Reffing with an A-Ref

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Reffing with an A-Ref

Postby Omnifray » 2:33pm on 08 Oct 14

This is a work in progress, an attempt at a summary of key points to remember when GMing with a Soul's Calling-style a-ref (effectively a player with broader narrative authority than the others who occasionally plays NPCs).

* before the game, suggest a specific topic for the a-ref to be in control of within the game
[for instance - unbeknownst to the PCs, they have been cursed by an evil witch, paid to place that curse on them by their enemies - the a-ref is the go-to-man (or go-to-woman) for all aspects of this, and can introduce this into the game in whatever way (s)he sees fit]

* if the a-ref's PC goes off to investigate something, then (if it's not an area mapped out in advance by the ref) have the a-ref start with their PC's explanation to the other PCs of what they have found (dreamt up by the a-ref), and slip a note to the ref explaining any variance between that narrative and what the a-ref's PC actually found.

* when the mechanics give the a-ref's PC a particular result for any action, prompt the a-ref to supply the fictional details - e.g. (after a-ref attacks a bandit in combat) "The bandit is not permanently injured or incapacitated, but tell me, Pete, what minor injury did you inflict on him and how?"

* (specific to Soul's Calling) when considering giving the a-ref's PC a Fate re-roll, if it seems reasonable to allow such a re-roll, let the a-ref decide whether to take it or not.

The reason why I am compiling this list of key points is that so far I feel that I have largely failed to bring out the best in the a-ref role. This is mostly because the players I have had who have known the setting well and who have been comfortable with the system have had no interest in a-reffing, so I have thus far only ever had newbie players as a-refs, and even then, invariably people have only been willing to give a-reffing a go if that's going to be helpful, rather than being positively keen on it. But last time I reffed a game with an a-ref, looking back on it with hindsight, I definitely missed a couple of tricks, especially the second of the above points.

I should be having a game with a suitable a-ref very soon and will be trying to implement the above techniques (as per first draft 08 October 2014) and will post here how it goes.
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Re: Reffing with an A-Ref

Postby Darran » 5:26pm on 08 Oct 14

Why would you need an additional referee for a con game? :?:

I just don't understand?
Is it a complex rules heavy game?

I have ran games for up to nine players and don't see the need for an extra GM.

Confused
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Re: Reffing with an A-Ref

Postby Omnifray » 12:19pm on 09 Oct 14

Last night I had, I think, one of the best GMing experiences I can recall, an experience which left me feeling completely vindicated with regard to a-reffing, and also with a phenomenal buzz. This, despite my having made a number of significant mistakes which I will identify later in this post, each in its own way detracting very slightly from the game. The secret of this game's success? The a-ref.

What was it about the a-ref that made such a great contribution to this game? Partly, it was the fact that when I split the group up, I could wander off with one or two of the players, and leave the a-ref in charge of what happened to the other one or two players in the meantime, so everyone was always entertained, without me having to share secrets out-of-character with people who didn't know them in-character, at risk of compromising immersion. Partly, it was also that even when everyone was at the table, if ever the a-ref noticed that a player wasn't 100% engaged in a particular scene, he would lean over to them and add some little narrative comment and spice things up. Partly, it was the added randomness in the game of having the a-ref's broader narrative interventions at the table (interventions aimed at the group as a whole).

The last two of these, of course, are potentially strengths of "hippy" storygames, where everyone has broad narrative input. But two of my players had indicated a preference to just be getting used to their characters, and a third lacked the confidence to take on a narrating role. Only one of my four players was willing to a-ref. And my game isn't meant for just ref and a-refs. There are meant to be players, getting their immersion on - in fact that's the whole point of the game. And I love GM secrets, and player-v-player secrets, which storygames of the kind I have in mind rarely permit. Any suggestion that you can't have a game with two participants effectively storygaming (ref and a-ref) and three effectively playing a trad RPG, at the same table, completely successfully, I regard as utterly and definitively exploded by my practical experience last night. You can do it:- we did it last night.

The secret of the success of a-reffing? I think, above all, it was a combination of two things:- (1) the indispensable natural ability of the a-ref, who GMs salon LARPs and is a natural entertainer; (2) the care I took outlining to the a-ref parameters of an in-game topic that the a-ref could take complete control of, subject of course to a veto I never actually used. I have previously GM'd a game with an a-ref who was definitely capable of the role, but I failed to explain to him how to make the most of his in-game topic, and failed to make use of him as a resource, and the result was that he may as well have simply been a player (a great player, but a player nonetheless, and not an a-ref). You need both (1) and (2) for the role to really work.

I had three players (playing Yegor, Natya and Anatol) and an a-ref (playing Zakhyr). Zakhyr and Anatol are siblings. Yegor and Natya are siblings. In real-life the players of each sibling-pair are a couple. Yegor and Natya's players were complete newbies to Soul's Calling:- their previous RP experience was mainly D&D 3rd edition, which they had both also DM'd, especially Yegor's player (Natya's player being less keen on crunch). The a-ref and Anatol's player had both played Soul's Calling on one single occasion about a year ago, and had a broad experience of other roleplaying games, including salon LARPs; the a-ref, as I've mentioned, often GMs, and Anatol's player has given GMing a go but isn't confident with it.

From what I understood of the other participants' perspectives, the a-ref was exceptionally happy with the game, Natya and Yegor's players were very happy with it and Anatol was as happy as could reasonably be expected but mainly still getting used to the character.

After the game I wrote down a list of learnings from the game, trying to codify how we had gotten the buzz we got; partly, the techniques were improvised by the a-ref and went modestly beyond what I had laid down as scripture in advance. These are they, supplemented slightly in the light of morning:-

(1)(a) it is of the highest importance that the ref gives the a-ref some special topic to control and hints over how to introduce it into the game (at a time and in a manner determined by the a-ref) - in this case, it was a faerie watching the party from one of the two faerie realms, and capable of causing minor effects in the mortal realm whether deliberately or accidentally, and it worked beautifully for a number of practical reasons (the device can be used basically anywhere, any time, any how);

(1)(b) thus a "white list" of areas that are definitely safe for the a-ref to narrate about (within reason), which I have previously suggested should be optional, is strongly recommended wherever reasonably possible, if still not strictly mandatory;

(2) when a-refs add narrative, where appropriate, the ref should tease out more information from them by asking them questions - in this case, the a-ref was narrating the appearance of water dripping down from the ceiling of a tunnel, which a PC caught in his cupped hands, and the question I asked was basically "and this water, once it lands, does it behave like ordinary water?" - that worked very well, leading on to more narrative;

(3) it may be appropriate for the a-ref to subtly co-ref at the table when a player is not 100% engaged, by privately feeding that player additional narrative - in this case, minor manifestations of faerie magic, caused, and in some cases deliberately controlled, by the a-ref's faerie - and this was something the a-ref simply improvised, but I propose to explicitly allow it and codify it in the rules (perhaps limited to areas on the a-ref's "white list");

(4) it's definitely OK for the ref to take control of the a-ref's PC very briefly, just to get the a-ref's PC out of the way for a while so that the a-ref can take over reffing for one or two of the players when the group is split up - in this case, I literally sent the a-ref's PC to the latrine with stomach pains, forever proving in the affirmative the answer to the question "does roleplaying being on the latrine ever have a place in a fantasy roleplaying game?" 8) though next time I may choose a different device...

(5) a point suggested by the a-ref after the game, though it did not arise in the actual game itself - if the ref were to exercise his veto as ref over the a-ref's narrative input, better to do so by private note to the a-ref if possible, rather than risk undermining him in front of the players (some people are sensitive souls, obviously - me, if a-reffing, I probably wouldn't care);

(6) the point I suggested in the OP of this thread regarding Fate re-rolls must be optional and not mandatory - if the a-ref is struggling and agonising over the choice of whether to take re-rolls or not, then that choice should be the ref's alone, for speed, as it would be with ordinary players;

(7) a point of general application which I have noticed before but which definitely applies with a-refs' narrations as well as in other contexts - where two foes fighting each other get to attack simultaneously in combat, make sure you resolve both attacks mechanically before you allow any narrative of the result of either attack - otherwise you end up with a narrative which may fit awkwardly with the attack you roll second;

(8) the hand-signals work brilliantly.

All in all, the a-ref probably took on between 15% and 30% of the weight of the GMing role during the actual session, as well as playing a PC. But the a-ref had no additional prep to do for the a-reffing role (beyond that of any player), except for reading 3 pages of my mini-book (the Player's Quickstarter) and getting a 2-minute briefing from me.

For the record, the significant reffing mistakes I personally made, which detracted from the game in limited ways and which I will blame on having been tired, were:-

(-a-) after making a trivial error by omitting to deal with magical paraphernalia for spellcasting, I retconned it instead of handwaving it, contrary to the advice in my own book, which is effectively to handwave it, and this momentarily caused such confusion that I had to sum up the chronology of what had happened so far so that the a-ref didn't get confused (in his role as a player really more than anything else);
(-b-) on one occasion I failed to split the group when I should have, thus causing some people to have out-of-character knowledge that their characters didn't have (which I then had to fix by making it in-character knowledge too);
(-c-) see point (7) above.

As I say, though these mistakes of mine detracted from the game, overall it was a phenomenal session.

Darran wrote:Why would you need an additional referee for a con game? :?:


Hopefully the above should shed some light on it.

Some playstyles involve GM secrets and player-v-player secrets, and the GM is tempted to split the group. That can be frustrating for the players left on the sidelines (previously what I have often known happen is the remaining players to continue in-character discussions with each other while I nipped off to ref something quickly for one of the players in private). Having an a-ref means no player need ever be left on the sidelines. But moreover, some players find it frustrating to be limited to just the agency of their PC. They want broader narrative authority. Other players don't want broader narrative authority. Adopting a one-size-fits-all policy means players have to adapt to the game; having different roles (a-ref or ordinary player) means that instead the game adapts to the players (horses for courses). Up to a certain point, of course.

Darran wrote:Why would you need an additional referee for a con game? :?: Is it a complex rules heavy game?


See above.

It has nothing to do with the complexity or simplicity of the rules. Seeing as I wrote the rules, it's unlikely that the complexity of the rules would cause me to need help reffing. On paper, there are a lot of rules, but in practice, mostly the game is run in a fairly rules-light way. This session led very quickly into full-on rules-heavy brutal combat, and a semi-permanent affliction for one of the PCs, because I like new campaigns to start with tension, and the person concerned failed his last re-roll. But after that the rules quickly took a back seat most of the time.

Darran wrote:I have ran games for up to nine players and don't see the need for an extra GM.


Sure. Whether an a-ref will or won't be helpful depends on your playstyle and what you value in the game.
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Re: Reffing with an A-Ref

Postby Omnifray » 1:52am on 12 Oct 14

In this post I am recording feedback from the other participants at the session of the game I mentioned in my immediately previous post in this thread. I am posting this here because I don't have time to write up my own detailed write-up of this game at the moment, and in any event might re-use some of the material in other games, so I'm not giving any spoilers.

After descriptions of the characters and very short pre-game vignettes between two characters at a time, we had the "Eyes Closed Thing" where I incorporated a small amount of further narrative, then the game-proper began.

I asked the players for written feedback on particular areas and this is some of what I got, edited for clarity and to remove spoilers if I re-use the material.

First up the A-ref, who was playing Zakhyr as a PC:-

The A-ref wrote:I am a tabletop RPer of 20 years and counting. I've LARPed since 2010 and have spent the last three years running my own fortnightly, small scale LARP. I have done fest LARPing since the beginning of 2014. I prefer narrative/fiction/storytelling over rules or "crunch".

(1) how much did you enjoy the game?

I enjoyed it a great deal and look forward to playing again as the story continues.

(2) how much did you feel you got into your PC's headspace?

I had a fair idea of the character that I wanted to play; through the golden motives system it focused me on the two most important questions that will be instantly familiar to any fan of Babylon 5: "Who are you?" and "What do you want?". The answers being: "The wrath of the gods" and "to destroy all trace of evil in the world", respectively.

(3) how did you find the fact of having [the A-ref] A-reffing as well as me reffing?

I was that a-ref and I loved the job! This was the real hook of this game over and above other tabletop systems that I've played. The concept of multiple refs will be familiar to any LARPer but is very much an untapped resource to the tabletop gamer. One of the main drawbacks of the latter is the length of time it takes to have one's turn as the ref goes from player to player. This becomes particularly apparent when players inevitably choose to split up and out of room conferences become a necessity.

During such time the a-ref is able to step in and weave their own narrative through the greater story. This is one of the few tabletop systems where there need never be a dull moment and players remain actively engaged throughout.
The initial briefing I received before the start of the game helped tremendously with the "white list and black list" very clearly laying out a framework within which to spontaneously generate plot. This appeals to me on every level, a great balance of freedom vs parameters, it encourages creative input and allows for a much smoother, yet more multilayered gaming experience.

The level of empathy and understanding between ref and A-ref has to be of the highest standard; any potential conflict or misunderstanding between the two could make the game's greatest strength into its worst weakness. In this case I feel it worked amazingly well; I think provided the rapport is there between the two refs this would work equally well as a means of training up someone who'd never reffed before. Having two experienced refs working cooperatively at the table is a joy to behold.

(4) how useful was the 2-page primer (Ultra-Quickstarter) or Player's Quickstarter (32-page minibook) in priming you for the game?

I generally do zero reading about any system that I go into, a personal flaw/limitation, but I find that I can't muster up "keen" to read up on a world until I've lived it. I'm a highly pragmatic learner and I take in information best when I'm living it. For Soul's Calling, Matt was very keen that we do the "homework" so I read through the book [this presumably means the mini-book - ed.] and took in one or two tasty bits of the background; the names of the months in particular I found very appealing.

The section on a-reffing was a must though and I think due to my interest in that area I absorbed most of this on one read through.

Now that I've begun playing the game and can see where I want to go with my own character and what I'd like to run for the players as a-ref I will now return to the books and learn those specific pieces of information.

(5) what themes in the game so far have you found most interesting / would be most interested in seeing more of?

I loved the sense of traditional high fantasy [potential spoiler removed]. I felt there was immediate "cool", in that strong story elements were introduced immediately; this grabbed my interest as a player and engaged me through my character [potential spoiler removed] and the deeper mystery continued to be revealed at a perfect pace as we went.

From an a-ref standpoint it was a matter of having just enough knowledge to run my plot and yet at the same time that knowledge in no way detracted from my enjoyment as a player of the ref's plot. Being able to compartmentalise is a must in this role.

The supernatural elements of the game are great; all the great archetypes are in there and several were used from the off. I'm a big fan of this style of pacing; I don't like laborious build-ups. Never be afraid to show the players the cool and in so doing encourage them to do the cool themselves.


Anatol's player reported having enjoyed the game and separately gave the following commentary:-

Anatol's Player wrote:I am quite relieved not to have to character gen again. [In-joke removed - ed.]

I think I have a basic understanding of how combat resolves. It is currently a very basic understanding.

It was very valuable to me to have a lot of the number crunching removed; however, power needs returning gradually by slowly teaching me where the numbers and decisions come from. I have been a GM; I can do this if taught, I feel. [Personal commentary removed - ed.]

Your universe seems pretty solid. I should probably read more of it so I don't do anything crazy.

As someone who prefers LARP heavily, the use of an a-ref (or as I would understand it a narrator with a DPC) was very welcome. When something is happening to part of a party it can be very dull to sit and wait for a turn and can be a massive amount of pressure when you are the only one interacting. [Ed. the point being made here is that the presence of the a-ref prevented that awkwardness from happening.]

I do feel that the [pre-game vignette between Anatol and Natya] was too short. We had only just started actually talking when we got ushered back into the main room. This was slightly jarring. [Ed. this was the first time I had used a pre-game vignette in that style and it was not based on anything in the books.] However I think this particular point would be hard to master as one player would sit for hours picking daisies not allowing the full game to proceed. I wouldn't see that as massively helpful either.

The establishment of boundaries at the start of play was very helpful. [Ed. this is a reference to personal boundaries for the game - partly what you may think of as lines and veils.] I would however recommend that one person's boundaries are not everyone's. [Commentary on a semi-personal issue removed - ed.]

[... what follows came in a second e-mail ...]

The [pre-game vignettes] were really good, I just could have done with more time [for the vignette between Anatol and Natya]. I would actually suggest putting that into the book. You can write a long involved backstory and then not react like that in play. However doing it on the spot you get a better feel for how things will work.

I would hope that [Yegor's player] expects [Zakhyr's player] to react and me to watch, then react.

So far I am a distant zealot to [Natya], which is fine but it isn't a fully realistic impression.


A brief comment in writing from Natya's player:-

Natya's Player wrote:It was a pleasure to get a chance to roleplay with this group. I'm very excited for more.


No comment in writing from Yegor's player but Yegor's player was very complimentary face-to-face straight after the game.

I hope the above helps put my second post in this thread into context!
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Re: Reffing with an A-Ref

Postby Omnifray » 1:32am on 16 Oct 14

Ran a 2nd session of the campaign mentioned upthread this evening. It was good, pretty much textbook as to how the game was run, and there was a good buzz of energy around the table, but not as much as last time. Contributing factors:-

(1) one of the players was ill and consequently a bit out of it for part of the session;
(2) another of the players was tired as a result of driving a considerable distance immediately beforehand;
(3) for much of the session the a-ref's subplot was front and centre, meaning that the game resembled a traditional game with a single GM much more (but the a-ref being that GM for much of the game), rather than as on the previous occasion the game being centred on the ref's plot (my plot) with the a-ref's subplot only creeping in at the edges; I did introduce elements of a sub-sub-plot creeping back in at the edges of the a-ref's subplot but it wasn't as intense/frequent.

I was very happy with letting the a-ref do the heavy lifting for the session GMing-wise, but I think there's a lot of mileage in working hard on semi-permanent subplots giving the a-ref (or the ref if the a-ref is doing the heavy lifting) continual excuses to stick an oar in within a defined sphere. This remains to be given further thought over coming games.

Plot-wise the party had a choice of various obvious options both as to who/what they interacted with and as to where they took each encounter and the game very much hinged on the players' choices, some of which were quite hard choices. Events took a pretty spectacular course when the party made a very reckless choice causing severe hardship for an important NPC but it will probably work out in alignment with party goals in the medium term.

A suggestion from the a-ref was to have more hand-signals - specifically a hand-signal for the a-ref to ask the ref to intervene in narration when the a-ref feels lost. I'm not sure, but will give it some thought. Another thing to mention is that at one point the a-ref randomly took the part of an NPC without prompting. It worked fine, though I can imagine circumstances where that could cause problems; I think it was a safe bet on this occasion because the a-ref had seen the NPC's involvement in the game over two sessions (this is the temporary GMPC I refer to below) and knew what the score was with that NPC. Not sure about incorporating that sort of thing in the written rules but will give some thought to commenting on it.

The a-ref had done a lot of work prepping for the game and we had agreed stuff by e-mail beforehand.

The players and a-ref all seem to continue to be happy and if there is further written feedback by e-mail I will give thought to putting some of it up here. Mainly I am concerned to edit out spoilers in case I reuse this scenario material (which is very likely) and in case people inadvertently include too much personal info.

I can say though that three of us (me, the a-ref and Anatol's player) all identified aspects of the a-reffing role as our favourite things about the game. Natya's player plumped for the party's conflicting anathemas as a highlight, and Yegor's player plumped for my roleplay of a particular NPC. (Currently in effect a temporary GMPC to be honest, but an order of magnitude less powerful than the PCs-proper.)
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Re: Reffing with an A-Ref

Postby Omnifray » 1:54am on 23 Oct 14

Had another session today. To me, as ref, it felt very slow-paced, but I think all my players enjoyed it, so I guess that's fine. Not really very much to report with regard to developing a-reffing techniques - the a-reffing situation has continued and has continued to work, with collaboration across the table between ref and a-ref. The a-ref continues to see his a-reffing role as the game's central appeal for him. The players seem to find the game immersive (in the character-immersion sense). There were one or two instances where I was pitching in where the a-ref's subplots had come into play and I may at times have misunderstood where the a-ref was going with them but no problems arose.

The slow pace was due to me waiting for the players to make up their minds as to where they were driving the game, and that took a while, with other stuff going on at the same time. What I had anticipated to be a huge fight near the beginning of the game did not materialise, because the players hid from it. Very sensibly! And to my utter surprise!

If anything on this occasion the a-ref slowed the game down more than I had expected by inserting extra subplot at frequent intervals. It certainly meant there was more going on than there might otherwise have been.

In short, all fine, an enjoyable game according to the players, but no significant observations for "best practice", new techniques or theory.
Looking for playtesters for the Implodarc Tabletop RPG. If you'd like to playtest it and post public feedback or an AP thread, ask me for the private link to download it, or I can e-mail it to you. At least compared to my usual stuff, it's meant to be simple and quick to play with quick CharGen.
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Re: Reffing with an A-Ref

Postby Omnifray » 2:47am on 30 Oct 14

Had another session this evening. People still seem keen. A-ref thinks game is getting better and better.

The rolling hands gesture, I think, did not go down well, despite players having been told about it beforehand - one in particular thought it seemed rude. (Me?? Rude?? Why, the very thought!!)

Now, I am getting off the a-ref track with this thought, but it may as well sit here for the moment. For a change we had a combat-heavy session (session 1 started with heavy combat though it was only a small fraction of the session, sessions 2 and 3 had little if any combat, and session 4, the most recent session, had one very heavy combat, one less heavy but deadlier combat, and then one short combat where the PCs narrowly avoided a death). I wanted to see how the Fate-based re-rolls worked out because I was worried that it was too hard, even with modifications I've implemented since last publication, to get the PCs to burn through their Fate in this game, and mercifully I was proven wrong on that score, at least. With the modifications to the rules that I've already been mulling over, the party expended about 84 points of Fate between four of them. I also got some of the rules muddled, but never mind about that. My overall impression? Too many re-rolls.

So I am thinking of a replacement system where the ref (NOT the player) simply chooses to upgrade people's dice-check outcomes at a spiralling cost depending on how many steps the upgrade goes (1 Fate, 3 Fate, 6 Fate, 10 Fate). However on 1 dice-roll out of 4 (depending on what numbers you roll) this would not be an option, with only a re-roll for 1 Fate being an option, and then only if otherwise catastrophic. This addresses my major concerns, which (in a shortened version) include:-

1) ordinary players should never be totally confident of avoiding PC death;
2) ordinary players should not be distracted by the fate metagame.

(This is not an issue for a-refs.)

Three weeks till my next session of this campaign, as I have Indiecon coming up. I probably won't post any more AP from this campaign on this thread, as I think we've covered the ground on a-reffing pretty much now, unless something extraordinary comes up. Might be time to start an ordinary AP-thread on some dark corner of the Internet, but probably not if the party end up heading for the House of Chalk. Perhaps you will see what I mean in due course.
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Re: Reffing with an A-Ref

Postby Omnifray » 1:11am on 23 Mar 15

About 11 sessions into the campaign, nothing has yet caused me to doubt the advantages of having an a-ref.

On the contrary, I have come round to the view that an a-ref should be a required part of a game with 4+ participants.

3: ref + 2 players
4: ref, a-ref, 2 players
5: ref, a-ref, 3 players
6: ref, 1 or 2 a-refs, 3 or 4 players
7: ref, 1 or 2 a-refs (preferably 2), 4 or 5 players (preferably 4)

The only hitch we had was a communication failure once about geographic separation of two sub-groups of the party when we split the party and had me and the a-ref separately reffing for the two sub-groups. Fortunately there was a fix but strict geographic or planar separation is key. (Or temporal if you do time-travel, which I don't.)

Last session we had an opportunity for the party to visit some traders and upgrade their equipment. They let the mechanical advantages utterly pass them by but they had some interest in roleplay with the traders which varied from person to person. Letting the a-ref play the bulk of the traders was a great way to let interested players visit traders of their choice while not making other players sit through that roleplay. I gave the a-ref a fur-trader NPC and such other NPC traders as he wanted to make up, within reasonable bounds for a frontier trading post and not a smith, and I took the smith and a peddler. We stayed in the same room OOC, just occupying different ends of it, which was fine because there were no big secrets and PCs might have overheard each other's trading deals in the marketplace so it was fine. The peddler was there to occupy whoever was done with the proper traders (the peddler is actually a reasonably important NPC and was plainly guilty of at least three murders within the space of about 8 hours before fleeing but will no doubt be back!).

My players, bless them, bought such items as a long roll of linen, a large cooking pot and some dancing socks. When I say dancing socks, I don't mean magical socks which dance by themselves, I literally mean socks for dancing in.
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Re: Reffing with an A-Ref

Postby Omnifray » 6:50pm on 14 May 15

In recent sessions of my current campaign up north (we've had about 16 sessions of it so far), having an a-ref has made an enormous difference to the game where a PC has been dead or unconscious for an extended period of time (the unconscious character was unconscious for slightly more than two hours of fictional time and about twenty minutes of real-world gameplay).

In such situations the player of the dead or unconscious character can be kept busy with the afterlife or a near-death experience, and the a-ref can ref that for them. There can be stakes too:- what the character does might affect their sanity when they return to life or consciousness, or their prospects of being returned to life or consciousness, or pacts they might make with powerful spirits, or whatever.

In fact, something similar was done in a Call of Cthulhu scenario I played at Indiecon some years back, where my character was comatose and the entire scenario played out in his head. I didn't rate the detail of the execution particularly, but actually the concept has potential for side-quests for dead/unconscious characters to keep their players busy without involving them in metagaming - and all you need to make this work simultaneously with gameplay for the main group is a willing a-ref (assistant GM). There may be some time-distortion of course, but that's OK given we're talking about the afterlife or a near-death experience (or hallucinations while unconscious, if it's not quite near death).
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Re: Reffing with an A-Ref

Postby Omnifray » 2:08am on 29 May 15

Session 18 [if I have counted correctly] of our ongoing campaign in Newcastle, which was on Wednesday evening, taught me one generalisable lesson about reffing with an a-ref. This relates to when you split the party with the a-ref effectively co-reffing for some of the players while the ref refs for the others. In a nutshell, it can be important for what are effectively two co-GMs in that context to keep each other informed as to how much real-world time each of them expects to use up with their group and how much fictional time each of them expects to cover in that time. Ultimately, the two groups have to be brought back into synch later down the line, so one group or the other may have to catch up the different amounts of fictional time covered in the same real-world time.

Perhaps an account of what actually happened will help to make this more concrete. PCs 1 through 4 (number 4 being the a-ref's PC) were attending a gypsy fair in the grounds of a baron's castle. PC 5 was convalescing (explaining her absence because the player was absent). PC 6 left the castle with the fortune-teller and then again with another NPC (a child) and was gone on each of these two occasions for 6 hours or so of fictional time (so from roughly 6 p.m. to roughly midnight, then from shortly after midnight to shortly after 6 a.m.). I GMed for PC 6, leaving the a-ref to fend for PCs 1 through 4 during PC 6's two lengthy absences.

Unfortunately I did not anticipate the embarrassment that these 6-hour time-periods would cause the a-ref (even the second time). The a-ref had begun a fairly detailed gypsy fair scenario for PCs 1 through 4 and they were getting deep into the roleplay when, rather oblivious to some of the human factors at play, I returned and instructed the a-ref that he needed to progress to midnight in fictional time in the next few minutes or so as PC 6 was now ready to rejoin the group. At that point he had only got to about 6:05 p.m., so he had gone from covering 5 minutes of fictional time in say 20 minutes of real world time, to having to cover 6 hours of fictional time in say 5 minutes of real-world time, which is quite an acceleration. Now, personally, I feel confident that I would have been comfortable doing that, even with the nil warning that I was courteous enough to give. But evidently the a-ref took it rather badly that having built up the atmosphere he had to accelerate so quickly. (In fact he got very positive feedback from one of the players at least, and I have no doubt that he made the situation more enjoyable for the players of PCs 1 through 3 than he realised, counting PC 4 as his own PC.) I was not on the ball enough (2 beers in) to adapt to this problem when for the second time I reffed for PC 6, namely on her second jaunt outside the castle, so basically the same thing happened all over again.

After hearing the a-ref out after the session ended, brief cogitation upon this conjunction of circumstances led me to this conclusion:- putting it at its lowest, if one co-ref has to catch his players up with the other co-ref's fictional time with no warning, that may take the co-ref who has to do that beyond his comfort zone. Potentially, it could lead to a disjointed and counterimmersive experience for the players (certainly there is a place for accelerated narration in RPGs, but perhaps it works best when it happens because the GM judges that the mood is right, the time is right, etc., rather than because it is forced on him by his co-GM).

There is only one way to mitigate this:- the two co-GMs have to keep each other informed of how much fictional time they expect to cover in a given period of real-world time. I don't mean that they have to be precise about this, but at least one of them has to give the other one some rough guidelines so that the transition between a split party and a reunited party can be a smooth one.

In the case of the actual experience of play we had, it was not guaranteed that PC 6 would go for either jaunt when it was dangled in front of her. She had her reservations about the NPC who instigated these jaunts. She may have supposed (and I can neither confirm nor deny) that I was playing mind games with her. So I was not in a position to simply tell the a-ref on each of the two occasions when I split the party because PC 6 was alone with the fortune-teller in the fortune-teller's caravan (or on the second occaison with that child NPC) that I expected to cover about 6 hours of fictional time in about 15 minutes of real-world time and he would need to be ready to do the same for the PCs to be back in synch.

But what I could have done, and this is the key learning I take away from the experience, is tell him that there was a contingent possibility that there could be 6 hours of fictional time to cover each time, and then update him as soon as I knew whether PC 6 was taking the bait. [Damn, is the cat out of the bag already?]

It reminds me very much of the Schroedinger's Tavern problem (a slight misnomer but I like it anyway), where I was GMing for one group of PCs, and the a-ref was GMing for another, and I thought that my lot were the only PCs to have entered the tavern I had described, which I plainly described as having a single bar area, whereas the a-ref had allowed his PCs to enter the tavern too... which we had to retcon by saying that it had two bar areas. That was awkward [and is the problem of geographical separation I alluded to two posts upthread].

The common denominator in these two situations is a split party co-GMed for by the ref for one lot of PCs and the a-ref for the other lot. There has to be a certain amount of communication of expectations between the ref and the a-ref beforehand. This has to cover, at a minimum:-
* any unusually lengthy periods of fictional time likely to pass for one group or the other;
* a geographical delineation to keep the two groups separate until the ref-team jointly preside over them coming back together.

In practice, one member of the ref-team takes a practical directing role in this, for the sake of efficiency. Generally it does not really matter whether it is the ref or the a-ref who does so, but really that practical directing role is a GMing role so normally it will be the ref's responsibility, and when it's the a-ref's responsibility that's because effectively the a-ref has temporarily taken over the ref's reffing role / GMing responsibilities (which in our group happens a lot, subject to reservation of certain elements to me as ref).

I do not feel that I have explained this particularly brilliantly, but I do feel that it's a very noteworthy point. For emphasis, it boils down to this:- if you're GMing and you let a player or assistant GM do the GMing for one group of PCs while you do the GMing for another group, then give that co-GM fair warning of how much fictional time they may need to cover and how quickly.

A sacrifice necessitated for the sake of keeping both groups of PCs entertained and involved in the fiction while at the same time permitting secret squirrel stuff may be that the tool for achieving re-synchronisation of fictional time for the two groups is the use of somewhat railroady narrative, but it's an infrequent and necessary evil, basically just a catch-me-up tool.

This is the most notable improvement in my understanding of the ref/a-ref paradigm since we stumbled into Schroedinger's Tavern, so rather than considering the evening a failure for resulting in a disjointed experience for the bigger group of PCs, I consider it a great playtesting success. I also suspect that the player who gave particularly positive feedback was not the only one who enjoyed the situation presented by the a-ref to the majority of the PCs. And PC 6's two jaunts have laid really exciting foundations for what can happen next :-)
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Re: Reffing with an A-Ref

Postby Omnifray » 9:06pm on 30 May 15

One of the conclusions I have drawn from my experiences of reffing with an a-ref is this:-

as a general rule of thumb, the a-ref should not introduce an NPC who's going to be a permanent fixture with the party, or give the party a significant magical artefact, without the specific authorisation of the ref.

My a-ref has done both these things; it had never occurred to me that an a-ref would do something so drastic in its implications for the dynamics of play, so I hadn't set out any contrary expectations and was just a bit flummoxed when it happened.

So I guess it behoves me to explain why I think these additions can be problematical.

The first, obvious parallel to draw is the analogy between an a-ref's NPC permanently accompanying the party and the classic GMPC. The a-ref has all the temptations a GM might have to introduce a Mary Sue character. That should be discouraged for all the same reasons as if it were an actual GMPC of a Mary Sue variety. The a-ref gets a PC genned up by the normal rules; that should generally be the a-ref's only permanent character in the party (each pure player gets one PC).

The second thing is that if the a-ref's NPC is not genned up using the normal rules for a PC, then the person who decide's the NPC's abilities (likely to be the a-ref) may have a very different concept of balance than is inherent in the rules. Something which might be entirely reasonable in another RPG may be completely unbalancing in Soul's Calling, far in excess of what a PC might be capable of, not necessarily because it's objectively unreasonable in fantasy fiction or games in general, but because each game tries to achieve game balance around its own set of assumptions as to the format of play etc., and the assumptions on which one game's sense of balance is based may be very different to the assumptions on which another game's sense of balance is based.

The third thing is that an NPC permanently stationed with the party is a constant and unavoidable source of input into every scenario and encounter. Especially if the NPC has information and knowledge the PCs don't have, or abilities the PCs don't have, or connections or resources the PCs don't have, that can make it much more difficult for the ref to challenge the party, because the ref has to challenge the NPC too. It becomes more complicated to predict how things will go.

The fourth thing is that because the ref has to challenge the NPC, part of the game becomes a conflict not between players and enemies (PvE) nor between players and players (PvP) but purely between NPCs (EvE), even if the PCs are there and can stick their oars in. In other words, part of the game becomes internal conflict resolution between the two members of the ref-team, in a sense excluding the players. The game may become more of a show for an audience than an interactive and participatory experience.

With respect to magical artefacts, my reasons are rather specific to Soul's Calling; if you had an assistant DM in a game of D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder and he gave the party a magical +1 sword, I don't suppose it would make much difference to play. But in Soul's Calling, or any game set in the Enshrouded Lands, the idea is really, as a matter of flavour, that any magical item of a permanent or semi-permanent nature should derive its magic from a sentient and powerful spirit bound within it (or sometimes several such spirits). In essence, then, a magical artefact is in fact an NPC. Therefore potentially essentially the same problems arise in introducing a magical artefact to the party as in introducing an NPC.

Of course, I wouldn't want to conclude that the ref-team between them could never introduce a magical artefact into the party, and weak GMPCs (weaker than the party), with at most limited additional information, can be a great tool for the ref to prompt the party into deciding important questions they have to decide such as what their objectives and next steps will be, and pointing out obvious flaws in plans, while at the same time leaving the essential decision-making in the players' hands.

But I haven't finalised my approach to magical artefacts in the game yet, and doing so will mean giving a lot of thought to game-balance by which I mean balance as between the various PCs and by extension the opportunity for different players to occupy the limelight.

I feel I have to give the topics I'm posting about in this post a lot more thought, but this post is a start.
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Re: Reffing with an A-Ref

Postby Omnifray » 1:34am on 01 Jun 15

Ruminating on my previous post, I think the key dividing line between safe a-ref narrative input and the danger zone is when the fictional element that the a-ref is introducing causes ongoing dynamic, changeable, variable, inconstant, interactive, responsive input into and impact upon the PCs' situation.

An NPC or a sentient magical artefact has those qualities. In contrast giving the PCs high-quality mundane medievalesque equipment, money or lasting injuries creates a static effect, with predictable ramifications, which is easily manageable.

It is that quality of dynamism and interactive responsiveness which makes the NPC or sentient magical artefact potentially difficult to manage. An NPC or a magical artefact without that quality would be less problematic. It would probably be fine for the a-ref to introduce, say, a dog as one of the PCs' pets, or a lucky horseshoe conferring a blessing of great simplicity upon the bearer.

Conversely, if something other than an NPC or a magical artefact were to have non-static impact on the party, it might be a bad idea for the a-ref to introduce it. I am reminded of Simon Burley's suggestion that smartphones capable of Internet access ought to count as significant items in Squadron UK, requiring a special skill if you are to get the most out of them.
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Re: Reffing with an A-Ref

Postby Neil Gow » 8:36am on 01 Jun 15

I suggest that such skill be dubbed 'Being a teenager'
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Re: Reffing with an A-Ref

Postby Omnifray » 12:20pm on 04 Jun 15

Session 19 (or so) last night was only a short one - about 1 hour 50 minutes.

Just one brief reflection on the ref-and-a-ref paradigm from last night:-

One of the benefits of having an a-ref is being able to pass the buck on a reffing call, especially when as ref you have essentially set up a situation for the players to confront, and it then needs to be resolved somewhat independently of player action. In effect, passing the buck to the a-ref can mean using the a-ref as a sort of randomisation device so that you as ref don't feel as if you have simply told the players a story, but rather that a situation has been created and then resolved interactively.

Many of you who are storygamers at heart rather than trad roleplayers will be well aware of the similar effect of having shared narrative authority over the fiction or collective table authority over the mechanics etc., where the GM can for instance pass decisions back to the players collectively. What is different about the way we game in my current group is that the dynamic is asymmetrical:- only two of the seven participants are involved in this decision-making, namely the ref and the a-ref. The game could accommodate switching one of the players from pure player to a-ref, so that we would have two a-refs instead of one, and I have made that clear to the players, but nobody wants to make the switch. Everybody is happy with their current assigned role (ref, a-ref or pure player). The a-ref is definitely enjoying a-reffing, but although at least one of the pure players has vaguely considered possibly a-reffing, none of them has taken it up.

The point I am driving at is that just because some things storygames do can add to the group's experience, that doesn't mean that it's necessarily optimal to require all participants to accept a one-size-fits-all model of storygaming just because they happen to be seated at the same table. What the a-ref is doing is of the essence of what happens in many storygames, but none of the pure players are doing that stuff, and clearly they don't currently want to; what they are doing is essentially exactly what anyone would do in any trad game where people speak in character. Obviously they get a different experience out of the game than the a-ref does, and the a-ref gets a different experience than I do (part player, part GM, part storygamer, part glorious mishmash and possibly partly sui generis).

I have mentioned to the a-ref and some of the players that I would like the a-ref to take over reffing for a while in the future, with me a-reffing and running the mechanics where needed. That's for two reasons:- firstly so I can get some experience of a-reffing myself, to inform what I write about that role in the game text and elsewhere; secondly, because I need to implement the now 187+ individual edits I've noted for myself to make to the game text, and that's going to be laborious and time-consuming. I'm very happy reffing, and very happy reffing for this group, but for those two practical reasons it would be sensible to have a switchover soonish, with a view to probably switching back further into the future.
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Re: Reffing with an A-Ref

Postby Omnifray » 5:15pm on 01 Jul 15

It emerged from a recent chat with one of my players that that player feels as if there's never really time to interact with the a-ref's PC properly because the a-ref is so often engaged in GMing tasks. I said - "so it feels like the a-ref's PC is an NPC?"; the player agreed.

I don't think this is a huge problem:- the a-ref seems to get more out of a-reffing than out of purely playing, and the a-ref's contributions as a-ref make a huge difference to my ability to keep the whole group entertained, especially at times when there is secret squirrel goodness going on, or when the themes I'm presenting to the party are more interesting to some and less so to others.

That said, it's an interesting footnote to this thread, I feel.

Tonight will hopefully be session 21 of our ongoing campaign and I have now got more than 200 accumulated edits to make to the core rules since the ashcan version, so I am just hoping there are no more of any substance...
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