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

MGibster

Legend
I was responding to YOUR comment that players can apply pressure to the DM.
That's fair, but it doesn't really matter to me if players can't apply as much pressure as the DM. But then I think that probably depends on the group's particular dynamics. You probably have some groups with very strong DMs and others with weak DMs.
 

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MGibster

Legend
And the thief character seemed to attract a certain type of player - one who liked skimming treasure "off the top", and sometimes even outright stealing from the other characters.
On the bright side, it's been a lot of years since I've seen a thief played this way.
 

In my experience, DMs tend to compromise more than players, simply due to social pressure.
It's not just social pressure that requires that, it's structural.

There's one DM, and usually three to seven players, and the DM adjudicates the rules and the setting and how NPCs behave and so on. The DM is no smarter and not inherently more reasonable than the players (though in practice DMing long-term often necessitates a personality open to reason than most, because unreasonable DMs tend to be fun-crushers), and with multiple players, they're often going to have better ideas about how things are likely to turn out or should turn out than the DM. Sometimes they're simply vastly more knowledgeable than the DM about something (I saw this particularly as a teen where some DMs were like, people who should be failing physics, like F- grade grasp on physics - weirdly the often actually did fine at physics at school, but just had zero ability to understand things like levers and gravity in the real world - sometimes players don't get it too but often the other players jump in there).

Thus any DM who doesn't compromise "more than the players" would be running a fairly bizarre game, I'd suspect.
 

You probably have some groups with very strong DMs and others with weak DMs.
I think it's very misleading, even a little bit silly to see it as a case of "weak/strong". A DM who rarely/never compromises may well be doing so because he's a pig-headed idiot who is afraid of "looking weak" (I definitely met this guy as a teenager), for example, not because he's actually strong/confident as a DM, just stubborn and a unable to accept it when he's wrong (I would say anyone who never played with a DM like that is lucky - weirdly often the same people are fine as players). Equally a DM who compromises frequently, may seem to some casual observer with macho ideas to be "weak", but in actuality well may well be just extremely good at improvising and doing "Yes and...", and well end actually convincing the players that a lot of stuff is "their own ideas" when it's actually the DM.

The point is refusal to compromise is more often a sign of insecurity and pig-headed-ness than "vision" or "strength".
 

nevin

Hero
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?
you missed the fact that 5e is the story teller version that doesn't trust the DM. The entire system is predicated on limiting options to make the story easier for the DM. Now this may arguably be better for the large influx of people into the system. It does seem to have unfortunately split away a significant number of skilled DM's who'd rather tell a more complex story than one on rails. (I am not talking about the low fantasy fandom that just wants a different game. ) This is not bashing. It is a great system for new DM's and players, simple to the point and easy to start. I'm just on the fence, some days I admire it's simplicity. Some days i long for all the stuff they took away.
 

nevin

Hero
I think it's very misleading, even a little bit silly to see it as a case of "weak/strong". A DM who rarely/never compromises may well be doing so because he's a pig-headed idiot who is afraid of "looking weak" (I definitely met this guy as a teenager), for example, not because he's actually strong/confident as a DM, just stubborn and a unable to accept it when he's wrong (I would say anyone who never played with a DM like that is lucky - weirdly often the same people are fine as players). Equally a DM who compromises frequently, may seem to some casual observer with macho ideas to be "weak", but in actuality well may well be just extremely good at improvising and doing "Yes and...", and well end actually convincing the players that a lot of stuff is "their own ideas" when it's actually the DM.

The point is refusal to compromise is more often a sign of insecurity and pig-headed-ness than "vision" or "strength".
In my experience those DM's break into two types. One already knows where the story is going and they act out when players don't get it and go where they are supposed too. And one is playing to win. Either kind make terrible games.
 

In my experience those DM's break into two types. One already knows where the story is going and they act out when players don't get it and go where they are supposed too. And one is playing to win. Either kind make terrible games.
Yeah I agree re: "no compromises" DMs. Also they often eventually find out that "no compromises" means "no players". That's what happened to the first "no compromises" DM I played with (of the "pre-decided the story" kind - ironically he liked to claim he was running a sandbox, but I think because we were all 14 he just didn't understand what a sandbox was). He simply got deposed and replaced with me! He was a perfectly good player!
 

Some days i long for all the stuff they took away.
What stuff do you feel they took away that would enhance complex storytelling?

I do agree that 5E is not ideal for complex stories, but I don't think any edition of D&D has been particularly ideal for it, RAW. Many other TT RPGs, maybe even most, tend to be better for "complex" stories because virtually every RPG handles non-combat situations better than D&D (conversely D&D does handle combat better than 70-80% of other RPGs).

(I used D&D in an all-encompassing way here - PF1/2, 13th Age, etc. are all "D&D")
 

When I run I try to run the world with integrity. At least on broad strokes level I prep things the PCs are likely to meet during the session, give the NPCs motivations and personalities, set stats for encounters and usually draw some battle maps. And I pretty much stick to this prep and I don't fudge. And I guess one could see this being "a neutral referee" but I don't really think it as such and I think that at least in broad sense the whole "neutrality" thing is a mirage. It doesn't exits, nor is it even desirable.

Ultimately the GM's role is to present a world that seems real, and like @Charlaquin said, give the PCs opportunities to be heroes. This means challenging them and proper challenge also entails the possibility of failure. But the thing is that even though I'm very committed to making the world seem real and playing it with integrity, it is actually not real. I made it up. Some parts before the game, and some parts during it. In that process I am not really being "neutral." I completely intentionally insert stuff that I think will be engaging, interesting and challenging to the players. And were I not doing that, I feel I would be failing my duty as a GM.

Also, sometimes certain fun and engaging concept might need some flexibility regarding sticking to the prep. I don't do it much with D&D, but some genres and concepts simply work better if the thematic beats and feels are prioritised in the framing over the preplanned objective reality. Horror in particular is a genre that greatly benefits from such flexibility.

Tl;dr: the GM is not neutral. They have a job of providing engaging and challenging content and making the world feel real. Certain amount of "neutrality" regarding certain aspects of the game might be an useful tool in achieving that, but it is not the goal in itself.
 
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Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Tl;dr: the GM is not neutral. They have a job of providing engaging and challenging content and making the world feel real. Certain amount of "neutrality" regarding certain aspects of the game might be an useful tool in achieving that, but it is not the goal in itself.

From the OP, defining the term-

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 ...
 

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