Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Learning To Fish

Is it really that hard to learn how to play Dungeons & Dragons?

Trying to (re-)learn how to play Pinochle is/was difficult. Did that last week…or valiantly attempted to from (various) sources. I used to love Pinochle, but hadn’t played it in 30-odd years; discovered (via the internet) that the way we scored the thing in my youth (best as I can recall) was a variation of the ACTUAL rules of play. 

Are the rules of D&D as poorly explained as the instructional cards in the Pinochle deck I purchased last Thursday? 

[by the way: shout out to Krampus Kave in Leavenworth, Washington; one of the nicest, well-stocked, best organized game stores I’ve been in. Great, great place…kids and I ended up dropping a pile of cash in there for various items. Hell, I even bought a sweet set of rainbow dice. Awesome]

Yesterday, my kids had a “beach” outing (down at Golden Gardens) with another fam. This was Maceo (classmate of my boy), his younger brother Winston (“Winnie”), and the boys’ mom. Maceo, as I’ve noted elsewhere on this blog, has joined our D&D campaign on at least two or three occasions, most recently right before we left on our little road trip/vacation. As we wrapped up THAT particular session, we gave Mace a copy of Labyrinth Lord to read so that he could get a good handle on the “basic” D&D rules (with AD&D books to follow, I suppose). There was some talk that Mace might “practice” running games for Winnie, though the kid doubted very much his sibling would be into it (“He only likes playing VIDEO games; he doesn’t even like Axis & Allies!”). 

So, I was a little surprised when they arrived to pick up my kids that Winston, his mom’s hand firmly in tow, shyly asked me if *I* would teach him how to play Dungeons & Dragons. Seems Winnie wants to play after all…but his brother is having difficulty “figuring out” how to run the game.

[just for reference: Maceo is 11 and going into 6th grade next year; Winston is 9 or 10 and will be going into 4th grade]

I feel like I've had this kind of encounter a lot over the years...pretty much ever since I got back into D&D. My "nephews" (kids of me and my wife's friends) loved playing D&D with us, but despite giving them the LL/B/X books back in 2009 they complained they couldn't "figure out" how to play it "right." Last time I saw Spencer (the younger "nephew;" now in his 20s and a college grad)...he still expressed interest in wanting to play, said he'd even tried doing some 5E stuff with some folks but hadn't really gotten into it. Then, of course, there are the parents who've come to me (Kieran's, Maceo's, Max & Sonia's) saying they TRIED to learn how to play for their kids' sake (usually using some sort of 5E "starter set") but "couldn't make it work." Even my brother's old pal Brandon (who played in a short-lived high school campaign of mine) couldn't figure out how to run the 5E game for his middle school kids. 

The common thread here, applying across editions of D&D, is people try to learn the game from the instructional text (i.e. the rule books) and CAN'T. Those who want to pursue the hobby (or who want their kids to pursue the hobby) then find an existing, active group to join who can teach them (or their kids or both) how to play the game.


Mmm. As I ponder this, several immediate thoughts come to mind, but they're not very constructive (decrying the fall of civilization and our ability to learn complex tasks, for example). Instead, how about we look at this point-by-point as a "problem" to be "worked" in a practical fashion.
  1. Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is a game worth playing and worth promulgating in our society for a variety of reasons unrelated to making money.
  2. D&D is a learnable game. I learned it myself, as a kid, by reading the B/X books to establish a foundational base before adding to it with the Advanced books.
  3. Not everyone learns stuff like I do. Many people benefit from having teachers/mentors.
  4. It is impractical for me to teach everyone in the world. Other teachers are needed.
  5. Who teaches the teachers? It feels like...at this particular moment in time...there is a LOT of "bad" D&D being played right now.
Ooo. That last statement is sure to ruffle feathers. I'll get back to it in a moment...just please feel free to add "in my (mostly) subjective, personal opinion" to the end of the sentence.

Before that, however, I need to point out: there are PLENTY of people who understand how to PLAY D&D. Lots and lots of people understand "armor class" and "hit points" and "saving throws," etc. Lots of people VERY EASILY grasp the concept of playing an imaginary, adventuring character in an imaginary, fantasy game world. The basic premise of the game...and the nuts-and-bolts of interacting with the game world (rolling to attack/damage, spending gold coins for equipment, searching for traps, etc.)...are things that ANYone can pick up and learn in approximately 5-10 minutes. That is, I've never seen anyone fail to grasp the basics: I've taught drunken hoboes at a bar (my hobo brother's buddy) and kids as young as seven years oldPlaying D&D is NOT rocket science.

[playing D&D well, however, is a matter of native skill and practice...as with any game]

Running the game, though...learning to Dungeon Master...THAT's the bit that everyone seems to have a hard time with. 

Isn't it? Maybe I'm making assumptions, but it sure feels like there are a lot of videos and blogs devoted to teaching people how to run D&D games...much more so than, say, how to play D&D games. Yeah, maybe I am making assumptions and I'm missing all the podcasts that explain "beginning fighters should spend the bulk of their money on the best weapons and armor they can afford," or "sleep is a really good spell for 1st level magic-users in most editions of the game." Probably.

Look, this is not my first go around at approaching the topic. I've ranted about the company not providing adequate instruction in how to run games, the contempt in which they hold their own consumer base. I've written that (most, if not all) DMs could benefit from some coaching...just as everyone can. I've postulated that perhaps some sort of apprenticeship program might be needed just to teach folks the ropes...but I didn't personally do anything about this. Heck, I even considered writing some sort of DM "teaching manual" (briefly) but got distracted with the set-up of my own campaign world.

And I'd guess that there are more than a few folks in (more-or-less) the same shoes as myself who've walked down a similar path: bitched-and-moaned about the "state of gaming," complained someone should "do something," considered (briefly) doing something yourself, before (finally) deciding you'd rather just work on your own game/world/campaign. After all, it's not MY responsibility to teach folks how to run a game, and it's certainly not my JOB (i.e. the way I earn a living). There are plenty of folks out there who have monetized their blogs and videos and podcasts, offering "DMing advice." Me? I'm getting ready to take down my rather dusty "Patreon" page; one less thing to worry about.

[hmm...just discovered I haven't been receiving notifications from Patreon and I've earned...and LOST!...some followers in the last few months. Okay, maybe the thing just needs some adjustment]

Still, I feel some sense of...mm...Responsibility? Urgency? Purpose?...when I consider the idea of kids (or anyone!) wanting to play this Great Game, this Thing, and being left to flounder, unaided. Or unaided in a useful fashion. 

Which brings me back to the "bad D&D" thing. I'm going to walk that back a little...in fact, forget that I said "there's a lot of bad D&D being played right now." There's a lot of D&D being played right now...full stop. 

Is it possible to judge the quality of those games?

That's really a topic for a whole 'nother blog post. My unanalyzed, immediate opinion is that, yes, one can develop an objective criteria for judging quality of game play...but that's going to take a bit of time and reflection.

Meanwhile: my kids are up and today's D&D day. Later, folks.


  1. I remember the first session I DM'd very clearly, who was there and where they sat and how it went. Badly.

    I do think that BX and its clones still remain the ideal entry level game, but that nearly all the clones are pitched at people who already know what an RPG is and have likely played in one too.

    What is needed, I think, is to get all the good original DMing advice in Moldvay, B1, the DMG and the updates/clones and re-tell it in a modern way, with the benefit of desktop publishing tools. For me the easy bits of DMing are adventure development, running combat and organisation (the maths really) what I'm very bad at are vivid descriptions & narratives, and good adhoc NPC personalities (I can't do voices or even dialogues and have to abstract everything).

  2. Okay ... I've rejoined your patreon at the tier that states, "I will happily link YOUR blog (if any) in my site's blog roll."

    My name appears on your blog under "Patreon Supporters," but maybe a lot of people don't know my name on your site links to my blog. Since I'm not on RSS anymore, and since the Patreon tier says you'll link my BLOG, please make it clear somewhere that you're linking to "Tao of D&D," and not me.

    Fairs fair.

  3. Well, looking through the various blogs, even those that have played for decades are still learning how to play. The whole OSR thing is an attempt to recreate a type of game that has been lost to time. And there is a lot of picking at long scribed verses and arguing intention.
    It is almost like a religion, splitting into factions and arguing interpretations. Even to the point of arguing what books belong in our canon bible.
    A good DM can quickly teach new players, it is the art of DMing which is difficult. There are as many interpretations of the rules as there are tables running the game. Are some right and some wrong? Is it only important that everyone is having fun?
    Personally I think the most important part is that everyone is having a good time with the type of game they have created. But, that group might enjoy a different type of game even more, if only they were aware of it.

  4. Just an aside, good to hear the Kave is still alive in Leavenworth. I was in several years ago when they first opened and I remember wondering if a gaming store could survive there. Good to see it has!

    1. I was there in October for the first time and so far the only time. I hope to remedy that soon. My friend and I really liked it.

      When I heard a couple of years ago that Leavenworth had a game store I wondered the same thing.

  5. Mentzer's Basic Set often gets maligned for being too hand-holdy, but I gotta say, when I read through it as an 11 year old, I got the general idea of how to run a game from it, and had plenty of confidence when I started running games for my friends.

    Now, I did get a lot of things wrong back then. And I am still developing as a DM almost 40 years later. But that set did exactly what it was designed to do: turn a kid with no experience with the game into a good enough DM that I could keep my friends entertained.

  6. Melan is working on the second edition of his game (K&M) and I've been told that it has a magnificent Dungeon Master's Guide. Maybe he'll translate this edition to English!

    1. Does his first edition have an English translation?

    2. No there is no full english version. Only a bare-bones version of the game rules were translated. (https://fomalhaut.lfg.hu/2011/01/17/sword-and-magic/)

  7. Back when I was working on flight simulation software with Navy pilots back in the 90s (I was measuring how people mentally rotate objects in 3D space) the question we always asked was this "how many hours would a pilot have to log in JUST a simulator for you to be comfortable getting on a plane with them?"
    Most people correctly will say they would never get on a plane with that pilot regardless of the hours spent.

    At the risk of sounding like "that asshole" I have say "Yeah? We all know this. The best way to learn is to do."
    There are though a couple of factors to consider.

    1. Holmes Basic and to degree Moldvay Basic were designed to clean up the existing rules of Original D&D. Their purpose was still largely a guide and they are listed as Editors, not authors despite the re-writing of a lot text. Mentzer Basic (and the Denning/Brown set from 1991) were designed to be a learning tool. The Denning/Brown 91 version even adopted structured reading guidelines to aid in the learning process. There is a key element here that I will get too in a bit.

    2. Not everyone, and indeed for a good amount of time in the late 70s and early 80s had access to a group that knew how to play, so there were no groups to model behavior from. These books, while instructional guides, were not designed to be "read and learn" they were always designed as "read, do, and learn." That's just basic educational practice going back to John Dewey. 1938's "Experience and Education" as one example.

    What purpose do these book serve? They provide the means for any group to discover the best way for them to play the game. They read, they learn, they do, they re-learn. In the absence of teachers this is the only option they have. Recent sales numbers brought to light by Benjamin Riggs in his upcoming book "Slaying the Dragon" show there was a significant need/want for these Basic books above and beyond the sales for the "adult" AD&D books.

    People often learned Original D&D and AD&D from a group, but people often learned Basic D&D on their own. The letters sections to Dragon, White Dwarf and other magazines at the time also bore this out with the questions raised. Sales demographics should that people picked up the various Basic D&D sets had no previous purchases of AD&D products. Anecdotally there are also many gamers who came into the hobby in the early 80s that also had no previous experience and no ties to previous AD&D or wargame groups.

    This is where they started to learn, not how the finished learning. That was done, and continued, on the game table.

    1. @ TimB:

      You don’t sound like an asshole, man. You sound like an educator.

      I don’t disagree that additional development could only come (and most practically be acquired) from the act of playing.

      Here’s what I AM saying:

      1) the educational tool provided “back in the day” (the basic sets), only produced enough guidance to start, and little FURTHER guidance to supplement what was learned in play. Whether that was because the creators of the game didn’t understand what they’d made…or whether the DID and just made assumptions that folks would eventually “get it”…well, who knows? The end result was the same…little was given in the way of textual instruction to actually producing a long-lasting campaign.

      2) Regardless of how or the why of the books written in the past, my anecdotal experience is that they’re failing to even “jumpstart” the beginning of the learning process (i.e. giving the players to “do” so that they can develop/learn at the table). It’s all well and good to say ‘you’ll figure it out once you play/run a game,’ but the game has to first exist. Whether the old versions are outdated for the current generation, or the current version is a poor tutorial or…well, whatever. It doesn’t matter. It ain’t getting the job done.

      Telling would-be players “just find a game to join” is a poor excuse for instruction.

  8. Keep in mind there is one thing we have not mentioned here, the proverbial elephant in the room.
    Moldvay Basic and to a greater degree Mentzer Basic were created to split the D&D line away from AD&D so Gygax would not have to pay royalties on AD&D to Dave Arneson.

    1. That may have been part of the original intent, but the lawsuit re AD&D was resolved (in Arneson's favor) by 1981. The basic line (which was heavily supported by TSR for years) wouldn't have affected the royalties paid on the 1E core books...and would have put more money in Arneson's pocket, I imagine.

      I think that the idea to alter the fashion in which basic sets "taught" new players (from Holmes to Moldvay to Mentzer) coincided with the changing demographic that was imagined by the company. They knew they were getting more kids into the game, they needed a way to market and sell to those kids. Choose Your Own Adventure books were popular at the time...it makes sense that Mentzer wrote his Basic book in that style.