I have said before that the DM's purpose in the game is to present a world in which characters are free to run - that is, 'live' - and that the DM should not impose his or her personal belief system upon the players' actions, nor in any way compel the player to act according to the DM's wishes.
This is a resolution that I feel the DM must have. 1) Create a world. 2) Presuppose that while the world has inherent characteristics, those characteristics do not change once the players have begun to take actions. 3) The characters should be in charge of themselves. 4) It must be possible for the characters to change the world. 5) The DM must be indifferent to the effects or changes the characters choose to make.
These are the conditions under which I have always DM'd. What keeps my world from spinning out of control is the size and difficulty of the world, in that it has a great many forces which have an invested purpose in the status quo, who are apt to rise against anyone who challenges that status quo ... just as in the real world. While yes, the characters may make changes (and have), at lower levels it is likely that any severe change they are capable of making will have severe consequences. For example, if first level characters should decide to burn down a town, which it is in their power to do, they must expect that the powers that be would immediately begin playing a game of 'twenty questions' with an augury or similar spell in order to isolate who committed the crime. The party should expect fifty or more clerics asking, "Was the arsonist human? A foreigner? Tall? Scarred? Did the arsonist leave on the south road? On a horse? Today? Are they near the town of Saintonge? Are they Christian?" And so on. For as long as it takes, probably, depending on the amount of damage done. If necessary, a charm will be made that will steadily lead the complaintants to the arsonist ... and the characters should count on that and make preparations.
But this is not me, the DM, stipulating this. The expected response mirrors the response of such persons in the real world, in that people who commit atrocities are routinely hunted down and brought to justice. Because it happens in the real world, the players can maneuver their characters according to their own experiences with actual life ... which serves them well in keeping alive in the real world, and ought to serve them well in keeping them alive in D&D.
If the players should find a way to keep themselves from being discovered, perhaps with a magic item that protects them, then I as DM will end the search. I do not care that the town was burned to the ground. I have nothing invested in the town. I do not send clerics and soldiers after the party because I feel the party has somehow violated my world. Such things should be beneath me as DM. I have to have the indifference that allows me to think what the lower orders would do to the players, emotionlessly. My pleasure is observing the game, and making guesses as to what a logical outcome ought to be ... my pleasure is NOT in manipulating the game. When the party changes the game by some clever thought, I must reconsider the logic of my earlier guess, and change accordingly. I must adapt to the party's actions, just as the party adapts to the world. The less personal stake I have in the game, the freer the party is, and the better the game.
I will send a villain at the party; I will conjure a monster to stand in the party's way; I will have creatures who have been hurt by the party carry a grudge, and I will reward the party when the party shows compassion and kindness. In each of these actions is an ethical dilemma. How far can I go as DM in having the NPC carry a grudge? How powerful can the creature I conjure be? What do I define as compassion?
As best I can I will limit the NPC's ability to do anything by the NPC's abilities and authority. As best I can the monster will only be one that could reasonably be expected to appear, and in any case will appear at a distance that is reasonable ... with the understanding that the smaller the monster, the nearer the distance. I can only judge compassion by my own personal experience with it in the real world. My ability to do each of these things is tempered by who I am as a person - and as a person, this measures whether or not I am a good DM. If I behave badly as a DM again and again, so that my actions betray the initial manifesto found in the first paragraph of this post, then I am at fault, and the players are right to demand that my position on a matter be changed accordingly. It is my responsibility as a DM to put the game FIRST, and that the best game is one in which the players are involved, excited and happy. This is a difficult balancing act. But like any other thing, the measure of the craftsman is found nowhere but in the result.
I have this for perspective players: How does the above specifically relate to your style of play How does it offer opportunities to do things you would like to do. How would you take advantage of this arrangement, understanding that your stubborn self-interest is not held to be a bad thing in this construct?
Your answer, and the specificity of your answer, is the primary determination for playing in my online campaign. Remember that I am looking for proactive persons who are inclined to be comfortable describing their actions on a regular, ongoing basis - in other words, you should be the kind of person who likes to write and express yourself in words.
Answer in the comments section. Answer on your blog. Answer to my email address, email@example.com (though I won't see it there until tonight). But answer before 9 p.m. eastern standard time, Sunday. If you're not checking this blog more often than that, you're probably not right for the campaign.
Other comments, whether or not you have any wish to play, are welcome on the above philosophy. It is something that needs to be discussed, and often, and I am certainly interested in doing so.