Instilling player confidence in your rulings is an important part of being a judge. When dealing with players you are familiar with, you have the advantage of history. For players who do not know you as well, making the right impression can be a big help. All Judges spend a lot of time working towards making the very best rulings they can, but many neglect how they are presenting themselves. This article is not intended to help you make better rulings. It is intended to make your rulings better.
Not all the information in this article will be useful to you. Part of becoming a successful judge is finding a style that works for you. Trying to address all the possibilities is well beyond this article, but here is a framework to help you think about how you interact with the players.
The impression you make begins before you arrive at the table. How do you approach? Are your shoulders forward, your hands in your pockets? Are you moving briskly to the table, or shuffling there while the players wait? The players will pick up on your demeanor as you approach the table, so take the opportunity to present an aura of confidence. Stand up straight, put your shoulders back and move purposefully towards the table. If you have made eye contact, acknowledge that you are on your way to them.
Too many judges arrive at the table and ask "What?", or just wait for the players to start talking. This misses a fantastic opportunity to set the tone of the dialogue. If you're still standing straight with your shoulders back (and why aren't you?), you'll have good posture for a confident greeting.
The specific greeting does not matter; the important thing is to politely and confidently recognize the players. I'm partial to "Gentlemen!" myself (as long as the players are both male). Then, you can follow up with the most important part of the entire conversation:
"What can I do for you?"
So many important things are being accomplished here. First of all, it's excellent customer service - it allows you to show enthusiasm that you'll be making the ruling. Most importantly, it can change the entire tenor of the conversation. When players call you over, there are three possibilities: there's confusion about an interaction, there's a dispute, or something has happened that needs fixing. From the players' perspectives, the judge is an intimidating authority figure. Suddenly, though, you've announced that you're here to help with the situation, not dispense fiery justice, and it will help the players open up to you.
Unless it's one player calling you over to ask you a rules question, both players will probably want to talk to you, and will begin talking at the same time. It's important to preempt this, or the players can get the idea that they'll be able to interrupt at any point during the conversation. Make it clear that you only want to hear one person at a time. "Who would like to start?" is both firm that you want to hear one person at a time, but promises that you'll be listening to both sides of the story. If a player tries to break in, use your hand. Hold it up and say firmly "We'll get your side from you in a moment". As long as you make it clear that they'll get their chance, most players will respect that (and those that don't start to receive warnings). Once you've finished getting the story from the first player, even if you are sure you know how you are going to rule, it is imperative that you give the other player the opportunity to tell their side if they want to. You've promised them their chance, and to deny it is to undermine that player's confidence that you've considered all the issues at hand.
One you've heard the players, it's time to issue your ruling. There's a catch, though - you may not be ready to rule. You may need some more time to work out the stack, or to be sure you're remembering the relevant rule correctly. There's nothing wrong with that and making the right ruling is much more important than making the ruling quickly, but you have two players looking at you. Pausing to stare into space is going to undermine their confidence in your ruling. They'll wonder if you really know what you're talking about, or how sure you can be if you had to stop to think about it. If only there was a way you could make your ruling even better without having to stop and think.
There is. Sitting on the table are the cards. Pick them up. Read them. Use the time to get your thoughts in order. This is a huge win on many levels. From the players' perspective, you're being thorough. Best of all, you are. Reading the cards is the best way to improve your rulings (whoops, promised we wouldn't talk about that part..) Once you're ready to rule, cards go back down on the table. Shoulders back, right? Provide your ruling firmly and clearly. If there's a time extension to be given, don't wait for them to ask for it, and be generous.
Now, we're back to the customer service. "Is there anything else I can help you with?" If not, don't forget to thank them. The impression you will leave is that you were happy to be there to make the ruling and they'll remember it the next time they need to call on you.
Toby Elliott, Level 3