Dragon Magazine: Judge Advice Collection (Part 1 of 8)
These are may reading notes of various Dragon Magazine articles. Learn more about the collection here.
The Referee’s Code of Honor: Six simple ways to earn players' trust
Author: John Setzer Issue: Dragon Magazine #184 Rating: ★★☆☆☆
Trust is vital to the Judge-Player relationship. John offers six ways to build it:
- Always treat your players with respect. If they do something wrong, let them find out through the play and game itself.
- Never take a character away from a player. Give fair descriptions that do not deceive characters.
- Don't take on more than you can handle. Be careful when playing improvised games that you do not do something that you will regret later.
- Be reliable outside the game. Players will have difficulty trusting your word during a game if your word is worth little outside the game.
- Make the game fun for the players and yourself. Players will let you know they are not having fun by not coming to your game. Judge should be having fun as well. Judge is not there to be a tool to provide amusement only for the players.
- Take pride in your work and also in the group. While a group effort is needed to really have a fun evening of roleplaying, most of the responsibility lies on the shoulders of the Judge. When a younger player begins to show gaming maturity, you can be proud that you had a lot to do with bringing enjoyment to that person.
The advice isn't bad (although there is a fair bit of player pampering with fudging rolls and avoiding enticing them to do stupid shit by asking variants of are you sure) but is so verbose. Three pages (less when you remove ads and an illustration that takes 2/3 of the first page) is too long. Hence two stars.
The way we really play: Development of a DM is a three-stage process
Author: Tom Armstrong Issue: Dragon Magazine #106 Rating: ★☆☆☆☆
A confused article. First half is an attempt to generalise anecdotal data and fit it into some kind of progression model. Tom argues that Judges go through the following three stages:
- “Monty Haul” or, in other words, giving too much treasure and magical items to players, way too early, and way too easy.
- Strict rules-as-written, as response to players becoming too powerful and campaign going out of control.
- “Normal” or house-ruled AD&D.
Above doesn't resonate with me at all. Following that we get two long example of how Tom mishandled his games. He does share a following important titbit for all Judges:
I hadn't thought to ask the players what kind of campaign they wanted. ... Dungeon Masters should try working with their players instead of for or against them; players have good ideas, too.
Playing Dungeons & Dragons is a cooperative affair. Yes, it is very important to be giving feedback to each other throughout the game. That's how we make it better, together.
Another article that could've been two paragraphs.
Beyond the rule book: Procedure and style tips for good GMing
Author: Lew Pulsipher Issue: Dragon Magazine #75 Rating: ★★★★★
Now we are talking! Lew runs games! His first-hand, lived experience drips from every paragraph. And he packs a lot in this article; twenty points on being a good Judge!
First we get ten point about Judging procedures:
- Don't let players push you around. You are the ultimate authority; rely sensibly on the rules and on logic.
- Be consistent. Players make in-game decisions based on in-game “facts” and physics you provide. Make sure to be consistent so they can make rational in-game decisions.
- Tell players how you've changed the rules before you start the game.
- Don't stonewall. Always hear out players.
- Prepare before the game. As much and as little as need to keep the game running smoothly. Use index cards—that way you can reuse card for the next session.
- Maintain some semblance of order. Don't allow one person to destroy the fun others. Don't be afraid to kill a fool's character if his actions call for it. Let the player know what you disapprove of and why.
- Be humorous or open to humor. It's a game.
- Don't favor one player of another. Try to be impartial and fair, as much as you can. Never favour the monsters.
- Don't pursue a vendetta against any particular player or players. Vendetta for in-game reasons is fine, but for outside reasons is a no-no.
- Don't give away information. Don't give a player more information than his character would have. Don't tell player more than their character would be able to sense.
And then we get ten points on Judging style guidelines:
- Your style is not for everyone. You can't satisfy everyone, but you should be able to gather a group of players you can satisfy.
- Let the players gain abilities at the slowest rate which maintains their interest in the game. A ““rate of gain” that is too fast can disillusion players as surely as one that is too slow.
- Don't pass the buck. Your campaign is your responsibility. Dice, random tables, modules, supplements—all of them are in your service, and not the other way around. You must change them as you see fit.
- What is good for player character is good for the monsters.
- Err on the side of stinginess. It's easy to give stuff, but very difficult to take it away.
- Don't try to stop the irresistible force or overthrow the immovable object. In AD&D gods, protection from magic scrolls, clerics' undead turning ability, magic-users' inability to use swords, and inscrutability of magical tomes are inviolable. Resist the urge to add something to the game in order to avoid such restrictions.
- Don't allow anachronisms. Fantasy role-playing is only a simulation, and not reality. Foil players' attempts to bring forth inventions and innovations from our world into your fantasy world.
- Never let the players feel that their characters are invulnerable. Much of the excitement of role-playing comes from the possibility that death may be around any corner. At the same time, if too much is unpredictable, the game degenerates into a lottery.
- Avoid arbitrary keying. Avoid encounters and situations which have only one single solution that has to be executed exactly as you envision it. Allow space to be surprised by players' ingenuity.
- Don't expect players to perceive a problem the way you do. Judge must expect the unexpected!
Great article every Judge should read; even if you disagree with some of the points. I'll include it in the final Judge Advice collection.
Five keys to DMing success: Make it easy on yourself and fun for your players
Author: Mike Beeman Issue: Dragon Magazine #80 Rating: ★★★★☆
Mike argues that every good campaign has the following five elements:
- Continuity. Go beyond series of dungeons; introduce elements that make all the things in the campaign fit together in a cohesive whole. Even better if all these interconnections are covert, so players can discover them for themselves.
- Character. Give character a focal point for their life, but don't force them into anything. You can give them a quest, a magic item, an anti-hero, or destiny.
- Competence. A good judge must have an active imagination, working knowledge of the rules, and a sense of dramatic. Keep the game running, don't be afraid to make rulings, equip yourself with good play aids and supplements.
- Creativity. Plagiarise whatever excites you and then enrich it with your own imagination.
- Cooperation. Playing in other games will help you become a better Judge. Consider taking on a co-Judge; either to take turns running games or to run sessions in the same game. Only play in campaigns with people you like, not merely tolerate.
Good article. One star removed for shit, contradictory advice on giving player characters “a focal point for their life.” Players should do that. The article will be included in the final collection.
History of a game that failed: An essay on mistakes—and how not to make them
Author: David F. Godwin Issue: Dragon Magazine #99 Rating: ★☆☆☆☆
By Gygax, this article is a torture! Eight pages of three column dense text on how David managed to consistently fuck-up his games and what he did about that! +5 items abound, nigh invulnerable characters doing whatever they want, and what not!
Let me sum up his advice in the following list:
- Feel free to fudge.
- Just because it's in the module doesn't mean it's so.
- Be exceedingly stingy in handing out magic items.
- Don't let your players have a continuous commune spell.
- Do not allow a character to become more powerful than a chugging locomotive.
- If they wish for the moon, don't let them have it.
- Don't allow your players to polymorph a henchman into Odin.
- Be careful playing with fireballs.
- Be reasonable in awarding experience points.
- Go easy on the poor deities.
- Beware the many-headed hydras.
- Avoid an adversary relationship with your players.
- Do not allow thermonuclear devices.
Now, seeing most of the above you might wonder why only one star? First minus: pro-fudging. Second minus: discouraging troupe play. Infinite minus: EIGHT PAGES OF DENSE THREE COLUMN TEXT TO COMMUNICATE ALL OF IT. IT WAS ENDLESS. ENDLESS.
I hope David runs better games today.
No campaign ever fails: What to do if your game gets out of control
Author: Joel E. Roosa Issue: Dragon Magazine #111 Rating: ★★☆☆☆
Joel offers eight yes/no questions to evaluate if a campaign is out of control:
- Have most of the characters achieved their levels fairly without undue “favours of the gods,” and through real danger to the characters?
- Has magical or technological equipment been mostly earned by real effort?
- Do most of the characters find the greater share of the individual adventures challenging?
- Most importantly: is most everyone having fun?
- Are any character too powerful?
- Are there too many powerful magic items in the campaign?
- Do the characters have too much money?
- Do the characters have too much manpower available?
Total score ranges from -4 (pitiful campaign!) to +4 (_excellent campaign!). Scoring 0 or below indicates that a campaign might be out of control and that some fixing might be overdue.
Since you know where you scored low, you theoretically know what you should look into first. Joel, wisely and helpfully, states that prevention is easier than cure. Obviously, if you scored roll, that means your prevention sucks and you should nuke the whole game.
Then he goes on to offer some advice on how to relieve player characters of excessive goods you've provided them: steal it back, swindle it back, back-fix it, tax it, sacrifice it, or use it. When it comes to abusing retainers, hirelings, and so on, remember that they are people too. If abused too much they'll start talking and player characters' reputation will suffer.
Joel believes that it is less work to bring an existing campaign under control than it is to begin a new one from ground up.
Final verdict? Although I like Joel's take on balance (it's relative and depends on the setting and game system you are playing) and his small assessment instrument, the article didn't really jump out to me. The latter is of lesser usefulness than one might think because it is focused solely on player character power. That might've been a big issue back in the day, but nowadays it seems the opposite is much, much bigger problem.
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