Making the rounds on some of the blogs and forums I read is this link describing Dungeons & Dragons. While I find the piece lacking even as satire (but then I am notoriously humorless -- just ask anyone!), there is one line that held some amusement for me: "To play D&D you need at least two acolytes, who play under the guidance of a vaguely Mansonesque personage called the Dungeon Master (DM)." I found it amusing, because this description rings more than a little true to me and probably to a great many gamers who entered the hobby in the late 70s/early 80s.
Back then, you might, as my friends and I did, buy the D&D rulebooks for yourselves, but you learned to play from others, usually older kids or adults. That's what happened to my friends and I, who were inducted into the school of hard knocks roleplaying via the teenage brother of one of those friends. Tall and skinny, with longish hair and glasses, he lived in a basement bedroom whose walls were covered with posters for heavy metal bands. When we'd visit my friend's house, we usually hung out in the basement ourselves but we'd live in some fear that we might do something -- make too much noise, make too little noise, whatever -- that'd bring his brother out of his lair and yell at us (or rain blows upon my poor friend).
Once we got our own D&D books, things changed and the older brother took it upon himself to teach us "how to really play" the game. This consisted of lectures on the proper interpretations of obscure rules, lessons in pronouncing unfamiliar words, and, most importantly, being used a guinea pigs in his dungeons while his high school buddies looked on with fiendish delight. I vividly recall his running us through a couple of modules -- Against the Giants and Palace of the Silver Princess -- and suffering mightily at his hands.
And yet, we loved it. Part of it was because it was cool to be able to hang out with teenagers, even if they treated us not much better than they usually did. An even bigger part of it was that it was fun. My friend's brother, though he probably never intended it, was teaching us how to really play D&D and, while he was often merciless, he was (generally) quite fair, able to cite rules to us in explanation for all the nasty stuff he threw at our characters. While I'm far from a killer DM, I nevertheless learned a lot from this teenager and his buddies, including how to keep a game moving and enjoyable for all its participants, even when you're putting them through the wringer. He was tough and we were always a little bit afraid of him but he was a very compelling referee and kept us coming back for more.
I may be mistaken but I get the sense that the notion of having a gaming "mentor" has long since fallen out of fashion. Indeed, I think a lot of gamers look with derision on the idea of being initiated into the hobby under the tutelage of "a vaguely Mansonesque personage." It's certainly not the only way to go nor do I necessarily think it's the best by any means. Still, I look back with fondness on those slightly creepy tough-but-fair referees I had in the early days. I didn't always agree with every rules interpretation they made but, despite the rhetoric we often see flying about, these guys weren't jerks. They played the game in a particularly uncompromising fashion, true, and, to a certain extent, they were out to get our characters, but they did so in a way that, for us, was instructive and, more importantly, fun. Playing D&D with them gave us a sense of accomplishment that we never had playing make-believe amongst ourselves. That seems odd to say but it's true and it's likely a big part of why I still play these games decades later.
So, wherever you are, my hard-ass gaming mentors, I salute you. Thanks for giving me a lifelong hobby that I can now share with others, including my own children.