If there’s one quality old school GMs seem to be known for, it’s a certain level of sadistic deadliness. Players under these GMs will shake their head in rueful wonder as they tell of the horrors visited upon them. Listeners to these tales, especially gamers used to more modern style gaming, may be confounded by these tales. Not so much due to the sick delight the old school GM appears takes in wiping out his players, but perhaps in how much the players seem to respect and perhaps even enjoy the treatment. At face value, something appears to be very wrong here. In fact, things couldn’t be more right.
To play in the old school style the GM should engage in a certain level of sadism against his players. He must delight in the traps they trigger, the monsters they under-estimate, and the foolish plans they make that prove their undoing. He must do this as a defense mechanism against the real foe to just about every RPG campaign out there: predictability.
As GMs, we spend every session observing the plights of the players, who really ultimately are the heroes of our shared fictional experience. There might be the odd important or interesting NPC we get to explore for a few sessions running, but the player characters are the only real constant — they’re at ever single game. Because of this, there’s a real danger the GM may start to care a little too much about their survival, may fear a little too much their failures, and may start to actually attempt to help ensure their success. It’s only natural, we all want to see the heroes succeed. As GM, we keep the enemy’s HP tally, we know their ACs, we roll their attacks and damage rolls. It’s very easy to smooth the bumps, the irregularities of randomness, just to ensure the drama stays high and the resolution satisfying.
But that road is difficult to maintain. Who’s to say which roll is the roll that tips the battle one direction or another? What if the dice continue to work against you? How much fudging before the players catch on? Eventually they’ll see there’s no real challenge, no real threat of failure, and then the magic is gone. The game has become trite, the excitement has died. It’s just not as fun anymore.
As much as they may complain or insist otherwise, players want that adversarial side of the GM. They need it. Now you don’t want to go off the deep end, eventually you’ll just be fudging the dice in the opposite direction which is just as bad. In truth the GM should be more of an impartial judge. Let the players dig their own graves, let them succeed or fail against the game. The GM simply implements the rules as written and provides the tactics and rolls for the other side.
But really, he’s got to rooting for the other side at least a little. Somebody has to. The heroes’ victory wouldn’t be nearly as sweet without it.