The 'neutral GM' myth

Started by fodazd, May 31, 2012, 07:24:44 PM

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This thread is a split from here:
I thought that this topic deserved a seperate thread.

Quote from: Callan S. on May 31, 2012, 01:40:36 AM
QuoteSo you're right: The problem here is not really "cheating" but GMs indulging on their own whims.
Just on this, I said nothing along those lines. A GM following their whims is all you ever have - the vaunted 'neutral GM' is a myth. If you want neutral, use a machine, not a human. Only use a human if you enjoy using something/someone that will indulge whims rather than be a machine. That's what I'm saying - if PC's are plotting against each other, it needs to be in regards to points or something that rules can and do deal with, or else if it's something only a GM can judge, then the players themselves have made it about something that will involve a GM indulging his whims.

Ok, I will start off by asserting that there is in fact such a thing as a 'neutral GM', followed by a description of what a neutral GM does. I suspect that I just haven't made it clear enough what I want from the GM, and what I mean by 'fair' or 'neutral' in this context, so I intend to do so now: I use the term 'neutral' in the legal sense of 'impartial'. So in the same way that an impartial judge doesn't favor anyone or discriminate against anyone, a neutral GM doesn't favor anyone or discriminate against anyone. In both cases, the only acceptable means of arraving at a descision is the law or the system, respectively. But that doesn't mean that neutral GMs may never follow their own whims: Just as most legal systems include some room for interpretation, to allow the judge to deal with the details of a specific situation, most roleplaying systems leave some things to the GM... And as long as the GM doesn't use this freedom to favor anyone or discriminate against anyone, that's ok.

So to summarize, a GM is 'neutral', if the following two conditions are met:
a) The GM follows the system (the rules are never directly broken)
b) The GM doesn't favor anyone or discriminate against anyone

That being said, the problem I am talking about ("GMs indulging on their own whims") is not about GMs who use the freedom they are given by the system, but about GMs who either break the rules or unfairly favor some players over others. That's the reason why I want to be able to check if the GM manipulated hidden rolls: If I discover that a particular GM did that, I can start looking for a non-railroading GM that much faster. As a side effect, a mechanic like that could also prevent some GMs from doing it in the first place. To stick with the analogy to the legal system: The reason why public trials are a human right is to discourage judges from giving arbitrary verdicts. If everyone can see a violation of the rules, a violation of the rules becomes less likely.

About the machine thing: Actually, there are some areas where I want to GM to indulge. The setting, the atmosphere, the NPCs and the details of the challenge we face are some examples of areas where I want the GM to have a great deal of freedom. I don't know of any machine that can set those things up reliably and in good quality. Now, one could ask "what's the difference between a GM who sets an arbitrarily high challenge and a GM who breaks the rules?". To me, there is a big difference. Facing a big challenge is just like playing a computer game in "hard" mode: Yes, we might not have a very high chance of succeeding, but when we do, it's really, really sweet. If the GM breaks the rules, we might have an artificially high or low chance of succeeding, but if we win, it doesn't feel like we have accomplished anything, and if we lose, it just feels like we have been cheated out of victory. So, neutral GMs can set up the situation in any way they like, but once the situation is set, then they should stick to it and handle our actions according to the rules, or at least in an impartial way if the rules don't cover it.

So, if our characters are plotting against each other, the GM can set the setting that we use for our plotting arbitrarily. It is up to us to take best advantage of our surroundings. However, if the GM wants to be neutral, all identical actions by all players should be handled the same way, and the rules should never be broken. That's all I am asking for. As long as we have a fair playing field for our plotting, the GM can do as much whim indulging as needed.
My name: Nico


I think this is a perfectly reasonable position! There's been a few discussions on this in various places.

If a GM (or other players if you have more expansive authorship powers) dedicates himself to resolving things based on certain principles, then the expressiveness of the rules system is expanded according to those principles. In those areas that you value consistency over ends, multiple interesting unexpected things could happen.

It's a shame this site is shutting down really, as I'd quite like to discuss this further, and I haven't really settled on a venue to do it in, but we probably have a few hours yet. I personally think the issue of GM impartiality goes much further than a single players role and expands to the very idea of trying to play by the rules; instead of seeking my end directly, I will impliment a system to hopefully get there indirectly, in the hope that this will produce a better experience, and a more social one.


Quote from: JoyWriter on June 01, 2012, 12:12:43 AMIt's a shame this site is shutting down really, as I'd quite like to discuss this further, and I haven't really settled on a venue to do it in, but we probably have a few hours yet.

Ok... I probably wouldn't have started a new thread like this if I knew this forum would be closed in less than a day. I guess this serves me right for not reading the site discussion area...
My name: Nico


Eh, it's worth it ^___^

I think Callan was being more literal than this - and I agree with him, so I'll give my interpretation.
The 'neutrality myth' is simply the assertion that running an RPG requires some amount of judgement calls - as opposed to being able to simply follow procedures.
The Parsely game series ( has the GM act like they're a computer, just plugging in the players' queries to see what the game says should happen.
But most games do require a lot of judgement calls.

To put it in the terms you've used here, where you say "the rules give you a modicum of freedom", I say, "that freedom is the non-neutrality I'm talking about." That's all. It doesn't actually sound like we disagree. But it's worth pointing out that if you have multiple players in a game, the GM will at some point have to exercise judgement about where to shine the spotlight, for how long, etc.
Mask of the Emperor rules, admittedly a work in progress -

Callan S.

From the end of the world, hello!

I'm not familiar with Parsely games, but otherwise I agree with what Abkajud said!

Also usually these threads need some actual play in them as a forum category requirement.

Finally I'm a bit leery of phrases like "I will start off by asserting that there is in fact such a thing as a 'neutral GM'", as over the years I've come to realise that statements like these are NOT an invitation to argue the point at all (despite how it seems that way to me). Thus the only engagement vector is utter agreement or...nothing. So I'm not sure there's much I can do (without a fuss) except take the latter approach?


Ok, just to clear up my intention: Yes, Abkajud is right. In retrospect, my whole post seems to be about a misunderstanding on my part about what was meant by the term 'neutral'. Sorry about that.
My name: Nico