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Good Referee Practices - Preview of SS&SS 2e Chapter - Part III

Now for the last part of this preview of Good Referee Principles that will be part of the Running the Game chapter of the revised edition of Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells to be published in the near future! For the first post go here, and for the second here.

Surprise Them

We all have expectations in our games. The majority of people who will sit down to play SS&SS with you have probably already played other fantasy roleplaying games, read fantasy books, watched dozens of fictional movies or even played hours and hours of fantasy games in their consoles or computers. And that means they have preconceived notions of what magic is, what a monster do, what powers a magic sword has and things like this. Surprise them. Make monsters do things they don’t usually do in the fiction. Makes what initially seems to be bad actually be good in the end. Make the magic sword actually work as a vehicle somehow. Take their expectations and turn them around.

Adventuring is Perilous

Player characters are adventurers leaving the relatively safe lives they had to plumb the depths of ancient ruins and forgotten tombs in search of glory, treasure and power. If this was an easy and safe proposition, either there wouldn’t be serfs anymore or there wouldn’t be any more treasures to be found in these places. That means being an adventurer is dangerous. Traveling in the wild is risky. There are monsters out there that want to eat not only your flesh but also devour your soul. If a king of an civilization from the past ordered a trap to be built to guard his treasure, it will be a deadly one. This will keep the game exciting and rewarding for those players that actually defeat and avoid these dangers (not to mention making the game world feel real).

Put Pressure on Them

It’s important to instill a sense or urgency or peril in the players. The game itself is built with tools to do that, as random encounters will occur from time to time, making passive player more likely to run into danger before they reach their goal, and the diminishing resources that will run low as they take more time to solve their problems. However, it’s also a good idea to put pressure on them through the game world. Maybe the necromancer in the catacombs is performing a ritual that will raise the elite guard of the ancient Sorcerer-King by the full moon. Or maybe the portal to the Oniric dimension will only stay open while the strange new star shines in the night sky. Many things can make the players tense and put pressure on them. Look into the fiction that inspires the game for inspiration.

Don’t Rob the Dice of their Fate

If dice are rolled, respect the outcome of them. This will keep the game interesting and exciting for everyone. The players will know you are a fair Referee, even when their characters die facing apparently simple challenges. Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells has a fairly deadly system, but it also allows for a very quickly character generation, and if the character have followers and hirelings besides them, the player can easily assume the role of one of them and continue the game. Players will get attached to their characters not because they spent hours creating them, but because they survived great peril and now have something to lose.

Be Their Senses

It’s the Referee’s job to be the senses of the player characters in the game world. Tell them what they can see, smell, hear, feel and even taste sometimes. If their characters should know or notice something, just tell the players. As this game focus on offering choices to players, these choices need to be informed to make any sense. There can be hidden information however, and if you follow the previous practices, the players will be avid to interact with the environment to find more about them.

Build Layers of Information 

Present information to the players in layers they have to explore to find out. When describing a scene, mention all the obvious information, considering the PCs are adventurers that are cautiously exploring the environment (unless it’s clear they are not being cautious). Then think about what can be found out if the characters inspect those first obvious things they noticed. After that, consider what might actually be hidden behind all that. Create layers that have to be unveiled by the players. One piece leading to the next one, encouraging interaction with the game world.

Keep Information Useful

Make sure all the information you hand out to player are actually useful and linked to their characters in some way. It can be fun to create the history of your world, the cuisine of a kingdom or region, and the complicated hierarchy of a order of scholars, but of those have no impact on the adventures of the PCs, nor relation to their actions, they don’t need to know it. Although all of this can be interesting curiosities, the limited time the group has to play should be focused on this relevant to the game being played.

Make NPCs Real

The NPCs, monster and organizations in the game world should feel real. To do this, they need motivations, goals and even flaws. Think about what they want and what they are going to do to accomplish their goals. They don’t exist only to interact with the PCs and will not stand still waiting for them to be found. Having motivations, goals and flaws in mind, you can judge accordingly and determine what NPCs will do in almost any situation, making them dynamic and interesting. These individuals should be as active as the characters.

Keep the World Spinning

Take this same approach to the whole world around the characters. Remember the practice that taught you to show the consequences of the PCs actions, but go even further. Things can happen without the interference of the players. Factions may attack each other. An army can lay siege to the City-State the characters live in. Pilgrims might arrive in the city to visit a sacred site. Make the world responsive of the character actions and independent from them at the same time.

If you like what you've just read, check out my books over DriveThruRPG and Lulu.

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