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

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.
Right. I don't know what being "neutral" at the content creation stage could even mean. In running the game stage it at least makes some sense, and having well established principles and lot of prep lessens the judgement calls the GM has to make. Still, I don't think it can completely eliminate them, and I think even in a well prepared dungeon the GM has to make a lot of decisions about how to describe (and thus possibly telegraph) things what sorts of tactics the NPCs will use etc. And once we get to outside of well defined areas such as dungeons into the wide world with countless people and places comprehensive prep simply cannot exist.

I think establishing such things like blorb principles (where does this term come from?) can certainly be enormously beneficial for running the game in disciplined manner, but at the same time I feel it is important to recognise the limitations even the most strident prep and principles, and that the GM cannot, nor should not, disown their responsibility about decision making.
 

log in or register to remove this ad

tetrasodium

Legend
Supporter
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.
That's where everything else 5e does to remove trust from the GM comes into play. A tool is presented to players that appears as if the GM can wield it
PHB183 said:
Darkvision
Many creatures in the w orlds o f D&D, especially those that dwell underground, have darkvision. Within a specified range, a creature with darkvision can see in darkness as if the darkness w ere dim light, so areas of darkness are only lightly obscured as far as that creature is concerned. However, the creature can’t discern color in darkness, only shades of gray.
With a cursory glance it seems like the italicized bit is somehow going to be a really cool puzzles involving color, but really how hard is it to perform simple inventory management for even the most mentally dump statted PC. Those kinds of puzzles might be neat once or twice but over the span of a campaign they will get old fast & the resulting annoyance will be blamed on the GM. That leaves the bold part
PHB183 said:
Dim light, also called shadows, creates a lightly obscured area. An area of dim light is usually a boundary between a source of bright light, such as a torch, and surrounding darkness. The soft light of twilight and dawn also counts as dim light. A particularly brilliant full moon might bathe the land in dim light.
Wow sez the player knowing full well they can trivially see at night with a full moon (a true statement nearly everywhere people live in the world) but again the mechanical bit is that section I bolded
Lightly obscured said:
In
a lightly obscured area, such as dim light, patchy fog, or moderate foliage, creatures have disadvantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on sight.
That has almost no impact beyond the most bland gotcha traps unless they are actually DCC funnel type instagib traps because PCs are so safe with the reduction of resource attrition/depletion being dialed to near total removal & safety of PCs in combat. Given the rarity of wisdom(perception) checks in combat it doesn't even impact one of the few areas it might pose a minor hurdle.

Much of 5e's design is rooted in that sort of "Here's this tool your GM might use" paired with a low hanging "and here's this reason(s) why it won't matter if they do unless they are a killerdm", that's the opposite of a system that trusts the GM. Unlike 3.x's "yea the merchant says he sold you the last wand of CLW & doesn't know when more will be in stock" neutral GM option 5e sets up a nontrivial cascading problem to unwind that & fill the holes that result from trying to that makes for the appearance of a non-neutral GM.
 
Last edited:

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
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.
I think this is where some DMs can fall into the trap I mentioned earlier, of trying to think of anything and everything that might possibly go wrong for the PCs and simulate all of it in the name of “neutrality.” Would the king really have had that that one-shot Stoneskin contingency if the players hadn’t unexpectedly stabbed him? Or does that just seem like a reasonable thing in the moment because you don’t want the king to get killed by this unexpected action declaration? This is exactly why neutral referee type DMs tend to disfavor improvisation, because it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to improvise content impartially.
 

Mort

Legend
Supporter
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.

Well yes, IF you run a published adventure/module you need to have full agreement with the players that they will stay within the confines of the module. If you don't want to do that, you either have to scrap the module when the players step outside of it or you have to not agree to run it in the first place.

So neutral referee with a sandbox world for the PCs to explore.

Do you telegraph, or otherwise let the players know (in some other way) what areas are above their paygrade (their level 2, the monsters/opponents in the area tend to be CR10+, for example)?
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
I don't know what being "neutral" at the content creation stage could even mean.
Random generation of content. Or designing content generation neutrally. Ignore the PCs as much as possible.

For example. Go to a random map generator and generate a map. That’s neutral. Find all possible starting towns. Roll to determine which is the starting town. That’s neutral. Use terrain-based content generators. That’s neutral. Etc.
 

South by Southwest

Incorrigible Daydreamer
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.
I'm not concerned with convincing you otherwise, so I will only provide one possible counterargument that you can consider or dismiss as pleases you: do you think we have or can refine our collective way to some (any) kind of passable, functioning concept of "unfair?" Because if so, then by the simplest application of the rule of negation, we thereby already do also have an equally passable, functioning concept of "fair" regardless of any difficulties anyone has when trying to define it.

Two big lessons I learned from reading Wittgenstein in grad school: (1) Any concept becomes almost impossible to fully define as soon as you start examining it closely and patiently, and (2) Never get into a philosophical tussle with a German.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
I think establishing such things like blorb principles (where does this term come from?)
Apparently it was coined by someone named Sandra Snan? This post:
Blogger Sandra Snan coined a name for this kind of prep-focused, principled restraint — blorb.

(Excellent summary of the neutral referee in the OP, BTW, SZ. I'll throw another bard on the BBQ for ya.)
was the first time I had ever heard of it.
 


overgeeked

B/X Known World
This is exactly why neutral referee type DMs tend to disfavor improvisation, because it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to improvise content impartially.
That’s not really true. You absolutely can improv neutrally. Start from what makes the most sense to the fictional world. Sure, it’s possible that the king has a stoneskin or that he’s a dragon, but unless that’s something you already decided on*, it’s not neutral in the moment. So you go with what makes the most sense given the fictional world. Did you already establish that the king was a secret dragon, then he’s not. Did you already establish that the king was a gutless non-combatant who inherited the crown rather than fought for it, then he’s likely got 4 hp. Did you establish that the king conquered the lands he now rules, then he’s likely a mid to highish level fighter-type. Etc.

* This is why most referees who run this way will prep things before the PCs interact with them. The PCs are going to the king’s castle, okay…I need to prep that. Here’s the stat block for the typical guard. Here’s the captain of the guard. Here’s the king’s bodyguard. Here’s the king. Prep what you can, improv what you must. It’s a lot of work being neutral.
 

CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
My tips for being a neutral DM:

1. Don't skimp on prep time. You're going to need a lot of it...more than you think you will. "Oh it'll be fine, I'm using a pre-written adventure!" Oh, my sweet summer child. Your players are going to leave that script on page 1. Expect to spend at least twice as long on prep as you will in actual play. (My prep-to-play ratio is about 5-to-1, but YMMV.)

2. Have a plan for everything. What if they say no to the quest-giving NPC? What if they decide not to go into the cave? You'll need to be ready for just about anything. Keep a supply of short one-shot adventures that can be used for side-quests in a pinch. One-Page Adventures are excellent for this...they're modular, easy to skim, and ready to play in a moment's notice. (And you'll often only get a moment's notice.)

3. Use random generators. There are tons of tools online that will generate random maps, characters, spellbooks, treasures, npcs, villages, even entire kingdoms, with just a few clicks of a mouse. I keep a tab open to donjon; D&D 5e Tools the entire time I'm playing...it doesn't have everything, but it has most of what I might need in a pinch.

And the most important one:

4. Use random encounters. You need to get comfortable with random encounter tables, and your players need to understand how you are going to use them.

Use different tables for daytime and nighttime encounters, different tables for different terrain, different tables for different levels of the dungeon. It's perfectly acceptable to make random room contents too: "If the party enters this chamber, they automatically encounter one random monster from the Random Encounter table" or so forth.

And make sure your players know how often you will be checking for random encounters, the mechanics you will use (is it a flat % chance? a Survival check? a random roll?), and what they can do to improve their odds. If there are monsters on the random encounter table that are more than a match for the player characters, let them know beforehand. Some players fully expect to be able to win every encounter they stumble upon...if that's not going to be the case at your table, tell them! Otherwise it's just a TPK waiting to happen.
 

Mort

Legend
Supporter
4. Use random encounters. You need to get comfortable with random encounter tables, and your players need to understand how you are going to use them.

Use different tables for daytime and nighttime encounters, different tables for different terrain, different tables for different levels of the dungeon. It's perfectly acceptable to make random room contents too: "If the party enters this chamber, they automatically encounter one random monster from the Random Encounter table" or so forth.

And make sure your players know how often you will be checking for random encounters, the mechanics you will use (is it a flat % chance? a Survival check? a random roll?), and what they can do to improve their odds. If there are monsters on the random encounter table that are more than a match for the player characters, let them know beforehand. Some players fully expect to be able to win every encounter they stumble upon...if that's not going to be the case at your table, tell them! Otherwise it's just a TPK waiting to happen.
On this note, when using random encounters - make sure that, generally, there is an obvious method of escape or other non-combat resolution. 5e is REALLY bad about this. Both because it doesn't do a good job of letting players know sometimes they need to flee AND because the mechanisms/mechanics to do so are lacking.

While this seems pro player, IMO, it's just anti-random TPK. And actually leads to more neutral DMing (because the DM isn't as sorely tempted to put his thumb on the encounter scale).
 

Random generation of content. Or designing content generation neutrally. Ignore the PCs as much as possible.

For example. Go to a random map generator and generate a map. That’s neutral. Find all possible starting towns. Roll to determine which is the starting town. That’s neutral. Use terrain-based content generators. That’s neutral. Etc.
Does anyone actually do this? I assume you'd also have random charts to populate these places, including random charts for personalities and interpersonal relationships of the people. Also random charts to generate the history of the setting. Yeah, not seeing this actually happening.

That’s not really true. You absolutely can improv neutrally. Start from what makes the most sense to the fictional world.
This I think is the part where people are kidding themselves. Creating fiction that does "make sense to me" is not neutral. It is all made up, we could come up with countless different things that "make sense," at least to someone. I don't think it it is helpful to pretend that this is not a creative process shaped by the GMs whims and tastes.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
That’s not really true. You absolutely can improv neutrally. Start from what makes the most sense to the fictional world.
Well, see, herein lies the problem. “What makes the most sense in the fictional world” is inherently subjective, and therefore cannot be decided on impartially. Now, as established earlier, impartiality is more of an ideal to strive for than a goal that can be attained, so this isn’t necessarily a problem. But it does make improvisation a less neutral form of content than prepared content, which is why it is less favored in this style of play. Doesn’t mean it can’t be used, just that one has to be especially careful with it.
 

Egon Spengler

"We eat gods for breakfast!"
I think, and I'm just speaking for myself here, that the problem I have with the basic premise of a neutral DM is that it ignores the fact that D&D (and RPG's in general) are made up of a number of different games at different times. When the DM is creating an adventure, it's almost impossible to be actually neutral. Unless that adventure is 100% randomly generated, the DM will ALWAYS have a thumb on the scale. Has to. And, is advised to PUT a thumb on the scale during scenario creation - sure, randomly roll your treasure, but, if it is too much or too little, roll again goes the advice in the 1e DMG.

I just have serious doubts that the sort of play where the GM doesn't need to make decisions based on their whims is actually possible in practice. Who made the charts in the first place and how it is decided when the chart is used and which chart is used? How it is decided what sort of tactics the enemies use once the combat begins?

I don't know, it just feels to me like some sort of self deception to think such neutrality is truly possible, and thus disowning the actual responsibility of what's happening in the game. In D&D ultimately the GM is in charge, and I feel it is the best to recognise what it means.

There's a reason @Snarf Zagyg tried to head these kinds of arguments off at the pass. They're not interesting. We're all of us here, I think, familiar enough with postpositivist incredulity to be aware that certainty is a technical impossibility. But it's trivial — it doesn't lead to any useful insights here.

Yes, impartial refereeing is an ideal that DMs (of this particular inclination) strive for while running the game — while wearing the Referee's Hat.

It's also an ideal that DMs may take into account while wearing the Worldbuilder's Hat, fully aware that the Worldbuilder's Hat and the Game Designer's Hat often need to compromise (such as, for example, when deeper dungeon levels have scarier monsters guarding better treasures — this makes a certain sort of sense from a perspective of verisimilitude, but ultimately it's a concession to good game design, and any in-universe justifications for it, like the "mythic underworld" principle or simply an appeal to deeper dungeon levels being naturally more difficult to plunder, are pure post hoc reasoning).

But ultimately, neutrality (in the sense that we mean here — impartiality with respect to PC and NPC, player and game-world; running the world as a kind of best-judgement-driven simulation) is something that happens at the game table. It's a principle that lives mostly in the Referee's Hat, and I don't think that we need overly concern ourselves with it to the same extent when worldbuilding or designing adventures.

I think establishing such things like blorb principles (where does this term come from?) can certainly be enormously beneficial for running the game in disciplined manner, but at the same time I feel it is important to recognise the limitations even the most strident prep and principles, and that the GM cannot, nor should not, disown their responsibility about decision making.

Ninja'd by @Charlaquin already, heh. Here's another blog post by a different author that gives a different perspective and summary of the notion. As one might expect, "blorb" comes out of (one small, idiosyncratic corner of) the theoretical/exegetical tradition of OSR blogging.
 
Last edited:

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
Does anyone actually do this? I assume you'd also have random charts to populate these places, including random charts for personalities and interpersonal relationships of the people. Also random charts to generate the history of the setting. Yeah, not seeing this actually happening.
On the subject of randomly generated history for a setting, check out How to Host a Dungeon. It’s a solo game that generates a side view multi-level dungeon complete with several eras of history behind it. Absolutely fantastic prep tool for DMs who enjoy this type of play.

That said, at least in Snan’s description of blorb play, it seems to not be necessary to be neutral during prep. Snan writes (paraphrasing only slightly) that during prep the GM’s role is to create a game that will be awesome to play, whereas during play the GM’s role is to try to run that game fairly and consistently.
This I think is the part where people are kidding themselves. Creating fiction that does "make sense to me" is not neutral. It is all made up, we could come up with countless different things that "make sense," at least to someone. I don't think it it is helpful to pretend that this is not a creative process shaped by the GMs whims and tastes.
Yeah, there’s a quote from someone or other (I first heard it from Hank Green, but it’s possible he was quoting someone else) that “that makes sense” really just means “that fits with my biases.”
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Does anyone actually do this? I assume you'd also have random charts to populate these places, including random charts for personalities and interpersonal relationships of the people. Also random charts to generate the history of the setting.
I do. That's literally how I created my last campaign.

Between Worlds Without Number, Stars Without Number, Azgaar's Maps, donjon, Hex Flower Cookbook, The Mother of All Encounter Tables, and decades of stockpiled resources, it's fairly easy to randomly generate content. You'd be amazed what you can do with Excel.
Yeah, not seeing this actually happening.
Thankfully, you "not seeing it" has no bearing on whether it actually happens or not.
This I think is the part where people are kidding themselves. Creating fiction that does "make sense to me" is not neutral. It is all made up, we could come up with countless different things that "make sense," at least to someone. I don't think it it is helpful to pretend that this is not a creative process shaped by the GMs whims and tastes.
Cool cool. So people have been doing it for decades (likely decades before you were born), but you disbelieve. Okay. Good for you. This is the bit where I also stop bothering responding to you.
 

That said, at least in Snan’s description of blorb play, it seems to not be necessary to be neutral during prep. Snan writes (paraphrasing only slightly) that during prep the GM’s role is to create a game that will be awesome to play, whereas during play the GM’s role is to try to run that game fairly and consistently.
Yeah, that, at least in broad sense, seems pretty sensible. IIRC, it also is actually pretty close to what I said in my first post in this thread.

I don't think it is possible to complexly avoid wearing the creator hat during the play, but you can of course try to minimise how much you have to do it.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Well, see, herein lies the problem. “What makes the most sense in the fictional world” is inherently subjective, and therefore cannot be decided on impartially. Now, as established earlier, impartiality is more of an ideal to strive for than a goal that can be attained, so this isn’t necessarily a problem. But it does make improvisation a less neutral form of content than prepared content, which is why it is less favored in this style of play. Doesn’t mean it can’t be used, just that one has to be especially careful with it.
Hard disagree. But you do you.

Hey, @Snarf Zagyg, maybe next time make these [+] threads so it's not a constant argument.
 

CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
On this note, when using random encounters - make sure that, generally, there is an obvious method of escape or other non-combat resolution. 5e is REALLY bad about this. Both because it doesn't do a good job of letting players know sometimes they need to flee AND because the mechanisms/mechanics to do so are lacking.
I'd file this under 'improvising,' myself. These non-combat resolutions are more about me being able to build enough tension and improvise an exciting escape scene, or even a believable capture-and-rescue arc. Game mechanics aren't really needed. Unfortunately, convincing the players that they need to flee the battle in the first place--without "putting your thumb on the scales," so to speak--is the true difficulty.
 


Dungeon Delver's Guide

An Advertisement

Advertisement4

Top