In comments to my post on shitty GMing it has been suggested that the problem simply came down to a GM who was running the game as a “neutral arbiter” and had I known that I wouldn’t have felt hard done by. Putting aside the particular exigencies of that case, I don’t believe that it’s possible for a GM to be a truly neutral arbiter, nor do I think that it’s particularly desirable. Here I shall give some reasons why it’s not possible, giving some examples from the module that we played during the particular case in question (which is available online here), and give my preferred role for the GM in play.

The Problem of GM Preferences

The GM participates in the game for his or her own fun, and is not actually a referee in the strict sense of the word. Every GM brings their own preferences for gameplay and interaction to the table, and it’s inevitable that the GM will reward play that matches their preferences, and discourage play that doesn’t. In a one-off game this may not be noticeable but in an ongoing group the players get used to the GM’s preferences and change their play accordingly (usually). The players are usually aware that the GM also needs to enjoy the game, and they do tend to adapt accordingly. But if they don’t, the GM has – and will generally use – a variety of techniques to ensure that the game will be rewarding for the GM as well as the players. I don’t think it’s possible for a GM to remain neutral while pursuing their own fun.

The Problem of Shared Experience

Much of an RPG in practice proceeds according to a series of descriptions by the GM, and responses by the players. How the players respond depends on their understanding of what the GM told them, and in my experience as both player and GM what the players understand of what the GM told them is very different to either a) what the GM expects them to understand or b) what the GM thinks they understand. Things the GM thinks are obvious remain completely invisible to the players; things the players focus on are irrelevant to the GM. It becomes the GM’s responsibility to do something about this: whether the response is one of correcting player misconceptions or riffing of these misconceptions, neither response is neutral. The genuinely neutral response is to either correct the players’ misconceptions (so there is no risk that the shared experience is corrupted by the medium of expression) or to ignore it (being “neutral”). I think many people who think it’s possible for a GM to be neutral couldn’t even agree on which of these actions is the mark of a neutral GM, or even which is possible. In reality I think the concept of a neutral arbiter relies, in gaming just as in real life, on the assumption of information exchange being perfect. This just doesn’t happen in games, and it’s no one’s fault that players suddenly yell “I’ll jump out the window!” when you’ve just described a subterranean room with no windows; it happens all the time. Players are tired, checking facebook, drinking beer, reading a spell description, checking whether they have used up that item … and you’re imparting a crucial piece of information that they not only fail to hear but fail to realize is crucial.

This problem is especially pernicious where the game depends on setting-specific knowledge. In this case the “neutral” GM has to decide which aspects of setting knowledge the PCs already know (and thus what the players can learn for nothing) and what they are supposed to find out the hard way. This is not the kind of information that has even a concept of neutrality attached to it.

The Problem of Knowledge

Everyone who comes to an RPG has their own specific knowledge and real life experience, and this has a significant bearing on their understanding of the game world. What people believe is possible or impossible, what they think their PCs can and can’t do, what they even think of doing with their PCs, depends on their understanding of the world they’re in. Recently Hill Cantons reproduced a few “design notes” from two popular RPGs, and the attitude towards knowledge in one of them (Chivalry and Sorcery, I think) was noteworthy:

We believe that it is necessary to provide a coherent world if fantasy roleplaying is to be a coherent activity…[Feudalism] also has the virtue of being a real way of life, existing for well over 1000 years in Europe…The feudal system was a working culture, and thus it can be used to very good effect as a model on which to base a fantasy role playing culture that will also work, often to the finest detail.

This kind of attitude towards setting obviously assumes that everyone playing understands what a feudal world is and how it works. But this is almost never true. Lots of people know almost nothing about the “real way of life” under feudalism, and everyone brings their own prejudice and misconceptions to the setting. The most important of these prejudices and misconceptions are, obviously, those of the GM. What is possible politically, socially and financially in a feudal world is completely dependent on the GM, and there is no sense in which the GM can be neutral in arbitrating this stuff. Provide you stick to a set of disconnected module-based dungeon crawls this may not be an issue, but as soon as you aim for a game more complex than killing people and stealing their stuff, conflict between GM and players over assumptions and knowledge will enter the game.

This conflict also occurs in task resolution and challenges. A GM who is experienced in rock climbing and mountaineering will have a different concept of what is possible in these settings than one who is experienced in surfing or computing. I think lots of gamers are know-it-all nerds who think they have a good grounding in a wide range of knowledge, but in general they’re straight-up wrong about most of their wikipedia-based insights; and often very stubborn about defending them to boot. The GM may think he or she is being neutral in arguing that it’s not possible to do X, but if there is someone in the group who is familiar with X and didn’t learn about it yesterday on a dodgy message board, they’re likely to misinterpret the GM’s neutrality as pig-headed stupidity. The GM is not a database of unbiased knowledge; which way their biases leans depends heavily on what they know and what they don’t, and how they value the knowledge they do have.

The Problem of Facilitation

The GM is usually charged with the task of resolving conflicts within a group, that is often composed of people with little in common except their desire to game together. This manifests most commonly as a need to control the more ebullient and aggressive players, and to draw out the shyer and more timid players. It’s not possible to do this and remain neutral, because it involves favoring some people and being stern with others. Furthermore, the GM often has to resolve conflicts about actions and consequences, and occasionally quite bitter disputes about (for example) treasure, PC conflict, and game direction. Sometimes the GM has to shut a player up who is dominating the game beyond any kind of reasonably alloted time, and if a player is disrupting the group it is usually the GM who is charged with the task of deciding what to do (and communicating it to that player). Who, if not the GM, gets charged with the task of delicately explaining to the neckbeard that they stink and need to wash before attending sessions? OH, the joy of GMing. And when the GM does this they bring their own social biases and problems to the fore, and usually don’t stay neutral for very long – and they are usually responding to a group dynamic that they only have partial control over. It’s very hard for GMs to stay neutral in these situations, just as it’s hard for GMs to avoid playing favorites, or getting pissed off with particular players and acting irrationally, and so on. Some players just have a style that a GM will like or hate, and it will be rewarded or punished accordingly. This is not neutrality.

The Demands of the Module

Using the Rahasia module as an example, we can see a few immediate situations where the GM is tasked with a non-neutral stance by the designer, or set challenges that demand a departure from running the game-as-written. The Rahasia module introduction suggests that the GM

Encourage the players to think of ways of capturing and defeating the witches without inflicting physical damage

and the game is built on the assumption that GM and players will go along with this idea. This sets up a framework – including penalties of lost experience points – that is very far from neutral. Furthermore, the background information about the dungeon itself is very limited and not much at all is said about the structure of the dungeon. The trapdoor through which I climbed to my death is described thus:

Directly behind the statue, in the floor of the temple, is a secret door that opens over a staircase to the lower treasure room

No information is given anywhere about whether secret doors are locked or how to handle them, so the decision to make the room accessible to anyone from below is implicitly up to the GM. A decision to allow access is a decision by the GM to make the dungeon more dangerous; it might be taken unthinkingly or deliberately, but it’s not a neutral decision. Especially in light of this statement about the golem in that room:

This golem hopeless outclasses any typical party, so the players must think of a way past this creature (the robes work, of course)

This statement makes it clear that the adventure is not supposed to funnel the players into conflict with the golem; they aren’t at any point meant to be its match. Instead, the GM has to at least give the players a chance to stop and assess the situation and find a way to know that the golem is there. Allowing them to access the foot of the statue as soon as they enter the dungeon is not consistent with the intention of the module, but the module nowhere makes clear a way to avoid this. The GM’s decisions about trap doors, use of portals, and ways of passing through the dungeon are tied in with the nature of this final beast, and the option of playing the module “as written” is a dead one. The GM must choose a non-neutral position on this module in order to run it in the sense that it was intended.

The Fallacy of Behaviorism

Another common view I read on the internet about GMing and player reactions is the idea that players “learn” from their mistakes, and the GM has a role as a “teacher” to help them understand the risks of the world they’re in. This is particularly common in old school play, in my experience. I think this is both fallacious and patronizing. It’s patronizing because we’re all adults, and I don’t give up hours of my downtime to be schooled in the harsh “realities” of fantasy life by a self-important neckbeard. I want to play in a shared world where my understanding of that world is assumed to be an adult’s understanding, and my mistakes are handled, not judged. But it’s also fallacious. Adults don’t learn in this way, and punishing adults for their mistakes is pointless; it’s a classic example of a fallacy based on regression to the mean to think that adults will learn this way. Furthermore, what the GM may think is a mistake, the players may think was a reasonable action. On top of this, there is an additional behaviorist nonsense. Most of us learnt the game as teenagers being taught by bad teenage GMs in fairly immature social settings. If this behaviorist approach to learning from “mistakes” has any truth to it, by the time we get to game as mature adults we’re going to be well past correction, and will be gaming primarily based on the experiences of our (mostly crap) teen years. If so, “teaching” us is going to have to be done some other way, and is going to involve the GM coming down from their neutral pedestal to make judgements about what is wrong with our play style. But who’s to say, given the backgrounds of the adult participants in this hobby, that it’s the players who learnt all the mistakes? Just as likely it’s the GM who needs to be “taught” about their mistakes. The best approach is to drop this ideal altogether and accept that everyone involved in the game is probably flawed and their flaws and mistakes demand understanding rather than “teaching.”

The GM as Facilitator

I think the GM is inherently biased: he or she is there to enjoy a game, and wants the game to run in a way that entertains him or her. But on top of this, the GM is charged with preparing for the game, managing conflicts, and ensuring that the players have fun. These conflicting tasks are inconsistent with a neutral position, just as the players’ role is inconsistent with a purely selfish one (they are also meant to be aware of the work the GM has put in, his or her desire to enjoy the game, and the needs and perspectives of their fellow players). The GM thus functions best as a facilitator, ensuring that the players enjoy a game full of challenges and exciting situations, in which they will have fun and everyone will got what they are looking for. A neutral GM cannot help this happen, and I don’t believe it’s possible for someone to be a neutral GM to start with. There are too many conflicting pressures and responsibilities for the GM to remain neutral in all circumstances. By pretending that this is possible, we simply create a set of false assumptions and expectations that let everyone down: better to understand everyone’s biases and perspectives upfront, and respond accordingly, than to try and pretend they can all be hidden or put aside during an activity that, in its own way, can be as frantic, demanding and engrossing as anything else that adults do.