So I’ve been thinking a lot about the invisible procedures that underly how I GM/referee a tabletop RPG. This is not my fault. Prismatic Wasteland has a writeup on The Basic Procedure of the OSR, which captures an aspect of that culture of play in its description of how referees, other players, and dice interact. It also invites reflection on the baked in and invisible elements of play, and to make the implicit explicit. And so, this post builds on that one to detail something more specific to how I, personally, run games, which begins with that procedure but somewhere along the way starts taking notes from the elements baked into Blades in the Dark’s Action Roll.
It looks like this:
Obviously this makes perfect sense at a glance but just for giggles and SEO I’ll write out how this works long form too! At the table we have a referee or GM, players who are passing the spotlight around, the rules of the game we’re playing, and an adventure if we’re using one.
A notable omission, safety tools aren’t depicted here. That doesn’t mean they aren’t present, they’re just outside of the procedure as a manual override that allows us to jump backwards or forwards as tone or player comfort requires.
Describing the Situation
The procedure begins with the referee describing the current situation, answering clarifying questions from the players, and asking leading questions to create opportunities for shared worldbuilding in the moment. If the referee is using an adventure then it serves as a reference to inform the referee. As with The Basic Procedure, descriptions are limited to what the characters know (or would know had their players been paying attention). When in doubt, I personally err on the side of providing more information rather than less.
Declaring Action & Forecasting Outcomes
Eventually, a character takes action (and by extension the spotlight) and makes their intended outcomes clear. The referee asks clarifying questions until they know what’s going on well enough to adjudicate, and other players have a chance to assist if it makes sense. This is typically where the rules of whatever game we’re playing might start being referenced if it isn’t obvious how any of this is supposed to work.
Once everyone’s on the same page, the referee can forecast outcomes to make sure the player knows what the character knows about what happens next.
I like Blades in the Dark’s position and effect mechanic because it’s a tidy way to lay out what to expect if the player commits to the action. The major thing I do differently from the Blades in the Dark context is that when an adventurer is trying something I give myself room to say “you have no idea what will happen if you do this”. Sometimes a character encounters the truly unknown and, for whatever reason, wants to hit it with a sword. But even when it’s a mystery, it’s explicitly that: by rolling these dice you are stepping into the unknown. Or, stabbing into the unknown, I suppose.
Rolling & Interpreting Dice
The player, knowing the risks and rewards, then chooses if they’re gonna roll or not. “No” is doing some heavy lifting here - either a player has realized they want to do something else or the GM has pointed out there’s no risk and it just happens. We go back to describing situations.
Once dice are rolled and the outcome is reported things get messy. Typically the referee reads the figurative tea leaves and describes how the situation has changed. I threw in some dotted lines to the rest of the table because the phrase “I have something for this” is music to my ears no matter which player it comes from.
I’d say the referee maintains veto power here, but I’ve had to exercise it so rarely I’m not even sure if that’s true. In my possibly blessed experience, players who want to take the reins to describe how EXACTLY they screwed up their attempt to disarm a trap aren’t doing it to protect their characters. Unless there’s some secret the table doesn’t know about, I can usually let it ride unedited or build on their idea to get things more or less where the adventure needs them to go. Your mileage may vary.
Regardless of whose interpretation we go with, the situation has changed and we return to the beginning of our loop where the referee describes the new adventuresome context. Repeat until you’re tired of playing and call it a night!
That’s how I run most games when I’m the referee or GM, regardless of whatever is in the book. It even covers when someone needs to make a save! It’s just a situation of “An arrow is about to pierce your heart” and a declared action of “I would prefer to move out of its way, then.”
It reads as a laborious process, but being conversational in nature, whole sections are often barely addressed or skipped entirely. This is one of those cool, laid-back flowcharts that just kind of cycles along in its merry little loop. The important part, to me, is that by placing an emphasis on establishing player intent and explicitly laying out what a competent adventurer might expect to happen before dice are rolled, I’ve had a lot of fun at the table.
Even more fun than I had making a flowchart depicting the process by which I have fun at the table.