Tuesday, February 17, 2009

When in Rome

My father was drafted into the US Army in the late 60s and eventually posted to Fort Huachuca. So, when my parents married, their honeymoon consisted of making the trek from Baltimore, Maryland to southeastern Arizona. Along the way, they stopped in a wide variety of places they'd never visited and seen things they'd never seen before, like Maryland Fried Chicken restaurants, something that, ironically, didn't exist in Maryland.

My parents eventually returned to Baltimore several years later -- by way of the Netherlands, where my father was later posted and where I was born -- but my Dad had been bitten by the travel bug and so I spent most summers of my childhood traveling up and down the East Coast, seeing the sights. We weren't just sightseers, though: we usually stayed wherever we were visiting for three or four weeks, which gave us a chance to "live" there as well. My sister and I loved this, because we got the chance to find out what new shops and businesses existed in these far-off states. The two we'll never forget are the grocery store Piggly Wiggly, which we first encountered in North Carolina, and the Christmas Tree Shops, which we first saw in Massachusetts. Like our parents before us, we were struck by how diverse the country was. Sometimes this delighted us and sometimes it amused us, but it never failed to make our long trips fun, because it cemented the feeling of our having gone "away."

I bring this up because, back in the day, that's what gaming used to be like too. Every gaming group was its own little "region" with its own interpretations of the rules and its own little traditions and even rituals. I had a good friend in elementary school who had his own D&D campaign in his neighborhood (we lived some distance apart). Whenever I would sleep over at his house and "visit" his campaign -- something else that used by quite commonplace -- I knew that I was going to play the game according to their rules, not mine. They didn't use critical hit tables, for example, and, while I thought that was odd, I learned to accept it. Similarly, when I went to a game day at the local library -- another telltale sign of just how big gaming used to be -- I understood that I'd play according to the way the referee at my table ran the game, regardless of what I did back home with my friends.

I have to admit that I miss this bygone state of affairs. First, I miss "visiting" other campaigns. Nowadays, I'm lucky that I have a semi-stable group of players at all and I expect that's true of most gamers. I'm sure there are other gaming groups in the city, even ones playing games I like, but I have no interactions with them. Every group seems to be its own little island, cut off from everyone else. You don't get a lot of visitors dropping in for a session or two here and there. Instead, gamers nowadays seem to interact online by arguing with one another on forums rather than actually playing games with one another outside their existing group.

Second, I miss the days when simply playing under another referee was as exciting as the adventure itself. This guy is anal about tracking encumbrance, this guy doesn't allow monks in his game, and this guy has changed the way the magic system works. It really was like visiting another country every time you sat down at someone else's table and, while I'm the first to admit that not every such visit was a pleasant or enjoyable one, so what? As I've said before, there are no guarantees in gaming. Sometimes, even playing with my regular group isn't as fun as I'd like it to be, but that's the nature of the beast and I've come to accept, indeed embrace, it as one of the essential features of this hobby.

I'm not entirely sure how or why things changed, but they did. I suspect that the change maps pretty closely with the end of D&D's faddishness, as more and more people moved on from the hobby and never returned. There are still tons of gamers out there, but there's far less of a web of real life connections between them than there used to be. That makes it harder for them to take their character from one campaign and go and visit someone else's. Likewise, the "tournament mentality" seems more commonplace than it used to be. Again, that's not to deny that gamers make and use house rules -- house rules are in an inescapable part of gaming -- but I suspect individual campaigns don't vary as wildly in this respect as they used to do. Of course, how would I know for sure, since I haven't dropped in on anyone else's existing campaign in years?


  1. "...but I suspect individual campaigns don't vary as wildly in this respect as they used to do."

    Being extremely insulated myself, I can't provide any solid evidence to dispute this claim. But I know for certain that my campaign - in any game - is just that: my campaign. I house rule the crap out of every game - I just like to tinker with things. Or maybe I'm just a control freak, like everyone says. :P Either way, I highly suspect that there is more variation than you think - at least among groups that include players who have been at it for more than a decade or two.

    I do, however, sincerely miss the seemingly constant changing-up of gamers (and house rules and gaming styles) that seemed to be the status quo of my gaming heyday. (Which, for me, came not during my early D&D days, but almost 10 years later.) /sigh

  2. I've noticed that things are different for both games I run, yet some things are familiar. I have to shift gears to go from post-apocalypse mode to 'standard D&D mode'. It's even obvious from the PbP games that I'm involved in. I do think that those types of differences are still apparent.

    You always have a welcome seat at our table should you find yourself down in the Windy City.

  3. In the past 3 weeks I've played with 3 different groups using 3 different gaming systems: OD&D, BECMI, and Empire of the Petal Throne. The BECMI group is my weekly group and I am probably going to join the EofPT group, too.

    In each instance, I had a wonderful evening of gaming. In each instance, I had a completely different gaming experience.

    I strongly encourage anyone with a chance to do so: seek out other gamers, even if only for a one-off adventure.

    Great post James!

  4. I know I pretty much houserule the heck out of anything I run, and most GM's I play with do the same, to some degree. However, none of us run D&D 4th ed, and I suspect that groups that are willing to play games that are a little more out of the current mainstream may be more willing to alter whatever rules they're using.

    As an aside, seeing the Piggly Wiggly logo was pretty much the last thing I expected to see on Grognardia. I grew up in a small Southern town, and PW was the main grocery store in that area.

  5. I like what you wrote about people arguing on internet forums rather than playing. That made me laugh!

    I agree with you on the isolation. I've had a much harder time than I thought I would in finding a people willing to try new games. I live in a city with 4 million people and if I found 4 willing to play Labyrinth Lord I'd jump for joy.

  6. Piggly Wiggly, jeez, I live within 3 miles of one. Didn't expect that today on Grognardia. :)

  7. Wow James, a lot of the things you miss about other people and their games are a lot of the reasons I pretty much retired as a player to only DM years ago. I don't know if other people have felt this way, but I just thought that (without tripping over my own ego) most of the games I tried in the 90's were inferior to mine.

    There alre local "meet-ups" in LA for D&D, but they always sound more like social gatherings than actual play "generate a 12th level character, and meet us at the Carrows on Main Street."

    I do remember that as a kid, there were regular games at a couple of the local libraries, but nowadays the best you can do is some "game day" that is made up of parents trying to get their kids into gaming - and it usually ends up being a couple of adults at the D&D table, and kids who quickly get bored and wander back and forth to other tables. Big fun.

    So I have just settled into my own little cut-off gaming group. It's intimate, it's regular, and it's mostly the same people. That is the recipe for decent gaming for me nowadays.

  8. @Brunomac: I know the Austin one results in games.

    That said, and in general reply to games, my answer is restarting gaming clubs. My local one has the following campaigns either at our meetings or managed through our message board:

    1. Living Forgotten Realms (D&D4)
    2. 3 D&D 4th campaigns with homebrew settings
    3. D&D 3rd in the DragonMech setting
    4. Ongoing mutants and masterminds game
    5. My heavily house ruled LL game
    6. A homebrew system game based on Charles Stross's Merchant Princes books (this GM changes games ever year or so but always uses his continually developing system)
    7. A completely rewritten version of D&D3 (based on perfectly balancing the characters mathematically)

    and probably more I'm missing.

    While most games are modern, short lifespan we do cross over continuously on who is playing what in terms of GM, rules, systems, etc.

  9. Honestly, this is one thing I can't say I miss. I have no really stable group and if it were still in force, I'd probably get confused from the scads of different DMs I've played with in the past.

  10. The first campaign I played in extensively was rather thoroughly house-ruled (and I've written about it here. But that wasn't my only experience with house-ruled campaigns. There was one fellow I knew of through my friends in high school who had a completely home-brew system (had to be '77 or '78). There were psionics, things were determined on a lot of percentile rolls, and combat was NOT like D&D and it was DEADLY. I felt completely out of my comfort zone and totally exhilarated when playing in his game - my character was from a middle-class background, and the spell I knew the best was a kind of sense-dulling effect that I could cast over and over again. This allowed me to defeat some monster at the time by making it incapable of sensing me. I didn't play often in that game, but I appreciated it for being really DIFFERENT.

    I think there might have been a couple of things that brought this era or complete gonzo experimentation to an end. One thing was the emergence of new role-playing games. New games charted out ideas in different ways, so if you really didn't like something, you simply came up with something entirely different! The other thing that might have contributed to this was the publication of AD&D as a kind of implicit (or explicit) standard for play.

    I agree with Herb's advice to Christian and others: if you want to find a game, (re)start a gaming club. There's more good advice here - though you might find his tone off-putting, the actual content is spot-on.

  11. i play in a pub in London, and here we seem to be going through something of a renaissance. The club uses an upstairs room in the pub on wednsdays, but has become so crowded it has had to split to Tuesdays. There are maybe 5 or 6 groups on the wednesday nights, all with various systems and dm-ing styles. There are also other groups in other pubs that I know of (one of my players does Tuesdays, Mondays and Thursdays!)

    So it does still seem like "visiting" is possible here, even if it's just to another table in the same pub. I had to flit through 4 or 5 groups before settling on my current group, which has actually moved away from the pub to a house because it's too crowded.

    This is a big contrast to Australia, where i had to fight to find any kind of group at all, though it did seem easier 10 years ago. Maybe Australia and Canada have something in common?

  12. Back when I was in either sixth or seventh grade (this would have put the year at either 1984 or 1985), my middle school had a Dungeons and Dragons seventh period elective every Friday. Can you even imagine that happening nowadays?

    Anyhow, I got to DM a game and play in 2-3 other gaming groups, which was a real eye-opener. I still vividly recall one group in which every PC was an assassin, and they spent the whole game trying to kill each other by rolling on the old 1E assassination tables. It was great!

    The only time the group demonstrated any solidarity was the time some new guy joined and brought in his paladin PC. They all ganged up and killed him, gave each other high-fives, then went back to trying to murder each other once more.

  13. I think the loss of "campaign visiting" has a lot to do with the increased desire for verisimilitude in our gaming.

    But I don't think this style of gaming is quite as dead as you think. I just got done directing a play at a local high school: There's an RPG club there. Several of my cast members have regular Shadowrun and GURPS campaigns. Their campaigns sound a lot like the campaigns I used to run.

    On a similar note, I'm currently in the process of prepping a West Marches campaign where my table will have a rotating group of players. Right now I've got 12+ people definitely interested in participating. This type of campaign will feel a lot more like the way I used to game.