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

overgeeked

B/X Known World
It is just a fact that what “makes sense” is subjective.
"I didn't say it, I declared it!"

Makes sense in that it logically follows from previously established facts.

Superman flying in a comic book "makes sense" because it's been established in decades of previous comics that he can in fact fly. That's not subjective, that's a logical consequence of it being previously established.

Likewise, Batman suddenly taking flight doesn't "make sense" because it's been established in decades of previous comics that he cannot in fact fly. That's also not subjective, that's a logical consequence of it being established previously. If the writer later explains that inconsistency away, you either have a retcon or a previously unrevealed fact being revealed, like it was really Superman in the batsuit.

So, when talking about whether the king being a dragon or an invalid "making sense" we're talking about whether it logically follows from previously established facts. Have I as the neutral referee established any of these facts about the king? No? Then I need to before the PCs interact with the king otherwise I might contradict what I've previously established. I might be forced into a retcon, which, as a long-time comic book fan, I absolutely hate.
 

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Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
"I didn't say it, I declared it!"

Makes sense in that it logically follows from previously established facts.

Superman flying in a comic book "makes sense" because it's been established in decades of previous comics that he can in fact fly. That's not subjective, that's a logical consequence of it being previously established.

Likewise, Batman suddenly taking flight doesn't "make sense" because it's been established in decades of previous comics that he cannot in fact fly. That's also not subjective, that's a logical consequence of it being established previously. If the writer later explains that inconsistency away, you either have a retcon or a previously unrevealed fact being revealed, like it was really Superman in the batsuit.

So, when talking about whether the king being a dragon or an invalid "making sense" we're talking about whether it logically follows from previously established facts. Have I as the neutral referee established any of these facts about the king? No? Then I need to before the PCs interact with the king otherwise I might contradict what I've previously established. I might be forced into a retcon, which, as a long-time comic book fan, I absolutely hate.
That’s… You’re still describing a subjective evaluation.
 


Fanaelialae

Legend
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.
While I do think there's some truth to what you're saying, I don't think it's entirely accurate.

For example, say that in my prep I establish that the king always has Stoneskin. It's still subjective. Heck, I would say that the DM thinking to add that detail suggests that they may have the type of player who might just try to stab the king.

Whereas, let's say that the players do something completely unexpected. They find a scroll of teleport and on a whim decide to use it to visit the king (who is on the other side of the continent). All the rolls for teleport work out and now the DM needs to improvise because they figured that the PCs were still several sessions from their first potential visit to the capital.

The DM decides to roll a d20. On a natural 20, it's the most severe possible result (a polymorphed dragon) and on a natural 1 it's the best possible result (a 4 HP weakling). They roll and whatever the dice decide is the outcome. Now, I certainly won't claim that there's no subjectivity involved. However, I do think that there's arguably less subjectivity involved in rolling an improvised result than in choosing a result during prep.

That said, I do think that improvising the result when a player declares they will stab the king and choosing that he has Stoneskin, is extremely subjective and quite far from neutral.
 

tetrasodium

Legend
Supporter
That’s… You’re still describing a subjective evaluation.
Freom the last few exchanges on this it feels like you are starting with a position where it can't be done so any example of doing or preparing for it must be subjective, there's a pretty good video describing how you can neutrally improv & the kinds of prep you need to have or fill to do it.
 

Snarf Zagyg

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

I mean ... I didn't think it would be necessary?

Look, there is (and should be!) substantial disagreement between people about how best to practice "neutral refereeing." People can, and do, argue about it! I mean, heck, I think @Fanaelialae is incorrect in some of his descriptions about how to best achieve it (and what matters in terms of goals for that style) ... but I can at least appreciate and understand the distinctions that are being made.

To me, those are interesting conversations! Because there is a whole ethos and playstyle that goes with it. But I really didn't think we'd have another rehash of the whole, "Sure, I know it works in practice, but I object to it ever working in theory" arguments which is just ... ugh.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
I mean ... I didn't think it would be necessary?
It's the internet.
Look, there is (and should be!) substantial disagreement between people about how best to practice "neutral refereeing." People can, and do, argue about it! I mean, heck, I think @Fanaelialae is incorrect in some of his descriptions about how to best achieve it (and what matters in terms of goals for that style) ... but I can at least appreciate and understand the distinctions that are being made.

To me, those are interesting conversations! Because there is a whole ethos and playstyle that goes with it.
Right. Discussing how best to pull it off, best practices, ins and outs, what books help, what resources are available...that's all really interesting conversation and well worth having. But we not allowed to do that, apparently.
But I really didn't think we'd have another rehash of the whole, "Sure, I know it works in practice, but I object to it ever working in theory" arguments which is just ... ugh.
Yeah. Literally everything always being a constant argument is just exhausting. People who presuppose your style of play is impossible and feel the need to tell you how you're deluding yourself and how you've been doing it wrong longer than they've been alive is so tiring.
 

Panzeh

Explorer
Yeah, I think people get into these weird Platonic Ideals of the Neutral GM instead of talking practically, and it's not that interesting a discussion. The Lich example of just ganking a player party is an absolutely valid interpretation of what neutrality means.. that no one would use.

The improv in a more backed off style where you let the mechanics do the work is different, but not eliminated. While tables should be somewhat contextual to the situations, sometimes you have to think about it and make a good excuse- sometimes that 2d6 goblin group who's neutral in predisposition is a hunting party who's already got what they need, or they're a woodcutter group that's not really that interested in messing with a group of heavily armed mercenaries. Finding the details to add flavor to that is where you step in as a DM- you don't have to improv once the fighting starts, since it's a lot more mechanical and that'll give the flair for that part of the game.

It's not completely my style of DMing, but I definitely appreciate the craft that goes into it.
 


Fanaelialae

Legend
Yeah, I think people get into these weird Platonic Ideals of the Neutral GM instead of talking practically, and it's not that interesting a discussion. The Lich example of just ganking a player party is an absolutely valid interpretation of what neutrality means.. that no one would use.
My intention with the lich example was to illustrate why I feel that SZ's definition of the neutral DM is incomplete.

I think that it's an absolutely valid interpretation of what neutrality means under his definition. However, the fact that, as you say, no neutral DM would do so leads me to conclude that SZ's definition is flawed. Hence why I suggested in a different post that it should be appended with:
... except where neutrality conflicts with other priorities of play.

I think that solves the issue, because now the example no longer meets the criteria of the definition. While it might meet the criteria of neutrality, it fails to meet the criteria of other priorities (in this case "skilled play" and its guidelines regarding threats that are properly telegraphed).
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
While I do think there's some truth to what you're saying, I don't think it's entirely accurate.

For example, say that in my prep I establish that the king always has Stoneskin. It's still subjective. Heck, I would say that the DM thinking to add that detail suggests that they may have the type of player who might just try to stab the king.

Whereas, let's say that the players do something completely unexpected. They find a scroll of teleport and on a whim decide to use it to visit the king (who is on the other side of the continent). All the rolls for teleport work out and now the DM needs to improvise because they figured that the PCs were still several sessions from their first potential visit to the capital.

The DM decides to roll a d20. On a natural 20, it's the most severe possible result (a polymorphed dragon) and on a natural 1 it's the best possible result (a 4 HP weakling). They roll and whatever the dice decide is the outcome.
Well that’s procedural generation.
Now, I certainly won't claim that there's no subjectivity involved. However, I do think that there's arguably less subjectivity involved in rolling an improvised result than in choosing a result during prep.
Right, hence the hierarchy of prep > procedural generation > improvisation.
That said, I do think that improvising the result when a player declares they will stab the king and choosing that he has Stoneskin, is extremely subjective and quite far from neutral.
For sure.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
So, in an effort to get the thread back to the topic, or at least back to being productive and useful, here's some resources to use...

Azgaar's Maps. Randomly generate a map of various types sizes, etc. Includes terrain, "realistic" biomes, place names, settlements, "natural" rivers, towns, settlements, army sizes, etc. There's a lot of information randomly generated for a map. Almost anything you'd need.

Donjon. Lots and lots of random generators. Fantasy names of various types, planet generators, dungeon generators, job generators, NPC generators, etc. That's of great stuff to use.

5E DMG. Yep, the DMG is actually useful...who knew. There are random generators therein. Dungeons, NPCs, etc. Not the most robust, but still useful. The NPC charts alone can generate about 12 billion NPCs. And they don't include things like race, class, background, and/or occupation, so including those as parameters will get you a lot more possibilities.

Older DMGs. Yep, old books are still useful...who knew. The 1E DMG has a lot of great random charts and/or content you can drop into a random chart, as does the 2E DMG.

Worlds Without Number and Stars Without Number. These books are the best resources I've found for generating sandbox content. Worlds is more for generating a fantasy world whereas Stars is more for generating sci-fi worlds and sectors of space, though both can be useful...especially now that Spelljammer is official again. Worlds includes generators for: terrain features, nations, people, societies, governments, temples, malevolent cults, points of interest, ruins, etc. It also has a few dozen sets of 50 tags that you can combine in various ways to spark your imagination. It has tags for: ruins, wilderness, communities, courts (factions), etc. Types of ruined sites. Rooms of interest within ruined sites. Various generators for the inhabitants of ruins, etc. Generators for encounter goals, mood of the encountered, wilderness and dungeon events. On and on and on. These really are the best resources you can find right now.
 

Yeah, I think people get into these weird Platonic Ideals of the Neutral GM instead of talking practically, and it's not that interesting a discussion. The Lich example of just ganking a player party is an absolutely valid interpretation of what neutrality means.. that no one would use.

The improv in a more backed off style where you let the mechanics do the work is different, but not eliminated. While tables should be somewhat contextual to the situations, sometimes you have to think about it and make a good excuse- sometimes that 2d6 goblin group who's neutral in predisposition is a hunting party who's already got what they need, or they're a woodcutter group that's not really that interested in messing with a group of heavily armed mercenaries. Finding the details to add flavor to that is where you step in as a DM- you don't have to improv once the fighting starts, since it's a lot more mechanical and that'll give the flair for that part of the game.
Right, the GM has to make all sort of calls like this. I just don't think why we need to pretend this is being neutral? It is not.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
Right, the GM has to make all sort of calls like this. I just don't think why we need to pretend this is being neutral? It is not.
Is anyone pretending?

Are we using a standard of "neutral" that cannot be achieved by any human, or are we using neutrality as a goal and guiding principle, and striving for the best ways to implement it while being aware that we are imperfect?
 

Fanaelialae

Legend
So, in an effort to get the thread back to the topic, or at least back to being productive and useful, here's some resources to use...

Azgaar's Maps. Randomly generate a map of various types sizes, etc. Includes terrain, "realistic" biomes, place names, settlements, "natural" rivers, towns, settlements, army sizes, etc. There's a lot of information randomly generated for a map. Almost anything you'd need.

Donjon. Lots and lots of random generators. Fantasy names of various types, planet generators, dungeon generators, job generators, NPC generators, etc. That's of great stuff to use.

5E DMG. Yep, the DMG is actually useful...who knew. There are random generators therein. Dungeons, NPCs, etc. Not the most robust, but still useful. The NPC charts alone can generate about 12 billion NPCs. And they don't include things like race, class, background, and/or occupation, so including those as parameters will get you a lot more possibilities.

Older DMGs. Yep, old books are still useful...who knew. The 1E DMG has a lot of great random charts and/or content you can drop into a random chart, as does the 2E DMG.

Worlds Without Number and Stars Without Number. These books are the best resources I've found for generating sandbox content. Worlds is more for generating a fantasy world whereas Stars is more for generating sci-fi worlds and sectors of space, though both can be useful...especially now that Spelljammer is official again. Worlds includes generators for: terrain features, nations, people, societies, governments, temples, malevolent cults, points of interest, ruins, etc. It also has a few dozen sets of 50 tags that you can combine in various ways to spark your imagination. It has tags for: ruins, wilderness, communities, courts (factions), etc. Types of ruined sites. Rooms of interest within ruined sites. Various generators for the inhabitants of ruins, etc. Generators for encounter goals, mood of the encountered, wilderness and dungeon events. On and on and on. These really are the best resources you can find right now.
Yeah, I use Donjon regularly, and SWN/WWN are amazing. As are his other games like Other Dust (I used the mutation tables from that one when the PCs came into contact with an elder god in one of my games).

Other products I've found that have a lot of tables for generation are the Tome of Adventure Design, and the Oldskull products.
 

Is anyone pretending?
It seems so.

Are we using a standard of "neutral" that cannot be achieved by any human, or are we using neutrality as a goal and guiding principle, and striving for the best ways to implement it while being aware that we are imperfect?
It seems to me that some people are seriously downplaying the amount of subjective judgement calls a GM must make. To me it seems far better to be acknowledge that these cannot eliminated and are intended part of the game, and the GM takes responsibility of them.

Furthermore, I don't understand how a style where the GM is basically just a random chart manager is desirable state of affairs anyway. I want the GM to actually have creative input, that's why we have a human being in there.
 

We can apply the idea of neutrality to commonly discussed situations to see whether a GM is more- or less-neutral. For example, do you alter the monster's hit points after combat has started and once you see how the battle is going? GMs do this to make the combat dynamically more or less challenging, in order to avoid character or party death that they were unprepared for (ie. in "narratively" unimportant encounter), and/or to shine a "spotlight" on a particular player. Other GMs stick to the hit points listed. The latter is more neutral than the former, because there isn't some secondary consideration (the feelings of the players or the narrative arc of the characters) at play.

Mechanics to help with neutrality:

Reaction rolls: roll 2d6. A high roll means whatever the players encountered is not hostile and possibly friendly, middle means they are indifferent, low means they are hostile. The GM doesn't have to decide on the disposition of randomly encountered goblins, because the dice did that for them. The GM might have to improvise why they are in that particular mood; in this way the reaction roll is a creative input.

Morale rolls: 2d6 to beat a specific number (listed in the statblock). If your roll is below, the monsters try to flee. The GM doesn't have to determine the state of mind of the monster's, because the dice do. Once determined, the GM has a new strategy for the monster's which dynamically changes the gamestate.

And remember: a truly neutral GM cannot wear metal armor!
 

It's the internet.

Right. Discussing how best to pull it off, best practices, ins and outs, what books help, what resources are available...that's all really interesting conversation and well worth having. But we not allowed to do that, apparently.

Yeah. Literally everything always being a constant argument is just exhausting. People who presuppose your style of play is impossible and feel the need to tell you how you're deluding yourself and how you've been doing it wrong longer than they've been alive is so tiring.
It is the internet, but the internet is made up of real people and being on the internet does not excuse or cause them to act against their nature.
The thread is on the internet, but everyone in it had a choice as to whether to engage with the OP as written, or to sidetrack it quibbling about the way the author defines some of it.
Is anyone pretending?

Are we using a standard of "neutral" that cannot be achieved by any human, or are we using neutrality as a goal and guiding principle, and striving for the best ways to implement it while being aware that we are imperfect?
Lets use the standard of a "neutral referee" that the OP sets down: someone who creates the setting/plot/encounters to be engaging to the party, and is then as neutral an arbiter of rules, rulings and judgements as human nature will allow them to be during play.
The OP already headed off the argument about unattainable perfection of neutrality:. It isn't about that: a neutral referee is assumed to try to be neutral between the two sides even if they cannot achieve it perfectly.

From the short history lesson, the most perfectly neutral way to DM a la kriegsspiel might actually be through published content rather than homebrew. There is no attachment to content that the DM rolled up or imagined: on one side is the text of the adventure, and on the others are the players. The referee can probably remain much more neutral in this situation.

As for me? I am not a completely neutral DM, and I do not seek to be. While I am by no means Monty Haul, and do not go out of my way to prevent meaningful character death, I will place my thumb on the scales if necessary to prevent random TPKs for example.
At the end of the day myself and my friends play D&D for enjoyment, and so if that means having the party be captured rather than killed or rerolling a random encounter that I know will upset one of my players, I will do so as part of my duty as DM.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Yeah, I use Donjon regularly, and SWN/WWN are amazing. As are his other games like Other Dust (I used the mutation tables from that one when the PCs came into contact with an elder god in one of my games).

Other products I've found that have a lot of tables for generation are the Tome of Adventure Design, and the Oldskull products.
Yeah. Tome of Adventure Design is great. There’s also r/d100.

If anyone uses Excel, you'll want to know this bit of code:
=INDEX(Sheet2!$B$2:$B$856,RANDBETWEEN(1,ROWS(Sheet2!$B$2:$B$856)),1)
This tells Excel to reference Sheet2, column B, cells 2-856, and return with one random selection. The $ are to keep the columns and cells from shifting when you copy & paste.

Change the name of the sheet you're referencing, the column, and the cells to match wherever you're pulling from. If there’s an empty cell in your range it will error out.

These start with cell 2 instead of cell 1 because there's too much to remember so I have headers labelling all the columns.

My NPC generator has 855 occupations, 48 races, and the complete 5E DMG NPC generator. The occupations are pulled from WFRP, DCC, D&D, and a few other sources. Races from the PC races plus some others I like to use as common in civilization. With the press of a button I can return 100 random NPCs that I can then tailor if necessary.

I also have most of Worlds Without Number, Stars Without Number, and various Spelljammer books’ random charts in spreadsheets. Yes, I love random generators.
 

Fanaelialae

Legend
We can apply the idea of neutrality to commonly discussed situations to see whether a GM is more- or less-neutral. For example, do you alter the monster's hit points after combat has started and once you see how the battle is going? GMs do this to make the combat dynamically more or less challenging, in order to avoid character or party death that they were unprepared for (ie. in "narratively" unimportant encounter), and/or to shine a "spotlight" on a particular player. Other GMs stick to the hit points listed. The latter is more neutral than the former, because there isn't some secondary consideration (the feelings of the players or the narrative arc of the characters) at play.

Mechanics to help with neutrality:

Reaction rolls: roll 2d6. A high roll means whatever the players encountered is not hostile and possibly friendly, middle means they are indifferent, low means they are hostile. The GM doesn't have to decide on the disposition of randomly encountered goblins, because the dice did that for them. The GM might have to improvise why they are in that particular mood; in this way the reaction roll is a creative input.

Morale rolls: 2d6 to beat a specific number (listed in the statblock). If your roll is below, the monsters try to flee. The GM doesn't have to determine the state of mind of the monster's, because the dice do. Once determined, the GM has a new strategy for the monster's which dynamically changes the gamestate.

And remember: a truly neutral GM cannot wear metal armor!
With regard to using 2d6 (which generates a curve that will generate certain values more frequently than others). I think it's worthwhile to note that a curve is better for consistency, while a linear progression (ie, 1d12) will provide greater variety. There's nothing wrong with either approach (it's a subjective preference) but worthwhile to think about if you haven't given it previous consideration.
 

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