Thursday, May 6, 2010

Gaming Mentors

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.


  1. Pretty much everyone I know on Staten Island of a certain age learned "how to play" D&D (and Traveller and Villains & Vigilantes, etc.) from one slightly older guy. His older brother had brought the original rulebooks back with him from school in Wisconsin but he became the proselytizer.
    Eventually my immediate group broke away from him (way too much rule playing, among other irritating things {he REALLY loved Arduin and the worst that entails}). We'd lie to him that we weren't playing while running some of our longest and best campaigns. His presence, we were convinced, would only have caused them to suffer.
    Years later I met people who I found out had started playing with him in totally separate circles from my own. It almost too amazing to believe. Without him we wouldn't have become the lunatic players we were for a fifteen years and we wouldn't have figured out the things we disliked about D&D as soon as we did.

  2. So THAT'S why I had such a hard time settling into the game back in the day: I had no Mansonesque DM to hitch myself to.

    On the other hand, I grew up not far from Box Canyon, so maybe I caught just enough Mansonesque vibe to give me DM pretensions.

  3. It doesn't seem to me that the piece you linked to is trying to be especially funny--trying to be clever, maybe. I truly think this is the way the "uninitiated" think of D&D. Heck, sometimes it's the way I think of D&D.

  4. Same here. We learned from a guy who was a year ahead of us in school. He had learned to play from someone else. The process of learning seemed to entail rolling up a bunch of characters, sending them into the dungeon where they would have a silly-high casualty rate and then starting over again when the last survivor(s) hopefully limped back to won looking for fresh meat (aka new companions).
    Fortunately or unfortunately, I don't think most people under the age of 30 learn to play that way. Most of them have played some sort of computer game that duplicates the basic principles. When we started playing, I don't think there were even any 'Choose your own Adventure books' (or, if there were, we were unaware of them) and whatever video games that would have been availible to us were very primitive --- barely above 'pong' level in terms of sophistication.
    The thing we didn't learn from our gaming mentor (or maybe we learned it despite of him because of some of his more draconian rulings) was the concept of role playing games as a game of negotiations between players and between players and the DM... which remains my favorite part of games like D&D. I enjoy personal negotiations in game (how will we divide the treasure, how do we decide which way to go?) and rules/strategy based negotiations (if I leap behind the pillar can I get a bonus on my saving throw?). From these negotiations, the "story" of what happens emerges.

  5. It isn't that being a mentor has fallen out of fashion. It is that our generation, as a rule, proved to be so bad at it. Many of us stayed within our circles and did not make an effort to mentor outside these circles. It was not easy for younger players to find their way in, and so they went unmentored.

    And this has been disastrous for the hobby. Old school gaming (particularly rules-light gaming) requires mentoring. Bad DMs are the rule, not the exception. And if all you ever had were bad DMs, you leave the hobby.

    Love it or hate it, this was a large part of the impetus for D&D 4.0. They wanted a system that had a uniform play style without the need for mentors. Because this is the only way to keep the hobby alive among the younger generation.

  6. James, I'm always incredibly jealous of your experience when you post stuff like this. Back in the mid 80's I had no mentor, just a copy of Moldvay, a Player's Handbook, and some friends who weren't nearly as obsessed as I was. It took years for me to form up a regular group of players, and by the time I finally did 2e was the norm. I didn't really fully appreciate (or even understand the differences between) the earlier editions until more recent years.

    I have a much younger brother (13 years younger), who has recently shown a growing interest in these crazy games I play. I try to be the kind of mentor you describe to him, though I have to make it up as I go along, and I secretly envy his experience as well.

    Of course, he has a resource none of us could have even dreamed of back then: the internet. I think that's the wild card that's changing everything now. Do the kids really need a mentor when they've got stuff like Dragon's Foot and Grognardia?

  7. I sort of had mentors and sort of didn't. I actually began my RPG experience with Wizard and Melee, which are games you can teach yourself from the rules, so when I encountered D&D (Holmes basic) I had a general idea about chargen, combat, and spellcasting (the last two of which are simpler in Holmes basic than in Wizard and Melee). So my friends and I figured out D&D fairly well on our own, but we had to have AD&D explained/taught to us by older kids. The other thing is that some of us started playing Tunnels and Trolls very early on, and that's again a simple game to learn.

  8. I'm with Paul here. Nowadays I realize that most folks went through a mentoring process. Me, I ordered it after a Games magazine review and proselytized to everyone I knew.

  9. no mentors for me. I brought home the Moldvay basic and my friends and I (7th or 8th grade) figured it out on our own. Probably incorrectly, but still it was without mentors. I think I'd have been suspicious of a high-schooler wanting to hang out with us anyway.

    WV: Marapp (the sound made by the laser gun of that the big-headed alien on the cover of FO! #9)

  10. I have spoken on my mentors in the past here.


  11. Our high-school games could have definitely done with some mentoring. Especially my year as DM, in which I took literally everything St. Gary said in the DMG (I think he must have written those advancement fees and xp awards on the rebound from some serious Monty Haul campaigns), overstocked my dungeons, and had no idea how to use things like dungeon-dressing.

    It's only really when I started running improv games with my own system in college, that my DM skills improved.

  12. No mentors for us in the 70s. We just picked up the books and ran from the examples and published adventures, until we got the idea of how to do our own.

  13. I've always thought the best way to learn to play was to play with some who already knew. FWIW, I don't even think you should really need a copy of the game to sit down and play. As long as the DM (and maybe a player or two) knows how to do it, just go along for the ride. You'll catch on quickly enough.

    However, I do not think that mentors need to be at all "Mansonesque" or "hard-ass." The game as written provides plenty of toughness, and I think that DMs who intentionally go berserk trying to kill novice player's PCs or confuse the players themselves usually do more harm than good.

  14. Dude, it's WAY funny. I fell in love with the Straight Dope and Cecil back in the early 90's when it appeared in a free liberal newspaper here in LA. I especially cherish this entry. It says it all in a way at least as good as any other non-player could.

    You want a mentor story? Hooboy, you asked for it! Check out my post about it from last year, and tremble in terror-

  15. Oh, by the way, the dragon eating the lady pic is by Slug Signorino, Cecile's long time artist for Dope. He would have made a great early D&D artist.

  16. My first DM was a guy my age whom I had soundly beaten in Squad Leader, and I'd already been playing Melee/Wizard. While my first DnD experience was magical, that DM did not have the same mentor relationship to me. His story would be different I'm sure as he did play in an OD&D campaign with older friends.

    We have two total newbies in our current group. They've both expressed amazement at the DMing - 'how do you do it?' 'where does that come from?' and they like.

  17. Is the adjective "Mansonesque" a reference to Charles Manson, or something else? Because if I had met someone like THAT while learning to play, I definitely wouldn't be playing today.

  18. 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.

    I try my best to look the part.

  19. My favorite line from the piece (quoting from memory) is the the game is a cross between " a pentagon ballistics manual and double entry bookkeeping". Also like Brunomac I'm a big fan of Cecil Adams ever since I found one of his books in Math class in high school.

  20. "...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).",

    Jajaj, priceless.

    Nice post by the way. I'm way younger than most OSR folks, but I had the luck of having somewhat like a mentor. He was my friend's older brother too, and I remember his Star Wars sessions almost as a mythic thing. It's weird, but he was also a very though GM.

  21. Hunh. Interesting. No one taught me or my buddies how to play. We learned from each other. Mainly me and two other guys who each played different types of games. However, nowadays, I'm always the teacher. Our group currently consists of 2 veterans of 2nd edition, 1 of OD&D, and three neophytes. So in all we're all teaching the new guys what's expected, and I'm teaching the vets a newer system (3.0). More mentor for your dollar. However, we tend to run a more old school game then most.

  22. At first, I didn't have any mentors. Just a friend who had the Basic and expert Moldvey D&D books. after a couple of years, I did get some mentors. The two places were at conventions and at a local hobby shop. Not only did I see there was a larger community, but I learned how to play better. It was a tremendous influence.

  23. I've moved many a time in my life, and I've always made an effort to proselytize to people roughly my age.
    I'm only a young'un, in comparison, but I love the old-school games and retro-clones as my first love. My generation will be the grognards of tomorrow, and with any luck, they'll be pining away for the good ol' days of Moldvay instead of the 4th edition days.

  24. Good post Jim, and one that I can emphasize with. As you know from our conversation over at K&KA, I feel that this informal journeyman/apprentice relationship was an integral part of the Dungeons and Dragons experience, at least for many kids just being introduced to the game in the late 70's/early 80's. It was, in a way, an initiation into adulthood, a jump from the toys we played with as little kids into a world reserved for older brothers: guys that smoked and listened to rock, that went to high school, drove beat up cars and worked in fast food restaurants. And it was also always a reluctant relationship: the older brother taught you either because he needed more players or because Mom forced him to take the little brother and his friends in. This caused a level of animosity that that I see now was a necessary part of the whole.

    Word Verification: Equackal
    The Ancient Aztec God of Ducks

  25. I was fortunate enough to have a store full of mentors - Waterloo Hobbies in Stony Brook, NY.

    A good GM/mentor is equal parts campfire storyteller, umpire, team coach and prankster. This is not a common skill-set, alas, and takes time and practice even for those with natural aptitude.

    Word Verification: SULTHEL
    Sounds vaguely Lovecraftian (but then, what doesn't?)


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.