Creator of Things
So, we all Referee different ways. (And I should add, I at least, Referee different games different ways. The rules of Classic Traveller and Burning Wheel and Runequest are all utterly different, and I'm going to bring utterly different sets of Referee techniques and styles to each game, because each game demands different Referee techniques and styles.)I think some referees fall into a trap. They want their players to work problems and so they present the problem, and only after the players didn't ask the right questions or respond to the right cues...
We all, also, run games differently, because we have things we like and don't like about different kinds of play. Which makes us oppinionated. Because we have preferences. So in my statements below, I'll be showing my preferences for certain kinds of play and playstyles. Because some I like and some make my teeth grind.
A few years ago I realized that if the Referee (GM/DM/What have you) is depending on the Players to read his mind then the game will probably go south and the fun will bleed out. Because people can't read the Referee's mind and so failure is pre-determined.
When I read posts on this thread from various people talking about the need to "ask the right questions or get shafted" I see that as asking the Players to be able to read the Referee's mind. And I think that is a bad idea.
Now, I may be misreading what people mean by this in application. Several times now I have posted a reply to some style or technique a Referee uses in an example in a post, only to be told, "Well, it really isn't like that" or whatever. And if I am misreading the examples presented so far in this thread I apologize. Really. It's the internet. I'm doing the best I can. But communication often falters. Especially with examples of play about something so ephemeral as RPG play. But I am doing the best I can, and replying in good faith. But I suspect the conversation will continue to fray.
In any case:
As a Referee I never assume there is one right solution to any problem
I never assume there is one path to survival or success
I never assume there are the correct questions that must be asked or information found to survive
What I do assume that it is my job to place obstacles and opportunities before the players and let them sort out as best they want any actions they want to take, often without die rolls, through conversation, impartially adjudicate to the best of my abilities the results and fallout of those actions, and turn to die rolls in moments of crisis or uncertainty to see how things will turn out.
I also assume that the Players are portraying characters many leagues removed from their actual characters. The Players have lives and and concerns that take up their lives six days and 19 hours when we are not playing the game, and to expect them to jump into the point-of-view of their characters as if they are actually alive in their characters is insane. I also know that both the Players and myself (as Referee) have a gajillion facts and details of reality we have yet to establish in any instance of play and that has to be sorted out as we go.
If a PC sees, through binoculars, canisters of a new nerve agent on an invaiding marine base, will he recognize the symbol? We have never need to determine this before, I had no idea they were even going to go investigate the base till 25 minutes of game time before, and perhaps I didn't even know the marines would be invading till an hour of game time before. I literally have never given this a moment's thought. And yet there are the PCs are, on a ridge, having successfully killed off several marine sentries, staring down a base that is being set up. I start describing details and it occurs to me they might see the canisters. I make a roll. The PCs see the canisters! The canisters have marking on them. It is a new nerve agent that the PCs have never seen before. Can the PCs intuit what the canisters contain. (I should point out now in this hypothetical example that the PCs chose NOT to go to a moon in the Xandor system and investigate the PyrCorp factory facility which, if they had infiltrated it successfully, would have been a treasure-trove-infodump about all this stuff. Their actions lead to information or not information, not asking questions.)
So... they see the symbols. What do the PCs get from this. I, as the Referee, need to make up details about the setting now. This is my job. It is time to do it.
We begin by building what has already been established: Did any of the PCs serve in the military forces they are now spying upon? If so any former marines will probably notice, even if they don't recognize the symbols of the specific contents, that this stuff is being handled by a bio-weapon team. Former Army and Merchants might have less of a chance. Someone from Other who established his PC worked in counter-terrorism might well know.
All I am doing here is fresh world building. I am thinking through how the military works (I have decided the Marines have a separate bioweaons unit) and what different PCs might know with that reality in place. Also, depending on the background and history of the PC as already established, a PC with a high INT or EDU might well know something.
No roll is required if I decide one of the PCs will recognize the province of the canisters. But let us say I'm not sure. I might make a roll to let them know. I will do this if the Players ask about the canisters (which they most certainly will, since I pointed it out) or even if they don't, because the Players are not the PCs and my job is to provide the interface between the Players and the World. If I am not doing this on behalf of the PCs then I am not, in my view, doing my job as Referee.
Now, let us assume the PCs never went to investigate the base. They arrive on a planet. Do they know war is imminent or not? Do they know bioweaons are a possible threat? Are they bringing their suits with them? (Going back to an example many posts back.) Well, the answer to the second question will certainly be affected by the first two question.
If the PCs both know that war might occur and bioweaons will come into play, when the Players get off the ship, I am going to say out loud, "Do you guys bring your suits?" Because, again, I'm not expecting the Players to be so alive in the PCs that every little detail -- that might have been mentioned, for example, two sessions ago and not brought up again -- is floating around in the head of the Players. Because... reality.
But let us assume the Players don't know about the potential war or the potential use of bioweaons and they have no reason to to bring their suits. I will still probably ask. I want them to make choices with as much information as possible. Leaving your ship requires operating procedures to be established. Have they established them? I don't know yet and neither do the players. So we ask questions, we have conversations, to establish this stuff. "Is there any reason to think we'll need them?" the players might ask. And I would say, "Nope." And they might say, "Okay, we leave the suits in the ship."
But here is what I am not going to do: when the bioweaons is released, I'm not going to say, "Okay, anyone not in a suit dies." Because such a move by a Referee is boring. The release of a bioweapon is an OPPORTUNITY for play. It is, in Apocaliypse World, a move. (Not working from the same rules, mind you, but the same concept.) If I simply kill the players because they made a decision 40 minutes of real time earlier and die immediately from it with no chance to take action, then that is no different to me than "Rocks Fall. You Die."
What I care about as a Referee, what I am excited about, as that the Players did not have their PCs take certain actions that would lead to them knowing more and being better prepared. And now the hammer falls and I cannot wait to see what they are going to do. I am not going to KILL THEM because they didn't ask the right questions or make choices that could have helped them. I am going to say, "You get word over the city's broadcast system: the city is being invaded, and a poisonous cloud is moving south. You are trapped out in the open without protective suits. What do you do?" Becaue how they Players/PCs respond to the problem is what I care about. Things could have gone much better for them if they had chosen different paths, but now they are on this path, and now we find out what is next.
And yes, they will ask questions, "Is there a shelter nearby?" "How far is the space port?" "Is there an air/raft we can steal in sight?" And I'll answer questions. But not one of these questions is the "right" question. It will only lead to more Opportuntiies and Obstacles -- which is more fun.
They will, of course, reach points where they might die. Rolls will most likely be called for as they jury-rig breathing apparatuses or whatever on the fly. These are in the tradition of saving throws. The PCs might end up on the brink of death and we'll let the dice decide.
But simply say, "You said the wrong thing forty minutes ago. You're dead." Not for me.
And when I say "The Referee decicedes what the PCs know by deciding..." all of the above is examples of this.
The same holds true if the PCs land on the planet of Ambergris (thank you Jeff Vandermeer!) which has a Festival of the Squid every year that turns improbly bloody. I might withhold all information about the festival from the PCs if, in my World Building, I decide the PCs (because of established circuctmances) would not know about it. This isn't to punish players or to bring them closer to death or to laugh at them later. It is beacuse exploring new places and having to figure things out (and failing to figure things out) is part of what original Traveller is all about.
But I'm not simply going to say, "Oh, the festival becomes bloody. Rocks fall. You die."
The will arrive on the planet. Preparations for the festival will be underway. The PCs will see this. They will either ask about the festival or not. Either way is fine. If they do, they might find out about the planet's bloody history of colonization. How the humans who landed here drove the indigenous and sentient fungi special underground as they took over their city. About the history of wars between the humans and fungi creatures that lasted generations and that led to the city's population of humans vanishing en masse a hundred years ago, and only now re-populated again.
They might find out more: about the the way the mushrooms of the planet have all sorts of mind-altering powers and such, about how their was a civil war where humans attacked humans. Or they might not. And that will be fine too! Becaue they PCs might be busy with other things, not paying attention to the festival as I describe preparations continuing, and then the beatiful festival beginning. I'll still be sprinkling clues as I go, about the history of the world and so on. And even if the PCs never ask questions about them or follow up, all is fine...
Because at some point the bloodshed will begin. And it will not be me saying, "And you're all dead." It wil be, "You come across a square where dozens of celebrantas have been strung up by the neck. A few blocks away you hear dozens of people screaming." And now the PCs choose what to do. Do they flee? Finish the mission despite the growing danger? Decide to investigate further? All fo this is fair game.
And it all works with excactly how I have been describing playing original Traveller, with the use of all the information on the character sheet to inform how I feed information (or do not), how rolls are made, and how the rules work just fine as they are with limited skills on the sheet and an impartial Referee providing obstacle and opportunities for the PCs to deal with or pursue.
There are no "right questions," no "right cues" to pick up on, and no pre-determined results for not asking the right questions. Information and knowledge, while helpful, are not the most valuable coin in the realm, but rather choices and actions are. As Referee the interface between the world and the PCs is my department. But what I care about, what I love to watch, is how the Players make their choices and take actions. I'll do as little as I can to rob them of the opportunities to do both of those things.