Chapter 16: Refereeing the Game

The Referee is the person who takes responsibility for running a Cepheus Engine game. The Referee creates the adventure, runs the players through it, takes on the roles of the various characters the characters meet, and handles any questions about the rules. While running the game is a big responsibility, it's not as hard as it might seem, and providing a fun and entertaining game for your friends can be quite rewarding.

The rules of Cepheus Engine provide a comprehensive outline for the basic activities confronting any character in the universe you are creating. These rules are necessarily brief and admittedly omit many possible activities. After all, a roleplaying game cannot ever attempt to provide adequate rules that govern the entire universe. In the hands of players and a Referee, however, the Cepheus Engine rules are the start of dynamic adventures that can range across the universe.

This chapter is about helping you as the Referee run your games. The advice found within this chapter is completely optional; feel free to use it or ignore it as you like.

Rule Zero

Remember that it is just a game. The most important thing in it is to have fun, both for you and your players, and everything else is secondary to that. So if a rule, a plot, or even realism and consistency get in the way of your fun or that of your players, it is your right and duty as the Referee to change it. As a Referee, you, not the rulebooks, are the final arbiter in your game. This is a serious responsibility, but also a great freedom: the freedom to create and run an entertaining game that suits your needs and the needs of your group. If you and your players are enjoying yourself, you are doing things right, even if you are ignoring or modifying the rules and even if your game is not necessarily realistic or even self-consistent.

With that in mind, the most important rule of the game, dubbed Rule Zero in the Cepheus Engine rules, is that the Referee always has the right to modify the rules. As a Referee, your rules modifications can be as simple and improvised as "um, grab some dice, roll them, and tell me the number" or involve extremely complex home-brew charts that dictate the smallest of details. This is your game, after all.

Gaming Style

Every gamer tends to enjoy a specific gaming style. Some people are consummate "Role-Players", gaining a lot of pleasure from character development and interaction. Others are intense "Combat Monkeys", finding that an action-packed cinematic frenzy of laser bolts and hand grenades meets their gaming needs. Some players are "Puzzle Solvers", finding the mental challenges of riddles, logic problems, puzzles and mystery adventures to be the perfect balm. Most of us are a mix of all of the above, in differing proportions and varying levels of interest and intensity.

As a Referee, it is recommended that you bear in mind that all styles of play are valid. If everyone is an action fan, combat-heavy games work well. Roleplaying the group's interactions with shopkeepers can be entertaining, as well. For some, delivering long angst-ridden poetry in-game can be fulfilling. Intraparty conflict might be a good thing, with the right group of gamers. Even violating the advice found in these rules is perfectly okay, so long as the entire gaming group is having fun. Remember Rule Zero!

Be aware of what you and your players want. If you want something different from your players, something is going to have to change. Logically, it should be the group in the minority, which in this case would be you as the Referee. Similarly, if a single player wants a different style of play, if it can't be easily integrated, don't force the issue. Sometimes players or Referees don't fit a particular gaming group's style. It does not make anyone wrong; things just did not work out or come together for that particular game.


One of the keys to successfully running a Cepheus Engine session boils down to your ability to improvise when circumstances so dictate. You can certainly plan everything out for your session, to the degree with which you are comfortable. However, at some point in time, whether intentionally or accidentally, you are going to have to improvise a scenario that you did not plan in advance. Maybe the mercenary rolled poorly in that last combat, dying during the previous encounter, and the corporate executive that hired the adventurers only made the deal with him. Perhaps the party decides to pursue another adventure, which you had not yet prepared, half-way through the current one, based on a clue they found in the second encounter of the evening. Whatever the reason, you should be prepared as a Referee to improvise as needed to keep the session moving.

A common misconception exists that improvisation during a game and preparation for a game are two opposed approaches. To the contrary, the more efficiently you prepare for the game, the easier it will be for you to improvise and "wing it" during actual play. The key to efficient preparation is not deciding ahead what the characters will do (leave that to the players), but rather creating material which would both allow the players to do exciting things and which will allow you to easily set up challenges, encounters, NPCs, locations and plots that will fit the flow of the game. This might sound like a lot of work at first but is actually much simpler, the key here is to create flexible material which will fit different plot lines, different locations and different uses with ease.

In today's world, spare time and inspiration tends to come at unexpected and irregular times. Carry a small notebook with you. Whenever an idea for whatever part of your game strikes your mind, jot it down in the notebook. Later on, when you happen to have a little more spare time, look these ideas and develop the ones you like a little bit more. Organize a binder at home (or a directory on your computer), with different partitions (or electronic files) for NPCs, locations, creatures, locations and plot hooks. Each item (NPC, location etc) you develop shouldn't be long, a few sentences per item will work in most cases (remember that most stats for a character or creature will fit in a small paragraph, if not a single sentence.) Keep these well-organized and these could be used whenever you need them in-game or in a short-term preparation for the game. The same goes for location maps you happen to doodle during work, while riding public transit or while attending boring classes or lectures, nothing of this kind should go to waste.

Most of the adventure elements you prepare, even locations or NPCs intended to be used in a specific plot line, should be designed in such a way that it will be easy to 'recycle' these elements for use in different circumstances in the event you don't use that element in the intended plot or location. Players have a tendency to miss the stuff you've labored hard to create, so be prepared to make a few changes to all the unused bits and pieces of previous adventures to use in the next ones.

Improvisational Preparation

It is definitely possible to prepare in advance for improvisation. It is suggested that Referees consider preparing the following for their adventure or campaign:

A list of random names for NPCs, locations and vessels can serve any Referee well. Take them from any source you like, your imagination, baby-name sites, even phone books, but it always helps to have a quick source of names for the people and places you have to create on the fly rather than just calling them "this guy" or "that tower". That way, when the characters ask a random citizen for their name, you can easily choose one from your list, provide it to the group and then cross it off. Having the ability to name a character or place quickly helps establish a strong sense of depth and internal consistency within your setting.

Many Referees also find it helpful to keep a small collection of generic locations and encounters on hand, in case the party decides to go in an unexpected direction. It is perfectly okay to use adventures or modules that you find online or in the products you own. If you can create a few easy-to-place encounters beforehand, this could also prove to be very useful. Your goal here is simply to have activities for the characters to do through the rest of the given gaming session. You can always recoup and plot a better strategy for this new direction the players have taken between sessions. These little scenarios just give you a delaying tactic that lets you entertain your players at the same time.

A collection of stat blocks for stock NPCs, perhaps expanding on the small collection found later in this guide, can provide you with potential allies, contacts, rivals, enemies, bystanders and potentially even ready-made player-characters should the need arise over the course of the gaming session.

Creating a reference sheet of the player-characters' important combat statistics can help you evaluate the impact of an encounter or challenge when you have to improvise a scenario on the fly.

A notebook or electronic document for session notes can help you capture the details you've created for your campaign or adventure, either on the fly or through early preparation. With this, you are more likely to provide a consistent and vibrant gaming experience.

Recycling Game Material

As preparation time is limited for most Referees, you may find it of good benefit to maximize your effective use of material and rules while minimizing the time devoted to creating new non-player characters, vessels, adventures or locations from scratch. The nature of the Cepheus Engine is of great help here, as the rules are relatively simple and abstract; a major part of each animal, location, vessel or character is nothing but narrative, and narrative is easy to change. This is called "reskinning". By changing the narrative, the stat block for a veteran mercenary might be reused as an alien hunter with little or no modifications to the game mechanics.

A good example is the use of location floor plans. If, for example, you've downloaded or bought detailed floor plans for a particular location (or a product including these floor plans) or perhaps you've found them online, you can utilize them in more than one way. If the floor plans originally detailed the hidden base of some human space pirates, you can still easily modify them to be used for an alien fortress, for the remnants of a research facility devastated by a natural disaster, or even for a private mansion for an eccentric corporate executive. The map can remain the same, or largely the same, but the description can change the perception of the players.

Running the Game

The first rule of the Cepheus Engine system is to have fun. A good Referee will make a reasonable effort to create a gaming experience that is fun for everyone. The following guidelines might help with that.

Assigning Difficulties

At the core of every Cepheus Engine adventure lies a sequence of tasks that the character must accomplish in order to succeed. The Referee is in charge of assigning the difficulty of these tasks, and then interpreting the outcome. The default is Average (+0). Make a task easier if you want a particular task to be accomplished, but not be everyone. This will highlight characters with skill levels in an easy way. If you want to make a task challenging, but still feel comfortable with giving the players a good chance of success, set the Difficulty to Difficult (-2). Reserve Very Difficult (-4) and Formidable (-6) for very special circumstances, such as attempting the near impossible. As the Referee, you may not want to say "No" except in the most extreme circumstances, but assigning a Difficulty of Formidable (-6) is almost as good, and can create some interesting story developments and a sense of excited accomplishment should the character succeed.

Modifying the Roll or the Difficulty

There are two ways of making a task easier or harder: modify the character's die roll or modify the task's Difficulty. Generally speaking, circumstances affecting a character's performance, like having just the right tools for the job or being forced to improvise, apply a modifier to the die roll. Circumstances making the task easier or harder to accomplish, like a favorable or unfavorable environment or a particularly demanding task, modify the Difficulty. If a condition applies to the character – like knowledge, health, equipment, preparedness, and such – it's usually a die modifier. It doesn't have to be too fine a line, since modifying the die roll or the Difficulty amounts to the same thing in the end: the task being easier or harder to accomplish.

Circumstance Modifiers

Some circumstances make a check easier or harder, resulting in a bonus or penalty that is added to the check result. The Referee can alter the odds of success in two ways:

  • If a character has help, such as good tools, competent aids or other beneficial circumstances, he receives a +1 bonus to his skill check.
  • If a character is hampered, such as having defective tools, incompetent assistance or other negative circumstances, he receives a -1 penalty to his skill check.

Automatic Successes

Sometimes it is just easier to assume the character automatically succeeds at a skill check. If the character has an applicable skill, and the results of the skill check do not impact the progress of the story, endanger the character, and the actual success or failure is not interesting, just assume the character succeeds and move on. Remember, the Cepheus Engine rules suggest that the Referee should only call for checks:

  • When the characters are in danger.
  • When the task is especially difficult or hazardous.
  • When the characters are under the pressure of time.
  • When success or failure is especially important or interesting.

Using Opposed Checks

Opposed checks are a great way to create tension between two individuals. Suddenly, the players can target their attention on an NPC, and that helps with immersion into the game. Should two or more characters seek to do the same thing at the same time, or to resist one another's actions, use an opposed check. The highest check result wins.

That's not in the Rules

Sometimes in the course of play, things come up that are not covered in the rules. When this happens, the Referee is responsible for these handling situations, making fair evaluations of what the characters do and deciding what happens as a result. As the Referee, you will need to quickly improvise a solution. The easiest way to do so is to simply decide if the suggested action is fun or not, and if it is fun, let it happen, then throw in a complication that adds to the enjoyment of the scene. Some Referees prefer a more mechanical approach. Identify a skill the covers the basic nature of the request, set a Difficulty of Average (+0) or Difficult (-2), and let them try. If nothing comes to mind immediately, ask the player to tell you what skill they would use to accomplish this task. If no skill appears to work, then choose the best characteristic, and have the player roll a characteristic check. However you decide to resolve it, the key here is to quickly address the request and keep the game moving forward.

Solo Play as Referee Prep Work

Many of the Cepheus Engines rule subsystems can be leveraged for solo play. For Referees, this can turn building a universe of their own into a game in and of itself. What follows is a list of suggested activities that can prove to be fun in and of themselves, as well as help Referees create new material for their personal adventures and campaigns. In addition, solo play can help Referees learn the rules and become more proficient for when they run games before a group of players.

Solo play is not limited to Referees. Players can also learn a lot about and enjoy aspects of the Cepheus Engine rules through solo play in those times when a Referee or gaming group is not currently available.

Character Creation

A Referee always needs non-player characters. Use the information in Chapter 1: Character Creation to generate new characters. These characters can easily become future patrons, random encounters, enemies, allies or simply background characters for a Cepheus Engine universe.

Personal Combat

Take some characters and use the rules from Chapter 5: Personal Combat to practice the combat system. Recreate scenes from science fiction or action movies using the characters, to get a feel for how the rules of combat work in various scenarios.

Starship Construction

Construct some starships and other vessels using the rules in Chapter 8: Ship Design and Construction. Build on various scales, to get an idea of how the different elements of starship construction work together. You can even use the information under Starship Revenues in Chapter 6: Off-World Travel to determine if your ships would be economically viable without outside assistance.

Space Combat

Take some vessels and pit them against one another using the space combat rules found in Chapter 10: Space Combat. Once again, feel free to recreate scenes from science fiction movies using the vessels, to get a feel for how the rules of space combat work in various scenarios.

Subsector Creation

Using the rules found in Chapter 12: Worlds, create a subsector and identify the systems within it. Generate and record the UWPs for every system. After the worlds have been created, look over the subsector for possible communication and trade routes. If you are inspired, create some background information on the most interesting worlds.

Animal Encounter Creation

Choose a world from a list of UWPs, and expand on it. Create some maps of the planet's surface, and the build encounter tables for each terrain type on the map, using the rules found in Chapter 13: Planetary Wilderness Encounters. If you are so inclined, you can then pit some characters against the different animals you've created using the personal combat system, to see how they might fare against player characters in the future.

Practice Trade and Commerce

Grab a 200-ton TL9 Merchant Trader and use the Chapter 7: Trade and Commerce rules to explore the economic environment of a generated subsector. Use the rules for passengers, freight and even speculative trading to get a feel for them. By tracking the revenue and expenses for the ship, it could give you an idea of where traders will focus their attentions within the subsector. If this is being played as a solo game, keep going until either the ship is paid for or the ship goes bankrupt. This is a good way to validate trade routes, and identify "stepping stone" worlds between strong markets in a subsector.

Patron Encounter Creation

The seed of most adventures within a Cepheus Engine universe are captured in patron encounters. Using the details of a subsector's list of UWPs, create and record some patron encounters using the format found under Patron Encounters in Chapter 14: Social Encounters. Think about science fiction and action-based movies, television shows and literature, and use those to inspire some of the patron encounters you create.