What I Need to Improve on as a Referee, 2017 Edition

Community D&D episode, Pierce on throneCompletely by accident, I stumbled on a post I made last January reflecting on my failings as a referee, and describing the two major ways I wanted to improve.  Considering that the timing of my stumble was so perfect, (literally on January 1st of the new year), I figured it’d be a good time to take another look. To reflect on how I did with my self improvement last year, and in what ways I can continue to improve this year.

In last year’s post, I discussed two ways in which I wanted to improve. First, I wanted to become a more responsive referee. Someone who didn’t need to dig through notes and books in order to answer questions. Second, I wanted to maintain a more consistent game world. One where characters and factions recurred, and the players started to gain a sense of place. And as weird as it is to say this…mission accomplished? I’ve managed to become really good at both of those things.

Both of these goals were kind of accomplished by the same, single change in my refereeing strategy: I stopped putting in much work before each session, and instead I put in all my work after each session.

I used to write multi-paragraph-long room descriptions for each room, which had to be done before I ran my game each week. It was an immense strain on my creative efforts, and on my time. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, here’s the first room players encounter within Dungeon Moon. Almost every room was like this:

Spiral staircase, descends 6 stories from the surface. It twists around a large golden pillar, which is covered in gouges of various sizes and textures. It looks as though gold might have been chipped away from the pillar using knives.

If the players attempt to cut gold from the pillar, the gold will turn to a small snake, and successfully bite whoever is holding it. They must make a save v. poison, or all gold they touch for the next 24 hours will rot away to nothing. The snake will immediately try to escape, and will grow to maturity in 1d4 weeks. Once mature, it will hunt the one who created it until it is destroyed.

The secret door can only be discovered by searching for secrets on the appropriate section of wall. A small press-stone opens it.

For the last year, my prep work has been crazy low. A lot of the heavy lifting is done by the many random tables I’ve written, which only need to be restocked occasionally. The rest of the work is usually doodling or downloading a few maps, and writing a handful of sentence-long room descriptions in the margins, with arrows pointing to where they’re relevant.

When I was running Dungeon Moon, I had nearly 30 pages worth of maps in front of me, which had to be cross referenced with an equal number of document files with the room descriptions in them (which might, themselves, be 8 or 9 pages long). For On a Red World Alone, I might have 3-5 maps in front of me for any given session, but that’s it. All the information is right there, which allows me to be lightning fast with my response when the players do something.

This does require a lot more improvisation, which means that I have to be deadly careful of creating Quantum Ogres. But that’s a whole other discussion.

On the back end, as you may have noticed, I do an imperial fuck ton of note keeping for each session. It’s really boring to write, and sometimes it takes almost as long as running the actual session did, because I have such a hard time focusing while I do it. But, I’m tremendously happy to have those 40 play reports. Not only does it delight my archivist sensibilities, but those play reports are my best source for finding new challenges for the PCs to deal with. Browsing those records, it never takes me long to find someone in there who probably has a grudge against the NPCs, and might be scheming against them.

Those play reports, combined with the work I’ve done to improve my factions, and my encounters, have made ORWA feel like a consistent world, and I’m  super proud of that.

I also had a third goal last year. One I didn’t mention, because it seems gauche to talk about. I wanted to revive Papers and Pencils.  This website was a lifesaver to me during a very dark period of my life, and it remains a touchstone for my well being. When the website is dead, it’s because my life is in chaos, and I probably don’t feel very good about myself. If you look at the sidebar, you’ll notice that 2014 and 2015 were pretty much dead, and you can imagine how I was feeling.

Heck, roughly a third of all the posts in 2015 happened in September of that year. I just pulled out my personal logs to see what was going on that month. On the 3rd, I finally got a job after months of unemployment and financial uncertainty which nearly destroyed my relationship with my lady friend. A few days later, I created the Magic Words system.

In this, too, I was successful. Not only did I manage to produce at least 1 post every week, but I also built up a buffer of posts to keep the blog healthy, even when I don’t have the time to maintain it. I wouldn’t mind seeing the blog get up to 2 posts a week, but I’m perfectly happy with just one. (I suppose if you count the ORWA play reports, it already IS two posts each week. I don’t count the ORWA play reports).

I’m never going to hit 2012 levels of blog activity again, but that’s just part of me maturing as a writer. In 2012, P&P was the only writing I was doing. In 2017, P&P is a single project among many. Most of what I write is too big to be a blog post. And honestly, my average post quality in 2012 was garbage compared to my average post quality in 2016. I much prefer putting out one quality post each week, compared to heaping writing onto the Internet as fast as I can manage.

So there it is. In 2016 I had 3 goals, and I succeeded with all of them. I know a lot of celebrities died, but it was honestly a pretty good year for me. Which brings me to the question: what do I want to improve on next?

None of my goals this year are as dramatic as last year’s. I’m more or less happy with where I am as a referee, and my concern is more about fine tuning my skill, rather than pursuing an entirely different philosophy. So here are some things I’ve been thinking about:

Languages: Last night I was revising the skills list for my ORWA campaign. When I got to the Language skill, I thought “huh. Nobody ever puts points in that. I wonder why.” This thought was quickly followed by an answer:”Because nothing in your campaigns ever speaks any language other than English.”

I really have never included language barriers in my games, and I need to give it a try. It will enhance the alien-ness of the creatures my players encounter. It’ll also allow me to give them information with a lock on it. Or maybe it’ll just give me an opportunity to finally use the languages rules I drafted last year, where you get a +1 to your reaction roll if you can speak in a person’s native tongue.

It’s entirely possible that I will discover I don’t like having language barriers in the game. In that case, I can drop the Language skill, and continue on running games as I always have. But before I throw the idea out completely, I’d like to make an effort.

Hirelings: You know how in the first half of Order of the Stick, Varsuvius’ raven familiar only poofs into existence when it’s useful to Varsuvius? The joke, of course, being that despite the fact that it’s “always there,” it’s never acknowledged unless it has some benefit to the party’s goals.

I need to stop allowing that with hirelings. I need to start taking an active role in making the party’s hirelings feel present at all times. Sure, they may be the PC’s employees, but they’re still NPCs, and that means it’s my job to play them.

It’s a fine line to walk. As referee, I already do the majority of the talking. The last thing my game needs is for me to start dominating half of player discussions, simply because there are nearly as many hirelings as there are players. They’re not GMPCs. They can be deferential to their employers.

But they need to be present. They need to have preferences, they need to express concerns. They need to create opportunities for players to grow to like, or dislike them. That’s all on me.

Profit: I don’t know if I ever mentioned this on Papers & Pencils, but in July of 2014 I quit my job so I could have more time to write. It was a pretty good job, where I made a lot of money, and had great job security, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. So, at the prodding of my lady friend, I quit.

Since then, if I’m being brutally, humiliatingly honest, I have made less than $100 from writing. Less than $100 in 2.5 years. That’s legitimately difficult for me to admit out in the open. It reflects really fuckin’ poorly on me, in more ways than one. In order to get by, I’ve worked a few minimum wage jobs, and at some point along the way I just kinda accepted that as the new norm.

But this cannot be the norm. I need to find a way to start making some money off of my work, or I won’t be able to continue to justify spending as much time on it as I do. This means a lot of things. I need to actually finish some of these bigger projects and get them published. I need to find out if there’s any potential in setting up a Patreon for P&P. I need to get over myself and learn to ~hrnuk~ self promote.

So that’s how my 2017 is shaping up. How about yours?


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3 thoughts on “What I Need to Improve on as a Referee, 2017 Edition”

  1. Aside from life’s other aspects, these are the things I’d like to accomplish in gaming in 2017:

    * Run Break!! and Lost Songs of the Nibelungs, once they are published. I’ve been in love with these games since I first read about them; I’d be really happy if they were to be finally published this year.

    * Publish my Grim Tales rules/setting combo. I’ve been constantly changing what I want from this one, so I need to settle on a single concept. Dolmenwood is kinda similar, but I imagine Grim Tales to be more fairy tale-esque (I was watching the first couple seasons of Once Upon A Time when the idea first popped into my head). So far I’ve decided to stick with an OSR-esque approach, and I’ve got about 8-10k words on monsters, encounters, and player-facing rules.

    * Design something OSR based on the Shadow Realm and “defend the base from intruders and/or hunt them down” theme of Werewolf: the Forsaken. It’s been my favourite game from the nWoD line, and even though I like the recently released 2nd edition very much, I’d still like something more traditional out of it. Also, procedures. A lot of procedures. And turf wars and enemy factions handled by neat and simple rules (Mr Crawford’s games have been a great inspiration, I gotta admit).

    * Run a wuxia game (preferably Tianxia or Wandering Heroes of the Ogre Gate). Because I’m a wuxia game virgin. I’m not that well-versed in the genre, but the movies I’ve seen so far were amazing.

    * Run a well-designed magical girl campaign (maybe Magical Burst, once it’s published). Mostly to test my own boundaries. I don’t actually like anime and manga, to be honest. But Persona 3 and Final Fantasy IX are my favourite CRPGs, and magical girls _can_ be cool. I mean, it’s like werewolves and Hyde but with more glitter and high school drama, right? :P

    * Run short campaigns with my favourite PbtA games (Urban Shadows, Fellowship, and Legend of the Elements). We’ve already had our first session of Fellowship, so that’s promising.

    * Run a full-blown Torchbearer campaign. I’ve had a great one-shot with my face-to-face group (and a few huge failures with regular OSR folks). I absolutely don’t mind its board gamey approach (in fact, it was its main selling point for me), and I’d really like to see how a campaign would play out.

    * Finish writing my Sempiternal Citadel of Maleficence gothic megadungeon (even if Melan’s gothic dungeon will probably outshine it). At the moment, it is actually less developed than Grim Tales, and I think I’ve lost half the maps I made for it… but I still think the concept is neat, and I like how I could make all my nightmares into rooms in it.

    * Continue my Dwimmermount and AS&SH campaigns (maybe start something anew with 2nd edition). My players like it, and I have no reason to stop playing them.

    * Do more editing and proofreading for RPG publishers. Aside from Perdition and a smaller project that should be released this year, I haven’t done much editing for RPGs and supplements, which is a shame. I might need to be more aggressive in my approach, I guess, like messaging people who post about something they wanna publish and bluntly offering my services (and real cheap prices).

  2. If there’s one thing you don’t need to improve at it’s inspiring others. I love your work, been following you for almost 2 years, and can proudly say I’ve read every post.
    I used write overly complicated too, and sometimes still do. I love writing it. Other times, I’ve gone to the table with nothing but vague idea of a genre. When I get to the table though, no matter how much I’ve prepared, I put pretty much all the paperwork away. I figure that if I can’t even remember what I’ve wrote myself, it’s not going to be very memorable for the players. And they all seem to prefer it that way over other styles.
    Keep up the good work :)

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