I am a Grognard.
There, I said it. Grognard, a colloquialism originally applied to Napoleon’s veteran soldiers, from the French grogner, to grunt or grumble (thanks, Webster!). It’s a word that drips with connotation, conjuring images of grizzled old campaigners, trading war stories around a campfire, convinced that the newer conscripts will never know what the real war was like.
Modern gaming vernacular has loosened the meaning to include most RPG old timers, the AD&D crowd, the kids who were raised on THAC0 and negative armor classes, who rolled stats as 3d6 in order six times and didn’t cheat. But let’s not forget the origin of the word grognard. We, as old timers, should grumble. And complain. And bitch and moan. We are the tough, nasty gristle that connects gaming’s funky, stigma-ridden past to its current state of popularity and social acceptance. Without us, the bizarre magic of rolling dice around a table might morph into something slick, something bland and commercialized, just another lifestyle commodity to be packaged and advertised and Pinterested.
(Pinterested? Is that even a thing? I just made that up. But that’s part of being a grognard, getting angry over things you don’t understand, so get off my lawn and listen up.)
All sarcasm aside, us old timers do bear a responsibility to the newer generation of fledgling gamers. We might grumble and bitch, but we’ve learned, over many years and many editions of our favorite games, what works at the table, and what most definitely doesn’t. We know that’s it’s bad to split the party, and we know why, we can tell stories of good plans that ended in TPK’s. Most important, we know so many things that can kill the fun. If new players don’t have fun playing the game, this recent upsurge in gaming’s popularity will fizzle faster than you can say “Pet Rock” (in true grognard fashion, a reference that only the old timers will get).
So I’m making a challenge for all of you old campaigners and veterans. Here are three pointers to get you started. Find a group of new gamers. GM for them, because God knows the hardest part of getting started is finding a GM. Get them started, get them hooked, and then get the hell out of their way.
1. Come Out of the Closet
It’s sounds silly, but this has been really hard for me, personally. Many of us old timers started playing in an era where gaming was perceived as Satanic, anti-social and, at best, just plain weird. Normal people didn’t do it. We, as gamers, knew better. We knew the joys and benefits of rolling dice and calculating THAC0; but few of us had the cojones to buck society openly. I use the term ‘closet’ intentionally, with due gravitas, and without snark or sarcasm. For many of us, keeping it out of public life became as much a part of the hobby as actually playing.
Not now. Now it’s Facebook, it’s podcasts, it’s two full episodes of Community, it’s Stranger Things. Rather than being socially shunned, Dungeon Masters are being sought out to run games and teach new players. This is what we’ve been waiting for! But you can’t help other people get into the hobby if you’re still hiding your Player’s Handbook behind a grocery-bag book cover. So, here’s the hard part: I’m beseeching my fellow old timers to shed old habits and quit hiding your hobby. Sit your ass in that Starbucks and openly stat out a kobold ambush. You might be surprised at the people you meet every day who are interested in learning how to play, but have no idea how to get started. Help them get that start, and train ‘em up right.
2. Two Words: “Why Not?”
Game mechanics obviously require some teaching, but I’m amazed when I GM new players, and they continually ask what they can do. “Can I sneak around the guard? Can I steal that horse? Can I play a female elf wizard, even though I’m a 40 year old guy?”
Generally, the best answer to these questions is “Why not?” It takes a while for some people to separate tabletop gaming from movies or videogames, where the action is constrained. You have to demonstrate, again and again until it sticks, that there are no invisible walls and no ‘correct’ choices in tabletop gaming. It’s your job as a grognard to show them how to make that female elf wizard a badass troll slayer that they love to play.
There are perils in this, however. Eventually, a new player will want to be patently evil. Or purposely work against the party. Or split the party. Or do one of a thousand things that you, in your great and vast experience as a grognard, know have great potential to disrupt a game. That’s where you have to exercise your judgment, and your tact, and your many years of gaming.
You shouldn’t tell them, “No, because that’s stupid”. Yes, maybe they are being munchkins, and, yes, munchkins can ruin a game. But weren’t we all munchkins once? You might know when things are a bad idea; but you only know because, long ago, you yourself maybe did those stupid things yourself. That’s when you can tell the long and boring story about your buddy Frank, who decided he wanted to be a chaotic evil thief because his girlfriend Julie was playing a paladin, and how it pissed everybody off and made the game no fun. If you make the story long and boring enough, the player will change their munchkin mind just to make you shut up.
3. Re-gifting the Gift
What were the glory moments of your early gaming days? What adventure or situation really clinched it for you and made you a lifelong gamer? Figure that out, because that’s what you need to help new players find. Mine was the epic moment in 1982 when my intrepid party of junior high nerds fought through the Drow and first beheld the Underdark metropolis of Menzoberranzan. Hearing the DM read the italicized description aloud put the picture indelibly in my imagination. Even now, thirty-odd years later, I can picture it.
That’s your challenge. Did the original Tomb of Horrors mark you for life? Then spend three hours updating it to a newer edition, and introduce your players to the joys of Acererak’s death-trap (just, please, for pity’s sake, at least allow them a saving throw when they inevitably stick their hand in the devil’s mouth). As an Ancient Mariner of Gaming, you’ve had the unique privilege of experiencing the glory days of the hobby. Maybe you were there for the early Forgotten Realms, for the days when Ravenloft was a one-off oddity that became a phenomenon. You know that the Bigby spells, the Mordenkainen spells, the Otiluke and Drawmij spells are all drawn from real players’ characters back in the days when GenCon was still in Lake Geneva. Pass all that on, update it and bore the kids with it. That’s your job as Resident Grognard.
Go forth, cranky old gamer, and bring the light of Gygax to the many who toil in a sad darkness without dice. And one day, if you’re lucky, one of the new players you’ve brought into the hobby will become a GM themselves, and will become a cranky know-it-all, and she will tell one of her players, “Of course, dumbass: Drawmij is just Jim Ward spelled backward. Duh.
Jack Benner is the head bottle-washer and sole roustabout at Stick in the Mud Press http://stickinthemudgames.blogspot.com/
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.