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On a Red World Alone has a way of bringing out the weird in people. To some extent that’s true of all D&D, but ORWA strikes a chord with people. It makes them want to go out of their way to be weird, just for the sake of fitting in with all the weirdness around them. It’s one of the things I love about the setting.
Recently, one of my players had the opportunity to make a wish. He said “I wish that anytime I successfully flip over someone’s head, something happens.”
That’s it. Just…”something happens.” He went on to explain that he didn’t care how I determined what happened, and could use whatever method I deemed appropriate. He did suggest that I could write a table if I wanted (this is something my players have come to expect from me), but added that he would be just as happy to have me make up the results on the spot. In fact, he insisted that if I did make a table, he wanted at least one of the entries to be “referee improvises something.”
For a few weeks after the player made this wish, my game prep time was pretty lacking, so that’s basically what I did. I just improvised something that felt appropriate each time he flipped. Like the time I caused flowers to grow out of the ground all around where he landed, or the time I had a nearby door slide open. I’ve wanted to make a table, and now that I’ve got a little more time that’s what this post was originally going to be. But the player uses this ability several times each session, so I worry that even a d100 table would get stale more quickly than it would be worth. And anyways, I like making these unpredictable effects relate specifically to the situation the players are in, which a table cannot easily accommodate.
So, rather than create a table with explicit entries, I’ve decided to use a reaction roll to determine how good or bad the result of a flip should be, then fiat from there. So, whenever this player flips over someone’s head, 2d6 are rolled.
On a 2, something terrible happens. Like…a nearby vase explodes, filling the room with flying shards of glass shrapnel.
On a 3-5, something somewhat unfortunate happens. Like…the flipper’s personal gravity is reversed, causing him to fall up to the ceiling.
On a 6-8, something weird and neutral, but potentially exploitable, happens. Like…smoke starts pouring out the flipper’s ears until it fills the room.
On a 9-11, something pretty good happens. Like…an encounter that was going poorly resets, so the party can make a new first impression.
On a 12, something great happens. Like…the flipper gains a temporary invulnerability.
There’s still a lot of fiat involved, which is what we wanted here. That will allow the flips to have context-based results, and prevent the ability from starting to feel stale. But, I’m not in complete control. The dice are still a deciding factor, which was important to me.
That begs the question, why? Why don’t I want to be in control? OSR referees have a reputation, in some corners of the greater RPG community, for being control freaks. We want the power to make ANYTHING happen in our games, without regard for the player’s desires. We want to create the whole game world ourselves, rather than let players have any input on what the world is like, etc. etc. etc.
And it’s true, I do want that power when I run games. Honestly, I require that power. If the group wants to play a game where the referee’s role has been neutered, I may be willing to participate, but I wouldn’t be willing to run. Without the power to bend the world in whatever direction I deem correct, being the referee seems kinda pointless to me.
But that power is always supposed to be used in the service of the world. The idea is not that the referee gets to go on a power trip. That’s just juvenile, and not a game anybody would stick around in for very long. The idea is that we’re all playing in a shared imaginary space, and because we’re all different people, we’re going to perceive that space in different ways, and thus need an arbiter to resolve disagreement.
If a room is described as having a pillar in it, one player might imagine a classic roman pillar with vertical grooves and decorative marble filigree at each end. Another player might imagine a crude length of wood. Most of the time, it doesn’t matter, because the pillar is just set dressing. But, part of the fun of RPGs is that anything can become important at any time.
To continue with the same thought experiment, one player says they use their daggers to climb the pillar. Because that player is imagining a column of wood, this seems totally reasonable to them. Another player, though, was imagining stone columns, and is mystified as to how this dumbass thinks they’re going to stick their daggers into it. Who is correct?
The referee is correct. That’s their job. The way they imagine the space is the ‘right’ one, and when some as-yet unspoken detail of the world becomes relevant, the referee can describe what they were imagining.
Of course, sometimes the referee wasn’t imagining anything. Sometimes a player does a flip, and “something happens,” and the referee is responsible for describing something they weren’t planning.
Here’s the thing. As a referee, I do my best to impartially communicate the world to my players. But, I also like my players. They are my friends, and I like it when they have a fun time. I want to be nice to them. So if it’s up to me to just…pick something, I’m going to err on the side of making them happy. It’s not something I aim to do, it’s just something that happens.
But players shouldn’t always be happy. Sometimes, bad things happen to them. Bad things cause conflict, and conflict is the core element of interesting events. Even when good things happen, it may not be the good thing the players wanted, or expected, and that can be interesting too.
It’s a less important consideration, but the dice also help avoid choice paralysis. “Something Happens” is a pretty big mandate. “Something bad happens” or “Something great happens” is much more manageable. Creativity thrives on limitations.
And that’s why anyone who has ever criticized the OSR for anything, ever, is a big dummy