Wyatt here suffers from DM crises. Not a single crisis, but an ongoing cascade of self-doubt and second-guessing. Yeah, not fun.
I’m going to buck the trend here and say that your players having fun is not the end-all, be-all of good DMing. That’s adequate DMing. You’ve managed to entertain your friends for a few hours. Hurrah! Not bad, but have you given them anything they couldn’t have gotten going bowling or watching a movie or thwacking each other with paintballs over that same span of time? Why RPGs instead of something, anything, else?
To be a good DM, you have to give them that something extra that only RPGs can deliver. That means you need to know what your game is about. I do this with themes, but you can do it with genres or proverbs or whatever floats your boat.
Why is this important? It does two things: first, it puts everyone in a similar headspace so you’re all grooving to the same tune, even if not everyone knows the words. Second, it answers Wyatt’s Spartacus question. Sure, if your game is Gritty Gladiator Grindhouse, Spartacus should get stomped. But if it’s Anime Action Hour, Crixus will mop the floor with Spartacus until the cute sidekick shouts, “I believe in you, Spartacus!” Then Spartacus will find an unexpected reservoir of power deep inside his heart, and he’ll splatter Crixus across the landscape. In the Strong, Silent, Macho Dudes RPG, Spartacus gets pounded into the sand, but he and Crixus find a surprising respect for each other and bond as brothers in the crucible of pure, raw, mano-a-mano combat. And in the Quentin Tarantino RPG, whether or not Spartacus wins or loses isn’t nearly as important as drawing out the tension before the brutal disfigurement we know he’s going to endure at the hands of Crixus.
Once you know what your game is about, your questions answer themselves. Should the goblins charge forth and attempt to swarm the PCs, dying to the last man? Sure, if you’re playing a game about tactical maneuver and logistics. Should they leap out in waves, each wielding bizarre and vaguely humorous weapons that inflict freakish handicaps and transformations on the PCs? Absolutely, if you’re going for a fairytale/looking-glass/labyrinth sort of experience. Maybe they should scuttle behind the walls, like rats, only occasionally revealing their red, beady eyes when in the peripheral vision of the heroes? That certainly works for a more disturbing, psychological horror game.
I suspect Wyatt already has some idea of what his game is about. He’s thinking about this issue, if somewhat tangentially, in his choices of soundtrack. Other things to consider are your choice of game. Do the rules support or impede the sort of play you want? The great thing about most flavors of D&D is that they are flexible enough to support a wide range of styles with just a bit of tweaking. Are the assumptions, characters, and interests of your players compatible with what your game is about? Not every player is a good match for every game. You may need to rework things to accommodate a player, or let that player find a more suitable game.
This is important because, once you’ve mastered running a game with a thematic core, you’ll want to move on to the next challenge: helping your players realize their vision of their characters.
Well, maybe you will. Honestly, at this point, we’re talking the bleeding edge of the best of the best. Most DMs never give a second thought to anything like the themes of their game, and wallow in a vague set of pseudo-Tolkeinish assumptions implied, but never really nailed down, by the rulebooks. Simply being aware of such issues raises you above the pack and delivers a superior play experience more consistently for the entire group.
Helping your players realize their visions of their characters is a whole level beyond that. Quite frankly, it requires a level of social acumen I’m fairly sure I don’t possess, which makes it a monumental struggle for me. Others may find that part of it easier, but that’s not the end of the challenges.
First, it assumes your players have some idea of who or what they want their characters to be. Most do, even if it’s just using a particular collection of powers to dominate certain mechanical aspects of the game. What they may not have is a clear and consistent vision. No vision of any PC I’ve ever created has survived the first session of play. Some things simply don’t work the way I expect them to, or circumstances force me to accentuate certain aspects over others. In all honesty, the guy who wants to be a bad-ass monster-mauler with his spiked chain and carefully selected array of combat feats is much easier to deal with than the budding thespian who vacillates like Hamlet over whether love or vengeance is central to their character concept.
Once you and your players think you have something fairly solid, then you have to help them cultivate it. No, this doesn’t mean flopping down like a welcome mat while your players engage in self-indulgent, overly verbose monologues. (Usually. At this point, we’re deep into some very subjective territory. Proceed with caution!) As most writers can tell you, characters blossom brightest when subjected to adversity. It isn’t the moment of sweet snuggling with the holder of his heart that makes a lover, it’s the struggle he goes through to get there, and it’s the romantic tension that’s the fun part as he grapples with the myriad obstacles that seek to thwart him. It’s not how he pounds the bad guys that makes John McClane such a cool action hero. It’s that he’s barefoot , body and soul abused and bruised and bleeding, passing through a hideous gauntlet of physical and emotional abuse while he does so.
It’s a bit like polishing diamonds. You have to know where to cut, how to hurt the characters so that the aspects that are important to the player come shining through. And the player’s ideas might be changing over time. And you’ve got a whole group of players to do this for. So yeah, not easy.
But, if you can pull it off, you’ll have given your players an experience no other media, not movies or books or computer games, can give them.
Art by Jean-Leon Gerome and John William Waterhouse.