Friday, January 28, 2022

The Perpetual Game

Wow. So many things to write about at the moment. Sometimes that happens (in the life of a "blogger"): Your Cup Runneth Over. I think, perhaps, I'm going to write a bit about world building in the coming weeks. Not because I'm any good at it...but (perhaps), specifically, because I'm not.  Either that or...well, we'll see. 

However, right now I need to get to something I've been putting off.

Waaaay back in July, I read this post over on the Tao blog. At the time, I had a lot on my plate: family road trips, in-laws trapped in-country (due to COVID in their own), dead dogs, etc....all of which conspired to throw me off of the Deep Thought necessary to pen my thoughts on the epiphany that had bloomed in my mind.

Welp, if I'm going to talk at all about "world building" I need to start with this subject.

First: some (more) preamble:

When I was a kid, I had several glorious years of D&D gaming with a small group of friends (Scott, Matt, Jocelyn and...for a short time...Jason). For a period of five years or so, gaming occupied the bulk of our interactions together. Sure, we talked about other things: books we'd read, the (occasional) movie we'd seen, sometimes even the shit that would happen at school. But mostly it was D&D (or some other game). These were my best friends...the best I've ever had. I've had some good friends in the years since, but never a group as rock-solid, or as deeply connected as we were.

I worry sometimes that my own children, especially my son, don't have this same type of gang. In a way, they are too friendly, too loving, of their parents (while my friends and I loved our parents, we were mainly of the us versus them, youth versus geezer mentality). Parents shouldn't be a child's Best Friends...we are parents; kids need to be building tight relationships with their peers. I confessed my misgivings to my (now 11 year old) boy the other evening, while we were waiting to pick up our takeout pizza order, my fear that maybe I play with my kids too much, that they should be gaming with their own friends more

My son told me that he prefers gaming with me, because unlike his peers I take the game...especially Dungeons & Dragons...seriously. By which he means, I don't treat the game in a silly fashion. I give it weight; I give it importance

Our society, our culture instructs us from a young age in the things that we should consider important, indoctrinating us into a variety of recognizable and acceptable priorities. School and family when we're younger; perhaps church (for religious families). Finding a girlfriend/boyfriend, getting a car. Getting a job, a spouse, having kids, providing for one's family, developing a career...perhaps acquiring some sort of higher educational degree, building a business, leaving a legacy, etc. The usual list that most folks recognize as Life's Priorities.

Like most, I was taught the same set of values and priorities as any other American kid. But when you're a kid, MOST of these things are far off, waaaay in the future, more-or-less invisible to the short-sightedness of youth. My friends and I simply didn't worry about much of this. My "religious obligation" (my family was the most "devout" of any of us) took up approximately one hour per week (on Sundays), and school was so blessedly easy (we were all such bright young children) that the effort required was least, prior to high school. Mainly just remembering to hand in homework.

So...with no other obligations on the horizon (and the obtainable ones easily filled) we had plenty of time and energy for Dungeons & Dragons...and we invested heavily in the game. After all, IT wasn't going to end any time would simply go on-and-on, and we might as well build our world, our campaign as deep and as strong as we wanted.  As powerfully as our imagination and minds would allow us to do so, considering our ages and our collective life experiences (including the fiction we consumed). 

We did not tell "stories" with the game...and yet we'd (mostly) grown beyond exploring "dungeons" by the time we had adopted AD&D wholesale. We were using the entirety of rules (for Gygax's words were Law ad Holy Writ in those days), but we used them to describe a WORLD that we lived in. We didn't cut rules to make the game simpler or more streamlined...we added to them in order to model real world issues or challenges that weren't covered in the text. And the actual rules...from how to do two-weapon combat, use segments, weapon vs. armor type, psionics, etc....were memorized or quick-referenced for ease of use.

We spent immense amounts of time and energy on this...which is something you can/will do if you feel the game is going to go on and on ad infinitum. There was no end in sight. Our other "priorities," such as they were, had been satisfied. No one was telling these 13-15 year olds to 'get a job' or settle down and raise a family.

If you don't have that perspective - that the game is going to go on and on and on - you can't make that kind of investment. I see that now. It took me a long time to see that...a really, really long time. No one wants to invest in something that's going to go away. No one wants to invest in something that's not a priority. Not when you're All Grown Up and have so many other things demanding attention.

A family. A career. A doctoral thesis. A business. One has to be committed to these things...for the long make them work. You can't half-ass it and end up with anything worthwhile. Foundational building blocks of IMPORTANT STUFF need to be given their proper weight, their proper prioritization. You approach those things like its just a lark, no more important than a pick-up game of softball or something and...well, it won't go well. Your life won't go well.

D&D is not these things. It's not one of the Big Important Things. It's not a marriage. It's not a mortgage. It's not enlisting in the army and shipping your body overseas to perhaps die for your country. It's not valued and celebrated by society like all that stuff.

It just requires a similar commitment.

Which is, of course, crazy. Because people have been telling us...parents, friends, peers, lovers...people have been telling us for years that it's just a game. WE'VE been saying it ourselves. It's just a game. It's not curing cancer. It's not feeding the hungry. It's not finding a way to bridge the Great Divide that exists between the haves and have nots, the liberals and conservatives. It's not bringing about world peace. 

But we humans do a lot of things that have as little impact on humanity's problems as this game. We dedicate our lives to things. Playing the guitar, perhaps. Watercolor painting. Training dogs. Fishing. Golf. Kayaking. Coaching basketball. Stamp collecting. Singing in the church choir. Baking. Brewing beer. Photography. Marathon running. Chess. Writing mystery stories. Designing new languages.

Humans have invented a LOT of things over the years for people to invest their time, energy, and emotion. Things that people decided were worth taking seriously regardless of any "practical value" those activities had. With commitment, these things are more than just pastimes, more than just hobbies. Vocation is the closest word I can think of, though it has career-connotations that aren't appropriate for these things. Calling? Mission? It doesn't really matter...what matters is that our world is better for having these things in it, and better for having people willing to take their activities seriously, people willing to dedicate themselves to whatever craft or "calling" they've chosen to take on.

Dungeons & Dragons IS a game. But it's more than that...more than any other game ever created. However, to get the full benefit, the maximum potential, you have to be willing to commit to the game. Not only do you have to respect the game, you have to make a space in your life for it, a place of importance, not just "something you do" like pulling out a deck of cards on a Saturday night for a game of Rummy or Hearts. You can't keep looking at it as something that you'll eventually grow out of; you can't keep looking at it as something you should have grown out of, years ago.

If it's something you love, you don't grow out of it. You grow into it. And it grows with you.

As I said, it's taken me a long time to see this. I thought I could just treat it like a pick-up game, like any of the other games that line the shelves and closets of my home. In fact, I did treat it like that...for decades...even as I grew less and less satisfied with the results. I kept my original books...the same ones I'd once carried in a backpack on my bicycle when I was 12...through multiple relationships, multiple moves, multiple phases of my life, just chalking it up to nostalgia and a penchant for collecting. I wrote off the campaign of my youth as some long lost unicorn...that it was simply some lucky quirk of fate that had allowed me to find such marvelous players/companions that had given me the space to play deep, meaningful games. That all the failures since then have been due to NOT hitting that "lucky lottery" when it comes developing a game group.

Bull. Shit.

The ONLY thing that changed (with regard to my approach to RPGs) between the age of 14 and 46ish (or thereaboouts) was that I stopped making the game a priority. I started thinking of it as a game, just a game, something to play on occasion but certainly nothing to invest in or commit to. I had too many other, Real Life, Real World priorities that required my investment/time/attention: higher education, girls, jobs, debts, wife, kids, etc. D&D...playing it, writing about it...that's just a hobby. Something I may set down, one of these days, for a different hobby. Golf, perhaps. Playing the stock market. Bread baking.

No. It took a long time, but I get it now. There was magic in the days of my youth: I managed to find several kids, my age, who liked fantasy, wanted to play D&D, and who got along (most of the time). That was it. 

Finding adults, who enjoy fantasy, who want to play D&D, and who can get along like civilized folks...well, that's not too tall an order is it? Not in today's internet age.

No...that bit is the easy part. I haven't even needed the internet to find players over the last few years. The part that's really needed to change is my personal investment and commitment to the game. My understanding that this isn't just some hobby, some game I Axis & Allies or Blood Bowl or some downloaded phone app. Dungeons & Dragons is a calling; it's a passion. It's something I am dedicated to, much as I am dedicated to my wife and children. Sometimes I need a break from them, too...but my love for them and my investment in them endures. Same with D&D.

That's how I'm approaching the D&D game these days, anyway. My game is always "on," even if I'm not running it. My game is the world I run; my "campaign" is the record of the deeds of players that adventure in my world. I am my world's's Dungeon Master.

My game is perpetual. It IS me...and I am it. 


  1. I too miss the days of being fully immersed in the game world (or any play: I still do Lego but it not the same as when I was a child).

    Only the last few years, as I came back into gaming, and made it an important part of me, do I get the same sort of feeling of being immersed in a worlds we create as a group.

    So yes - our game is a part of who we are, not "a deck of cards to take out on a Sunday afternoon" but something that is always a part of us. Just like I go to the gym (for 30+ years now, so you think there would be at least some results!) gaming is something I cherish as part of who I am.

    So yes, I enjoyed this post as I do see elements of myself in there.

  2. My last campaign ran 126 sessions. I can't count the time and energy I put into it, but it was 100% worth it.

    The second baby was coming due and I couldn't put in the 4 to 6 hours of play time once week and the 4 to 10 hours of prep. Even 6 months after we stopped I still feel a little empty not having the "game" to prep and play.

    Family comes first, but my passion is D&D. And having a game to run and work on makes me feel fulfilled in a way that I can't explain. I've ran four campaigns in the last ten years that had a session count of 50 or more. And I was always happier during a campaign than when I was between them.

    It is a calling and the more you dedicate to it the more you get out of it.

  3. this shit really moved me man. The game is always on. always with us.
    The game may be a game, but is a part of our life, as real as any other things we've lived; and it made you live things you wouldnt otherwise.

    You have good reasons to invest in the game now, man: Your kids are going to appreciate it for sure. You got them to share all that world inside you.

  4. Great post JB. I too remember that time, from about 11 to 15 or so for me, we played constantly and had a blast! You get what you invest into it, and the rewards are a lifetime of memories!

    1. @ Bill:

      Thing is man, I'm not looking for a lifetime of memories anymore. I have those. I'm looking for an ongoing game.

      THAT's the thing. I don't want to remember how I used to be a fencer or a martial artist or a frontman for a band or the lead in a play I did back at university. I don't want to be the ol' geezer doing nothing more than recounting the tales of a lived life. I want to LIVE life...present tense!

      Which is ironic of course, because I'm talking about an imaginary game.

      Okay, let me correct that: I want to PLAY SATISFYING D&D NOW, not recount the days when the game WAS satisfying.

      Of all the things I've done over the course of my life, all the activities I was once intensely passionate about, the only one that has stood the test of time has been D&D. So I've resolved (as of several months ago) to treat it with the importance...and permanence...that it deserves in my life.

      Even though I resolved YEARS ago that I was a "gamer for life" or an "un-repentant nerd [about RPGs]" I still wasn't taking up the thing as a vocation. Now I have...and it's made a world of difference in my perspective.

  5. I get it. I think you misunderstood my comment. You re-invest in it now, you get new experiences, new memories. Not just "the good old days".

    1. Actually, I kinda’ figured you meant that. I just wanted to be crystal clear in case my wall of text was obfuscating my point for ANYone.

      Also, it’ll be important for my coming posts for folks to get that I’m writing about a “living game.”

      (which may not make sense now…hopefully it will)

  6. I totally get you. Totally. I have been trying to recapture the passion I had up to 15 years. But moving abroad, marrying, having kids, and not finding a stable group sort of dampened my enthusiasm. I am trying to get the passion on again with my kids, but Real Life just intrudes too much.

    1. For me, I've found the passion is in the creation (which I'll get to...promise-promise!).

      Once you have the creation in-hand, you can pick it up any time and its ready to go. THEN it's not just a "pick-up" game...instead, every opportunity TO play is an opportunity to showcase what you've built. It's both heady stuff and engaging.

    2. as prior posters have said: exactly! I spend a fair amount of time world building and will hopefully be able to use that in actual, long-running games so we can get a feel of the living town or world we are playing in.

      And congratulations as well: you must have hit a nerve to get this amount of conversation going. That is also gratifying I am sure.

  7. I used to play one shots mostly do to time and a place to play and enjoyed dnd but was never fullfilled. I am now 4 years into a weekly campaign and I can tell you it is amazing and the way D&D should be played. I am just glad i found the people willing to commit