Strange as it may seem, this post seems to have developed some legs. It is the second-highest rated post on this blog, even though I wrote it only this Friday.
It probably surprises some readers that I do feel extremely positive about the game and the way people want to play it - without the infighting and squabbling over who gets how much treasure and who's character is most powerful. For all the carping that mires down the bulletin boards, I have grown to believe that the backbone of the community has little or nothing to do with the internet, the release of new editions or the WOTC. The community has always grown and sustained itself by word of mouth between friends.
Last week-end I had a new player, a late-twenties something fellow who came to help me fill up my wood supply (it always seems to run out mid-winter, no matter how much I get) and stayed to play. He's heard about my campaign for years and the word finally got under his skin. I'm happy to say he dove right in, began innovating almost immediately, became very expressive throughout the session and ended by saying that he had been legitimately 'scared' for his character's survival - though to be honest, from my perspective, he was in relatively little real danger. I was glad to learn I had made his skin crawl.
For every kid who stumbles across role-play online or at the store, then buys it to see what it is, I believe there are thousands who are introduced by we who have gone before. Most of us did not discover the game from the store shelf but from friends. Most of us can tell the story of how we sat down at the table for the first time and how we were 'baptized.' Some of those stories are bad, but even the worst have a soft, creamy centre of goodness in them, as we learned at the bare minimum that we secretly loved the game.
This speaks to whatever that first game was - what genre, what edition, what the spirit of the campaign was, what the other players believed and so on - being the 'default' for our experience in every other game and with every other group we'll ever meet. The longer we played in that first campaign, the more effect it has on us now - as we either try to scour it out of our consciousness or we embrace those first principles among the people we play with today.
It is why I could never comfortably embrace a later edition than the one I play. Hell, just consider that I had thousands of hours invested in AD&D before 2nd Edition was released; and many more by the time 3rd Edition came along. Of course I'm prejudiced. I've rebuilt the interior structure of my campaign continuously all this time to produce the effect that I want, to make new players feel their hair prickle as I describe the canyon where there are three caves, then the interiors of each, adding phrases and descriptions to produce an emotional response.
How is a new edition going to improve that? Is it going to give me a different way to describe a dry, deserted monastery, where the sun blazing into the canyon glistens upon the insects darting or drifting upwards from the canyon floor? Will a new edition help describe the stone-carved furniture or the rubble where the ceiling has given way from an earthquake decades ago, or the cold, fish-like smell emerging from this single dank hole where stairs lead down? Will it help if I have to toss aside millions of times I've rolled a single die to determine if a character is surprised in order to look up another die or system or method to determine if a character is surprised? Is that the sort of thing that really matters in the moment the character's torch flickers and goes out?
For someone who has come to the game last week, it does not matter what system I play. For the noob, any system will do because it will be the first system they know. Once they play that system, they'll grow comfortable with it and pursue it - and perhaps if they become engrossed in role-play, they'll seek out other games that will play with other systems.
If you've played for only a few years, changing a system is no big deal; it's no worse than changing your brand of smart phone or moving to another climate or culture. You adapt. You grow familiar with the change and you may even adopt it as your preferred change . . . but you'll always be able to go back and be comfortable where you started.
Should the day come when you start to run your own campaign - and you stick with it - you'll find yourself introducing new players to your preferred system. You'll be the DM they remember first playing with; yours will be the idiosyncracies they'll carry forward to other campaigns. It won't matter to them for some time what system you play - because for them, your system will be THE system. Like apprentices, they'll treat you as the master they will forever embrace or who they will someday have to overcome in order to grow.
It never has mattered that I play my system, even today. DMs are rare, that's true enough - so that probably has something to do with players putting aside their scruples if it means being able to play. But as hard as it has sometimes been to explain or win over readers about my game or my philosophy, it has been surprisingly easy to build campaigns my way. I start with two people, who talk about the world to their friends, who express a desire to play and so it goes.
I read posts all the time about people who are starting a new campaign with a new system or a new world that will behave in such and such a fashion, but I see very few forensic discussions of the old campaign and why it failed. Those that I do see blame the players, the system, the idea or the ever-annoying realities of time and space. An explanation will usually go, "The world wasn't good enough."
Very, very rarely does a DM say, "I wasn't good enough."
Let me pass along a secret. Imagine that every player at your table is playing the game for the first time. And you want to make a good impression. You want them to carry that first experience with them all their lives. You want that experience to be so positive that it rocks them to their core.
If you expect this to happen, you will have to be special. You will have to dig down into your bag of tricks and pull out something good. If you haven't got anything good, you will have to pull out whatever you have and polish it with all the imagination and intensity you can muster. You'll have to be at your best. You'll have to be in great form.
Every time you run.