I describe my default game mastering style, refereeing, below. I can also run a roleplaying game in other ways, but this is the most natural and most fun for me, both as a player and a game master. It is compatible with most traditional and traditionalish roleplaying games; OSR ones in particular.
What would really happen?
When adjudicating a situation, the main question I ask is ”What would happen?”, supposing the game world was an independent and existing world, which might or might not follow the same rules as the real world.
When considering the options, all of the following are to be respected: Previous events in the game, things declared true during preparation, rolls of dice and results they indicate in random tables, if any.
If and when there are several reasonable ways a situation might be adjudicated, the results are adjudicated by dice rolls. This is where the rules system comes into play. When it is silent, an ad hoc randomization process is invented and used.
This turns the game into a board game where one can ”try anything” their character could try, and where the governing rule is the in-game fiction, possibly governed by mechanical rules.
The following play no role in game master decision making.
- Will the player character(s) succeed or fail, live or die.
- Will a given non-player character succeed or fail, live or die.
- Will something dear to players or their characters succeed or fail, live or die.
- How dramatic something would be.
- How good or fair a challenge something would be.
- How interesting something would be.
These mean that the success and failure of the player characters is in the hands of the players, the game world, and luck. Manipulating the situation so that the game world and the luck are on their side is a responsibility of the players. They can enjoy their triumphs, knowing that they were earned. Defeats show that play should be improved.
The entire play group as an adjudicator
I prefer to have the entire group as part of the adjudication process, both for the rules mechanical issues and the the more general judgment calls. Typically this means that I ask if a ruling sounds fair and reasonable before making it; sometimes I consult players for their expertise, if it is relevant in the situation.
When this works, it makes the fiction more realistic (as mediated by the genre and such) and increases player buy-in on the outcomes of their actions. It also reinforces that what happens is not due to referee fiat, but rather an organic outgrowth of what is happening in the fiction.
Pacing in the hands of the players
If the players want to spend time on something, they have the right to it. They determine the pace of play. If they do not manage to decide what to do, then I, as a referee, can remind them of the matter and maybe suggest them that nothing is happening, but resolving the issue and deciding what to do is their problem, and their power. If they are happy ”just roleplaying”, they have the right to that, too.
Why bother playing?
The game is in succeeding in the goals one sets for oneself. There are several factions, as well as typical dungeons and other dangerous locations. Also, the emergent play tends to be interesting in other ways, too – characters often have to decide between heroism and safety, or whom of several shady non-player characters to ally with, if any.
- Principia apocrypha: https://lithyscaphe.blogspot.com/p/principia-apocrypha.html
- Lamentations of flame princess referee’s book, old Grindhouse edition: https://www.rpgnow.com/product/148012/LotFP-Referee-Book-old-Grindhouse-Edition
- Guide to adventure writing by James Edward Raggi IV: http://lotfp.blogspot.com/2008/11/guide-to-adventure-writing.html