I was reading Jim’s Threat Level and Masturbatory Dice Rolling which reminded me of something I once said to my players: “It’s called Dungeons and Dragons, not wanking with Alex.”
Back then I didn’t quite understand that we were having a systemic problem. I was running a D&D 3.5 game and these two players didn’t enjoy the threat level I usually enjoy. I’d rather die at the hands of a tough referee than live under the benevolent smile of a merciful game master.
This is the comment I left on Jim’s post, slightly edited:
I think the attitude that the game master is responsible for the players having fun at the table arose out of the fact that with newer editions of the game, the mechanical aspects of prep started to build up, and at the same time modules ended up very linear, and even if they were not obviously linear (like Red Hand of Doom) then the significant power increase from level to level and thus the increased difficulty of swerving off the planned track all led dungeon masters like me to believe that we were responsible for providing the right threat level.
It took some exposure to dungeon design, sandbox design, a return to threat levels chosen by players based on conventions (dungeon level) or information provided by the referee (rumors for the wilderness) before I understood that I could leave the decision about the threat level of the session up to the players. What a relief it was! Looking back, the technique is simple: increase player agency!
The games I like to run these days are easier to prepare for, they are easier to run, and thus all I need to remember is to provide adequate information the the players regarding the threat levels of locations or events. This will allow my players to pick the threat level they feel comfortable with – and I hope that these days I no longer feel tempted to insult my players.