Why “referee”?

The term “referee” in roleplaying circles has an old-fashioned ring to it, a whiff of grey-bearded grognards with measuring tapes. Regardless of whether this is desirable or not, I find it to be the best term for what I’m trying to do in Travellers on a Red Road.

If we examine the typical terms for the role in question, “game master” seems to be the most common one. However, it is a somewhat grandiose term for my taste. Likewise, “storyteller” is a term which gives one person the responsibility for what everyone should be participating in. While some games decide to invent some new term to more perfectly encapsulate what they want to say, I feel that serviceable familiarity is preferrable to unfamiliar neologisms.

At the heart of my decision to go with “referee” is my idea of how responsibilities are shared between the participants in the game. One of the most pressing questions is who takes responsibility for the participants having fun. Travellers on a Red Road puts this responsibility on the players: the referee facilitates this and shouldn’t get in the way of the players having fun, but is not someone who should deliver a pre-packaged experience, and certainly not someone who should tell a story to the players. The referee is there to make the lands of Kalaga seem real and provide feedback on the decisions of the players, but the players should be prepared to make things interesting on their own.

What, then, is in it for the referee? Being a mere neutral observerer isn’t a rewarding position, which is why the referee also has every opportunity in the world to create material for the game: places, people, spirits, organisations, anything that the players might want to interact with. Since the players decide what to interact with, it is better to create too much than too little. Once again, the players are responsible for their own fun, but the referee shouldn’t hinder these attempts.

Would the game work without a referee? That would shift much of the enjoyment towards shared creation, away from discovery and exploration, which by necessity demand an information asymmetry. Hence, a referee is useful for the style of game for which I’m aiming.

Finally, a functional group has enough trust in it that any clearly delineated responsibilities will soon dissolve, as every participant will ideally take an interest in ensuring the enjoyment of everyone else. The term “referee” might not be perfect, but of the established terms for the role, it is the one that suits my purposes best.

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