two things i have a huge problem with as a GM, are fudging the dice (both in favor and against the PCs) and the sort of "you're not really dead, you were just dreaming" stuff you pull to save the characters. I believe the rules ought to be balanced and do their job and that if life is on the line, that's what is at stake.
we've made some exceptions for guests, on the last count, but I don't want to make a habit of undermining the fact that we're playing a game - pulling those sorts of punches, to me, feel like saying to the players "whatever you do, it doesn't matter, the story will go the way I want it to go" and I don't want (nor do I think D&D allows me) that sort of authority. I want the game, as written, to have a say.
we've made some changes to how D&D is structured, mostly in terms of the kinds of encounters that end up in the game - fights always matter, because I think especially at higher levels, little combat encounters eat up lots of time and don't really matter when it's easy to take a short or long rest most of the time. (most) i think mostly the punctuation of the game is Encounter -> Rest -> Encounter -> Rest and while it does get extra deadly when they aren't fully ready for a battle, I wonder about the pacing implications of introducing medium and easy encounters into the game. I've had some experience with these speed bumps in other games and they feel unsatisfying.
I mean, yeah, there are lots of GM tricks we can pull to make a medium or easy encounter either seem like there's a risk, or put other stuff at stake (speed bumps to slow you down on your way to a goal, etc) but while death over and over can be demoralizing, a campaign too bloated with irrelevant combat encounters, especially when our guests have so little time to matter already feels cruel and weird. I would rather the stakes too high than too low, I don't want court of swords to bleed to death slowly, you know?
Some of this is on me to design the campaign (in so much as anyone who doesn't want to railroad their players can "design" a campaign) to give the players room for other stuff - I really want them to think outside the box in terms of avoiding combat sometimes. I wish that felt more like the case, but when you look at your character sheet and all you have are killing implements and the alternative might be a single skill check, it can be hard to see things that way.
still, all this has been and is on my mind - my priorities are playing the game and making that game experience entertaining to watch. we set out to make a game that is bloody and difficult, and played hard by the rules and that's what we've been doing. I'm keeping an eye on whether this is an isolated issue or whether it's just going to get worse.
thanks for all your thoughts, folks - this kind of interaction is infinitely helpful for me.
(part, I think, of all this is me needing to believe that D&D isn't a total balance shipwreck, that we can play by the rules and still have fun and be entertaining without having to totally redesign or ignore the way the game works. I want to believe in D&D.)