Though I am pleased as punch to be in the position I am, there are inherent stresses to game mastering.
How do I craft a collaborative story that stays exciting and engaging for my players?
How do I invigorate and incorporate their backstories in organic and powerful ways?
How do I challenge them without luring them into a TPK scenario?
These are GM focuses 101, but the major stressor for me is in running high-level encounters. Put yourself in my shoes: these players are level 16. They've been building these characters up for literally years by now. Huge in-world connections, businesses, kingdoms...they've made quite a name for themselves. And now, they're challenging the old world - ancient beings that have awoken and now threaten their home and maybe even the fabric of reality itself.
When you stand against something like that - when you crash against it - not everyone comes out alive. And we, at the table, need to be OKAY with that. And here's why.
Great Risk, Great Reward
No character is awarded plot armor in an adventure.
When I started this gig two years ago, this was a mantra I had to remember, and a lesson for all of my players at some point or another. Make a bad choice? You might be dead. You don't get to do whatever you want just because "you're the hero." Now, I've never been a vengeful GM - "rocks fall, everyone dies" - but there are Natural Consequences to poor decisions, and my fellow GMs and I like to allow a 3-step failure so the player can try to right their course before falling over the proverbial cliff.
However, as you continue to learn a game system and triumph over the initial hurdles of misunderstanding, problem-solving, and tactical awareness, there comes a time when you realize that you were never actually safe. That no hero of any level is immune to the vast dangers of a tabletop world, and that surviving such dangers nets you some tremendous rewards.
But no triumph is without risk, and as we level up, our adversaries scale WITH US. At low levels, we might be challenged by a troll - a large creature of great strength that regenerates (our first real puzzle, solved by the use of fire, that halts said regeneration), but as we get stronger, we become aware of the greater dangers existing in the world. They've always been there, but we wouldn't have had reason to bump elbows with these entities unless we were seeking our own deaths!
By the time we reach double digits, and are well on our way to levels 17 or 18 (the capstones of many class archetypes, but not the level capstone of 5E at level 20), we'll be interacting with literal gods, demons, devils, fey lords, great mages, liches (undead mages), ANCIENT DRAGONS... There's a bunch we can play around with, and some things in that iconic Monster Manual are downright scary (and that's not even scraping the surface of all the custom monsters and ancient beings older than time that I've constructed in the last year). Woof.
But for each massive threat in scale and scope, each victory garners immense reward. Sometimes you walk away with your lives and a ton of experience, other times a hoard and a few magic items, and maybe even a powerful ally or two - but it's all on a grander stage.
Hope you were ready to become superheroes, because it's time to save the world.
It Can All End So Quickly
There is sometimes an idea that circulates arguing that combat in D&D becomes a game of attrition. Mountains of hit points smacking into other mountains of hit points until one reaches zero. If a combat devolves to this scenario, we as GMs, are DOING SOMETHING UNEQUIVOCALLY WRONG.
1) An Ancient Freaking Dragon has been alive as long as they have been for a reason; they will use cunning, tactics, and their breath to easily end confrontations. They WILL NOT simply land and do hand-to-hand combat with the plucky adventurers when their breath can MELT ARMIES. This is why 9th level spells exist. If you have access to Meteor Swarm and you are beset upon by a band of seven creatures hell-bent on axing you a question...THEN YOU LEAD WITH METEOR SWARM. Because why wouldn't you? You're a smart creature.
2) Taking massive damage should have consequences. This is a variant rule, mind you, but one can get pretty creative when dealing with acid or lava, and sometimes I rule circumstances if you just took more than half your hit points in damage. It's gonna' take you some time to recover from that; maybe your movement suffers, maybe one of your attributes is in trouble (because, you know, you're MELTING), maybe your action economy takes a hit until you can overcome some of that damage threshold. ONLY EMPLOY THIS APPROACH after discussing and clearing it with the group, but such things can remove quite effectively the idea that you are "fine" until you're unconscious.
3) High-powered attacks and spells can deal a great range of damage. This is a game with a hard and fast luck element. Sometimes the dice are in your favor...sometimes they are not. So if an attack rolls 14d10 for damage, the full range of this is literally 14-140 hit points. Depending on class and Constitution scores, that can drop a high-level hero; but if I roll the average (about 84), I've dramatically hurt everyone, but probably haven't TPK'ed the party. Similarly, players can nail their saves and take half damage (or none at all - bloody EVASION). Also, player characters should be dealing tremendous damage, bringing all of their abilities, items, and strategy to bear. This could all end very quickly - it just feels longer because we're managing a lot more abilities, options, and possible outcomes. In real time, epic fights are over pretty fast.
Sometimes Your Story Ends
I didn't kill your character... The DRAGON killed your character.
The GM is NOT there to try and kill you maliciously. She's going to play each creature accurately and strategically as appropriate to their abilities, tactics, and personality. Ancient beings are such for a reason; they ain't stupid - if they notice that the obvious cleric is obviously healing everyone, well, then they might attack the cleric. This will never become a GM vs. the players kind of game; those are mean and we need to quit them. The GM should revel in the victory just as much as the player-characters; it's a group game, and their triumph is celebrated, but as enemies become smarter, the battles become tougher.
Yet when a character dies, many players take it personally. Like they were attacked somehow (outside of the game). Some even go so far as to blame the GM; accuse them of acting in a certain way out of spite. But the thing to recognize, that I feel I MUST SAY, is that "sometimes, a character's story just ends."
It isn't heroic. It isn't pretty. It can be sudden and horrible and unfair. And with the number of friends whose stories have ended this past year... How I wish I could have rolled them up a new character. But that's not how life works, and if we believe ourselves immortal, what is the point in struggling to live in the first place? In the words of Gandalf the Gray, "All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you."
When we suffer in a game, it offers us an opportunity to learn; to rise, and to learn. Sometimes that lesson is a product of a great loss - like the loss of a character you have spent years cultivating. But that's the game, and that's the risk, especially with high-level play. Sometimes heroes die when they challenge Olympus. But, at least for us, this is a game. You can always make another character. But don't hate the DM; we're not pulling our punches at this tier - you've earned the high-level play so when you win, you FEEL that triumph.
You wanted to fight gods? Well. Welcome to the Jungle.
See you at the table.
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Professional Game Master musician, music teacher, game designer, and aspiring fiction author.