DMing philosophy, from Lewis Pulsipher

pemerton

Legend
Lewis Pulsipher was a prominent contributor to White Dwarf in its early days. The following quotes are from his article in an early number of White Dwarf (my copy is in Best of White Dwarf vol 1, 1980):

D&D players can be divided into two groups, those who want to play the game as a game and those who want to play it as a fantasy novel . . . The escapists can be divided into those who prefer to be told a story by the referee, in effect, with themselves as protagonists, and those who like a silly, totally unbelievable game. . . In California, for example, this leads to referees who make up more than half of what happens, what is encountered and so on, as the game progresses rather than doing it beforehand. . . . [T]he player is a passive receptor, with little control over what happens. . .

Gary Gygax has made it clear that D&D is a wargame, though the majority of players do not use it as such. . .

The referee [in a skill campaign] must think of himself as a friendly computer with discretion. Referee interference in the game must be reduced as much as possible . . . Effectively, this means that the referee should not make up anything important after an adventure has begun. He should only operate monsters encountered according to logic and, where necessary, dice rolls. . . . Occasionally an adventure will be dull, because players take the wrong turns or check the wrong rooms, while others may be 'milk runs' because the players are lucky. Referees must resist the temptation to manipulate the players by changing the situation. Every time the referee manipulates the game on the basis of his omniscience, he reduces the element of skill. . .

The referee who, for example, schemes to take a magic item away from a player is incompetent. If the player doesn't deserve the item he shouldn't have obtained it in the first place. Don't lie to the players when speaking as referee. If players can't believe what the referee tells them they are case adrift without hope. . . .​

I tried to implement this advice in my early GMing (around 1984). I was not very good at it - I'm not a particular effective "computer with discretion", and my players didn't (and don't) like the occasional dull adventure. But I do like the advice about not manipulating the players. It was around 1986, with original Oriental Adventures, that I started to discover a way of GMing in which the GM would make stuff up on the spot, while still allowing players the scope to make choices which are genuine in their consequences, thereby avoiding the railroading that Pulsipher warns against. (More than 15 years later I discovered that this approach to GMing had been refined and theorised by Ron Edwards and others at The Forge.)

Does any one else have memories of reading Pulsipher's advice, or playing Pulsipherian D&D? Thoughts? Experiences?
 

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Jan van Leyden

Adventurer
Oh man, those were the days... As much as I respect Lew Pulispher for his PBM (Song of the Night) and board games (Britannia, yay!) his reasoning in this article does sound wrong to me.

The referee [in a skill campaign] must think of himself as a friendly computer with discretion. Referee interference in the game must be reduced as much as possible . . . Effectively, this means that the referee should not make up anything important after an adventure has begun. He should only operate monsters encountered according to logic and, where necessary, dice rolls. . . . Occasionally an adventure will be dull, because players take the wrong turns or check the wrong rooms, while others may be 'milk runs' because the players are lucky. Referees must resist the temptation to manipulate the players by changing the situation. Every time the referee manipulates the game on the basis of his omniscience, he reduces the element of skill. . .

But then:

The referee who, for example, schemes to take a magic item away from a player is incompetent. If the player doesn't deserve the item he shouldn't have obtained it in the first place. Don't lie to the players when speaking as referee. If players can't believe what the referee tells them they are case adrift without hope. . . .

If the problem was that the player obtained the item (GM fault!), how could the game master control the situation? What if he placed it in the dungeon for a different character who bit the dust before reaching it? The first section tells the GM to not change the adventure, so wouldn't he have to let it in there? Or is the problem that he placed the item at all?

The whole stuff sounds very dogmatic. Prepare the stuff and let the players run through it without much interference from you. And if something goes wrong, either the PCs are dead (preferable outcome) or you're to blame!

Even thirty years ago I ran RPGs for the shared experience, and everything which enhances this shared experience is good. Nothing against a good TPK, but flexibility and spontaneous changes to enhance the game are a virtue, not a vice.
 


If the problem was that the player obtained the item (GM fault!), how could the game master control the situation? What if he placed it in the dungeon for a different character who bit the dust before reaching it? The first section tells the GM to not change the adventure, so wouldn't he have to let it in there? Or is the problem that he placed the item at all?

The whole stuff sounds very dogmatic. Prepare the stuff and let the players run through it without much interference from you. And if something goes wrong, either the PCs are dead (preferable outcome) or you're to blame!

Even thirty years ago I ran RPGs for the shared experience, and everything which enhances this shared experience is good. Nothing against a good TPK, but flexibility and spontaneous changes to enhance the game are a virtue, not a vice.
When designing adventures, you shouldn't put anything in there that would overbalance a single PC. Even if your wizard is way under powered, don't put a Staff of the Magi in, unless it's level appropriate, because you cannot ever guarantee that that PC will be the one to get it.

The players are responsible for treasure distribution, so the DM shouldn't be involved. Once, in 4E, one player was angry with me because I never put in magic items for his character. I had, but there was another character that could use the same items just as well (or better), and the group kept giving those items to the other character. It was not my fault, except for using the silly notion of specifically choosing items for individual PCs (which was a suggestion for 4E).

As to the OP, I've tried to mix the styles a bit. I try to tell a story with the PCs as the protagonists, but I try to leave the skill level as high as possible. I usually figure out the NPCs motivations and the setting, then figure out exactly what would happen with no PC interference. I then adjust that based on the actions of the PCs. Smart actions by the PCs will influence things positively, while stupid ideas will normally make things worse.
 


Ahnehnois

First Post
Gary Gygax has made it clear that D&D is a wargame, though the majority of players do not use it as such. . .
Well, that's probably true.

The referee [in a skill campaign] must think of himself as a friendly computer with discretion. Referee interference in the game must be reduced as much as possible . . . Effectively, this means that the referee should not make up anything important after an adventure has begun.
That just seems completely untenable. It assumes both that some kind of prefabricated content exists that would allow a game to move forward without making stuff up, and that the players stay within the scope of that content. Where is this coming from? A published adventure in a published setting? Or someone who creates that much of their own content whole cloth? That's a niche within a niche either way. Maybe it's possible to run a game that way, but I wouldn't want to try.

To suggest that a referee should not interfere with the game assumes that there is a game that exists independently of that referee. For D&D I look at it precisely the opposite way. The game is the DM.

Every time the referee manipulates the game on the basis of his omniscience, he reduces the element of skill.
Seems to me that there are ways in which this could be true, and a whole bunch of ways in which it can be false.

The referee who, for example, schemes to take a magic item away from a player is incompetent. If the player doesn't deserve the item he shouldn't have obtained it in the first place.
That presumes that it was being taken away specifically because the player didn't deserve it, and more broadly that there is even such a thing as deserving or not deserving and that this is relevant. Again, that's a very idiosyncratic way of looking at things. What if there's just a thief NPC who wants to do some thieving? What if the theft is some kind of quest/challenge/plot hook independently of whether or not the player ought to have the item?

Don't lie to the players when speaking as referee. If players can't believe what the referee tells them they are case adrift without hope. . . .
I would think that even a fairly dispassionate referee would need to lie to the players in occasional circumstances where NPCs are lying to the players, or when various types of supernatural deception are at play (illusions, mostly).
 

Well, first off, he's straight-up wrong about Gygax's intentions, to judge by Gygax's own games, which featured a great deal of imaginative play and a DM who was very much not a "neutral computer".

Secondly, the whole thing is hilariously "of it's time". It's practically wearing flares. It's an extremist position, too, one that allows for no nuance or flexibility, and even he admits it's likely to make for low-enjoyment gaming! Bizarre to see that advocated for.

Finally, it's an attitude that, if followed, means the DM could potentially be replaced by a computer pretty easily. I rather imagine he might have found, say, Skyrim, a better "D&D" for his money than any actual TT RPG.
 

Does any one else have memories of reading Pulsipher's advice, or playing Pulsipherian D&D? Thoughts? Experiences?

Remember it. It was part of my introduction to the game.

Still run one off mega dungeon crawls with these same GMing principles almost wholly intact. For that play agenda, they have withstood the test of time.

A high degree of proficiency in GMing this style and in playing this style provides a rewarding experience for both sides of the table. A low degree of proficiency in GMing results in poorly conveyed information, loss of player agency and skill as arbiter of outcomes, and/or pear-shaped crawling dynamics (such as poorly considered rewards inflating PC potency for the rest of crawl). A low degree of PC proficiency can result in early TPK and/or indecision that stalls the game due to the high stakes.
 

ephemeron

Explorer
Secondly, the whole thing is hilariously "of it's time". It's practically wearing flares. It's an extremist position, too, one that allows for no nuance or flexibility, and even he admits it's likely to make for low-enjoyment gaming! Bizarre to see that advocated for.

One of the things that Jon Peterson's Playing at the World really brought out for me is that gamer arguments have always been overheated, no less so in fanzines 40 years ago than on Internet forums now. Pulsipher's shot at Gygax was nothing compared to what people were saying about him in venues like Alarums and Excursions. :)

And the "D&D is way too expensive! Why does Gygax/TSR/Wizards think they can get away with this kind of price gouging?" complaint goes back to the beginning, too. :D
 

Nagol

Unimportant
Well, that's probably true.

That just seems completely untenable. It assumes both that some kind of prefabricated content exists that would allow a game to move forward without making stuff up, and that the players stay within the scope of that content. Where is this coming from? A published adventure in a published setting? Or someone who creates that much of their own content whole cloth? That's a niche within a niche either way. Maybe it's possible to run a game that way, but I wouldn't want to try.

Since that's a good précis of how I GM, I believe you are incorrect.

To suggest that a referee should not interfere with the game assumes that there is a game that exists independently of that referee. For D&D I look at it precisely the opposite way. The game is the DM.

I prefer to split the role of DM into designer -- one who creates situations and referee one who arbitrates between player input and a prepared situation. When I am acting as a referee, I prefer not to try to alter the situations on-the-fly other than basic extrapolation of consequence. The whole independence thing correlates to the whole published adventure eco-system; could a different DM plausibly run the same scenario? I view as more the "situation exists independently from the PCs (or in some cases, interdependently with the PCs). Could I as a GM plausibly run this same scenario with a different group of players?

Seems to me that there are ways in which this could be true, and a whole bunch of ways in which it can be false.

Even if skill is not reduced, such interference obscures the game workings from the player. This obfuscation gets worse if the interference is itself hidden through illusionism, fudging, etc.

That presumes that it was being taken away specifically because the player didn't deserve it, and more broadly that there is even such a thing as deserving or not deserving and that this is relevant. Again, that's a very idiosyncratic way of looking at things. What if there's just a thief NPC who wants to do some thieving? What if the theft is some kind of quest/challenge/plot hook independently of whether or not the player ought to have the item?

This part I partly disagree with. If the DM is scheming to remove a magic item because it is causing him annoyance then I get the reference. I've had that happen to me a few times when I have had the pleasure of playing. The most egregious example I can think of is we gained a very fast flying item. The DM started adding inconveniences to it (such as it slowly consuming spell books and scrolls) then having NPCs offer book value for it. But we as a group felt its value to us (strategic movement, mainly -- it was a large world) outweighed the offers and eventually it was taken from us at sword point by the local monarch -- who paid us book value for the privilege. The DM didn't seem to understand why we didn't want to accept further commissions from that king or even stay within his lands.

If on the other hand, other groups inside the game are scheming to acquire an item known to be in the PCs hands that is fair game.

I would think that even a fairly dispassionate referee would need to lie to the players in occasional circumstances where NPCs are lying to the players, or when various types of supernatural deception are at play (illusions, mostly).

Yeah and I make the distinction clear to the players; more frequently than not with some. I as referee will convey what you perceive is going on as accurately as I can What I won't do is offer advice/extra detail/vague assurances to try to entice a PC into a situation I think is interesting. I speaking as a NPC will be trying to convey what the NPC wants to convey as accurately as I can. So if the NPC wants you to believe a lie then I will try to accurately project that.
 

Ahnehnois

First Post
I prefer to split the role of DM into designer -- one who creates situations and referee one who arbitrates between player input and a prepared situation. When I am acting as a referee, I prefer not to try to alter the situations on-the-fly other than basic extrapolation of consequence.
I struggle to imagine how the same person could fulfill both roles, though, and not have some crossover between the two. That is to say, how can you be sure that your basic extrapolation is not in some way influenced by whatever advance knowledge and opinions you may have had about this scenario?

The whole independence thing correlates to the whole published adventure eco-system; could a different DM plausibly run the same scenario? I view as more the "situation exists independently from the PCs (or in some cases, interdependently with the PCs).
That's kind of the distinction that I'm getting at though. Existing independently and interdependently are completely different things.

Even if skill is not reduced, such interference obscures the game workings from the player. This obfuscation gets worse if the interference is itself hidden through illusionism, fudging, etc.
All true to an extent. However, part of player skill is trying to figure out the game workings. That is to say, determining the mechanical level of challenge posed by a scenario or the probability of success of an action. Obscurity increases this element of skill.

This part I partly disagree with. If the DM is scheming to remove a magic item because it is causing him annoyance then I get the reference. I've had that happen to me a few times when I have had the pleasure of playing. The most egregious example I can think of is we gained a very fast flying item. The DM started adding inconveniences to it (such as it slowly consuming spell books and scrolls) then having NPCs offer book value for it. But we as a group felt its value to us (strategic movement, mainly -- it was a large world) outweighed the offers and eventually it was taken from us at sword point by the local monarch -- who paid us book value for the privilege. The DM didn't seem to understand why we didn't want to accept further commissions from that king or even stay within his lands.

If on the other hand, other groups inside the game are scheming to acquire an item known to be in the PCs hands that is fair game.
Well, yes. I totally get that this kind of DM metagaming; creating an in-game scenario to serve his own ends, can be a problem. The thing is that the original quote described a situation that may or may not arise from that kind of intent. I would not assume that all attempts to steal, sunder, or otherwise remove an item from a PC's control are examples of DMs trying to remove problematic items.

This stuff just happens sometimes. In combat, removing an opponent's valuable item makes tactical sense. Out of combat, stealing valuable things makes financial sense if you can get away with it.

I do agree that if the DM has a problem with the players' capabilities, an in-game bitch slap is probably not the appropriate solution, on a variety of levels. To me, the real issue is the intent, not what is happening in the game world. Almost any action can be appropriate, or inappropriate, depending on the context.

Yeah and I make the distinction clear to the players; more frequently than not with some. I as referee will convey what you perceive is going on as accurately as I can What I won't do is offer advice/extra detail/vague assurances to try to entice a PC into a situation I think is interesting. I speaking as a NPC will be trying to convey what the NPC wants to convey as accurately as I can. So if the NPC wants you to believe a lie then I will try to accurately project that.
It becomes more challenging with illusions. I distinctly recall an early scenario where we went through a chase with a villain and finally caught up with him to find out that he was a figment. It felt like all the effort and mechanical choices we'd made to get to that point were meaningless, and it seemed like the DM was jerking us around. Why play out the scenario of a chase if there was nothing to catch?

Conversely, I suspect that the DM was refereeing correctly by leading us to believe that the illusion was real. So the implications of that type of situation in this context are unclear to me.
 

I struggle to imagine how the same person could fulfill both roles, though, and not have some crossover between the two. That is to say, how can you be sure that your basic extrapolation is not in some way influenced by whatever advance knowledge and opinions you may have had about this scenario?

You are correct - they basically cannot, but a lot of people can fool themselves into thinking they are doing that sort of thing, and that's good enough for them. We are subjective, limited creatures, so he's discussing an ideal, rather than an absolute. Ironically it's really a form of illusionism, in that you are providing the illusion, in this case, that you are merely a neutral arbiter.
 

Ahnehnois

First Post
You are correct - they basically cannot, but a lot of people can fool themselves into thinking they are doing that sort of thing, and that's good enough for them. We are subjective, limited creatures, so he's discussing an ideal, rather than an absolute. Ironically it's really a form of illusionism, in that you are providing the illusion, in this case, that you are merely a neutral arbiter.
I didn't think to turn it around like that, but I agree. The type of neutrality being discussed is such a far-off ideal that maybe what the author was getting at is a form of delusion to that effect rather than the reality of it. It would make more sense.
 

Bawylie

A very OK person
This rubs me the wrong way. Some kind of highbrow analysis of game design theory that's wielded like a cudgel against other methods.

Truly, there's probably a lot I could learn from this guy, but I'd rather not because I'll just end up mad.
 

Nagol

Unimportant
I struggle to imagine how the same person could fulfill both roles, though, and not have some crossover between the two. That is to say, how can you be sure that your basic extrapolation is not in some way influenced by whatever advance knowledge and opinions you may have had about this scenario?

Extrapolation should be influenced by knowledge of the scenario. What do faction know and want, for example. What I don't want to do is make qualitative assessment of the players success and adjust the scenario on the fly either through adding or deleting elements of the situation or by adjusting original difficulty. "This has been a cakewalk; I better double the number of opponents!" "The PCs are too lucky; the BBEG shouldn't have failed his save in the first round I wanted him to get away!" "The PCs are really struggling; I think they'll find a new ally in the next room".

That's kind of the distinction that I'm getting at though. Existing independently and interdependently are completely different things.

To a large extent that's true. There are a lot of scenarios I ran for my CHAMPIONS groups that would require extensive re-write since the scenarios were heavily personalised using the tools and levers in the system (Disadvantages, Perks, etc.) i.e. the scenarios were interdependent with the PCs. It is less true for the scenarios I devised for D&D and other games where such levers have less impact and thus more independence. I have run different groups through the same scenarios in D&D and enjoyed the different play experiences and watching the different consequences unfold.

All true to an extent. However, part of player skill is trying to figure out the game workings. That is to say, determining the mechanical level of challenge posed by a scenario or the probability of success of an action. Obscurity increases this element of skill.

And DM interference adds noise to the signal. If the DM interferes to adjust an outcome the players cannot use the result obtained as a fair data point. If the players do not know about the interference and do use the result as a data point, the model they develop will diverge from the game. In other words, they will assume similar interference as part of their model.

Well, yes. I totally get that this kind of DM metagaming; creating an in-game scenario to serve his own ends, can be a problem. The thing is that the original quote described a situation that may or may not arise from that kind of intent. I would not assume that all attempts to steal, sunder, or otherwise remove an item from a PC's control are examples of DMs trying to remove problematic items.

This stuff just happens sometimes. In combat, removing an opponent's valuable item makes tactical sense. Out of combat, stealing valuable things makes financial sense if you can get away with it.

I do agree that if the DM has a problem with the players' capabilities, an in-game bitch slap is probably not the appropriate solution, on a variety of levels. To me, the real issue is the intent, not what is happening in the game world. Almost any action can be appropriate, or inappropriate, depending on the context.

It becomes more challenging with illusions. I distinctly recall an early scenario where we went through a chase with a villain and finally caught up with him to find out that he was a figment. It felt like all the effort and mechanical choices we'd made to get to that point were meaningless, and it seemed like the DM was jerking us around. Why play out the scenario of a chase if there was nothing to catch?

Conversely, I suspect that the DM was refereeing correctly by leading us to believe that the illusion was real. So the implications of that type of situation in this context are unclear to me.

You play out the chase to determine what resources are expended, if any and how much time was gained by the opponents, and if the PCs manage to discover the ruse and thus gain more knowledge of the opponent's abilities. In other words, you do it to determine consequence and situation extrapolation. So long as the figment was adjudicated correctly, of course. Most such devices don't have the capacity to travel far, act independently, or to respond to new environments.

It comes down to the author's intent and context. He did have limited space. I am willing to assume the author was trying to address DMs working at the table level as opposed to working with in-game motivations. Rust monsters still leap at plate mail. NPCs with sunder will treat it as an option. Factions will try to further their agendas. I don't think he is addressing that.
 

Nagol

Unimportant
You are correct - they basically cannot, but a lot of people can fool themselves into thinking they are doing that sort of thing, and that's good enough for them. We are subjective, limited creatures, so he's discussing an ideal, rather than an absolute. Ironically it's really a form of illusionism, in that you are providing the illusion, in this case, that you are merely a neutral arbiter.

Any scenario I design, I am comfortable with any result the PCs can achieve. I am more interested in what the PCs will make of the situation than trying to further any agenda.

Does that mean I don't have biases or blind-spots in design? Of course not.

What it does mean is once the design is done, I will attempt to fairly and equably use the agreed rules and player input to determine what happens. The results and the means through which they are achieved are as transparent as I can make it as a referee.
 
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DMZ2112

Chaotic Looseleaf
D&D players can be divided into two groups, those who want to play the game as a game and those who want to play it as a fantasy novel . . .

That is some Welcome to the Stage of History stuff, right there.

In California, for example, this leads to referees who make up more than half of what happens, what is encountered and so on, as the game progresses rather than doing it beforehand. . . .

That is just /hilarious/. Gosh dern Californians. Smokin' their weed. Electin' their Democrats. Fudgin' their die rolls.

Pemerton said:
Does any one else have memories of reading Pulsipher's advice, or playing Pulsipherian D&D? Thoughts? Experiences?

All of my greatest accomplishments as a dungeon master, the ones my players still talk about, were spun off of minimal notes at best, with only the most critical moments set down in exacting detail (and only when strictly necessary). When I run off a page the result is railroady and mechanical. I agree for the most part with letting the dice fall where they may -- otherwise, why have dice? -- but sometimes the story just needs a die to come up differently. When it does, I am there.
 

All true to an extent. However, part of player skill is trying to figure out the game workings. That is to say, determining the mechanical level of challenge posed by a scenario or the probability of success of an action. Obscurity increases this element of skill.

And DM interference adds noise to the signal. If the DM interferes to adjust an outcome the players cannot use the result obtained as a fair data point. If the players do not know about the interference and do use the result as a data point, the model they develop will diverge from the game. In other words, they will assume similar interference as part of their model.

Eerie. I was getting ready to post a response to Ahn's post above when I hit refresh and Nagol posted this. Almost exactly what I had written out on notepad.

For the play agenda Pulsipher is advocating for, it is imperative that the signal that the players are receiving and the GM is presenting maintains purity and coherency, lest the authenticity and autonomy of strategic decision-making by the players is subverted, and their outcomes are no longer their own.
 

Any scenario I design, I am comfortable with any result the PCs can achieve. I am more interested in what the PCs will make of the situation than trying to further any agenda.

Does that mean I don't have biases or blind-spots in design? Of course not.

What it does mean is once the design is done, I will attempt to fairly and equably use the agreed rules and player input to determine what happens. The results and the means through which they are achieved are as transparent as I can make it as a referee.

Sure, and I respect that, but you are human, and ultimately it is an illusion of neutrality, and at a very significant cost, that being the much stronger potential of a boring game (as the article does acknowledge, to it's credit!). It also requires a certain mindset/approach from the players. Plus you have the big issue of what happens if the players go totally off what you've prepared - you can either start making stuff up, which is basically identical to "normal" D&D DMing, or you can stop the game and prepare for X time. Which means this works best in dungeon-ish scenarios, where variables are limited.

It's kind of like the "reality TV" approach to D&D, as it were.
 

Schmoe

Adventurer
Remember it. It was part of my introduction to the game.

Still run one off mega dungeon crawls with these same GMing principles almost wholly intact. For that play agenda, they have withstood the test of time.

A high degree of proficiency in GMing this style and in playing this style provides a rewarding experience for both sides of the table. A low degree of proficiency in GMing results in poorly conveyed information, loss of player agency and skill as arbiter of outcomes, and/or pear-shaped crawling dynamics (such as poorly considered rewards inflating PC potency for the rest of crawl). A low degree of PC proficiency can result in early TPK and/or indecision that stalls the game due to the high stakes.

That's a perfect explanation of the perspective, and one I can see working very well. It puts the emphasis on the game as "the players vs. the dungeon" and puts the DM purely in the role of referee. I've played games like this, admittedly not with D&D, and had a blast doing so. I think Pulsipher did a fine job of explaining the approach to take for that type of game.

The only thing I don't like about Pulsipher's comments are his stance that other ways of playing the game are inappropriate or not enjoyable.
 

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