In my quest to go “old school” recently, I have been experimenting with the way I design encounters and build game sessions and it got me thinking about the “old school” feel that a lot of people talk about in conjunction with the OSR. Now, there are certainly DM’s that play 4e ruthlessly and enjoy killing their players; I tend not to kill anybody, but I certainly knock someone unconscious about once a game night. That is really enough for me. But one of the things I noticed about my games is that the players aren’t really that afraid when they play, well, the monsters can sometimes be frightening, but the thing that they fear the least is… me. The DM. That is a problem.
I think there comes a point in every game where you need to ask yourself: Have your players fallen into the DM safety net? I think there are a lot of DM’s and a lot more D&D players who don’t believe that the DM will actually go out for blood in their games; unless as a DM you tend to be ruthless, unforgiving, and renowned for killing players without rhyme or reason, this can happen very quickly. I find the DM safety net to be a problem for several reasons.
If the players expect that you will not kill them, they start playing less intelligently. If for example, the players believe that regardless of what they do, you won’t pull the trigger on their characters, than they have very little need to actually think. Stupid players and stupid actions should be rewarded with painful results. D&D may be a game, but it’s a thinking game to some extent. We are playing in the world of the imagination; if your players stop using theirs than you have a problem.
There is a certain amount of reckless or careless behavior when the players believe that they won’t “lose” the game. If you make them believe that their characters are immortal, than damage doesn’t really matter anymore. That just isn’t any fun now is it??
But there is a fine line that has to be drawn between being the DM that is merciless and out for blood and the hen-mother DM who doesn’t want to see any harm come to her precious players. Neither of those two sides are much fun, so you need to be careful how you play things.
In my experience the best way to walk that tightrope and keep from falling off is to create the illusion that you, as a DM, are not actually in control. When the players know that you as a DM have the power of God, things easily go one of the two ways that I talked about above, but if they think that you aren’t in nearly as much control as you actually are, than they begin to become blind to the safety net that you actually have out for them. If they can’t see the net, than they will think and act like there is no net there at all.
I think there are a few easy and fun ways that you can make this work. One of the best ways to keep your players from thinking that you will save them is to roll dice out in the open, at least for combat. I know a lot of DM’s still like rolling behind the screen, because that means you can hide stuff from your players, but honestly, that can easily lead you towards the Tyrant/Mom role that I talked about above. If you roll your dice in the open, your players will know that you aren’t fudging anything; sure, some of them might start doing math out loud at the table…. I say let them. That is even more scary. When your players see you roll a 3, then hit them, and then on a damage roll of a 1 do something like 15 points of DMG, they are going to be hauling their butts out of that encounter as quickly as can be. That is intimidation. Now, you don’t actually have to let the dice matter – you can add imaginary numbers, subtract imaginary numbers and do whatever you want in your head, but rolling in the open gives the illusion of fairness and equality; this is not something that you are necessarily intent on being. You want to be sly and cunning. You want your players to fear you, not because you are out to get them, but because you simply don’t care. If you as a DM are playing god, you are not the smiting god of the old testament, you are an apathetic god who doesn’t care if one of his creations ends up as lunch for a dragon. Trust me, that is far more frightening.
One of the other neat ways that I find to put the fear of god in your players is to bring random encounter tables to the game session and make it OBVIOUS that you intend on using them at some point during the session if the time arises. You might even let your players get a glimpse of said table and point out the fact that some of the encounters on there are quite a bit higher than their average PC level, but don’t actually let them see what is on it. Then, next time your players set up camp… this is when you start to roll some dice behind the screen. Shuffle your papers up, start pulling out minis. Play it like you didn’t know that was coming; maybe you want to make some off hand remark like, “ouch!” or “this is gonna be fun *snicker snicker*”. Play the encounters up like that and your players are going to think that something horrible and random just came out to play – that is when you drop in the premade encounter tailored specifically for the party which is just about the right skill level to make a fun and exciting fight. They will play smart and win and you should make a note and praise them afterwards for working intelligently and cunningly to defeat your bad little minions. You might also get some OSR points for actually using these tables during your session.
I hope you got something out of this advice. I have found these techniques to be remarkably useful in the past and have scared a few players into thinking that I was out for the characters throats, when I actually wasn’t…. of course there were times that I actually was out for my PC’s throats, but those PC’s always end up dead. Very little illusion there.