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D&D General Dungeon Master or Referee?


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The term "referee" generally refers to a non-player in a game who ensures that official rules are strictly followed between two antagonistic sets of players. I think it's not really a good fit for what a Dungeon Master does as a) I believe they are themselves a "player", just one with a very different role; b) I believe that even at a table where it is agreed that official rules are strictly followed this agreement should still be secondary to ensuring that the game is fun, etc, in a way not comparable to the rules enforcing mandate of a referee in most games that traditionally employing such a person, and c) I hope few D&D tables involve two antagonistic sets of players who need a neutral arbiter between them.

And whether or not you agree on these particular points or not, I hope anyone can agree that there are a number of ways in which the role of a DM is not particularly like the role of a referee in, say, a basketball game, and thus it makes sense to not use the same term for the two, and fortunately we have terms like "Dungeon Master" and its various equivalents in other ttrpgs so that we don't have to awkwardly refer to them as "referees".

I sense the reason some people are perhaps drawn to the term is because they like the implications it makes about the particular ethos with which they approach their role. I would say this is precisely why the term is a dangerous one to use, as it interpolates a lot of implications into how the Dungeon Master should operate that don't necessarily fit, simply on the basis of a familiar word used when the hobby was new and "Dungeon Master" did not yet have a meaning that readers would readily understand. By all means DM more "like a referee" than the norm (whatever that is) if you like, but please don't decide to do so on the basis of ill-fitting 1970s terminology.
 

Reynard

Legend
I think a lot of folks in this thread are conducting analysis based on the false premise that they can apply general use definitions to jargon. You just can't do that. It doesn't matter what a referee is in sports or day to day use. What matters is what the term was used for in tabletop RPGs at their inception and how, if at all, the term has evolved.

On that note, are there any modern games that still use the term?
 

robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
Supporter
In older D&D books the person behind the screen is often called the Referee, which implies an impartial stance but also contains authority (final word). Dungeon Master doesn't have the neutral connotation and puts a higher emphasis on authority (master). Do you see yourself as a referee or a dungeon master? Or are they both just the same thing?

I see myself as a Referee.
This is because the game has its origins in war gaming where two opposing “generals“ would put their armies against each ither and a referee was needed to ensure fair play.

The dungeon master evolved from that as now teams were instead pitted against a pre-planned dungeon.

Now things are much more free-form so neither fits well, but DM is a better fit.

Game master is much better as it encompasses the role of being in charge of the game itself, wherever it might be.
 

pming

Hero
Hiya!
In older D&D books the person behind the screen is often called the Referee, which implies an impartial stance but also contains authority (final word). Dungeon Master doesn't have the neutral connotation and puts a higher emphasis on authority (master). Do you see yourself as a referee or a dungeon master? Or are they both just the same thing?

I see myself as a Referee.
If I'm playing any version of "D&D", then I'm a Dungeon Master. Otherwise I'm a Referee/Game Master/Keeper/Fate/etc. Whatever the game refers to 'my job' as.

How do I FEEL when I'm in this position? Pretty much always DM.

That said...I disagree with your initial "Dungeon Master doesn't have the neutral connotation...". Now, this is probably because I've been DM'ing for about 41 years now (started when I was 10, now I'm 51). DM has ALWAYS had the "neutral connotation" simply due to the fact that it was the DMs job to "present interesting and fun stuff to the Players, but with challenges and a real risk of death to their PC's". It was always stated that the DM's job was to BE FAIR!

As it said in the (1983) Basic D&D DM's Book 2, "The Most Important Rule", page 2:
-----------------
"There is one rule which applies to everything you will do as a Dungeon Master. It is the most important of all the rules! It is simply this:
BE FAIR.
A Dungeon Master must not take sides. ... The Players are not fighting the DM!"
-----------------

I do not see DM as 'confrontational' or 'non-neutral' in any way. YMMV, obviously! :)

^_^

Paul L. Ming
 

A DM is an author, storyteller, and referee, each at a different point of the game. When planning the adventure, the DM is an author, designing whatever challenges he feels is appropriate (from easy to killer DMs like me). During the game, the DM is a storyteller, advancing the game with descriptions and narrations, that hopefully immerse the players into the setting. When an action is being taken, the DM becomes a referee, determining the outcome, as noted by the rules of the edition and houserules.

The importance of the term referee is that when determining the outcome of an action, the DM is intended to be a completely neutral arbiter. In theory, this means that the DM should not fudge dice or make adjustments on the fly to "enhance" the game experience. If a character dies due to a critical hit (as happened in my game earlier today), they die. In the reverse, if the players are crushing your BBEG, you shouldn't give him more HP or boost his attack/damage. This hearkens back to the idea that this is a game, not just improve storytelling. It has become quite common for DMs to have a bias, especially for the sake of their designed story, since the emphasis on the "game" of RPG has been diminished.
 

pemerton

Legend
The importance of the term referee is that when determining the outcome of an action, the DM is intended to be a completely neutral arbiter.
This depends on edition, and on the action in question.

In every edition, for instance, when it comes to hit points of damage dealt the GM is meant to maintain the appropriate tallies.

But what about narration of a failed check, particularly in a non-combat situation? In 4e D&D, the way the GM narrates the consequences of a check in a skill challenge will depend on (i) whether it succeeds or fails, and (ii) whether it resolves the challenge or leaves it still ongoing.

This is one of the ways in which 4e is closer to "indie" RPG techniques.
 

Jack Daniel

Engines & Empires
I don't see a difference in meaning between the terms, but I personally prefer "referee" over "DM." I like the connection to wargaming and the connotation of impartiality.

Now, "fighter" is a stupid name. Person who fights. How did we end up with "fighter" instead of "warrior"?
How is fighter any worse than warrior? It isn't like they made up the term, fighter has just as much currency as warrior (probably more in serious conversation)

"Fighter" does have currency, but it usually means "boxer" or sometimes "martial artist" in the common idiom. "Warrior" is a much more accurate description of what the D&D fighter is, and I wish it were the standard. But we have "fighter" because it's a gender-neutral bowdlerization of the original rules' "fighting man," which is almost certainly drawn from A Princess of Mars, where Burroughs' narrator describes John Carter thus (with this particular example coming from the book's foreword):
He was a splendid specimen of manhood, standing a good two inches over six feet, broad of shoulder and narrow of hip, with the carriage of the trained fighting man. His features were regular and clear cut, his hair black and closely cropped, while his eyes were of a steel gray, reflecting a strong and loyal character, filled with fire and initiative. His manners were perfect, and his courtliness was that of a typical southern gentleman of the highest type.
And that's merely the first of many instances of the term "fighting man" in Burroughs' corpus.
 
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Dungeon Master. (Or Game Master, but I usually default to saying "DM.")

Referees are for sports, and other things where a totally impartial, dis-interested authority is necessary.

The person running a game of D&D (and various similar games) is neither impartial nor totally dis-interested. They have an active interest in producing an enjoyable game for all participants, including themselves, which means they are automatically not impartial. Further, they both create and operate the opposition to the players; by definition they cannot be dis-interested authorities.

A good referee has no stake at all in whether the match is enjoyable, boring, frustrating, or whatever else--their only concern is ensuring the rules are fulfilled fairly. And a good referee is never going to be someone actively organizing or controlling one of the teams involved in the match.

I get what the early editions were going for by using the term "referee." I just think it's genuinely misplaced, in part because they were trying to hold onto functions and traditions from tabletop wargaming that have no place in D&D (and its family of games).
 


pemerton

Legend
Agon 2nd ed (John Harper) has Hero Players and the Strife Player. It advised the Strife Player of the following things to avoid:

* Don't try to tell a story to the other players. Stick to your three steps as Strife Player [the steps are Reveal, Ask, Judge] and let a story emerge naturally.​
* Don't worry about anyone else's fun. They're the Hero Players and you're the Strife Player. They're entertaining you, and vice versa. The whole outcome of the session isn't on your shoulders.​
* Don't pull your punches. Heroes are defined by adversity. If harpies attack the people and the heroes fail to defend them, then many are slaughtered. It's dark, but that's what was at stake. Follow through on the threats of the opponents.​

I think that second point in particular is a good one.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
It has become quite common for DMs to have a bias, especially for the sake of their designed story, since the emphasis on the "game" of RPG has been diminished.
I would argue that it’s impossible for a human DM not to have a bias. They can try to second-guess their biases and compensate for them, but that’s still acting on a bias. Better to accept that the nature of the position makes true impartiality impossible and work to be intentional with your partiality.
 

pemerton

Legend
I would argue that it’s impossible for a human DM not to have a bias. They can try to second-guess their biases and compensate for them, but that’s still acting on a bias. Better to accept that the nature of the position makes true impartiality impossible and work to be intentional with your partiality.
I don't agree; or rather, I don't think this is really fair to @Shiroiken's point.

Perhaps pure disinterest is impossible; nevertheless this is something that a judge hearing a trial should aim towards. Contrast the role of (say) a securities regulator: the regulator should be neutral as between market participants, but not neutral as to the workings of the market as such.

Shiroiken is expressing a preference for a GM who is like a judge, while observing a preponderance of GM's who are more like regulators. I don't agree with the way that Shiroiken has expressed that preference in normative terms, but I certainly agree that the contrast is a meaningful one.
 

I use GM, but mostly because my actual initials are DM (or really DRM which causes me some amusement when I see discussions on the rights and wrongs of DRM). Mostly so I can truthfully say I am a DM who is a GM, because my sense of humour has not progressed since I was 14.
 

Norton

Explorer
New member here, so hello all.

I prefer the term Dungeon Master for the fantasy element, as referee to me lacks the same kind of creative spark. It also introduces an element of sportsball which wouldn't always sit well with my players.

I see myself as more of a judge, so Dungeon Judge is a bit closer. In fact, I do sometimes refer to players who dig out rules minutiae for me as my "paralegals".
 

This depends on edition, and on the action in question.
Absolutely! In 5E, the DM can (and should) determine some actions are successful or impossible without rolling any dice, as stated in the beginning of the PHB. As you pointed out, 4E has specific rules on how to handle successful and failed skill checks/challenges. The point is that the DM shouldn't change a success into a failure or a failure into a success (unless specifically using a variant, like 5E's success at a cost). If the DM calls for a roll, the DM should accept the result of the roll, rather than giving the players the illusion of chance. Obviously DMs can run anyway they wish, but a referee should follow their own rules.
 

I would argue that it’s impossible for a human DM not to have a bias. They can try to second-guess their biases and compensate for them, but that’s still acting on a bias. Better to accept that the nature of the position makes true impartiality impossible and work to be intentional with your partiality.
You can obviously have bias, but that doesn't mean you should act on them (that's what impartial is supposed to be). I've had a DM have an enemy always hit a certain PC, because they were intent on chasing the fleeing enemy. We didn't know at the time that this was the BBEG, and the DM didn't want him to die early (he poorly planned his villain introduction). We were far enough away, in snow, that it wasn't worth our effort to chase after him (he was just a mook, or so we thought). One player wasn't having it, so he gave chase. The DM had the BBEG always hit the PC in an attempt to convince him to quit attacking (he wasn't even rolling before announcing the hit), and eventually the PC gave up once he dropped to single digit HP. I don't know if the DM was ignoring the damage dealt to the BBEG, but I suspect he was.

All of this was ignoring the rules of the game because he didn't want his twist reveal (mook as BBEG) to be ruined. He could have simply said ("you chase after him for a while, but he manages to escape"), but instead gave the player the illusion of chance. His bias nearly killed the PC, and wasted our resources healing him. None of us found it to be a fair situation (not that we agreed with the player), and it really ruined the experience.
 

I would argue that it’s impossible for a human DM not to have a bias. They can try to second-guess their biases and compensate for them, but that’s still acting on a bias. Better to accept that the nature of the position makes true impartiality impossible and work to be intentional with your partiality.

Impartiality and fairness is a standard and goal you strive for. Just because you can never attain that platonic ideal of it doesn't mean we should chuck it out the window and give into our biases. I hear people say something like this a lot to effectively say since it is impossible, there is no point in striving for it (not saying you are making this argument). But something I like to point out is impartiality is a skill. And while zero or few humans ever probably get 100% on that, it is easy to see in real life people who are more impartial and people who are less impartial. It is a skill you can cultivate and a skill you are always working on. I think in a game like D&D, when I started I was very much not an impartial GM. I wasn't mature enough. As I got older, as I got more experience, I did become much more impartial. I can see this in how I run games. I can also see the difference between GMs I encounter where there may be one who is quite good at being an impartial GM, but another who isn't. So all people really are saying when they talk about being an impartial ref is to strive to be the the former rather than the latter. I think the biggest danger here is to have too much faith in your own impartiality. You have to be open minded enough to review calls you made that might not have been free of bias or that weren't even-handed.
 

Reynard

Legend
Impartiality and fairness is a standard and goal you strive for. Just because you can never attain that platonic ideal of it doesn't mean we should chuck it out the window and give into our biases. I hear people say something like this a lot to effectively say since it is impossible, there is no point in striving for it (not saying you are making this argument). But something I like to point out is impartiality is a skill. And while zero or few humans ever probably get 100% on that, it is easy to see in real life people who are more impartial and people who are less impartial. It is a skill you can cultivate and a skill you are always working on. I think in a game like D&D, when I started I was very much not an impartial GM. I wasn't mature enough. As I got older, as I got more experience, I did become much more impartial. I can see this in how I run games. I can also see the difference between GMs I encounter where there may be one who is quite good at being an impartial GM, but another who isn't. So all people really are saying when they talk about being an impartial ref is to strive to be the the former rather than the latter. I think the biggest danger here is to have too much faith in your own impartiality. You have to be open minded enough to review calls you made that might not have been free of bias or that weren't even-handed.
Just the act of choosing an adventure to run is a function of your biases. Designing an adventure is an order of magnitude more dependent on one's biases. Every call you make during play is based on bias -- even if that bias is essentially "rules as written with no fudging die rolls."

As such, I don't think trying to be "unbiased" is a particularly useful goal. Exactly what a GM's job is varies from person to person, but I think most people would agree the primary function is to facilitate fun for everyone at the table (including themselves), whatever that means for the table in question. Embracing some biases and resisting others will be necessary to achieve that end.
 

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