Monday, May 21, 2012

The Referee Mystique

No, I haven't shifted gears again
Nobody panic. I haven't had a 1E/OSRIC epiphany. Far from it . . .

I've read a lot of games over these many years. A common theme in some of them is the idea of Narrative Control. In the traditional player/referee relationship the player tells the referee what he wants his character to do. Under the idea of Narrative Control there are instances where the player tells the referee his character's action. For example, rather than saying "I'll try to jump that chasm" the player declares "My character jumps across the chasm safely".

This post isn't about Narrative Control, though, so that's all I'll say about it. I bring it up because it is indicative of the erosion of the mystique of the referee's role over the years. In the name of whatever virtue the designer wanted to espouse the referee's role has slowly shifted from Ultimate Authority to Rules Clerk. It's something akin to going from designing the amusement park to being the guy that operates the ferris wheel.

The referee mystique is a big part of OSR play. Back in my day, the referee was the keeper of such esoteric secrets as the to-hit tables, saving throw tables, and most especially, the wandering monster tables and treasure tables. Keeping the tables was only part of it. The referee also knew the rules. There were so few in those days that it was possible to know them, and not just know where to find them. Knowing the rules meant more than knowing the letter of them, though. It meant knowing how to apply them, which meant knowing when to bend, break, or simply ignore them.

Then there's the referee's screen. I've known guys that didn't like them and those that did, regardless of old school playstyles or not. In fact the group I did the bulk of my playing with didn't believe in hiding much of anything. The referee made all his rolls in the open, and revealed the map room by room and corridor by corridor as the map was explored. A lot of gamers feel like the screen separates the referee from the players, like they're not playing the same game.

Personally, I like them. I don't feel cut off at all. We're still all at the same table, playing the same game. We are fulfilling different roles, though, which is represented nicely by the "separation".

I like the mystique. I like (in no particular order):
  • Subsystems, because most players are too intimidated by them to learn them
  • Wandering monsters, because players can never fully relax when they never know when a monster from 2 levels down may have wandered up to their level
  • Rolling dice behind the screen for no reason at all, "looking it up", and fucking with the players. I'll say something like "Rex, what's your DEX again?" and make another roll. "What's going on?" Rex asks anxiously. "Nothing. So, do you keep walking that way?"

And speaking of dice . . . All this contemplation of Chainmail has led me to a certain idea. If I'm going to be trying to use something Chainmail based, I want to try to limit the players to d6's. I have a couple of reasons for that. One is that it simplifies things for players. The other is the mystique factor. The funky dice are reserved for the referee.
That ol' Referee Mystique

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