I have always found it interesting that most players I know are willing -- if not even tremendously eager -- to try new game systems, but will react in horror when their favorite role playing game is released in a new edition. With the exception of Call of Cthulhu, it seems that if a game has a new edition it has a schism within its player base. It has happened several times for D&D. It happened with Traveller, Hero System, Vampire/World of Darkness...and on and on.
In the case of D&D, some of those who disparage the newest edition of the game often wax nostalgic for an era in which the players and the DM were almost akin to foes. For these players, the past was an era where players died cruelly at the whims of a harsh Dungeon Master. It was the challenge of succeeding in spite of such DMs, or failing spectacularly because of them, that was what made the Old School Games so great. You can find such nostalgic tales throughout the OSR sphere. You can also find tales of how great it was when the game assumed that the players would backstab each other and betray each other at any given moment. It is this point of view that is expressed by Tycho in the Conflux storyline. To quote Tycho in the storyline's finale, "A True Dungeon Master is a Fire in Which Players are Consumed!"
This was certainly the attitude the first person who I ever had as a DM had. He didn't hesitate to transform my Wizard into an Axe-beak -- a bizarre combination of Ostrich and mythic beast. I felt humiliated. The character wasn't my own, my friend Sean had rolled the character up. He had named the character Gandalf, I had high hopes for the young mage. In all honesty, after this first gaming experience -- which I have blogged about before -- it is really a miracle that I play these games to this day.
But that adversarial DM was just playing the game the way it was intended to be played, right? Old School D&D is cutthroat and the DM is your enemy, right?
What do the old rule books actually say is the role of the DM?
One almost finds a quote supporting this position on page 9 of the first edition AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide. On that page, when discussing how to use "wandering monsters," Gary Gygax uses the phrase "if a party deserves to have these beasties inflicted upon them..." which seems to imply a cruel whimsy underlying the job of DM. But taking that phrase out of context leaves out his advocacy of making the game fun. To quote, "if your work as a DM has been sufficient, the players will have all they can handle upon arrival, so let them get there, give them a chance. The game is the thing, and certain rules can be distorted or disregarded altogether in favor of play."
It seems here that Gary Gygax is arguing that the DM's job is to make the game fun for the players...including by bending the rules in their favor. To quote page 110:
Now and then a player will die through no fault of his own. He or she will have done everything correctly, taken every reasonable precaution, but still the freakish roll of the dice will kill the character. In the long run you should let such things pass as the players will kill more than one opponent with their own freakish rolls at some later time. Yet you do have the right to arbitrate the situation. You can rule that the player, instead of dying, is knocked unconscious, loses a limb, is blinded in one eye or invoke an reasonably severe penalty that still takes into account what the monster has done. It is very demoralizing to the players to lose a cared-for-player character when they have played well.
Here Gygax argues to not let dice get in the way of a player's enjoyment. Though I find the use of player and character to be clumsy in the above paragraph. It is no wonder some people thought that D&D was about "real" magic, when you write that "a player will die through no fault of his own." Player?! Holy!
Okay, so the AD&D DMG has some comments on making sure the focus is on fun and not competition between the DM and players, but what about the other old school books?
The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures (Original D&D)
Even in the advice scarce Original D&D rulebook, Gygax goes out of his way to point out how traps with guaranteed lethality are "undesirable" in most instances.(p.6) The fear of "death," its risk each time is one of the most stimulating parts of the game. It therefore behooves the campaign referee to include as many mystifying and dangerous areas as is consistant (sic) with a reasonable chance for survival ...For example, there is no question that a player's character could easily be killed by falling into a pit thirty feet deep or into a shallow pit filled with poisoned spikes, and this is quite undersirable in most instances.
It appears as if Dr. Holmes agrees with Gary that the adventures should be challenging, but not adversarial through his use of language.(p.22) In setting up his dungeon, the Dungeon Master should be guided by...so that the adventurers have a reasonable chance of survival. (p.40) Traps should not be of the "Zap! You're dead!" variety...
Unlike earlier quotes, the bold and italicized emphasis in the Moldvay quote are straight from the book. It's as if he is reacting to what he saw as a trend in the DM-ing styles he was seeing in the day.(p.B60) It is important that the DM be fair, judging everything without favoring one side or another. The DM is there to see that the adventure is interesting and that everyone enjoys the game. D&D is not a contest between the DM and the players! The DM should do his or her best to act impartially when taking the part of monsters or handling disputes between characters.
I don't believe that the rules of D&D ever advocated an adversarial relationship between DM and players. I think they always viewed the DM as the arbiter of the rules and the facilitator of fun. In my opinion, it was individual egos, and the natural desire to win sometimes, that created the killer DMs who believe as Tycho shouts.
My own credo is that a great DM has to be a great loser. Yes, there are times when the monsters will win, but the DM is required to make it exciting for the players when the monsters are losing as well as when the monsters are winning.