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The Gaming Twilight?

Indicators. Little signals that change is happening, no matter how temporary. The fact this blog gets updates less. The fact I’m putting what spare time I do have into video games. Yes, some of these things are products of being quite busy, not really having evenings to speak off (or not using them when I do), but they also indicate something else. Role-playing games entering a bit of a twilight phase.

I’m not fully sure why, though I can make a number of well-aimed guesses. I just know it’s not any sort of simple ‘summer funk’.

I seemed to hit some sort of gaming pinnacle with the 4E Campaign. Personally, for me, this was nothing to do with the system, as I prefer others. It was nothing to do with the length, as ideally I prefer shorter (the middle got a bit overly long). It was great that it was regular. I enjoyed the epic story. It wasn’t about the game itself though, I also enjoyed the fact there was a more open, discursive atmosphere about what was happening at the table. It was more open, less obfuscated and more up front and clear. It put us in a good place from an already sound position. It just seemed to emerge around the start of the 4E period.

Then I suffered some annoying career disruption and wanted to dedicate my time to resolving that (and I tend to slash costs as well) so I was out of the gaming group for a year. I was also doing the MBA. I re-joined for the Smallville campaign which was great, similar as before. The vibe at the table, changes in myself post-MBA (and a few other things) meant I wanted to GM.

In short, gaming seemed to be in a fantastic place. It’s felt like a pinnacle followed by a crash for me. So what’s changed?

I know part of it is the fact, at some point I can’t remember, the gaming seems to have become isolated to the session alone. It seems to have become very transactional. You turn up. You play. You go home. It has little impact or relevance beyond that. I’m also used to it being about other things than the session alone. I’ve written an article recently as part of another potential project and it’s reminded me I’ve been the most involved in gaming when it has transitioned outside of the session. It’s about something more than just playing. I’m not suggesting I want to go back to the heady days of being with a group of friends playing role-playing games, discussing games, hosting video game nights and going to conventions but a complete vacuum does have a multiplying effect and that effect isn’t positive.

I’ll also admit gaming isn’t a casual pastime for me. It’s not about doing the same things repeatedly. I expect it to be engaging and challenging, about ‘doing the craft better’ for want of a better description. I actually see it as something that improves me personally. This reflects my life generally, when something is the same and not challenging in some, even small way, I move on.

4E was different as it involved playing a different type of game using different tools and telling a story with the same characters framed through different lenses across three tiers of heroism. That was unique. In a similar way Smallville was great mostly because it involved playing a totally different character than I’d not normally play and I happen to think I pulled a blinder (if I do say so myself). It also made the game about shifting character relationships, which I think all games should be a about (whether it being with other characters, ideas, etc). I don’t expect people to deliver that to me, but something in the mosaic of things that goes into the game usually rustle it up or allows me to generate it sufficiently and find it myself.

Since the cancellation of Fate Fading Suns that engagement and mild intellectual challenge from gaming has gone. Nothing wrong with the games were playing but I do seem to be getting less from them. In a way this parallels my experiences in other media. I prefer a more directed approach, within reason, than a sandbox approach. I prefer an experience rather than me being able to bum about doing anything I want. I’m not suggesting cast iron rails, but there is something in between that involves the GM taking the players steer (however that is represented) and adding something to it and moulding something out of it. Hard to explain.

Those are two concrete things I know that are missing that seriously induce a gaming malaise, but two other exist that are a bit more speculative.

I’m wondering whether my need for something novel and personally challenging to exist in the game is getting diminishing returns as a player? Possible. At the moment I have trouble envisioning where that would come from. Two reasons. First, I’m not sure I have any personal barriers to get over on this front post-Smallville. I don’t normally play the gregarious, ego the size of a house character stringing podium speeches and world spanning TV addresses on the fly? Arguing philosophical points of view on a TV debate? I’d never normally do that. I did. It felt natural. It was awesome. QED. It’s not that I won’t enjoy playing characters anymore, I just don’t believe there is a frontier as such. Second, I know what systems I like that might provide that challenge and that interest and I honestly don’t think I’m going to get to play them in any meaningful way due to group dynamics.

This would be pretty depressing if it wasn’t for the fact I do see whole new frontiers of challenge and different skills being developed from the hobby: running games. I found running Fading Suns, absorbing, fun, challenging, tiring in a great way and it was pretty damned awesome from my point of view until the final session with its transition to Act 2 blip. I realise that’s my personal point of view, but it’s a good thing. There is lots of things I want to do. Lots of things I want to do better in the whole role, playing and game area. The hunger I used to have for playing has, to some degree, shifted to the hunger for running games. That’s because the challenge and new horizons have shifted to this space. It is where I am going to get the most from it. True, there is challenges in that in terms of time and stuff, but the fact remains.

There is also something going on in the dynamic of the group as well I think. Not sure what it is. Not sure even if it is a ‘thing’ as such. It just a combination of factors. The transactional nature of the Sunday sessions. The growing interest in miniature games of varying sorts. The new, more regular weekday gaming slots with different groups. All fantastic and something I certainly appreciate as someone who likes to consume multiple, inter-related sources of entertainment and media and have lots of such stuff ‘going on’, etc. There is even a small part of me, post Fate Fading Suns cancellation that thinks, in some small way, the groups’ differences in what they want out of the hobby are a bit further apart. Is it possible to go as far to say the personal investment has also dropped? Possibly. No idea. I am in no way saying I know the reasons or even if I’m entirely sure I’m not imagining it…it just feels different.

All of which undoubtedly impacts the Sunday slot in some way that can probably never be defined due to how the complex variables of head space, time and reward sort of mould together.

It would seem, without really considering it much until now, that I’ve almost unconsciously made my own series of decisions regarding were my head space, time and rewards are best spent or found and as the indicators have shown it seems to involve writing less here (even when the topics are not about gaming, gaming is some sort of engine), playing more video games and thinking about role-playing games substantially less. The less inputs and less outputs kicks in the cycle turns.

Strange or changing times. It will lead somewhere, just no idea where.

About Ian O'Rourke

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