I remember being a mostly solitary kid. Alternating school years between my mother and father didn't leave me a whole lot of room to build a social group in elementary school. I got my first D&D Basic set in 1981 and I devoured it. I wrote up characters and started running them through adventures by myself. I memorized the rules by running games for myself.
I managed to talk my father into trying D&D. He rolled up a first level Thief and kitted himself out. I dusted off the Keep of the Borderlands, since I had run my own characters through the Caves of Chaos a few times. I had these grand visions of how the adventure would run. He'd start exploring and get into fights, then I'd have to figure out how to get him healed when he started getting hit, but he'd have all this treasure to sell back at the keep. I knew the rules, I knew the adventure - what could possibly go wrong?
My father subscribed to Games Magazine. Sometimes he fell asleep while working on the World's Most Ornery Crossword Puzzle with the hard clues. We played chess, though I think at that point I had played him to a draw after which we never played again. He seemed to like games, though my board game collection was at my mother's place. So I figured D&D would be a good fit for us.
Running (Ruining?) My First Game
Dad's Thief was ready to go, and we started. I decided to jump to the meat of the adventure and started describing the entry to the valley containing the Caves of Chaos. Dad interrupted me with a question. I don't remember the exact conversation, but it went a little something like this.
"Why am I here?" he asked.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean what's my motivation? Why did I decide to come to explore these caves?"
That one I knew. "You heard rumors about treasure being held by the monsters here. You're a Thief and want to get rich."
"But if I'm a Thief, why wouldn't I wait for others to explore the cave and then ambush them to take the treasure after they did the hard part of fighting the monsters?"
My 12 year old brain wasn't ready for this line of questioning. "Because you're an adventurer. Adventurers wouldn't do that. Adventurers fight monsters and take their treasure."
I don't remember the rest of the adventure, as I was too busy fretting over the fact that he didn't understand or like the game. I felt sad and a little hurt. Here I thought that we'd have this grand adventure and it'd be so fun and we'd laugh and he'd want to play again and this would be the start of something really cool. I already loved the game, but he apparently didn't want to play, so he started challenging what we were playing before we even started. What the heck?
Granted, most of those reactions were new hormones in a 12 year old brain firing whatever emotional neurons they could trigger, but the hurt stuck with me. I thought he didn't like the game I ran and we never played again.
So, my first GMing experience involved strapping my father to the tracks and railroading him toward the game I wanted to play leading to almost-certain death for his character. Not my proudest moment, but it taught me two very important lessons.
Lesson The First: Always Provide A Path To "Why?"
The fact that he asked "Why am I here?" before even playing brought home the idea of hooking a character into a setting. Sure, you can play in a box far removed from everything else, but that's not going to give you the kind of immersion that is the bread and butter of role playing.
Other games answer "Why?" with "Because it's in the rules." Case closed. D&D and other RPGs invite everyone playing to challenge everything. All the rules are guidelines, so feel free to tweak the rules to make whatever you want to play come to life.
"Why?" is a great communication tool and story generator. It tells you exactly what your player is interested in exploring, and if you don't have a good answer either because it's not germane to the plot or you don't know yet, you can always turn it around on a player and start collaborating on elements of the game world. These explorations can be the most powerful in the game because you and your player are both invested in creating your world.
My 12 year old self saw "Why?" as a challenge to its authority and turtled up. My vastly more experienced GM self can look back and see a missed opportunity to explore the character and make a personalized adventure out of the most-often-run module on the planet. I thought I was doing us a favor by skipping the town and jumping to the adventure. I thought that fighting monsters by rolling dice sat at the heart of D&D. To a certain extent that's true, but the bigger and more important part of role playing involves inhabiting a character and telling a story. If I don't allow for a story to develop and work to make it interesting, I might as well play chess instead of D&D.
Lesson The Second: Make Sure Everyone Is Playing The Same Game
Yes, it's about the social contract. I wanted to run an adventure about fighting orcs and getting treasure and show my dad what a cool game this was because you could do anything. He wanted to talk about his character and play a more subtle game involving plotting and getting away with Grand Theft Treasure. We were expecting different games when we started playing. And we never figured out how to talk through it and play the same game.
That's why taking the time and figuring out the kind of game everybody wants to play is so important. Without unanimous support of that decision everybody at the table will be playing a different game, and eventually someone will get disillusioned with the whole process and walk away.
Having the conversation can be as easy as talking about house rules, or it can get into setting and style of play, or you can start with "I don't know how this is going to turn out, so if you're uncomfortable at any time please let me know so we can change things." There is no right way to have a conversation about a social contract, as long as everybody is clear on where the "Too Far" line is so nobody crosses it and starts hurting feelings.
Back in 1981, I had zero idea about social contracts. 30 years later I think I've found a secret to good GMing: leave your expectations at the door when you sit down at the table. Let the game go where everybody wants it to, not just you. Sure, you can end up leading a rebellion against a lich instead of fighting the dragon for money, but if everybody has fun what's the harm? More on this in future posts, I'm sure.
These aren't novel concepts, but they were to me 30 years ago. If my experience can get you to GM better than you are today, I'm happy.
I still have a distant relationship with my father. Our paths diverged, mine for sanity's sake in high school and his because he changed so much for the better but he's still ashamed of what he was. And as I look forward to gaming with my daughter, I have some guidelines that I can use to steer our relationship to a much better place. Role playing will be a much different experience with her, and I just can't wait.
In related news, I'll be starting to run games for at least one group of kids soon. Starting to work through details now. More as it happens.