Referee Impartiality

Read this guide to old-school gaming. It’s concise, contains entertaining examples of play, and every point raised is useful even if you don’t use it. And it provides a basis for what I’m writing here.

In D&D, the Dungeon Master creates the environment and the challenges and rewards. There are random tables for generating these things, but in many cases you want to create something entirely on your own. Modules that you purchase, for example, are authored, not generated.

But a DM has to use that power appropriately. One axis of DMing style is Impartiality.

On one extreme of the axis, we have Antagonism. Here the DM takes the role of the monsters as opponents of the PCs, and so he as a DM is the opponent of the players.

On the other extreme we have Cooperation. Here the DM creates obstacles half-heartedly, with the intent that the players will definitely overcome them. He is entirely on “their side”.

Somewhere in the middle is a zone of Impartiality. The DM creates obstacles and adjudicates them honestly with no preferance one way or the other. If X happens, or Y does not, the DM lets that happen.

Let’s use an example. There is a combat with Ghouls, evil undead who paralyze their foes and then eat them. The players’ characters are various adventurers who have brought along some guard dogs and war-horses. In the example, the PCs have been losing the battle and it’s possible they will be all slain and consumed.

An extreme Antagonist DM will continue the slaughter, and in fact if the PCs come up with winning plans or otherwise make a miraculous comeback he will feel disappointed because his monsters lost. He may have fudged dice rolls on his side to get the fight into the desperate state it’s in. His monsters will use smart tactics, even if they’re not smart, like all ganging up on the PC with the lowest Armor Class, or trying to disarm the Cleric of his magic staff.

An extreme Cooperative DM will come up with some excuse why the Ghouls should flee. Or he will decide that the fighting-animals rally and attack the Ghouls, fudging dice rolls for both sides to ensure the PCs’ survival.

An Impartial DM will do neither. One of his hallmarks is not fudging dice rolls. Whatever happens, happens. But making honest decisions without being partial to either side is important too. The chance for success or failure must be honest as well; giving a 1% chance of success is akin to denying success entirely. And so it’s not just dice rolls, but rules and circumstancial judgements that are impartial.

This is a scale, not a categorization. Most DMs will not fall into the extreme of either end, or the direct center. And you’ll shift around on the axis of Impartiality during the course of a session or campaign. You can change your DMing style by setting a goal somewhere else along the axis, and eventually your changed behavior will begin to change your gut reaction.

And this is not a value judgement. I prefer a DM to be somewhat in the middle, but the exact center is no more desirable than somewhere near it. Consider the middle zone on the axis to be a desirable place, and the extremes are undesirable. But I have only anecdotal evidence, so I cannot claim that any specific place on the axis is the most desirable. Certainly the demeanor of the players will impact the ideal Impartiality state.

In both cases, the outcome of DMing with extreme partiality is a loss in player satisfaction.

The Antagonist DM becomes the enemy of the players. Arguments may be involved, lengthy affairs. This campaign style is the cradle of the “Killer Dungeon”. And certainly players will feel that many of the rulings are unfair. High Impartiality often correlates with low Generosity. Players may feel that for such great risks and tension, they receive too little treasure.

The Cooperative DM becomes the friend of the players. Arguments, if they occur, end with DM acquiescence. This style may carry on with happy players for some time, until they realize that there is no actual challenge, no risk. Low Impartiality often correlates with high Generosity. Players may eventually be burdened with too much loot, which lowers the danger of play further.

But the primary problem with extreme Impartiality in either direction is that the players eventually discover that their successes and failures are the result of DM machinations, and not their own skill and luck. Achievements of the character should be celebrated by the player, as if it were their own. And failures, from which they learn, should be their responsibility. If failure is arbitrary, it’s impossible to learn to play better from it, except to learn how to handle your DM better.

There are many other axes involved, and they influence each other in subtle ways. For example, it’s entirely possible for a middle-Impartiality DM to run a “Killer Dungeon” where the challenge is very difficult and the difficulty is clear from the first few obstacles.

This issue of player satisfaction will come up shortly when I write about cheating. Impartiality isn’t strictly cheating on the part of the DM, but extremes on the Impartiality axis may encourage it.

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3 Responses to “Referee Impartiality”

  1. Gordon A. Cooper Says:

    I agree. Impartiality within reason is a very important characteristic for a DM. I never had to confront a “Killer DM,” but in my earliest gaming days I briefly experienced the “Monte Haul” phenomenon as both a player and a DM until I wised up. It utterly defeats the purpose of the game when challenge is removed from the equation. As in a sport, a DM should strive to be a good referee, ensuring fairness.

  2. Fudgerylog › Fair Play Is Essential to Role-Playing Says:

    […] are two posts in 1d30 on the subject of cheating and GM impartiality in the role-playing hobby that are well worth any gamer’s attention. I think the health of […]

  3. 1d30 Says:

    Thanks Gordon. I kind of wrestled with the word “fair” myself. Is it fair that the adventurers could stumble unwittingly into a dungeon way beyond their abilities? A referee might put up certain roadsigns – bones of large beasts outside the lair, deep claw marks in the stone, etc. but that’s not always plausible. I think there’s plenty of room for discussion about whether a referee should be fair or neutral or impartial even though I’d consider a lot of them to be close enough for horseshoes.

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