I’ve repeatedly touted the importance of making the player characters feel badass. It’s important they feel like heroes—people of renown who are great at slaying gnolls, disabling traps, solving puzzles, locating lost farm animals, and solving crises of all types. Ok, well maybe not that farm animals thing, though even mini-quests have their place!
Yet the DM has a secret. Some of your players might suspect it. I they’ve run a few games, they might even know it. After all, it’s kind of a big deal.
The DM’s Dirty Secret is that no matter how awesome the player characters are—no matter how much the players optimize, hatch devious plots, or plan for every contingency—the challenges the characters face are always going to be, well, challenges. Sir Isaac Newton can help me out a little here: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. You build an army, I build a castle. You build siege engines, I build thicker walls. You invent canons, I cry because my castle now sucks, and I go back to building earthen walls with pointy sticks.
This fact might be intuitive to most DMs, but I’m not sure it’s something that everyone is consciously aware of. If you’re a DM, and you have a group full of optimizers, you have a responsibility to find new ways to challenge them. You might add more monsters to an encounter. You might double the damage, or increase the accuracy of all monsters by 5. You don’t have to follow the rules. Yes, even in Living Forgotten Realms or Encounters or similar formats. If the players are stomping through the adventure, make it harder. The players might realize it—they might even suspect you’re doctoring the numbers and call you on it, but you have two things on your side. One—you’re the DM, and what you say goes. Two—they won’t realize it at the time, necessarily, but they’re going to have a lot more fun if they feel challenged.
Now one caveat about the first rule. Even as DM, you have to obey certain social contracts in D&D and other roleplaying games. You can’t crush the characters without good reason, and you shouldn’t create encounters or scenarios that challenge one player while annihilating everyone else. The worst problems start when you go into a skill challenge or a combat encounter with a specific set of conditions or challenges in mind, and you’re unwilling to compromise your ideas. I never play an encounter the way I design it when I’m preparing for a game. Throughout an encounter, I’m constantly gauging the tension, the pace, and the drama, and I’m pulling strings to make adjustments. If the players are getting bored, I make up something interesting for a monster to do. If the battle seems to be dragging, a monster might get bloodied sooner only to have it trigger a trait (one that’s not in the monster stat block) which causes the monster to make two attacks instead of one while its bloodied.
In the final session of the last season of Encounters, I was constantly adjusting powers, dice rolls, and whatever else to make victory seem to swing back and forth between the players and the monsters. As a result, we had a very tense and climactic session. I realize one of the criticisms to this approach to DMing is that you lose the trust of your players if they know you fudge the numbers too often. It’s true, and certainly it takes some finesse to fudge the numbers without being overt about it. Every game needs rules. But D&D, since the beginning, has been a game where story trumps rules (partly because the early rules were too confusing for anyone to understand). DMs should have the confidence to run a game based on the needs of the narrative and not the strictures of the rules.
So, the DM’s Dirty Secret? No matter how awesome you are, you’re always going to be challenged. There’s always going to be someone tougher than you. And if you’re a player reading this—next time your DM does something that seems to make the battle harder, don’t call foul right away. Think about whether the DM is purposefully adjusting the narrative, the tension, or the pace, and trust your DM. Believe it or not, they probably know what’s best for the game.