Hexed Press

A blog about roleplaying games, mostly but not entirely fantasy, hex crawls, sandboxes, game theory, and those games by TSR and Wizards of the Coast.

A Simple Case of Semantics

A Simple Case of Semantics

TLDR Maybe using the term "game master" or "dungeon master" isn't such a great idea.

Normally I try to flesh out my thoughts to, at minimum, some degree (dubious though those thoughts might be) before posting. However, as part of NaNoWriMo, I’m trying to belt out one post for every day in the month, or try until I start missing death saves, so I just won’t have time to follow my normal process. Instead, I’m going to embrace just letting some thoughts loose as they come to me. We’ll see how it goes.

I’ve always used the term, Dungeon Master, and, on ocasion, Game Master, mostly because those are the terms I’ve always used and I never felt the need to use another term. I think I’ve changed my mind. I think I’m going to start using referee instead. It’s the master part. Allow me to explain.

I know from whence it comes, master, in usage as in a master of ceremonies. Looking at the definition for that term, we can see the similarities in terms of duties:

a performer who conducts a program of varied entertainment by introducing other performers to the audience;

an officer who determines the forms to be observed, or superintends their observance, on a public occasion; or,

a rapper.

So, believe me, I understand that the master in dungeon master, does not reflect these senses of master:

the owner or keeper of an animal;

the owner of a slave;

one who defeats another, a victor; or,

the captain of a merchant ship.

But it can feel that way sometimes, can’t it? Some DMs do get caught up a bit too much in a very narrow or selfish reading of their position within the game and I don’t think the term, DM or GM, helps in that regard. It’s easy to carried away with the master part of game master, and all that the word conjures.

And it’s understandable. Being a GM means accepting a lot of responsibilities: world-building, resolving actions, adjudicating conflicts, managing NPCs and monsters, creating content, and more. With those responsibilities comes power. With that power comes more… responsibilities. And, at times, abuses. Anyone who has played RPGs for a length of time will have their own stories of GMs behaving badly. I think that at least some of these, maybe even the majority, spring from folks taking the master part of game master too seriously. As much as a GM has to do to manage a game, without the players, there’s no game to master. If name of the role changed, would that be reflected in how people approached that role?

I didn’t invent the term referee in terms of RPG use. I’m not sure who did and it’s not, to my recollection, a new term in this context but it’s grown on me of late. Principally, I like what the term means to me as far as how I envision the best ideal of what a GM can be: a good referee is practically invisible; you know they’re doing their job well because the game runs smoothly and without stumbling; a good referee doesn’t bring attention to themselves;

an umpire or judge; the official who makes sure the rules are followed during a game;

a person who settles a dispute; and,

one to whom something is referred, especially for settlement, decision, or an opinion as to the thing’s quality.

These are exactly the qualities of a good GM referee, whether in the field of tabletop RPGs or your sport of choice. I’ll do my part, small though it may be, to encourage it by embracing the term and retiring the others. For now, at least.

Let me know on Twitter if you find this useful (or not) or if you have any suggestions or ideas.