We've all been there.
The dragon just bellowed its war cry and lifted into the air after our initial surprise attack (where we must have done, what, over a hundred points of damage!?) We scatter, trying to spread out and away from its impending breath...only to be hit anyway by one its frustrating Legendary Actions. Plans now cast aside in favor of stopping the cleric from being melted, I rush over and force feed them a healing potion...only to be stepped on by the dragon on its actual turn, and it proceeds to crit me to death.
Now at zero hit points and bleeding out, the blasted ancient creature decides to get one more strike in on my broken body, and there goes a death save. With the dragon on top of me, my allies only really have one more player turn to get to me before this ancient and intelligent being decides to step on me again with their now replenished Legendary Actions. "But I'm down!" I say, desperate to hold onto this character just a little longer. The DM shrugs, with a slight grin, and I try to hang onto hope.
The healing word comes in the nick of time and I'm conscious again...only to be rended in half by the green dragon. Curse words follow...but I'm cool with it.
Should I be? Or was that DM being a jerk?
The Separation of GM and Character
Behind the screen, the GM or DM is responsible for every creature the party interacts with, whether that be through combat, exploration, social situations, or a mixture of these. A good GM will do their best to embody the voice, the physicality, and mental acuity of each creature; the latter here informs their tactics best in combat. And combat, from the enemy's perspective, is NOT fun for them. They are in a life or death scenario; they aren't just going to lay down and die, just as you wouldn't.
Now, smarter creatures utilize better tactics. Creatures in better control of themselves won't be goaded into a trap. Creatures of average intelligence can tell when things aren't going well, and might try to run. This is why beasts get hunted; they often don't know when to flee or fight, and those that do, often live to another day.
Why do I bring all this up? Because none of these creatures are me.
I have to personify them; get inside their head, judge their level of tactics, their emotions, their level of courage, and many, many other factors in order to represent them properly. Every good DM needs to do this, and nasty creatures are nasty; evil creatures are evil; they don't care that you're the hero of this story - they want to eat your face, or your heart, or your soul. And that should be a dangerous encounter.
Now, if the creature behaves outside of their type or their intelligence, then maybe the DM is being a jerk, but I argue that is rarely the case, unless it's becoming a habit. Remember, asinine creatures can make intelligent decisions. I, for example, will use an Intelligence check to see if the creature notices a possible tactic (they often fail, as is their way), but at least it's possible.
Conversely, the same is true. Intelligent enemies can make poor decisions due to a number of factors. Perhaps they are emotionally compromised - like when they see a character murder one of their wyrm children; maybe they are filled with vengeance toward the Ranger/Rogue that just sneak attacked them for 57 HP, so they ignore the high possibility of their own demise in favor of attacking the one who has hurt them so deeply; or maybe their life is already forfeit, and they serve a greater purpose.
It came up in the first year of play on Thursday D&D (Group B). They were fighting a set of Legionnaires, led by a nasty Cleric of Air and Darkness. She was pretty cool; she had an adapted mace of sundering and a shield that could swallow spells, then reflect them back to enemies at twice the strength. She was also full of pride in her own abilities, having already had much success in laying waste to previous adventuring parties. It was this pride that killed her. She waited literally 6 seconds too long to make her escape...and the party wrecked her.
Now, note that I say that "she waited too long," not me. It was the character's pride and perception (literally a failed Wisdom save) that got her killed. I, the DM, saw the tide turning, but SHE did not. Me, Adamus, is NOT the character of Lady Vesheen of the Legion of the Rage. And that separation has to be true with every enemy they fight, every character they interact with, and every creature they meet.
If an intelligent, spell-casting dragon is sitting on top of you, and they are well aware of the impact of your character's efforts (because they SAW YOU and your allies, and are feeling the wounds that you have made), you can bet your poor butt that that dragon's gonna' make sure you stay down. That fits in with an older creature; it didn't survive this long by allowing its enemies time to get up.
Beware intelligent enemies, and beware old enemies. There's a reason that 20th-level wizard is still around, and it ain't pretty.
I try very hard to give each character a voice and personality that is not my own, to further solidify the separation. This way, my players know when I break character to address them out of game, and when they're talking to that mean ol' dragon and need to be on their guard. Sometimes, I can even apologize for the actions of the creature...but I justify them from its perspective. Yes, it sucks that the Beholder disintegrated you, but it recognized you as the healer, and it was tired of its prey healing. ;)
And when those connections are made by the creature - key observations and mindless primal reactions alike - I try to embody this connection with my voice, my tone, and my description of the creature's movements. This way I can communicate to them that THE ENEMY took notice, not me, the DM. If the enemy did not take notice, then I don't act like they did. This seems to help my players maneuver around the creature they are facing, in combat or role-playing, based on how they behave, and they never seem to take it personally if things go bad.
Motivations, Consequences, and Vengeance
All characters are motivated by something, and often in combat, that thing is SURVIVAL. They want to survive. And, most likely, they will utilize whatever they can to ensure that survival, or the survival of others.
When players make decisions, there are consequences. Some of these decisions are dangerous, others silly, and still others fantastic, but all have consequences, and all are natural consequences.
If you chop off the head of the first guard you meet in a new city...then the entire contingent of 40 guards are now descending upon you (because you killed a guard) to arrest and, if you resist, kill you...This consequence is rooted within the rules and LAWS of the world. This is not the DM acting out of vengeance - it is a natural consequence to the character's action.
Also, if the characters got quite lucky and super creative and absolutely wrecked the mob boss halfway through the campaign (as opposed to the final battle at its close)...and instead, his mid-bosses have begun an in-fighting extravaganza in order to seize power. This is an awesome natural consequence to a great fight, and opens the doors to a more complex arc.
However, if your character is being annoying and the DM has had it with your Baloney Sandwich, and a literal mindflayer lich riding a beholder bursts out of the ground... This is vengeance.
Consequences are a product of the initial action, and are thus related. A vengeful action is unrelated.
Vengeance GMs go after your character for no discernible reason, or use unfair tactics and justify it with "because I'm the DM."
Consequence GMs go after your character because you shot the wizard with an arrow and they recognize you as a threat.
There. Is. A. Difference.
Don't be a Vengeance DM. You're ruining it for the rest of us. :)
See you at the table.
Game On! Director, musician, music teacher, game designer, and professional game master. In short, I'M A BIG NERD.