Characters rolled up with 3D6 in order, an early form of gameplay that was about exploding chests, worms that lived in doors who ate your brain if you put your ear up to it (in a game that practically demand you put your head up the parasite infested wood), and screwjob rust monsters, and a dungeon master who delighted in your characters pain made real by your own personal humiliation when you realize the DM thinks he’s smarter than you because you just didn’t check that section of wall thoroughly enough.I've already discussed 3d6 in order, which I don't see as "screwing the players". The other things, though, may be good points, since there have certainly been dick-head GMs, and since there are plenty of opportunities to die a non-heroic death. The big question is: does a non-heroic death mean that the GM is being unfair?
It's my argument that the potential for non-heroic death is necessary, partly because of genre concerns (D&D is based more on picaresque adventure like Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Satampra Zeiros, and the Dying Earth than on modern can't-fail action heroes,) but also because of the game's origins as a thieving challenge instead of a combat challenge. How much potential exists, and what kinds of death are allowed, boils down to the GM's obligations.
First, let's rule out what in the world of Nethack is called YASD ("Yet Another Stupid Death".) If players make dumb errors that they know are dumb, certainly the GM can't be blamed.
Player: "I drop my torch, raise my shield, draw my sword, and charge along the narrow ledge!"Common knowledge in the real world is, by definition, common, and the GM is not obliged to remind the players that running in total darkness on a ledge bordering a deep gorge is potentially deadly. Likewise, if they have seen a demonstration of fantastic knowledge (like a cockatrice petrifying someone with its touch,) certain results should be predictable, and deaths resulting in a failure to think things through are not the GM's fault.
GM: "It's dark without the torch. You step over the edge and plummet to your death in the gorge."
Player: "I pick up the cockatrice corpse and put it in my backpack."What's left are simple non-heroic deaths due to either accident or lack of expert or fantastic knowledge. I'd argue that the GM is obligated to warn the players "you've never seen anything like this before" if it's outside their knowledge, and warn them about specific fantastic knowledge if it is common knowledge for the game world. This is important information needed to make an informed decision, so withholding it and punishing the players anyways is screwing with the players. This is related to a principle in the old post I did on dick rulings: GMs present choices to PCs, they don't make choices for them. Withholding information that the characters know but the players can't possibly know is the equivalent to making a choice for the PCs.
GM: "You don't own a pair of gloves..."
The two principles I used in the 3d6 post -- "ordinary is not pathetic" and "loss of control is not malice" -- are good principles as well. Risk should not be minimized when playing ordinary characters who just happen to have the courage to take those risks.* Losing control of what happens is fine, so long as the GM does not arbitrarily take control; this is the reason for so many random rolls, like morale and reaction rolls, or the 1 in 6 chance of a spike slipping.
Let's look at those examples from that quote in light of these principles:
exploding chests: a possibility, but not really all that common, in my experience; I've never actually seen one outside of Nethack or other computer games. Traps, as I've suggested, are supposed to exist, and certainly explain why those goblins aren't using that magic sword locked in that chest -- they don't know how to disable the trap, or are afraid to even test the chest. The player obligation is to visually inspect the chest for wires or things that look like buttons (which could disarm the trap.) Also, they should bump or move the chest with a 10-foot pool. The GM obligation is to give the players a chance to notice a trap and to not have the explosion be immediate, no warning, and no save. You have to figure it's going to take a few seconds for the fuse to be lit or the chemicals to be mixed. Warn the players! ("You hear a click as you open the chest.")
worms that live in doors who eat your brain: aka ear seekers. As written, they're a bit extreme -- no roll to "attack", no listed chance to notice the attack, instant death when the eggs hatch. I'd tone those down a bit. However, they're listed as Very Rare, and really they're just an opportunity for the cleric to pray for Cure Disease; as long as the GM provides clues ("you feel something in your ear!") they aren't actually deadly, just a scare tactic. Player obligation: look at the door for signs of insect damage; also, since they seek warmth, try holding a torch close. GM obligation: No silent rolls without comment followed by "you scream in pain, blood runs from your ears, and you die."
screwjob rust monsters: These creatures are non-aggressive and cause NO damage, so how are they a screwjob? They're an excuse to toss iron spikes as a distraction, and to use the ten-foot pole as a weapon. Barring that, switch to clubs and staves and hope your plate-armored characters don't get hit. Player obligation: don't attack every creature you've never seen before, and pick up the occasional weapon dropped by other opponents as backups. GM obligation: don't make rust monsters attack on sight; describe what it seems to be eating; once encountered, describe future encounters in terms of what the characters now know.
I may post some more on these topics, like a look at the slimes and oozes as potential screwjobs.