Play Fair: 5 Ways To Be A Great Referee

From Chris Williams

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0548

A Brief Word From Johnn

What Did You Think Of The Combat Swipes?

Hopefully the download of the freebie Combat Swipes eBook went ok for you.

There was a lot of traffic to the website when I sent the download link out last week, and there were a few timeouts.

Drop me a note if you did not get the download link.

And if you did get the ebook, I’d love to hear what you thought about it.

I have more such ebooks planned for you in the future!

Tweaking The Newsletter

Now that a couple projects have wrapped up and life is sane again, I’m questing to go weekly with the newsletter once more. Woohoo!

I’m pretty excited about this because I love doing these GM tips and hearing your tips and feedback. It’s a creative outlet I’m addicted to.

One thing I’ve noticed is that shorter and more frequent emails are easier for me to manage. When things stack up into a huge newsletter, it takes more effort to assemble, edit and go through my publishing checklist.

And sometimes that extra work is enough to cause a delay.

So, I’m fiddling with the format again, including testing out a new column as a standalone email later this week – keep an eye out in your inbox for it.

Feedback on format, content and style is always welcome, but I suspect shorter, leaner and meaner makes the GM tips and advice easier for you to read and process, as well.

Let me know.

Play Fair: 5 Ways To Be A Great Referee

One of the words that gets bandied around in place of game master is referee.

As referee, you are ruling between the players and yourself (at least, that’s how your players might see it). So you have to be fair.

Another way of looking at it is you have to interpret the rules (not all of which are clearly written) and make the final call.

To that end, here are a few tips on how to be fair in your application of the rules (whichever system you’re using).

Be Consistent

If you make a ruling about how a particular spell or skill works, write it down.

I have a set of 3×5 cards in a file box that I bring to my games. As I make rulings I write them down on the cards.

If we had a ruling on the same question before, I pull out the card and read what I did before.

And don’t just apply your rulings to the PCs. Once a ruling has been made, make sure it gets played that way all the time by PCs and NPCs alike.

Listen To Your Players

Sometimes they may yell or even throw their dice at you, but most times they will state their concerns and make their case in calm and rational tones.

It’s their game too, and you want them to have fun. Players are always looking for an edge and may find something you hadn’t thought of before. When paired with rule #1 above, this can work to your advantage.


I Used to play in a long-running 2E AD&D game. We found the stoneskin spell to be very useful – almost too useful.

The GM objected to our almost constant usage of it, until he decided that if we could use it, so could his NPCs. This helped him level the playing field while not making us feel cheated. He was just doing the same thing we were. It made our foes that much more formidable.

Know Your Treasure

Be familiar with the items (be they magical or technological or whatever) you hand out.

Nothing will cheese a player off more than you giving him a whiz-bang magic sword, and then after you see just how devastating it actually is, you tell him you need to re-stat to tone it down.


I had a paladin who was given a powerful magic sword. We had to quest for various parts to make it complete. Once complete, it acted as a +5 vorpal holy avenger.

The GM assumed it would only decapitate on a roll of 20. But I had read the rules on vorpal blades and knew that the +to hit increased the decapitate chance as well. So a +5 vorpal blade decapitated on rolls of 15 or better.

This wasn’t what he had intended the sword to do, and he wondered why I was decapitating so many foes. When he asked me and I showed him the rules, he quickly ruled a vorpal blade only ever decapitates on a 20 regardless of +to hit. I lived with it, but grumbled.

Make Lemonade Out Of Lemons

Along the same lines, if you make a mistake (either by misreading a printed module or your own notes) but time has passed in-game before you realize it, DO NOT go back and tryto set the record straight.

What has happened has happened.

You can’t change history (at least not without seeming completely contrived and arbitrary on your part). Just deal with the way things are and let the game continue.

Probably the only one who will know the difference is you, and as long as your players are having fun, who cares?


I was in a Chill game set in London’s White Chapel district around the time of Jack the Ripper. We had a great session and discovered a lot stuff.

The next week the ref showed up and told us he had made an error and the building we had explored last week wasn’t located where we went, so the entire last week’s session was declared null and void. (What the what?!)

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Be Flexible

Don’t be too much of a stickler about players having to write stuff down as part of their characters’ memory.

We have lives outside of the games we play. We have to worry about jobs, school work, paying bills, running errands.

It’s reasonable on your part to make players write stuff down to remember a vital piece of information IF any length of time has passed in-game between your giving it and the player needing it.

If a week passes between sessions but in-game only a few minutes have passed, give the player a chance to remember the info.

Say yes fast, or ask him to roll against his character’s INT or something to remember the password he was given 2 minutes ago in-game.

If he muffs the roll, at least you gave him the chance (and he’ll be all the more likely to write stuff down from now on).

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These are just a few basic tips about how to be impartial (or at least seem to be impartial) when running your game.

It’s not you against the players. You work with the players so everyone has a great time. Give PCs a fighting chance and don’t just say, “That’s how it works because I say it is.”

This’ll keep your players coming back time after time. That way won’t have to buy your pizza with only your own money (and really, that’s what being a GM is all about).

Reader Tip Request

How do you deal with complex spells and powers?

In games like D&D and Pathfinder, spells and powers at higher levels cause game slog.

Their rules take time to understand. Often the rules come in multiple paragraphs and sections.

Then you might need to discuss how their rules are adjudicated or apply to a given situation in your campaign.

And when you multiply the various powers different classes and monsters have, sessions can drown.

So I’m curious what tips and methods you have for dealing with the more complicated spells and powers in your games? How do you GM them efficiently?

Send your tips to [email protected] and I’ll share them with your fellow RPT readers.


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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Use The Combat Room When Unprepared

From Kat

Sometimes my players want to play when I have nothing prepared. I think I have found a darn good solution, and wanted to share.

I’ve come up with side challenges that are primarily combat or skill based. I run them when I either don’t have enough time to prep for an actual story based adventure or my players are itching to play before game day.

I’ve started to play a “virtual combat room.” The PCs vs. whatever baddie I wish.

I send foes forth in waves and see if the PCs will survive. I’ve also rolled random dungeons that don’t really have a point other than it’s a dungeon. Watch out for traps.

Now, that is all well and good, but it’s not the point I want to share.

In these dungeons and combat rooms, the players can choose any feats they’ve been eying or any weapons they’ve wanted to try out.

What happens in these rooms in no way effects their characters or story. It’s a safe place to try different strategies and items that might be risky in situations where it is actually life or death.

It’s like a test drive for chosen abilities, and helps players find out what works best for them.

It is also great for DMs, especially new ones, as the combat room and dungeon are customizable. It doesn’t take much additional time to throw in a few environmental hazards or terrain obstacles.

It also offers a great way to teach combat to new players, and have them try out and learn different tactics.

I’ve found these extra encounters are flexible and a breeze to run. My players love them and they are great fun.

Sometimes it’s nice to just play without having to plan a world of activities. I’m not sure if this has been done before, but I wanted to share in case it hasn’t. Thank you so much for your time, I hope you enjoyed!

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Looking For Fire Rules Help

From Neil Googe

Been following the blog and newsletters for some time now. They have been a huge help, both in my playing and running of games. Some truly inspiring and imaginative stuff comes across.

So, I have my first question.

I am currently developing a campaign where players will find themselves facing off against nasty opponents in cramped conditions, and the main weapons they will have at hand are flame throwers. Think The Thing.

So I am trying to come up with a good fire mechanic, especially for the spreading of fire.

I have done an internet trawl, and the best advice I can find is “play it by ear.”

However, my group likes good mechanics. So, any advice about how to game out how a fire spreads, combined with the difficulties and dangers of fighting a fire would be great.

[Johnn] Hi Neil,

I would say keep it simple.

First, is the fire being motivated to go in a particular direction?

Wind, water and other barriers, or fuel?

Second, I’d make a base rate for normal conditions. Googling revealed a stat of max speed: 20 kmh (exterior).

Third, I’d make a table of modifiers or formulas.

i.e. Wind: Every 10kmh = +5kmh fire speed

That’s one way. Another is to roll for it. If you use a grid, give fire a movement rate and roll for random direction.

Or, roll a dX each round for overall area growth. i.e. d20 squares per round. Just fill in 20 squares, going clockwise and picking the nearest square available until you’ve filled the count, or along a vector like spell damage if the fire is being guided or following a path.

Finally, you can make it a GM controlled story element. This does not sound like what you want, but it’s an option. Plan where it’ll go beforehand or while GMing for maximum game fun. Create blockages, free paths for travel, patterns for interesting tactical combat options.

Readers, any additional ideas for good fire rules?

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Logic Puzzles

From Darren Blair

re: Reader Tips Request in RPT#545

There is more to logic puzzles than just the whole “none shall pass!” bit, both in purpose and in implementation.

One way to employ logic puzzles is to make them the access key for a particular item or location, the logic being that anyone who would legitimately have access is already supposed to know the solution anyway.

For example, episode #4 of the anime L+R (Licensed By Royalty; TV-PG+ rating) involves the two leads, and several others, competing to secure and retrieve an artifact before an orbital laser system reactivates and begins automatically targeting the area again.

Doing so requires not only outwitting the different teams, but also solving a few puzzles to advance to different rooms…including a rather ingenious Tetris-like number that is also a trap.

Likewise, in the video game Baldur’s Gate II, accessing a powerful magic item – the talking sword Lirancrom – requires a person to find a particular room within the sewer system under a major city. You must use the provided hints to not only locate the items needed as offerings, but also drop them down the right pipes in the right order.

The puzzles don’t even have to be puzzles in the standard sense of the word. There’s a rather infamous level of Doom II wherein you enter a single chamber and find yourself staring down two of the most powerful monsters in the game.

Rather than fight them, the idea is to run right past them, open the door on the far side, and then run right back to the safety of the start point. If you do it right, the two monsters – and the ones you release by opening the door on the far side – will start fighting each other (the game’s AI is such that the monsters will attack the last person or monster that damaged it).

This means you just have to pick off whoever’s left…which should be a single, rather significantly weakened monster.

If the party can’t solve the puzzle, then the plot continues but they miss out on the XP, items and plot boosts they’d have gained by resolving it.

As a hypothetical puzzle, the party could encounter a sanctuary whose primary holy object is a +5 morning star, the weapon of the priest who first established the facility.

Beneath the pedestal where the weapon is mounted is an inscription that reads, “A great power for a great mind.”

The weapon is under an enchantment and cannot be removed from the pedestal unless the party presents a “great mind” to the weapon.

This could be a party member or NPC with maximum intelligence, a bust of a respected scholar (“Gee, what’s that on the mantle over the fireplace?”), a pivotal work of philosophy (“What sanctuary doesn’t have a library?”) or something similar.

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From Forrest Keppler

I found one area where a logic puzzle fit naturally into the plot of my game. I’m currently running an urban campaign set in a city with a divide between the upper class nobles and the commoners.

One of the things the nobles do for fun is a party game where all the nobles dress up and must solve a puzzle by trading clues with each other to win a prize.

The PCs’ goal here could be to identify a murderer to win the prize, or to prevent a sinister plot from killing the nobles of the city.

I think a logic puzzle works quite well when dealing with murder mysteries. Ruling out suspects based on traits and clues that the PCs find.