Diaspora yesterday, I came across a sentiment increasingly common to modern roleplaying games. At the core of Diaspora (and many such newer games) is the phrase "Say Yes, or Roll the Dice." Essentially, this axiom requires the referee to always endorse the players' proposed strategy, or at least give them a shot with a die roll.
For Fate fans (which includes Diaspora, Spirit of the Century, Legends of Anglerre and many other related games), this has been heralded as a very "tactical" system. Players are constantly coming up with spur of the moment plans (actually, justifications for why they should win), which the referee must then accept, or let the dice decide. It is reminiscent of old school procedure, where the referee listens to the plan carefully and then comes up with a target number and rolls the die to determine success. The only difference is that "Say Yes…" precludes the referee's veto. The referee is instead slavishly committed to accepting every player strategy, regardless of how believable it is, or how it circumvents the referee's own schemes. Rather than staging a tactical opposition, the referee is subject to player whim.
This is, perhaps, seen as contrasting adversarial-style refereeing. It also developed, however, in response to a style of Dungeons & Dragons that increasingly defined characters by "Player Options," "Powers" and other mechanical advantages. Instead of thinking through a problem, players would simply look down at their character sheet for all the answers. Written in 2002 at the height of the third edition, The Burning Wheel fantasy roleplaying game was, in many ways, a response to what Dungeons & Dragons had become. In contrast with a referee-dominated narrative and players with mechanically enabling character powers, The Burning Wheel introduced the "Say Yes…" paradigm for the first time, and thus framed the referee as an enabler and the players as holding narrative control.
Of course, buying into this premise of "player control versus referee control" has obscured the original simple and elegant functionality of Dungeons & Dragons. Recently, I asked Mike Monard (veteran of the original Lake Geneva campaign) whether referees back in the day would punish Magic-Users who neglected utility spells and front-loaded combat spells by throwing in obstacles that would require the former. His response was illuminating, and is worth quoting here in full:
"Remember… the world was created first, THEN the characters were created to explore it. The way Gary, Dave, and the rest of us did it, we would set up our dungeons such that you would need a selection of both combat and utility spells. Choosing how to allocate your limited spell slots was part of the fun, as was dealing with not having a certain spell where it would be useful.
The world came first, so changing the world based on player spell selection would have been cheating. It's about the only way for the referee to cheat, in fact. Any ref who changed things on the fly to punish players based on that day's spell selection would have found themselves without any players.
What was there, was there. There was a nest of six trolls on Level 1 of Greyhawk. If you went there with three first level characters, you found six trolls. If you went there with nine 11th level characters, you found six trolls. Changing the world as you seem to be describing above would have been anathema. It is really the only way to cheat as the referee."
The referee developed a world, the players investigated it, and changing things after the fact was cheating. It was part and parcel of suspension of disbelief that the world followed its own laws and trajectory. How player decisions might intersect with that trajectory was largely unpredictable, and there was a level of excitement and discovery for both players and referee. There is a classic movement here which is common to Shakespeare plays, whereby one person would pass partial information along to another individual, who would then filter it further to a third. Consider the Doctor who agrees to provide the Queen with a vial of poison but, fearing her evil designs, actually gives her a sleeping draught. The Queen, thinking the elixir to be a poison, hands it further to the naive rival princess, promising that it is a healing balm to be taken when she is feeling ill. The King falls ill and the princess administers the sleeping draught. Chaos ensues.
Likewise, the referee may know what is really going on, but this is filtered through interrogated non-player characters or partial clues that the players may find. Only half of the truth reaches the players, who then introduce a further (and unpredictable) abstraction through their misinterpretation of the situation. This beautiful friction makes for the stuff of true legends. Here, the referee is neither adversarial nor enabling, but rather purely neutral (which reminds me of an excellent and illustrative Knights of the Dinner Table comic, where the Knights are able to "outsmart" B.A.'s flagship dungeon).
The take away from all of this is that we as referees must again become world-smiths. It is hard work, and tremendous preparation must go into the campaign as well as each individual session. Different webs of non-player characters must be charted, including individual motives and knowledge. Interesting eventualities must be at least initially considered, while some obstacles with no apparent solution should be cataloged (perhaps a dungeon at the top of a perfectly sheer cliff, encouraging the players to be creative). The story will take unexpected turns, and the referee's encyclopedic register of history and dramatis personae will breath enough life into the world that it will take on its own momentum. In all of this, narrative control belongs to the friction between player knowledge and referee impartiality. As the authors of Adventurer Conqueror King put it, "every campaign is a law unto itself" and the excitement comes from these worlds taking on a life of their own.