Sgt. Pepper

Posted: 4 September 2016 in Reflections

It was twenty years ago today,
Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play,
They’ve been going in and out of style
But they’re guaranteed to raise a smile.
– The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

As best I can calculate, today is the 40th anniversary of my first tabletop RPG session, in which I played a 1st level wizard in a game of White Box D&D in a pub in Oxford with fellow members of the Tolkien Society. Good times, then and now, and to quote the Grateful Dead as well, “what a long, strange trip it’s been”.

If you want a professional’s view of the last four decades of RPGs, take a listen to this, and read DM David’s reflections on “the end of lonely fun“.

Mike Mearls’ description in the podcast of “not playing the game you wanted to play” resonated with me, and combined with the usual end-of-summer-holiday weltschmerz has me considering all manner of crazy schemes, a kind of gaming mid-life crisis I suppose. Mearls’ argument is that there are gaps between RPG sessions when you want to play but can’t, and while gamers used to fill those gaps by (say) reading splatbooks or designing new vehicles, since the advent of videogames people use that downtime to play something else on their PC or phone. Thus their gaming time and dollars are going into other games, not the supplemental materials for their main tabletop RPG they used to buy in the 1980s and 1990s.

The challenge Mearls mentions is how to keep D&D relevant and interesting in that environment, and it looks like the answer is what Gary Ray calls “D&D Stable IP Edition” and the videogame industry calls “maintenance mode”; nobody’s working on the core game engine any more, and new content packs (for 5E, campaign books) are released just often enough to keep things ticking over.

The challenge I see is how to keep campaign setup time for a homebrew or published campaign comparable to the time it takes to download a new game from Steam, and I address that challenge with Savage Worlds.

Meanwhile, this line of thought makes me realise I’m still addressing gaps between sessions the old way, reading about and preparing for the next game – making a hobby of not playing the game I want to play. Solo gaming, generating setting material and so on are displacement activities, things I do because I can’t play what I want as much as I’d like. Food for thought there.

As to the weltschmerz-induced crazy schemes, experience teaches that the urge will pass in time.

  1. Brass Jester says:

    Ooh nostalgia!
    My first Game of White box OD&D was in the autumn of 1977; I’d seen an advert in “Battle for Wargamers” (?) for fantasy wargames using pencil and paper and persuaded my mom to buy it for me. I then persuaded her to buy ‘Chainmail’, like a lot of people I thought you had to have that as well. I didn’t know what ‘Outdoor Survival’ was so she didn’t have to buy that. I was the GM and ran a dungeon for three friends; one loved it, one hated it and one was so-so. That was the start of my GM’ing career which has lasted to this day; I get to play about once every 18 months, but I GM every week. I also bought the first issue of White Dwarf (and the next 11) because it was a magazine about D&D and the issue one cover was cool.

    My next RPG was LBB Traveller, which I got for my birthday in 1978. I think I was expecting D&D in space; so was somewhat taken aback by the rules (“where are the dungeons and monsters?”) Traveller was never a hit with my friends; this is why I started designing solo systems (the Traveller one, more or less, is still in use today).

    My third RPG was ‘Call of Cthulhu’; one of my players loved it and we played several one-to-one Games. I’ve never yet made it work as a solo Game.

    Those were the days of the Judges Guild; of skiving off college (which I hated) to go into Birmingham and hang out at ‘Dungeons and Starships’ down Summer Row (it helped that my girlfriend (now my wife), worked at the DHSS on Summer Row) so we could go home on the bus together; of ‘Trollcrusher’, ‘Alarums and Excursions’; Games Day down in London (watching somebody demonstrating ‘Azhanti High Lightning’ – wonder who that was?)

    Fast forward to today. I have never got into video/computer games; my hobby is RPG’s and I still like nothing better than to carry a notebook with me and scribble down ideas for whatever Game I’m into. And, I now play more frequently and have just as much fun; yet I’m still the GM. I really need more practice as a player.

  2. I find when I am not running games, I buy games books. When I am running games I use my gamebooks to prep the game. Conclusion: always have a game running and the rest of the week fills itself.

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