Thursday, 21 February 2013

Confessions of an Unapologetically Old School GM (Part One)

I started playing Dungeons & Dragons in the early 80s, when gaming as a hobby was still quite new and soon to acquire the cachet of being a Satanic plot.

Still, it was the 80s, and practically everything was a Satanic plot. Roleplaying, heavy metal, episodic televison drama (it speaks to the vast dullness of TV in the 80s that I'm actually nostalgic for the imaginative but poorly-executed shows of the 70s), hairstyles, leg warmers...

Fear Satan's low production values!
My mother, who bought me my first D&D box set, summed up her feelings on the hobby once like this: "You kids are quiet, and I know where you are." So much for a Satanic plot. Maybe D&D was actually masterminded by 4-H or the Christian Youth League.

So I've been roleplaying for a long, long time. I have no illusions that I was any good at it in the early 80s, nor that any of my early efforts at GMing (pardon me - DMing) were particularly good. I can tell you the exact moment when what I thought DMing was about and what gaming could be changed, though.

I was running a standard dungeon crawl -- I think it may even have been randomly generated, just fodder for my players' characters to hack their way through. The only memorable thing about that session was this one encounter with a lone orc. I decided on the fly that this orc was going to be an old drunk, rather than someone the players needed to attack and murder. I played that scene for comedy rather than (ho-hum) as a combat threat, and the players loved it. They even invited the orc to join the party as a comedy relief mascot.

Afterward, I remember thinking to myself: What if you didn't generally make the assumption that the monster was going to immediately attack, in every encounter?

Eureka! A GM who cared about characters and story was born. It took me a long while to carry that "lightbulb moment" forward to actually running good sessions where a story was told and characters were developed, but I was on my way.

These days, I could give a rat's ass about doing any more of what most people call "old school" roleplaying. I ceased to enjoy a dungeon crawl years and years ago. I have no illusions that we had better times with the rulesets and perspectives on gaming that existed in 1982. Do I have nostalgic feelings about those early games? Sure. But no wish to revisit them directly.

However, I am realizing that those formative years shaped me as a GM in ways that are significant. Maybe indelible. Or maybe I've still got some formative work to do before I have all the tools I'll need in my utility belt.

It has fallen out of fashion in recent years to have a strong GM role in games. More and more of the power has gone to the players, even in mainstream games like D&D 4th Edition. The really cool kids in the indie world have been sharing narrative authority between players and GM (or eliminating the GM entirely) for years now.

I like those things, for the most part. I enjoy sharing narrative authority with my players, and collaborating with them to make the game better, deeper, and something that they feel a sense of ownership in.

But I still believe strongly in the importance of a strong GM in crafting a good game...

To be continued...

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