One thing that is often missing from discussions of running RPGs is that the DM needs to be having 'fun'. I put the word fun in quotes as what a DM (or a player for that matter) gets out of the game doesn't need to be the kind of enjoyment that produces euphoric, face-stretching grins. But 'fun' will do for now. There are plenty of discussions that argue that the DM is responsible for the players' fun. The role of the DM is likened to that of an entertainer, a scriptwriter, artist, actor etc. Fewer argue that the players have a reciprocal responsibility, and those that do often frame is as a responsibility to the group as a whole and not a special responsibility to the DM.
"Hey, I'm playing this game too. I do all the work for this game. I'm the only one who knows the rules. I'm the one who prepares the encounters and locations. I'm the only one here who doesn't get to enjoy the vicarious high of victory (or the thrill of failure) through the adventures of my personal avatar. I'm the one who can't take a back seat for a few minutes (or a whole evening) and let the other players pick up the slack!"
C'est la vie.
Yet the DM is, unlike a scriptwriter (or what have you), part of the group of people meant to be deriving pleasure from the game. DMs are not the producers with the players the audience. DMs are playing the game, we are audience member number one. The DM is the most important participant. Because of the vast difference in required investment (time, energy, and, given who buys most RPG books and other paraphernalia, financial resources) between players and DMs, that the game satisfies the DM is the number one requirement of a good game. Sure, the players' fun is important, but a player can turn up unprepared, roll a few dice, engage in a bit of chit chat and still have had a minimally entertaining evening. The DM having fun is in players' self-interest - it produces better games, with more engaged and committed DMs.
This was going to be a post about Molvay and Mentzer's take on Morale, NPC/Monster Reactions, Random Encounters and Treasure Tables, and how they are all part of my fun as a DM. Thinking about those procedures got me thinking about the way that rules like that have slipped out of fashion.
"I know what the monsters will do, how they will react, when they will flee, and I will place treasure appropriate for my group. I am a competent DM."
Sure, but then it is easy for part of my fun to become invested in certain outcomes. If I have placed a particular magical treasure as I think it appropriate for the PCs to find it, I have become invested in this as an outcome. If I leave it to myself to decide when the monsters will flee, it is easy for me to become invested in a certain outcome, and then I believe that it is only a short slip to dishonest encounters in which, for example, the indeterminate number of wolves are programmed flee after causing 'x' amount of damage to the party. And so on.
Yes, as a DM I make decisions about what happens in the game world, about what exists and how those things behave. Of course I do. And I derive a certain amount of fun from that. But once I am at the table I like to play, I like to be surprised by things. I don't want to know in advance how every Monster or NPC will react to the PCs. Perhaps those Elves that are (I have decided) predisposed to help the PCs react badly (based on a Reaction Roll) to the PCs. Arrogant Elves. Perhaps the dice fall differently when the PCs encounter the (I have decided) ordinarily hostile Goblins. So... the Goblins are impressed by the PCs menacing demeanour, and seek to make alliance. Without a Reaction Roll only the most egregious PC behaviour would derail the reaction in which I have invested. But here? Here the PCs actions have meaning because I don't know how things will turn out, only probabilities which are affected by the actions declared by the players. Great! The game becomes one of exploration for me, too! I get to explore the fantasy world that I have created and find new things out through play.