I play D&D about once a week. A friend of mine is taking on the Games Master mantle again, and I’ve been discussing game mastering with him recently. One thing we agree on: don’t be too nice to your players.
‘But, but, but…’ I can hear you say, ‘they’re my friends!’
Of course, that’s true, but it’s not about being mean instead of nice, it’s about making things challenging.
Your first instinct might be to give your friends what they want: combats where they win gloriously, defeating foes in droves. Storylines where they are the epic heroes and get both the girl (or boy) and win a fortune. Bad guys that are evil to the bone and need to be stomped in the ground.
Well, guess what: all of those things are boring.
The good guy beats all the bad guys, of course, but have you noticed that they get pretty banged up themselves, during the movie? The thing is, a victory is cathartic only when it is hard-earned. If John McClane had walsed into room after room and killed the bad guys without a scratch on him, it wouldn’t have been any fun. No, John has to run through glass, barefoot. He gets beaten, nearly strangled, and shot at. He gets taken to town, but he perseveres and defeats Hans Gruber.
In a role-playing game you want combat to be hard. The players have to run the real risk of losing. Preferably, every so often, one of their characters does die. You shouldn’t have a total wipeout of the party each time, but it has to hurt.
Now, this can be challenging. Some players are more inclined to work the numbers than others. This means some player characters can be far more powerful than others. You have to tailor your combat to take this into account. Create specific situations where the deathstar characters are taken out early, or tailor the bad guys to their weaknesses.
Players all have ideas about their backstories. They have goals for their characters. If not, force them to create some, or force some on them.
The easy route, again, would be to fulfill their goals in the way they want. Unfortunately, that’s pretty boring, and you could be entering Mary Sue territory pretty quickly. Do you think the Sixth Sense would have been as memorable without its twist ending? Would Seven have been any fun if it had ended with the capture of the murderer?
You want to keep your players on their toes.
What I try to do is to twist the ideas the players have and surprise them. You thought your father had died in a fire? Nope, somebody murdered him. Or he isn’t dead at all.
Even better, twist the road to the character’s goals so that it runs contrary to another players road. I once had an NPC blackmail a character into gathering blackmail material on another character. Everybody in my group still remembers that session where one character kidnapped the other character’s love interest as a really great one. Giving contrary goals creates conflict, and conflict is what all stories are about.
It seems a good idea to create a very evil bad guy for your players to fight. Well, guess what, truly evil villains are very boring.
If we go back to Hans Gruber in Die Hard, he’s a pretty decent guy in some ways. He’s cultured, not a cackling lunatic. He’s ruthless, but doesn’t relish killing people. Hannibal Lecter is one of the most terrifying villains in cinematic history, in part because he’s mostly normal and kind. He’s relatable.
In a D&D campaign you preferably want a bad guy that isn’t that evil. It’s somebody with understandable goals, just opposed to the player characters. Even better, make them opposed to most of the players, but not all. Make them do good as well as evil. Watch the sparks fly as your players try to sort out the mess.
Don’t overdo it
A final note of caution. You don’t want combats that kill all the players each session. Twisting player backgrounds is good, but be wary that they still recognize it as theirs. You don’t want the bad guy to be nicer than the players. You should be careful not to make characters hate each other so much that the party falls apart, or grudges carry over into real life. Make it hurt, but don’t make it frustrating.
And most of all: don’t railroad the players. Give the players a choice. If you set two players against each other, make sure they have a way out.
In short: have fun with being nasty to your players. You’ll see, they’ll thank you for it in the long run.