Getting schooled in refereeing the OSR way
Ye olde TL;DR - Reflecting on games you run, success or failure, reveals lessons to improve your next one.
Excited as I was to dive into the tabletop RPG hobby, I haven’t been here long. I’ve only played for a few years, and didn’t try my hand at running games until a year or so in. That said, I’ve been playing OSR games for almost the entirety of that time. As a result, I took the majority of my player and referee cues from the OSR school of gaming.
Recently, I reflected on exactly what OSR refereeing has taught me. So for the sake of the fledgling OSR referees out there, here are some takeaways I got from refereeing so far.
The game rolls faster when the dice don’t
Just as in narrative fiction, pacing is important in RPGs. Progress too slowly, and it becomes tedious and players lose the focus that comes from momentum. Zip through the game, and players struggle to catch game world stimuli fast enough to act on them.
New referees often struggle to get pacing right, falling to one side of the balance point. For me, my games really dragged at first. Fortunately for my table, I quickly identified the main culprit: prompting superfluous die rolls.
So how, you may inquire, do you tell if a die roll is unnecessary? If there are no stakes, don’t roll. In other words, if there aren’t any notable consequences for failure--if the outcome won’t really impact the game one way or the other--then the roll clearly doesn’t matter. Making a roll under these circumstances, then, only wastes time.
It may not be your way, but it can still be the right way
The beauty of OSR is that it rewards creative problem-solving. There are so many potential solutions to every problem that neither you nor your players can unearth them all. Naturally, everyone at the table will latch onto the solution that makes the most sense to them. For the players, hashing out their competing viewpoints is part of what makes the player tabletop RPG experience what it is.
In the referee’s case, though, solution fixation is dangerous, because you risk only accepting the solutions aligned with your preconception. So how do referees avoid this? Prescribe the problem instead of the solution. In your notes, define the precise nature of the elements that make up the scenario, and stick to the constraints that these impose. If you’re asked to clarify a component that you didn’t specify in advance, make something up that’s consistent with your plans, note it, and honor it.
With your scenario solidified, let your players loose on it. If they provide a solution that works given the scenario’s constraints, you simply play out their success--it’s the logical conclusion.
For example, say a door is connected to a pulley in the doorframe that activates a trap door in the ceiling to deploy something awful. You might be expecting the players to disarm the pulley. But the trap door is in play, too, so if your players nail it shut, then they deserve the win.
When your players take the lead, follow
One overarching principle of RPG gaming is going with your players (within reason). It’s basically gaming’s take on improv comedy’s “yes, and” method. A more specific manifestation of following your players is working with them so they grab the hooks leading to their in-game goals. Your players may be indecisive at times, but when they resolve to undertake some adventure (any adventure) don’t make them hunt for the starting line.
The same goes for resource access. When your players seek something, if it’s something they could reasonably obtain--maybe not now, but under some later conditions--put it out there. This is especially important for social resources. Don’t send them on a wild goose chase to talk to the one NPC you had in mind for dispensing a quest. If they want a quest, and you have a quest, be a good matchmaker.
It’s not a school if you don’t teach your players
Although I don’t have hard numbers, there’s enough anecdotal evidence to suggest most RPG gamers aren’t familiar with the OSR way. So to be safe, you should assume your players aren’t, and then teach it to them.
Setting the example for players can take many forms. In my experience, it’s better to layer them until the players pick up on what you’re doing.
Since description is the medium of the game, that should be your prime focus for dropping gameplay style hints. Describe things in a way that begs investigation. Verbally emphasize something that might be out of place, or which just has more detail than a cursory overview of an area would convey. When done adeptly, your players will instinctively pry open more detail. And with practice, they’ll discover how much they can gain by leveraging that detail in interacting with the environment.
You should also favor description over game mechanics. Don’t say how many Hit Points an enemy NPC has, describe how injured they look (or sound, or smell). Don’t say the PC’s attack did reduced damage, describe a lesser degree of harm inflicted. After a while, they’ll catch on that the game is more about exploiting details in how the scenario is constructed than agonizing over mechanics.
The other fundamental OSR tenet you should draw their attention to is that OSR games are open-world. Provide strong adventure hooks, but don’t push players toward any. If players don’t pull a thread, keep track of time and once too much goes by, tie up that loose end. This will illustrate that the game world doesn’t freeze until they decide what to do. Have employers clearly voice the terms of the job. Whereas modern-style games often coyly tease an epic plotline, old-style games present a clear menu of adventures. OSR NPCs want things, and (mostly) know how to get them. I’m not saying don’t throw in twists, but job descriptions themselves should be straightforward... even if they aren’t honored.
If your players are still struggling, impose some structure. Have the employer accompany the PCs on the mission to take some of the burden. Be careful not to take too much of it, though, or you risk playing the game for the players. To stay on the safe side, the employer could help more with logistics than combat.
And if you need even more structure, there’s always the military. This gives players a narrowly defined mission and some supplies for accomplishing it, but also stiff consequences for dithering. You can even have a higher-level hero tag along. Treat them like you do the hands-on patron, but be more obvious. Avoid totally upstaging the PCs, but definitely inspire the players to have their PCs emulate your swashbuckler.
My refereeing time yielded no shortage of realizations. These, though, are the ones that stood out most, are easiest to express, and are most likely to be valuable to my comrades in the proud referee siblinghood. I undoubtedly missed some, but given enough time, I’ll pick those up back at the table.