When the DM Isn't Invited

Dungeons & Dragons evolved from a miniature wargame with a referee to a role-playing game with as many as 20 players managed by a Game Master, to massive multiplayers where there are no referees at all. D&D's model of play is highly flexible, but its expression in other mediums has shown that the model where "anything can be attempted" has limits before something breaks down, and it starts with the referee.

[h=3]The Origin of the Referee[/h]Jon Peterson, in Playing at the World, outlines the history of the judge or referee in gaming. It was common in tournament competitions, where an arbiter determined who won. The idea dates back as early as the 1940s, and although there's no evidence of a Game Master (GM)-like role for the referee in Chainmail, there are signs that D&D co-creator Gary Gygax felt it should be a flexible role too:

While in the original 1971 Chainmail booklet we read nothing like the idea that anything can be attempted, among the Chainmail additions Gygax published at the beginning of 1972, one hears a tone of expansiveness, a sense that the rules committed to paper thus far were only a point of departure. Speaking of mythical creatures, for example, Gygax writes: “Various Chimerae, Basilisks, Cockatrices, giant insects, and so forth can be included in play. Simply utilize extension rules or whatever parts thereof of the current rules that you desire.” He implies that the creatures that had been specified to date might serve as a blueprint for minting new monsters, as the imagination of players or referees required. More broadly on the interpretation and scope of the rules, he elaborates that “many unusual circumstances are not covered in these rules as they are meant primarily as guidelines… The rules are purposely vague in areas in order to encourage thinking and initiative on the part of contestants.”

The referee's interpretation of the rules, in collaboration with players, would lay the foundation for GMs and Dungeon Masters (DMs) later.
[h=3]Master of Dungeons[/h]In Master of the Game, Gygax outlined the seven principal functions of a GM:

These functions are as Moving Force, Creator, Designer, Arbiter, Overseer, Director, and Umpire/Referee/Judge (a single function with various shades of meaning). The secondary functions of the Game Master are Narrator, Interpreter, Force of Nature, Personification of Non-Participant Characters, All Other Personifications, and Supernatural Power.

Of particular note is the role of arbiter and umpire/referee/judge. Gygax defines the arbiter as an interpreter of the rules:

Who but the Game Master is in a position to interpret the spirit, principles, system of rules, and individual game laws (rules) correctly? Who is more able to answer questions more ably than the Master Game Master who determines the answers for his or her own player group or game? No one.

The latter title is more nuanced:

This threefold function places the Master GM in a more personal role in game proceedings. While the role of Arbiter is vital to regulatory supervision, this function focuses on the Master GM as a person who must deal with players as individual human beings while maintaining the standards and integrity of the game as a whole. Because the player characters interact with the game system and scenarios based upon it, they do require some supervision. Since only the Game Master can know the motives, thoughts, plans, purposes, and actions/reactions of the sentient creatures and beasts encountered during the course of an adventure episode, he or she must deliver the final word on all disputes.

Gygax defines the umpire as an unbiased decision-maker who adjudicates scenario, combats, and any other activity as interpreted by the interplay of dice and rules. The referee role is specifically focused on inter-player conflict. The judge role is the GM as someone who awards or punishes players based on their performance.

Taken together, all these roles provide a flexible framework to react to players who might try anything. Peterson explains why the GM's role as umpire/referee/judge was so integral to player agency:

Role-playing games, however, aspire to an ideal where anything can be attempted, where the player can direct that a character attempt any action that one can plausibly contend a person in that situation might undertake— the referee, a role missing in Monopoly and most comparable games, decides the result. A dungeon adventurer might distract monsters by unleashing a herd of swine, or rig a door trap out of a bucket, rope and a large bag of coins, or decide to write sonnets rather than bursting into the next hazardous chamber. Most likely, none of these ventures would prove helpful to a character in Dungeons & Dragons, but the game preserves the free agency that allows them to be attempted, and the latitude for the referee to determine how, if at all, they impact the game world. Simulations have limits, of course, and consequently so must the freedom of agency in role-playing games, but provided those limits lie outside the ordinary experience of players, the game will present a convincing illusion of an alternate reality.

Peterson points out that player agency and the referee are inextricably linked in tabletop play. D&D lays out rules and guidelines and the DM interprets the rest. As a result, D&D is technically limitless, hedged only by the boundaries a DM imposes. Those boundaries would become fixed over time as programmed games took over.
[h=3]A World Without GMs[/h]The earliest massive multi-player games weren't massive at all, but rather text-based multi-user dungeons (MUDs). MUDs faced many of the challenges that MMORPGs would later encounter in managing large groups of people. Early D&D games catered to groups so large that callers (to represent the party's intentions) and co-DMs (to manage all those players) were referenced by Gygax as a normal part of play. Character mortality was high and it wasn't unusual for player characters (PCs) to bring hirelings and man-at-arms along to fill the gaps. But massive multi-players faced the prospect of a game that never really ended, with an unlimited number of players, and death that was never permanent. Because the servers were on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, the only sustainable way for a staff to manage the game was to create a "wizard" system, which has a very different meaning in MUD-terms.

Wizards are players who, after achieving a certain level determined by the game, become staff members. This ensures the wizard is proficient in the game before becoming a programmer -- something D&D has struggled with in finding new DMs. Wizards filled the roles of arbiters, judges, umpires, and referees as needed -- implementing rules through code in a fashion similar to a DM. While death in MUDs was common, it usually meant the PC was merely out of the game for a bit until returning. For an example of a MUD that's still running today, check out the MUD I'm an administrator on, RetroMUD.

When the MUD-model grew exponentially and was applied to graphical Massive-Multi-player Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs), the code was largely behind the scenes, eliminating the need for new programmers. In getting rid of the wizard role, MMORPGs threw the other roles out as well. It caught developers off-guard as Paul E. Schwanz II explains:

MMORPGs have brought some unique new challenges to developers. I think that all of the social and moral aspects caught a lot of developers by surprise. The initial concept of a CRPG with lots of participants seemed simple enough. In reality, however, human behavior is a lot more unpredictable than most developers imagined. In a very real sense, developers of MMORPGs must now add a familiarity with social engineering, psychology, and other behavioral sciences to a long list of technical and design requirements.

This model of MMORPGs is now reflected in social media, which has gamified social interaction in a similar fashion with likes and reshares replacing experience points. And yet, the same flaws apply -- just as in the game, anything online can be attempted -- but there is no one to appeal to. In fact, one of the key challenges of how social media works is that rather than adjudicating disputes, the tool lets users ignore them instead. In essence, it removes the potential for important conflict and debate over ideas or even facts, such that there is no longer a shared consensual reality between its members. We may all be playing on the same platform, but we are not all playing the same game.

There's something to be said for a GM's role in social harmony. Social media channels could learn a lot from how tabletop gaming groups overcome challenges, from external forces and between participants. Programmers "code away" the role of referee, arbiter, umpire, and judge at their own risk.

Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

Jacob Lewis

Ye Olde GM
The key role of any GM, no matter what system they use, is Responder. When a player acts, it is the GM who must respond to this stimulus of action or the game stalls. A computer or script can only respond as its program allows or as designed by a non-present author. The human element allows for greater interaction, which in turns provides a greater penchant for player agency. And while D&D rules have evolved to include tremendous flexibility for players to attempt the unpredictable, other systems have actually improved on the pass/fail mechanic to empower such agency and arbitration in more elegant and satisfying ways. Nice write up, as always.


What I found interesting was the middle ground that a game called Neverwinter Nights achieved. Not truly MMOs, but more 'massive' than a D&D party, there were several servers (some still running!) that had several DMs invisibly doing things to promote gameplay, roleplay and to represent anything not programmed into the game itself.

Great article, it's interesting how it's evolved over time.


As an anecdote, one of the first roleplaying games I played was an online chat/forum RPG. No mechanics, just a very general set of rules and all interaction. Fandom based forum RPGs were actually pretty common when I was in my teens and they usually didn't suffer the same problems you'd encounter in MMORPGs or social media.

But I think these RPGs worked so well because the communities were much smaller and they were built around a defined topic. You could also easily expel players who violated the rules, even if this was rarely necessary.

So do I think DM-less "systems" are possible? Yes. But they work far better when the system is built around character play and interaction, not necessarily combat and mechanics.

Sos Rope

First Post
In my experience it’s the opposite. I know way too many people who’re up for running a game and not enough “mere” players!

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