Saturday, June 6, 2009

Maybe I Was Lucky

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.


  1. This is a very thoughtful post (not that your others are not). I can certainly understand why a business would want to protect the reputation of their product by ensuring fidelity in the implementation of that product. Do I like it? No, but I understand how it might be deemed necessary. From this perspective, the players have always been the true consumers. Referees are consumers but also partners of a sort. If the refs misrepresent the product by poor play, then what's a game publisher to do? I'm not jumping to the defense of the game publishers. I just think it is a complicated issue. Of course, the best way to deal with a poor ref is to not play (which is not music to the ears of game publishers). Me thinks an indie game designer would run into this same issue of fidelity if their game products were to take hold in the gaming community. If I do a poor job as the GM/DM/CK/Ref in my current C&C campaign, what will my players think of C&C?

  2. Absolutely right.

    And some of us came from backgrounds where very few people played.

    It's been years, and I've only met less than a handful of people face-to-face who could qualify as "dungeon masters" (i.e. they had experience refeering any tabletop RPG).

    A particular fact that rankles me to this day quite a bit about the whole hobby is that, when you get down to it, outside of the Western hemisphere, not many people played tabletop RPGs.

    And yet I've seen people make the assumption that you could find gamers if you tried hard enough; that if you had trouble getting players or converting newbies to the hobby, it was strictly your fault or your problem, because we have no problems doing so.

    So... yeah. Whoops, off-topic. Disregard what I said.

  3. "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."

    I feel like just as the Sword & Socery/pulp/oldschol vs High Fantasy/new school division is becoming increasingly sharp, there is an equally important line between:

    -People who mostly game with their friends and/or people they like and trust and can work things out with no matter what and

    -People who game with anybody who comes along and so seem to feel the need to make either game rules or rules for GMing or rules for gaming in general that prevent player/gm mismatch

    I notice that, despite their many differences, Ron Edwards and RPGPundit both seem to fit very much into the latter camp (Edwards wants to define games so only people who want similar experiences play in the same game, and the Pundit is constantly talking about how people need to observe certain GMing rules in order for everyone to have fun.)

    I notice most old-school bloggers tend to fit into the first camp.

    It's kinda like Tournament Rules, I guess--if you want to have them, you need to have stnadardized rules, from which much danger flows.

    If you want to play with people you don;t know very well or necessarily get along with, you need a more explicit social contract, form which much danger flows.

  4. The guys at the local Compleat Strategist (Davie, FL.) were too busy playing Champions to give us much guidance other than pointing us toward Chaosium products and away from A/D&D, for which they had more than a mild disdain (except perhaps Cliff Dun).

    I did not encounter the typical Grog D&Der until decades later, and then, didn't feel I had missed out on much, as we had just as many fun tales and gonzo adventures under our belts.
    It wasn't until relatively recently that I began to deeply appreciate the giants upon whose shoulders I had trod to become the Referee/GM I am today.

  5. We were entirely self-taught. I had a co-DM, and we traded off on running the game so we could both play. Most games had 4-6 players, from a pool of probably 12-20 guys who were interested at any given time. I don't think we had any exposure to older or more experianced players for the first 3 years we gamed. The first time we did was at a convention game, a tournament at the Emperor's birthday con some where in northern indiana. It was a disaster, The DM was an older wargamer, and he let his young son run a character with us. That kid was a pain in the ass. No team work, no consultation. He ran a halfling thief, which to us at the time was like a talking rat.
    When the party came upon a rope bridge that crossed a chasm underground, we stopped to do recon and decide how best to deal with it. The kid put on his ring of invisibility and started across the rope bridge with out telling the rest of the party, thinking he would beat us to the treasure, I suppose.
    The DM announced that I saw the rope bridge swaying, and though I knew it was the halfling, I pointed and yelled, "Invisible monster!"
    The halfling died in a hail of handaxes and arrows.
    I don't remember anything else about that game really, except it was so boring that we started getting ourselves killed on purpose so we could leave the table and go find something fun to do.
    The DM caught on to what we were doing after a while, and started letting us get away with anything just to keep us at the table.
    I remember the Dwarf actually strangled a hill giant to death with his bare hands.
    The whole thing turned us off to gaming with unknowns for a long time after that.
    This dosen't really address your post James, but it's a funny story.

  6. Yo, Zak: I don't think old school gamers are only gaming with their insular groups. James is discussing here how you can still play old school, while mixing with various folks. I don't think rigid/codified rules comes from a particular style of game, I think it comes from a particular style of play.

    As for jerky DMs...maybe we all ned to pass the equivalent of a D&D "bar exam" before being allowed to DM. Doesn't Hack Master have some sort of DM certificate?

  7. While I do think the fact that the rules codified the player experience might have helped protect some players from the ire of "Killer DMs", I think a more important reason is the need for tournament play. GenCon started fairly early, and almost all of the old modules were for GenCon use.

  8. I didn't play with anyone I didn't personally recruit into gaming for *years* after I started.

    Blind leading the blind...

    Anyway, my only real encounter with an abusive, crap DM (not counting my early didn't-know-what-I-was-doing experiences) was many years later at a game convention. This must have been late 80s, early 90s.

    One of the local DMs was running a game, and lo and behold, all his regular players were at his table (including me). So were a few other people we didn't know.

    He intentionally killed the other guys' characters and sent them from the table so the regular bunch of us could then have a "real game."

  9. I was usually the DM back in 70s, so maybe I was the killer DM. We were the first in our area to play, as far as we knew. My experiences as a player were at the other extreme--unlimited wish rings and artifacts galore like the Le Pew of Aerial Flight (a flying church pew with built-in fireball wands and B-2 stealth features). The publication of the "Dungeon Masters Guide" propagated a Christmas shopping mentality among everyone in my group--we were creating crazy magic swords and using the Mace of St. Cuthbert in our search for the Rod of Many Parts. It wasn't long before I tired of it as a player and my characters retired.

    I do think wayward refs create the same issues for game publishers as a poor fast-food franchise presents to the parent company. It tarnishes the brand. It's a problem for players, but a bigger long-term problem for publishers. Who wants a group of players with sucky game experiences? On the other hand, well-run game groups who are satisfied with what they have are probably a bane to the more profit-minded publishers as well. Many problems could be solved with that unlimited wish ring.

  10. "It's kinda like Tournament Rules, I guess--if you want to have them, you need to have stnadardized rules, from which much danger flows."

    Zak here just hit on the last thing I added to my house rules (i.e., my last blog post). If a convention/tournament needs rules of a certain sort, do you rewrite the game's core rules? Or should you lay them out in a separate appendix or supplement? Seems like I've never seen a game company do the latter.

  11. JB:
    I'm just saying that most Old School bloggers, when they write about actual play, seem to be writing about games where everybody trusts everybody else to be cool and not argue about rules in any seriously disruptive way.

    I'm not saying that's "insular". I think it's good.

  12. Most of my bad DM experiences have been in the "new" rules (3.5 and above). I think bad DM-ing is a universal law of role-playing, and no rules system or lack thereof will protect you from them.

    I only ever DMd for the first 10 years or so of my rpg-ing career, and I was more than happy to get away from AD&D and into something more modern. I certainly wasn't driven to Rolemaster or Shadowrun by a need to hide from killer DMs under a complex rule system. I just wanted to experiment...

  13. Hmmm... I'm not so sure it's about "bad DM-ing" as much as different local cultures and expectations. I had some great gaming, both with friends and with near-strangers, for many years - until I moved to a new part of the country. That was when I really began to find hard-and-fast rules a big help - because all of a sudden, I and my tables (as player of GM) were speaking completely different languages. My gaming circles in the Old Days had been theater geeks, stoners, and High Gygaxian Weirdness lovers. I didn't find players with the same background for years after relocating - I kept ending up in groups with completely different ideas about what the game was and how it was played than I had come up with. (principally engineering/computer backgrounds, GM-auteur high-simulation low fantasy sandboxes, with a heavy seasoning of wargaming roots).

    When you're suddenly out of your element like that, the common ground of hard rules can be a nice security blanket and aid to adjustment.

  14. A couple of points:

    (1) I think there’s a tendency (and I indict myself as much as anyone else) to see Wizards 3e D&D as the state-of-the-industry. While it certainly cast a big shadow, I don’t think it is typical of the rest of the industry. Even 4e has moved away from it in some ways.

    (2) I think most of the actual players of 3e ignore its rules-heavy nature quite a bit and play the game pretty much the way they always have. That’s certainly true of my group, but they don’t show up in the online debates.

    In any case, I truly believe that rules can’t fix the “bad DM” problem. Experience and maturity are the only true fixes. Insisting your 30–40yo DM follow a strict set of rules because a 16yo DM was a jerk (even if they’re the same person) just means losing some of what makes these games special. At least, that’s my experience.

    I feel truly fortunate that I have been able—through the Internet—to learn from grognards and some of the founding fathers some of the things that my friends and I didn’t get from learning from the books.

  15. If you need to be protected from the DM, will any set of rules help? I mean, let's be realistic. If a DM, who controls everything, is out to ruin a game what could stop him? And even if something could "stop" him, wouldn't the game he produced end up sucking just as much? The whole project just seems like a fantasy to me.

    My experience was similar to yours, but at one remove. I was taught D&D by a friend who had been taught it by the older brother of a friend whom he occasionally visited in the country. So I got a dose of old school--use of classic modules, challenge the player not the character, difficult adventures with frequent deaths, serious houserules, DM word is final, etc.--at one remove.

    But over the years the rest of the people I played with were people who had taught themselves. I never had a DM that I wanted protection from, although they were of uneven quality. If I didn't like playing with someone then I didn't try to create rules to fix the problem. I just stopped playing with him.

  16. I don't know, I guess that I might be considered a killer DM, but the way I see it is that in order to be properly challanged, the bad guys have to be better then the good guys. If I wasn't so mean, my players would walk all over me and get nothing what-so-ever from the game!

    Difficult DMs are a commodity, folks are too afraid to cut loose on people, and just go! If I were to run a game that does its best to eliminate the DM, my players would slaughter it, because that is what Role-players do. They only trust the dice if it is in their favor and they do their best not to roll anything if they don't have to.

    If you try to do full frontal assaults and get away with it, you aren't playing correctly. Every encounter should be thought about, role-playing is part of the game and the tactics that you chose to employ are what separates a player who is just playing a game, from the player who sees it more as a hobby.

    To me, killer DM's aren't the problem, it is simply inexperienced and disorganized DMs that are. Of course there are the monkey wrenchers too, the kind that house rule everything so that nobody knows what the heck the rules are anymore and the PHB is effectively worthless.

  17. Most of my very early, junior-high-school-age gaming consisted of one-on-one sessions with a friend who lived two floors above me. We mostly played with Moldvay Basic and AD&D--or rather, imperfect understandings of each, at least on my part. (He DM'ed far more often, so I can't really speak for him.) I'm pretty sure that most of our in-game dice-rolling was fudged to what "felt right," rather than based on any strict interpretation of either system.

    Which never got in the way of enjoying the game at all, even when it reached the point that we were clearly making things up as we went. (Bet you didn't know that Baron "Black Eagle" van Hendriks had a mile-high tower, wore a monocle, and had access to a James Bondian escape chute from said tower, did you?)

    At the same time, there being only two of us most of the time (excepting occasional visits from other school friends), it would have been counter-productive for whomever was DMing to kill the other guy's character, so we mostly didn't. So maybe it wasn't exactly old school--although it felt like it at the time when my character was in some horrible jam, we were really doing the "collaborative story" approach, weren't we? Still, it felt qualitatively different from the more "modern" gaming of the late 80s and 90s, when no gamer I knew would so much as look at D&D in any form.

    (David, if you're out there, I *still* want to know what happened when I got to the Isle of the Exiles.)