Wednesday, December 30, 2020

One Shots, ADD, and Consumerism

Over the last decade, I've developed a practice that's worked well for me. Twice a year, I do an inventory of the two book shelves that contain my RPG collection. Any games or game books I've not used in play (or even in "research") go into the garage. Every few years, I then do an inventory of the games in the garage and if, as is often the case, I hadn't sought out or thought about the games in question, they go into a pile to be sold or donated. Similarly, if I buy a new game or game book, it has to fit onto those two shelves I've reserved for this purpose. If they can't do so, I make room by consigning something currently occupying the shelves to the garage, just as I would during my semiannual inventories.

In the past, this practice would have horrified me. I was convinced that I needed every single game or game book I'd ever bought, having, in the past, got rid of a book that I later decided I shouldn't have. I felt that the only thing worse than getting rid of a book you might later want is buying something a second time to correct your mistake. The results of this line of thinking were obvious: shelves filled with games I'd not looked at, let alone played, in years. It was frankly ridiculous and indulgent and, looked at objectively, there was no justification for it. Games are for playing, after all; if I wasn't playing a game or had no expectation that I'd do so in the foreseeable future, why was I keeping it around? 

I've never really been a collector of anything, in the best sense of that word, but I've frequently been an accumulator – the kind of thing that's only possible when one has too much disposable income and no concerns about storage space. In recent years, my tolerance for this has declined considerably, influenced in no small part by my increasingly strident belief that RPGs are best enjoyed in the form of long campaigns. In three months, my House of Worms Empire of the Petal Throne campaign will celebrate its six-year anniversary. That campaign is a continual source of joy to me and I am deeply grateful to the players, both past and present, whose participation in it has enabled it to keep going for so long. As things stand now, I see no end to the campaign, though, if it were to end tomorrow, I would not only consider it one of the highlights of my decades in the hobby but would soon thereafter start up a new campaign that I would hope to last just as long or longer. 

My perspective on RPGs has been transformed by my experiences with the House of Worms. I find the prospect of "one shots" generally underwhelming and a symptom of "gamer ADD" that sometimes seems the norm these days, flitting from one game to the next, never sticking with one for more than a few weeks or months at most before picking up a new one and starting again – serial monogamy in ludic form. I wonder if this style of play has become facilitated in part by the plethora of RPGs now available, with new ones being published on a regular basis. The choices available to gamers in 2020 is a veritable deluge beyond the wildest dreams of gamers two or three decades ago. The allure of so many RPGs is powerful – I've felt it myself – and, with so many options readily available, why would one settle for just one? Why play the same game for years on end when there are so many other imaginative products to sample? It's little wonder that long campaigns are so uncommon.

A few months ago, during a pause in the Forbidden Lands campaign I've been playing in for a year and a half, I offered to run a few sessions of Old School Essentials for the players, to fill the gaps until our referee was again available. We played, I think, three sessions, completing an adventure, at the end of which all the players expressed a desire to continue, having enjoyed both the scenario and the characters they'd created. We didn't continue, as the Forbidden Lands campaign resumed, but the fact that the players expressed the desire to do so demonstrated, I think, the powerful appeal of something more than a one-off

The truth is I already have more roleplaying games than I could ever play, even after winnowing my collection down to only a couple of shelves (and, realistically, that's still a lot RPGs). There's no question that some amazing new roleplaying games are being produced today and, from time to time, I come across one that truly grabs my attention. Believe me: I understand the attraction of new games and the desire to play them, but I try very hard to remember how many RPGs I already own too many, if measured by the simple standard of how long I've spent playing some of them. If I narrowed down the number of games I had to a mere handful, say, D&D, Empire of the Petal Throne, Traveller, and Pendragon (or Call of Cthulhu), I'd have enough material to keep me busy for the rest of my life. I have no need for any more RPGs and, most likely, neither does anyone reading this post.

My point here is not to disparage anyone who owns more than three roleplaying games, enjoys playing one shots, or has made a hobby of collecting, none of which are, in and of themselves, bad things. Rather, it's to emphasize the fact that, just as talking (or writing) about RPGs is no substitute for actually playing them, neither is amassing huge libraries of them without using them at the table (real or virtual) for an extended period of time. My collection of games is vast compared to what I owned when I was a young person, when I spent untold hours playing them – and rarely got bored of doing so. Nowadays, I sometimes get the sense that, with the increase in the number of games available, gamers tire of them so much more easily and our ability to stick with one for more than a few months is diminishing. It's a shame in my opinion, given the joys to be had by playing in lengthy campaigns with the same group of players. My hope is that more of us will recognize this in the coming year and, instead of making a hobby out of consuming games, we'll play them with renewed fervor and tenacity.


  1. Lots of good points and I share some of the views too. I've undoubtedly spent much much more time reading about RPG in the last 3y than I have playing. I'm a bit shy about playing online and none of my old group from 30-35y ago wants to play now. Covid has put a massive damper on my ability to play face to face or dip a toe into local game cafes.

    My players have been my kids and nephew & niece, and as they're young and inexperienced it's even tough to get them to play consistently well without nudging along. They're full of ideas and imagination though and I end up writing good notes to use later.

  2. I very much share your views on the subject.
    Also, coming, as I do, from a family of hoarders, I'm particularly sensitive to the subject.

  3. I have been running a D&D campaign that just hit 99 sessions this week and the previous campaign set in the same world but using a different rule set went for over 50 sessions. But I still like to tinker with various homebrew systems so part of the collection is going through the games I have to get inspiration (aka steal) for projects i might run in the future.

    Can I take part of Gas Lands, mix in some Car Wars, and add some cyberpunk and travler and have a Mad Max game? I probably never will, but reading other rules helps me keep from burning out putting all my RPG juice in o e campaign and genre.

  4. Does an Eastern Marches campaign count as a one-off? It's a campaign but not of the same sort we normally speak of when we refer to campaigns. More of a one hundred one-offs bundled together type deal but I'd like to hear your opinion.

    1. That's certainly a campaign. In fact, in many ways, that's precisely the kind of campaign I generally prefer. I'm not a huge fan of campaigns that are too narrowly focused on a single overarching objective, preferring a rambling "just a bunch of stuff that happens" approach to a stronger "narrative" (for lack of a better word).

  5. We grognards are aging and retirement looms! My retirement goal is to play RPGs 8 to 5, every day. Screw living at the beach or playing golf. Imagine how many games & modules we can plow through when we're gaming full time!!

  6. I could not do it. I miss my books too much. the ones I have lost, haunt me. I would never voluntarily cull.

    I concede I would prefer to do a nice long campaign, but it does not seem to be possible for me

  7. Yea, this issue is part of why I dumped a lot of my game collection over the years. I had also started to think about what I would keep if I had to pack my games into a small volume. One option was a briefcase, another option is my great grandfather's tool chest that was my childhood toy box.

    All of this reflection has made me dramatically reduce the scope of my gaming.

    Yet, I still this past year added Bushido to my collection (digitally) and started running a play by post...

    One thing I have settled on is that for the most part I prefer early (1970s and early 1980s games).

    Even still, even for the games I run a lot, probably less than half the content has ever been gamed...

    There ARE books that I own not to play, but to use as reference for other games (like I use some Stars Without Number material in Traveller), or the other samurai games I bought to give me a wider perspective on the genre before starting my Bushido campaign.

  8. Whoa, what a revelation. Give me people and time and I'll play any game for all eternity. I don't ever get rid of anything on the odd chance that I _might_ get the bug to play Spelljammer or Millenium's End or something 30 years from now.

  9. I am leaning toward the “less is more” gaming collection. I also don’t have serious storage issues, so there’s not a lot of pressure to actually move anything out right now, but three games seems like a practical collection, and ten would allow almost anything that I might actually run.

  10. I recall reading this exact same sentiment sometime around 1980, but on that occasion it addressed the wealth of new wargames on the market and how the constant flitting between them prevented players from focusing on just one or a few and getting really good at them, as players had done when only a handful were available.

    The more things change, the more they stay the same.

    I actually agree with your point. I'm just not sure where it leaves us, any more than I was when I read that other essay in 1980.

  11. Absolutely spot on. Looking at the $/hr value I got out of my original AD&D PHB/DMG/Monster Manual - everything that came after pales in comparison. I probably got value out of my Planescape stuff and my 3.5e core books but the trends for hours of table play supported vs $ spent go in opposite directions.

  12. I am determined that in 2021 I will buy more RPG books - but indie and interesting ones, like Mork Borg, and make the effort to play them too. I'll reign in my desire to play long campaigns and work on breaking them into seasons so we can rotate.

  13. Quantity is a quality all its own -- this goes for the temporal dimension as well! It just (as the kids say) *hits different* when the narrative calls back to something that occurred 6 months ago rather than 6 days ago.

  14. I made the mental switch (stop being an accumulator) several years ago. I do the same as you: every year, I go over my gaming shelves, and with each item, I ask "Is there a reasonable chance we will play this the next 10 years or so, if at all?" If the answer is no, it goes.

  15. If I only kept rpg books that I used in play, I'd have no rpg books at all. I don't play any of them - not because I don't want to, but just because I have no group of friends who are interested and I have no desire to get into virtual TT gaming. I've loved rpgs since the late 70s when I first became aware of 1st edition AD&D but my actual play experience since then has been extremely limited. For me, the books are essentially an Encyclopedia of the imagination. I just enjoy taking them off the shelf and opening them up and reading whatever happens to present itself. However, my collection isn't enormous. I greatly regret having gotten rid of all my game stuff at some point in the 80s. I actually can't remember what I did with it all - I had tons of classic stuff and I assume I must have traded it in at a used book store or something. The only stuff I kept from that time is my Call of Cthulhu books.

  16. I totally agree with the non-consumism style. I think, more than never, we should try to slow down our buying impulses in order to really live the experience of TRPGs, actually reading and playing them. However, it is hard to maintain longer campaigns because you might unfortunately lose your players during the game due to professional/family/real life issues or simply because our current entertainment culture favors the next week New thing, the latest release over paciência and long-term commitment. Take movies, digital games and tv shows for instante. The industry needs to be constantly feeding the market with "New" products and that changes even our little hobby niche. It requires a renewed mindset to resist this kind of approach.

  17. Not wishing your passing, but, I do hope that you have considered what is to be done afterwards. I can tell you that the Merril Collection does accept RPG donations and will give tax receipts. That said, space is at a premium there but as your wife can testify that there should be no better place than a library to hold the contents of your vast collection. I can testify that the RPG collection is one of the heaviest used collections.

  18. This post broke my heart, because I don't own a single rulebook, and that maps exactly to the number of campaigns I expect to participate in.