A judge is, by and large, an arbiter of rules and their application to content. It seems like this term originated in Organized Play back when much of what the RPGA did was run tournaments. In this context, the term “judge” makes sense – you want to make sure that every table in a tournament receives an equal chance to “win” and receives a similar play experience to make the contest as “fair” as possible. This mindset continued into the Living Campaign setting with the idea of “running the adventure as written” – the judge’s responsibility was to provide the player with the same play experience the author would have provided to the utmost extent possible; the judge is almost more a medium of content delivery than an actual participant in the process. From the attitudes of a significant minority of players and “judges” in Organized Play to this day, it seems that the worst thing that a judge can do is to generate the horrible demon known as “table variation”, in which the judge changes something in the text (whether on their own or in response to something the PCs do), providing players with a corrupted experience of the author’s pure and holy intentions during adventure – and heaven help you if the adventure conflicts with the game rules, especially in a way that hurts the PCs’ opportunity to use their skills and abilities the way the system intended (who remembers “auto-surprise” in LG because the author didn’t specifically write Spot checks into the adventure?) This leads to all kinds of problems – the players might have an easier or harder time with the adventure than they’re “supposed to”, people might actually have fun in the event the author made a mistake that the editor missed (I’ve actually seen a “judge” insist on running a monster in Living Greyhawk as having an Armor Class of 210 because I forgot to delete the zero while scaling), or the heavens might part, leading to the Rapture in which 144,000 of us ascend to the Upper Planes while everyone else is required to spend all eternity building Traveler characters or trying to make non-broken rules for flaws in D&D.
It should be clear by now that I’m not really a fan of this perspective. The primary reason is this: I’ve written a number of RPGA adventures (probably around 10 at this point, not including the couple dozen I’ve edited), and I’ve never run an adventure precisely as written. Not even one I wrote. Why? Because it’s not fun. It doesn’t generate an enjoyable experience for me or for the players. Because I’m a DM, not a judge.
A DM is an interactive storyteller. Where a judge presents the adventure as written for the players to participate in, the DM is an active participant, making the campaign and adventure – both of which are inherently limited by a maximum amount of space the written word can occupy – truly living by interpreting the setting and characters in a manner that responds appropriately to the PCs’ actions. A judge needs to know what the NPCs say, but a DM needs only to know what the NPC knows and some basic personality traits and can figure things out from there. A judge needs to know specifically how rules apply to a context, but a DM can make a reasonable ruling based on what he or she knows and look it up after the game (or, if the ruling caused everyone to have fun, not look it up and just keep doing things that way). A “perfect” judge thinks that if the players don’t have fun, it’s due to a flaw in the adventure or the rules system; all the judge did was present that information as written. A good DM knows that he or she is a fundamental part of the play experience, and if the goal is to have fun, sacrificing the “purity” of the written adventure is the choice that needs to be made.
So how can someone make sure that they’re a DM instead of a judge? Here are a couple tricks I’ve figured out:
1. If it takes longer than thirty seconds to figure it out, guess and move on. One of the most unfun things that a judge can do is look up rules or mess with tokens, flags, or Alea Tools magnets to the point that the players get bored. The rules are there for a reason, but they’re also guidelines. If you’ve been playing D&D for more than a few months, odds are that whatever you guess is going to be close enough to the actual rules that nobody is going to notice or care – or at least, they’re not going to notice or care as much as they care about waiting for your overly technical ass.
2. No plan survives contact with the enemy. Sure, the adventure as written details what the author thinks should happen in most circumstances. But PCs and players screw things up. They want to go explore the swamp instead of follow the road, they want to sneak into the castle instead of assaulting the front gates, and, in one memorable 3.5 experience, they’d rather use Blink, Superior Invisibility, Solipsism, Brian Spider, Silent Spell and Still Spell to get a psychic confession directly from a suspect than ask every single person in the village what they saw. This is actually something of a litmus test to see if you’ve got a judge or a DM. A judge will find a reason that the strategy doesn’t work because the adventure says the PCs need to talk to everyone in the village. A DM will recognize that if a PC actually took the time to prepare four spells and take two feats that let them stealthily interrogate a suspect, that’s not an insignificant investment, it’s a pretty fun way to resolve the issue, and will let them. While that was a 3.5 example, it also applies to 4th Edition. If the players think of a ritual that accomplishes an skill challenge objective that isn’t in an adventure, the judge won’t let them use it without also doing the skill challenge, where a DM will let them use their resources to accomplish their goals, bypassing skill checks as it makes sense.
3. Priority One is the players’ fun. While this doesn’t mean that every encounter should be softballed so the players can win – bad rolls happen, and sometimes the PCs aren’t up to the task – a good, non-adversarial attitude toward combat can go a long way to helping the players have fun even if they’re losing.
I’m also interested to hear what other people think – what are the keys to being a DM rather than a judge?