Monday, August 3, 2020

(hopefully) Simple and (possibly) Universal Referee Advice

While pumping out more copy for Weird North (Into the Odd/Electric Bastionland hack for the Sword & Sorcery genre), I've tried to keep my referee advice as succinct and helpful as possible. Adages, not block text. Suggestions, not a manual. Common sense, not overwrought pedantics. Hat tip to Chris McDowall for spearheading many of these concepts for the thick-skulled and slow-brained, like me.

I adore Stepan Alekseev's art. That is all.

Information: Afford players with real information as they explore the world.
- Players do not need to roll dice to learn about their circumstances.
- Be helpful and direct with your answers to their questions.
- Respond honestly, describe consistently, and always let them know they can keep asking questions.

Difficulty: Default to context and realism rather than numbers and mechanics.
- If something the players want to do is sincerely impossible, no roll will allow them to do it.
- Is what the player describes and how they leverage the situation sensible? Let it happen.
- Saves cover a great deal of uncertain situations, and are often all that is necessary for risky actions.

Danger: The game world produces real risk of pain and death for the player characters.
- Telegraph serious danger to players when it is present. The more dangerous, the more obvious.
- Put traps in plain sight and let the players take time to figure out a solution.
- Give players opportunities to solve problems and interact with the world.

Choice and Impact: Give players a solid choice to force outcomes when the situation lulls.
- Use binary “so, A or B?” responses when their intentions are vague.
- Work together with this conversational progress to keep the game moving.
- Ensure that their actions leave their mark on the game world.

Preparation: The game world is organic, malleable, and random. It intuits and makes sharps turns.
- Leverage random tables and generators to develop situations rather than stories or plots.
- Non-players remember what players say and do to them and the world around them.
- No one wants to die for no reason. Infuse survivability and self-interest into every personality.

Diegesis: Emergent experience of play is what matters, not math, character abilities, or meta elements.
- Give the players sword trainers and personal quests to facilitate their improvement and specialization.
- Pay attention to the needs and wants of the players, then put realistic opportunities in their path.
- A dagger to your throat will kill you, regardless of your expensive armor and impressive training.


  1. Great advice! These are all good points that are easy to forget.

  2. I digs it. Now do it in three bullet points each. :P

  3. "Information" really tugs some nice heartstrings for me. I think it's one of the defining philosophies over with the GUMSHOE folks.