This is RPG-ology #9: Three Doors, for August 2018.
Probably over a decade ago now there was a big debate in the community of people who enjoy logic puzzles when Marilyn Vos Savant published her solution to one, and many disagreed with her. I was belatedly dragged into the argument by my father, who sent me a late and partial version of the question. Eventually I obtained what I take to have been the original question but concluded that her answer was incorrect.
Now, I might not be as smart as Ms. Savant. After all, she has the highest tested I.Q. on record. My Intelligence Quotient has always been at the top of the scale on every test I’ve taken, including the Mensa tests, but I have never taken the Triple Nines test. I can say that on the Law School Admissions Test, which is comprised entirely of various types of logic puzzles, I scored better than ninety-nine-point-eight percent of those who thought themselves smart enough to be lawyers, which was the highest bracket for the test. It is not impossible that she is wrong and I am right, as I explain in the third of the three pages I wrote on the subject.
This is not really about that, except to the degree that the issue that Ms. Savant failed to see in that case is the issue I want to address here: the motivations and objectives of the referee, and how knowing them can make a difference to the way you play the game.
Perhaps you have read the short story The Lady or the Tiger. If so, you probably already know where I am going—but I suggest that, just as Marilyn was dealing with three doors, we have three possible referee attitudes.
I will begin with the killer referee. I have had conversations with dungeon masters who are proud of their dungeon designs with the inescapable fatal traps. This referee considers it his duty to get the upper hand and kill all the player characters, and he expects their players to be very cautious and very perceptive. He is there to beat you. He is like the host on the three doors puzzle who only offers you the opportunity to change doors if you in fact already have the right one and he wants to tempt you into giving it away. If you recognize that you are playing with a killer referee, your play has to be careful, circumspect; you have to watch for traps, expect to retreat from overwhelming enemies, and use defensive strategies and escape plans as a regular part of your play. That’s not to say that it can’t be fun. Grig said, “I always wanted to fight a desperate battle against incredible odds.” Knowing that your referee is going to pull out all the stops to defeat you makes the victory all the more thrilling, and defeat considerably less embarrassing. The deck was, after all, stacked against you, so if you lost, that was the way it was dealt, and if you won, you beat the odds.
The door at the other end of the row is perhaps the reverse, the beneficent referee. This guy is on your side. He wants to see you win. You might not know that he fudges dice in your favor, but the fact is he will never throw anything at you he does not honestly believe you can beat. I don’t mean he’s necessarily a “candy store” game master (although they are usually of this sort), but rather he is one who makes an effort to bring you through to victory. With this kind of referee, the odds favor winning if you take the chance—he built a scenario you can beat, and if he has created something you can’t beat it’s because it will be quite clear to you that this is there to turn you in a different direction—he puts his tarrasque at the edge of his map so you won’t contemplate going where he isn’t ready for you. The plan here is to make you look like heroes, to give you battles you can win and come away feeling good about it. That’s not always as much fun as it sounds—if you come to a place where you think it’s impossible for you to lose, winning loses some of its charm—but knowing that the referee is on your side gives you confidence to take a few more risks than you might otherwise.
There is, of course, a door in the middle. We spoke previously about Playing Fair a couple months back, and there are referees who let the chips—or the dice—fall where they will. The scenario has not been stacked against you, but it’s not stacked in your favor, either. If your referee rolls a lot of dice when you ask him questions, and it seems that the dice are dictating whether it’s a good or bad answer, this might be the type of referee you’re facing. There is much to be commended about such referees. They will give you a fair challenge, not making it too easy while at the same time not trying to kill you. Their scenarios are much less predictable, overall, because it is entirely possible that they have rolled up an encounter that is well beyond your ability, and just as possible that they have created one that will be a cakewalk, and you aren’t going to be able to guess until you’ve walked into it. This is the guy we think our referee is; he’s also fairly rare. With this guy the way to play is probably realistically—don’t be overconfident, but don’t believe that everything is a trap. He has made it as fair as he can, which means you have to be careful, but not paranoid.
So those are three general types of referees—killer, beneficent, and fair—and that’s how you play if you can recognize which one you’ve got. I wouldn’t bother to ask: quite a few wouldn’t know the answer, some would be wrong about themselves, and those that do know also know better than to tell you. But if you can figure out how your referee thinks, you can use that to improve your outcomes in play.