Friday, July 5, 2013

Integrity, Randomness and Improvisation

The idea has been going around:
To put it bluntly, the GM’s job is to be defeated by the players in the most entertaining way for everyone involved.
It's not particularly interesting to say I disagree with this. But it's worth talking about why.

Fundamentally, as I've said before, the referee's job is to prepare a world and run it for the players. From this perspective, keeping integrity intact is more important than the survival of the party, or any sense of "story" the referee chooses to make. As I emphasized before, integrity only applies to written material - what the referee wrote down exists.

The reason integrity matters is that without it, player skill is a game of impressing the referee. But since D&D is a hidden-map game, player skill should be a function of being able to explore the map without falling victim to what is on it, either in monsters or traps. When we look at it this way, the referee's job has to be coming up with the map and the hard and fast parts of what is on the map - and not losing in an entertaining way.

Of course, what's on the map is necessarily only a subset of what is actually there in play. Improvisation and generating details randomly are a classic part of RPGs, and many times the most memorable moments and ideas are made up on the fly during a game session. And this interacts with player skill again: one part of player skill is figuring out which details are unimportant and not wasting time on them. I've seen players bash their heads against unimportant areas, or overlook crucial ones that would hide major treasures. That's integrity.

Randomness is one way to bridge the gap between integrity and improvisation. Wandering monsters and random charts both are cases where the world has an objective chance - but not a certainty - for their contents to exist in the world. To me, the quantum ogre is misnamed. Quanta refer to percentages; a true quantum ogre is one on a wandering monster chart, which may or may not be present in any given turn, and has a certain chance of existing. Which is, oddly, exactly what wandering monster charts and other random tables imply about the game world, from the referee's perspective.

Integrity does matter here as well, though - if you have an ogre on your wandering monster chart but decide not to spring it on the PCs when the WM die comes up, that's arbitrary just like adjusting the number of trolls in a room to party size would be. The integrity of random tables is in the chance of the referenced creatures or obstacles appearing. You could make a very interesting dungeon level where there are no programmed encounters, only high-risk random encounters, and treasure extraction was possible, but only as part of an arduous and extremely time-consuming process.

I think this is important because the assumption of PC success is basically illusionism. If failure is not an option, there really is no skill - players are going to succeed whether they are good or not. I think this is honestly one of the reasons that OSR gaming has the appeal it does. Since character death is up-front and entirely possible, it makes it clear that integrity is more important than your PC. And players respond positively, by becoming very conscious of what their characters are doing, and it leads to the development of player skill. And that, I think, is a good thing.


  1. "that's arbitrary just like adjusting the number of trolls in a room to party size would be"

    Both OD&D (Vol III, pg 12-13) and Holmes (pg 10) explicitly advise the referee to adjust the number of monsters on the random tables based on party size. Holmes also also give this advice in a room in the Sample Dungeon (pg 40). The number of goblins in Room A is a formula based on the number of party members. I don't really see this as different than designing a dungeon based on party level.

    1. To be clear, the idea of integrity I'm talking about was based on this comment:
      and this one:

      Integrity means to me that once the scenario is set, it's set - and further modification to it would be against the spirit of the game.

    2. I would argue, that the advice in the OD&D and Holmes is wrong, in a campaign of meaningful player choices: You should probably adjust the number of goblins, that could appear in the random tables not depending on the group, but on the "danger-level" of the dungeon (or forest or city quarter). And you should give possibilities for the players to learn about that danger level. That way, you keep integrity, and give the players even more incentive to learn about the game world.
      On the other hand, if you somehow set the stage for the PCs to go there, the advice would be solid. For example for the Dungeon next to the starting point of the game, you should (probably) do this. It's a difference in approach.


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