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. 

Comments

  1. One of my favorite memes says something along the lines of : "The DM is sick of your shit. Here's Cthulhu in power armor. Roll for initiative, bitch."

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    1. I've seen that one! It's a hoot!

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    2. http://daily-steampunk.com/steampunk-blog/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/cthulhu-power-armour.jpg

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  2. I'm lost. Was with you initially, but then your descriptions of what a neutral GM is went somewhere I've never been.

    That is, I've never heard or seen it be about rules and dice specifically. What you're talking about doesn't sound like a neutral GM, but rather a 'lawful' one. Or perhaps a computer game.

    Neutral GMs are impartial, showing no favoritism to any one participant or specific outcome.

    That's it as far as I'm concerned.

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    1. Which is what I thought they were too before I foolishly wandered into a few forums where such a thing was not the case. I prefer you definition by far.

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    2. I think the context may be important. Were these forumites discussing D&D in particular, or were there other game systems in discussion? This may unlock some confusion.

      There are some games where the GM is a referee, making rules interpretations, rather than building story with the players. Most of the games I'm thinking of are more war-game like, such as Car Wars or BattleTech where the rules interpretation is important not to favor one player over another but only to clarify edge cases where the mechanics of the game may not be stated clearly enough.

      I'm having a little trouble thinking of an RPG that fits this mold, but that does not mean that none exist. "Game Master" is a vague term because it could apply to RPGs or other more structured games where the GM is a rules interpreter rather than a cooperative story teller.

      Was this discussion specific to RPGs?

      "The GM should only rule on situations explicitly covered by the rules."
      "The GM should not move beyond the scope of the official rules."

      Assuming this discussion was about RPGs, this part confuses me most. If there is a rules question that has come up in play both the rules do not cover it, what does one do with the above philosophy? You can't just stop the game, send an email to the publisher and hope that they reply. If it's a situation not covered by the rules, you need to make something up based upon the framework of what *is* covered by the rules.

      Perhaps a link back to the forum thread(s) in question may provide some additional fodder for discussion.

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    3. "Were these forumites discussing D&D in particular, or were there other game systems in discussion"

      All traditional style rpgs but D&D in particular received the majority of their ire.

      "Was this discussion specific to RPGs?"

      Yes.

      "If there is a rules question that has come up in play both the rules do not cover it, what does one do with the above philosophy?"

      From what I gathered the players were supposed to hash it out amongst themselves while the GM sat around with their finger up their ass and waited to be included in the conversation.

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  3. A neutral GM would be rather boring I'd wager..

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    1. I imagine that it would also be incredibly frustrating as there would be so little originality.

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  4. Apparently the GM haters had some sort of traumatic experience that turned them off on the idea (I have visions of someone holding up a doll or stuffed animal and asking the anti-GM player just exactly what the GM actually happened to do to them that made them so cross at the very idea of having a GM.)

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    1. Ha!

      Evan you just made me snort milk out my nose!

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  5. I have never ascribed to the GM as automaton rules arbiter notion. As a Gm I am really into the character’s stories. I want Wilhelm the dwarf to hunt down the group that cut off his hand.
    I want The Druid to find the magical stones that will reestablish the ley lines of magic in the world.
    Most of all I want to present an open and consistent world in which the players can pursue doing (or not doing) those things as they see fit.
    I say open so that the players have choice to tackle things how and when they want.
    And consistent so they can balance the risk reward f any particular course of action equally.

    Beyond that I feel the Gm is as much a player as the person to their left, and should be just as involved in what unfolds at the table.

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  6. I'm not sure what you mean by neutral. The DM has to play the role of every NPC, of course, so they play every alignment from a lawful evil devil to a chaotic good elf to a neutral giant slug, but I don't think that is what you mean.

    in my opinion, the DM should make new monsters, magic items, etc to make the experience more fun for the player. Being 'neutral' to me means being impartial when applying the rules. Not fudging the dice to assist PCS (or monsters) for example.

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  7. IMHO, the GM is only "neutral" in that he doesn't actively try to kill PC's. He presents them with challenges, and rewards stupid actions with comparable consequences. but he never tries to create a no-win situation. I have had a few DM's that are like that, and I would imagine that that is what the "Neutrals" are actually railing against. Their ire is just misplaced. Or they are overcompensating. Kind of like the "A person killed someone with a gun, so let's ban all guns." The truth, as it often does, lays somewhere in the middle.

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  8. I wonder what it'd be like to play in a "chaotic neutral" GM's campaign... ;)

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    1. I . . . I don't know, but now I desperately want to find out!

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    2. One PC sticks his arm in a hole and gets the arm ripped off, another PC sticks his arm in the same hole and pulls out 2 parts of the rod of seven parts. Last session a sword does 1d8 pts of damage, this session the sword does 1d8 vs a foe in mail or less, 1d6 vs foes in plate or better and you (the player) get handed a 20 page document for the new spell point system the campaign will be using, next session the idea will be discarded.

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    3. God what a cluster - I want to play!

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  9. I look at the description of a "neutral" GM that you have painted and wonder how it could be as described. I suppose if using a prefab campaign it might be possible to run a game that way, but i have never known a player who keeps to a scripted series of events. Hell, as a player i know full well how to derail even the most intricately laid plans(And do so as often and spectacularly as possible).

    However the majority of the campaigns I run are original works that I lay an outline for and fill in as the players muck about. If I didn't fudge the dice or throw in a change in circumstance when it fits the story then their would be a lack of fun all around. I have fudged plenty of dice and blurred plenty of lines to achieve a fun game night despite a curse by RNGesus. Sometimes its needed to counter awful rolls, or exceedingly poor decision making.

    That said, I see that once again its a double edged sword. I have known Bad GMs who will spite clever players by random changes in rolls, difficulties, spells, and equipment. Its unpleasant for a GM to have the big bad of a session one hit by a clever player who swapped out his health potions with chloroform bombs. So then suddenly the spell that he was using is better, or the equipment he has works differently. This sort of GM has a problem. It isn't their neutrality, though it will appear that way.

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    1. " I have fudged plenty of dice and blurred plenty of lines to achieve a fun game night despite a curse by RNGesus."

      Who or what is RNGesus?

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    2. The demigod of random number generators.

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    3. Precisely. Want a lucky roll, ask RNGesus. Want a rare drop? RNGesus.

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