Sunday, December 5, 2010

Where is a good referee when you need one?

Ryan Dancey was the brand manager of Dungeons & Dragon during the 3.0 era. He moved on since then but from time to time posts his thoughts on roleplaying games. I am paraphrasing here, but in recent years he has grown to feel that focus of current RPGs is wrong. That it too much wargaming. And that it needs to be more of a collaborative game where the groups creates a story. That the main issue is that wargaming audience of D&D has gone away and along with other groups and RPGs need to change to adapt to the new market.

It is a nuanced view and one that doesn't preclude many of the traditional mechanics we like. You need to read his posts to get a full picture of what he is talking about.

And he misses the point.

The key to a successful RPG campaign is a great referee. That always been roleplaying game Achilles heel. If the referee doesn't do his job the campaign and group will fall apart. In the 30 years I been playing roleplaying games I seen many solutions to try to "fix" this. There the quest for the perfect set of mechanics. I consider D&D 4e to be the epitomize of this. This the quest to have a simple set of rules Risus and Microlite are good examples of this. There are quest to make RPGs more of collaborative story creation game.

And for 30 years these efforts including Ryan Dancey's miss the point.

In my opinion the fundamental rule of RPGs is this.

The player will describe or act out the actions of his character to the referee who will then proceed to inform the player and/or the group of the results.

This is what sets RPGs as a game apart from other types of games. Change this you may have a fun game but it is not an RPG anymore.

Like any creative endeavor you can't manufacture greatness. Either a person has it or doesn't. But you can teach anybody who has the interest how be a good referee. How to maximize the chances that a campaign is fun and compelling to play.

The leaders of the hobby and industry should focus on this rather taking solace in the quest for the perfect set of mechanics.

This is why I continue to write on sandbox campaigns and how to manage them. It not THE technique but I think it is a useful one as well as being one that I can hopefully teach well. Many of you reading this have developed other useful techniques. By continuing to share and learn we will make roleplaying games a lasting hobby and industry.


JeraldSr said...

Rob may have hesitated to blow his own horn - but I won't hesitate to say that it is more "referees" like ROB that are needed! Unfortunately, until they perfect cloning techniques, few of you will actually get the chance to truly appreciate the skill with which Rob runs a game! But don't take my word for it - ask ANYONE who has had the privilege of participating in an adventure he ran!

Anthony said...

Amen. Not an insightful comment, but your post hits the spot.

Ed Healy said...

Great GMs are the weakness in the tabletop RPG, I agree. At least, they are an important one. Not just 'great' GMs... GMs. GMs are the evangelists of the hobby, who introduce new players and nurture them into lifelong enthusiasts. Without GMs...

RPGs aren't like card games, where everyone is the same. The GM is not an interchangable part, not like a player is. And we need more of them.

I saw an interesting video a couple months ago about a group in NYC (I think) that requires everyone to GM at least once every 5 sessions they play. I don't recall the exact details, but I seem to remember them having over 100 members.

That's saying something... if that means they have 100 GMs. I'm sure every area (city, regions, etc) could use groups like this.

Anonymous said...

Ed, was it the third video in this Wizards series of DM interviews? The NYC D&D meetup indeed has 1,300 members but I don't know what percentage attend events regularly. I posted there to ask about the details & will update here as I learn more.

In the afterschool D&D class I teach (grades 3-6), I do require every kid to take a turn DMing. 4/5 of the younger kids love being DM, while only 2/4 of the older ones are eager to do it, so maybe as you get more concerned with rules and doing it right, the job seems more daunting?

Anonymous said...

Yes, it was the NYC D&D Meetup; here's them talking about the GM policy, which seems to be working well for them.
- Tavis