Where Monte Cook sees an oppositional duality in the role of the Dungeon Master concerning Referee vs. Guide style DMing, there is an alternate view that can be taken with respect to how the Guide style is, or should be, defined which then allows for an elegant merging of the two styles.
In his defining of the Guide style, Cook argues that the Guide style DM will fudge die rolls and/or the structure of her adventure so as to insure that the DM's view of a 'good story' is achieved. This, Cook explains, was an evolution of the original instigating factor for the Guide style: " 'running a game is like telling a story, with the players all being the main characters.' "1 However, how would the Guide style be defined if the dice-fudging and instantaneous architectural restructuring were taken away from the DM's toolbox?
The DM would be forced, with such tools cast aside, to guide the game within the game itself. While Cook informs the reader that "Some DMs take the [Guide] style to its inevitable conclusion, and don't even bother to prepare much ahead of time, guiding the game as it goes, flying by the seat of their pants, as it were. They react, rather than prepare..."2, the Guide style DM would have to prepare, at the very least, the story; a story tailored for the players' characters otherwise the DM is creating a story that ignores the PCs as the heroes and supplants the NPCs as the main characters. Without the external tools of story coercion (such as dice-fudging), the DM is forced to prepare the story-adventure with the PCs in mind. If the DM feels that a deadly trap is inherently necessary for the story, then the DM should work out how the heroes of the story can bypass the trap such as by giving the players clues as to the nature or location of the trap. In most fantasy stories, the heroes possess abilities that allow them to bypass the obstacles they encounter, whether it be Conan with his exceptional strength or Gilgamesh with his two-thirds divinity. A Guide style DM is now forced to do some planning on the part of the story to make sure that the encounters are at the same time both passable (though still possibly deadly) by the PCs and challenging to them.
This internal manipulation of the story also applies to NPCs. If the DM wishes for the central villain to be able to escape alive from an encounter with the PCs, the DM should make sure that the villain has planned for such contingencies, whether the villain possesses an item that allows him to teleport away or has secret passages and tunnels in his lair for just such an occasion.
By internally working the structure of the story, rather than externally and on the fly, the DM also imparts a level of realism and cohesion into the adventure. If the story is tampered with externally, then the idea of luck (or external fate) is taken away from the story. Exceptionally good or bad things can occur when the villain rolls a 1 or a 20 at the worst or most opportune moment. By taking advantage of the NPCs abilities, good and bad, on an internal level, the DM can run the NPC more believably with lucky and unlucky events happening at a naturally (rolled) pace.
For example, a group is gathering for the evening to play. The DM has his villain ready for an exceptional battle but is confident that the villain will survive, but to the DM's horror, he forgot that the PCs had leveled up at the last game and now is afraid that the PCs with defeat the villain with ease (it is frightening for a DM to learn that the PC sorcerer has added disintegrate to her spellbook). Following the old definition of Guide style DMing, the DM would just fudge a few rolls, or even give the villain an overall +2 bonus to all attacks, saves, skill checks, etc. But under this new definition the DM would feel forced to play the villain as it stands. Yet, what the DM can do is decide upon some factors that may help the villain out, such as letting an earthquake happen during the battle. Now this may sound like a deus ex machina, but if the DM randomly determines both on what round the earthquake will happen and where (and if) a fissure opens up and also sets aside the DC to remain standing, then the DM has created an event that will heighten the excitement, give the villain a chance to escape, but also possibly create an opportunity for the PCs to take advantage of.
In the end, however, the Guide style DM has to give up some control and has to accept that, both villains and PCs, die or fail. If the Guide style DM ends up killing off all her PCs then it is a lesson for the DM to understand how far she can push the PCs limits. The Guide style DM has to realize that, while orchestrating and conducting the story, she is not the sole conductor. If this were the case it would not be playing Dungeons and Dragons, it would be writing a short story or a novel. The DM has to come to terms with the fact that the story is a shared story, where the PCs are the main characters, but main characters can fail and die, which makes the story so much richer when they succeed.
With this working definition of the Guide style of DMing, I'll turn to how the Referee and Guide styles can be merged, with some success using my own campaign as an example.
When ever I begin a campaign, I tell the players where I wish the setting to be and let them know what kind of characters I'll allow. While they are creating their characters I look over the location, the politics currently underway, and any other situations in the setting, including the kind of characters that are being created by the players. I then set about creating several adventure hooks, usually around ten in number. Between four and five of these hooks are designated with Encounter Levels appropriate for the PCs' levels. Two more hooks are designed to be excessively easy for the PCs, while two others are designed to be hard; 1-3 Encounter Levels above the PCs' levels. Lastly I design one or two hooks that far exceed the PCs abilities, where death and dismemberment are certain. I outline all the hooks, determine the power (level or HD) of the major NPCs, whether the adventure is connected to a larger plot or is a simple "one night" adventure, and the general story of the adventure. During the first game of the campaign I introduce these adventure hooks and generally give clues as to how difficult the adventure would be, especially for the impossible hooks. "Yup," says the old farmer, "There's a dragon bigger'n the kings palace up that valley, with treasure to boot. He's supposedly sleepin' n' the treasure's there fer yer takin'" I'll mix up how the hooks are introduced, usually through background knowledge that the starting characters would have ("For the past month caravans carrying the king's standard, and only those, have been waylaid by bandits") or through roleplaying minor NPCs.
So far, this stands up as a Referee style of DMing, where "the DM creates the world...but once he is done creating, the players must make their way in it as it stands."3 However, I take the stance that the heroes, the main characters, have yet to be defined, they've yet to rise to the occasion. Once the PCs embark on a chosen path then their actions begin to change the world. Each of the original hooks are not abandoned, however. While the PCs are exploring one path I create a timeline for the other hooks, outlining major events that will occur in the future as well as when, and if, the event will be resolved without the PCs' intervention. Now, when the PCs return from the Dark Forest, after having quelled the goblin threat, to their home base they may learn that the bandits were defeated by champions from the east, or that some foolish peasant woke the dragon in the valley. The world evolves with the PCs. On their return to their home base, the PCs learn that the goblins were working for some other faction and now that faction has it out for the PCs. The PCs are on the road to becoming the heroes of the story of the goblin-wars. Yet had they set off to stop the bandit raids they would have become the champions of the king. All, of course, if they live, but at the very least, fifty percent of the time (and higher with intelligent PCs and players), the PCs are going to choose roads that they are likely to survive.
Starting the campaign in this way also allows for the players to ignore all of the adventure hooks and set out on their own, self driven quests (see Dungeon 120, "Who's Driving This Campaign? Starting a New Campaign (part 7)" by Monte Cook) which then can collide or diverge from the evolving hooks.
The Third edition rules bring into play a more rational and statistical measure of the chance for PC success than the older versions of the game. The Challenge Rating and Encounter Level system allows DMs to both Referee and Guide the story. During the game-play the DM can act as Referee, arbitrator of the rules and commander of the enemy forces. Outside of game, during the planning, the DM can act as Guide, tailoring the adventure to suit the PCs levels and abilities while structuring plot lines that allow for controlled PC advancement.
1 Monte Cook, "Mastering the Game: Starting a New Campaign, part 5," Dungeon 118, January 2005, 83.
2 Cook, 83.
3 Cook, 82.
Cook, Monte. "Mastering the Game: Starting a New Campaign, part 5." Dungeon 118, January 2005.