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

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.

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.

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
When you start a campaign is it equal chance you will begin with Keep on the Borderlands or Test of the Warlords? Is starting with a low level module tailoring the adventure to the PCs?

I'm referring to story through emergent play. All the factions, events, goals, and situations you create are story. The way it progresses without PC intervention is story. How it's altered when the PCs do intercede is story. I think we are using story the same way.
 

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Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
You are actually not addressing my points. Insisting it is possible but refusing to even attempt to explain how is not convincing.

"Insisting it is possible," when it is done, and has been for as long as TTRPGs have been played (and longer) .... I'm good with that.

In the end, your need to be convinced is not my problem. Either educate yourself or not- but choosing to make things arguments is not a good way of engaging in conversations. So I will say one more time- I am EXITING this exchange. Please do not reply again. :)
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
The truest of statements. It is revealed to me in glorious and ultra-annoying fashion every two weeks during sessions in which our GM - who works at one of the not-indie-and-very-big fantasy RPG publishers in a very-rules-significant role - is routinely questioned throughout the game by the players who are most knowledgeable about said rules. Pacing is always slowed to check the explicit wording of a thing.

You'd think they'd trust him, right? But the existence of a volume of rules virtually discourages that.

I get a lot of ENworld thread reading done during these games.


Bingo.

I think that the individual in question just has a very different conception of what "trust" means that does not dovetail with how most people think about it when discussing the division of authority in TTRPGs and the usual conception of rules and rule complexity.
 

Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
It just seems pretty questionable to me when this "referee" was the person who decided, sometimes improvised om the spot, what the opposition is and what their capabilities and attitudes are in the first place. 🤷
Part of "neutral referee" is not improvising opposition on the spot. If you don't have something specific prepared beforehand, you use procedural generation techniques (random tables) to create it during play.
 


Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
Part of "neutral referee" is not improvising opposition on the spot. If you don't have something specific prepared beforehand, you use procedural generation techniques (random tables) to create it during play.
I think that what @Crimson Longinus is getting at is that, since it’s presumably the DM who’s designing the prepared content and the random tables, there’s really no avoiding making a conscious decision about how difficult the content will be, or at least how difficult it’s likely to be in the case of random tables. Was EGG being neutral when he designed the Tomb of Horrors specifically to thwart players?

I think it might be beneficial to distinguish between neutrality when running the game and neutrality when designing the content. I think the neutral referee/blorb style tends to be focused much more on the former than the latter, which is kind of what I was getting at in my earlier comment about it being possible to run a system that favors the players in a neutral way - the likely result being that the players will win more often than not. Likewise, one can run a very difficult, arguably even unfair dungeon like Tomb of Horrors in a neutral way, the likely result being that the characters will all die long before reaching the end. Both are “fair game” so to speak in the context of blorb play. The point is to present the content and to resolve the players’ attempts to engage with it as impartially as possible, whether that content be designed to be easy, hard, or even a challenge tailored specifically to their capabilities.
 

Voadam

Legend
Part of "neutral referee" is not improvising opposition on the spot. If you don't have something specific prepared beforehand, you use procedural generation techniques (random tables) to create it during play.
I disagree.

When improvising opposition doing it with a thumb on the scale in favor of PCs is not neutral. Doing it with a thumb on the scale of the NPC side is not being neutral. Doing it based on what seems reasonable for the situation or inspiration that hits at the moment is neutral refereeing in an unexpected opposition situation can be neutral.

"I stab the king with my dinner knife." is something a PC might unexpectedly do where a DM was not expecting it and they have to come up with the opposition in the moment. Grabbing some appropriate stats for the king and his nearby guard and going with those seems a neutral reasonable way to handle it. Thinking about scene relevant oddball options (the King generally has a good until used one shot 1e stoneskin spell cast on him by his court wizard, or maybe the king is secretly a polymorphed dragon or a doppelganger) also seems fair game for neutral DMing unless it is done to benefit or punish the PCs.

The king might have 4 hp, they might be an ancient polymorphed dragon with lots of hp.
 

In logic that proof technique has a name: "proof by instantiation." If x actually happens, then its possibility is demonstrated.
Right. But that people say that they're being "neutral" or even that they believe that they are doesn't mean they actually would be from any objective sense. They probably have somewhat coherent internalised model for adjudication, but whether such model would be "neutral" let alone "fair" is completely another matter.
 

Fanaelialae

Legend
I thought of a better example to illustrate my meaning.

Let's say that I, as a neutral DM, create a setting. I populate this setting with all sorts of interesting and challenging this and that.

In one of the towns is a secret death cult devoted to Orcus that is abducting townsfolk and sacrificing them in profane rituals. The cult belongs to a powerful lich, who is off conducting other business at the moment along with his six apprentices. He does check in with the cult periodically, however.

The players learn of the death cult's activities and resolve to stop them. Despite being low level, through careful and smart play they succeed in wiping out most of the cult, effectively ending their threat.

The next time the lich checks in with the cult, he finds out about this (maybe from a survivor, maybe via divination).

It would not be unreasonable for the lich to assemble his apprentices, have them each ready a fireball, and then scry-teleport to the party's location, whereupon the low level party takes 48d6 fire damage (save for half). After all, they destroyed his cult and this sends a message to any future adventurers who might think about getting uppity.

However, I don't think that such a course would reasonably fall under that of a neutral DM. IMO, such a DM would be quite clearly a killer DM.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
When you start a campaign is it equal chance you will begin with Keep on the Borderlands or Test of the Warlords? Is starting with a low level module tailoring the adventure to the PCs?
When I start a campaign, it’s an open world sandbox, typically in the old-school or West Marches style. In theory, both modules could exist in the world and the PCs could engage with them at whatever level they wish.

I don’t run modules or pre-written adventures. I tried that once and the players immediately zigged when they needed to zag. Immediately as in the first five minutes of the first session. All the money and time prepping it went out the window. So neutral referee with a sandbox world for the PCs to explore.
 

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