New on Desk #68 — When the GM errs

The spring’s gone into overdrive here, with all the life distractions that implies. Not exactly ideal when I’m trying to be a productive author. Nothing major this week in that regard, but I did end up crashing hard after a tough early week; Wednesday just sort of got lost there somewhere. Not exactly the most efficient, that. I got an exciting feature topic for the newsletter, though.

Ref ruling standards for old school D&D

In old school wargamey D&D the GM is not an author, storyteller or actor. They are a referee, constantly taking in input maneuvers from the players and setting them into rulings, then processing these rulings into new game states. The decision-making is based on rules and standards, not artistic deliberation or whimsy.

Some jurisprudential standards are taken for granted by the game texts, such as fairness — treating all the players even-handedly, without playing favourites. That one is considered so significant that it’s gotten stuck into the tabletop rpg text tradition, spreading into a multitude of different games. Other refereeing standards get less airplay; consistency, for example, is something that may or may not be mentioned in GM instructions of various games.

I’ll just take a moment to sketch out some basic refereeing standards; a simple list of principles that the GM, when acting in their role as the referee, should apply. These are based on my own experiences with the at-table micro-interactions, what works and what doesn’t to make the game go well.

Responsibility to the will to play: The referee is a functionary of the gaming group’s collective will to play. This gets confused a lot due to how the same natural person is also a major artistic actor as the content-contributing GM; I’m not saying that you’re responsible to the group in your artistic decisions of what to present, I’m saying that your rules calls as the referee are in service to the group’s collective intent to play a strong game. This is your creative agenda, if you will: to conduct refereeship in a way that facilitates a strong play of the scenario on hand. Particularly, refereeing in service of your own artistic vision is a corrupt interest. The rules should not shift to accommodate your setpiece ideas. If that’s an issue, maybe appoint a distinct referee to watch over the proceedings so the same GM doesn’t have to both present material and rule on procedure.

Reasoned rulings: The referee should base their decisions on rational jurisprudence, not arbitrary whim. There is variety to the particulars, but in all cases the referee should be able to explain (if asked) why they rule the way they do, and how the ruling serves the various legitimate interests involved in the case. Common (and commonly accepted) basis of ruling in the game includes the likes of following:
Established rules,
Established precedent,
Attested positioning,
Interest of preserving scenario conceit,
Interest of preserving player weal,
Getting on with it.

Fairness towards people: This means that the referee’s rulings should treat all participants in the game with the same inherent respect. Particularly, the referee should check themself from favoring players whose playstyle or social graces they like more. And obviously you like your own stylings the best, but that does not mean that your own judicial interest is more important than those of other players when making a ruling. The referee’s position is eroded by a perception of unfairness, which makes this a crux issue in maintaining credible refereeing.

Referee acts to serve play: Individual rulings exist in the interest of allowing play to proceed. This means that minor rulings must by necessity be quick and definitive, not slow and up for debate. Major rulings, on the other hand, must be careful and up for review. The judicial process should in general be adapted to serve the purpose of achieving play, not to stifle it.

Yes, the first and last of those principles are the same one. It’s that important. Think of the first as stating what you’re trying to accomplish when you go in, and the last as what you’ll do when things go awry.

As you might imagine, this topic got onto my plate this week because I made a major ruling error in our D&D campaign. I’ll tell you about it in some detail, because I think it’s interesting and possibly educational. First, though, I should give a bit of an actual play account of the session the event occurred in.

Tuesday: Coup in Sunndi #18

The last session of our face-to-face Coup had been left in an extremely precarious situation, with the haul of the campaign’s lifetime at stake, two thirds of the party injured, and everybody stranded in the far wilderness. So of course a key player couldn’t join us this time and the players didn’t want to resolve the scenario without them. Instead, we started a new adventure, as one does.

When we last visited the Temple of Doom, the evil player character party, “Beast Society”, had worked diligently to integrate themselves into the social fabric of the Temple. The Temple is run by thirteen more or less cut-throat factions, each with their distinct philosophy and goals, mainly Chaotic Evil, so it’s all really quite a nest of vipers. The Beast Society approached the place by having each individual player character join one of the factions, which is certainly a thing to do. It takes us some playtime to feature and detail each faction, but I do enjoy it myself, being something of a world-building maven.

The factions each offer various adventure hooks, and all the more so for actual faction members, which means that we’ve been introduced to a fair number of adventuring possibilities at the Temple. The players’ job has been to research the politics of the cult factions and determine which quests might benefit them the most without also causing enmities that might come to bite them in the ass later on.

A little bit of social news from the Beast Society newsletter, embedded in my newsletter, before we get into the adventure proper: Sipi’s character Cultist, known as the “Left Hand of Darkness” in Society circles, and the effective leader of the party, has now changed names and is heretofore known as Magister. Having achieved 3rd level, he makes sure to go everywhere wearing his fancy magisterial hat. Power of level title at work right there.

Anyway, the mission that the players ultimately settled on to begin their active political maneuvers at the Temple is a seemingly simple one: Khata, the were-panther survival-of-the-fittest egoist who rules the jungle territory surrounding the Temple wants some deniable assets to fetch her the “spirit fetish” of Grandee the Silent, one of the other faction leaders. The fetish is apparently some kind of necklace the Grandee carries with him wherever he goes.

Operational parameters: Grandee lives on a dungeon layer I thought was called “Great Catacomb” or similar, but that the players revealed to actually be named “Grandeecombs”. Obviously superior, that. The entire dungeon level is apparently riddled with undead, plus Grandee apparently has some living cult followers as well, called “nihilists” by outsiders. Apparently the living cultists aren’t particularly formidable, but the undead denizens may prove problematic, with Grandee himself of course a fearsome being.

Actually, here’s a sketch of the political map of the place as currently understood. Draw your own conclusions.

Political considerations: Khata likes Magister, and has been pretty overt about trying to win him over from the Sinister Thaal, whose Lawfulness she finds unpleasant. More importantly, it seems like Thaal and Old Lexiander, the High Priest of Doom and nominal leader of the Temple, are tight in a way that makes them the backbone of the Temple’s current culture of nefarious derring-do. Khata revealed that she desires the fetish because she believes herself capable of reprogramming Grandee to be more pliable to her agenda of naked revelry on the bones of civilization. Getting the fetish will allow her both to claim this Beast Society fellowship from the Lawful ones, as well as gaining the allegiance of the Grandee.

Interpersonal considerations: Khata, who runs with this skeevy rapist-domme-goddess barbarian aesthetic, pretty much promised to ravish Magister if he brought her the fetish.

So anyway, this is what the party was doing, so off we went to the Grandeecombs. The actual mission was relatively straightforward, but also pretty random, as the party had to figure out where Grandee himself would be; if he were deep in the Grandeecombs, stealing from him would be more difficult, and if he was in some socially open space, it might not be a smart idea to try to rob him in front of witnesses. The operation would pretty much hinge on the Grandee’s location, so of course the dice placed him in the first room of the Grandeecombs; apparently he had just recently been visiting the upper levels.

Grandee the Silent is, of course, based on Solomon Grundy.

Grandee has this silent-and-wise thing going for him, such that he is heard to speak only rarely, and his followers (nihilistic death worshippers, basically) interpret his will and teaching from what amounts to omens of his passing. Nobody seems to know why he comes and goes. In the physical realm Grandee is just a big and strong zombie (not exactly exceptional in this circus), but he’s really strong, which seems to grant him some respect. What’s important about him for our purposes is that Grandee is a “zombraire”, an undead being possessed by a glamour intellect; his consciousness resides in the fetish chains he carries, of course. All in all, not something Grandee will relinquish easily.

The party was spared a grueling dungeon crawl by the dice luck, but Grandee being right here meant that a bunch of his followers, both living and dead were also clustered around him, which had the PCs wisely playing for time. They got introduced to a ghoul called “Hemlock”, apparently a sort of priestly official in Grandee’s cult. All to pass the time while waiting for Grandee to wander further into the dungeon, abandoning his entourage. Grandee walked slowly, progressing one room per Turn, so the party had a bit of time.

After learning a bit about the cult practices of Grandeecombs from the natives, the party started stalking Grandee in the earnest. I thought that the adventure conceit was pretty good in that it was both simple and a bit different: Grandee was wondering randomly (from our point of view) in the dungeon, with the party trying to find him while avoiding the other dangers in there. Ultimately it wasn’t that bad, the party handled the one larger bunch of skeletons and zombies well.

When the adventurers finally sighted Grandee, they had to get past a Wraith to reach him, which would be a somewhat likely end for the attempt in most realities, as wraiths are pretty tough for a low-level party to handle. Beast Society was not deterred, though, and an amusing fumble actually turned the tables:

One of the characters, currently in training to become a Blackguard, has been carrying this “fancy sword” with them since character creation. The player’s new to the game (and roleplaying in general, I understand), but they’re absolutely a natural. With the naïvete of the new player they asked me in chargen whether they could have a mystery sword as a cool background element, so yeah, I guess the character has one then. (Character backgrounds in Coup are relatively freeform, and can totally affect what you start with. There are boundaries, but having a “mysterious fancy sword” is well within.)

It’s been something of a running gag with this character that they “study the sword” and show their mystery blade to other people, but never ever anybody seems to know what’s so mysterious about the sword. Maybe it’s a sign of hidden heritage? Maybe it’s magic? Nobody knows. That is, until the player rolled a fumble on trying to attack the wraith with the sword, at which point it promptly blew up. Lucky damage dice had the wraith explode with the sword while the sword-wielder was merely wounded. So I guess that’s one way to answer the mystery of the blade!

So anyway, with the wraith out of the way, the party cornered Grandee in an empty-ish room that he seemingly wandered into randomly. One of the characters distracted the absolutely impassive zombie giant, as one does, while another spider-climbed in an attempt to seize Grandee’s bling-bling in one fluid move.

When the initial grab-and-run failed, the situation deteriorated into something sort of like combat: two thirds of the party promptly escaped, one poor guy got caught by Grandee and literally exploded when flung at the floor, that sort of thing. One of the braves, Lokki, managed to grab the fetish in the grapple, only to discover that whomever holds the chain becomes Grandee (becomes possessed by the glamour consciousness, that is), which was less than ideal all around, especially as the super-strong zombie was still there, except without its chaining intelligence.

The situation moved fast, with Magister (nee Cultist) going invisible and forgetting self to defend against the possession effect, then grabbing the chain by surprise, while poor Lokki got torn apart by the prodigiously strong super-zombie. Magister got away with the fetish, which was a pretty bold outcome all around, considering how everybody else had either run away or died horribly.

We were pretty sure that the adventure was done (and successful, even, in that the fetish chain, and Magister, were well on their way to be gently ministered by Khata-the-crazy-cat-lady. However, the escaping part of the party happened to run into ~10 of those nihilist cultists. Flubbing diplomacy, they got into a fight for their life as well.

We were all pretty tired by this point (the pre-adventure setup phase had taken some considerable time), so the group decided to stop for the night and leave Beast Society in a cliffhanger situation. I can’t say I’m a fan of us doing this all the time, as now we have two entire adventuring parties stuck in life-or-death situations in their respective adventures. Hopefully we’ll get to finish an adventure one of these days.

So, a mistake was made there

I didn’t draw attention to it in the above description, but something pretty rare occurred: a game-mechanically confusing situation occurred, and a player character might have died due to referee negligence. I was pretty sleep-deprived myself on Tuesday night (the sort of situation where I’d have skipped the game if I wasn’t the GM), which might have contributed, but there were also issues with player rules understanding. I don’t usually expect the players to know the rules really well, but in this case the combination of circumstances bit me in the ass pretty severely.

The questionable referee call occurred when the adventurers were grappling with Grandee over his fetish. I’ll reconstruct the dialogue in a simplified form, it’s probably easier to explain it this way.

GM: Hah, Lokki-the-PC-Warlock has grabbed on to the chain! You realize too late that whomever holds the chain is Grandee the Silent! Roll to save against magical possession!

Player: Uhh… Actually, wouldn’t activating Forget Self help here?

GM: Forget Self? That’s… actually, that’s brilliant. Forget Self allows the demonic cultist to abandon their volition to the demonic forces, essentially allowing Demogorgon to take the wheel, so to speak. It’s something of a joke Power manifestation, but good for you to find an useful situation for it! So I’ll rule that reactively activating that, for 1 Power Point, makes you immune to being possessed by the chain because you’re already possessed by your demonic patron.

<Other things are handled for a minute or so.>

GM: Damn, I just realized something about that Forget Self call just now — Lokki is a Warlock, and those don’t have Forget Self on their Power list! Where’s the reference, I think that only Cultists and Anti-Paladins get that particular demonic manifestation…

Player: Really? I have it written here, but I’m not experienced with these games, so what the fuck do I know!

GM: Yeah, you don’t actually have every power of every demonic character class, just the Warlock powers. <Reads the pertinent part of the class description.> Maybe you wrote out the entire list of demonic manifestations by mistake when making your notes?

Player: Well, fuck me. <Erases a long list of stuff from the character sheet.> I clearly still understand nothing about the rules.

GM: Because the situation has not materially progressed, and this is a pretty flagrant error in execution, I’d like to go back on that move and say that Lokki is still possessed by Grandee. (Implicit: object now if you disagree.)

<Game moves on. Magister, another player character who is a Cultist and can use Forget Self, runs with the idea and seizes the chain. Lokki gets torn apart by Grandee.>

The error here has to do with the particulars of the rules mechanics used in Coup. “Power Manifestation” is a technical term for a certain kind of spell-like ability, the kind that’s used by Paladins, but also by these demonic character classes here, namely Cultist and Warlock. Cultist is sort of a cheap jack-of-all-sacrifices robes-and-daggers class, while Warlock is the real-deal baby-eating fully equipped magic-user class. Both classes have power manifestations, powers similar to the Paladin’s Lay on Hands and Smite Evil except more Chaotic Evil obviously. As you can see above, Forget Self is a power that Cultist has and Warlock doesn’t. Pretty clear, right?

Well, check out one of the Power Manifestations that Warlock does have:

Empower Sorcery is the ability to spontaneously cast a known spell by expending PP equal to spell level on the spot. Works similar to Sorcerous Conjuration* in terms of timing and such, although the stench of sulphur will probably give it away.

CWP #42, More Oathbound

You might be able to predict where I’m going with here: after the game session was done, it started to bother me whether we might have been talking at cross-purposes with the player here. Specifically, what if their character actually had Forget Self on their spell list? I did remember that the character (when created sometime last month) had a wacky non-standard list of starting spells that was partly adapted from the demonic manifestations I’d created for these demonic character classes. (Many of these powers are just fine as spells, so why not; there’s no cosmological reason why the same effect couldn’t exist as a spell as well. Just a different magic system chassis accessing the same effect, familiar phenomenon in D&D.)

If the situation happened to be that the player actually had selected Forget Self as one of the spells on their spell list, weird choice as it would be (I mean, the effect allows you to be possessed by a demon — not exactly Magic Missile, that), then that entire dialogue in the middle of the game would have been a big misunderstanding. The player doesn’t have enough of an intuitive grasp of the rules system to really clearly communicate this sort of thing, so they wouldn’t have told me the actual maneuver that would have worked: activating Empower Sorcery to cast a spell spontaneously, that spell being Forget Self. So the player might have been entirely justified in understanding that their character can “use” Forget Self, it’s just that it’s a spell instead of a power, and they need this other Power Manifestation entirely to allow them to pull spells from their ass (as opposed to preparing them via the Vancian system, as normal).

It was clear to me from the start that if the character actually had Forget Self on their spell list, we were not talking about an inconsequential procedural error of the sort that occur constantly in the play of the game. The character died almost immediately after failing their save against the possession, and they might have simply escaped from the situation with superior initiative instead if they weren’t possessed. Empower Sorcery would not guarantee safety, mainly because its combat timing is different from having Forget Self natively (a Cultist can use Forget Self near-instantly, while the sorcerous spellcasting involved in Forget Self normally takes a minute or more), but as per the sorcery rules I would have been obligated to grant the character a skill check to crash-cast the sorcery before the possession could take effect. Could have worked, and I specifically overrode the player’s declared action, claiming that it wasn’t rules-legal, which means that the GM deprived the character of tactic that could have worked in hindsight.

I’m quite happy to report that the character sheet still existed at this point (as opposed to having been thrown away), so I was able to find that and look at the character’s spell list. The process was amusingly forensic:
Find the character sheet in the pocket of my gameday pants
Examine the sheet — more organized than I expected, managed to find the spell list
Read the partially erased spell list — as you could see in my stageplay above, the player erased the spell list
Separate spells from powers, inspirations and things that are seemingly in the list for no reason whatsoever

(To be clear, the player totally was listing stuff nilly-willy on their sheet regardless of whether it was a capability their character had. Apparently if something was “demonic” it belonged on the list. Fortunately there were some rudimentary notations about what the various entries were, whether spells or powers.)

So anyway, after forensic analysis I concluded that the character’s three known spells established in character creation were:
Forget Self
Bestial Stamina

So my suspicions were actually correct! I had contacted the player himself about my suspicions, but I’m not sure if he followed my blather about the technical game mechanics; they were apparently satisfied to accept whatever ruling I made in the matter. I couldn’t let the matter rest now that I was certain that a misrule had occurred, though: I would at the very least have to review the ruling with the rest of the group to ensure that nobody else had noticed the error and stayed silent out of GM fear. (That shit’s poisonous: I need the other players to trust that I do my best as referee.)

Because the player character is by far the greatest achievement and investment of effort for the player in this kind of game, killing the character entirely is a serious loss. Exception can be made for when removing the character from play is consensual, the player wants it to happen, but here that clearly wasn’t the case. Thus my ruling:

Mysterious survival: The nihilists of the Grandeecombs discover Lokki later, and find to their surprise that he has survived the encounter with Grandee the Silent. They recognize the hand of the Dark Powers in this and nurse Lokki back to life, releasing him to the tender mercies of the Temple of Doom ecosystem once again.

More over rulesmanship: We either got to switch to simpler rules, or I need to somehow teach the rules better, because clearly I can’t keep every character’s build particulars in my own head and rely on said head to tell me “Eero, this character has a spell with that name, the player’s trying to tell you that they want to cast a spell, not use a class power they don’t have” when appropriate. I’m currently thinking of designing an actual character sheet that very clearly forces Warlock builds to list known spells in one place and random player notes in another place, such that it’s more clear what spells characters know or don’t know.

I also considered stylizing name space overlap out of the game, but frankly it’s such a long tradition in D&D that it’d be a bother. There’s far, far too many cases of spells and various other things (magic items, monster abilities, class features) having overlapping names. The main advantage of doing it would be preventing this kind of confusion, but then again we’d lose reference transparency; D&D actually gets quite a lot of efficiency out of being able to say “seeing this dragon causes Fear” and having that mean something.

I’ll be reviewing the case with the group next Tuesday, so it’s possible that we’ll have objections, but I don’t really expect any. Players mostly seem to trust my decisions anyway, and a decision to retcon a character death is unlikely to cause much complaint.

Monday: Coup de Main #42

Meanwhile, the Monday online crew (chronologically playing before the Tuesday crew discussed up there) was continuing their merciless steamrolling of poor Justin Wrenwald’s utterly fairy-cursed estate. Last time the party slew Justin the Zombraire, and now it was time to loot his house!

The party found a golden staff in a lavatory, a cursed library in a study, and a wraith hiding in a fireplace in the main hall. That last one sent them running for home rather nicely, thank you very much. While the party is to my judgement capable of fighting a wraith, I like how this crew takes things pretty easy. Why risk it, really? When you’re already winning, why go into danger you don’t have to…

Interesting concurrency between the two campaign forks, by the way: both are simultaneously in adventures with zombraires, and both adventures have wraiths as well. The Monday group slew the zombraire and escaped the wraith, while the Tuesday group slew the wraith and escaped the zombraire. (Admittedly the Monday Zombraire was like 3 HD while the Tuesday Zombraire is what, 10 HD, so that might account for some of the differences…)

The party was preparing to leave the cursed estate for their long trip home when a curious crow attracted their attention. Drawn by the bird, the party discovered a dryad living in the woods near to the estate, apparently going slowly insane on account of the curse. Helping the dryad posed a bit of a dilemma in that half the party was already interested in burning down the estate (or whatever it took to break the dark curse on the place; apparently it wasn’t slaying and burying Lord Justin) even without the dryad, and now the XP value of the curse-breaking kept going up. Plus magical and social value, presumably, insofar as one values dryad friendship.

Artemur the Elf-Friend certainly does, so what the party ended up doing was pretty wacky: instead of spending another few ours blindly assaulting the estate in the hopes of breaking the curse before going home, they decided to leave Artemur to live with the dryad for a couple of weeks (or the rest of the summer, as the case may be) while the rest of the party goes back to Yggs to deliver the zombie milk the party was looking for. The working theory is that the party will come back to help Artemur get rid of the curse properly afterwards, which is, well, not so obvious to me as it is to the generally party-loyal players. Artemur is a weird fellow the party has only recently picked up, and as a Chaotic elf-cursed were-cantaloupe (the spellcheck insists) cosmologically rather inimical to Phun Eral the Lawful Cleric… the leader of the party, perhaps is he? So why would you go back for Artemur?

We’ll see how that works out the next time. Who knows, the journey to Yggs and then back again to the Mist Marsh could potentially be pretty quick to play through.

Session #43 is scheduled for tomorrow, Monday 19.4., starting around 15:00 UTC. Feel free to stop by if you’re interested in trying the game out or simply seeing what it’s like.

Spring Break at the Tower

Bonus feature! While life is generally gloomy and meaningless, I accidentally stumbled into a quick family trip mid-week; we scouted out a local relatively recent landmark, a sightseeing tower built in the middle of the wilderness some half decade back. It’s a little car trip from home, and I’d never been to see it, so now was the time. The day was sunny and all.

The Kotaharju (“Tipi Ridge”, I guess) sightseeing tower is a fine idea; the local villagers have arranged a showy wooden tower to be built on a prominent local ridge. What else could you ask in terms of naturally beautiful places to jump off off. Wilderness tourism amenities like a road directly to location, fireplace cottage and outhouses abound. There’s even a little coffee shop at the bottom of the tower, apparently kept open in the summer by the locals.

I should keep the place in mind in case I need to take friends out to a picnic sometime in the summer, or something like that. It’s not that far, and while not mind-blowing, I like the humble scale of the thing. Somehow I like these kinds of small attractions more than things that try to be the largest world-scale amazeballs.

Also, an idea: a tower like that would make for a cool escape room environment. You could have the players make their way up, and then back down, with their choices going up determining the puzzle alignment on the way down.

State of the Productive Facilities

I had some sleep routine issues this week, kinda lost Wednesday to the haze. A new CWP issue exists now, though, which means that I have what, about five of those done — 25%! I haven’t written Muster this week on the other hand, but then again this newsletter is a bit early (writing this on Saturday), so maybe I’ll do something in that area yet before the week’s out.

2 thoughts on “New on Desk #68 — When the GM errs”

  1. It’s intresting how the GM’s mind often seems to analyze and rewind the session like that. I’ve experienced similar situations many times, where the most far-fetched facet of the rules that might easily be ignored as inconsequential suddenly becomes hyper-focused and relevant and you realize something you’d overlooked.

    You’d expect the minutiae to just melt away very quickly, but these hindsight moments seem to be common. It’s probably the fact that actually spending a lot of time with the rules makes you subconsciously (and consciously) pay a great deal of attention to them.

  2. Pingback: Teori-innblikk #5 – ropeblogi

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