Over a span of several hours, you have meticulously crafted what you believed to be the ultimate adventure. There is a strong call to action, an air of mystery to the plot waiting to be uncovered, and challenging but rewarding encounters designed to keep your players at the edges of their seats. You are proud to put your name on this story, and even more excited to experience it with your friends during your next game.
The adventuring party enthusiastically takes the adventure hook and begins navigating through the dark cavernous halls of which you have toiled. Everything is moving just as you had predicted, that is until they approach the end of their quest and discover that they have been aiding the villain (or big bad end guy) of your story. The grand, world shattering revelation you were so excited to reveal leaves your party speechless. Their faces, however, do not share your excitement, and some of them even look upset. Then a member expresses that they feel remorse or even helplessness in their current plight. The party it seems is not having fun. As a game master, you might feel like you have failed them. But have you?
Having spoken with game masters from many different tabletop RPGs over a span of several years, I have noticed a burgeoning trend. Game masters in growing numbers have been promoting fun as the primary motivation and focus of their role when preparing and sharing stories with their tables. I certainly am not here to argue against the propagation of fun. Games should be fun! Especially a game you get to share with friends where you get to share a narrative like a TTRPG. I will however provide an alternative motivation to that of fun. I believe the chief function of a game master is to create an engaging story, one where the players feel empowered to interact with the story being presented, and safe enough to feel through the characters they have created.
In the course of true engagement, a table will experience a complex mixture of feelings or emotions. They may rejoice when they narrowly survive an ambush set up by bandits whilst escorting a caravan through dangerous woods. They may feel pride as they are inducted into the King’s elite band of knights and soldiers. They may also mourn as one of their beloved friends or a member of their adventuring party perishes at the hand or claw of a powerful adversary. They may feel lost or hopeless when it is discovered that those they trusted in the most had been working against them from the start. They may even feel anger or frustration at those who have wronged them, or when their best laid plans seem to implode around them.
Some of these experiences are truly fun, and others are quite the opposite. Each of these feelings, however, are the mark of someone who is engaged with your story. They are demonstrating they feel like a part of the world you have crafted. It is not always possible to create adventures or scenarios in which we can reliably expect the table to collectively enjoy by the same measure, and as such we may sometimes end sessions where some or even all of the players may be anxious about a cliffhanger or event that transpired. This does not mean that we have failed as game masters. If your party regularly seems to enjoy themselves, and if the feelings they are experiencing seem appropriate to the circumstances in which they find themselves in, it may just be that they are engaged in the world. Sometimes the worlds we build are as unkind to the party as the real world can be to us. As long as we are communicating with our players and working together to create the best story we can as friends we have succeeded.