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D&D General Dungeon Master or Referee?

Just the act of choosing an adventure to run is a function of your biases. Designing an adventure is an order of magnitude more dependent on one's biases. Every call you make during play is based on bias -- even if that bias is essentially "rules as written with no fudging die rolls."

As such, I don't think trying to be "unbiased" is a particularly useful goal. Exactly what a GM's job is varies from person to person, but I think most people would agree the primary function is to facilitate fun for everyone at the table (including themselves), whatever that means for the table in question. Embracing some biases and resisting others will be necessary to achieve that end.

This really strikes me as a reductio absurdum argument. If you think embracing some biases is fine, by all means, do so if it adds to your game. But I think telling people who try to be fair and impartial, and who find that adds to their game, that they never are because everything is bias, isn't particularly persuasive or helpful for either position in the discussion. Of course bias can enter in at any point, but you can also hold it in check. I think few people worry about it at the adventure design stage (though obviously fairness can be a consideration here too: for example is this challenge one where the players have a reasonable chance to discover they are being followed by a spy, etc). I think at any of those points, you can work to keep your biases in check. Again, just because you don't achieve 100% bias free in that moment, doesn't mean there is not a more biased way to handle it, and a less biased way to handle it. And I do think we would all agree fun is the end goal here, but what that means will vary. For a lot of us, an impartial ref is an important part of making the game more fun.
 

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Reynard

Legend
This really strikes me as a reductio absurdum argument. If you think embracing some biases is fine, by all means, do so if it adds to your game. But I think telling people who try to be fair and impartial, and who find that adds to their game, that they never are because everything is bias, isn't particularly persuasive or helpful for either position in the discussion. Of course bias can enter in at any point, but you can also hold it in check. I think few people worry about it at the adventure design stage (though obviously fairness can be a consideration here too: for example is this challenge one where the players have a reasonable chance to discover they are being followed by a spy, etc). I think at any of those points, you can work to keep your biases in check. Again, just because you don't achieve 100% bias free in that moment, doesn't mean there is not a more biased way to handle it, and a less biased way to handle it. And I do think we would all agree fun is the end goal here, but what that means will vary. For a lot of us, an impartial ref is an important part of making the game more fun.
Is "fair and impartial" a desirable goal? I think that depends on the particular group, but I also think most people would say that the GM should be on the side of the players, making decisions with their fun in mind rather than being strictly impartial.

I am a "rolls in the open, dice fall where they may" GM in combat, but that doesn't mean the way I run the game broadly speaking isn't pro players.
 

Is "fair and impartial" a desirable goal? I think that depends on the particular group, but I also think most people would say that the GM should be on the side of the players, making decisions with their fun in mind rather than being strictly impartial.

I am a "rolls in the open, dice fall where they may" GM in combat, but that doesn't mean the way I run the game broadly speaking isn't pro players.

I am not saying everyone needs to play this way. There are lots of ways to enjoy RPGs, and some of them include styles where the GM is partial to the PCs. That isn't a problem at all for me. What I take issue with is folks dismissing the idea of impartiality and saying those interested in it shouldn't even bother because of arguments like the one in your post or arguments built around this notion that impartiality is never truly 100% attainable (neither of those are positions people who believe in being a fair GM are making: we are saying you strive for it, you make it a goal). And there is a spectrum here. You an be fair and impartial during combat but be someone who is pro-players. I've found I don't like that as a player and as a GM I try to provide as much impartiality as I can. This results in more character death on the one hand, but also results in things like less railroading, and me being surprised by outcomes more because I do strive to take every thing the players attempt seriously (without allowing my bias for a particular outcome or path to get in the way). That means I often pause when the players propose something that doesn't seem initially like it would happen and say to myself "wait as second, let's give this a fair hearing". Again this is a style preference. It isn't the only one. But it is a style that is functional and can be done.
 

I think that depends on the particular group, but I also think most people would say that the GM should be on the side of the players, making decisions with their fun in mind rather than being strictly impartial.

Most people probably would say this. And if they've examined the question and that is their honest answer. More power to them. But I think a lot of folks haven't been exposed to this approach, or haven't seen it done well. Giving it a fair shake is all I would ask of anyone. If it is not for them, it is not for them. Like anything else.
 

Reynard

Legend
I am not saying everyone needs to play this way. There are lots of ways to enjoy RPGs, and some of them include styles where the GM is partial to the PCs. That isn't a problem at all for me. What I take issue with is folks dismissing the idea of impartiality and saying those interested in it shouldn't even bother because of arguments like the one in your post or arguments built around this notion that impartiality is never truly 100% attainable (neither of those are positions people who believe in being a fair GM are making: we are saying you strive for it, you make it a goal). And there is a spectrum here. You an be fair and impartial during combat but be someone who is pro-players. I've found I don't like that as a player and as a GM I try to provide as much impartiality as I can. This results in more character death on the one hand, but also results in things like less railroading, and me being surprised by outcomes more because I do strive to take every thing the players attempt seriously (without allowing my bias for a particular outcome or path to get in the way). That means I often pause when the players propose something that doesn't seem initially like it would happen and say to myself "wait as second, let's give this a fair hearing". Again this is a style preference. It isn't the only one. But it is a style that is functional and can be done.
It does raise interesting corner case questions.

An real world example from my current Rime of the Frostmaiden campaign: the PCs were fighting a bunch of duergar. We use FG so all rolls are open by default, but I don't fudge in combat anyway. The duergar HATE the dwarves in the area, and the PCs in particular. The PCs have proven in past encounters in this dungeon that they do not take prisoners of the duergar. So, when the PC dwarf cleric got dropped and failed 2 death saves and there was one duergar left, that duergar chose to go out killing the dwarf cleric rather than make a likely ineffectual attack against a different PC.

Is that "fair and impartial" under your definition, since the duergar was acting in character? Was it pro-player?
 

It does raise interesting corner case questions.

An real world example from my current Rime of the Frostmaiden campaign: the PCs were fighting a bunch of duergar. We use FG so all rolls are open by default, but I don't fudge in combat anyway. The duergar HATE the dwarves in the area, and the PCs in particular. The PCs have proven in past encounters in this dungeon that they do not take prisoners of the duergar. So, when the PC dwarf cleric got dropped and failed 2 death saves and there was one duergar left, that duergar chose to go out killing the dwarf cleric rather than make a likely ineffectual attack against a different PC.

Is that "fair and impartial" under your definition, since the duergar was acting in character? Was it pro-player?
I don't know Rime of the Frostmaiden and I am just going by an isolated example but if the duergar would have killed the PC because that is what it made sense for him to do, he had the opportunity to do it, then that seems impartial to me (unless the player wanted to go out in a blaze of glory and you were facilitating that, but nothing says a pro-player choice and an impartial choice can't align from time to time). I think when you are choosing for NPC actions it can be complicated though. Most of us have forks in the road like that in our own lives (obviously usually the stakes, action and drama are lower) and we sometimes surprise ourselves with our own decisions (and in hindsight the decision that was in our best interest or most logical wasn't the one we made-----so I think there is rarely a 'perfect' NPC decision). For me impartial here is very much about the intentions and what you were trying to do. If you were trying to do what you thought the Duergar would honestly do, and being fair in handling rolls and rulings during the fight, I say that is striving for impartiality. And also, I am not saying other things can't be a factor, you don't have to have just one priority. I sometimes like to make have drama and melodrama in my games, but because that can get dicey I always remind myself to be fair when injecting that (a good example of this might something like family members of the PCs factoring into an adventure or plot in some way: I think if you are constantly using family members as plot hooks and effectively having them cause bad, but potentially very exciting, things to arise in the players lives, it is being less impartial than if you are also looking for opportunities to play up the positive side of these attachments (so impartiality and fairness is also I think at work even when the GM is playing an active role introducing exciting and fun elements to the game).
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
What I take issue with is folks dismissing the idea of impartiality and saying those interested in it shouldn't even bother because of arguments like the one in your post or arguments built around this notion that impartiality is never truly 100% attainable (neither of those are positions people who believe in being a fair GM are making: we are saying you strive for it, you make it a goal).
So, this isn’t what I was trying to do, and I apologize if that’s how I came off. Rather, my intent to suggest that, because it’s impossible to act without bias, it is a more effective strategy to try and be aware of your biases than to try to be unbiased. If you are introspective and critical of your own decisions, asking what biases are going into them, you can make more informed decisions - including acting against your biases, if that’s your goal. That’s what I mean by “being intentional with your partiality” - being aware of how your biases are influencing you, and choosing when to act on those influences and when not to, rather than striving to not be influenced by any biases.
 

So, this isn’t what I was trying to do, and I apologize if that’s how I came off. Rather, my intent to suggest that, because it’s impossible to act without bias, it is a more effective strategy to try and be aware of your biases than to try to be unbiased. If you are introspective and critical of your own decisions, asking what biases are going into them, you can make more informed decisions - including acting against your biases, if that’s your goal. That’s what I mean by “being intentional with your partiality” - being aware of how your biases are influencing you, and choosing when to act on those influences and when not to, rather than striving to not be influenced by any biases.

That I would agree with. I think this is part of being impartial, is understanding "I really, really want the players to go into the city of Port Sul" and understanding how that might be impacting what you are doing in terms of throwing things at them, or even potentially steering them towards the city. Same during combat, treating one player different than other players, or any other part of the game. Being away of your biases can be useful. That is why I find referee useful, it causes me to pause once in a while and evaluate these things, asking myself if I am being as fair and impartial as I ought to be
 

Hiya!

If I'm playing any version of "D&D", then I'm a Dungeon Master. Otherwise I'm a Referee/Game Master/Keeper/Fate/etc. Whatever the game refers to 'my job' as.

How do I FEEL when I'm in this position? Pretty much always DM.

That said...I disagree with your initial "Dungeon Master doesn't have the neutral connotation...". Now, this is probably because I've been DM'ing for about 41 years now (started when I was 10, now I'm 51). DM has ALWAYS had the "neutral connotation" simply due to the fact that it was the DMs job to "present interesting and fun stuff to the Players, but with challenges and a real risk of death to their PC's". It was always stated that the DM's job was to BE FAIR!

As it said in the (1983) Basic D&D DM's Book 2, "The Most Important Rule", page 2:
-----------------
"There is one rule which applies to everything you will do as a Dungeon Master. It is the most important of all the rules! It is simply this:
BE FAIR.
A Dungeon Master must not take sides. ... The Players are not fighting the DM!"
-----------------

I do not see DM as 'confrontational' or 'non-neutral' in any way. YMMV, obviously! :)

^_^

Paul L. Ming
Copy and paste everything said above. I too, am 51 and started at 10. And the:" Be Fair" rule has always been my go to rule. Be fair to the players, be fair to the monsters. A DM does not take sides. A DM presents challenges and situations and the players decide how they will solve the encounters. The dice will be means by which fate will be decided. I never fudge for it would not be fair for the players and their foes.

If a campaign ends because of a TPK, so be it. Good does not always win. But creating a new group of adventurers to try to succeed where the first group failed is also part of the game and a good way for the players to get their revenge.
 


That I would agree with. I think this is part of being impartial, is understanding "I really, really want the players to go into the city of Port Sul" and understanding how that might be impacting what you are doing in terms of throwing things at them, or even potentially steering them towards the city. Same during combat, treating one player different than other players, or any other part of the game. Being away of your biases can be useful. That is why I find referee useful, it causes me to pause once in a while and evaluate these things, asking myself if I am being as fair and impartial as I ought to be
Yes, I agree that you should to strive to be aware of why you're making the decisions you're making, but I don't think the sort of impartiality that you imply is necessary. (Which is not to say that it is automatically bad either, it's just a different priority.) But if you think the game will be more fun if the characters go to Port Sul, and you can gently nudge them into that direction, then why not? If one player hadn't had a good spotlight moment for a while and you can nudge things so that such emerges, why not? Personally I feel GM should be doing decisions like this, because that's the strength of having an human in charge; they can read the room and direct things into fun.
 

Yes, I agree that you should to strive to be aware of why you're making the decisions you're making, but I don't think the sort of impartiality that you imply is necessary. (Which is not to say that it is automatically bad either, it's just a different priority.) But if you think the game will be more fun if the characters go to Port Sul, and you can gently nudge them into that direction, then why not? If one player hadn't had a good spotlight moment for a while and you can nudge things so that such emerges, why not? Personally I feel GM should be doing decisions like this, because that's the strength of having an human in charge; they can read the room and direct things into fun.

This boils down to style. I want to emphasize, I am not saying the type of impartiality I am talking about is necessary. You can run the game however you like, using whatever GMing philosophy makes the most sense to you. I am saying it is an approach and it is an approach some find fun. Some groups want the nudge to the fun stuff in port sul, some don't. Some want the freedom to find fun stuff elsewhere and not be guided by the GMs hand. It depends on what you are doing. I agree having a human as the arbiter of the session is a strength. But I see the strength because of the GMs ability to adapt. One of the things I like about an RPG is I can strike out in any direction, do anything I want, there is a sort of limitless world and I can push the GM in directions they hadn't expected to go if they are open to it. With this style if the GM is overly intent on port sul and not fairly considering the alternate things I and the other players want to pursue, it can become a problem (fun though port sul may be). That said, not every GM is comfortable with that, so I am not saying this is the way you have to run a game. But it is one area where fairness impartiality can be important if you are running it that way. I was just throwing that in as one potential area of the game for impartiality to have an impact.
 


This doesn't really make sense, does it? I mean a GM can be fair to the players - they're real people - but the monsters are purely imaginary and so aren't vulnerable to mistreatment.
What this means is that fairness to the monsters is also showing fairness to the players. When you fudge dice in favor of the players, you down play the power of monsters and lessen the accomplishment of your players.

When you play your monsters as they should be, not only are you fair to the monster's capacities bit you are also making your players earn their victory. For without risks, there are no reward worthy of the challenge.

Here is an example. When CoS got out, I saw a group kill Strahd in quite an easy way, no challenge no risks. The players were bragging and claiming that anyone dying to Strahd were bad or not "experienced" enough to play. I know my players were terrified of Strhad so I asked them if they would agree to replay the final battle with me as a DM. I used Strahd as he was supposed to be played, a hit and run striker. They got totally defeated in two and a half hour. One player claimed that I cheated even if I was rolling on the open. I showed the Strahd's stats. It was their DM that downplayed Strahd that led to their bold claim and ultimately their defeat. The we killed Strahd at level 7 was not logical.

The discussion went on about what they wanted as players and strangely, their DM was not at fault. He was simply giving in to their critics that the game was too hard when they started so he was fudging. It is not really what they wanted but it is how it was perceived by their DM. Now their DM rolls on the open and do not pull punches. He is fair to both his players and to their foes.
 



Lanefan

Victoria Rules
This doesn't really make sense, does it? I mean a GM can be fair to the players - they're real people - but the monsters are purely imaginary and so aren't vulnerable to mistreatment.
Fairness, on the DM's part, extends into the fiction as well.

Gygax emphasizes his point of "Always give a monster an even break", and he's right: a DM has to be fair to the opponents just as she has to be fair to the PCs.

Further, if a DM is fair to the PCs in the fiction then by extension she almost can't help but be fair to the players at the table.
 

pming

Hero
Hiya!
What this means is that fairness to the monsters is also showing fairness to the players. When you fudge dice in favor of the players, you down play the power of monsters and lessen the accomplishment of your players.

When you play your monsters as they should be, not only are you fair to the monster's capacities bit you are also making your players earn their victory. For without risks, there are no reward worthy of the challenge.

Here is an example. When CoS got out, I saw a group kill Strahd in quite an easy way, no challenge no risks.
Similar story...but it involves Tomb of Horrors. :)

During the 80's and 90's, in the small city where I live (population at the time was about 12k, up to about 16k in the late 90's), there weren't many RPG'ers. There was no "hobby shop" for a good long stretch (only a toy store that carried a single section of about 4' x 4' of RPG/D&D stuff).

At any rate, I quickly developed the reputation of "a really good DM" (...and yes, my early/late teenage self was rather proud of that reputation...still am, tbh :) ). I guess some of the more...hmmm... "self confident" Players in the area were convinced that they were AMAZING players and that their PC's could take on any challenge that TSR could throw at them.

One group was so convinced of their greatness, and their "teenth-level PC's" that they kept bugging me to DM them. So I did. Tomb of Horrors. None had even heard of it, so in they went. TPK in about 15 minutes of play. Some died to poison, the rest...yeppers... Green Demon Face. "He just kinda disappears? Must be teleport! Everyone in!" POP! POP! POP! POP! POP! Of course, they were used to using Player Knowledge; after the first guy went POP!, everyone waited for me to describe what happened to him...where he was, what he saw, etc, so they could decide what they were up against in wherever they were 'teleported to'. I didn't do that. I sat their and smiled. "You guys aren't there, so I'll wait to you decide if you are going through or not".

They were...simultaneously shocked and elated. I told them not to worry, it was a "test adventure" and their PC's weren't really dead. ...and yes, in those days, if your PC died in some other DM's game/campaign world, word got around you died and your PC was DEAD. As in, no, you can't use him in your regular game, because he's dead. They were extatic because they actually felt like their choices mattered. They realized that the game is soooo much more fun when you don't "know" what is going to happen, based on the DM not wanting to let the PC's die. You know...risk/reward. :)

Anyway, that story got to another player with a TOTALLY Munchkinized Paladin (with +5 everything, Holy Avenger and a Huge Ancient Gold Dragon for a Paladin Mount...with all the trimmings...). "Pfft! No way would I die! Try me!". ;) Ok...have you ever played Tomb of Horrors? ;)

(spoiler alert: Paladin dead in under 5 minutes; twice; first 2 minutes, he fell in pit and failed his poison save with a natural 1! LOL!...but I "let" his Gold Dragon 'raise him'. He came back and decided to Fly down the hall way. Poked his holy avenger into the Green Demon Face. POP! "No way am I loosing that sword!" ...so in he went. POP!

I see this same sort of 'mindset' in a lot of players nowadays. But that is a whole other discussion thread!

^_^

Paul L. Ming
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
One thing to mention to those suggesting (upthread) that DMs might be better served by leaning into their partialities rather than trying for full neutrality, and that's this:

There's different types of partiality. Some are occasionally acceptable - maybe - while others are an outright no-go.

For example, being partial to one PC (or worse, player) over another, a.k.a. playing favourites, is never good - unless said DM is looking to sink her own game due to lack of (other) players. Don't do it. Ever. And if you catch yourself doing this, it's a safe bet at least some of the players have noticed it long before you have. (a corollary example is the DM who plays favourites with her DMPC over the PCs, also a bad idea)
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
One group was so convinced of their greatness, and their "teenth-level PC's" that they kept bugging me to DM them. So I did. Tomb of Horrors. None had even heard of it, so in they went. TPK in about 15 minutes of play. Some died to poison, the rest...yeppers... Green Demon Face. "He just kinda disappears? Must be teleport! Everyone in!" POP! POP! POP! POP! POP! Of course, they were used to using Player Knowledge; after the first guy went POP!, everyone waited for me to describe what happened to him...where he was, what he saw, etc, so they could decide what they were up against in wherever they were 'teleported to'. I didn't do that. I sat their and smiled. "You guys aren't there, so I'll wait to you decide if you are going through or not".
LOL Those faces TPK'd the group I ran it for as well. They got to the faces and were fairly cautious. They tossed in some objects which vanished into the darkness without a sound. Then one guy tossed in a rope and held the end. I let him know that the portion outside of the darkness that he was holding onto flopped down, cut cleanly. This was the point where the players became convinced that it was a transportation portal and that having part of yourself outside of it was a bad idea, so they promptly told me that they took running headfirst leaps into the darkness.
 

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