Your role is multitudinous and profound. It’s tedious and dull. It’s cosmic and mundane. You are the killer of pencils, mangler of accents, appropriator of ideas, nerd wrangler and setter of the final percentage. These are my thoughts on how to be a better Basement Leader:
1) The rules should ooze from your pores. No one should be able to discern where you end and the rules begin. You are the one behind the curtain who pulls the right lever at the right time. Imagine the great and powerful Oz saying “...wait a moment while I check...page 43….hang on, illness….idiocy...ah, here it is illusion”. This is the sort of rampant sloppiness of lesser beings! Slogging through game mechanics during play makes the game run like a glitchy Tom & Jerry cartoon streaming through an old dial up modem. A referee who waits to learn the mundane workings of the rules while running the adventure is shameful indeed! They are not worthy of the term "master". Learn the rules beforehand!
2) Know your adventure. Imprint the logic of the adventure way down into your reptilian brain. This is key, because it’s impossible to document for every action the players may take in advance. Even so, creating such a vast archive would be tedious and wasteful. Record only the data you need to keep things flowing. This deep understanding will free you from the tyranny of the written key. I am completely against those prepackaged text boxes that appeared in so many TSR modules. You embrace the dullest of dooms by reading these. Sure, they are convenient, but they encourage you to understand nothing. Any creative thoughts you may have had will be whitewashed. By understanding the logic you can describe what players are seeing in a much more fluid and interesting way. This is one of the reasons why I use drawings and bullet points as my key. The images are rich with detail and have be described, bullet points let me know what is really important upon first contact with that area or event. Players will pick up on whether you are engaged or reading pre-written descriptions. Because they know you have a deep understanding of what’s going on, players will exercise their agency. Just be sure to jot down anything you create of consequence for future reference.
3) I hate the term NPC. Non player character is not unlike a government acronym where by definition something is defined by naming it what it is not. It’s an artifact from the original D&D, in which non player “henchmen” were created to be used as pack animals and fodder to test a situation deemed too dangerous for your real character. Applying this worn out term devalues your participation in the game. Since when is a persona you are playing a “non” character? Your personas, whether selling a bauble, ordering an execution or hiding in a shadow are equally important to the narrative. They are your voice, your hand, your thoughts. Commonly accepted ideas should always be held suspect until tested as useful. There are so many lame “rules of thumb” and “common sense” notions hidden in plain sight. Change the language and you change the game. How about “In-Game Persona”? Anything is better than NPC.
4) Talk like a fool. Elocution is the quickest way to bring your creations to life. Try out the high pitched whine of the effete warlock or the giggling cuteness of a twitching psychopath. Ever wanted to talk like Peter Lorre on an opium kick? Now is your chance! As I create In-Game Persona’s I always note how they will sound: “Jessica Rabbit” or “Sam the Eagle” or “Paul Lynde”. This becomes a starting point when I start to talk like that character for the first time. I am always surprised how entertaining it is.
5) Be impartial. You simply must be as fair as possible. Strangely, RPG games illicit the old “Dungeon Master versus the Players” paradigm, as if every creature under the referee’s control should act as one mind to hunt down and expunge the players. I have experienced a few of these and while charming in their own way, the blood lust hollows pretty quickly. The game setting should be experienced as neutral and react to player inputs thusly. Otherwise players will feel they have no agency and will stick to solving problems using the dull solutions already built into the game. Impartiality rewards clever players because they know “the game is not out to get them”. Being impartial also means to let random things happen, things that don’t seem to fit what you thought the story was. You need these external inputs to shake up the your thinking. If everything is always coming out of your head the game will start becoming predictable. Random mutations is a mechanism that forces you to evolve. This is one reason why a good game system has lots of tables to generate random characters, events and so on. They give you a starting point for something that you would not have created. Using these things exposes you to a new ideas.
6) Players should have an idea what they are getting into: This gets at the heart of a couple of things, game balance and player agency. Consider: If you subscribe to the concept of “game balance” your players will know that for every situation they find themselves in, they have been matched up evenly to whatever the challenge is. Where is the agency in that? Discerning the danger level of a situation and then making choices on what to do is where all the excitement is. If they know everything is balanced, it really makes no difference what they choose. Think how Lord of the Rings would be with balanced encounters. Once the players realize that a decision could lead to a truly deadly encounter, they will definitely be more engaged because they know their decisions matter. This means they need to be able to figure out what the risk level is. As referee you will need to describe the game state in such a way so as to not hand them too much information on a silver platter. You should be unbiased, so if they ask smart questions they can figure it out. This kind of play creates a lot of excitement and you will marvel at the solutions they come up with. Sounds scary, but wait until you see the glee on their faces as they willingly choose to embrace doom!
7) No exit signs: Do not figure out the solution to an adventure in advance. If the thing you have made has one specific solution, then you have to make sure they stay on that track in order to solve it. If they have to follow that particular track, then where is the surprise? A game that is predestined, is not interesting. The excitement of a narrative unfolding is the uncertainty. Coming up with solutions is their job anyway. This does not mean the adventure should be unsolvable or that there are not useful things in it for them to exploit, it just means that you haven’t connected the dots for them.
8) A game session is made up of little bits. These bits are sometimes called “atoms” and are a short sequence of actions that make up an event within the gaming session. They should not be treated as throw away things. RPG’s are by their nature made up of details and often they don’t always seem to fit neatly together. This is actually desirable, because if everything is meshing too well, that means the agency of the game has probably been compromised. The narrative is constructed from all these little bits. Seemingly unrelated bits become connected with one another simply by being together. For this to happen they all need to be treated the same. Think about how some random detail in a Sherlock case suddenly becomes important. Or how a strange coincidence suddenly changes the story. These seeds are here in the details whether they are contrived or random.
9) Serve up equal slices of pie. Sweep from one end of the table to the other continuously and make sure everyone gets an equal chance to do something. Don’t let loudest people suck up more than their fair share of your attention. By constantly sweeping back and forth from one player to the next you can make sure everyone gets to do something. During combat this is easy as game mechanics pretty much resemble a turn based game at this point. But also get in the habit of doing it all thru the game. There is always a quiet one in the back...the crazy one who is going to take a bite of that unidentified mushroom, jump up on the creepazoids back and get this party started!
10) Own your weakness: I suck at making things up on the fly. And I get flustered sometimes. So I prepare beforehand by creating a bunch random junk that I might need. It’s not much, a few lines, but it seems to be enough. The flustered thing, when I feel it coming I’ll excuse myself for a minute or two and think about bowling or something. Weakness is a reminder to not take your eye off the ball. Weakness is strength. I think that’s carved on a ministry somewhere.
11) Keep up the pace. As basement leader it’s up to you to manage the time flow. You are the director making sure the production is moving along at the right speed. Watch just about any action movie from the 70’s and you will know what I mean. Do we really have to watch someone get into their car and drive for 8 minutes? Time is plastic, so the unimportant stuff can be summarized in a quick sentence or two. Keep things moving at a rate that is consistent with the players actions and the what is going on. This doesn’t mean that everything should be moving real fast all the time, sometimes things deserve to be stretched out to fully enjoy their impact. Like the oozing of nearly coagulated blood down the pitted face of a giant skull right before it...you get the idea.
12) Meta-Gaming: This whole idea that players can only act within their characters in-game knowledge is total BS. It is the most anal way to suck the fun out playing RPG’s. “Metagaming” is the fun real world social interaction that happens when players talk to one another. This is where the jokes are, the irony, begging/cajoling someone to do/not do something. This is the reason why we are here. Limiting players to what their personas only know in the game will turn your social interaction party into a tedious tactical miniatures game. Somehow anti-metagamers believe RPG’s are quantifiable like a real game. That the player with the highest xp, money, power, is comparable to a basketball player. RPG’s are not games the same way basketball is. The rules of basketball do not arbitrarily change. Basketball players are not allowed to attempt any action to score points. Even the idea of what winning means are not in sync. “Metagaming” is equated with cheating, which is absurd. How can there be cheating in a game in which the referee can instantly change things, often times without the players even knowing it? I mean OMFG. I am out of breath. Phew. Idiots.
13) Anything may be attempted. This is the most unique thing that RPG’s have over any other game experience. Players have the freedom to attempt any action and you then decide what the chances of it working will be. This is the essence of RPG’s and why they are so compelling. For some referees, when players try unusual stuff (which can push against the boundaries of the game system) they get a little nervous. This is OK, roll with it and work out a way to that allows the action to be attempted. A simple die roll is the easiest. The crux here is to let them try stuff. Otherwise the single most powerful aspect of role playing is lost.
14) You are not responsible for all the fun. It’s up to you to prepare the adventure beforehand. Dice have to polished. Chairs reinforced. Never mind all the complex referee stuff you need to attend to while play is in progress. Snacks must be arranged alphabetically. It’s a lot. It would seem logical then that you are also responsible for all the fun. You are not. Being part of an RPG game is a collaboration between everyone present. The players have things they need to do (see How to play RPGs Real Good Part I: Players), one of them is to get off their lazy behinds and play the game well.