It’s time for me to come clean. I don’t live up to my nickname or my finely honed “killer GM” act. Truth be told, I root for my players at every turn. And in my opinion, so should ever other GM.
I didn’t always have such a caring outlook toward my players. Back when I was a wee apprentice GM with his first handful of d20s I thought it was my job to destroy and hamper my players at every turn. That they weren’t having fun unless I brutally beat them down and pounced upon every little mistake. In short I was an utter bastard of a rules-lawyer and I cringe when I think about the first few games I ran back then. It’s taken me years and quite a few good examples to break out of that mold. I’m hoping that I can help others learn from my many mistakes.
When my friends and I gather around the table each week we’ve gathered to have fun. And what’s more fun than using all of your shiny powers and abilities to hack your way through hordes of enemies? Not much, if my own opinions and the words of my friends are any example. Every player crafts a character that can do awesome things and as such they would like to do those awesome things as many times as possible. If the character is dead, horribly mutilated, or otherwise shut down they can’t use their cool powers and thus the fun is reduced.
Now, this is not to say that I let my players walk all over me and my encounters. If every battle is a foregone conclusion there’s no fun in that either. No, a GMs job is actually quite a bit more difficult than you’d think. As a GM it’s your job to make winning hard but not impossible. You have to enter each fight with the idea that you’re going to be defeated every time. The real trick is making your defeat difficult and challenging without denying your players their fun (or your own fun, either). It takes a particular mindset to really get okay with the idea that you’re going to lose every time.
When you sit down at the table you have to wail, and gnash your teeth, and shout grandiose predictions of doom. You have to make the players sweat at every turn while knowing deep in your heart that the battle has already been won – unless the players get stupid or the dice go really wonky. You have to design fights and encounters that are beatable and designed to highlight the awesome abilities of each character. In boxing terms you have to be an “opponent” – a fighter destined to lose the fight and make the guy across from you look good.
While there are a great many skills required to really be a good GM, I’d argue that this mentality is one of the most important. You have to want the players to not only succeed but succeed in an awesome manner. You gotta lace up your gloves, step into the ring, and let them beat the crap out of you for ten rounds before finally falling to that knockout punch. In short, you have to learn how to lose.