Updated: Oct 15, 2020
When the Olympic Games were first held, they were a way for the Hellenes, the people we call Ancient Greeks today (the Hellenes called the place they were from “Hellas”, not “Greece”), to solve their problems without violent war. Instead, went the reasoning of the time, they could just solve disputes by declaring that this city is the winner of a game, or that city the winner of another, and so determine who is better in the eyes of the Gods (as what Gods would allow the wrong person to win, right?).
Since this was such an important thing, the replacement of war with games, the Hellenes decided they would need an impartial Judge to determine when someone broke the rules of the Games, and when they did not, and to determine which athlete was better in any given game. This Judge was called the Hellanodikas, which means “Judge of the Hellenes”, and they were trained for nearly a year before each Olympic Games was held in the rules of the games, and the rules that they, themselves, must follow as a participant in them. There was a lot of ritual, and importance surrounding these Hellanodikai, and their position was seen as one of solemn responsibility and great duty - a service to their fellow Hellenes, very much a Political position, whether the people of the time saw it that way or not.
In fact, it was seen as such a lofty position, that of Hellanodikas, that in non-important games, where the outcomes of wars weren’t being decided by their winners and losers, there just wasn’t seen a need for a Judge. Reading through the histories of Judging in sports is rather like reading through a book with a prologue that takes place thousands of years before the main story, as aside from the Hellenistic experiment in impartial judging, there seems to be very little need seen for such things in organized play until, curiously, the late 1800s.
In games, up until around 1890, if there was a dispute over who won, the players would just consult the rules. But sometimes, the problem comes up that everybody doesn’t agree on a rule. For those times, the people playing games would usually pick Captains, or leaders whose job is to figure out rules disputes, among other things. However, around the year 1890, in an empire whose people we collectively refer to as the Victorians (named after their ruler, a Queen called Victoria), it was reasoned that each Captain might favor their own side over the other, and whether that actually occurred or not, the Victorian people running organized sports wanted to make sure it couldn’t happen.
So, taking a note from the Hellenes, these Victorians began employing impartial Judges, who didn’t work for either side in the game, to judge their sports. Specifically, this was in a game called Association Football, which is the most popular sport in the world today, but the idea of a “Referee” or “Umpire” soon spread to other games that were organized in similar ways, like Baseball, and non-sport games, like Correspondence Chess, a game where two people would mail their moves to a third person, who would keep track for them what is happening in the game without the bias of being on one side or the other.
This third person was sometimes called a Game Master.
Around the same time, but in a different place called Prussia, military leaders had developed new types of Wargames, meant as training tools for war. They reasoned that if they could simulate war accurately on a small field, they could figure out what to do on real battlefields if those situations ever came up. These games, known as Kriegsspiel, began to have their own Umpire around the first half of the 1800s, a development of George Leopold von Reisswitz, Jr. This allowed the players to accurately simulate a world with physical laws that match our own without the use of modern computers. To extend the metaphor, the Umpire is like the game’s physics engine and the computer’s processor all in one person.
Some people find it very easy to perform complex math calculations in their heads, with little or no aid from tools like calculators or reference tables. One such person (who eventually became famous for reasons hardly related to his mathematical genius) was Dave Arneson. When he played games like Kriegsspiel, he would often get bored with the role of Umpire, and he looked for ways to make games that were like those Wargames, but at the same time had more for him to do.
He never publicly released the game that he played with his friends, but Dave Arneson called the biggest of his games “Blackmoor”, referring to the fictional location where the game takes place. He was not the only one who thought that more complex versions of imagination games could be fun. There were several games developed around this time, such as Braunstein, but the most famous eventually ended up being one which you have probably heard of, Dungeons & Dragons, which was itself adapted from several games, among them Blackmoor. Dungeons & Dragons, which was co-written by Gary Gygax and Arneson himself, took the Judge role from earlier games and called them a “Dungeon Master”.
In their game, Gygax & Arneson codified the role that they played in their own games with their friends. This role is just as much a Player of the game as any other, although the game which the Dungeon Master plays is very different from the game played by the rest of the Players at the table. While the other Players typically control a single Character, the Dungeon Master controls many, calculating their responses to the other Players’ actions, and then describing not only those Characters’ responses, but the whole world’s responses. This is not unlike the Umpire’s role in Kriegsspiel, though adapted to a non-war game.
It is also like the impartial Judge role of the Hellanodikas, in that, once the rules of Dungeon Mastering are known, they are expected to be carried out without bias. This style of gameplay, where one Player plays a game that is different from the one being played by the others, is called “Asymmetrical”, in the sense that there isn’t perfect symmetry between the experiences of the Players. In board gaming, a popular example might be Monopoly, where one Player takes the role of Banker, and so plays a game that is about keeping track of loans and sums in addition to normal play. A well-known Asymmetrical multiplayer video game is Dead by Daylight, where one Player takes the role of a Slasher Movie villain, and the others take the roles of the movie’s heroes.
So, knowing all this, what role does a Player take on as Referee in an OSR game?
This is a question often asked in the Old-School community and the larger Roleplaying Game community as a whole. Many thousands of articles and videos and podcasts of advice - much of it largely on the subject of writing rather than having a fun game of imagination - have been produced without any being truly seen as “Definitive”. This is due to the basic nature of the OSR’s Referee role; in a sort of paradox, the Referee’s role is so simple many think there must be more to it in order for it to be as difficult as it is to carry out.
To restate: A Referee’s role is not complicated, just difficult.
The OSR is the evolution of these Old-School rules for gaming, inspired by games like Gygax & Arneson’s D&D, Free Kriegsspiel (a variant on Wargaming that removed most of the formal rules), and Tom Moldvay and "Zeb" Cook's Dungeons & Dragons Basic and Expert Sets (a confusingly named but almost wholly dissimilar game from Gygax & Arneson’s “D&D”, “B/X” was largely based on a game known as “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” - itself another new game from Gary Gygax - and “The Complete Warlock” by Balboa Game Company, which was an adaptation of D&D by Gygax & Arneson. Moldvay’s “Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set” should not be confused with Dr. J. Eric Holmes’ “Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set”, which is itself another game altogether, again based largely on The Complete Warlock*).
As such, it is fairly clear from context what the Referee’s intended role in an OSR-style game is, but let us frame it simply:
The Referee is a Player of the Game, there to have fun like everybody else
The Referee acts as Computer, calculating probabilities and the outcomes of actions
The Referee acts as a fair Judge, ruling according to the rules of the Game
The Referee acts as interface with the Game’s world, describing it in detail and allowing for the other Players to interact with it
This last point seems to be the most contentious amongst Gamers, despite how uncontroversial it looks when stated plainly. Many people, Player and Referee alike, believe that Roleplaying Games are the realm of Play-Acting, and that “funny” voices, accents, and mannerisms acted out by everybody are the norm. There is nothing inherent in RPGs that calls for this style of theatricality. There is nothing that says you can’t do it, but it is not required, and does not overall make for a better experience, just a different one from a more descriptive play style.
There also exist Players who think that the enjoyment of the Game for the Referee is found in tormenting the other Players, in frustrating their efforts, or insulting them for whatever reason. Even done in a “playful” manner, this is not friendly behavior. This is bullying. People should simply refuse to play games with those who find enjoyment in bullying others during play. Dealing with a “Problem Player” is as simple as either not playing those sorts of games with them, or just not being their friend at all.
Some games have the Referee create the world. Some have it created for them already. Others have the Players collaboratively create the world in which they play. In all cases, one of the Referee’s tasks is to set up the game. Traditionally, this means organizing the whole Event - corralling Players, procuring snacks, etc - but it doesn’t have to. A Referee’s task may start at an already set-up game board, from which point their job is to run the game. A Referee’s work might start weeks or months beforehand, when they write up complex histories for each and every Character the Players might possibly interact with, and draw out maps and Character portraits. A Referee might describe the world to the other Players in intricate detail, using flowery language, or might use question-and-answer format to give the other Players information. A Referee might even “get into Character” and talk in voices or act out certain actions physically. This is not a bad thing, it is in fact a sign of an enthusiastic Referee who is likely having a very good time. But none of these styles of play are necessary to do. None is any better than any other.
A given game may have a lot of math precalculated for the Referee, with tables and matrices full of information about what this style of sword does against that style of shield, when both combatants are left-handed and have trained for exactly 972 days or what have you. Or a game might have none of that, leaving the Referee to determine such probabilities themself or else find such tables and matrices elsewhere. Again, neither play style is better. Some Players are able to perform complicated math on the fly. Others are not. Both types of person are valid as Players and Referees.
Some games seek to eliminate the role of the Referee altogether. Generally these games take one of two approaches: either they seek to do the Referee’s job in the rules, by making clear every possible ruling and requiring strict adherence to the rules such that if any disagreements are had, the rules will hopefully have an answer to them; or else they seek to eliminate the singular role of Referee by offloading the work to all the other Players. Both styles are analogous to the way sports games were run prior to the 1890s, though obviously in different ways.
So maybe your group takes the Victorian Footballer approach to Refereeing, and sees the role as one of arbitration, only needed when disagreements arise. Maybe your group views the role more like a Kriegsspiel Umpire, where the Player runs the whole world and makes all the calls. Maybe your group prefers to leave the Refereeing to everybody instead of one single Player. In any case, the Game is meant to be fun for everybody involved, not a job one Player has to perform for the others.
After all, this is Roleplaying, not the Olympics.
*Non-Capitalized culture, often called “Punk” in the modern day, is usually much more difficult to track than the events of Capitalism. This is due to the fact that without such concerns as who owns what, people tend to just use information without regard for who created that information. If a game rule works well, people use it. If it doesn’t, they abandon it. This is how the OSR grew out of specific games. This is also how most of the games the OSR is based on were developed - by what Capitalists would refer to as “stealing”, which any reasonable person would refer to as “Evolution”.