[Confessions of an English Zombie Fancier] Tune In, Turn On, Burn Out

Do you want to hear a secret? Course you do. I can tell. Come over here, be seated, and Uncle Von’ll let you in on a little mystery.

I’m feeling a bit burned out on roleplaying at the moment.


The current game is sputtering; playing is currently an ‘if we have nothing else to do’ or a ‘we haven’t done that for a while’ rather than an ‘oh man I wan to know what happens next’ activity, and this troubles me somewhat. It’s a slow game, and an unfocused game, and it’s having to present the case for roleplaying as a worthwhile activity to new players, and to be honest, I don’t think it’s doing the job. It feels staid and pedestrian to me, unappealing, maybe-it’ll-get-going – and I’m the one who loves these games and is prepared to commit whole days to running them. I can only imagine how it feels to the players, some of whom balk at spending more than an hour or two at the table; it’s certainly not persuading people to commit their time either to establishing a session of play or staying invested when it happens.

Not much is happening, and I don’t know why. It might be the laissez-faire, make-it-up-as-I-go-along GM style that I’ve developed after years of running for experienced roleplayers, which might conceivably make a new, how-is-RPG-formed kind of player flounder a bit. It might be the historical setting, which doesn’t really have that wild-crazy-stuff-can-happen quality – we were two weeks in before I found something interesting to do with the world, and now I’m trying to steer the existing game around toward that. Thing is, the game’s infrequency and the slow pace of sessions make it ponderous and difficult to shift, and I’m half tempted to scrap it and start again with something that’s more inherently… open. Basically, I think I need to be running a game with clear objectives and an open premise, and I’m running a tangled web with quite a closed one.

What I’m basically saying is that I read about Lo’s game and think I’d rather be playing in that than running mine. I also think that I’ve never run, or even imagined, anything that freewheeling, that go-anywhere-do-anything. ‘My game’ has always been embedded in a setting of limited scale, pursuing depth rather than breadth, which is interesting to me but seems to lack appeal for my current players. It must do – if the game appealed to them they would want to play it more often.

It might, conceivably, be my actual GMing. If I’m honest, I feel my GMing is becoming rather wayward
and lacklustre when I am pinned down to do some. It’s been a while since I whipped up an NPC portrayal or a narrative event that raised anything other than laughs, and given that I’ve had people expressing regard for NPCs years after their death or scared to sleep without the light on after a session before, that’s worrying. The moments of drama that have occurred in games that I’ve run have been in games where I barely had to do any GMing because the party dynamics were innately hilarious. The best bit of the Backswords and Bucklers so far has been player-instigated, and that’s fine, but it’s also been small-scale, muddling around, and it feels like there’s so much more that we could be doing there.

Do you want to know another secret?

I’m not sure I care.

I started running games largely because I’d played in a couple of sessions run by other people and thought “I can do better than this”, and lo, I rather think I did. I became a go-to GM for quite a few years, ran a lot of things in a lot of systems and settings. Wouldn’t necessarily say I’ve been ‘prolific’, but I’ve definitely been active.

The thing is, of late, I’ve become partial to playing rather than running. Despite a few personality clashes, I enjoyed the Star Wars d20 game last year. I was really getting into the WoW-RP business before it was laid low by a combination of summer absenteeism, end-of-expansion blues among guildmates, the time-devouring new job and commute and, above all, a desktop that wasn’t on speaking terms with the Internet. And I’m really looking forward to the prospect of playing in a Dark Ages Vampire game run by someone who isn’t me, because it’s been the best part of
a decade since I last had a player character in any Vampire of any flavour and I’ve never actually gotten to play my favourite clan.

There’s also a certain appeal in not having to think about the game between sessions unless I want to. I’m starting to understand the lassitude that’s at the root of the ‘getting a group together’ problem.

By its very nature, an RPG has a considerable amount of buy-in. All games do. Obviously, the point is the social dimesion – you’re sitting around with people you presumably want to sit around with, participating in some sort of conversation. If the game isn’t more attractive than just sitting around shooting the proverbial breeze, you wouldn’t be playing it, so there has to be something about the game that makes it attractive and provides a reason to buy in to playing it.

Look at a board game – the preferred medium of several current players – and you see something which is designed for pick-up play. The mechanical process of playing the game is, if it’s at all well designed, what makes ‘playing this game’ worth doing over ‘sitting around bitching about the new Red Dwarf‘. The thing with a board game is that it’s all in the box. It might take a couple of goes to learn the rules properly and if it’s a good board game it’ll be a bit different every time and have that replayability factor, but everything that’s worth doing about it, as an activity, comes from inside the box.

Wargames have a higher initial buy-in of list building, assembling, painting and so on and so forth, but once that’s done once, the experience is more like the board game – you can pick it up and just play it without having to really put much of yourself into it. Of course you’ll get more out of it if you do, but you don’t have to. You can decide, on the spur of the moment, to pop down the pub club and play some Malifaux, and you can.

An RPG, by contrast, has quite a lot of buy-in, and I’m not even on about the initial hurdle of having to fill out a form before you can start playing (that is, basically, what character generation is, no matter how streamlined). An RPG isn’t self-contained, like a board game. For it to be lively and interesting and more rewarding than just sitting around chatting, someone – ideally everyone – has to bring it to life and invest in it. Otherwise, it’s just an overcomplicated, understructured board game with a mildly threatening am-dram component that takes ages to play and might need you to commit to doing the same thing again for weeks and doesn’t have a definite structure and doesn’t hold the players’ attention well enough to stop them wandering off to bake a cake halfway through the session.

And the thing is, the first person who has to be on-task, who has to be lively and interesting and provide a reason for the players to buy in in the first place… is the GM. Even if you buy a module pack and use pre-generated characters, that material still needs to be performed in such a way that people want to play Call of Cthulhu instead of Arkham Horror and want to put on funny voices while they roll their dice. Players can wander off and dick about and still derive enjoyment from the proceedings but if the GM isn’t buying in from the start, the game is never going to be worth playing.

And right now, mine isn’t.

I think playing in someone else’s regular game might re-charge my batteries a bit, but the thing is, it’s usually me that ends up running things. Most other people’s games either never get started, or just… don’t appeal to me, for various reasons. I’m not, for instance, a big fan of the huge crossover World of Darkness games where the group might have a vampire, two werewolves, a mage, a ghost, a fairy and a demon – to me that’s a game where everything’s tossed together without room to breathe and be interesting.

I’m also not a fan of playing RPGs with people I don’t actually know and like. Wargames are different ’cause a pick-up game’s over in a couple of hours and you can stomach someone you’re not entirely comfortable with for that long, but anything barring a one-off session of an RPG involves committing your time to these people in the longer term, and who wants to commit to spending time with people they don’t like when they don’t have to?

It’s getting to the point where I’m hoping that one of the ladies I run B&B for will take an interest in Mistressing a Game. That’d be nice – something for the house group to get its teeth into, and something that I don’t have to spend time on, or feel accountable for the success of. In the meantime, I’m doing… other stuff. Playing a lot of pick-ups,
mostly Malifaux and Race for the Galaxy at the moment. Repairing my Vampire Counts models at last. Taking up fencing again. Thinking about doing NaNoWriMo. Recording a lot of amateur radio. Anything but playing RPGs. And given that I don’t have huge amounts of free time, blogging about something I’m not currently very enthused by doesn’t feel like an effective use of the free time that I do have.

And that, folks, is why I haven’t been posting my Saturday posts as regularly as I should be. Sorry about that. Sorry about this post, which is much more about me, my hobby and my game than I feel a blog network post really should be, but I figure you deserve some sort of explanation.

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