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


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Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Supporter
I'm still not sure that there is a coherent definition of "neutral" and definitely not one on which people would agree. Nor I'm convinced that it is a helpful concept to begin with. 🤷

Given that this was the dominant mode of play for the first decade of D&D (prior to the so-called Hickman revolution), and continues to be discussed regularly today (especially w/r/t OSR, FKR, and retroclones) ... I mean, that's a pretty impressive statement! :)
 

DEFCON 1

Legend
Supporter
Going back to the Monty Haul part of things for a moment...

The thing I always experienced and remembered with regards to Monty Haul was that it was mostly a thing in the AD&D era, due to two major factors-- almost every monster in the MM having a Treasure Type letter in their statblock... and the random treasure tables in the DMG that corresponded to all of these monster treasure types. Those of us who were kids at the time of AD&D saw glory in the randomness and potential windfalls that came with those two things. And I know for myself and my friends... before the idea of stories and characterization and long-term plots were a thing in AD&D... it was almost always just quick dungeon crawling adventures-- "Go into a dungeon, when you enter a room the the DM pulls out a monster (either by choice or by using a random monster encounter chart), the party attacks and defeats said monster, and then the players then all roll on the random treasure tables, gaining anything and everything that showed up.

There was no thought about having the dungeon "make sense" or there being a reason why all these disparate creatures would be found so close together in chamber after chamber and without obvious water or food sources... it was all just "Give us a bunch of monsters to kill, and then let's see all the different kinds of loot we get!" And that's why it was called "Monty Haul"... because you never knew what the treasure was going to be behind Door #1 or in the box being brought down the aisle, but you knew it could be something awesome or something complete crap. And you had no way of knowing until you opened the door / lifted the box (IE rolled the dice on the random treasure table). And when you ran into another kid whose characters all seemed to have +5 weapons and armor, powerful staves, multiple rings on each finger and dozens of miscellaneous magic items, you knew they were a part of a Monty Haul game.

"Why did that ettin have a Vorpal Sword in the chest in its room?" "No idea! But I rolled it randomly, so now it's mine!" ;)
 

Fanaelialae

Legend
So on this, the issue with "telegraphing threats," could also be described a different way.

"The game is narrative, so the neutral referee is responsible for describing the world/fiction in such a way that the elements of the world/fiction are not a surprise to the players."

A good neutral referee should provide the players enough information about the world so that they can make the informed and meaningful decision. In other words, there shouldn't be an element of "gotcha" when it comes to the decision. Arguably, that is what separates a "good" neutral referee from a "bad" killer DM. What one person says is "accurately conveying information for meaningful decisions," is what another person describes as, "telegraphing threats."

However, I depart from this when you describe the neutral DM as akin to the Bond Villain; no, not at all! If you want a Bond Villain, then play a game that emulates that genre fiction. The whole thing with the "Bond Villain" is that everyone knows that no matter what, the Bond Villain will lose. Bond will not die. He will be captured, and he will be provided opportunities to escape. The neutral referee does not act in that manner at all.

As soon as you start to think that you will have your thumb on the scale for the players, you are necessarily abdicating that role. Eventually, the players will realize that, and they will rely upon it. That's a fine style of play, but it's not the same thing.
The Bond Villain was intended as an illustrative example, not a literal one. I thought that was obvious, hence I find your response somewhat perplexing. I outright stated that in the case of the neutral DM, Bond can die (no deus ex machina) but that he has a chance.

After thinking about it some more, I think I may have sussed out what I believe is lacking in your definition:
... except as other priorities of play need take precedence.

The DM is generally neutral, but for the interests of "skilled play" they ensure that the player have sufficient information to make informed decisions (despite that their NPC might possess sufficient genius to create a trap that is effectively unavoidable and inescapable, the neutral DM won't do so because that is counter to the tenants of "skilled play").

The DM can also go in the other direction. A classic example would be Tucker's Kobolds. Extremely weak monsters that are played in such a way that they provide a serious challenge to players irrespective of character level. I would say that's an example of the DM putting their thumb on the scale in favor of the world.
 

tetrasodium

Legend
Supporter
Epic
I'm going to disagree with the 3.x not trusting the gm while 5e does claim. People have regularly have pointed at the 5e dmg suggesting it solves all gm problems if people would actually read it for several years now but unlike the 5e dmg the 3.x one actually had stuff in it & some of it was implicitly or explicitly things that armed the gm.

METAGAME THINKING
“I figure there’ll be a lever on the other side of the pit that deactivates the trap,” a player says to the others, “because the DM wouldnever create a trap that we couldn’t deactivate somehow.” That’s an example of metagame thinking. Any time the players base their characters’ actions on logic that depends on the fact that they’re playing a game; they’re using metagame thinking. This behavior should always be discouraged, because it detracts from real role-playing and spoils the suspension of disbelief.

Surprise your players by foiling metagame thinking. Suppose the other side of the pit has a lever, for example, but it’s rusted and
useless. Keep your players on their toes, and don’t let them second-guess you. Tell them to think in terms of the game world, not in terms of you as the DM. In the game world, someone made the trap in the dungeon for a purpose. You have figured out the reason
why the trap exists, and the PCs will need to do the same.

In short, when possible you should encourage the players to employ in-game logic. Confronted with the situation given above,
an appropriate response from a clever character is “I figure there’ll be a lever on the other side of the pit that deactivates the trap,
because the gnomes who constructed the trap must have a means to deactivate it.” In fact, this is wonderful—it shows smart thinking as well as respect for the verisimilitude of the game world.

It all but explicitly tells the gm that changing the world on the fly to thwart certain types of gameplay is good on page 11/12. Then later with gm's best friend & stacking bonuses on 21/30 it provides a toolset that can be used to neutrally stack the odds & guidance on using it. There are countless other examples buried among the various "behind the curtain" sidebars that give tools & understanding to a gm wanting to use the trust they have with minimized frustrating trial & error that might erode it. You can see another example on 3.5mm pg300 in the SR & DR behind the curtain sidebar where it explains their value & how to set them responsibly to get the results you want for monsters your group will be facing.

3.x was less deadly than earlier versions given certain conditions like unlimited CLW wands but it could still be played in a manner where danger was still a thing if those were more limited & that was largely up to the GM. 5e by comparison is full on cheat code levels of survival with a lot of player facing tools with no purpose other than invalidating the GM's tools like powerful build & near universal darkvision among others. Powerful build is useless for conveying strength in a PC & the giff switching to advantage on strength checks proves it but PB still does exactly what it was designed to do by ensuring any player can simply say "nope" & opt out of any meaningful results from the gm tightening carrying capacities
 

Given that this was the dominant mode of play for the first decade of D&D (prior to the so-called Hickman revolution), and continues to be discussed regularly today (especially w/r/t OSR, FKR, and retroclones) ... I mean, that's a pretty impressive statement! :)
And like you yourself note, splits in style started to emerge early on. I think this is an indication of the incoherence of the underlying concept or at least in its interpretation.
 

James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
Though as I feel obligated to point out everytime someone complains about darkvision, unlike in previous editions, darkvision has a real downside that you really don't want to be dealing with while exploring a dangerous area.
 

The DM is generally neutral, but for the interests of "skilled play" they ensure that the player have sufficient information to make informed decisions (despite that their NPC might possess sufficient genius to create a trap that is effectively unavoidable and inescapable, the neutral DM won't do so because that is counter to the tenants of "skilled play").

The DM can also go in the other direction. A classic example would be Tucker's Kobolds. Extremely weak monsters that are played in such a way that they provide a serious challenge to players irrespective of character level. I would say that's an example of the DM putting their thumb on the scale in favor of the world.
Right, but why is the former being neutral and the latter putting thumb on the scale in favour of the world? To me it seems the the opposite, the former is favouring the players in expense of representing the world "neutrally."

Like you said, the enemies certainly could be able to create pretty much undetectable traps. And what if players come up with a plan that logically is undetectable to the enemies? Would the GM then invent or introduce some contrived flaw to their plan that would telegraphs this threat to the NPCs just like they would do if the NPCs were trying to set a trap on the PCs? :unsure:
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Supporter
The Bond Villain was intended as an illustrative example, not a literal one. I thought that was obvious, hence I find your response somewhat perplexing. I outright stated that in the case of the neutral DM, Bond can die (no deus ex machina) but that he has a chance.

But that's the point; sometimes, with a neutral referee ... the players don't have a chance.

That's why I took issue with your statement regarding the thumb on the scale, and with your analogy. Because the whole point of skilled play is that the decisions are meaningful, but sometimes correct and meaningful decisions ... turn out wrong.

It's about managing probabilities, and putting yourself in the best position possible. But sometimes the dice don't roll your way. Sometimes the player makes a meaningful decision at one point that they can't escape from later. It is not the DM's responsibility to ensure that players "have a chance."

You just need to make sure things are fair. It is up to the players to make sure they have a chance.

I think we just have very different conceptions of this. :)
 

But that's the point; sometimes, with a neutral referee ... the players don't have a chance.

That's why I took issue with your statement regarding the thumb on the scale, and with your analogy. Because the whole point of skilled play is that the decisions are meaningful, but sometimes correct and meaningful decisions ... turn out wrong.

It's about managing probabilities, and putting yourself in the best position possible. But sometimes the dice don't roll your way. Sometimes the player makes a meaningful decision at one point that they can't escape from later. It is not the DM's responsibility to ensure that players "have a chance."

You just need to make sure things are fair. It is up to the players to make sure they have a chance.

I think we just have very different conceptions of this. :)
What is "fair?"
 

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