Installing the Referee’s Safety Switch

When you are the Referee, you are essentially the absolute overlord, the god, of your own private universe. If you still think of yourself as a player, it is easy to feel competitive with your players, to want to prove to them that you are the most powerful. Folks, in that direction lays madness and crappy gaming! If the game is about the fights, the fights are often too powerful and you end up having to bend the rules to allow the party to survive, which of course diminishes the suspension of disbelief and reduces the need for party cleverness. If you are a playwright Ref, you find yourself bending your artificial reality so the players arrive at the grand, dramatic conclusion that you wanted (i.e. not the one they were trying for). Either way, it’s not as much fun to play in your campaigns as it could be. For me, the best Referees are those who let the players be the stars. To do this often requires that:

1. The Ref have an overwhelming sense of service to others, which restrains his/her own ego.
2. The Ref enjoys the stories of others, and is willing to be a collaborative partner in the game.
3. The Ref is the same insane egomaniac he always was, but he has installed a safety switch (or three!).

So what is a safety switch? It is a rule that the Ref imposes upon himself to keep things fair. Here’s an example. After twenty years of playing, I knew pretty much how to be super effective. I was a great max-minner [Sidenote: I was going to put a link to some definition of max-minning, but I couldn’t find one. So here’s my definition — a “Max-Minner” is someone who knows the rules of the games and seeks every advantage for his character that the rules allow, often to the detriment of the story-telling aspect of the game. In other words, he maximizes his advantages and minimizes his disadvantages.] And as Ref, I had control of the monsters who were far too organized and clever to be defeated by player characters. While the party bumbled about, my monsters were placed in the most strategic spots, armed with the correct tools to defeat the party, and occasionally engaged in combat training on their off days. And the players were often slaughtered as a result, or at least greatly demoralized. Once when the players were attempting to infiltrate a bandit’s stronghold, they came up with plan after plan that just didn’t work because I had designed the stronghold as it should be — as strong as possible. By the time they got to Plan H, they gave up on subtlety and just charged in the front gate, which cost them a couple of warhorses, but actually didn’t turn out so bad. I also started realizing at that point that I might be being a bit of an ass to my players. So I installed a safety switch. For every monster or NPC I controlled, I added a roll for effectiveness. Here it is (for 1d6):

1. NPC or monster is a sitting duck. The characters will catch him with his pants down, enormously unprepared for an actual battle. Feel free to use him for physical humor.
2. NPC or monster is a putz. He does the wrong thing for the wrong reason and will place himself and his partners in positions of strategic weakness. Player characters will be able to flank him or surprise him or just plain out out-think him with relative ease. Alternatively, the NPC is poorly equipped for his rank (not as much armor, not as many magic items as one might expect, etc.).
3-4 NPC or monster behaves pretty normally.
5. NPC or monster is quite effective, and well-armed and armored. He is tough, and has an escape route prepared.
6. NPC or monster is as effective as you can make him. Use all your wits to prepare him (before the player characters tell you what they are going to do) and make decisions as if you were him (when it is your turn for initiative). Alternatively, he has the best arms and armor you might expect of him. This sort of character is one to save for future games as well, and can show up again in other dungeons or adventures as the party’s arch enemy or bête noire.

This helps enormously, and the party is oh-so-happy when they run in the #1 monster. They are gleeful and sadistic and very very content when the encounter is over. That’s the encounter they often talk about the most.

Oh, and remember, NPCs and monsters can change sides too. Sometimes that #6 NPC decides to help the players because that’s the best route to his success. The NPC’s aims are not the aims of the Referee. For example, the party was hiring NPCs one time. One was a #5 fighter who truly wanted to help the party. He missed his Courage roll one time, and the party treated him like a coward ever after, even after he helped them numerous times. The other was a #6 fighter/mage, who joined the party with the aim of killing them all off and taking their cool magic items. As it turned out, he did well in the first combat, and was rewarded so richly by the party that he never did get around to killing them off. Instead, he siphoned the very best magic items to himself, and eventually left the party to join an evil Duchess who saw his value quite quickly. That hasn’t come back to bite the party yet, but eventually it may. Essentially, the party supplied and trained someone who may someday be their worst enemy, and then hooked him up with another of their worst enemies. Not good, but very rewarding for me as a Referee. Those are my favorite stories to tell. 🙂


About lostdelights

An old gamer flying his freak flag, I've been playing table-top role-playing games since 1978. I've been building my own system (Journeyman) since 1981.
This entry was posted in Dungeons and Dragons, Journeyman, Pathfinder, Thoughts. Bookmark the permalink.

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