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(My) 10 Commandments for Good Refereeing

Image from Freaks & Geeks TV Show

I don't really remember when or where I read this, but I once saw a list of 10 commandments of good game mastering that was all about telling a story in a way that the GM had all the power to ignore rules, results and even what the player's managed to choose to tell "his story". I immediately wanted to write my own commandments. I thought that was a complete disaster, but I know some people enjoy that style of play (I have to freaking idea why though).

So I made one, I published in my Brazilian RPG blog and I thought I could share it too. I sometimes reread them to remember what I truly think it's important for my games. As it's implied in the post title, these are MY 10 COMMANDMENTS OF GOOD REFEREEING, and it's completely natural and understandable that other people might see it differently. But I thought this could be useful to somebody as a reminder or for simple food for thought. Any way, here are my 10 commandments for refereeing.

1. Thou shall create whenever possible and necessary: The essence of being a referee is to create a world where players can experience adventures and other shenanigans. So a referee has to be able to create stuff, whether it's a location, a monster, a NPC, a situation, a treasure. This does not mean he cannot use ready made material, like modules or setting, but that he must be capable of at least adapting this material and creating new stuff for it for when the players decide to go through a path this material has not predicted.

2. Thou shall know the rules well: Playing a game implies that there are rules, and being a referee means you will have to adjudicate its use during the game. The more you know the rules and its gaps, the better you will be at this job and will avoid having to interrupt game play to consult a rule book and tables. The less time we need to consult rules, the more time we have to actually play the game.

3. Thou shall be fair and impartial on your rulings: No game can predict every possible situation and outcome. Some games do have such flexible and abstract systems that its rules may be able to be used on all situations, but you will still need to make a judgement call about what the results mean in the context of the story. And even though you do play the villains and the player character's rivals, you are not them. You don't want to defeat the players (as you could easily do if you wanted to). You want to create challenging and interesting situations in which they have to exercise their creativity and a bit of luck to resolve. You don't want to favor players too, or the excitement of the game will quickly be lost, as they will realize the risks are not "real". No risk, no reward.

4. Thou shall be firm and consistent: When you arbitrate a difficult and complex situation, some players may want to challenge that decision. If the decision was made based on the other commandments, you must be firm to enforce it and continue with the game as soon as possible. Rules debates can happen after the game session. Make a quick explanation of why you made the decision you made and carry on. Make note of the decision and try to be consistent on similar situations. The players will soon realize you are just being fair.

5. Thou shall listen to your players: The referee is also similar to an artist, as he has an audience he performs in front and with. Thus, he must listen for feedback and pay attention to the signs the audience may give him. During the game, you must notice if players are disengaging and try to bring them back. If they are bored and seem to be wanting something to bash at, make some enemies appear out of nowhere. If they sigh at the sight of another combat, present them with an interesting encounter with a NPC that may lead them to a different path, objective, someone they can interact with. After the game, try to get some feedback from them. Stuff that they liked, stuff that they didn't. Stuff that they would like to see in the campaign. The referee has no obligation of catering to all the player's desires, but he can obtain very good information and inspiration out of them. Things he might not even imagine. We have a lot to learn even from the newest gamers.

6. Thou shall say "yes" whenever possible: Avoid the cursed phrase "you can't do that" if you can, unless it's obviously something impossible in the game or setting, like allowing a first level fighter to breath fire from his mouth. Humor crazy and inventive ideas from your players. Change the "no" for a "yes, but". Ask for a test, for the expenditure of HP or something like it. You can make it very hard to work, but they will still have a chance and will realize they can really try anything. This will encourage them to try new things more often, making the game more entertaining for everyone.

7. Thou shall broadcast excitement and energy: As a referee, you will be in the forefront of the game. You're an example for your players, and you can dictate much of the feel of the game. If you come to the game excited about it, the players will probably become excited too. If you start making funny voices for NPCs and monsters, the player's will probably do the same. If you describe the NPCs actions in combat in a cinematic way, the players will follow. Be an example of what you hope your players will be.

8. Thou shall not disrespect the oracular power of the dice: I have a simple rule regarding dice use. If I am not prepared to accept any result that might come up with a dice roll, I should not be deciding the outcome of that said situation with a dice roll. As said previously, the referee should know the rules well, know when to apply them and when not to. So if you choose to roll a die, embrace its result and see what happens. That's one of the greatest things about RPGs. Discovering what happens as you play along instead of just dictating what's going on.

9. Thou shall not force a story upon your players: You are not an novel writer, you are a referee. You're not here to "tell" a story, you are here to play a game that a story organically is created through game play. Sometimes a referee will prepare all this elaborate story, NPCs, Locations and scenes, and he will feel the need to manipulate the game and the consequences of the players to choices to invariable lead them to the "story" he has planned, essentially nullifying the players choices. Avoid doing this! They will sooner or later know they have no real say in the game, and they will regret playing it. If they want to just be told a story they will certainly prefer to go to a movie or read a book at their own time, own home, own terms. And, maybe more importantly, realize this is no fun for you too, as you discover nothing new, and nothing really exciting happens, as you already knew how thing would turn out.

10. Thou shall remember to have fun: You should remember to have fun too. You are not just an employee of the players, here just to entertain them. You are here to have fun as much as they are. If things are starting to be unpleasant for you, stop and figure out why. After that, figure out how to correct that and make the game fun again for you. Maybe you need to change the game you are playing, change the campaign, or even change the group. Even tough this maybe harsh, these changes will not only ensure you will have fun, but it will make the players have fun too. An unhappy referee will soon make the players unhappy in the game.


So there you have it. And what about you folks? What would you 10 commandment of good refereeing be?

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