On Quality and Quantity
Recently, events in my life have conspired to bring my schedule from incorporating gaming several times each week to running only one weekly game. This was a tough adjustment at first, but rather paradoxically I've found that gaming less has heightened my appreciation for and interest in my long-time hobby. I'd love to hear your reflections on this topic now that I'm sharing my own.
Back when my personal website still got updated regularly and I got frequent emails requesting game advice, one of my most frequently received emails was the ever-popular "how do I find a gaming group in my area?" request. Though I answered this question as best I could and even wrote an article about it once, most of the people who wanted my advice probably didn't know how poorly qualified I was to provide it. Although the lack of a gaming group is a common complaint, for the first ten years of my gaming career the situation of those who didn't get enough RPGs in their lives was far outside my realm of experience. My problem, if I had one, was the opposite - I had more ideas for games to run, and more invitations to games in which to play, than I knew what to do with. After a brief game-less transition from high school to college, I found a gaming group early on in my first semester at university that formed the base of the group with which I still play to this day. That game gave birth to another, and then I started running a campaign, and then a couple of my friends decided they wanted to try their hand at DMing too, and before I knew it I was (at the height of my gaming involvement) running two large-scale campaigns while playing in three others, not counting occasional pick-up campaigns and bluebooking sessions. Eventually, this reached a more sustainable level of running one campaign while playing in two others, but it was still much more RPG time than the average gamer of my acquaintance got.
...my gaming opportunities suddenly began to dry up.
I'm telling you this not to brag about the remarkably rich and varied gaming diet I enjoyed for many years (well, okay, maybe I'm bragging just a little), but to explain why it was such a shock when my gaming opportunities suddenly began to dry up. I'd always assumed that when my group and I graduated college we'd find it a lot harder to get together and game. I was partially right and it did get harder, but despite the new logistical challenges of 40-hour work weeks and far-flung non-dormitory residences, with a little effort I still managed to run one campaign, play in another, and even spend a Saturday or two a month playing in a third game. Sure, sessions were much shorter (4 hours per session now as opposed to 8-10 in college) and it was virtually impossible to get together for a little one-on-one in-character conversation without extensive scheduling and planning, but we worked around it with the careful choice of convenient game locations and a strong commitment to continuing to game together.
But just recently, with college almost five years behind me, things really began to change for my group and me. I'm still running a weekly game just as I have for more than seven years (and will probably continue do so until they nail my coffin shut), but with every new campaign the group makeup changes a little more as old players move away or lose interest in gaming, and new players are invited to keep the group at a reasonable size of 4-7 players. My college Hunter: The Reckoning group also stuck together for a weekly game that ran for an astonishing three and a half years, but when that game ended the GM decided to switch to D&D for his follow-up. That game never quite captured the magic I'd experienced around that table in the past, and after a lengthy stretch of missed sessions the decision was made to go on a temporary hiatus that appears to have become permanent. The end result is that for the first time since I was in high school, I am not playing in a weekly tabletop roleplaying game.
The transition from "almost too much gaming" to "no gaming except as a GM" was a bit strange at first, as would any stoppage of participation in a long-time and time-consuming hobby. Many members of my former gaming group still get together on our former game night with some regularity to watch movies, play board and card games, and just hang around chatting with each other, and although I find these activities very enjoyable, at first I kept looking around for my dice bag and wondering when we were going to get started. Nevertheless, after the initial adjustment I found that I enjoyed getting to interact with these people in a "permanently out of character" context and remember that there are still things binding us together that have nothing to do with RPGs.
I was also surprised to discover how much new free time I had without a weekly game. I didn't think that one additional free weeknight would make that much of a difference, but it did, probably because I have always taken gaming very seriously as a hobby and try to commit to it with my full attention and effort. But I'm also passionate about one other extremly time-consuming hobby (music), as well as being observant within my religion - both passions that could occasionally suffer or lose out to gaming under many circumstances, despite the fact that I genuinely value them more than the RPG world. Now, I'm quite impressed by the increased amount of time I can devote to my band and my religious community, and how by doing so I generally don't even have the opportunity to regret that I'm not gaming on game night. Of course, one drawback of this is that I've found it easier to take on too much with an extra night free, but that's my own fault for not always knowing when to say "no" to a new commitment!
...I was starting to get burned out on being a player.
Backing away from gaming, and realizing how happy I was with my diminished involvement in the hobby, also forced me to confront a truth I'd been ignoring for a long time: I was starting to get burned out on being a player. The aforementioned Hunter game had seen me playing a challenging character in which I immersed myself wholeheartedly, to the point of discovering some deep and difficult truths about myself through my character. Gaming was beginning to feel more like therapy than a game, and while I knew I was developing as a person through my character, I certainly wasn't always having fun! In the D&D game that followed, I deliberately made a more light-hearted and uncomplicated character, yet I found myself having trouble enjoying that style of play as well. I was even finding it difficult to pay attention and participate in my husband's pick-up Mage: The Awakening game while playing a long-term character that I loved dearly. When my gaming opportunities suddenly dried up, I was amazed at how much I didn't miss the weekly game night. Sure, I loved running my weekly game, and hanging out with my gamer buddies under any circumstances, but the break from playing felt like a relief rather than deprivation. That's how I knew that I'd pushed myself too far and that this imposed rest period couldn't have come at a better time.
But the strangest experience of all came when my husband decided to give the new fourth edition of D&D a try with a number of our gaming friends. I'd originally encouraged him to run the game when he got excited about it and it became clear that I'd be spending most Saturdays in the recording studio working on my band's second album, meaning that the Mage: The Awakening game he'd been running for me, our roommate, and a close friend would have to go on hiatus for a while. Still, I wouldn't be recording every weekend, and he encouraged me to make a character to play on occasion when our schedules aligned. Yet even though my husband and the other players spoke repeatedly about how much they'd love to have me there, I was surprised to find myself saying "thanks, but no thanks."
The more I thought about the 4e game, the more I realized that it wasn't going to satisfy my needs as a gamer. My husband was running 4e the way it's written - that is, a gamist exercise in strategy, where the focus and interest is squarely on combat rather than character development or interactions. There's nothing wrong with that style of game, but I realized that what I was really seeking in a game was a more narrativist, collaborative style of storytelling - something more improvisational acting party than board game. I knew I wouldn't get that from my husband's game, so I politely declined and left his group to their fun - which was something I'd honestly never been able to do before.
...quality of gaming is better than quantity of gaming.
I have to laugh when I think about how many times I've told advice seekers that "no gaming is better than bad gaming," yet I'd never truly believed it myself. My break from gaming and my burnout had taught me the most important lesson of all - that quality of gaming is better than quantity of gaming. I remember my first semester of college, when I gamed only on Friday nights, and how I'd start looking forward to the next week's game as early as Saturday afternoon. When did I stop feeling that bone-deep anticipation for what would come next? Since then, I've spent too long forcing myself to play bad games with bad GMs, or even just games that were good but not a match for my style and preferences, just because I felt bad saying no or because I thought I should be grateful for all of my gaming opportunities when so many gamers were desperately seeking just one game to play. Now, ten years after I got my start as a gamer, I know that my time and my effort are worth more than that. I deserve a game that will match my desires and fulfill my needs, and I'm willing to wait until that game comes along instead of settling for something else.
The good news is that I'm definitely over my burnout now. I'm excited about the idea of playing in a large-scale campaign (ideally something like World of Darkness or Unknown Armies, but I'll take anything that's player-character-focused, light on rules and combat, and tells an awesome story) and I've already got several character ideas. So far, I don't have a weekly game opportunity on the horizon, and I'm having to content myself with running and enjoying my own weekly game, and focusing my energy on my other interests as well. But when the perfect game for me comes along (and I know it will, considering the people I'm surrounded by), I will be ready to step in and give it my all. What more could a gamer ask for?