Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Referees vs. Dungeon Masters: Wherein the Caveman gets bent out of shape over a trifle

As anyone who read my recent posts knows, I'm on a semantic binge lately.  Following in that vein, I've become curious as to why some folks in the OSR prefer the term "referee" over "Dungeon Master," "Game Master," or some other "master"-ful title.  The word referee is, in my mind, not adequate to describe the role of what the DM does.  A referee, as anyone who has ever spent their lunch period playing intramural flag football or competed in a spelling bee knows is the disinterested (hopefully) 3rd party who makes sure the rules are adhered to by all sides of the contest.

In roleplaying games, the term would be accurate in games where 2 teams of players work against each other, such as, I believe, was common practice in the wargames from which D&D sprang.  But the Dungeon Master in D&D et al. is so much more than just a referee, for the DM not only administers the rules of the game, but he/she also coaches the opposing team, designs the playing field, and decides when the rules need to be bent, broken, or entirely fabricated to meet the needs of the gaming session. I have yet to encounter a real world event where the referee enjoys this much responsibility.

So why are old schoolers eschewing the term DM (or similar) for the less holistic "referee"?  History usually offers an explanation to these sorts of things, and this case will be no exception.  A quick search of the original 1974 rulebooks (thank Blipdoolpoolp for searchable PDFs!) shows me that "referee" was indeed the preferred term for the person who runs the game.  In fact, the term "Dungeonmaster"--yes, it was originally all one word--makes its first official rules appearance in EGG's introduction to the Blackmoor supplement published in 1975; though "referee" is still used exclusively in the body of this book.  The Eldritch Wizardry supplement introduces the two word variant "Dungeon Master," as well as the acronym "DM," though the one word option and "referee" are still used interchangeably throughout the text.

I don't have a PDF of the Holmes book, but a cursory survey of the text reveals that  "Dungeon Master" and "D.M." are predominant.  And right there on the back cover of the Monster Manual, published in 1977, "[the Monster Manual] is an invaluable aid to players and dungeon masters alike!" (emphasis mine).  I don't believe that it was solely an attempt to jazz-up the terminology that drove the founding fathers to invent a new term for the role, though this probably weighed in the decision.  I believe that they came to realize that refereeing, ie. rules administration, was only one facet of the job and a grander term was needed to fully encompass everything expected of the DM nee referee.  And, outside of S&M clubs, I can think of few places where the term "master" is more apt than in gaming.

Back to the present: Swords & Wizardry, retracing, as it does, the footprints of the original D&D rules, uses the term "referee."  I will respect their attempts at historic reconstruction, even if I choose not to use the term when playing the game.  OSRIC uses the generic GameMaster or GM; bland, yes, but entirely acceptable.  Labyrinth Lords has crafted a new term: Labyrinth Lord!  It's a bit cumbersome and the acronym form would need immediately to be followed by "Cool J," which is actually pretty excellent.  Imagine this conversation:

Alex:  Game night's coming up, anyone got a dungeon to run?
Barb:  Not me, but Carl just bought FU2: Administration Building of Shame.
Alex:  Hey Carl, you wanna "Cool J" that new module you bought?

As a bonus, if the folks over at Labyrinth Lords get LL Cool J as their official spokesperson, it might encourage gamers to lay off the Doritos and maybe do a few hundred sit ups every now and then.

But I suspect that anyone playing any of these retro clones already has a preferred job title and will keep using it no matter which game they're playing.  I for one have always used the term "DM" whether I'm playing D&D, DragonQuest, or non-fantasy rpgs such as Gangbusters or Star Frontiers.  It's just the name for the job, in my mind, and there's no sense trying to change it at this juncture.  And for that reason, I obviously have to respect anyone who started playing the game with the original 1974 rules for sticking to their guns.  But all you Holmesian+ players who, after decades of playing D&D, started using "referee" only when 3.5 or 4e drove you into the comforting arms of OD&D, well, you sort of sound like that guy in high school who got really into the Sex Pistols or The Clash and affected a phony British accent.  Maybe for you it evokes some purity by returning to the roots of the game or maybe its generic-ness appeals to you.  To me it smacks of disingenuous erudition; but that, I suppose, is my problem.  Now I have to get off this difference engine and get some stuff done around the house.

PS.  If you take any one thing away from this here blog--and I realize that this is asking a lot--please let it be the "Cool J" thing.  Forget everything else I said.


Otto P. said...

I consider myself a referee because I try (past level five or so) to present a game world where the players can make informed decisions based on what they know, and expect fair results, as opposed to reacting to my input. Outside of the dungeon, I try not to run games where the players unite to oppose my monsters/npcs/whatever, but rather jockey for their respective goals in competition without actually fighting each other- impartiality is the key word. Dealer might be a better term,as I try to give my players enough resources and information to entertain themselves, but as a referee, I try to let the game run as much as possible without me.
Really,this is in large part representative of my lack of preptime for hexcrawl/overworld gameplay, as I sometimes rely on my players to bring goals to a static environment. The dungeon is another story. I had a blog post about this, but it went off the rails...

Otto P. said...

Cool J is entering play Thursday by the way.

Otto P. said...

Sorry to keep posting new comments as thoughts occur (Oh boy,three comments! Oh, it's just that one guy...) but I thought it was worth mentioning that I mostly run pickup games at my highschool for around eight people, about half of which represent a regular pool, the rest of which are newcomers or sporadic. Gameplay is usually pretty conventional on land, but most of the game is maritime piracy in the Hyborian age, and when the players get their oar on, I just try to abide by the results of my weather/encounter/coastal tables. An encounter with some deep ones turned into a very long debacle with some players in favor of killing them, while the rest feared the reprisal of their friends for instance, which lasted all session, when all I did was roll on the table and decide that they wanted a sacrifice from the crew. Once the camps form, I let the players scheme and only speak to answer questions,adjudicate actions, and sometimes describe things to keep the game rolling. When I play with fewer people, I definitely Dungeon Master.

A Paladin In Citadel said...

I'm gonna Cool J it!

I expect more vitriol next time, BTW. We havn't had a really satisfying OS barn-duster for some time.

If one breaks out, I want Cool J in my team!

Daddy Grognard said...

@Paladin - for guaranteed vitriol, just say the name Faustusnotes three times.

I prefer Dungeonmaster myself, if only because my initials are DM anyway.

Timrod said...

@Otto P, while your comments provide an excellent validation of the term "referee" in the context of your game, what most impresses me is your willingness to embrace the Cool J. I will send you LL's belt buckle if you manage to make this fly with your gang. No probs with the multi-commenting; I'm flattered that something I said made anyone think this much.

@Barnduster-seekers: My first draft was definitely more vitriolic, but I realized that I don't really care about the topic enough to start an argument over this. Which, on hindsight, is probably the perfect reason to have done exactly that. Crap, I missed my chance.

Gary McCammon said...

I suppose we should start calling them "the Judge's Guild Ready Cool J Sheets".

(There's another term that never caught on for DMs - "Judge". I must say I like it. Or you could go the route of the Stuperpowers! RPG and be called the "Big Mack Daddy")

Or you could make comments on six year old blog posts. I dunno, I have no idea what I'm doing. I blame society.

Timrod said...

Huh, until now I always assumed the ref in ready ref was short for reference. I like the "ready referee" notion better.