What is the essential essence of being a good referee? I don’t understand it. Sometimes I think I do a pretty good job of playing at being a referee, but if a good referee is consistently good at refereeing, then I don’t think I’m a good referee. I’m trying, though.
In 2015 I played in a lot of games, but I didn’t run more than a handful of sessions. In 2016, though, I’ve started up a new campaign for an old friend of mine who was feeling D&D starved. As I was making my preparations, I thought about what I like in a referee. How could I emulate those qualities, or how could I fake them? Two things came to mind. I’m sure I have more flaws than just two, but two is the number of potential solutions I found for myself. Obviously these are specific to what my own weaknesses are, but maybe someone out there will find my own self improvement efforts helpful for themselves.
The first thing I like is a responsive referee. Someone who keeps the game moving by having answers for players almost before they’ve finished their questions. Someone who never (or almost never) needs to look anything up. It’s something I know I’m capable of, because it’s something I’ve done before. But it’s something that I don’t succeed at consistently.
I know there are some referees, (*cough*) who accomplish this with masterful planning. It’s a skill that appeals to me, and one I’ve attempted to cultivate for years. But my brain just isn’t shaped right for it. What I really need to do is avoid excessive planning. To leave more room for discovering the world at the table, either through random determination or through improvisational world-building.
Of course, an improvising referee is in danger of creating Quantum Ogres. Care must be taken to preserve player agency. Choices must have concrete parameters before they are presented to the players. But the color of the carpet hardly needs to be specified in writing. I have a history of attempting to write entire modules before each game session, and that’s just a poor allocation of time. And it was never even that fun. I was once told that my games were more entertaining when they were poorly planned. At the time I took it to mean that I needed to plan better. What I should have done is listen to the niggling whining of Occam, and set myself to run more poorly planned adventures.
Improvisation is one of my biggest strengths as a referee. And since the goal here is “do less work,” it shouldn’t be too much of an issue. Though I may benefit from preparing more random tables as well.
The second thing I like are referees whose worlds feel consistent. Who have recurring characters, and faction politics. Whose worlds adapt not just to the great deeds of the players, but also to the little things they forget they even did.
If I want my games to be more like that, I need to take better notes during play. For real this time. Note taking for me is like weight loss. I always say I’m going to start taking it more seriously, but I always give up before I see any benefits. I wasn’t even good at taking notes in school when literally all I had to do was sit, listen, and take notes. So you can understand that when you combine note taking with running a game, it’s something I’ve never done a very good job of. But the more I think about it, the more I think that taking notes during play is the most important preparatory work a referee can do for future sessions.
I could spend an hour crafting some fascinating NPC for my players to meet. But it will never impress them as much as running into the same random mook named Dave because “1d6 bandits” was rolled two weeks in a row on the encounter table. That experience communicates to the players that they’re in a world with depth and texture. It opens up their minds to the possibilities of making friends and building alliances. It allows recurring foes like Dave to develop organically. It gets them excited. It certainly gets me excited.
I’ve had some promising success with this already. Keeping index cards nearby to write NPC info on has helped. I’ve also taken to writing detailed post-mortems of every session, with treasure, session highlights, NPC developments, etc. I’ve found it helpful to think of taking notes as replacing the detailed pre-session prep I’m used to doing. It also helps that, because I’m not doing that detailed pre-session prep anymore, I don’t have as many papers in front of me to sift through. Which gives me more table space to devote to my notes.
There are other things I’d like to improve on. But these are the two things I’m really trying to get better at right now. And the three sessions I’ve run so far this year have been promising! Self improvement is a tough road, though. Wish me luck.