I wanted to spin off a bit from this post by Chgowiz over at his blog. There, he passionately refutes this comment that "tyrannical DMing" is some inherent part of old school gaming (and the implication that a "shared narrative" model is superior).
The Gentleman from Illinois needs no assistance from me in making his point, but the entire business did make me want to explain about what being an "Adversarial DM" may entail, and why I consider myself one as well.
First off, "tyrannical" does not equal "adversarial". Tyrannical GMs exist regardless of system. In rules-light games, they railroad the players into the ground, stupidly shooting down every positive thought or idea they may have had. In a game where's there more emphasis on the rules as written, a tyrant will seek to bend the rules where he can, interpret where he can't bend, and cheat when all else fails. Tyrannical GMs exist, because a-holes exist. Take away the GM, go to your loosey-goosey "shared narrative control", and you can still have Tyrannical Players in Director Stance or whatever the hell the hippie kids are still talking about (I kid because I love!). Let's look at that versus Adversarial GMing:
I'm an Adversary for my players. That isn't all I am as DM, but part of what I am. Yep, at times, I am the bane of my player's gaming existence. We (through our characters) match wits; I try to frustrate their plans, and they try to frustrate mine. Why? Because conflict is a key aspect of a successful RPG (or story, for that matter). They love to be challenged, to have their characters weighed in the balance and either found triumphant or wanting. If triumphant, they know their victory wasn't handed to them by a guy who was just setting up dominoes to be easily knocked down. If found wanting, then they have something to work towards, and it makes any eventual victory that much sweeter. I know I will hears roars of delight when they best my creations; I will hear groans and rueful laughter when I get the upper hand on theirs.
Now, as a DM/GM, that's not all I do. By turns, I am an Ally, Collaborator, and Facilitator for my players and their characters, and each of those turns have a place in our game. But by positioning myself as an adversary, I help fill one of my most important roles as a DM--I help create the nucleus for conflict and plot. That's not to say I remain the creative drive behind it--I create a spark, the players respond in kind, and soon we have a happily crackling fire. This also isn't to say I'm the only one who can create a spark--there can be (and usually is) player-created conflict--but as a DM, I throw situations to the characters, they react, I react, and so the whole game evolves and grows. I introduce conflict to the game, or situations from whence conflict may arise, according to the players' reaction.
I'm not interesting in sadistically torturing the players/characters any more than I am in holding their hand through a no-brainer wish fulfillment romp. I'm interesting in running a challenging, balanced, fun RPG for my players, and part of that is being an adversary when they need one within the guidelines of our game.
Here's a quick ruling for you: if you're being an adversary for your players, you're likely ok. If you're being one just to be one, you may want to look and see what sort of benefit your game is actually getting from that sort of behavior. And if all you're being is an adversary, then you may wish to consider Lord Byron.