Friday, 2 March 2012

Designing scenarios part 2 - the rôle of the umpire

Following on from part one, this section (perhaps inevitably) merits more thought than I expected when I started laying out the plans for this series (wow, was it really a month ago!). The extended digression in question is the matter of an umpire - should you have one, and what should his powers be?

I'll come right out and admit it - I spent a lot of my time between my teenage wargaming years and my recent rediscovery of the hobby as a GM for assorted roleplaying campaigns: predominantly D&D, but other systems (and complete lack of systems!) besides. I've done everything from lead a party through a pre-planned commercial scenario to tease them with a completely un-pre-planned whodunnit where there were several occasions on which they knew more about the plot than I did. As a result I'd like to think I know what I'm talking about about roleplaying games and GMing :D

Wargames scenarios and RPG scenarios have a lot in common:
  • they should be entertaining, 
  • they should be well-enough balanced to simultaneously provide a challenge and not be so one-sided as to be ridiculous, 
  • they should (at least in my opinion) allow the players to identify with the rôle they're taking on
This last is an interesting one: as discussed previously, sure, you can just plonk a force down on the table and take on another army, but to my mind there's much more to be gained from a well written scenario that allows the player to get into the rôle of the commander. But. having said that. there's that other question. RPG scenarios have an umpire, ref, GM, DM. Call him or her what you will. Should a wargame scenario have one, and how wide-ranging are his or her powers?

To my mind, the answer to the first one is a resounding "yes if at all possible". An umpire definitely serves two rôles, and possibly a third, The obvious two:
  • to serve as an impartial interpreter of, arbiter of, applier of, and repository for, the rules
  • to be a keeper and provider of hidden information
Hopefully the first is obvious. Having an umpire allows you to offload some or all of the burden of table lookup, bonus calculation, turn counting and the like from the players, and allows them to focus on being generals (which is our aim, if we want to allow the players to identify more with the commanders in the scenario). There's an aspect to this that, I think, should get more use than it does, and that is as a translator of player actions into game mechanics. I've played in a number of games where I understand the period, in terms of tactics etc, but wasn't familiar with the specific rules being played - being able to turn to an umpire and say 'I want to do X, how does that translate'. is really useful.

The second is, if you like, a bonus extra, and it takes us into the realms of Rich Clarke of TFL's much-discussed concept of 'friction' - or, to put it another way, "no plan survives contact with reality". Having a neutral third-party with an omniscient view of the scenario allows for on-the-battlefield surprises, and is something Charles S. Grant makes use of in "Scenarios For Wargames" (provided, of course, the players haven't read the book!). It also allows him to (effectively) play what the RPG world would call 'non-player characters', e,g, the courier from HQ with a change in objectives.

Of course, this requires the umpire to have an in-depth knowledge of the scenario to do the job properly, much like any decent GM. For most wargame scenarios, this obviously isn't anywhere as complex as for the average RPG, but the core concept isn't that different. Which sort of leads us to that third question - is the umpire empowered to change the scenario on the fly, in order to restore game balance, continue to make the game entertaining?

Mmm. Tricky one. The people I consider the better RPG GMs (the ones who don't just take a pre-written scenario and read it out), do so when they feel that it will improve the scenario, but I think the key thing is that a) they do it to make the game better for everyone and b) they do it without letting on that this is what they are doing.

I guess your options as an umpire are a little more constrained, as forces actually exist on the table, rather than in the player's head (unless you're the late Paddy Griffith!), so you do have to prepare for the eventuality of, say, more reinforcements turning up - if you're providing the forces, this is easy. There's also a line to be drawn between say. more reinforcements because aspects of the scenario design cause it to be unbalanced (guilty as charged with a couple of my Op Squad scenarios) and more reinforcements because player A made a massive tactical blunder. In the second case, to my mind, you shouldn't go tweaking the scenario, and if I were either player I don't think I'd want you to. In the first case, however, handing players a dice and asking them to roll it, without saying what for, is a handy thing to have up your sleeve.

Which sort of leads me to the final comment, and in a way back to part one. Preparation is key: to run, as am umpire, a decent scenario of any sort you don't just have to have read it. you have to understand it. It's only by thoroughly understanding it that you can administer it for the players in such a way as to create an entertaining and fun time for all.

Next, and last, in the series - doing it on the day. Till then, have fun!


  1. Good post, Mike. I too was an Role-Playing GM for many years in many genres, and it would be nice to get some of that back again.

    Paradoxically, I find that figure gaming is more convenient and congenial right now, because of family commitments. I already have the figures, so all I need to do is arrange a game in advance, turn up with the stuff and play with like-minded folks. There is a loose campaign story line, but it's nowhere near as complex as a long-running RPG campaign. I think that maybe the frustrated GM in me is part of the reason I've been committing to scenario design for large games, as a focus for my efforts.

    See, you've started me thinking now!


    1. That was kinda the point of the article :D

      Once I'm done with the scenario series, I have another series planned on the next level up, if you like - campaigns. Watch this space.

  2. You got a mention on the Facebook page of my wargame club!

    1. Heh, cool!

      I've added their Facebook page. Now I just need to learn Dutch :D

  3. I would add that an umpire has a responsibility to the players to make the game an enjoyable experience.

    Paddy and I didn't always agree over this; he maintained that historical veracity was more important, even if it was at the expense of the odd player tucked away in a room with nothing happening.

    You are right though, the more preparation that you do, the more likely it is that the game will go well.

    Kind regards, Chris

    1. Definitely agree re 'to make the game an enjoyable experience'. I sort of thought I'd implied this, but didn't say so outright, obviously.

      And your and Paddy's disagreement is pretty much the crux of my point - i.e. to what lengths is the umpire allowed to go to keep things entertaining. Personally, I have a hunch there's a compromise to be found, but the historical purist and the RPG GM in me don't *quite* agree on where it is.

      (Following your blog, BTW - looks fun!)


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