D&D 5E The Neutral Referee, Monty Haul, and the Killer DM: History of the GM and Application to 5e

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Today, I thought I'd post a little bit about how people (GMs or DMs) in 5e adjudicate the game, and, because I can't help myself, provide a little bit of history about the evolution of some of the thought processes that led to this point. Specifically, a discussion about the origins of the DM in D&D as a "neutral referee," why we almost immediately saw the rise of two archetypes (Monty Haul and the Killer DM), and what this history might tell us about how we can, or should, envision the role of the DM in 5e.

First, a quick note on terminology- I will use the term "DM" in this post out of habit unless specifically talking about the older conception of the "referee." Please consider DM to be inclusive of the term GM for purpose of D&D.

Second, I will use the common spelling of "Monty Haul" in reference to the style of DMing as described below. Some people have been confused by this as time goes by; Monty Hall is the game show host; Monty Haul is a style of play that references both the game show host and the "haul" (as in loot or plunder).

A. A Brief History of the Neutral Referee
Switzerland is only bearable covered with snow like some people are only bearable under a sheet.

Dave Arneson was prepared for Wesley's Braunstein game. It was a simple scenario ... a banana republic in the throws of revolution. Arneson would receive his points for distributing leaflets. But Arneson convinced other players, using his fake CIA badge, that he was an undercover agent and easily "won" the scenario by stealing all of the money of the country, boarding a helicopter, and casually throwing down all the leaflets on the riots and burning embers below.


To understand the history of the neutral referee in D&D, you have to first understand the wargaming culture of the 60s and 70s. A great deal of this culture (and the split that led to D&D) had its roots in the latter part of the 1800s. There used to be a German wargame played in the military known as Kriegsspiel. Kriegsspiel required an umpire to interpret the rules and make decisions between two (or more) sides. Over time, as the rules accumulated, there was a gradual realization- the rules were so complex that they were slowing the game down for no good reason (additional rules that had minimal benefit), additional rules kept getting added to allow for more realism yet never could accurately simulate the battles, the rules constrained the umpires' decision making (and would often be contrary to the military reality that the umpire were aware of), and most importantly, no one wanted to be an umpire because the whole system was too complicated to learn.

Anyway, because of all of these issues, a new system was devised. And by "new system", I mean, effectively, no system. Free Kriegsspiel got rid of all of the rules and cruft of Kriegsspiel and simply let a neutral referee make rulings. This was popular, because the players didn't have to learn complicated rules, and because the referee could use their own applied experience instead of complicated rules that often wouldn't match what happened in real-world combat.

From there, we fast-forward a century later. You have numerous wargamers- the famous ones today like Gygax and Arneson, but also the less well-known like David Wesley. All of them were familiar with this backdrop of neutral referees making interpreting rules and making rulings. The original major turning point was Wesley's Braunstein games- the first one, and most importantly, the fourth one. When one of his players, Dave Arneson, used his imagination and played a "role" in order to win the scenario. Something that inspired Arneson so much that he chose to continue running this style of game himself, in a little place called Blackmoor.

Then there was the collaboration of Arneson and Gygax (which has been detail extensively elsewhere). The main thing is the result- OD&D. OD&D is a fundamentally bizarre product in many ways, mostly because it's almost unplayable (and it was pretty pretty expensive too!). Simply put, the original written product is simply a codification of the FK-style rulings that had accumulated over time along with some additional material. In order to "play" the original OD&D, you had to have knowledge of the hobby, wargaming, and a desire to make the game work. Perhaps most fundamentally, you had to accept an FK-style system; a neutral referee empowered to make all decisions. The rules didn't cover everything, and it was assumed that the referee would make rulings as needed. In fact, in Men & Magic, we don't even see the term Dungeon Master- it is still "players," and "referee."

So from the beginning, D&D was a game that insisted on having a neutral referee. But the question is ... what is a neutral referee? Why do we have one? What are the implications?


B. The Neutral Referee in D&D, and the Correlation to "Skilled Play."
You should only read what is truly good or what is frankly bad.

I am going to start by noting something, in the vain hope it will head off a common misguided comment. "There is no such thing as a neutral referee because blah blah blah." For purposes of this discussion, a neutral referee (or an impartial one) is not a mechanistic application; it is an aspiration or a goal. No human can ever be fully neutral or impartial; we are all subject to the slings and arrows of our subjective feelings and subconscious biases and imperfect knowledge. That said, like the "impartial judge" or the "unbiased sports referee" or the "objective reporter," the "neutral referee" is a style of DMing where the DM strives to be impartial or neutral. The perfect is the enemy of the good.

Now, with that out of the way, I will use a definition that I saw @The-Magic-Sword use once that I think works very well as an introduction to the concept:
{The Neutral Referee is N}eutral between the entities that they're emulating (the world, the monsters, whatever) and the entities they aren't emulating (the players and their characters)...

Right there, we have the essence of the neutral referee. They are not fans of the players, nor are they adversarial to the players. While they will set up things to be engaging to the party, there will not be a "thumb on the scale" for the players- the referee will attempt to say yes with actions that are consistent with the fiction, negotiate risk and uncertainty, and say no to those actions inconsistent to the fiction. Instead, the neutral referee is simply impartial when it comes to the two "sides," - the world that they are responsible for (the entities they are emulating), and the characters.

This is why there is often a close correlation between the concept of the neutral referee and the older concept of "Skilled Play" in D&D. (I am using Skilled Play in the traditional and defined sense as it has the most widely-accepted understanding, if you prefer, mentally substitute Neo-Gygaxian Play or something else).

In Skilled Play, the conception is that the challenge is not to the character, but to the player (it's a measure of player skill). That's why it requires the DM to be a "neutral referee" or a "neutral arbiter."

The DM, then, cannot ad hoc the area that is being explored, the DM cannot ad lib, and the DM should not be a fan of the players in Skilled Play. The DM is, for all practical purposes, the world that the players are interacting with through their characters. For this reason, the game cannot have mechanics for the players to seize narrative control of the world. The world exists independently of the player's conceptions and desires, and they (the players) are using their Skilled Play to overcome the obstacles within the world.

For that same reason, the DM must commit to preparation. This division of authority requires trust from the players to the DM that the DM is not changing the world or engaging in illusionism to help or hinder the players. If the players send their characters into a dungeon, there is a map of that dungeon already made. Going west or east will be meaningful choices- they both don't lead to the same ogre. For that matter, the chest is either trapped or not before the players decide to approach it; the pit is 10' deep with spikes or 30' deep with green slime- it's not a Heisenberg uncertainty pit, only to be revealed when an unfortunate soul falls into it. To the extent that things are not pre-made, they are generated randomly (such as wandering monster tables or treasure tables or even tables to generate dungeons), but once randomly generated, they are a part of the world.

Now, with all that in mind ... what happened?


C. Monty Haul, the Killer DM, and the Fall of the Neutral Referee.
Always go to other people's funerals, otherwise they won't come to yours.

Despite my earlier admonition, there was one fundamental issue with the concept of the neutral referee that quickly became apparent. In wargaming, the neutral referee was an arbiter between the different sides that the players represented. David Wesley, for example, was neutral not just about the world, but more importantly regarding the players in the world who were striving for victory. Even the earliest proto-D&D games run by Arneson were similar- characters went into dungeons, but they were also jockeying for position amongst themselves. In that sense, the concept of the impartial and neutral referee was easily understandable because it clearly mapped on to the wargaming conception of the neutral referee who "ran the world" for the players to play against each other. To a certain extent, this concept was analogous to the referees and umpires of the sporting world, who were there to simply adjudicate a game.

While this hasn't been detailed AFAIK, I'd go so far as to say that this similarity to sporting events arguably helped in the very early days of D&D. This whole new-fangled "adventure game" that didn't end with a clear winner and had a "referee" (later DM) may have been difficult for many to grok who had grown up playing Life or Monopoly; after all, board games don't need umpires! But for many, the idea that there was an individual who didn't play, but "called the game" was something they knew from playing or watching sports.

Except in sports, too, you're dealing with "players" (or teams) that are opposed to each other. And that's where we get the difficulty in the implementation of the neutral referee that we immediately saw in D&D. Gygax, famously, wrote Tomb of Horrors for the 1975 Origins Convention (yes, the year after D&D was published) because players were boasting about D&D being too easy.By Dragon #14, James Ward was already writing about the "Monty Haul" judge.* The very first Sage Advice column in Dragon had the following question posed-
In GODS, DEMI-GODS AND HEROES it says that a forty-plus level character is ridiculous. In our game we have two characters that are at one thousand-plus level. This happened in “Armageddon,” a conflict between the gods and the characters. Of course, the characters won. What do you think about that?

*EnWorld previously published his recollection of the origin of the term; definitely worth a read!

On the other hand, you had the Killer DM / meatgrinder phenomenon. DMs would brag about dungeons with kills rates (per adventure) in excess of 50%; famously, the MIT Dungeon was one of those. So what was going on? If the neutral referee was the idea, why did we immediately see these two archetypes spring into existence?

Because of the difficulty in maintaining neutrality for two reasons. Both the Killer DM and the Monty Haul archetype are just exaggerations of the simple issue that most DMs had in navigating between Scylla and Charybdis; between the social pressures of a group game that is meant to be fun and played with friends, and the desire to "win" a game by taking an adversarial posture to the players. Both are just examples of the DM who is unable to avoid putting their thumb on the scale.

On the one hand you have the Killer DM. Some DMs will fall into the trap of believing that they must "overcome" the players. DMs who believe that their role is to be adversarial (as opposed to neutral) will fall into this trap.

On the other hand, you have the Monty Haul DM; this DM wants the players to be happy, to win, to get it all. DMs who want the party to succeed at all times because it's "fun" fall into this trap.

That both pathologies existed and were so quickly identified does not mean that neutral refereeing was impossible or doomed; but it does show that it is not easy, and the lack of support back then made the rise of these archetypes inevitable.

Finally, in addition to that dichotomy, there was also further erosion of the neutral referee in the 70s as we saw movements both towards "DM as storyteller" (the rise of illusionism) as well as certain early improv styles of play. But that requires far more words than I'm willing to write. Which ... wow.


D. 5e and Soft Monty Hauling
If you think nobody cares about you, try missing a couple of payments.

Why write all of this? Well, partly because (in D&D, at least - less so in some game systems) many people do not think about the principles, maxims, and heuristics they are using when they are running the game. For example, do you use the "rule of cool?" Are you a "fan of the players?" Do you "say yes?" Do you tailor combats to always challenge the party, or are combats a choice the party makes? What do these choices mean, and how do they influence how the party acts in response to these heuristics and principles?

I would argue that 5e is mostly set up to be a "soft Monty Haul" system. I do not mean that in the pejorative sense; it defaults to heroic fantasy, with incredibly high survivability, and the default that (at most tables) encounters can be overcome. Moreover, this is both baked-into and described by the system; to quote the Basic Rules:
One player, however, takes on the role of the Dungeon Master (DM), the game’s lead storyteller and referee. The DM creates adventures for the characters, who navigate its hazards and decide which paths to explore. ... Together, the DM and the players create an exciting story of bold adventurers who confront deadly perils. Sometimes an adventurer might come to a grisly end, torn apart by ferocious monsters or done in by a nefarious villain. Even so, the other adventurers can search for powerful magic to revive their fallen comrade, or the player might choose to create a new character to carry on. The group might fail to complete an adventure successfully, but if everyone had a good time and created a memorable story, they all win.

Or, from the DMG p. 6-
The success of a D&D game hinges on your ability to entertain the other players at the game table. Whereas their role is to create characters (the protagonists of the campaign), breathe life into them, and help steer the campaign through their characters' actions, your role is to keep the players (and yourself) interested and immersed in the world you've created, and to let their characters do awesome things.

Obligatory NO ONE READS THE DMG!

There is certainly a sense that in 5e, the DM is a storyteller and facilitator of player fun, as opposed to being a neutral referee as first imagined in the OD&D days.


With all that in mind (mainly because I have other things to do today) I will throw this out- what do you think of the neutral referee in 5e? What principles do you use when running the game?
 

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Micah Sweet

Legend
I have always tried my best to play the neutral DM. That's what I was taught, from starting with the Metzer basic box and quickly moving on to 1st ed. My group played 1st ed off on and on until 5e came out, with occasional forays into other editions, and presenting the world as fairly as possible without bias for or against the players was always the goal. Sometimes the DM would create a situation without a clear solution in mind, and just throw the players in to see what they would do. PCs died all the time, and for the most part you just rolled up a new one and moved on.

That's still the way I prefer to play. The major shift in gaming culture over the years away from that has made it increasingly difficult though.
 

TwoSix

Unserious gamer
With all that in mind (mainly because I have other things to do today) I will throw this out- what do you think of the neutral referee in 5e? What principles do you use when running the game?
As someone who learned to play in the 2E era, the idea of the DM as an impartial adjudicator of a map-and-key dungeon adventure has always been somewhat to alien to me. I learned the early lesson that the role of the DM is to be a storyteller, and the rules of the game should be used in service of the greater narrative.

As my roleplaying evolved and I was exposed to a greater variety of playstyles, I try my best to adapt my DMing to the needs of the system I'm playing. For 5e, I've found that I prefer a more narrative "players-first" style for games with only a few players (3-4), a game where I let them drive as much as possible. For larger groups, I tend to stick more to traditional "story path" style games, where I have a general idea of where the plot will eventually go, with illusionism used when it seems necessary.

I think 5e has enough old-school DNA that it can be run in the "impartial referee" style without any real rule changes needed, but I think the culture of play surrounding the game pushes in other directions, unless all the players are familiar and comfortable with old-school style. Basically, you can impose "impartial referee" style on 5e, but it definitely isn't emergent from the core rules.
 

Micah Sweet

Legend
As someone who learned to play in the 2E era, the idea of the DM as an impartial adjudicator of a map-and-key dungeon adventure has always been somewhat to alien to me. I learned the early lesson that the role of the DM is to be a storyteller, and the rules of the game should be used in service of the greater narrative.

As my roleplaying evolved and I was exposed to a greater variety of playstyles, I try my best to adapt my DMing to the needs of the system I'm playing. For 5e, I've found that I prefer a more narrative "players-first" style for games with only a few players (3-4), a game where I let them drive as much as possible. For larger groups, I tend to stick more to traditional "story path" style games, where I have a general idea of where the plot will eventually go, with illusionism used when it seems necessary.

I think 5e has enough old-school DNA that it can be run in the "impartial referee" style without any real rule changes needed, but I think the culture of play surrounding the game pushes in other directions, unless all the players are familiar and comfortable with old-school style. Basically, you can impose "impartial referee" style on 5e, but it definitely isn't emergent from the core rules.
True. It can be very hard to maintain, but I have a hard time enjoying the game on either side if storytelling is the main focus. In D&D at least. I can break out of that mindset in other games, but D&D always feels best in the OSR vein to me.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
With all that in mind (mainly because I have other things to do today) I will throw this out- what do you think of the neutral referee in 5e?
For a neutral referee to be possible, the system itself needs to be designed in a neutral way. 5E does not want neutral referees. It's designed for storytellers and Monty Haul DMs who are fans of the players and their characters. It's designed to prevent Killer DMs with easy access to healing, high PC hit points, death saves, easy access to resurrection, etc.
What principles do you use when running the game?
I started a bit late for the proper neutral referee days (the Hickman Revolution was already brewing), but that's how I saw games run for decades and how I've always tried to run games myself. It's simply not the job of the referee to try to force story, story structure, or drama onto a game. Whatever story is generated by game play is emergent, not forced. Forcing story requires limiting player agency and railroading. Which are bad refereeing, though it's exactly what you have to do for the GM to be a storyteller.

You mention a lot of the tools of the trade for neutral refereeing. A set world that's often procedurally generated. Random generation. Random charts. Wandering monsters. Because the referee likes to be surprised, too. But lots and lots of prep. Because without that, the world feels hollow and less real. It's not about fiat and gotchas, it's about player agency and choices actually mattering. Player agency is king. No illusion of choice. No railroading. Choices have to matter. If they turn left and go into a dragon's lair at 1st level...they turn left and go into a dragon's lair at 1st level. What they do there is entirely up to them. If they decide to charge the dragon, they charge...and the dragon reacts accordingly. The referee does not protect the players from their choices.

The referee plays the world. The PCs are not the protagonists of a story, they're "real" people who exist in a "real" place and everyone acts and reacts accordingly. You steal something in town, the guards will hunt you down and throw you in jail. Action, reaction. Cause, effect. Bad decisions, consequences. Not in the sense of the referee punishing the player or the character, but the world is a "real" place. It's not a power fantasy-land tailored to the players' dreams of glory. There is no plot armor. No guaranteed survival. If your character does something incredibly stupid, they'll likely die for it. So player skill is incredibly important.

Emergent story is the key, I think. Completely letting go of any notions of plot, story, structure, scenes, etc and also letting go of any notions of forcing outcomes. It's simply not the referee's job. Doing so robs the players of agency, which is the major sin of this style of play. If the players choose to follow some kind of dramatic structure, that's their choice. If the players choose to run from half-finished quest to half-finished quest, that's their choice, too. Forcing the game to emulate a story is not what this style is after. Letting the game play out however the players and dice decide is the whole point. If that does not result in a "satisfying" story arc...so what? Games are not stories, they're games.

Along with that is not centering the individual PCs. It's not about spotlight time or making sure everyone has a moment to shine. The PCs are not demigods with epic destinies, but they are special in the sense that they're brave (and/or stupid) enough to want to go on dangerous quests and slay monsters in search of treasure...but they're not special in that they're not the protagonists of an unfolding story with a set end and guaranteed safety until that end. The emergent story is not about any individual PC, it's about the group's play together. We as a group have fun playing a game together. Whatever happens, happens. If this PC's story ends tonight, so be it. The player made a long string of bad choices and so their character is dead. The player is free to roll up a new one and keep playing. Because it's not about that one character's story, it's about the players as a group getting together and throwing dice and having a good time playing a game.
 

Micah Sweet

Legend
For a neutral referee to be possible, the system itself needs to be designed in a neutral way. 5E does not want neutral referees. It's designed for storytellers and Monty Haul DMs who are fans of the players and their characters. It's designed to prevent Killer DMs with easy access to healing, high PC hit points, death saves, easy access to resurrection, etc.

I started a bit late for the proper neutral referee days (the Hickman Revolution was already brewing), but that's how I saw games run for decades and how I've always tried to run games myself. It's simply not the job of the referee to try to force story, story structure, or drama onto a game. Whatever story is generated by game play is emergent, not forced. Forcing story requires limiting player agency and railroading. Which are bad refereeing, though it's exactly what you have to do for the GM to be a storyteller.

You mention a lot of the tools of the trade for neutral refereeing. A set world that's often procedurally generated. Random generation. Random charts. Wandering monsters. Because the referee likes to be surprised, too. But lots and lots of prep. Because without that, the world feels hollow and less real. It's not about fiat and gotchas, it's about player agency and choices actually mattering. Player agency is king. No illusion of choice. No railroading. Choices have to matter. If they turn left and go into a dragon's lair at 1st level...they turn left and go into a dragon's lair at 1st level. What they do there is entirely up to them. If they decide to charge the dragon, they charge...and the dragon reacts accordingly. The referee does not protect the players from their choices.

The referee plays the world. The PCs are not the protagonists of a story, they're "real" people who exist in a "real" place and everyone acts and reacts accordingly. You steal something in town, the guards will hunt you down and throw you in jail. Action, reaction. Cause, effect. Bad decisions, consequences. Not in the sense of the referee punishing the player or the character, but the world is a "real" place. It's not a power fantasy-land tailored to the players' dreams of glory. There is no plot armor. No guaranteed survival. If your character does something incredibly stupid, they'll likely die for it. So player skill is incredibly important.

Emergent story is the key, I think. Completely letting go of any notions of plot, story, structure, scenes, etc and also letting go of any notions of forcing outcomes. It's simply not the referee's job. Doing so robs the players of agency, which is the major sin of this style of play. If the players choose to follow some kind of dramatic structure, that's their choice. If the players choose to run from half-finished quest to half-finished quest, that's their choice, too. Forcing the game to emulate a story is not what this style is after. Letting the game play out however the players and dice decide is the whole point. If that does not result in a "satisfying" story arc...so what? Games are not stories, they're games.

Along with that is not centering the individual PCs. It's not about spotlight time or making sure everyone has a moment to shine. The PCs are not demigods with epic destinies, but they are special in the sense that they're brave (and/or stupid) enough to want to go on dangerous quests and slay monsters in search of treasure...but they're not special in that they're not the protagonists of an unfolding story with a set end and guaranteed safety until that end. The emergent story is not about any individual PC, it's about the group's play together. We as a group have fun playing a game together. Whatever happens, happens. If this PC's story ends tonight, so be it. The player made a long string of bad choices and so their character is dead. The player is free to roll up a new one and keep playing. Because it's not about that one character's story, it's about the players as a group getting together and throwing dice and having a good time playing a game.
Could not have put it better myself.
 

AnotherGuy

Adventurer
In D&D at least. I can break out of that mindset in other games, but D&D always feels best in the OSR vein to me.
I find with our campaign is a blend and this then due to the different APs we have adopted within the campaign (all at the same time). DotMM lends easier towards OSR vibes while ToD/SKT has elements of both (storytelling and OSR).
Coming from a 2e/BECMI background like @TwoSix I too enjoy narrative player-first styled for 5e, particularly since they are higher level, but we do have elements of storytelling at places and OSR when I'm using a published dungeon.
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
Is it possible to be a "neutral DM" who roots for the players and the monsters? Because if so, that's me. Kinda.

I think I have told this story before, if so, bear with me:
Back in the early-mid-oughts I was running a 3E game that was a mix of new and old folks. One of the players, who was new to my game once expressed a little consternation at my glee when monsters and other opponents did huge amounts of damage, rolled crits, or pulled off something that put a crimp in the PCs plans. But then one day, one of the other players were not present and I was running them as an NPC and when I rolled a crit for them, I cheered. It was then that the player started to notice something about my style of DMing. I was happy when anyone rolled well and any exciting thing happened. They were so focused on how I acted when their character took a crippling hit, they didn't notice how I acted when the PCs did the same against opponents - which was also with excitement.

I let the dice fall where they fall and I am usually gonna cheer when they fall in a way that makes something dramatic happen.
 

Micah Sweet

Legend
Is it possible to be a "neutral DM" who roots for the players and the monsters? Because if so, that's me. Kinda.

I think I have told this story before, if so, bear with me:
Back in the early-mid-oughts I was running a 3E game that was a mix of new and old folks. One of the players, who was new to my game once expressed a little consternation at my glee when monsters and other opponents did huge amounts of damage, rolled crits, or pulled off something that put a crimp in the PCs plans. But then one day, one of the other players were not present and I was running them as an NPC and when I rolled a crit for them, I cheered. It was then that the player started to notice something about my style of DMing. I was happy when anyone rolled well and any exciting thing happened. They were so focused on how I acted when their character took a crippling hit, they didn't notice how I acted when the PCs did the same against opponents - which was also with excitement.

I let the dice fall where they fall and I am usually gonna cheer when they fall in a way that makes something dramatic happen.
That's a great attitude. Being excited about exciting things happening on both sides is wonderful. I love drama when it happens naturally, I just don't want it forced.
 


overgeeked

B/X Known World
I think that one can be a fan of the PCs and still be aspire to the goals of the Neutral DM. It's possible to design an adventure with the PCs in mind, but allow events to unfold as the dice fall without showing any favoritism to either the players or the world.
These are contradictory though. By designing an adventure with the PCs in mind, you are showing favoritism to the PCs. To be neutral, the referee has to ignore the PCs when constructing the world. However the PCs happen to move through it is up to them. If they go into an orc encampment without a healer and start attacking...they're going to have a bad time. Designing that adventure with the PCs in mind would be changing the world to suit these specific PCs and their abilities, hence showing favoritism towards the PCs.
 

RuinousPowers

Adventurer
These are contradictory though. By designing an adventure with the PCs in mind, you are showing favoritism to the PCs. To be neutral, the referee has to ignore the PCs when constructing the world. However the PCs happen to move through it is up to them. If they go into an orc encampment without a healer and start attacking...they're going to have a bad time. Designing that adventure with the PCs in mind would be changing the world to suit these specific PCs and their abilities, hence showing favoritism towards the PCs.
Well, I certainly wouldn't have anticipated the PCs to attack an orc encampment without proper preparation, but if they did then they would face the consequences.

But as I said, I believe one can design an adventure appropriate for the PCs while also letting the dice fall where they may. You can have an overarching story without taking steps to ensure it plays out to completion if the PCs choose to attack orc encampments, for example.
 



overgeeked

B/X Known World
Well, I certainly wouldn't have anticipated the PCs to attack an orc encampment without proper preparation, but if they did then they would face the consequences.
I've seen weirder. Especially lately. The idea that everything is tailored to the PCs and that there's not only a chance but a very good chance that they can win any and every fight has thoroughly seeped into the players I've encounter in the last decade.
But as I said, I believe one can design an adventure appropriate for the PCs while also letting the dice fall where they may.
Well, that's not quite what you'd said before. Referee neutrality prevents designing an adventure tailored to the PCs, but letting the dice fall where they may is definitely neutral referee behavior.
You can have an overarching story without taking steps to ensure it plays out to completion if the PCs choose to attack orc encampments, for example.
We must be using "story" differently then. When I say story I mean a set plot with predefined beginning, middle, and end. To me, that's not something a neutral referee does. The neutral referee will create situations, events, factions with goals, etc...put those into the world and set things in motion, but how that all plays out is entirely a reaction to how the PCs handle things. If they ignore a problem, it gets worse. If they ignore a faction, it accomplishes its goals. Nothing waits for the PCs to show up, if that makes sense. If there's a sacrifice scheduled for the new moon, it happens on the new moon, regardless of where the PCs are. The world isn't paused while the PCs goof off.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
I think there are two stages of GMing, and whether "neutrality" is one's preferred ideal may vary between them.

The first stage is when one is working out the situation/s the PCs will find themselves in. These might be crafted to present themselves immediately to the PCs, or they might require some going-and-finding, or they might be entirely or partially procedurally generated. One might work out situations specifically to appeal to the players one has, or to their characters; or one might not.

The second stage is when one is running the situation/s the PCs have found themselves in. One might run them entirely neutrally, or one might run them with one's thumb on the scale one way or another. One might root for the PCs, or one might not. One might fudge, or one might not.

As for me, I work out situations with the idea the players (via their characters) will engage with and enjoy them, with an eye also to having them make sense both in the world and in the narrative. I run them as neutrally as I can. I see no contradiction here.
 

Voadam

Legend
In Skilled Play, the conception is that the challenge is not to the character, but to the player (it's a measure of player skill). That's why it requires the DM to be a "neutral referee" or a "neutral arbiter."

The DM, then, cannot ad hoc the area that is being explored, the DM cannot ad lib, and the DM should not be a fan of the players in Skilled Play. The DM is, for all practical purposes, the world that the players are interacting with through their characters. For this reason, the game cannot have mechanics for the players to seize narrative control of the world. The world exists independently of the player's conceptions and desires, and they (the players) are using their Skilled Play to overcome the obstacles within the world.

For that same reason, the DM must commit to preparation. This division of authority requires trust from the players to the DM that the DM is not changing the world or engaging in illusionism to help or hinder the players.

Finally, in addition to that dichotomy, there was also further erosion of the neutral referee in the 70s as we saw movements both towards "DM as storyteller" (the rise of illusionism) as well as certain early improv styles of play. But that requires far more words than I'm willing to write. Which ... wow.

I am not sure at all that skilled play requires a DM to avoid ad libbing and improv running what goes on.

Improvving things seems very in-genre to the style in the foundational inspiration literature of Jack Vance in particular.

Ad libbing elements could be placing a thumb on the scale to hinder or benefit PCs, but it could be neutral filling in elements and adjudicating how the PCs deal with that situation.

Fundamentally all 1st person roleplaying talking interactions are going to be at least partially ad libbing and improvving. Guided by whatever is already known about them and situations, but even the most detailed NPC is usually not running a predetermined script.

A lot of the times the descriptions of predone or random chart stuff is very limited and requires fleshing out on the part of the DM on the spot as the PCs interact with it.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I am not sure at all that skilled play requires a DM to avoid ad libbing and improv running what goes on.

Improvving things seems very in-genre to the style in the foundational inspiration literature of Jack Vance in particular.

Ad libbing elements could be placing a thumb on the scale to hinder or benefit PCs, but it could be neutral filling in elements and adjudicating how the PCs deal with that situation.

Fundamentally all 1st person roleplaying talking interactions are going to be at least partially ad libbing and improvving. Guided by whatever is already known about them and situations, but even the most detailed NPC is usually not running a predetermined script.

A lot of the times the descriptions of predone or random chart stuff is very limited and requires fleshing out on the part of the DM on the spot as the PCs interact with it.

Reading the main section you are responding to holistically with my emphasis:

The DM, then, cannot ad hoc the area that is being explored, the DM cannot ad lib, and the DM should not be a fan of the players in Skilled Play. The DM is, for all practical purposes, the world that the players are interacting with through their characters. For this reason, the game cannot have mechanics for the players to seize narrative control of the world. The world exists independently of the player's conceptions and desires, and they (the players) are using their Skilled Play to overcome the obstacles within the world.

For that same reason, the DM must commit to preparation. This division of authority requires trust from the players to the DM that the DM is not changing the world or engaging in illusionism to help or hinder the players.


Read completely, the emphasis is not on the idea that the DM cannot "ad lib" dialogue from an NPC (for example) or "ad lib" additional details about what a room looks like. Instead, it's that the world exists independently of the players, which means that:
1. The DM should, to the extent possible, rely on preparation (and/or other outside materials or tables) when it comes to exploration. They should not ad hoc or ad lib an area being explored.
2. When the DM does not have this material, the DM must make rulings that are "true to the fiction" regardless of whether that would help or hinder the players. And when that ruling is made, then that becomes a "truth" in the world. If the DM has established that a chalice is green, then the chalice is always green from that point on. The players can trust that the DM is not going to change the color of the chalice (or the location of rooms) later on.
3. This is different than the "improv" games I reference, which allow players to seize narrative control of the world.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
the world exists independently of the players
This is a huge piece of the puzzle that prevents people from grokking this style of play.

The world exists independently of the players and their characters.

This is also one big reason why neutral referees use random tables and random rolls, to remove even the potential of their thumb being on the scale. You design your charts and table independently of the players and characters. When the PCs interact with a space, you roll on that table, whatever comes up, comes up. You don't stack the tables for or against the PCs. You make them as neutral as possible. As honest to that part of the world as possible. If you're in the mountains, things that live in the mountains go on the wandering monster chart...regardless of what HD or level the monsters are and regardless of what level the PCs are.

For example, the PCs are on their last legs, down all spells, have few hit points, and are trying to rest to recover...but they got into an argument and start screaming. So the referee rolls a wandering monster check, yep something's out there. Roll again, it's orcs. Roll again for number appearing...ouch. The referee rolls 117 orcs...so that's what there are. The referee rolls on the reaction table, they're immediately hostile...so that's what they do. That's what they're dealing with now. Not because the referee decided to, but because the referee is neutrally following the procedures of the game.

If the GM decided there was a warband of 117 orcs over the next ridge because the PCs start screaming and shouting at each other, then decided that warband will hear and will come to attack, most people would agree that's terrible GMing. The opposite of that is the GM who decides that no matter what the PCs deserve a break and will refuse to roll for wandering monsters. Padding and softening the adventure to suit the PCs and their current state, most people seem to think that's good GMing...but I disagree.

It's a game, you play to find out what happens. You don't decide before hand what's supposed to happen...good or bad.
 

Mort

Legend
Supporter
With all that in mind (mainly because I have other things to do today) I will throw this out- what do you think of the neutral referee in 5e?
I think 5e definitely has room for the neutral referee in 5e. It is 100% possible to design fun, interesting challenges and then be neutral when running them.

What principles do you use when running the game?

My main principle is to design fun, interesting challenges for the players to encounter and use that for the players to take their characters through the world. I think it's best to "yes and" whenever possible and find that helps maintain neutrality much more than saying no all the time (which, IMO, both comes off as adversarial AND means trying to protect "my situations" way too much).
 

Dungeon Delver's Guide

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