1. If I play strictly by the rules and the die roll, it happens too often that players end up losing their characters because of some hapless, unlucky roll connected with an uninteresting or minor combatant, or at the moment when the whole party's survival hinges on one character's roll. If I don't fudge the dice a little, the players lose characters they like or worse, TPKs keep happening. I have to do something or the players just hate combat.2. As it becomes increasingly obvious to the players that they are very unlikely to die in combat, it makes combat increasingly boring, to the point that the players will do anything to avoid another drawn-out hack fest. And combat doesn't really matter anyway, because I've found that what the players really like is role-playing. Whenever I create an adventure with a lot of role-playing, the players always have the best time.3. Therefore, I think combat is a broken metric. The game shouldn't be about combat. It should be about role-playing. Everyone likes role-playing, so what is wrong with that?
Like the Grinch, I have puzzled and puzzled, and my puzzler is sore. I don't think there is a solution for this kind of thinking. I think when a phone or a computer begins to function with this sort of miscalibration, the only thing that can be done is to junk it; I have no idea how a person walks a conclusion like this back from the edge.
But I think I may have an explanation I haven't thought of before.
If you're someone who was born post-1990, and are of a culture able to find this blog post, chances are that you have spent more hours of your life competing against a computer program of some kind than you have a real, living person. This includes the time you spent playing games in school, or playing sports (unless this is something you excel at), or even time spent participating in debates both formal and informal. You may have racked up a lot of hours arguing with others over the internet; but whether this is against a "real" person, as far as your animal brain is concerned, is arguable. But even if we throw that in, if you're the sort to argue on the internet, I'd guess you've still spent more hours playing some sort of video game.
There are three elements about playing video games that make losing easier.
First, it is fairly difficult to argue that a computer game is "cheating" or treating any individual unfairly. There is a certain inadequacy that arises from knowing others can play this game better than us, but that doesn't change our association with the game system; we know the game's ability to destroy us isn't personal - it tries to destroy everyone, to the same degree [whatever level of difficulty that we select]. And that lack of sentiment reduces our relationship to the game to the same level as we would have with a raging river. It can kill us, but it won't do so in some special way that enables us to cry foul. That is a sort of comfort.
Secondly, with a lot of game systems, we can cheat. Not just in selecting an easier setting, but also in a number of ways, some enabled by the maker and some enabled by some clever person online. That ability to cheat, even just a knowledge that it is an option, changes the fabric of our perception. If we really, really want to, we can stick it to the game, but good. That's comforting.
Of course, there are some games where cheating isn't possible ~ particularly with multiplayer games, where we're playing with thousands or millions of others, who are as faceless and non-personal as the game system itself (through sheer randomization). And those games, it must be said, attract a particular kind of remorseless, competitive person. They don't need to cheat ... but there is also a sort of pleasure in knowing that, once they're good enough, there are endless noobs for the easy killing. After a while, the chance of losing drops precipitously. Which is also a comfort.
Finally, if we do lose, it's private. No real person out there in the world knows we've lost. We may feel a bit of humiliation, that bit of inadequacy I mentioned, but we don't have to subject ourselves to any voice other than our own with respect to the loss. We don't have to answer for it, or explain ourselves. It isn't like losing at a game of skill when you're a little child, and your grandparent feels the need to explain, in detail, why you lost.
These comforts have accumulated over the years, even the decades, as video games have proliferated, as the time spent at private gaming has pushed out most like activities ... except that most of my reader here also play role-playing games.
But I think you've probably played more hours of video game in your life, Dear Reader, than you have spent role-playing. And when that is considered, against the three arguments at the top of this post, I think it helps explain why some people get upset at combats, with actual persons, that they didn't win.
I think it helps explain why a player sees the DM as the ultimate in video game cheats; a cheat that can be negotiated with, that can be browbeat, that can be threatened or made to feel the villain. I also think it helps explain why the DM, with a similar lifetime spent with cheats, and easier game settings, and a sense of humiliation at a hard loss, can empathize with players who are clearly feeling humiliated because they made a bad choice, or rolled a bad die. A humiliation that is very much not in private, but shared.
If we play chess, you and I, we have neither of us an "easy" setting that can be toggled. We have neither of us an expectation that one of us has a little more reason to win, and the other a little more responsibility to make sure the other deserves it. There's no dialogue on the internet that says two chess players shouldn't have an "me-vs.-him" mentality.
Combat isn't broken. It is merely as heartless as my bishop will be against your rook. And as I will be against your pawn formation.
And that's a little too hard at a game-table for a generation raised with faceless enemies. It's a little hard knowing that the DM can help you out, but won't. It's a little hard knowing that the DM can have a spellcaster magically appear to raise your 11th level paladin, but won't.