Note: I wrote this as one of our Ronin Round Tables, a feature we do each Friday on www.greenronin.com. I thought I’d post it here for folks who don’t make it over to the company site frequently. Enjoy.
In 1999 Nicole and I decided to start hosting a game night at our place to play RPGs. While we’ve moved from that apartment, cycled many friends in and out of the group, and changed the night of the week several times, game night has been going on as close to weekly as we can manage for the last 13 years. It’s a key social activity for us and one that we always try to maintain. Even last year, when I spent 10 months in Austin working on the Warhammer 40K MMO, I Skyped in for at least part of the night to keep that connection. Maintaining a game group is not without its challenges though, and we’ve faced many over the years. I know we’re not alone in this either. How many of these sound familiar to you?
Many Players, One GM
For many years, I ran nearly every RPG on game night. In the early years we played a lot of d20 games, as Green Ronin was one of the leading d20 publishers during that era. I had a long running D&D campaign, ran Freeport adventures, and playtested V for Victory, the World War 2 mini game I designed for Polyhedron Magazine. Later I ran a playtest for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, 2nd edition, and even a short-lived Lord of the Rings game when it seemed like we might get to design a LotR game for Games Workshop (not getting to design that game still makes me sad). Later there was Dragon Age, of course, but game night is not all about playtesting. I also ran stuff like a Savage Worlds Day After Ragnarok game and a weird mash-up of Feng Shui, Underground, Delta Green, and Deadlands. Once in a while, someone else would volunteer to run and I’d enjoy just playing, but those campaigns never lasted. We’d do 3 or 4 sessions and then I’d be back in the GM’s chair. I do like to GM but a certain point I started to get burned out. We got another GM when Ray Winninger joined the group, but ultimately Ray decided he preferred running longer sessions on weekends than working within the constraints of a week night that includes dinner and socializing (and hey, Ray, you can start those up again any time!).
Some groups have one glorious campaign that lasts for a decade or more but in my experience those games are the exception. Most campaigns seem to last six months or less. That is certainly true of our group. We’ve had maybe two that have lasted longer than a year. Naturally then, a common question is, “What are we playing next?” This isn’t always easy to answer. Tastes vary widely among our group and what we ended up playing was often a matter of compromise. In all our years of game night, I’ve never run one of my very favorite games, Pendragon, because I knew we had players who just wouldn’t be into it. That game requires a group of players who really buy into the setting and concepts, and I didn’t want to frustrate myself by trying to force it on them.
I look back fondly on my teenage years, when I had way more free time for gaming. Everyone in our group (with the exception of my step-daughter Kate) is a grown up and of course we have all sorts of responsibilities. Almost everyone who has ever been in our group works in either the tabletop or video game industries, so there have been many times that we lose people for months of crunch time. Convention season is another difficult time, as many of us travel for weeks in the summer to attend this con or that. Marc “Sparky” Schmalz, GR’s Director of E-Publishing, also went back to school a couple of years back, which sometimes limits his time. Mitch Gitelman, an old friend who joined the group while I was in down south, is one of the guys behind the recent Shadowrun Returns Kickstarter and we’re pretty sure that’s going to keep him busy. So while we try to meet every week, it isn’t always possible. Sometimes it has seemed like the whole thing will unravel, but we’ve always pulled it back.
The game industry can be volatile so we’ve had to watch many friends move away for new jobs, but we’ve also filled empty spots with friends who have moved to Seattle for a new gig. Sometimes the same person has done both those things. The most famous example is Bruce Harlick of the old Hero Games crew, who moved here to work on the Matrix MMO, was part of group for many years, and then moved back to California for several other video game jobs (ending with his current gig at Zynga). We still call him “Bruce the Traitor” for leaving us but he’s far from the only one. Jim Bishop left to go work at BioWare, Patrick Swift for a job at Upper Deck and now Cryptozoic, Tim Carroll for a job at Apple, Jess Lebow for a job at Ubisoft (and the distance record by moving to China!) and hell even me for a while when I lived in Austin last year. Every time we gain or lose people, the dynamic changes a little bit. This isn’t always bad, but it’s another thing that makes long term campaigns hard. GR’s webmaster Evan Sass gets bonus points for being the one person outside the household who has stayed with us through thick and thin.
For many of the reasons outlined above, we’ve found it harder and harder to maintain campaigns. While the group was originally conceived as RPG focused, a few years ago board and card games started to overtake that. Since the group often varied week to week, depending on who was traveling or crunching or what have you, it seemed better to play games we could finish in a night. And as I mentioned, I was also burning out on GMing and I wanted a break as well. So we’ve ended up playing games like Ticket to Ride, Dixit, Thurn and Taxis, Small World, Formula Dé, Dominion, and recently Miskatonic School for Girls (a Kickstarter that Nicole backed).
As you can see, we’ve had our ups and downs. Some nights we don’t even game at all. Nicole Lindroos, in addition to being Green Ronin’s General Manager, is a fabulous chef, so she always cooks and we drink, talk, and catch up. Those nights are fun too and even if we only talk about gaming (which is pretty much inevitable for us), I’d rather get together than miss a game night. It’s gaming that keeps us bonded together, keeps us coming back week after week to socialize, and keeps our friendships strong. Of course, it’s better when we actually play something but now my step-daughter Kate (who is 16) is part of the group and she’s helping to keep us honest. Last week she basically told us that game night without games was bulllshit and she wanted to play a superhero RPG please. I think we raised that girl right!