Monday, April 24, 2017

Old News: My Dungeon Mentor

I don't care what your character sheet says, you can't invent a cell phone in this setting.
Due to some unforeseen circumstances, we had to cancel our weekly game this past Saturday. Am I a masochist if I say I miss having 4 campaigns because I never had a weekend without D&D? Do I really need to add another group? These are the questions that haunt me.

Anyway, I've been replaying Dark Souls recently, and it's had me thinking about my first gaming group, the guy who convinced me to be a DM, and how much of that game he ripped off to put into his campaigns. He wasn't my very first dungeon master, but he ran some of the best games I've ever played in and taught me a lot about building a world and a story.

Plus, he's getting married in about a month, and I'm supposed to read at the wedding. So I've definitely been thinking about him.

Old News: My Dungeon Mentor

I met Murassa (that's not his real name, of course) through a theater fraternity I joined in college. I wasn't really a theater kid, but the group had good cohesion and just the right amount of nerdiness. I joined up with the campus's improv comedy team and wormed my way into the theater world.

Murassa wasn't a member of the fraternity, but a bit on the fringe. He was one of those older guys who hang around college towns to get that "youthful energy" or something. The college I went to was located in a small town, so a lot of folks graduated from the college and became "townies", hanging around into their 30s.

A typical representation of a college experience: sleeping, making out, and somebody trying to actually teach
Being on the fringe of a large theater group gave Murassa access to actors, and he weeded out the nerdiest of them to join his story-based role-playing games. After a particularly vigorous role in a short play put on by the fraternity, I was asked to join his group. My first character (being a musician) was a bard, and probably the most stereotypical bard possible. Elf? Check. Ladies' man? Check. Thinks he's better than everyone else? Double check.

Side note, the character did get better, after a while. His arc is actually really cool... that might be a topic for a future Old News article.

I played under a few different dungeon masters (including Murassa) in several campaigns before we started the "Dark Souls" campaign.

The campaign was very well structured. The first game was four of us playing the Knights of Gwyn (all names slightly modified, of course). The second game started the true campaign, where our characters tried to figure out what had happened in the first game. Also, there were about 20 of us under two DMs - the homebrew system we were using allowed for much more story-based play and streamlined combat.

We played quite a while with those characters, slowly ramping up to us saving the country. Of course, after that, we started our third campaign with the children of our previous characters (and some orphans we had found along the way) to go and save the world.

About that time, I was becoming more and more interested in running something of my own. Murassa saw this, and slowly started letting me see behind the curtain. I read through his game notes after the campaign, we played Dark Souls together to see his sources of inspiration, and he had me help him test and adjust his homebrew system.

When we started a new world, I jumped at the chance to run a few games. Looking back, those games were bad. No way around it. I made every DM mistake I could. In the end, I was able to keep running, but he paired me with a more experienced DM to help out.

Finally, a year after I had graduated, I moved out of the college town we were playing in. It was rough. I travelled back and forth each weekend for a while, but soon I faded away. However, the group is still going strong (they've switched to D&D 5e now), and Murassa has kept in touch.

Another side note: I'm definitely the type of person who gets really into whatever I'm doing, so much that I often forget to reach out to old friends and talk to them. It's nice when people remind me that they exist!

I don't think your fireball spell has that kind of range... unless your companions don't mind exploding
We've kept talking, and traded ideas and advice about DM'ing and worldbuilding. I still think that the guy writes epic fantasy better than I do, I've always had trouble making "saving the world" into a feasible character-based storyline. It's definitely something I'm still working on, though, because I really enjoy that kind of story and I want to be able to tell it.

Obviously, I can talk at length about what Murassa did for me, but the fact is that he was a great Dungeon Mentor for a few reasons. And if you are looking for someone who can train you in the ways of Dungeon Mastery, There's some qualities I'd recommend.

First off, Murassa was well-versed in storytelling, themes, and philosophy. I don't think that it was specifically his intelligence that made him a good mentor, though. It was that he had worked hard to study and understand people. How did they express ideas? What made a story satisfying to them? What did they believe, and how did they express it? What made them tick?

Now, nobody's perfect, and at times he would use this understanding for his own gains. He was occasionally a bit of a manipulative jerk. But that same skillset allowed him to understand what I needed, when I was ready to learn, and how best to teach me. And it allowed him to run better games, since he could essentially predict how his players would react to each event in his storyline.

A lot of OSR gamers decry premeditated storylines, since they feel that it removes player agency. But if you offer your players a choice and know what their decision will be, you can craft a powerful narrative while still maintaining the illusion of choice. And even when you're not right in your prediction, the character going against their usual path is still a powerful story.

And after the Arcane Crusher, have them go through the Hallway of Too Many Spiders
Another quality Murassa held was that he was willing to teach, even while holding himself and others to a high standard of quality. I remember meeting with him after each session I ran, and going over what had gone right, what had gone wrong, and how to carry forward. He always demanded a lot of me, and guided me when I wasn't able to do things myself.

It may sound unusual, but I learned as much from when he told me what to do as when I wrote my own material. It was a lot like learning to run games by reading pre-made modules, except the modules were custom-made to my game and emphasized the things I needed to learn. It was great.

The last thing that was great about Murassa's mentorship is that he encouraged (and sometimes forced) me to step outside of the gaming sphere and learn about the world. Obviously, he had me sit and play Dark Souls, but we also discussed all the philosophy and gaming topics that we could. One summer, we played Castle Crashers with a couple other friends, and spent the game talking about the map design, tactical strategy, and using characters with varying skillsets to complete different challenges.

We even briefly had a small (but kind of successful!) card game company that gave us an opportunity to explore and discuss building mechanics from the inside out. To this day, writing up custom mechanics for non-combat scenarios remains one of my favorite parts of prepping a D&D game.

Give me a few minutes to chart this on the map... And somebody grab the Scrabble tiles
Now, Murassa had his flaws as well. I'm not trying to say he's perfect. But I believe that life doesn't wait for ideal conditions. I could have found another person to learn from, but I don't think they would have provided all the insight Murassa did. Also, this guy is intensely loyal to his friends. Not only does he still reach out to me, but when I was living in the same area as him, he would constantly stick up for me. He even used his powers of human understanding to desperately try to tell me when I was being stupid. And I was stupid quite a bit in college. Mostly about girls.

I think that the path to mastery is long, winding, and full of setbacks. I'm still not where I wish I could be, but I've gotten far enough to work on my own, at least. And in the end, I'm glad to have a friend who taught me a lot, who is still teaching me. Perhaps more than a friend? I don't know, college was weird.

So, if you are looking for someone to learn Dungeon Mastery from, I would recommend a person who:
  1. Knows how to write a good story
  2. Understands how people tick
  3. Is willing to teach you
  4. Is willing to criticize you
  5. Pushes you to expand outside your comfort zone

Murassa did all those things and more for me. I'm intensely grateful to him, and doing a reading at his wedding is really the least I can do to show him how much he's made an impact in my life.
Just to be clear, Murassa is the one with a movement-centric build and humanity to spare, I'm the bumbling heavy who needs someone else to clear traps out for him.
Thanks, buddy. Praise the Sun!

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