One of the things that its easy to underestimate, when playing roleplay games, is the competitive element that still exists between players and the GM. This happens even in the most collaborative freeform games, and I think its largely inevitable because, as a GM, you are playing every nasty creature, trap or circumstance between your players and whatever success has been defined to be. Its only natural for them to project that desire to beat the challenges into a desire to actually beat you as an opponent, and occasionally this holds true in the other direction.
There are times when I have an encounter written that I think will challenge the players, and find instead that lucky rolls or an unorthodox set of tactics completely ride roughshod over it. I would love to say that every time it happens I am positive and supportive, but I would be lying. I can feel a deep irritation, especially if its a scenario that has taken a while to map out in Roll20. I try not to take it personally, or to up the ante for the next encounter or problem. I tend instead to worry that the players aren’t feeling challenged enough. After all, overcoming challenges with a bit of threat and risk makes for a better story and feeling of accomplishment.
So there’s a struggle between wanting to tell the story and providing a serious challenge. Part of that struggle is calculating the lethality of the games. People invest a lot of time and emotion into their characters, so the death of a character can be felt quite keenly, even if only briefly. I have known people sulk and get quite aggrieved, but its pretty rare these days, mostly because I strive to be fair. No one likes to lose a character to a totally blindsiding cause or a trap with no solution, so making sure there’s at least a chance of success or survival is essential.
The flip side is that I do also give my players every opportunity to damn themselves. If they don’t adequately prepare or assess a situation, or do patently foolish things, there are consequences and sometimes those consequences are fatal for the characters. Spend all your strength in an epic battle and don’t heal the main fighter/tank before breaking into the sealed chamber beyond? Those undead sealed inside will probably soon be having a tasty meal.
So the players in my group have learned to keep their tactical discussions offline, either through chat channel whispers or messaging on phones or other tabs in their browsers. They know that I have no shame in ramping up opponent responses to their plans or adapting their own combat tactics against them. When they announce certain plans or actions and see me smile, I can see the worry on their faces and in their voices because something is about to go wrong for them.
I was telling G about the last couple of game sessions at A’s party, and he said “I really want to get back into the game with you guys, but with encounters like that, you’re just nasty!” It was said, I hope, as a compliment, in the same way that there’s a chorus of denial when I proclaim that I am a kind and benevolent GM. There’s a healthy shiver of anticipation over what’s going to be thrown at them next – and then there are those who go out of their way to troll their fellow players by making small suggestions.
There’s one person who randomly dropped this monster’s set of stats into a conversation, and followed it up with a Facebook posting to another player. You could almost hear his chuckle and the friend’s intake of breath as I said I’d bear it in mind for when the game got slow.
I do like being a fair GM, but keeping my players slightly paranoid too is also fun.