Thursday, July 21, 2011

Ref Impartiality

Probably the only tough thing about running my bi-monthly Omegea campaign (unless you count trying to stand upright after a growler of Ommegang Abbey) is my commitment to remaining 100% impartial.

100% impartial.

Now, this is not the "mostly impartial" school of refereeing that seems to be most common in RPGs. I've certainly been guilty of it myself over the years, allowing godly intervention to "reboot" a tpk, fudging a roll now and then for the sake of the "story", even simple DM fiat just to nudge things in the "right direction".

No, I'm talking about complete, merciless, let-the-dice-fall-where-they-may impartiality. No breaks, no fudging, no second chances. Brutal impartiality.

This is especially tough in a game like mine, I think, because we have so many novice players. Out of a revolving corral of 8 or so players, only a couple are what I would call "veteran" gamers, and the rest are all artists and writers. These folks bring an awful lot of creativity to the table, which I love, but not a whole lot of dungeoneering experience, which is where the whole impartiality thing gets particularly... challenging.

Imagine biting your tongue as as a cleric throws (expensive) holy water on a Gelatinous Cube. Or the party stumbling into the same 10' pit for a second time (!) because they still haven't figured out what that optional 10' pole I offer with the standard starting equipment package is useful for. All to often these missteps can result in swift and spectacular deaths. I cringe as PC after PC blow themselves up, stick their faces into holes to have them chewed off by centipedes, and so on. Impartiality means watching them walk past secret doors without saying a word. Its watching them leave an "empty" room, which happens to have the most valuable treasure in the dungeon concealed under a loose floorboard, and not even blinking an eye. Its trying not to chuckle while they get ripped off by merchant after merchant because they haven't really tried to haggle much.

When we ended last session, the players had all decided to stuff their packs with 10lbs of oil flasks each. So that's how they'll be headed back into the dungeon next time. With 10lbs of combustible fluids on each of their backs. Did I mention blowing themselves up?

Now, as I mentioned in a previous post, everyone seems to have a real hoot as character after character dies, but I still worry about players getting discouraged. It hasn't happened yet though, and hopefully never will.

As tough as it is to maintain my "DM Face" (there are some who call it a "poker face"), I'm beginning to realize this no holds barred approach to impartiality is becoming one of the things that keeps me on the edge of my seat session after session. And, by the time these guys are running 4th or 5th level characters, they're going to be DAMN TOUGH! Because they learned it all the hard way.

What's your opinion of, or experience with, impartiality?


  1. If a character is 7 exp away from level and they are about to head back into the Dungeon of Thwakbangboom - let the guy level up before they head back in. This fudge is just fine in my book.

    Make sure as a GM you offer the players visible and viable choices in every instance. Do not let things happen to characters without allowing them something they can try to do. They can fail at it, but at least they tried and were afforded the opportunity.

    Then let the dice speak for themselves.

  2. I think there's good reason for moderate impartiality's popularity, if not ubiquity. I've never found either end of the spectrum to be at all satisfying. I've yet to meet the players who keeps a stiff upper lip when character after character is consigned to oblivion, as the house odds dictate will be the case if one rolls often enough.

    My primary mission is to provide an enjoyable communal experience, so I'm flexible as a moderator--if I'm dicing with a group who favor meat grinding, so be it. Yet to encounter anybody who prefers that diet ,though. On the other claw, I've met plenty of GM's who just love to run ye old sadomasochistic grinders.

  3. This is exactly the kind of DMing my friend Scott did when I was first starting out with the old Mentzer Basic. I still clearly remember many notorious ends to many a nimrod PC (mine and others). Perhaps my favorite is the NPC MU with one hit point (that's what he rolled) who slipped on a greased ladder descending into the dungeon and died...we hadn't even gotten into the dungeon technically and we were a man down. Was it occasionally tedious? maybe, but it sure made us appreciate the ones who survived, even to the point that many a character retired from adventuring immediately thereafter (on to the next brash fool!).

    This is the sort of game I'd like to run, but my friends are all 'we're the protagonists of this narrative, we never fail' types. meh.

  4. I think, when running a game like this, it's a good idea to do the occasional de-briefing outside the context of the game, and keep the players aware of some of the things where you were impartial: "I hated killing you with that pit, but you rolled unlucky on the dice," or even, "you missed some hidden treasure while you were in there."

    Players WANT to play in an impartial game, so they get the medal for survival. But they have to know it's not partial AGAINST them, and de-briefing can help remove that concern.

  5. I have been thinking about this a lot lately, as last session the thief died from an unlucky poison arrow, but then the fighter took an arrow just the same (by rule of the dice), but I fudged it, and I still don't know why. I guess for me, if it feels like the right moment when the dice kill a PC, I let it happen. But in this instance the drama of the thief's death was so great that the fighter dying next in the same way seemed... Well, boring and tedious.

    I still haven't figured this one out, but I find I lean heavily on mercy when it comes to PC's. I wish I could be more impartial. Part of my leniency comes from the fact that I think to myself, Should I have thrown that creature at them? Was it too hard? Is it my poor adventure design that caused them to die?

    In general, I am torn up about the issue.

  6. I feel it is important to note that impartiality is a goal, but not an achievable one. The DM frames the questions the PCs answer, after all. The DM decides when to call for rolls, how to describe environments, and so on.

    When an analogue medium is converted to digital, an infinite amount of information is lost. Fiction is choosing events and descriptions to frame a narrative.

    Interpretation is inevitable, in a sense. For me, the question focuses in on whether the DM leans to help the party, compete with the party, or try to just referee (which is what I think you are describing).

    Good discussion! I like your descriptions.

  7. Our group's usual DM falls more into the story-telling type DM; that is he has a beginning, middle, and an end. So, yeah we know he fudges things to make sure the story keeps going. Sometimes there's the die roll behind the screen we players know is fudged. Sometimes it's an NPC that shows up out of the blue with some important information.

    We don't mind. He's a good story teller and he takes into account the types of adventures/challenges we like to face. It works well for us, but I can see where others would feel railroaded and hate it.

    A question: Wouldn't all clerics (in game) know the difference between undead and living creatures? Wouldn't they all know that holy water wouldn't affect a Gelatinous Cube? Our DM assumes even 1st level PC have some "adventuring knowledge". That's a situation where our DM would jump in and say something like, "As a cleric/ranger/etc. your character would know x."

    Again, your mileage may very :-)

  8. I think with beginning players an impartial ref is obligated to give them a little subtle "reminding" now and then about what ought to become standard proceedure. After their first fight I might ask "Are you guys going to search the goblin's bodies?" and then if they don't search later, I don't say anything.

    I have noticed, though, that people used to playing Pathfinder and 4e play the game noticably different from how we used to play it. They really do believe in their heart of hearts that every adversary is defeatable, every dead end contains a secret door, and there's a straight line from start to finish. I don't think they're used to things begin quite to opened ended.



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