I was talking to Dave (one of many Daves) at Dreamation and he mentioned that he really didn't like it when GMs took certain actions to screw over players. Now, I'm a big supporter of GMs being mean, so I questioned this, and he gave an example of a GM looking at his players, realizing that they had no direction, and having a large price get put on their head to kickstart them into action.
I argued a few points for how that could make things more interesting, and the all important point that it's unreasonable to expect that bad things wouldn't happen to adventurers - dealing with bad things is kind of the point. Despite this, I had to concede when Dave laid down the killer point; that this had been done with no input from the players. The problem was not that it was mean, but rather that it was a betrayal of the implicit agreement between the players and the GM. That, I had to admit, was something of a problem.
Worse, it was probably an unintentional problem. The GM almost certainly was trying to create the kind of good, fruitful trouble that generates play, but he chose to do so in a way that the players took as a slap to the face. That presented an interesting challenge: how is GM supposed to distinguish good trouble (trouble that drives play, engages players and makes for fun) from bad trouble (trouble that feels arbitrary and capricious, and fails to engage the players, possibly even upsetting them).
My advice was pretty simple. The trick is that the GM doesn't need to do bad things: instead he should set up the situation so that the bad things is balanced precariously above the players, clearly ready to fall. The important thing is that it's clear that the bad thing will happen if the players take no action, but they have the ability to stop it if they do act. This serves to important purposes: first, it gives clear motivation for action, which may otherwise be lacking. Second, if the bad thing comes to pass (either through failure or choosing to pursue a different problem) it doesn't feel like GM fiat because the critical decisions and actions came from the players.
Put more simply, if you kill a character's dad, that's a jerk move. If you tell them that an old enemy has come to town to kill their dad, that's an adventure.
1 - Tolerances will totally vary by table, based on taste and trust, but I suspect that more tables are close to Dave than they are to some of the pain-eaters I know.
2 - this is, by the way, totally oriented towards adventure gaming. Many of these assumptions will be entirely off base in other styles of play.
3 - Now, this is not to say bad things should never happen. Unexpected badness is the classic initiating event of an adventure, and players are ok with that because that's the nature of the genre. Starting a game with the death of our family and destruction of our village is totally in bounds, because we begin play _from_ that point. However, the kind of capricious badness that a lot of people expect in the second act does not have similar blanket exemptions. If everyone at the table already has the sensibility that expects it, then great, but if they don't then the darkness before the dawn just ends up looking like the GM taking a piss on the group.
4 -This is one of those explicit divergences between tabletop play and the fiction it models. All that conflict and tension that makes for great stories has to ground out through your players. If they're not synced up with you, then you can expect to smell a lot of ozone and burnt plastic.