Rulings and Rules - The Role of the Referee in Dungeons and Dragons
I thought it would be fun to give an example of how AD&D works at the table with respect to how the PCs interface with the game environment, and how adjudication impacts that process. A recent session of mine brought these things to mind. D&D has a referee, most games do not, which means that the role of the referee is worth exploring in a bit more detail, as they are one of the most unique components of the game. Also, as "rulings" are pretty much all improvised, there is an immense amount of room to learn from others here. Here was the scenario.
The party arrived at the tower of warlock Ghon Mord this week, their task was to find and remove a merchant Ghon was hiding, the merchant was faking his death to frame the party's employer, Kamerli the Ivory. The party had approached the tower before and knew there were at least 2-3 warlocks in the house, plus potential guards and monsters.
So there was a discussion of big or small group, stealth or aggression, deception, they considered using a distraction (pyrotechnics spell) to lure out at least some of the tower’s warlocks, or staging a fight. They asked me some questions and used their spyglass to watch the tower for a time.
They didn’t see any guards other than the 20’ tall giant made of skeletons (a dormeon) that stood outside the main gate. The last session they had encountered it’s slow effect (30’ radius sphere) and knew to go around it to a side or back wall for access to the tower They decided a small team would break in and break out the merchant: the party thief, Jaal the Blue, and the party priest, Kallas Ionnu, under a silence spell. Jaal can climb, Kallas is heavily armored. But Jaal has a reduce spell on a scroll, and can shrink Kallas to action figure size
Jaal the Blue and Kallas Ionnu
Then the discussion, how to get to the tower? Jaal had an invisibility spell, but there were tons of questions, how long does an invisibility spell last, would Kallas be invisible if he was put in Jaal’s pocket (the ref said “yes”)... The rest of the party agrees to wait in the woods
How to break in? Jaal can climb the walls of the tower, but do any of the windows have locks he can pick? Or are they all built in? I decide there is a 1 in 4 chance that the warlock would have built in windows that could be opened but locked, all other windows would be barred permanently
I rolled the 1, so they look at the tower with the spyglass and see that the windows on the 4th floor have locks, indicating they can be opened. They are still barred windows, but the bars are part of a frame, and that frame can be unlocked and opened.
Jaal casts reduce on Kallas, places him in a pocket and casts invisibility on himself, then he sprints to the tower. He has to jump the 10’ moat, Unearthed Arcana has long jumping stats for the thief acrobat, I check those to calibrate and a 10’ jump is hard but not super-hard
I decide it requires a successful saving throw versus breath weapon to leap the distance, and he is successful, landing at the base of the wall. The window of interest is on the 4th floor, the bottom edge of the window where the sill is located about 34’ off the ground.
Jaal climbs at 12’ per round, so in round 3 he will reach the sill. He starts to climb, he climbs 12’ and rolls his CW percentage successfully. He climbs the next 12’ and is successful again. Now he climbs the last portion of the wall, he rolls a failed CW check and starts to fall.
The player asks if he is close enough to grab one of the bars on the window to stop from falling. I decided that since he failed on the 3rd check, he was somewhere in his 12’ when he slipped, I rolled a 12 sided dice, I got an 11 so he was at 35’ when he slipped,
I decided that he could roll a breath weapon save (my go to dodge / reaction save) to grab one of the bars, otherwise he would fall 30’ and take 3d6 damage, and Kallas could as well depending on how they land. He made the save.
Pulling himself up to the ledge he then looks in the window. I roll to see if anyone inside happens to be looking out that window when he pulls up. They get lucky, there is no one there. He then takes out his dagger and looks around the edge of the window for trip latches or wires that would indicate a trap of some sort. He takes out his hammer to tap the stone around the window gently, listening for hollowness that might indicate trap mechanisms. He rolls for find traps and is successful, I interpret this as the hammer finding a “hollow” section, he uses his dagger and pulls back against a stone and sees the switch inside, when the bars are raised the switch is no longer held back and will open, triggering a trap. He then takes a shiv of metal and slips it down (rolls to remove traps successfully), barring the switch from moving. Now he rolls to unlock the window (which he did successfully). The window opened, the shiv kept the switch from tripping, and they slipped in to arrive on the 4th floor of the tower.
Now, Jaal still invisibile, he removes Kallas from his pocket and nullifies his spell, increasing Kallas to full sized again. His silence spell is still in effect. They walk slowly forward and enter a door, Jaal going first. He walks through the door into the chamber beside room 3, Kallas follows him in. They see a writing desk, some books and a chair.
They enter the main room, it is obviously a bedroom and there is a dresser, as well as a bed and a small chest at the foot of the bed. The thief goes straight for the chest and does a find traps on it. Now, find traps doesn’t specify what happens with magical traps, but as he is a thief/warlock I decide that if he makes his find / remove traps roll he will recognize what the magical trap is. He describes looking over the whole chest, when I describe the padlock he asks to look at it front and back, using his dagger to move it, and I describe a rune on the back.
I decide that if he makes his remove traps roll that means he will recognize the rune and be able to either destroy it or deactivate it. I tell him this, and that if he fails the roll he might trigger the trap if his roll is bad enough. He weighs the odds and counts on his ability to dodge if needed.
Jaal rolls his remove traps roll and fails with a 98%, more than enough to trigger the trap, when this happens a cone of cold spell fires off from the chest, Jaal rolls his save so he dodges it partially, taking half damage. He is left with a few hit points, covered in frost
I let him know that if he failed his save he would be dead, and we roll for his weapons and magic items, one of his scrolls and his sling are both destroyed by the cone of cold. I have to decide if the cone of cold going off would alert the other inhabitants of the tower.
Two of the warlocks are on the lower floors, one is in another room on this floor, I decide there is a 2 in 6 chance the warlocks below would hear, a 4 in 6 chance the warlock on this floor will hear. I roll a positive result for both, so all of the warlocks here are alert to the threat
A giant snake appears, the second trap in the room, I roll for surprise but no surprise is indicated, we roll for initiative and the order is Jaal, snake, Kallas. Jaal swings his sword but misses. The snake spits venom at Jaal but misses. Kallas casts a snake charm spell and the snake is charmed
The warlock on this floor, Zimmerlin Suel, in room 6, emerges and stands ready in the room, he begins to cast a spell from his ring of spell storing. The two adventurers emerge from the bedroom (without checking to see what was in the chest!) and see the warlock.
His spell culminates, then all corridors fill with fog, all stairs fill with webs and all the doors in the tower lock. Zimmerlin has cast a Guards and Wards spell on the tower. He now moves to cast another spell, and Kallas charges him with his mace. Jaal knows they are outclassed so he takes out one of his higher level scroll spells, lightning bolt. Kallas reaches Suel and swings his mace the same segment that the spell culminates. The swing with the mace is a miss, the hold person spell hits Kallas, who fails his save and is frozen in place.
Suel steps out from behind Kallas and runs forward a few feet to get past the pillar that stands between Jaal and himself, he plans on casting a stinking cloud spell on the thief warlock, incapacitating him. However, as he moves past the pillar Jaal’s lightning bolt spell culminates!
The bolt is far enough over to miss his fellow party member, but it catches the warlock. Suel rolls his save but takes enough damage to bring him below ¼ HP, a critical hit, the bolt burns his robes and shocks him badly. I roll morale and the warlock flees down the stairs to the level below
When the lightning bolt goes off the party, hiding in the nearby forest, hear the noise, and decided it is time to join in. They sprint to the tower (that takes a minute), jump the moat (all three of them make the roll) and the party thief Dornas Culg starts to climb the wall
The party warlock, Ormann the Crimson, grabs D’Kell Massar, the party ranger, and casts levitate on himself, the two men float towards the roof. Dornas just passes three of his four checks, and makes the last one easily. The warlock and the thief arrive at the roof simultaneously
While they are coming to the roof Jaal grabs Kallas (an Open Doors roll to do so, the priest is heavy in his plate mail), and heads towards the stairs to the roof. The stairwell is filled with webs, Jaal takes out oil and soaks the webs, then lights the oil with flint and steel, it burns up quickly
He hauls Kallas up the stairs to the roof. Here he finds there are four pillars in the middle of the roof that enclose a patch of grass, in the middle of the grass is a chair with a man sitting in it. This is their target, the merchant Quillor Maas, who is hiding here faking his death
They don’t know what he looks like, and they don’t know if this is their target or not, so they parley with him, asking who he is and what he is doing here. Maas figures to delay them until help arrives, so he claims to be enchanted to the chair and held against his will
“All you have to do is come up and remove my arms from the chair and I will be able to get up freely. I cannot do it myself”. Unbeknownst to the players the warlock they zapped downstairs has come back to the 4th floor and used his knock spell to open up three of the cages marked in area “8”
The ranger, warlock and thief now arrive on the roof to join their fellow adventurers. Suel released three crimson apes from the cages, they speed up the stairs and appear on the roof. The ranger, D’Kell Massar charges up to engage them with his sword.
The party thief Dornas Culg is off to the side and cannot be seen by the apes when they appear on the roof, so he maneuvers around for a backstab at one as it emerges. Ormann the Crimson begins to cast a spell from a scroll, and the spell holding Kallas breaks.
Meanwhile, Roggen Tulwane, a member of the group that didn’t storm the tower, now charges from the forest towards the front gate, he hopes to distract the wizards inside and split their attention, or at least confuse them. The party illusionist, Taun Elos, casts a phantasmal force spell that looks like a small cadre of soldiers charging with Roggen towards the front of the tower. The 20’ Dormeon (giant made up of skeletons) stands ready at the gate, as Tulwane charges the Dormeon awakes and walks towards him. Roggen turns and flees, drawing the Dormeon away.
On the tower roof Jaal looks at the man in the chair, and decides the grass around the chair is suspicious. He climbs up one of the pillars, and wants to “jump to land on the stone base around the chair not on the grass that surrounds it”. I decided it would be a save versus breath weapon to stick the landing
He makes the save and lands right beside the man. The man then reaches up and tries to shove the thief on to the grass, so it was apparent right away he was lying about being stuck on the chair. Jaal makes a “to hit” roll to try and grab the man’s arms as he pushes out
Jaal makes the roll and grabs the man’s arms, and they are now in a struggle to keep from being knocked back onto the grass. I tell the player that Jaal has his arms this round, if he wants to keep the arms held and keep from falling backwards it will be an open doors roll
The first ape appears out of the stairs, D’Kell swings his longsword and makes a solid hit, doing 15 hp of damage, slicing the ape across the chest. It howls in pain as Dornas strikes it in the back for a backstab. The sword pierces it’s side and through to the front. It collapses, dead.
The second and third ape appear on the roof. Kallas smashes the second ape with his mace.
Kallas is a priest of Zeus and twice per day can cast shocking grasp, he does so here, channeling the lightning through the mace, delivering a devastating blow.
D’kell has killed an ape, and Kallas has wounded another. I need to decide who the beasts will attack as both targets are in range. I roll a d4 to see who each ape attacks. Both attack D’kell this round, 8 attacks all total, CCCB, CCCB
The apes attack and miss on 4 of the 8 attacks, the 4 that do hit bring him down to 5 hp. Dornas attacks the second ape by dual wielding a short sword and dagger, doing moderate damage to the badly wounded ape, but enough to kill him, the ape dies with a dagger in his neck
Outside Roggen turns and faces the Dormeon, the creature has a “slow field” around it, when it closes on Roggen the fighter slows down, the Dormeon reaches down and strikes the fighter before he can react. He fails his saving throw and falls immediately asleep. The Dormeon turns around.
Kallas smashes the last ape channeling his lightning a second time for the day, this time doing max damage, 8 from the mace plus 13 from the shocking grasp for 21 points of damage. I roll HP on the spot after a monster is hit, the ape has almost full HP, so it isn’t dead yet
Now the monsters summoned by Ormann’s monster summoning spell arrive on the roof, 4 gargoyles await his commands. One is sent to deal with the last ape, picking it up and carrying it into the air, higher and higher, and dropping it to plummet to its death.
Jaal decides he needs to get this man off the chair and away from the grass, so he asks me if he can hurl this man through the air to the stone beyond the grass within the pillars. It’s a tough ask, a full sized man, thrown from standing, over 10’ distance? In 1e that’s a BBLG roll
A BBLG roll (Bend Bars Lift Gates) is essentially a difficult strength check (an easy one is an open doors roll). He has a strength of 14, so a 7% chance… he rolls a 3%. Success. The man is flung over Jaal’s head to land on the stone floor beyond the grass
Now the party on the roof hears the footsteps of people on the stairs. Dornas doesn’t hesitate, he loads his crossbow and pulls a John Woo move, jumping in front of the stairwell and shooting his bolt blind into the darkness. I give him an arbitrary -6 to hit for blind shooting while jumping
He rolls a nat 20, and hits the guard that was in front of the warlock who was charging up to the roof. The bolt does 5 hp of damage, the guard has 4 hp, I roll for location and the guard gets a crossbow bolt through the right eye. Dead as a doornail.
The warlock Zimmerlin Suel makes the roof, Ormann directs one of the gargoyles to attack the warlock, then the gargoyle that dropped the ape returns. The Dormeon returns to it’s spot at the front of the tower, silently guarding the entrance again.
Three gargoyles grab two people each and fly off of the tower. The warlock who arrived on the roof begins a fight with the last gargoyle. It is fast and furious: the warlock uses his wand of fear, the gargoyle saves, indicating that the beam of energy from the wand misses the gargoyle
The beast savages the warlock with claw, claw, claw and bite. All four hit and reduce him to 4 hp. The warlock tries a second salvo with the wand, the gargoyle makes its save a second time, then it tears the warlock to pieces with three successful claw attacks. Zimmerlin Suel collapses, dead.
The gargoyles are flying the party members away when one of the warlocks, Ghon Mord, appears at the window of the tower and casts a spell, ray of enfeeblement, which hits the gargoyle and makes it weaken and have to land, spiralling to the ground.
The remaining two gargoyles land in the nearby forest at the edge of the clearing and set the PCs down. Ormann the Crimson directs the gargoyles to attack the warlock in the tower. All four converge on him, as they do he fires off a lightning bolt that fries two of them dead.
Two more continue to harass the warlock, and the dormeon comes to life again and moves towards the gargoyles. The two party members who were downed in the clearing grab Roggen, strike him awake, and they all flee.
The gargoyles keep the warlock busy and the party escapes into the night to cut through the city to get back to their employer, they now have proof that their employer did not kill the merchant as they have the merchant with them. They just have to make it back to their base alive.
That’s where we broke today. I count 13 instances in this 3 hour session where I arbitrarily made up rolls to address situations in game that weren’t directly covered by the rules or areas where the rules application was murky so I had to decide for myself what was appropriate.
I’m fascinated by this sort of thing as these rolls are crucial to determining the success or the failure of the party’s actions, but they are not explicitly in the rules, they are post-hoc attempts by me to come up with reasonable odds for something happening.
If, as I suspect, most refs make calls like this on a regular basis, then a major component of your game that determines both the success or failure of the party is entirely arbitrary. Not entirely perhaps, as you make your judgements based on the existing mechanics of the game.
But still, there is a lot of judgment here, and I think that failing to acknowledge it means you fail to really understand how D&D games work at the table. These adjudications are a necessary part of the game to keep it flowing and to allow PCs to do crazy stuff, things that aren’t included in the rules
I’m curious to know how this works for others.