This is RPG-ology #7: Playing Fair, for June 2018.
I was corresponding, electronically, with someone I introduced to role playing games over the Internet, and since I introduced him to them, his first game and still his favorite is my game, Multiverser. Of course, as all players, he was expressing the opinion that I didn’t run the game the way he would, citing another excellent referee of the game with whom we are both acquainted. It happens that I have issues with the way he runs the game, but I figure once I hand it to a referee, it’s his game. Still, I think some of my complaints are valid, and reflected in this discussion.
One of the points my correspondent made was that if a game referee can’t kill any player character he wants whenever he wants, he’s not a very capable referee. That’s not as vicious a notion in Multiverser as it would be in, say, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: as Ron Edwards noted, we have solved the problem of character death by turning it into a means of advancing the story, since the character who is killed immediately finds himself in another universe continuing his adventures. Further, there is certainly a point there. The referee has access to characters and monsters with godlike powers (Dungeon Masters use to joke about attacking character parties with three of their tarrasques—a joke, because the books specify that this nearly invulnerable killing machine is unique in the world), along with complete control of the scene such that such adversaries could be found just behind the next door, or could be waiting on the path of retreat—and could be in whichever of those places the player chooses to go. So indeed, referees have the ability to target and kill player characters on a whim.
I was arguing against that, but I don’t think I was making my point very clearly at the time. Those social networking message threads have advantages, but they are also very limiting. So let me take a step back and explain why I think that is not really true. It has to do with fairness.
Decades ago, before I knew anything about Ed’s work on Multiverser, our small county had few enough Dungeon Masters in it that we usually heard stories about each other. There was one long-time referee who ran a regular game at the local donut shop (yes, the county was small enough that at that time it had one donut shop, and it was not part of a chain). It was said that he was a moody sort of fellow, and on nights when he was in a bad mood almost all the characters died and had to be resurrected, but when he was in a good mood they got treasure and magic items and empowerments hand over fist. It was as if the gods were bipolar.
I perceived even then that this was not the way to run a game; but I’d already been running them for over a decade, and was known as the most by-the-book Dungeon Master in the county. (Ed was known as the most imaginative.) What struck me was that the donut shop game was entirely unfair, because the referee abused his power.
In my games, I designed dungeons and encounter situations in advance—usually months and sometimes years in advance, working out the details. One of the most useful realizations I had was that random encounters were not the less random rolled years beforehand, so I had my wandering monsters pre-made and detailed long before I needed them. If you walked your character into a room in my game, you knew that whatever was in that room, I was not thinking about your character when I put it there. I was trying to design a scenario that made some kind of sense from some perspective, hoping that whatever players explored it would be up to the challenges and interested in the discoveries. Your character might be killed—that was always a risk—but he would never be targeted. That is still my rule in my OAD&D games.
It has also bled over to my other games. Multiverser is a special case, because of course worlds are customized for the players, and often created on the fly. I have on occasion thrown something at a player character which I knew had a very high chance of killing him—such as a rigged grenade trap on a door for a player who never checks for traps. Yet the sense of fairness remains paramount: it was never something you could not have anticipated, unless it was something that was an inherent surprise in that world. That is, you might unexpectedly discover that the annual sacrifices in the mountains are actually being fed to a giant snake, but only because no one had ever seen it and survived so everyone assumed the priests just killed the victim and left the body somewhere to rot. I didn’t decide abruptly that a giant snake would be the perfect surprise for this situation because it would probably kill you; I decided at some point that a giant snake would be a good “deity” to which the sacrifices would be made, and I foreshadowed it along the way if you were paying attention (see the end of Verse Three, Chapter One for how that played out), and if you were surprised, well, hopefully you were ready to be surprised.
That is why I don’t believe that a good referee can kill any character he wants any time he wants: I believe that the referee is bound by an unwritten code of fairness, that he has to treat the players, and that means their characters, in a way that always gives them a fair chance to win, to survive, to come through victorious. They won’t always win; they won’t always survive. They should always feel that they might have done had they played it a bit differently or had better luck with the dice.
So to my player, and any other player, who thinks that a referee can kill a player character anytime and anywhere, I think you’ve failed to grasp what it is to be a referee—an impartial judge who determines outcomes in the game and applies the rules as he understands them. Your players should never be able to say, “That’s not fair,” without you being able to explain why it is fair, and that it is not merely because you decided it.