Right, So Let's Talk About Neutral Game Masters.
So there is an old argument that you run across every so often online when it comes to problems with traditional role-playing games that centers around the role of the Game Master (GM) and how they should rule during a game. According to the argument the GM is supposed to be a 'neutral participant' in the action of the game. Now what do you suppose they mean by that?
After looking into it for a bit I discovered that what is meant by the phrase varies a bit depending on who you're discussing it with and what arguments they've been predicating their assumptions on; but there are some themes that tend to get repeated enough that I think we can come to a definition of what is meant here by a 'neutral participant.'
- The GM should not allow personal preference to color their rulings.
- The GM should only rule on situations explicitly covered by the rules.
- The GM should not move beyond the scope of the official rules.
- The GM should not influence the outcome of a given situation beyond setting it up and rolling dice to determine outcomes.
In other words a GM should behave, for all intents and purposes, as a mindless automaton spitting out rulings like computers used to spit out punch cards. I mean if you hold these positions then why have a GM at all? And that's kind of the point of the argument though. A lot of the people who try to push this idea of a neutral participant don't want the GM involved at all. "Those games," they argue, "fundamentally circumvent the rights and will of the players by placing one participant above the others to rule by their capricious fancy." For the moment, though, let's put aside the underlying theme of abandoning the Game Master and instead focus on the idea that the they should be a neutral participant in the game's action.
As I was reading through the underlying reasoning against the Game Master as an active participant it became obvious that there was a fundamental misunderstanding of what a GM actually does in traditional role-playing games. According to the neutral participant crowd the GM should behave like a referee in a sports game; they keep the game running along within the framework of the rules, but by and large, they don't impact the way that the game plays. The problem with this line of thinking is that it takes a traditional role-playing game away from a creative endeavor where the GM can create monsters, house rules, spells, and items that fit her setting and instead makes it into a board game where players move their pieces about the board always knowing what to think and how things behave.
Here's the thing, being a Game Master in traditional role-playing games means that you are an active participant in the game's action. You are constantly making decisions about what's included in your game and how things behave there - and you aren't bound by the way that other Game Masters that your players have encountered before you did things. It is a fundamental aspect of the game that every table is a unique situation with its own monsters, items, magic, rule interpretations, and house rules.