Just continuing my thoughts on running campaigns.
(especially this time of year) I listen to a lot of sports talk radio, and there's a phrase that gets bandied about a bit: "Sometimes it's not the X's and the O's...sometimes it's the Jimmy's and the Joe's." Two weeks ago the Seahawks got out-coached and out-executed by the Cardinals, losing a game they had about four opportunities to win (I counted). Two days ago, they curb stomped the 49ers because the Seahawks' players...specifically at the QB and receiver position...were flat out better. It's really, really hard to win a game when your roster has been so decimated by injuries and your starting quarterback is so woefully inadequate compared to the opposition guy.
But what does this have to do with campaigns, JB? Are you just trying to needle your rivals to the south? No (though that's part of it, of course). It's just that when people (like me) decry their ability to put together a stunning...or even satisfying...RPG campaign, there's this thought (fear?) that it's just not possible, because they don't have the Jimmy's and the Joe's. That no matter how good your game plan is, no matter how well-prepped you are, no matter how good your world building, it won't matter because the players at your table aren't going to create the right synergy...for whatever reason. You can be the World's Greatest DM/GM but if the players aren't up to snuff, then your campaign's never going to get off the ground.
I know I've felt this way, more or less, for something around 30 years. 30 years! Seriously. And it's not just about oh, these players suck and don't know the rules...it's stuff like "we have different gaming priorities" or "they don't get the theme (or aren't as knowledgable of it)" or "they're just not as excited about this [game] or [setting] as I am" or "we just aren't as compatible as a group (personality-wise)."
And, Why O Why did I feel that way? Because of the gaming group I had for the first near-decade of my youth. My "oldest friends;" my "best friends" (never mind that I've since had many friends who were better and who have lasted longer then those folks)...THEY were the ones with whom "magic happened." The campaigns I've had since my days of yore have never and will never compare to those days...so goes the monologue has long droned in my head.
And, HEY...before anyone starts scribbling a fiery comment to me about how this is all nostalgia and rose-colored glasses and whatnot...let me say, sure, okay, maybe (and I've described this time of gaming in such terms before). MAYBE the monologue is accurate: that was just a time when the right chemistry of people gelled over a set of hardcover books that we rode hard, and those days of my wild and wooly youth will sadly never come again.
But maybe it's not. Maybe it's something different. Maybe it's not just a figment of my imagination but, instead, something that I never considered until the last few days. And maybe it has NOTHING to do with the Jimmy's and Joe's.
In my last post on the subject of running campaigns, I said there was a profound lack of ownership in my earlier campaigns. That is to say, that no one person "owned" the campaign...if anything, it was owned by ALL of us. And I'm serious about that: if I wasn't available as a DM (which happened often enough, for various reasons) someone else would take the reins and run the game. Same world, same characters, different adventures. We had co-DMs in those days and used a shared set of rules (Pro Tip: yet another good reason to run games "By The Book"), so this was totally doable. Likewise, we could run adventures simultaneously in the same world based on situational availability of the players!
Now, listen: of course we had more "free" time for gaming in our youths...kind of. But consider the time aa child has to dedicate -- really dedicate -- to gaming. As a kid, I had school to which I had to "commute" myself (on foot, bike, or bus, easily taking a couple hours in some years). My extracurricular activities (sports, Scouts, church, theater) took up several hours per week, as did my school work load. And the free time I had was hardly my "own;" I was often at the mercy of my family, especially over school breaks and whatnot (family trips and outings, etc.). As I got older and my time became more "mine," I had the extra burden of working part time jobs as well (I entered the workforce around age 14). And my friends had similar shackles.
[my great fortune was that I was a pretty smart kid, so I could skate throughout school without spending the time "grinding" that some kids did: I aced classes with minimal work as a youngster, and was able to get decent grades when older despite shirking studies and assignments. Of course, I also got into girls and partying as I got older, so something had to give (usually the extra effort that would have allowed me to ace higher level work)...but it was important for me to develop socially, too. And I was unwilling to drop my fantasy gaming. Thank goodness this was before the days of internet ubiquity (and thank goodness also that I could never afford a gaming console...or even a personal computer of my own!)]
The point is, I prioritized gaming in those days...making time for it...in a way that I just haven't done since marriage and family. And while I wouldn't trade my wife and kids, the POINT is that it's not necessarily adulthood that caused those "magic years of yesterday" to disappear. Just having an apartment, a car, and a job (and no classes) would enable far more "gaming freedom" than I ever had as a teenager.
So what happened, then? My later friends as I grew older were simply "not the right chemistry" to become deeply involved in a campaign? I don't think so. We had plenty of chemistry in other ways. They were plenty sharp people. They had enough interest in gaming to show up at the table. And we had more time! That precious commodity that I never seem to have enough of now (and let me tell you, my nine year old complains about HIS lack of free time as much if not more than I do). So what changed?
I did. I changed...over time, over years, I've become unwilling to share, less inclined to collaborate. When I run a campaign...any type of campaign (not just D&D)...I hold the reins in an iron grip.
To be clear, that doesn't mean I have a "my way or the highway" attitude at the table. The activity is still role-playing, and I'm not into running railroads, nor in saying "no" to the players. I solicit feedback from players and incorporate it as I see fit (again, this is my controlling attitude), but I've given on requests for using miniatures (in B/X!) or allowed players to pursue harebrained (and not-so-harebrained) schemes, whether for navigating adventure obstacles or developing and customizing their characters.
But ALL of it has been per my consideration. I get the final say so. It's been my game, not our game. And regardless of whether or not that's been understated or demonstrated viciously (I don't think it has) or even spoken aloud, I think that attitude is still palpable...I think it still permeates the game being played. There are more than likely signals and cues being given (verbal or not) that have demonstrated my stance on the matter.
This is different from how I ran campaigns in the first few years of my gaming career. And while there's a myriad of reasons explaining how this evolution occurred, I think the more interesting tidbit to examine is what the result of this change has been:
Exhaustion. Fatigue. Dissatisfaction. Resentment. For ME!
Lacking heavy player investment (due to lack of ownership) results in ME having to supply all the "juice" to energize and run the campaign. With no vested interest, there's no impetus or enthusiasm for players to even show up to the game (figuratively and sometimes literally)...instead I am placed in a position where I need to coax and cajole and entertain like a dancing monkey, coming up with more and more cool things to drive interest, when it should be the game itself that drives players to the table.
I've been fortunate that I've got some depths of "cool ideas" to draw upon (smart guy, right), but always, eventually, I end up drying up, like a puddle in the sun. Even if I don't run out of ideas, I run out of energy and enthusiasm for my own game. Even when the players purport to be enjoying the game...and who knows if they really do? They may simply have nothing better to do that evening and that's the only reason they're showing up: something different.
I think...I THINK that when the players are invested in the campaign, when the campaign is shared, then the players have a reason to bring some juice to the party. When the onus is not completely on a single person (i.e. the Game "Master") the players have more interest in seeing how their co-creation turns out...and want to share in that unfolding vision. They stay engaged, they bring ideas, they force the GM to run the game with the same energy because if the GM won't do it then the players are quite willing to take and run the campaign themselves without the GM.
Note: the key word in that last phrase is "willing." It's rare that I've seen or heard of a group who are able to pull off such a feat (at least long term...I know of a couple, though neither involved myself). But that attitude, that FIRE is what has been missing from the players at my own table for a long, long time. And I think that the reason it's been missing is because I am the one that quenched it, with my unwillingness to share the "burden" of my campaigns.
The reasons for wanting to retain "sole ownership" of my campaigns are unimportant. What IS important is that having Absolute Control doesn't (I don't think) make for a better experience. The evidence suggests that it's antithetical to a "better" gaming experience.
I'm going to have to figure out some ways to apply these thoughts.
[and regarding election campaigns, I have only this to say: good luck to my country. I'm praying for you]