I recently wrote a post No Masters Only Dungeons about how traditional roleplaying games have two kinds of player: the referee and the ‘player’ or hero-runner or whatever. This post builds on that.
It looks at the tasks different players do at different times during a session. There isn’t really any prescription to this post. The idea is just to query: what do we actually do when we roleplay? Then, individual groups and game designers themselves can use those tasks as a spring board to figure out how to make roleplay sessions work better for them.
Alliteration makes everything at least 15% better”—AdamB
Two Player Roles
In a classic tabletop roleplaying game, which Seacat (the baroque rule-set I’m writing up for UVG and my other games … the art-free version will be free once I’m done writing. LR) mostly is, each session has two kinds of player. There is the player running the playtime (aka. the Referee) and there are the players running the protagonists (aka. the Runners). Neither of these terms is perfect, but they will do for now. Other game tables are free to choose other terms.
The basic form of the interaction between the players is the dialogue:
“You wander round the mountain’s flank and spot the tower wriggling in the middle of the lake. What do you do?”
“I creep closer. What do I see or hear?”
“The tower’s structure is rubbery or muscular. Greyish or ochre. It lets out sounds like breathing. Perhaps it is not actually a tower? Do you approach closer to find out?”
“No, I hide as well as I can in the foliage and look around the lake. Are there any other creatures, disturbed areas, buildings, anything interesting?”
“You spend some time carefully observing the lake and spot …”
“Wait, Sidekick the Donkey meanwhile heads back to our camp to alert the Hole-dwellers.”
Within this dialogue, the referee player sets the stage for the playtime, lays out the narrative hooks and themes, then runs the games and arbitrates the interactions of the heroes with the world through a mix of common sense, rules, and rulings.
The runner players take control of the protagonists of the playtime: heroes, sidekicks, and sometimes even extras. They play their various characters and use them to explore the world, overcome challenges, win against the odds or die, and in the process discover their stories through a mix of blind luck (dice) and fate (decisions).
One thing to reinforce: all the players in a roleplaying game are playing. The referee isn’t an official outside of the game, like in football, or a master in control of the narrative. This is play time, not work. If someone forgets a rule or fails a quest, if players abandon a story arc or switch genres, it’s no big deal. Dust the story off and keep playing.
Also, a group of players can switch around who is the referee and who are the runners from session to session. Or even during a game, maybe from scene to scene. The referee doesn’t have to complete an immense, epic arc for it to be a proper roleplaying experience. A one-shot or five good scenes in a row may be enough.
Finally, it is possible to play a session with multiple referees or just a single player. It’s just not as common.
Tasks At The Table (or Online)
Players perform multiple tasks during a roleplaytime session. Traditionally many systems bundle them together with the roles of referee (game master or what have you) and runner (player, protagonist). Often this means that the referee is tasked with much more work than the other players, which can lead to exhaustion, burnout, and failed roleplaying groups. It’s also a big reason why many players avoid refereeing sessions. By unpacking the tasks and talking about them it might be easier to divide the labor fairly.
- Organizing a session: finding a time and place for the group to meet. This can be any player, but it’s good to make sure somebody is responsible for making the call.
- Hosting a session: often roleplaying takes place at somebody’s home. This can be any player, but it’s important to realize that as the host, they are also have a special social role beyond just play. Thus, while the host has an obligation to make the group feel welcome, the other players also have a responsibility to be good guests and not abuse the host’s hospitality. If playing outside of a home, say at a cafe, the player organizing the session takes on some of the social role of a host.
- Taking care of food and drinks: roleplaying is a social event and this often involves eating and drinking. Whether there will be food and drinks at the table is a group decision, but it’s worth respecting the host player’s preferences. Some groups make every player responsible for their own food, others do potlucks, yet others prepare communal meals like the traditional frozen pizza. The players should decide who will bring what, who (if anyone) will handle preparation during the sessions (e.g. who’s handling the frozen pizzas and making sure they don’t burn in the oven, who’s making sure the glasses don’t run dry), and it’s absolutely a good idea to collect food money up front so nobody’s left holding the tab.
- Cleaning up after a session: especially if there is food involved, there will be cutlery and things to clean up. All the players should pitch in to help the host clean up after a session. Ideally, the players won’t leave until the home is as clean as they found it.
- Generating characters: often a new hero or sidekick will be introduced to the story. There should be one player who knows the rules for making new characters well enough that they can help others. It is helpful if this is not the referee, letting them focus on keeping the session rolling along.
- Introducing new players to the rules: when a new player joins the group, it helps if there is another player who is not the referee who can guide them through the rules.
- Roleplaying the heroes: this is the primary task of the runners. The referee should absolutely not roleplay their heroes or make their decisions for them.
- Roleplaying the antagonists: this is a primary referee task, since obstacles to the heroes’ desires is where stories are born.
- Roleplaying the extras (NPCs) and sidekicks: any player can take over the extras or sidekicks in a scene. Usually, a runner will roleplay their hero’s sidekicks, but they can assign them to other players too. Likewise, a referee can assign an extra along with a one or two-line description to a player not directly involved in a scene. The referee can call for tests to determine the extra’s reactions, but beyond that sharing them out keeps all the players playing and makes outcomes unexpectable for everyone, including the referee themselves. Who knows, maybe the runner will suddenly turn the stat-less invented-on-the-spot shopkeeper into a beloved recurring character?
- Preparing hooks, plots, and modules for a session: this is almost always the referee’s task. Ideally it should be fun, not a chore. As a rule of thumb, the preparation should not take more time than running the session itself, and ideally take less. The more a referee listens to the other players during a session, and riffs off that, the more dynamic it should be.
- Making up lore, names, and backstories: a large part of the fun of roleplaying is invention and imagination. Any player can and should do this. Traditionally, this task falls almost entirely on the referee (or on pre-written tomes), however it’s a good to share it out among all the players. When the group encounters something new in the game the referee can take an exquisite-corpse improv approach. The referee roughly describes the new encounter, then point to the one runner and asks them to add some detail, then the next runner and asks them to add some contrast, and so on, varying the questions a little bit. The runners may pass an improv totem from one to another, to make sure each of them gets their fair turn adding to the world’s lore. Additionally, the referee can declare the runners to be experts in things related to their heroes, so the runner of a dwarven hero takes the driver’s seat when it comes to describing dwarven lore. If the referee takes this approach, they should wield a soft veto to maintain some consistency in the shared world and to keep it balanced, so that a single player’s ideas don’t steamroll over everybody else.
- Running the environment, sandbox, and adventure module: this is another primary referee task. Keeping the imaginary world ticking over, setting the stage for the heroes.
- Running antagonists in combat: this task usually falls to the referee, but they could outsource it to a runner who’s heroes aren’t present, or even a secondary referee player.
- Refereeing conflicts and combat between heroes and antagonists: this is a primary referee task, but insofar as it deals with rules, an impartial runner well versed with the rules of the game, or whose heroes are not involved, could also handle this task.
- Keeping track of the heroes’ resources: this is a task for each runner individually when it comes to their own heroes, but one player might also handle the resources of the whole group, for example their caravans or possessions.
- Rules arbitration: this task usually falls to the referee, but it is easy to outsource to any player so long as they are fair and impartial.
- Referencing existing books and lore: another task that usually falls to the referee, but could be assigned to anyone.
- Keeping a campaign journal: again, a task that often falls to the referee, but could go to any player. A group can even decide to skip it altogether, and the sessions will still be fun. Ideally, the player taking on this task likes to write.
- Drawing characters, scenes, and maps: this is a task that really helps bring the game alive and every group should encourage as many players as possible to participate. In practice, many groups will usually have one or two players really get into the craft aspect of play. That’s fine. Having a session art journal is a fun activity in itself.
- Buying dice: this isn’t really a task, but a 20th line item was mandated by my mild preference for being able to roll on a numbered list with a polyhedral die.
I’m certain there are other tasks that roleplayers typically do at their sessions or between them that I’ve missed, that a fair number of tables might not perform all the tasks I’ve listed, but this list should do to start the thought process rolling.
One thing I should probably write up in more detail at some point is my concept of the soft veto and how I use it to shape the flow of a sandbox-y game without railroading.
INTRANEWSEUM 6th March 2020
The Ultraviolet Grasslands and the Black City are very close to shipping. Exalted Funeral is checking out the proofs of the screen and map. So close.
Over on the stratometaship patreon, the 3rd iteration of the seacat rules is coming soon. You can nab it for as little as a single Usanian cash ($1).