Category Archives: General Thoughts on being a Referee

Sex in D&D

This turns me on. This is the sort of thing I like. I’m comfortable with sex as a subject matter. I would imagine that’s fairly obvious to anyone who has been reading my work here for any length of time. If you keep up with my play reports, session titles like “In Which My Ex Kills My Penis Monster,” “Have Your Cake and Fuck It Too,” or “Passing Through the BDSM district.” may have clued you in. Heck, I wrote a sex worker class at one point, and have never made any secret of the fact that I write pornography under a pseudonym. Sex is something I find very artistically engaging, and I’m not shy about pursuing that interest.

Until recently, it never occurred to me that I was unusual for feeling this way. After all, how many dungeons have you delved that included a harem? How many monster books include some creature inspired by psychosexual horror? In 2017, the ENNIE award for best adventure went to a book that includes a gangbang. That same publisher, LotFP, recently released a book called “Vaginas are Magic.” To me, it seems like sex is pretty well represented in the OSR scene.

Yet increasingly, I feel like I’ve been developing a bit of a reputation as a guy who “gets” how sex in RPGs works. I keep getting tagged into google+ threads where people are talking about it, because “Nick will have something to say about this.” And the other day, on Reddit, someone asked me point-blank to explain to them how I get away with including sex in my games without it turning into a shitshow.

So, alright, lets talk about sex.

First, why is sex interesting? Like, obviously we all enjoy a good orgasm now and again, but why include sex outside of a sexual situation? Why include in D&D?

Because sex is an elemental force. Beyond our individual lusts and experiences, it is a basic, primal thing that we all think about. And whether or not a particular flavor of fuck piques our interest, each new idea gets mixed in with the complex morass of our own sexuality. Sex is interesting because it’s universal.

But sex is also something that is deeply personal. People don’t tend to talk about it as much as they probably want to. We rarely have the opportunity to sit down with someone and intellectually engage with what sex is and what it means to us. It’s an emotional state, not so different from anger, joy, disgust, fear, or sorrow, and yet its exploration in life and art is comparatively shallow.

That’s why I feel compelled to put sex in my art. And, yeah, to some extent I do consider the D&D games I run to be my art. I know it sounds pretentious, and (even worse), story-gamey, but there it is. And I don’t mean to say that I’m rocking people’s world with how fuckin’ eye-opening my games are or anything. But, if your world has a BDSM town where everybody wears rubber and half the citizenry is on leashes, then that’s probably not something your players will have encountered before. It’s probably something they will remember, and that is a pretty decent accomplishment on its own.

Which I guess brings us to the question of how to do it right. The honest, but lazy, answer is “I don’t fuckin’ know.” You and yours are going to have different comfort levels than me and mine. I can’t write you a guide for how to make your friends comfortable with something they’re not comfortable with. But even ignoring that, even just writing about my own experiences, I can’t claim to be any kind of expert. Sex, in my games, is more of an ongoing experiment than anything else. That being said, I do have quite a bit of sex in my games, and I more or less make it work, so, what’s involved in that?

I never let sex be about anyone’s personal gratification. That’s what people are afraid of when they think about sex in a D&D game. They remember every horror story they’ve ever heard about some greasy basement dweller describing the contours and proportions of an NPC’s tits, while he fumbles and fails to hide his erection. That’s less about having sex in your game, and more about one person foisting their exhibitionism fetish onto the group.

Fortunately, if you play with decent human adults, that’s not going to be a problem.

You could probably chart a scary-accurate map of the sorts of weird sex stuff I’m into by paying attention to everything that doesn’t show up in my game world. I don’t think that sort of avoidance is really necessary to make sex work in a game, but it does help me stay honest. I know I’ll never get gross and linger over-long on the cake farting NPC, because cake farting isn’t my thing.

I also don’t make my game about sex, (most of the time). I just make sex part of the world. Players randomly encounter a dildo salesperson, but they don’t generally go on a quest to retrieve a magical sex toy. Sometimes the players are amused or interested, and they spend time role playing with the weird sex thing they bumped into, other times they ignore it and get right to the point. It depends on their mood.

When it comes to players actually having sex in the game, I want to share two examples I feel are usefully illustrative. One is the closest I’ve ever come to feeling like sex was becoming a problem, and the other is just a good example of how sex should normally work in a D&D game.

To tackle the latter case first, the players were in the middle of traveling, and had a random encounter with a succubus. She openly flirted with the party, and made it pretty clear that she would be happy to have sex with any one of them. One player decided to take her up on that offer.

The player mentioned that his character was a fairly modest guy, and would prefer to do the deed out of sight of his companions. The succubus agreed, and so the PC and the demon disappeared into a nearby bush. I then briefly described how sex with a succubus is weird, and terrifying, but so intensely good that it kinda ruins sex with anybody else. (After all, what mortal could measure up to a literal embodiment of the act? ) I tell the player what the experience is like, without lingering on sordid logistics.

In-game, the act took 30 minutes, so I ask the rest of the party if there’s anything they want to do with their 3 exploration turns. When that’s resolved, the PC was kicked out of the bushes, and the succubus left without another word. (At least, not until 13 game-months later when she showed up and handed off their infant child).

In this situation, the player self-censored by taking things into the bushes. But, even if he hadn’t, I would have described things almost exactly the same way. I might have included a few other notes for the observers, like “You see things you’d never considered, and new fetishes take root in your mind.” Given that it was a sex demon, I may even have required some kind of saving throw against the desire to join in. But one way or the other, the whole thing lasted a handful of seconds, and the game moved on.

I don’t “fade to black,” but neither do I obsess. I describe sex with the same level of detail I would use if my players said “Lets stop in this town and find something to eat.” I don’t describe the firmness of the vegetables, or the way the meat’s juice dribbles down their chin. BUT, I do make a point to come up with some interesting local cuisine, I tell the players how it tasted, and maybe throw in a tidbit about some strange local dining custom they encountered.

If those same players then wanted to have sex with the bartender, and he agreed to it, I’d say something like “He leads you back to the store room. He’s surprisingly gentle, and at one point does this weird thing with his feet that you really didn’t like at first, but was actually workin’ pretty well for you by the end. When you finish, he quickly excuses himself to get back to work, lest he get in trouble.”

Easy.

When she asks what sort of things you're into

My second example involves an NPC named The Hangman. She’s a towering bodybuilder of a woman, and a high level wizard to boot. Her role in the game is a long story, but the short version is that she is the party’s patron. She gives them access to some cool stuff, and in exchange they do jobs for her.

At one point, one of my players announced his intention to seduce The Hangman. His attitude about it made me a little uncomfortable, because it felt like he was only interested in seducing her because he found her annoying. She’s an imperious and demanding NPC, and it felt like he wanted to sexually “conquer” her as a means of bringing her down a peg or two.

(I don’t want to unfairly malign this player. He’s a decent guy, and was never anything but respectful. This is more about how I felt, how I reacted, and how the game world was affected as a result).

I waffled for awhile about how I wanted to deal with this situation. On the one hand, The Hangman is an NPC, and the player just wanted to build a stronger relationship with that NPC. It’s a completely reasonable thing for a player to want to do in an RPG. On the other, the situation was bumping up on my internal barometer of grossness. I didn’t want to let this powerful character be reduced to her sexuality. I could have easily just said “She’s not into you,” but honestly, I didn’t want to fiat an NPC’s feelings like that. I try to let the dice handle that sort of thing.

It took me awhile to come up with a solution that, in retrospect, is painfully obvious. I just played to her character. The Hangman is immensely powerful, physically, magically, and socially. Just because she’s been seduced by a player, does not mean she will become any less powerful or imperious.

So after a few game-months of (honestly pretty charming) flirtatious role play between the player and the NPC, the Hangman decided to take what she wanted. The PC had sex with The Hangman, yes, but like everything The Hangman does, she did it completely on her terms, and afterwords expected him to be ready for a booty call at any hour of the day.

Which is, again, precisely why sex is so interesting to include. Dealing with that situation forced me to understand this NPC better, and created a lot of fun role playing opportunities, and character moments, for everyone involved.

Lots of folks will read this, and think I’m some kind of deviant whack-job for including all of this in my games. And of course, there are plenty of actual deviant whack jobs out there who go even further than I do. Like anything, it’s all about your level of comfort, and what you and your group enjoy. But, if nothing else, I hope I’ve demonstrated that games with sex in them aren’t necessarily doomed to fail.

 

 

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?

 

Questgivers are Evil

Evil QuestgiverTwo thousand years after the fall of Oriac, seven adventurers came to Negune. Many adventurers had come before them, but all had either returned home or perished. These seven would prove different. […] For over thirty years, they traveled to every land of Negune. They slew monsters, saved villages, and bred good will throughout the land.”

I wrote that a few years back as part of the history of my Ascendant Crusade game. It’s the story that explained the way the nations on the continent were broken up. One for each of the heroic adventurers who had shown up out of nowhere and fixed everything. It’s a setting I was passionate about for many years, and I still have a place in my heart for it. But this particular tidbit is a good example of something that has come to bother me a lot about the stories that come out of D&D games. “Everything was bad. Nobody was competent. Fortunately, a small group of nobodies from nowhere fixed everything.”

I’m not a story guy. You wouldn’t have to try very hard to find quotes where I vehemently deride the over-emphasis of story in tabletop gaming. But I can’t pretend that story doesn’t play some role.

What really gets to me about this trope is the idea that players are SPECIAL. That even at first level, they’re basically the only instrument of change in the world. The only characters with agency. Of course, in matter of fact, they are the only characters who have agency, but rubbing it in their faces like this just seems gouache. How can you ever feel like you matter if the world is obviously constructed for the sole purpose of making you feel like you matter?

Which brings me to questgivers, an essential element to the game. They’re the folks who get stuff moving by giving the PCs something useful to do. There are a few essential elements that make up a questgiver’s character. First, they want something done. Second, they’re going to rely on strangers to do it for them. Third, they’re probably going to offer a reward for getting that thing done.

Lets start with that point about the PCs being strangers. We (as in you and I, looking at this text on a computer monitor) live in an anachronistic period of history. A period created by recent inventions such as the train, the automobile, the telephone, and the Internet.

These inventions allow us to buy our groceries & build our relationships outside of our immediate vicinity. Prior to this era, any community that wasn’t a cosmopolitan city would be tight knit. Strangers were immediately recognizable, and nobody liked or trusted them. So what would drive someone from that community to ask a stranger for help, when there are doubtless plenty of strapping young locals who would be happy to help?

We’re better at dealing with strangers now because everyone is a stranger. We don’t have a huge pool of neighbors to draw upon for every little thing. But that’s not true in a less modern setting, such as the ones we typically play D&D in.

Which brings up my next point: in any given place, there are tons of people who can get stuff done. Getting something done is a privilege. Ever notice how politicians will often stop other politicians from getting something done, even if they want to get the same thing done themselves? They don’t want the other party to get the glory of accomplishing this task. This is not a new practice, it’s as old as human society.

If you’re a king, you want your heir, or at least a strong supporter of yours, to do the cool things. Doing cool things strengthens their (and thus your) position. Likewise, if you’re a town of 30 people, you’ll want your own kin to handle a problem. It’s a matter of civic pride. And if a small town really can’t handle it themselves, then they’re going to expect the king to handle it. And the king is going to want to handle it, because if he doesn’t protect people from dangers, they’re going to start wondering why they pay taxes. It takes more than simple momentum to maintain an effective government.

Which brings us to the point of payment. People who do good things for money are not heroes. They don’t generate good will. Heroes are people who do good work without any promised reward. Heroes may be rewarded with positions, jobs, and land after the fact, but these things are not negotiated in advance. Certainly not out in the open, and certainly not for a simple cash payment. People who negotiate in advance for cash payment are called mercenaries.

Mercenaries are not heroes.

So when are mercenaries hired? In wealthy societies where the populace is unwilling to risk life and limb to protect their own lands, mercenary armies often replace home grown ones. But your PCs are not an army, they’re a handful of dudes with weapons who are willing to kill stuff for money. Who hires people like that?

People who want you to do some bad shit. People who want to deny knowledge of something. People who want to blame “those outsiders.”

In other words, questgivers are evil.

Now this isn’t a rule without exceptions. There will always be bounties on villains. There will always be towns at the end of their rope looking for 7 samurai. There will always be kingdoms ruled by despotic children who only send out soldiers to enforce tax collection. But there is pretty much NEVER going to be a long chain of dudes who want to hold your hand while you become an icon of heroic heroism and noble nobility, all while making sure your endeavors remain profitable.

Further, this doesn’t mean that players can’t be heroes if they want to be. It just needs to be their choice. They need to help people without being asked. When they do help people, they can’t then ask for payment, or ask for rewards that are not offered freely in gratitude. “Hero” is a tenuous title, and unless you’re dead, it can flip over to “tyrant” in a heartbeat.

It’s not my intent to argue that games should be more realistic as a general rule, or that this is the only way to play. Far from it. Anyone familiar with my work knows that realism bores me. The minute that somebody tries to justify a mechanic by saying it’s “more realistic,” my instinct is to just tune them out. But this idea of “the traveling adventurer” as an unambiguous hero shatters any sense of believability a story has for me. The way the word “adventurer” is used has become almost as cringe-inducing for me as the time I had an opportunity to have a one-on-one conversation with my favorite university professor, and I spent the whole time talking about why his favorite TV show was dumb.

Play the way you want to play, of course, but for me, accepting a quest should mean that you’re about to do some shady ass shit that will probably hurt some good people.

Where Does Story Come From?

A scene from Tales of the Dying Earth by Jack VanceThe argument that a game’s story emerges during play, rather than flowing from behind the referee’s screen, is by now a settled issue. The referee creates the world, and the players create the story through the actions they take within that world. Others have made this argument more eloquently than I can, and I have no intention of retreading that ground. However, recently I had a conversation which posed a further question: how can you get a consistent story to emerge during play?

I used to run D&D as a more narrative-driven game, before I was convinced by the argument above. There are a couple people who’ve said they’d like me to run one again. One of these people, my brother, is a player in my ORWA campaign. After a recent session, he and I sat for several hours chatting, and he complimented me on ORWA’s narrative. Apparently, ORWA is precisely the kind of narrative-driven game he’d been wanting to see me run.

I had to take a minute to wrap my head around why he would say that. From my perspective, ORWA didn’t have any more or less of a narrative than any other game I had run in recent years. There’s adventure in every direction. I don’t push the players towards any particular hooks. I have no plans for how the game will proceed, beyond the scheming of my NPCs. And those schemes are as thwartable as those NPCs are killable.

Simply speaking, I have no “plot” in mind that I’m trying to weave into the game. So why would my brother say that ORWA has a better narrative than other games of mine he has played?

At this point it occurred to me that the gameplay of ORWA has been following a fairly linear narrative path. Not because I planned for it, but because my players discovered a narrative thread and bound themselves to it. (A thread, I might add, that I never intended them to find).

Without going into too much campaign detail, at the end of their first adventure my players discovered a shadowy cabal of wizards called “The Internet.” They were warned, repeatedly, not to mess around with The Internet, but they ignored that advice and confronted one of the secretive wizards anyway. The players demanded better payment for the work they had done, and the wizard agreed, on the condition that the PCs subjugate themselves to the will of The Internet. Under this agreement the PCs are allowed to pursue their own interests so long as they don’t conflict with those of The Internet, and the PCs must be available to perform jobs for The Internet when called upon. The players agreed, and ever since then nearly every adventure has been a mission conducted in service of The Internet.

The players are not bound to this story. They could spend more time pursing their own goals if they want to. They certainly encounter any number of adventure hooks they pass up in favor of waiting for the next Internet mission. They could work to break free of The Internet if they wanted, but aside from a single exception, they don’t seem interested. I don’t know if they’re just being carried forward by momentum at this point, or if they’re eager to see what The Internet will do next.

Whatever the motivation, the fact is that the players found a story that they thought was interesting, and they stuck with it. Every week they pursue the story further, and it grows and evolves accordingly. There are regular characters with whom they’ve developed relationships, not because I’ve decided that those characters will be recurring. But, rather, because those are the characters who live in this corner of the campaign world. And it’s the corner of the campaign world the players have decided to spend their time in.

In the course of any normal D&D campaign, the players will brush up against countless stories. Most of those stories will serve as vignettes. They’ll last an adventure or so, and then the players will be on to something else. That’s fine, because the story that really matters is the story of the PC’s adventures, whatever those adventures may be. Eyes of the Overworld does not suffer for Cugel’s constant motion from one adventure to the next. A great story can be told through many vignettes.

But if you’d like to see a consistent narrative that grows and changes over the course of an entire campaign, there’s no need for the referee to impose that narrative. All that needs to happen is that the players need to pick a narrative to pursue, and stick with it. It could be their own narrative–establishing a kingdom, becoming famous adventurers, exploring some new unknown country; or they could latch themselves to someone elses’ narrative by joining a conspiracy, or a pirate band, or really just joining any organization at all.

The players create the story of the game with their actions. But this conversation with my brother has made me wonder if I’m doing enough to make my players aware of how far their power extends. Perhaps more adventures ought to end in the style of a spaghetti western, with the townsfolk asking the players to stick around and become the sheriff. That would give the players an explicit choice: would they like to see how this story develops further, or do they want to ride off into the sunset to find something new?

 

What I Need to Improve On as a Referee, 2016 edition

I really really really really like Community.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.

How should mind affecting spells work on PCs?

MindControlMind affecting spells cast on players are a tricky business.

With NPCs, there are no wrong answers. Can Charm Person be used to turn the bandit into a loyal henchman, or will the spell be broken as soon as you stab his friend? We can argue about one method or another being more fun, but in the end it doesn’t matter which method you use. The NPC isn’t going to feel like they’ve been treated unfairly. But a player might.

Lately, my most consistent D&D game has been Saturday morning Necrocarserous with John Bell. My character, Urlar of Yellow Waters, has been possessed by dragon spirits, dominated by an intelligent item, and affected by a spell which convinced me that my companions had been corrupted and that the only way to give them peace was to kill and eat them. Far from feeling like I was being treated unfairly, these moments where I lost normal control over my character are some of the most entertaining highlights of my time as a cog in the Necrocarserous Program.

My character didn’t turn into a temporary NPC while I sat on the sidelines and watched the game unfold. Nor did John ever tell me what specific actions I had to take. Instead, my character was given a goal. With the Dragon spirits, it was fairly broad. “Act in the best interests of the dragon cult” or something. Being empowered by the dragon spirits, I actually got a ton of boosts to my abilities, and a whole cult worth of people doing my bidding. Unfortunately, the rest of the party was in the process of robbing the dragon cult. Obviously I’m on the side of the party, but right now, Urlar is on the side of the dragons. So I ordered ‘my’ cultists to destroy the stone dome the magic user summoned to protect himself. The MU was the one actually in possession of the cult’s property, and thus should be our primary target. When a hole opened that was big enough to shoot arrows through, I insisted the cultists continue to focus on destroying the dome. A small hole, I reasoned, only allows a single arrow to fire through it, but a large hole can allow a steady stream of cultists into the dome to overwhelm the intruder. Eventually, my intentionally bad tactics allowed the party to withdraw successfully. (I don’t recall how they extricated me, but they did. Once I got back to town I had the tumor that allowed me to see dragon spirits removed.)

Being mind controlled in Necrocarserous isn’t something that happens to you. The player is not a passive participant. Mind control is a puzzle that can be solved. The player knows what their goal is, and they are obligated to pursue it. (John often tells me ‘no,’ and clarifies the nature of my goal when I try to deviate too much.) But any path to the goal that makes sense will be accepted. And thus can a mind controlled player minimize the damage they do to the party’s goals. Or even work towards the party’s goals if they are particularly clever about their reasoning.

This is how I want to run mind affecting spells from now on. As a complication which forces the player to stretch their ingenuity to the limits, rather than a buzzkill that bums the player out.

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