Origins: Some lines were made to be drawn

Origins is a series of posts in which I reflect upon my earliest gaming memories as well as the events that shaped my tastes and understanding of games. The rest of the series can be found here.

I admit that my first campaign was awful.

It wasn’t just bad at the level of the material I was choosing to run or at the level of the way I administered the campaign. It was bad because I made every human error it was possible to make. I’d like to be able to say that I made all of those mistakes once and learned from them but, if I’m being honest, I am still making them.

In the previous piece in this series, I mentioned how my first ever RPG session took place in the shadow of the DM’s career as a player. I was told what to play, berated for not playing that character correctly, and then handed a suit of magical armour that the DM had clearly always wanted for his own character.

My first attempt at running a game was a bit more subtle. I had not actually played all that much before leaping into running my own games and so I was not yet scarred by memories of characters that had deserved better. There were no attempts at re-living old glories. However, I did fall into the not-unrelated error of authorism in so far as I arrived for our session zero with very clear ideas on what everyone was going to play.

My internal cringe at this memory may be somewhat unwarranted given that a lot of campaigns start with pre-generated characters but I think my primary concern was to control the tone as an attempt at getting the same group of friends to join an existing campaign had resulted in some friction when one of the (obviously) male players announced that he was going to be playing a courtesan who would use her sexual skills to overcome all plot-hurdles. He’d even unearthed a set of rules allowing him to create just such a character.

One of my other great loves in life is photography and I remember once attending a portraiture class in which someone asked if we were going to do nudes and the teacher immediately shut that possibility down as he was concerned about the experience being weirdly sexualised. That decision to ban nudes took me right back to my first gaming group.

In my experience, you weren’t worried about guys playing women because you thought they might be bi, gay, or trans. You were worried that your entire game might devolve into gross misogyny.

I remember Knights of the Dinner Table comic that tried to deal with the phenomenon of guys choosing to play female characters. In the comic, the guys are forced to play female characters and their tendency towards power-gaming results in their becoming overly invested in their characters’ femininity; choosing outfits, applying make-up, and learning how to sexually manipulate male NPCs. After a while, this level of investment gets so out of hand that everyone at the table gets creeped out, forcing the guys’ parents to step in and ban the boys from gaming lest RPGs wind up warping their sons’ sexualities. In my experience, you weren’t worried about guys playing women because you thought they might be bi, gay or trans. You were worried that your entire game might devolve into gross misogyny.

Having created the characters on my players;’ behalf, I herded them into a session of an adventure I had recently played myself.  Entitled Fighter’s Challenge, the scenario was an unbalanced solo affair that was most likely designed to help get new PCs up to the level of the rest of the group as fast as possible. It even did that thing where the party would find a huge pile of gold, pocket the associated XP, and then be compelled to hand back 90% of the money lest it unbalance the game.

Even at the time, I realised that the adventure was somewhat unbalanced and I expected the group to waltz through it and maybe go up a couple of levels. What I had not accounted for was the widening gap between levels meaning that an adventure capable of catapulting a single character all the way to level 7 could also catapult a group of 4 characters to level 5 or 6 despite being about 4 times easier. In hindsight, this created a huge rod for my back as it meant that the group then expected every subsequent adventure to advance them multiple levels and provide shit loads of magical objects despite being not particularly challenging.

While subsequent editions of D&D have provided some mechanical structure to help with the problem of game balance, AD&D Second edition had mostly rules of thumb and none of them addressed the issue of what you are supposed to do when your group gets too powerful too fast. Some have argued that Gygax’s legendary Tomb of the Necromancer was an attempt to address that problem by being a) relatively free of treasure and b) fiendishly difficult, but it’s interesting to note quite how badly you can fuck yourself with a single bad decision. It’s not just a question of fiddling with the numbers, it’s also a question of managing expectations and the somewhat confrontational culture that D&D inherited from war-gaming means that any attempt to raise the difficulty level or scale back the rewards will result in the players feeling that you’re somehow screwing them out of their just deserts.

I responded to this social problem by rounding up: My first adventure had been piss-easy and dripping with gold and so each successive adventure would be too! I wrote adventures and gave them small fortunes. I ran pre-written adventures and increased the amounts of treasure. It was such a hideous mess that the repercussions spilled out into other people’s games including another DM running an adventure where a room at an inn was said to be 100 gold pieces a night because the treasure heaped on him as a player meant that he had no sense of how much anything should cost.

One of the recurring themes of this blog is that most gaming problems are social rather than mechanical and while I can remember a few disagreements over rules; my biggest errors were at the level of group management.

Nowadays, as the hobby shifts away from pre-existing friendship groups and towards gangs of relative strangers meeting online, it is interesting to note that more and more DMs are hoisting the black flag and seeking to get paid. While some people view this as the market infiltrating what should be ties of friendship, I am actually in favour of groups being somewhat professionalised. My reasoning has nothing to do with the workload associated with running a game and everything to do with the emotional distancing involved in ‘being professional’.

Once you step behind the GM’s screen, you cease to be a player and become something more akin to a community organiser.

Once you step behind the GM’s screen, you cease to be a player and become something more akin to a community organiser. Sure you have to run the game but you also have to keep the paperwork up to date, organise timings for sessions, work on bringing people out of their shells, and resolve any conflicts that might emerge within the group. You aren’t just telling a story… you’re running a community and putting that power dynamic on a professional footing makes things a whole lot easier. It gives you authority but also encourages you to wield that authority with a degree of care and sensitivity.

When I stepped behind the screen, I replicated many of the mistakes made by my first GM. Admittedly I steered clear of random punishment beatings and digging in my heels even if it meant that everyone got annoyed and left, but I did misuse the social power that my friends had granted me: I would impose timings on the entire group unilaterally and then act like a self-righteous prick if people didn’t turn up. If two players disagreed over something, I would pick sides and then play favourites. I don’t think I ever got into that weird habit of pretending to be a pantomime villain who takes great joy in offing people’s characters but I don’t seem to remember being all that supportive or encouraging either.

Despite my shortcomings, we played the absolute shit out of that campaign. At one point, we were playing every other evening for six or seven hours at a stretch. It was also the last time I would ever properly play D&D as, at some point, a weird group dynamic started to creep into play.

The dispute came to revolve around the merits of D&D as a game. While almost all of our gaming to that point had been within the various iterations of D&D, some members of the group had discovered the broader hobby and were looking into running other games.  Despite running the campaign, I was on the thumbs-down side of the debate along with my closest friend. On the thumbs-up side was a mutual friend who tended to view D&D as a venue for macho posturing. For example, he named his character after himself and engaged in the kind of behaviour that would nowadays be referred to as being a ‘murder hobo’. Any slight or perceived slight was met with murderous retributive force, at which point the player would lapse back into relative inattention. Despite not paying much attention and systematically derailing the plot, this player would repeatedly insist that D&D was the best and only game worth playing.

Looking back on these memories, I can at least start to understand where this player might have been coming from. For starters, learning a new game is always a bit of a chore and I can understand how even an extremely limited degree of system mastery might result in a reluctance to embrace other systems. I can also see that this player might have been more ‘casual’ than other members of the group and maybe all he wanted from a gaming session was the ability to burn down the odd village and generally pretend to be a tough guy. These are the kinds of explanations that RPG culture tends to offer when groups break down: Failure is always a result of players with incompatible needs. But what if the in-group tensions run deeper than the surface of the table?

One of the disadvantages of playing with friends is that tensions over game-related stuff and tensions over non-game-related stuff tend to merge into one another. I am the first to put my hands up and admit that my teenaged self was a prick with zero social skills but the more I think about it, the more I realise that the slow disintegration of that first gaming group may have had less to do with the game (or my running of it) and more to do with the gradual dissolution of old friendship groups as a natural part of growing up. Maybe a line was always going to be drawn and it just happened to be drawn over that one issue.

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