Thursday, September 4, 2014


It is a common story.  A group of people would like to role-play, only there's no one to actually run the game.  After some discussion, an agreement is made by everyone who isn't Jeremy: Jeremy is going to be the DM.  Jeremy protests, but it's no use.  The matter is decided.  Jeremy will run the game.

We spoke to at least two dozen people with this story, people who felt inadequate to the task, people who would rather just play, people who were trying and doing their best and well aware that they were failing.  I would try to be as encouraging as possible.  "If you're feeling less than up to it," I'd say, "imagine the inadequacy the rest of your party feels.  They're not even strong enough to try!"  But while this was meant to be encouraging, these are people past encouragement.  They just do not want to run.

At least half of them will run a module or two out of guilt before quitting, whereupon none of the people may ever play D&D again.  Many of the remainder will build up a stock of resentment, turning that into a vindictive campaign that will degrade into a revolving door of character death, or player-vs-player conflicts that will serve the DM's subconscious desire for revenge (pvp is really just a form of gladiators playing their roles for the emperor's pleasure).  Some of those DMs, over a period of years, will become right bastards, concealing their original resistance against running under layer after layer of spiteful lacquer.  Revenge against the player becomes their own single ambition.

Only a very, very few will develop an aptitude for it and an inclination to grow positively.

How did we get into this mess?

I learned to run the game through watching others, during a time when many people wanted to give the prospect of DMing a go.  The initial game was very simple - roll characters, explore dungeons, roll to hit, roll damage, haul away the loot.  AD&D only marginally changed the basic principles of doing those things, so that the majority of participants shared a common experience that could be shared, explained and consulted.  The answers that would come back were, for the most part, universal, for suggestions that were made or cautions that were given reflected issues or problems that everyone who had run the game had encountered.  There were none of the dialogues that would later befuddle or bog down the basic process of learning - for someone just starting out, things like railroad-vs-sandbox or narration-vs-simulation, have very little meaning.  They're concerned with finding rules, making good calls, enabling the participants to enjoy themselves and not fucking up.

The new DM has been repeatedly made the victim these past forty years.  Endless rule changes have shattered any supervisory potential the community may have had.  A new DM can expect nothing but endless conflicting arguments weighted by uber-nuanced advice that speaks more about the teacher than the student.  Rather than teach, long time participants are anxious to grind their axes, leaving those on the outside feeling overwhelmed and under-supported.

The result is that no one who is 'volun-told' to DM sees any benefit in it.  All they see is work, effort, an expectation of being judged, a certainty of failure and a constant desire to shove the whole problem onto someone else's shoulders.  In the meantime they're sour, unhappy or lethargic - except for the real pricks, who see the dearth of DMs as a great banquet for their sadistic or self-gratification masturbation rituals.

I don't think the game is going away; I don't consider role-play as something sliding into oblivion.  I do, however, see that there's a problem between those fearful to DM and those players who haven't the responsibility to step up and take their turn.  I say that because, while we met people at the Expo who expressed discontent as being forced to run, we met more who saw we were selling a book on How to Run and responded, "We ought to buy this for Jeremy - he's a total shit at DMing."

In fact, some people did.

This is a problem.  At the ground level.  A problem no one seems to care about.  A problem that is exascerbated by yet another system that does less and less for the general welfare.  I can say without doubt that the return to 'old D&D' isn't about simplicity, it is about commonality.  The need to find a game that nearly everyone understands, even if they don't play it or they consider it beneath them.

If you're a new DM and you're reading this, I offer this advice.  Don't buy 5e.  Don't buy 4e, 3e or 2e. Find the oldest, most universal system you can find and begin there.  You may feel like you're a bit of a throwback, but as you venture your way through the rule-books, you'll find yourself with no end of people who will be able to give you advice.  For while these toffs may preen themselves on their brand new systems they can't explain in 10,000 words or less, they can - most of them - remember how the original game works.  And they can help you master it.

Perhaps, by chance, you'll find it isn't beyond your ken after all.


  1. Excellent advice. And not just because I'm an anti-"new edition" guy.

  2. if someone wants to play d&d in a way "that everyone understands", wouldn't choosing the current one be the most likely choice?

    why would someone starting out right now think about starting with an edition decades old? if you know nothing about a game, why would you even suspect an older edition might have benefits?

    i agree that having experienced gms tutor those starting out is the best way to learn. but every community can supply experienced gms.

    the ffg star wars roleplaying games are a system only a couple of years old. the forums are busy with novice gms asking for help. i have yet to find another gaming forum with such a friendly and helpful user base.

  3. I believe the post actually answers half your questions, shlominus - but, in the interest of educating you:

    The so-called 'forums,' as you call them, are in my experience prejudiced and made up mostly of people who vouchsafe exactly the attitudes the post quoted regarding quibbles and axes to grind. Meaning that the most important agenda for the forum-goers is not to HELP, but to sell their particular propaganda to new players. Since no one agrees on what that propaganda should be, not even all the people presently waxing themselves on 5e, the result for someone outside is a ghastly mess. You call it 'help,' but I've seen very little there that would help anyone. Mostly, it only confuses.

    The fact that the forums are full of people asking for help is proof of this. I see the same people on forums today that were there four years ago, who were new four years ago, who STILL haven't found any of the information they seek. For reasons already named.

    The greatest amount of experience exists in those DMs and players who have been playing for 30+ years - people who have seen EVERY game and who can speak with both authority and - hopefully - a recognition that there is no 'right' or 'wrong' game, only the game you choose to play.

    I'm sorry, shlominus, that this isn't self-evident. I stress, again, that meeting people face-to-face in Toronto (at the FanExpo) confirmed for me that people are tired and sick of the online garbage; not a single person expressed any positivity about the internet at all. Several people winced when I mentioned it.

    We have made an AWFUL name for ourselves - it is time to stop backslapping our own efforts and address what we've created.

  4. you don't have to believe me if i point out a forum that doesn't work the way you think. as i said, it's an exception... but it exists.

    the fact that people are asking for help online isn't proof of anything but the fact that there are fledgling gms that need advice. it's up to us to give it to them.

    i don't know why you would assume people helping out online don't have a lot of experience, but feel free to do so. it's funny that you should mention that there's no right or wrong way to play, since this piece of advice is given all the time in most forums i frequent.

    appearently there is a wrong way (or place) to ask for or give advice though...

    i'm also sorry that it isn't self-evident that your experience doesn't encompass the whole wide world of gaming. while i agree that learning f2f is preferable (i teach kids to play myself), both you and me will have to accept that young people today will most likely ask for advice in an online forum instead of anywhere else. we should strive to provide friendly, helpful and competent places for them to go to. forums can be such a place.

  5. Given my experience online, shlominus, I find your response very difficult to believe. Will young people look for advice online? Absolutely. Will they get advice online? Oh yes, they will.

    Will it be GOOD advice? I sincerely doubt it.

    Given your own history of comments on this blog, shlominus, what exactly is it that gives you reason to think your assertion that they will has credibility?

  6. Furthermore, shlominus,

    I do not understand why you have not linked these forum sites where people do not squabble over minute details, where flame wars do not occur, where people do not spend all their time arguing one edition over another, where moderators do not intimidate, where participants do not deliberately misconstrue or derail conversations, where people do not have political agendas and where prejudice does not rule the day. Of course I do not know 'the whole wide world of gaming,' but I have certainly looked long and hard for such a forum, given that virtually everything I see or read online about the game disagrees with those principles I expound, namely that the player comes first, that the player's freedom is fundamental to the game and that a self-made world easily trumps the poor corporate efforts I've seen.

    Please. I wait anxiously for the url to this wonderful forum.

  7. Seriously? Star Wars?

    Well, apart from the fact that the link is like 10 or 20 parsecs off point, as far as I can tell on a quick glance, the people seem to be polite to one another.

    For no logical reason, I guess I'll just leave up the link. Can't see how it is in any way useful for me or anyone wanting to run D&D.

    The Internet. The proliferation of non-sequituritus.

  8. (applauds)..... THANK YOU for this, seriously :) ... Generally speaking, as a player I will .. even with online gaming such as Fantasy Grounds (my preferred method of gaming nowadays) will always be sympathetic towards a GM... s/he doesn't HAVE to take on the responsibility, s/he has chosen to - an attempt to entertain us, the players... I've seen situations (unfortunately more than once) where some outraged player takes the GM to task (whether in "live" tabletop games or in online forums), livid that the game isn't being run to the player's preferences - or in the case of online some cold dispassionate statement about why they dislike the game without mentioning anything they feel the GM is doing right before vanishing from said campaign ...quite honestly to me it seems like a 5 year old self centered sort of response.. I have bowed out of games I haven't enjoyed before but always, ALWAYS with sincerest apologies to the GM and a "It's not you it's me" speech...


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