Experience Talks: GM as Referee


GM as Referee

referee-1149014_640GMs also have to act as referee/judge when running a game. In other games that require a referee (such as football), the referees must know the rules in and out, and be ready to make a call instantly. GMing is a little different, since the GM not only enforces the rules like other referees; he’s also free to change them to suit the story.

Example: In one game, the GM had us write up Champions characters, but we may as well not have bothered. The game was run extremely freeform, and felt more like a Marvel Super Heroes game. My speedster had a 9 SPD, but in combat, it didn’t matter at all, since everything was handled descriptively, instead of taking it phase by phase. 

This took some getting used to, but it was kind of nice to play Champions while taking a break from the rules for a while. 

Example: In another game, I was mind-controlled to hate a demon that got stronger whenever he was attacked in hate. Since the mind control attack barely hit me, the GM offered me a chance to dodge. Surprised, I said, “Okay, what do I do?” He told me to roll the dice and tell him if I made it. 

I rolled 3d6 and got an average result, and told him that I guessed I made it. He told me that the mental beam just snagged me in the foot as I was getting out of the way and that I now had a medium dislike of the demon. This was a nice rule-bending that added a partial effect to mind control, which is normally all-or-nothing. 

I ended up attacking a structure behind him so that it collapsed and knocked him out. 

As a referee, a good GM should exercise fair, quick, consistent judgement, and should accommodate disagreeing players.


As referee, the decisions a GM makes should be quick. When stuck for an important ruling, though, asking the players for their opinions or decreeing a five-minute recess can get the juices flowing.


As referee, the decisions that a GM makes should be consistent. All of the fair judgement methods suggested below have their place, but it’s best to pick one method and stick with it. Perhaps choose a different one for a different style of game, but within the same campaign. If the GM consistently follows the same rules, the players will begin to feel more comfortable with the GM’s style of running a game. This will lead to greater trust, which will lead to better relationships, which will produce a better game.

Fair Rulings

As referee, a good GM should play fair. What playing fair means, however, depends on the situation.

Ruling Types

Some GMs determine the results of the heroes’ actions by always letting the dice decide. Some cheat on the players’ side. Some cheat against the players’ side. Some go with whatever sounds dramatic, funny, or heroic at the time. Some let the plot mandate the results of the heroes’ actions. Some show favoritism toward a particular hero or villain. Each method has its place.

Dice Rulings

There are times when playing fair might mean letting the heroes and villains fail or succeed as the dice indicate. Many GMs adopt this as their standard. Players under such a GM tend to learn to weigh their intended actions very carefully. Players who realize that the one-in-a-million chances that always pay off in the movies don’t always pay off in the campaign world tend to respect the GM and the GM’s world for the realistic and dangerous place it is. The good guys don’t always win, and style usually doesn’t beat substance.


There are times when playing fair might mean cheating for or against the heroes. If the GM wants to modify or maintain his campaign world in a particular way, sometimes the fudge factor has to come in. For example, if the villain threatens to shoot an NPC and actually takes a potshot from extremely long range just to show he means it, but the dice say that he actually hits, which might ruin or at least seriously alter the campaign, it’s fine to cheat to keep the game going as is.

Situational Rulings

There are times when playing fair might mean going with whatever sounds good at the time. If the Musketeer wants to swing from a chandelier across an atrium three floors up, and misses his acrobatics roll by two, let him make it safely anyway, but maybe not with complete accuracy and panache. After all, he’s a Musketeer! If Captain Marble is almost there in time to  catch a falling victim, but fails his roll to push his movement by enough to get there, let him succeed anyway, but charge him double the endurance points it otherwise would have taken, or make him take half the damage that the victim would have.

Story Rulings

There are times when playing fair might mean advancing the GM’s chosen plot even when it goes against the dice and the heroes’ desires. If James Blonde finally gets the chance to destroy the entire criminal organization of SPECTRUM, or if Dr. Richard Thimble dives to his death down a waterfall to escape justice, or if the octogenarian mutant ninja girdles deal a death blow to Spreader, the game is either over, or in for some very serious changes. If the GM and/or players don’t want the game to change drastically, maybe an escape pod was remotely seen deserting the exploding island, or The Refugee manages to somehow survive his fall, or the girdles get distracted by another menace just before finishing off their archenemy.

Example: In a Star Hero game I ran, the characters crossed into another universe, and the scientist was able to learn magic. When they returned to their own universe, the scientist-mage tried to cast a spell to see if it would work. I still hadn’t made up my mind yet (I didn’t think they’d get home until next game…), so I said yes. 

Afterwards, I decided I didn’t want to have magic spells flying around my sci-fi universe, so I retracted by saying that the effects quickly wore off the longer that they were in their original universe. The scientific laws of this universe were overwriting the weakening, displaced magical laws. 

In hindsight, his spell attempt would have been a great place to stop the session (“Find out what happens next episode…”), and to make him sweat until next game.

“GM’s Pet” Rulings

There are times when playing fair might mean keeping a particular hero or villain in or out of trouble. If Boatman ever succeeded in putting all his archenemies into Ark M Asylum, what would he do with all his free time? To prevent such a state, a GM who looks ahead can make sure that at least one villain stays free and is able to break the others out. To a large extent, heroes and villains in fiction exist only for each other. Besides, if your spouse’s character dies because of a bad die roll, you might have some explaining to do when everyone else has gone home!

Ruling Types Summary

Each type of ruling has its ups and downs. A GM is free to pick the one he likes most, and use it for as long as he likes, until he decides to mix it up with another ruling type.

Ruling  Ramifications

Judge Whopper offers advice on ruling types: •

  • Dice rulings generally work better in a grim or realistic setting than in a romantic or 4-color one. For GMs who want to use dice rulings on occasion, it’s often best to use this when the heroes do something stupid or non-heroic.
  • For occasional dice rulings, if the heroes have the chance to sneak into a terrorist-held building and save the hostages in secret, but instead they choose to bust through the door and accuse the terrorists of not having the guts to open fire, they deserve anything bad that happens. But since every once in a while long (stupid) shots pay off, the GM could announce that the dice are the final judge of whether Captain Long Johns can disarm the five machine gunners before the hostages are slaughtered.
  • Cheating generally works better when the GM and players agree on a story or a setting. Whether the game is supposed to be swashbuckling or grim, if it makes sense to all involved, just go with it. But GMs who cheat for one side really should cheat for the other side just as much. Fairness is in the eye of the dice-holder.
  • Story rulings work better when the entire campaign is in serious jeopardy of a major change. This type of thing happens all the time on television shows, especially those expected to be  rerun out of order. If people, places, and things change with time, then that history has to come with them. For occasional story rulings, the feeling of accomplishment which is generally important to players of a role-playing game diminishes. By thwarting the heroes’ major victories, the game goes on longer, but frustration can add up. As long as the GM and players agree on where they want the game to go, these “dice ex machina” explanations can serve well.
  • Situational rulings work better when the desired outcome is very in-genre, even though the dice disagree. There are plenty of examples in fiction when a very appropriate action doesn’t work, but these are the exceptions. For occasional situational rulings, generally, when Grandalf the wizard wants to make sparkles in the air, they don’t fizzle. Using this type of rule, however, does run the danger of giving the players a sense of complacency. In many genres, this can be detrimental to the game. When playing Toon Hero, encourage players to go  for the goofy, but when playing Dragnet Hero, strive for the serious.
  • “GM’s Pet” rulings work better when the situation foreshadows events to come. When Lion-L had to pass a test of manhood to assume the mantle of leader, he had to defeat his greatest enemy without the aid of the other Thunder Carts. By lucking out in his battle with Dumb-Rah, the Ever-Dimming, he was able to gauge his enemy’s true potential for danger, so that when this evil one later fought Lion-L’s entire team of heroes, they didn’t get any parts of their anatomy handed to them in a sling.

Keeping the Peace

At times, players will disagree with the GM or with each other. As referee, the GM needs to defuse the situation before it explodes. When bad feelings arise, it is an unfortunate reality that they can often linger long after the circumstances that caused them have been resolved.

Starting a quarrel is like breaking a dam; so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out. (Proverbs 17:14) 

The best way to handle a bad situation is to prevent it. If all present are mature enough to know what is expected of them, and agree on the game, there’s no need for arguments. This requires honest, open communication. For it is those things which are left unsaid that cause different perceptions to rub each other the wrong way. When people already “know” what their fellows want and don’t feel the need to communicate it to others, because after all, who could possibly think any differently, that is exactly when misunderstandings will escalate into some kind of hurt.

Don’t presume. You make a prez out of you and me.

When clashes do occur, the best way to confront it depends on those involved. For those mature enough to recognize that a game is a game and a relationship is a relationship, direct but polite confrontation is often the answer.

Example: In college, I was involved in Student Government, and had a communal office on campus where I used to game on weekends since no other officers were ever there. 

One time, a player brought a beer and was going to drive to pick up the pizza we had just ordered. I wouldn’t let him, because of liability to the school (since he was in an official Student Government office), even though he had been brought up drinking and it was only one beer. 

This caused some bad feelings, and after I came back from walking to get the pizza, I told him that I didn’t like things to be left unsaid, and I flat-out asked him if we were square on everything. 

By clearing the air so openly, we avoided what could have gone on building up for months. 

Paraphrasing the Bible’s advice on the topic, when one of the players disrupts the game, talk to him privately about it. If that doesn’t help, bring a few of the other players with you to talk about it. If still nothing improves, take it up with the whole gaming group. If even that is not enough, kick him out of the game.

When both characters and players clash, it may be time for a parallel decision.

Example: In a large-party fantasy game, I played a cleric of the god of justice. A particular thief character kept ticking off the whole party, and the player was likewise getting on everyone’s nerves. In a party-wide confrontation with the character, no progress seemed to be forthcoming. I unfortunately had to leave the game for a half hour to pick up my wife from work, and during the drive, I had a little time to think. 

When I returned, I threw my pocket change onto the gaming table, and declared, “There is dissension in the ranks. In order to keep peace within the company, I hereby retire. Here is my share of the company’s treasure.” As a non-company member, I then immediately challenged the other character to a duel, thus providing a solution to party peace, and removing the troublemaker from the group. The player left shortly afterwards, and was not welcomed back. Justice was served. 

When an individual seems to be disrupting an entire group, and repeated private warnings don’t seem to penetrate, often they will have to be asked to leave the game.

Example: A newbie young player kept doing non-genre goofy stuff in a game I was in. The GM warned him repeatedly, and eventually had to put him on “game probation,” letting him play in only one game (down from three), with all his actions being subject to GM’s approval, until he got better at role-playing. 

Referee Summary

As referee, a good GM becomes known for consistently fair rulings. This leads to trust from the players, which, in turn, makes the job of referee easier.

How do you handle difficult rulings? Ever had to intervene in a serious disagreement in your group? Share your views in the comments!

This article was originally published in The Way, the Truth, & the Dice. Due to the original article’s length, it is being serialized for this format. 

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