I've been gaming in some capacity for over half of my life now. I've been playing and running with the same group for about a decade, and one of my players has been with me for nearly 20 years. Lately, I've been realizing that there are many ways, great and small, that our gaming style has shifted over the years. Sometimes these shifts started slowly and were never directly discussed, but through our choices and other conversations, we took on new norms. Other times, we talked about revising a house rule but beneath the mechanics, I now see that we were responding to how our goals and feelings had changed. Some developments have happened out of necessity because our lives aren't as they used to be. And while I wish that we could freely play as often as we used to, I accept these advancements for what they are: a necessary part of growing with a hobby.
I've seen many people talk about what gaming used to be like when they first started, often in a nostalgic vein, which is understandable. Our early experiences can be epic, after all, and we may have had fewer things getting in the way of our enjoyment. But I've also seen people speak as though changing the way that you play or run is somehow a bad thing, or isn't how it's supposed to be. After all, they say, if it ain't broke, why fix it? If you really love something, you'll love it the same way forever, right? There are a few problems with these attitudes, however. First, not all changes are due to what someone prefers or chooses; sometimes things have to change for someone to continue gaming at all. Second, change is part of life and isn't necessarily a bad thing. Feelings, interests, abilities - everything about a person develops over the years, whether they like it or not. There's no reason this won't extend to how a gamer plays or runs. While some things will stay the same, there has to be room to grow in the hobby or gamers will feel pushed out and may leave.
So we should think and talk about how our gaming has changed, for better and for worse. It's okay to lament something you lost, like a beloved group, or to be proud of a new development, like running for children because your kids are old enough to game now. And we should wonder if there are aspects of our play or running style that could use some changes, for our own peace of mind or current needs. We should be able to ask our groups to help us get more of what we want from the hobby, and we shouldn't be afraid to adapt to what others desire, too. Learning to change with grace is, after all, one of life's great challenges, and it pays off in many ways.
One of the first things that changed in my gaming was the frequency of play. My husband and I aren't living at home during high school anymore, so we're not gaming whenever we have a spare moment. There's too much for us to do to play several times a week until we can't keep our eyes open anymore. I'm not a full-time college student like I was when I first started running; I just don't have the time or energy to run every week for most of the year. Believe me, I'd love to do that again and feel the rush that came with it, but so far, it's not in the cards. My husband and I have become so busy in recent years that we stopped our long-running tradition of gaming by post. And yes, I miss the amount of gaming we used to be able to do, but I'm also proud of how we've kept it as a regular part of our lives.
During 2020, many of my gaming friends lamented that their campaigns came to a screeching halt. Some of them went online to keep playing, but some just couldn't get comfortable with the online experience. Other friends were working more hours than usual and under a lot more stress. They couldn't make the time for play when they barely had time to sleep; others felt that their creative wells had run dry. I couldn't blame anyone for what they had to do to keep going under such awful circumstances. We had a lot of challenges that year, too, and I worked so hard for so long that I seriously worried for my health. We couldn't get together for group games, but my husband and I ran for each other. We took turns nearly every other week, and no matter how much seemed to be going wrong, we looked forward to our "solo" games. We were able to eke out the time and creative juices, and gaming helped to save our sanity (again). We had to adapt to our missing group, but winsisted on keeping it going, and we're better off for it.
Once upon a time, when I first started playing and running, I pretty much used the rules as written and referenced books often. One of the reasons I built my early collections of gaming books was because I needed the options they provided. It took me a while to start making my own materials, coming up with house rules, and the like. Even when I did add my own tweaks, they were usually just that - small tweaks to what was established in the books. Eventually, I made larger alterations to rules, histories, and anything else I wanted. Over the years, they gathered up until I was forced to realize that what we were playing was our own bag. I haven't had to reference books as much, and I stopped buying many of them years ago. When I buy things now, I tend to do so with an eye toward what I can port into a game I'm already running.
Our World of Darkness games are so far astray now that they can hardly be called WoD. I eventually moved our Thay campaign to Pathfinder 1e because it would do just as well as what I'd jury-rigged together, and was easier to reference. I'm hoping to run 5e D&D for the first time soon and use it as it's written, at least to start with - but my concept for a Ravenloft campaign means I'll need to make some of my own rules and setting right out the gate.
This means that I usually have to spend more time developing rules and settings when I don't have as much time or energy for gaming. But I do enjoy the creativity of it and get more of what I want out of it. I'm hoping to embrace more of systems as they're written so I can focus on other aspects. I'm also trying to use generators, Tarot cards, and other random methods to fill in setting details quickly, when needed. We'll see if I can make these changes happen in the long run!
When I first started playing in the WoD, combat wasn't a main focus of our playstyle. When I started playing D&D years later, I saw that regular combat was generally expected and some players hungered for it, so I worked it in whenever I ran. But over the years, I've noticed that I don't feel as beholden to the old formulas. My current players have never been combat monsters, and it seems like we're more interested in other aspects than the intricacies of battle. We can have sessions without open fighting and be just fine. We can engage in quick skirmishes and without feeling cheated. There are always other ways to advance in power and wealth, even when we're playing D&D, so it's not like the party feels behind the curve.
I've noticed that we've put fewer hard-baked conflicts into settings, as well. There aren't as many deep hatreds, turf wars, and ugly rivalries just because characters are of different types or factions. There are fewer purely random brawls, and opponents will often try to flee or bargain, rather than fight to the death. There are some predators, to be sure, but they don't always go after the PCs directly; they might do enough damage to NPCs or locations that the PCs feel compelled to intervene. On the flip side, the PCs don't tend to go out of their way to cross others just because they can. I'm not sure if this has to do with our desire for battles to make some kind of logical sense, or if we grew weary of older games that had so many divisions that you needed charts to keep track of them, and would even pit PCs against each other from the start (classic WoD, I'm looking at you).
There are so many other kinds of conflict to explore, and it's not like we don't see combat at all. Still, sometimes I worry that we've removed too much conflict from games. Sometimes, people really do dislike each other for petty reasons, or no apparent reason at all. Conflicts between people can be fascinating, and they can use many methods to one-up or hurt each other. This may be a change that needs to change some more. I have lots to think about, in any case, and to discuss with my group.
Truth be told, we've never really been high-casualty gamers. Our games have had few to no deaths for decades; the last one was almost a decade ago. This isn't because we fudge dice rolls. Our group tends to be well stocked when items allow for healing; we use healing measures and teamwork well enough to keep from dying in the first place. Our group will also retreat when outmatched and tries not to do purely reckless things that are likely to end up with someone smeared across the pavement. On the GM side of the equation, we don't aim to splatter PCs when we run combat. We want to offer a challenge, but that means we want to give the PCs a chance to respond to the threat.
We have ideas in mind in case character death happens anyway. In D&D, characters can be resurrected. The last time a character died, there was no question that efforts would be made to bring him back. In WoD, characters might change form (like a mage being Embraced to save their life) or be brought back via the God-Machine (and will owe it services). If a player wants their character to die heroically or something, I'm sure it would be allowed. Otherwise, we put so much into our characters that we'd much rather keep them around. We don't run many one-shot or short-term campaigns, so when we make characters, we expect to be with them for the long haul. We've dealt with more than enough deaths among friends and family in Real LifeTM. It seems to me that we've all tacitly agreed that character death is generally off the table, and we're all okay with that.
When I first started roleplaying, I did so one-on-one in the World of Darkness, without worrying about dice or XP. I made a character and trusted my completely Storyteller to be fair and help me advance. He showed me that his job was to keep the characters and world compelling, throw hooks and turns my way, try to be consistent, and roll with whatever came at him. We never had arguments about what happened (or didn't happen) during play. I could ask questions and he was amenable if there were things I wanted to see. It was never me vs. him; we were building a story together. I came to realize that my introduction to gaming was different from many other people's once I started playing online.
But it wasn't until I started learning D&D that I saw a big difference in the role of the GM. As I participated in groups and message boards, I encountered a view of the GM as a strict judge who knew the rules well and defended them, kept the group on task, and punished not just attempts to break the rules but any unwanted behavior harshly. A GM could kick anyone out of their game, but could punish someone in-game, instead - even for things that happened outside of play. There were jokes about GMs dropping falling rocks onto the characters of those who displeased them. GMs often referred to themselves as the gods of their tables. There was often a sense that players had to be punished so they could learn better.
I'll admit, I took on some of that view of a GM's job as I ran games. I wanted things to run smoothly, didn't want others to try to bulldoze over me as a new DM, and have generally been known for being someone you don't cross. I'm used to taking control and running the show. But I've become increasingly uncomfortable with the underlying premises and have worked on undoing that old view for many reasons. I've been gaming with friends for years; I don't want to constantly assume they're trying to pull one over on me. There are so many things to remember in our lives that I can't blame anyone for forgetting or misinterpreting something. And yes, there have been times when folks acted in ways that I didn't appreciate, but I've learned that punishing people in-game doesn't solve anything. Without direct, respectful conversation, players might not even realize what they did wrong and will probably resent being picked on. They'll learn that their GM is petty, adversarial, and unfair. Without real support and second chances, players won't have opportunities to improve. All of this only breeds worse problems down the line.
Having conversations about problems in a group can be uncomfortable; I'm not going to lie. But if punishing players is fun for a GM, that's a huge red flag. It shows that the GM is getting off on their power, taking everything as a personal insult, and taking out frustrations on people who should be treated with some respect. None of that is okay. Who am I to punish my friends? I run a game for them to enjoy; I'm not their parent! They come to my table to have fun, not to be controlled or humiliated. They didn't sign up for that just because they accepted a GM. When all is said and done, they'll learn better (and I'll learn more about them) if we work on a problem up front and together - and the group will be healthier and friendlier as a result.
Please note: When I'm talking about unpleasant behavior here, I mean general disagreements and minor bad habits. I'm not talking about players viciously attacking each other, being discriminatory, or causing other major disruptions. Some behaviors shouldn't be tolerated at all.
This conversation hasn't been my way of saying that you're playing a game wrong; far from it. What works for my group - and the ways we've shifted - may not suit other gamers at all, and we're well aware of that. But in gaming, as in everything else, sometimes it helps to stop and analyze our developments: how we used to be, how we got to where we are now, and how much we like our current circumstances. Some transitions happen so slowly that we don't even notice they've occurred; some things become the norm before we've even considered what that means for us. Not all changes have to be subconscious ones, and if we don't like how something has become, it's in the group's best interest to work on strategies to change it. Improving how you game can keep people interested, engaged, and wanting more. It can help avoid GM burnout, dissatisfied players, and hidden resentments.
I'm sure there are more things I could have written about here, and I may add them as they come to me. For now, I invite you to reminisce and weigh your time in the hobby, however long or short it's been. Be honest with yourself and your group about how you feel. And if you'd like to share your thoughts with me, send an email my way.
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