I was reminded, based on a comment made by Delta to an earlier post, that my introduction to the hobby was different than that of many gamers, particularly younger ones. I am not an autodidact gamer. I didn't just pick up Holmes in the Fall of 1979 and start playing with my friends. Or rather, I did, but the story didn't end there. Instead, my friend's older brother and father soon stepped in to set us straight and teach us the "right" way to play Dungeons & Dragons. Through them, the local hobby stores, and games days at public libraries, I was initiated into the wider gaming culture that had sprung up before I entered it. I am by no means a first generation gamer, but I had firsthand experience with guys who were. I gamed with them, learned from them, and acquired a lot of their quirks and prejudices.
From what I've gathered, my experiences were unusual. A great many more people entered the hobby by teaching themselves and their friends to play after reading Moldvay or Mentzer. They never had the experience of being tutored by older brothers, fathers, or weird old wargamers who hung out in the back room of the Compleat Strategist. They never had any direct experience of "the hobby" beyond their immediate circle of friends with whom they got together to game.
I also get the sense that my experiences were unusual in another way, one that may explain why I feel such a powerful lack of connection to the way RPGs have evolved over the years. It's increasingly my contention that the breakdown in the "social contract" between referees and players is why roleplaying games have become so much more codified and structured than they used to be. Collectively, gamers -- and game designers -- have had a lot of bad experiences with bad and/or jerky referees, leading to the perceived need for the rules to "protect" players from such experiences and to ensure greater "evenness" in play.
The difficulty for me is that I honestly never had a bad referee back in those days. Certainly, some referees were better than others, but none stand out as mind-searingly bad. None of them abused us or treated us whimsically. Even my friend's older brother, who delighted in throwing us up against difficult challenges, was never really out to get us so much as to prove that he was cleverer and more devious than we were -- and he often was. Yet, he could be "beaten." We occasionally outsmarted him and he played fairly. He didn't fudge the dice in his favor or conjure up ridiculous wandering monster encounters just to show us who was boss. There was always an understanding between us that he'd play by the rules as we all understood them and that, while he'd never cut us any slack, neither would he deprive us of any victories we'd earned through our ingenuity (or just dumb luck).
By and large, that was my experience of old school refereeing. People like to talk a lot about "killer DMs," but my recollection was that guys who got their jollies by creating deathtrap dungeons and weren't fair in their adjudication of the rules didn't tend to keep players for very long. That style of gaming was never fun and, back in the day, there were enough referees out there that no one had to put up with jerks like that.
The impression I keep getting, though, is that my experiences on this score were out of the ordinary. Most everyone seems to have all manner of stories about killer DMs who ruined their enjoyment of the game and whose arbitrariness sent them running headlong into the safety of more heavily codified rules systems. At least, that's my perception of things; I can't speak to the truth of it, since, as I've said, my own experiences in the old days were very different. There was always a tacit acceptance that referee and player were adversaries (to a degree anyway), but they were honorable adversaries and a cornerstone of honor was playing fairly. Referees lived or died by their reputations of being honorable. That was what I was taught by the earlier generation and it's a lesson that's stuck with me all these years.
I guess I should be very grateful to them, because, from the sounds of it, many gamers weren't nearly as lucky as I.