Monday, July 25, 2011

Dave Arneson and Impartiality in the Temple of the Frog


When it comes to the perfect role model for the impartial ref, I need look no further than my experiences with Dave Arneson. As some of the comments of the linked article would indicate, impartiality can be associated with a "ref vs. players" mentality. I probably made similar associations myself in the past, but gaming with Dave dispelled the notion.

Being, for the first time, in a game run by Dave was a bit disorienting. When your character interacted with Dave's world, he became very animated, as if pouring every bit of his personality into making the game come alive. In between those parts, though, he seemed aloof, even detached. To clarify that a bit - if you happened to be talking to one of the elven guards watching the causeway to Castle Blackmoor, he was completely in character, and you could almost smell the salt spray from the bay behind the castle. However, if the players were discussing how best to proceed across Loch Gloomen amongst themselves, you could expect absolutely no reaction from Dave whatsoever. He would sit, stonefaced, not reacting to anything anyone was saying. If a question was put to him as DM rather than as an NPC, he would simply shrug and look bored.

If you've ever watched a court trial on TV (a real trial, not a show), you've seen this same behavior - from the judge.

"Judge" would actually be a better description of how Dave ran his games than "Referee". The difference being one of rules vs. rulings. Dave was firmly in the rulings camp. If you ever got a chance to sit in one of his convention games, he would pull out a pile of pregen characters - a hodgepodge of sheets from different editions and versions of editions. At one session, I received an 8th level D&D 3.0 Cleric, and the fellow next to me had what I am pretty sure was some sort of OD&D ranger. When one of the players, obviously confused, asked him what edition we were going to be playing, Dave grinned at him, held out his hand for a shake, and said "Hi, I'm Dave Arneson."

That particular session would have been in 2002, I believe, and just a couple of years into the rules-intensive environment of d20 gaming. It was interesting to watch players who were very much into rules-mastery and character-builds interact with a DM who could really give a shit about an opposed grapple check or what a particular monster supposedly could or could not do. Dave had exactly two ways of resolving dilemmas or challenges. 1) Make an absolutely impartial ruling, or 2) if an absolutely impartial ruling was impossible, roll the dice.

He would go so far, sometimes, as letting the players roll the dice for both sides of a conflict. Once, when the party's boat was a attacked by a horde of lizardmen, he told us how many there were, their armor class, their hit points, what they needed to hit us, and so on. They were stupid, he explained, and fanatic, and would fight to the death, so we should be able to take care of that ourselves, and he was going to go get a coke and he'd be back in a few minutes to check on us. Half of the players grinned at his audacity (me included), while the other half looked around for the hidden cameras or waited for the punch line.

To say that Dave was completely impartial with regards to the game was not to say that Dave was completely impartial with regards to players, often with hilarious results. Once, while the party was being attacked by some sort of flying machines over the swamps near the Temple, a player whinged a bit that, since he had been paralyzed, he had nothing to do while everyone else got to fight the machines, and how unfair that was. Dave regarded him quietly for a moment, then handed him a d6, and said "here, roll that every round." The player, confused, asked why. "That," Dave said, "is how much damage you take every round. That should keep you busy." I don't believe anyone else complained about anything for the rest of the session.

It didn't take long in one of Dave's games for the players to realize that we were on our own, completely. There would be no hints, subtle or otherwise, no clues dropped in our paths when we happened to go off-track. No mercy when we stumbled into overwhelming odds. No poison types fudged when we failed our saving throws. It was up to us to search, scout, research, prepare, plot, and react with some sort of competence. If not, characters died, or we as players would simply be informed that we had completely failed in our mission and that the session was over, better luck next time. Victory or defeat was our responsibility, never, respectively, a hand-out or a punishment. It was never ref vs. players, nor was it ref working for players. Dave was there to bring the world alive for us to explore, and to make sure we were engaged, entertained, and, most importantly, challenged. He did this magnificently, and when we won, we were actually proud of ourselves.

Impartiality of this magnitude was something I pretty much forgot about for years after that. For one thing, I moved away from Dave's neighborhood. For another, I got into a long-running 3x campaign, and didn't much concern myself with the "old ways" for a long time. Lately though, as I run older editions and their clones bi-weekly, I've been spending a little more time going over my memories of how things were done by one of the game's creators, and trying, admittedly against my own soft-hearted nature, to capture a bit of that magic myself.

22 comments:

  1. Man, what a great read. Unfortunately I like most I imagine never had the amazing fortune to play in a game ran by Dave, but from the sound of it, I think I would have loved it. I like the idea of him sitting there stone-faced as a dm while you all concocted plans. Really gives me inspiration for how to run my own games, plus it helps put the burden of keeping up with things and events in the game on the players shoulders, because they can't just look to the dm and say, hey who was that npc we met in that last city? Thanks for this post. Great stuff.

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  2. Very, very cool.

    Wish I could have been there!

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  3. Great post. I've been reading The First Fantasy Campaign, and just this past weekend I got my Fight On compilation +4 and read a somewhat similar article about a player's experience with Dave. Both reports were thoroughly enjoyable to read, and I am saddened that I will never be able to play in a game run by this truly unique individual.

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  4. Great post Al! Thanks for sharing that.

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  5. Thanks for sharing. I strive to be as impartial as that. Alas, all too often I give in and drop a few hints here and there. Here's to Dave.

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  6. Thanks for the great post, Al. Something to ponder.

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  7. The judge analogy helps explain to me why Dave played things so close to the vest when I asked him questions at the "My Awesome Gaming Group" panel. He answered my "is it this or that" question 'yes' because 'some of my players are here' - so I never saw him without his judicial robes on and any comment on a case in session tarnishes impartiality.
    - Tavis

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  8. Thanks for that. I've been following these blogs for the last 1.5 yr, and I'll admit that when I hear the term "Arnesonian" I don't really know what it means, and why one would want to be more Arnesonian in the course of play. This really helps clarify that.

    Rock it mr. grim!

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  9. Thank you for this anecdote.

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  10. This blog is great and you are amazing!

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  11. A great story! Thanks for sharing it.

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  12. This is how I used to try to run things in my Rules Cyclopedia campaign back in the day, my first D&D campaign (yes, I started with Red Box, or, rather, Rectangular Black Box in about 90-91-92 - I'm 30). The game lent itself to this style of play. Things changed after that - GMs began to be encouraged to "prod the fun along" even if it meant working for the players instead of just adjudicating the game and providing the world. I got away from impartiality with 3.0/3.5 - even 2nd Ed, actually - and now I shall be back to it with Swords & Wizardry as I begin my new campaign. I've done the "stone-faced judge" thing before, and it can really make things fun! What no one at the table other than the GM realizes, is that the GM is either calculating chances of success at that moment in his head, or is laughing right alongside the players, just very quietly.

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  13. The game is totally different when the players trust the DM; they'll go along with about anything. Sounds like he was a trustworthy DM. Thanks for sharing.

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  14. A fantastic set of stories about Dave in action. I wish I could have seen more of his games!

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  15. Great post. Thanks for sharing. Truly a model to emulate!

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  16. I enjoyed this entry very much. Thank you so much for sharing these experiences.

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  17. Let me add my voice to the resounding chorus of gratitude at having the opportunity to read that. Thanks!

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