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

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 ...
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. 🤷
 

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Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
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.

I disagree with the bolded part. 5e is a system that places a great deal of trust in the DM.

A counterpoint to this would be, for example, 3e. 3e is a system that explicitly does not trust the DM. Arguably, 5e reversed the 3e/4e trend when it came to "trust" and went back to the TSR model- that's the whole "rulings, not rules."

The difference is that you are viewing "more options" as something that is trusting of a referee; that is not true. This is a divide as old as Kriegsspiel and Free Kriegsspiel; the more rules you have, the less trust you have in the referee to adjudicate based on their own individual experience or preferences.

That's why many OSR rules-lite (or FKR games) are necessarily "high trust." The lack of explicit rules or options requires high trust in the DM.

Now, games like 3e that are high complexity might require more knowledge and/or more system mastery by the DM (and/or players), but that's not the same as trust. IMO, YMMV, etc.
 
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Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
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. 🤷

If the DM is "improvising on the spot" the identity of the opposition based on the DM's whims (as opposed to either preparation or the use of an independent means, like a random table), then you're right- that's not a neutral referee.

But that wasn't what I was replying to. I was just correcting the part I noticed you may have misunderstood by referring you back to the OP. If you feel a strong need to argue other things, carry on. :)
 

If the DM is "improvising on the spot" the identity of the opposition based on the DM's whims (as opposed to either preparation or the use of an independent means, like a random table), then you're right- that's not a neutral referee.

But that wasn't what I was replying to. I was just correcting the part I noticed you may have misunderstood by referring you back to the OP. :)
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.
 

tetrasodium

Legend
Supporter
Epic
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")
Pcs don't need anything, pcs are never really at risk of anything but plot armor revocation & subsequent execution by gm. Both of those combine to create pcs who don't care about anything and have no concern for the ramifications of their actions. Worse still the gm can no longer use carrots to improve the PC's odds with those things to generate player buy-in on things like theme setting tone etc

The story of a party of adventures & the ripples they make in a living breathing world evolving over time is more complex than say rhime of the frost maiden where you need to play a video game & read drizzt Nov or two to see the story before you can fill in the missing spoilers and try to map them exactly as written to a story about the extras. You can see an example by comparing record of lodoss war to slayers since one was literally a series of books drawn from a long running d&d campaign while the other was about a megspowerful adventuring group who didn't really need anything & pretty much had no chance of ever being in danger right down to regular 5mwd. Alternatively you could compare IMJACKBAUER to asoiaf/GoT or most star trek series with episode of the week plot armored characters saving the day to bsbylon5 where the story is about the b5 station itself
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
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.

From the OP-

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.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
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.
To be fair, the opening post does admit that true neutrality isn’t possible, but is instead treated as an ideal to strive towards in the playstyle it describes. The “neutral referee” DM knows they can’t be completely impartial, but they endeavor to try to be as impartial as possible. This is why, for example, the “blorb” play principles article linked earlier notes that there’s a sort of hierarchy of content, where prepared content is preferable to procedurally generated content, which is preferable to improvised content. A GM will of course always have to use all three at times, but a “neutral referee” or “blorb” style DM will strive to minimize their reliance on the techniques lower in the hierarchy as much as possible.
 

FireLance

Legend
I no longer have the time to do enough preparation to create a scenario that is extensive enough to meet some peoples' apparent Platonic ideal of a "neutral GM".

I can just about read through a premade adventure and keep the key elements of it in mind when I run it.

If I actually had to write one from scratch that isn't just a sequence of random encounters, well, we'd be playing about twice a year.

And if your definition of a "fair" encounter is that the PCs have exactly a 50% chance of success, you don't need to play a complex game like D&D. Just flip a coin. Heads, the PCs gain a level. Tails, the PCs die. What could be more fair?

Or if you insist on using the D&D rules, just increase the encounter difficulty until you get the desired 50% chance of success. Put the PCs in a town attacked by ogres instead of giving them a cave network occupied by kobolds to explore. Nobody is making you stick with what the DMG calls Medium encounters.
 

Fanaelialae

Legend
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 ...
I think that definition is pretty good, but nonetheless is lacking something.

IMO, a neutral DM does have their thumb on the scale for the players, even if it is to a nearly unnoticeable degree. You see this in the common advice of telegraphing threats, which is a significant component of "skilled play". After all, there's nothing skilled about making an uninformed decision, any moreso than there is in a coin flip. Yet, telegraphing threats is favoring the players. It certainly doesn't guarantee success, but it guarantees that they have a chance.

It's kind of how the old Bond villains used to leave Bond strapped to a table, a laser aimed to bifurcate him within a minute's time, and then conveniently leave the room (giving him a chance to escape). The smart play, of course, would be to shoot Bond in the head while he's helpless (and then double-tap just to be sure). Of course, the latter approach, while certainly smart, arguably wouldn't make for a very good experience.

I see the neutral DM as more closely aligned with the classic Bond villain, rather than the "smart" Bond villain. The neutral DM gives the players a chance. If they fail to escape and the laser cuts them in half, the neutral DM certainly won't conjure a deus ex machina to save them, but they will have had a chance to avoid the outcome.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I think that definition is pretty good, but nonetheless is lacking something.

IMO, a neutral DM does have their thumb on the scale for the players, even if it is to a nearly unnoticeable degree. You see this in the common advice of telegraphing threats, which is a significant component of "skilled play". After all, there's nothing skilled about making an uninformed decision, any moreso than there is in a coin flip. Yet, telegraphing threats is favoring the players. It certainly doesn't guarantee success, but it guarantees that they have a chance.

It's kind of how the old Bond villains used to leave Bond strapped to a table, a laser aimed to bifurcate him within a minute's time, and then conveniently leave the room (giving him a chance to escape). The smart play, of course, would be to shoot Bond in the head while he's helpless (and then double-tap just to be sure). Of course, the latter approach, while certainly smart, arguably wouldn't make for a very good experience.

I see the neutral DM as more closely aligned with the classic Bond villain, rather than the "smart" Bond villain. The neutral DM gives the players a chance. If they fail to escape and the laser cuts them in half, the neutral DM certainly won't conjure a deus ex machina to save them, but they will have had a chance to avoid the outcome.

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.
 


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