I’ve always thought that I love games. I built a heck of a collection of them. I specifically gravitated toward roleplaying games. I started a blog about gaming. But looking back, I’m not sure that it’s accurate to say that I like games.
Let’s go way back to when I was a little kid. My favorite toys were small action figures. Playsets and vehicles were fine enough but I really liked 3.5″ action figures. Think GI Joe and Kenner Star Wars. I was annoyed when figures were made in different sizes because they didn’t play well together. Like, why did Masters of the Universe or Thundercats come in that weird size between other action figures and Barbies? So useless. I didn’t play a lot of board games. Games like Monopoly and Candyland bored the shit out of me. I hated Sorry, and Trouble, and Battleship. For a while I thought I liked Chess and then I realized that chess is just an optimization exercise and that was it for me. But the reason I liked those 3.5″ action figures was free play. Just hands and knees in the dirt or on the floor and making it all up in my head.
Then around age 8 I discovered D&D. It’s probably more correct to say that it discovered me but that’s silly so we’ll just move on. I was entranced by D&D. It was permission to play all those fantasies in my head in first person narratives that included other people. And we did. We played the heck out of some D&D. Sort of. We never bothered much with the rules. We learned them and mostly understood them… we just didn’t care all that much. The point was that it gave us some meat to hang our fantasies on. We already had the ideas. D&D was just a vehicle for free play. We spent as much time in the big ass field behind our subdivision pretending to be an adventuring party hunting kobolds as we did playing with the actual dice and books. I think most of my early love for D&D was about the absolutely brilliant fantasy art of the period.
D&D was a gateway. I have read, run, and played so many systems since then that I can’t even name them all. I still enjoy reading new games. Don’t really have the time or people to play as many. I fell hard for GURPS for a while. Building a character with a depth that I could never get in D&D was fascinating to me. I joined some LARPS when those really took off. As with many gamers my age, I got swept away by the audacity of the World of Darkness. I still played board games during this time, and a few computer games, but honestly… they mostly bored me like the games I played as a kid because they were too linear or too focused on optimization (or competition).
That competition thing was a big deal for me. I hated games that were all about competition. For a long time that was a focus in board games. When cooperative, “players vs. the board” games came along I was pretty thrilled with them. I still have a credo about board games that I know it’s good game if I can lose it every time I play and still enjoy playing. But I basically stopped playing video games when the turn to first person shooters and multiplayer came along. Playing games with strangers and playing games where the only goal was to kill the other guy were just wasted on me. As both of those are still dominant forces in the video game market, I still trend toward the fringes with a few big-name exceptions (Mass Effect and Fallout are probably the only AAA franchises I can say I’ve enjoyed with the exception of The Last of Us 2).
But playing games with strangers has always been a problem for me too. I don’t game at cons. Which is funny because I go to cons because I love gaming, right? Overall, I’m a fairly prickly person who doesn’t like small talk and I’m terrible at making friends. I don’t game at cons, gaming stores, public events, I hate the idea of gaming “tournaments” so I’m basically just playing with myself. Again, there are rare exceptions. I still wish I could get more people to see the inherent brilliance of Battletech and fall in love with its lore. But after roughly 38 years as a gamer, playing a lot of minis games… Battletech is still the only one I can say that about. And yes, it is competitive and all about shooting the other guy. Play it with me sometime and we’ll talk about why it transcends that.
I think the turning point for me though, is Amber. The Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game is at the heart of my weird feelings about gaming. Because it has almost no hard and fast rules. There are a few rules that matter but even they are interpreted differently by almost every GM who runs Amber. And even the setting is fluid to the point that it is expected that every version of Amber will be “your” version. The most interesting and successful games I’ve ever been involved in have been Amber games. I’ve run four that I’ll always be happy with. And the funniest part was that most all of it was free play. We barely discussed rules. We just played. Sometimes fights happened. Sometimes ten sessions would go by where all we did was talk. And it fired our imaginations far more than any D&D or Pathfinder (or GURPS, etc.) game ever had.
I lied. The finest game I ever ran was not an Amber game. It was my first attempt at Legends of Ryllia. Well, it was my first four attempts. Because the players in that game allowed me to change the mechanics on them four times during the course of the same campaign as I tinkered with new ideas. We didn’t care about what was happening with the mechanics. We cared about the characters we made and we played. We played the shit out of that game. And when it ended, we were emotionally exhausted. But again, I’d say it was 85% just talking to each other. I eventually settled on a set of rules for Ryllia. They were okay. I’ve never actually run the game again using those rules because… well now there are rules.
My number one mantra about playing RPGs is trust. If you don’t trust the other people at the table with you then you are probably not going to really enjoy the game. Rules – lots of rules – are great when you don’t trust the other people at the table, but they are not going to make a better game. This goes for players and GMs. A lot of systems now try to limit the power of the GM at the table with tons of player-facing rules but – again – the ability to translate that into enjoyment isn’t going to be very high if you don’t trust (and like) the people you are playing with. My other mantra is that “Having no game is better than being in a bad game.” Which has led to me being in a lot fewer games over the years.
This is connected to another problem of mine – trying to write another game and never being able to do it. It’s not the only reason but we can discuss my extreme lack of passions some other time.
Ultimately, when I look back on nearly 4 decades of gaming, I see that I’ve never actually liked games. I loved cooperative storytelling with a few agreed upon boundaries and a strong moderator. I like free play. I like the boring parts. Shopping trips and asides and repairing the ship. The walking and the sitting by the campfire. The planning. I like free play and just making shit up and just doing it with a few other people I actually enjoy being around.
Getting older… that is a lot harder to do.