Monday, May 07, 2007

Con GMs: a dying breed?

The first con game I ever ran was a little AD&D module I had written called The Iron Trapezoid. An evil wizard laid his hands on the Trumpet of Doom and planned on blowing it at the end of a ritual that would open a gate to Hades. The result would be an army of hordlings roaming the land. The PCs were tasked with entering the oddly-shaped metallic fortress of malefactor and stopping him. Inside the Trapezoid were a bunch of fake-out monsters: ogres in oriental garb who weren't really ogre magi, skeletons in suits of iron armor posing as golems, gas spores, etc. The players were a typical mixed bag of college kids, twentysomething ex-college kids, and a greybeard or two who remembered the bad ol' days of the beige box.

At the time I ran this con event I was 14 years old. My mom had driven me to this convention. The players were not prepared for a kid who knew the rules, had pre-gen PCs ready to go, and offered a coherent scenario with serious challenges for both the PCs and the players. For my own part, I was completely oblivious that anything was out of the ordinary. I was the DM. Gary Gygax and Tom Moldvay had been telling me for years that I was in charge of ensuring a smooth-running, entertaining game. One of the college kids tried to lean on me a bit, asking for some dagger-poison for his halfling thief. In retrospect he was probably testing his ability to manipulate the punk kid behind the screen. At the time I just told him 'no' like I wuld have to any of my regular players.

Fast forward a few years. I was jibber-jabbering on the phone with my pal Don. IIRC, he had just taken over as chairman of Winter War, my nifty little local con. He asked me to run a 2nd edition AD&D tournament for the con. I organized some DMs, wrote the three-round tournament module, and at the con I herded cats, getting all the gamers to their tables. It wasn't the best adventure ever written or the best con tournament ever run, but I was pretty proud of having guided it from start to finish. The next year I did it again.

Looking back at these and other events I've run at cons, I'm struck by how utterly clueless I was. At no point did it ever occur to me that I couldn't run a con game as a snot-nosed kid, or that a college student with no formal writing experience could write and manage a D&D tournament. When I decided to start running niches games at small cons it never even occurred to me that no one might want to play Encounter Critical or Wuthering Heights. I just went out and ran the games I wanted to run. And everything turned out pretty well, except for the recent lack of interest in Mazes & Minotaurs. Even my 3E intro games, which I had no business running, turned out okay. Man, that was stupid. Don't try and teach others a system you don't understand, kids.

Which is all a long intro to try to explain why I was utterly freaked out by my man Don's comments in an earlier Gameblog post:

Actually, Jeff, what I think is more significant for the hobby is an answer to WHY we aren't producing more DMs like you and Dave who can run games with strangers.

I don't have any good answers, and I don't see anyone else even asking the question.

Now I know plenty of people will be ready to jump up and say "GenCon's not lacking for GMs." Don's ten years or more of convention data only looks at out tiny little local shindig, so maybe the problem is a local phenomenom. What do other people think? Is the RPG section of your local convention as vibrant as it was a decade ago?

I know Living Greyhawk and similar ventures look more healthy. Winter War's own LG section has been full of raucous action for the last couple of years. But LG does several things to make things easy and safe for the GM. You don't have to come up with a module. The RPGA supplies those. You don't have to come up with some PCs. The players bring their own. Emphasis seems to be placed on running the Rules As Written, which in a game like 3.5 takes away a lot of the freedom but also a lot of the responsibility of the GM. Not to be dissing on hard-working Living Greyhawk DMs, but that looks like the easy-peasey, phone-it-in way of running a con game. I don't see much art to that approach.

More importantly, the Living Greyhawk structure completely undermines the social aspect of the player/GM relationship. In my games I hand out some PCs with the hope that we'll all work together to have some stupid fun for a few hours. Living Greyhawk puts the rulebooks and module between the DM and the players, some of whom seem to be only interested in scoring points. Maybe I'm mis-characterizing the LG scene here. I only have a handful of run-ins with it.

None of which changes my basic question. Is the hobby doing a bad job of creating con GMs? Back when I was a kid Dragon took the con scene seriously. In addition to the monthly calendar of events, they'd also carry con reports. And didn't the Gen Con program used to appear as an insert to Dragon? Gary Gygax's much-maligned how-to books (Role-Playing Mastering and Master of the Game) talked extensively about the larger social mileu to which the individual gaming group belongs. Does D&D for Dummies even mention the existence of conventions? I don't recall.

Both Gygax and Dragon left young Jeffy with the distinct impression that GMing at a con is simply part of the larger GM experience. The hobby seems to have moved away from that assumption. Is this another issue we can try to lay at the feat of Storyteller? I dunno. My impression is that running a one-shot game for strangers would not be on the list of priorities for World of Darkness chroniclers. But I have even less direct experience of that subset of the hobby than I do with Living Greyhawk.