Between the discussions about creating adventure hooks and how to run a sandbox, there’s something I’ve failed to mention. Yes, it is true that in one capacity, as DM I act as blind justice ... but there is another role that a DM must perform.
I am the enemy.
Where it comes to the party competing to survive, it does well to remember that part of the responsibility of the DM is to create circumstances in which the party will not survive. This is not to say that I would deliberately kill a party, out of the blue ... but now and then it happens that a series of decisions that a party makes leads them either to success, or to death. As a DM, I am responsible for creating both possibilities.
It is not merely creating a maze for rats that leads them to cheese. It is not even that some parts of the maze have little razor blades that will cut off the occasional rat's head (that kind of trap occurs, of course, but it is heavy handed and not what I'm talking about). It is that occasionally as DM I'm entitled to play mind games that will increasingly lead the rat further and further into parts of the maze where there may be no hope of ever finding the cheese - and players have to protect themselves against that.
Many DMs will present a sort of game that is similar in design as a parent teaching a child to play chess. The moves are shown, but the parent is careful not to win too handily. The parent intentionally makes false moves, to encourage the child. Gradually, the parent draws the child further along, encouraging the child's interest, until the child is ready to play 'for real.'
But for many D&D campaigns, 'for real' never actually happens. Many DMs cannot bring themselves to kill characters ... even if the character well and truly deserves to be killed. Instead, change after change is made to the campaign, like a DM making false moves, until the DM successfully 'loses' ... as that is really the point for many people who play this game. That the DM should lose. Philosophically, everyone loses if the players don't 'win.'
True enough. But I don't agree that the DM should play with the intention of losing. I don't want my campaign to descend into a series of false moves that encourage the success of the child. The players in my game are not children, and they ought to know what they are doing when they make decisions. I urge them to remember that somewhere, at some point down the line, I absolutely will kill them. No matter how much they love their characters, no matter what level their characters are, no matter how I know them personally or what effect that might have emotionally. This is a game. And I will, if I am pushed into a corner by a player's continued bad playing, well and truly kill that player without remorse.
I repeat: I am the enemy. The player plays against Me, when he or she plays in my world. I am the force of nature that must be overcome. I will always provide the opportunity for the players to make the right moves - and indeed, to make right moves that I never conceived of, as more often happens. But I am perfectly conscious of what is the wrong move, and when it is made, the game is lost.
If the game cannot be lost, there is no game.