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Combat Referee

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"My word is the law on the battlefield!"
Judge robot, Zoids: New Century

When some authority or power dictates what counts as "fighting fair" and actively enforces these rules on the battlefield. Almost always a neutral party in regards to the fighting itself, they exist solely to make sure the rules of battle are followed and punish those who break them. Their presence is often justified — if the fighting in question is a Tournament or Blood Sport, for example — but they'll just as easily show up in real battle-to-the-death combat, in which case their presence may cause large amounts of Fridge Logic. Liberal application of the MST3K Mantra is recommended. Expect an evil or ruthless character to attack the Combat Referee at some point; this may result in the heroes being forced into a no-rules grudge match, or it may prompt the referee to deal with his attackers himself via overwhelming force.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Can show up during a Tournament Arc, though this is typically rare, as Flexible Tourney Rules tend to be more entertaining.
  • Zoids: New Century has its Judge robots, which enforce the rules of the mecha Blood Sport that the series revolves around. They take this role extremely seriously, up to and including enforcing the rules with orbital bombardments from a fleet of Kill Sats. The Backdraft Group also has their own judge robots, which deliberately ignore the rules to help their team win.
  • Mr. Referee from Medabots plays this role, and can enforce his decisions with a Kill Sat!
  • In Popcorn Avatar, Jagannath plays this role for the dispute between the Devas and Asuras. Though technically he's only shows up when someone breaks the agreed-upon rules between the two parties, or when a special-case exemption has to be made.
  • Fate/Apocrypha is unusual in the Fate series by having fourteen Servants summoned in two opposing factions instead of the usual seven in a free-for-all. This causes the appearance of yet another Servant, the Ruler, to maintain order in the conflict. Of course, with so many legendary figures and competing interests it's only a matter of time until things go completely off the rails and Ruler has to get directly involved.

    Fan Works 
  • In Manehattan's Lone Guardian, Shining Armor serves this role for the duel between Leviathan and Gray Ghost, explaining the match's rules, providing Gray with a shield to make things between the combatants even, and periodically chiming in to let them know how much time is left.
  • In the Yakuza / The Rising of the Shield Hero Crossover fanfic The Shield's Dragon, the events of the race between Naofumi and Motoyatsu (for the lordship of Lute Village) from canon is now mediated by the Gauntlet Hero - Kazuma Kiryu, who helps to enforce fair play by beating the crap out of Princess Malty's knights who were attempting to rig the race to the Spear Hero's favor. There will be no cheating under his watch.

  • Robot Jox: The Giant Mecha duels that have taken the place of international warfare are presided over by referees wearing black-and-white striped uniforms. It's never established where their authority derives from or how their neutrality is assured.

  • The original The Culture novel, Consider Phlebas, has a form of this. On a planet set up as a museum/memorial to a dead species by one of The Sublimed, the characters have to take care not to piss it off by causing too much collateral damage.
  • In Dune, the Sardaukar are primarily used like this, as a way to maintain the balance of power. Because of this, The Emperor has to go to great lengths to hide their intervention in the Atreides-Harkonnen conflict, since it exceeded his authority.

  • Destroy the Godmodder: It is canonical that the game masters are actual characters who shape the narrative of the game through an Update Terminal, and act as this to make sure things don't get too out of hand. This of course is something they don't always succeed at.
    • In Destroy the Godmodder 2 its GM, TwinBuilder, was physically summoned to the Battlefield as an entity, and continued to play this role while existing on the front lines of the war.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Both the Classic and GURPS version of Traveller. Book 4 Mercenaries said that the Imperium reserved the right to intervene in military actions within its borders to prevent them from getting out of hand. One action that almost always provoked intervention was the use of WMDs, such as nuclear weapons.
    • In the GURPS version the Imperium is more flexible about using nukes in space. Fewer people live there and there is a lot of, well, space, in space.
  • In a very meta way, the GM of any particular game qualifies, as Rule Zero of every RPG is that the GM is always right. Additionally, he has set the battlespace. However, unlike this trope, in most games a good GM is subtly on the side of the players, wanting them to win but win after being challenged and having earned a victory. An exception is Paranoia, where the GM is gleefully encouraged to screw the players over in as many hilariously unfair and arbitrary ways as he can.
  • Most wargame tournaments have someone acting in this role. Many players who cannot agree over a ruling will accept either a third party to take on this role or will appoint the Random Number God as the Combat Referee and get back to the game.
  • Blood Bowl, being on the borderline of Blood Sport and all-out warfare with rugby rules tacked on, naturally have this. The two main rules Blood Bowl referees enforce are fouling (that is, Kick Them While They Are Down; Unnecessary Roughness is a-ok) and unsanctioned foreign objects (anything with the 'secret weapon' rule, which includes chainsaws, bandoliers of bombs and driving a steamroller onto the pitch). Unfortunately, being outnumbered 22-to-1 on the pitch (with another order of magnitude added when the fans are added to the mix) means most of them become an Easily-Distracted Referee as a matter of survival, and that's before the rampant and systemic bribery is added to the mix (the referees labour union has a minimum rate for an acceptable bribe, with only goblins being allowed to bid lower).
    • 5th edition put a twist on the trope by adding literal 'combat' to the referee's power. While normal referees work the same way as usual, there exist Famous Referees who will enforce their rulings through violence on the pitch if the teams decide to play rough. One of them brings a chainsaw to the field himself.

    Video Games 
  • Final Fantasy Tactics Advance and its sequel Final Fantasy Tactics A2 have Judges, which enforce arbitrary Laws during combat in order to force restrictions on the player. The presence of the Judges is justified in both games:
    • In the first game, the Judges exist due to the nature of Mewt's subconscious desire to keep the world of Ivalice in existence. With Judges making combat as difficult as possible, the protagonists will have a harder time accomplishing their goals.
    • As for Final Fantasy Tactics A2, Judges were created in ages past in order to prevent the meaningless deaths of clan members. Clans voluntarily adjudge themselves in order to gain the protection of the judge; adjudged clan's members cannot die in battle. The cost of this protection is following relatively simple rules of combat.
  • The Inevitable Tournament in Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door has your manager, who provides certain restrictions for the matches, like having to use at least one Star Power ability or not using items. If you break one, you won't move up a rank after winning the match.
  • The old arena mech combat game, Battledrome, had a referee that looked like a Frisbee. It handed out fines and disqualifications for firing banned weapons, shooting at the ref, or leaving the arena.
  • The first Samurai Shodown had a kendo judge who was in the background for each stage and would wave a flag to indicate a hit and call the round once one character was defeated. The character disappeared from most stages after a while, though he still shows up in the dojo stage of most games. In the second game, he is a secret playable character who uses his flags as weapons.

  • In El Goonish Shive all the immortals collectively act as referees for all the other immortals. If any immortal breaks their rules against noninterference except through guiding and empowering, the rest of them immediately know and will force a reset. As we see with Pandora, after she ends a battle in a terrifyingly brutal and effective manner.

    Real Life 
  • Almost all combat sports have someone in this role.
    • Mixed Martial Arts and Boxing referees enforce the rules of the bout, but leave scoring to other individuals.
    • Professional Wrestling referees are this in Kayfabe, though of course not in real life.
    • Fencing referees act to determine priority of attacks in weapons which have right-of-way rules and to ensure fair and honorable action on the strip. Scoring is done with electronic machines where possible. Likewise, kendo matches have referees.
    • Martial arts tournaments usually have the referee enforcing the rules and determining the scoring as well.
    • Referees also exist in robot combat, such as Robot Wars and BattleBots. Their most common purpose is to initiate countdowns, boxing-style, if one or more of the robots is unable to move, though they also do other tasks like making sure all bots and operators follow the rules, and in rare cases, stopping a match in case both robots get tangled up on each other or if dangerous substances have been spilled onto the arena (such as battery acid or, in one case, one bot's abrasive armor that created clouds of fine particulates any time it was hit).
  • Judicial and personal duels are traditionally presided over by a neutral party or by the joint efforts of each duelist's second.