat.
Like almost everything in role-playing games, this can be overdone. I know of one campaign that broke combat down into two-second rounds. The players nearly died of boredom since it took an hour to kill a healthy rat and four to drive off a band of Orcs. The conflict between pace and realism should not be forgotten.
Have a short break every couple of hours. If you don't, the players become fidgety, the search for more munchies goes on during combat, and the game deteriorates in general. A 10- or 15-minute break will usually get the munchies and gossip out of the way and the game can proceed.
Players talk more or less all the time. If the game isn't going quickly, or their character is out of action, or if they have any other excuse, they ignore the game and chatter. I know, because I'm one of the worst offenders.
Keeping Up the Pace. Keeping the pace up helps a lot. If something is happening every minute, it is dangerous for a player to ignore the game even for a minute or two. This is perhaps the best method.
Talking in Character. Getting the players to talk in character helps, too. Once you have them convinced that speaking in character is good role playing, the chatter starts coming from the characters rather than the players. The noise level is just as high but at least everyone is paying attention to the campaign. Besides, it is good role playing.
Kibitzing. A related subject is kibitzing. As soon as someone is in trouble, the players will all shout advice at each other. This is true even when the endangered character is beyond earshot of the party.
One way to discourage kibitzing is to announce that characters can't act on advice given out of character. Thus, if one player suggests a plan to another, the character can't act on the advice unless the other player's character could have suggested it.
This can cause hard feelings since several people often come up with the same plan and disallowing it because some idiot shouted it out is not really fair. Still, if the rule is made clear to the players in advance, most of the blame will fall on the loudmouth, not the DM. And it does work.
A break area. It often works out that one or two characters, detached from the rest of the party, are engaged in something time-consuming, leaving several players at loose ends. If these players want to talk about something else until it's the action returns to their characters, it helps if they can move somewhere else, even if it's just across the room, where they can hold a conversation without bothering the others. Often these conversations will be held in character, as they players plan their next actions. This has the interesting effect of leaving the DM in the dark about the player characters' intentions.
Campaigns in which everyone uses swords rather than brains become monotonous after a while. Although there is quite a variety of opponents, there is a limit to how much enjoyment can be obtained from slicing up imaginary creatures with imaginary swords.
To keep the campaign from dying through lack of interest, you should encourage the players to solve problems by cleverness. This can be done by the simple expedient of placing monsters that are too hard to kill but have valuable treasures. The players will have to resort to thinking their way out. There is generally some way of disposing of unwanted monsters, and, given the incentive, the players will almost always find one.
Some Dungeon Masters resent being shown up by the players and rule that any trick the players try automatically fails. This is pointless and destructive. The players should be allowed to do anything a person of the character's background would reasonably be able to do. That's what makes the game realistic.
If you don't know exactly how to referee an action, ask the players. Sometimes they're honest. Nod sagely, assign a chance for success, roll the dice, and announce the result. Don't tell them what the chance of succeeding was since they'll just argue.
If it looks like a particular trick is going to come up more than once, you'll need to work out some guidelines. This is rarely difficult, since common-sense rules are generally accepted by the players. If they insist on intensive research, and you don't want to do it yourself, point them at the library and wish them luck.
These special situations come up all the time in good campaigns because the players are always plotting and scheming and doing it in character. A good role player never works on the assumption that if it isn't in the rules, it can't be done; he knows better. Besides, using the subjects covered in the rulebook as a guide to character actions is poor role playing. The decisions are supposed to be made from the character's viewpoint and the character is unaware of the existence of the rulebook. He is under the impression that he is living in a real world and should act accordingly.
Occasionally a player will do something so incredibly moronic that he deserves special punishment. Typically, the player offends some monstrously powerful being, profanes a church, or does something equally foolish.
Again, no special action is necessary; just let the outraged party act naturally and wreak vengeance on the player. If you're feeling mean, you can delay vengeance for a while and then hit the character when he thinks he's safe. Overweening pride offends the gods and they generally have no qualms about squashing foolish mortals. Make sure the player knows why his character is getting stomped since he'll take offense if he thinks you're just being vicious.
There are many times when you will want to withhold information from the characters. Many of these are obvious; you don't want the players to know the statistics for monsters the characters have never seen, for instance. There are other, less obvious places where secrecy is important.
Take a character who is searching for traps. The player knows the character's chance of finding a trap. If you let the player roll the dice, or roll them yourself in plain sight, you'll give away some secrets. If the roll indicated that the detection succeeded, and you announce that no trap was found, the players know there are no traps, since the dice indicated that any traps that were there would have been found.
This principle should be applied to all situations where looking at the dice can tell a player something he wouldn't otherwise know. All such die rolls should be rolled by you in such a way that the players can't see the numbers. Just announce the result.
Similarly, you don't have to explain the motives of NPCs. Just have them do what they want to do. Let the players know only what they see and hear. If they think your NPCs are acting irrationally, don't argue with them. Just point out that there are a lot of irrational people in the campaign world.
Sometimes the difference between a good playing session and a poor one is that the successful DM knew when to quit, while the other kept his game going hours beyond the point of boredom. Role-playing games are fun but the thrill wears off during extended play.
The easy way to keep the players from nodding off is to have relatively short game sessions. In my experience, four hours is short, six is about average, and anything beyond ten is unreasonable. Marathon games tend to be more of a test of endurance than an attempt to play an exciting game. They are, in my opinion, justified only at conventions when you probably won't see the players again for a year.
If you keep the game down to six hours during a weekend, with a short break every two hours, then the players will be able to survive. This is important because as soon as the players get tired of the game or tired physically, they start doing silly things.
When the Dungeon Master becomes tired, his concentration goes, he makes mistakes, and everything slows down. This encourages the players to become sillier and the slow pace practically forces them to ignore the action.
Watch for the symptoms of player unrest and, when they appear, stop the game. The players probably won't agree; the fidgeting, chatter, and silly character behavior goes on for a while before the characters recognize their own boredom. If you quit before they're sick of playing, they'll be eager to come back next time.
When the main action is over, there is still a lot of work to do. The players will need to divide up the treasure (if they didn't do it during the game) and total up the experience points or skill increases from their adventure.
You will have to supervise this, explain the function of mysterious items after the characters appraise them, describe the haul again, give the resale values, and generally sum up the results of the expedition.
In addition, the changes that the characters have made to your campaign have to be noted before you forget. It's embarrassing to be unable to recall what the characters did on the last expedition and the characters resent running into a foe that you forgot was dead. Everything has to be brought up to date.
This is where the story-telling campaign bogs down. Between every expedition, the story-telling campaign is continuing. Armies move, court functionaries intrigue, people are born and people die, and all of this has to be taken care of.
In a conventional campaign, the stage is set and the NPCs are frozen into position until the characters blunder into them. Everything stays as it was until the characters change it. Thus, only the area immediately surrounding the characters has to be altered after the game.
Story-telling campaigns will survive anyway. The DM tends to enjoy the time spent on detail work and the campaigns are rewarding to play. To be best, you have to work harder; and I believe that story-telling campaigns have more potential, in the long run, than conventional campaigns.
Don't put off the bookwork. I always do, and it never works. Get it done as soon as possible, or you'll forget important details, lose sheets of paper with vital information, and louse things up in general.
When everything is more or less in order, you will be ready to prepare for next time. There may be a reaction to the mayhem brought on by the characters; the monsters and NPCs will not sit still for getting trounced time after time. The consequences of the characters' actions need to be discovered and put into action.
How creatures react to the players' characters depends on the circumstances, the players' actions, and the monsters themselves. So far, the monsters and nonplayer characters have been largely ignored, even though they are a very important part of any role-playing campaign. The next chapter deals with these creatures--their functions, their roles, and ideas for integrating NPCs into the adventure.