A Year in Gaming, 2018

Online Games Flatline

Probably the worst thing in gaming this year was trying to make the jump to the Gauntlet for online gaming since it wasn’t working at all on G+, then losing my grip and falling offline altogether in early spring. After a couple years of lots of online play, I let it go.

Before I dropped out altogether, I did get in on the last session Jeff Rients ran in the Vaults of Vyzor, which was especially awesome as he has been on my bucket list to play with since I first ran across his online work.

I thought maybe I could show enough grit to make another run at some Black Space games at least, but I didn’t get past the early planning. A big part of this is that I want my games to be “appointment television” where people will go out of their way to establish their availability and defend it. The bulk of responses to my invitations sounded to me like “I guess I could maybe come if there’s nothing good on tv; set something up and we’ll see if I show” with at least 1/3 dropout rate. At some point my dignity was tired of chasing people who were, at best, casually interested. If people are too busy to play the game, I don’t want them there.

Edge City Sputters

In 2018, Edge City got 10 sessions, dying out in spring after massive attention in 2017. Fed up with unwelcome plot directions and frustrations with players and a series of my decisions she didn’t like, my wife Kristy dropped out of the last of our Friday games she was still willing to play. This was especially poignant in July, where we broke our long-standing tradition of a Masks game in Kingsport for her birthday.

The game is still as cool as ever, drawing from a broad base of inspiration and posing unique challenges to the characters. The focus shifted away from providing support to the leader of the vigilantes in the city and fighting for its cultural preservation against evil forces trying to modernize it and also deepen the subjugation of its people. The focus focused towards backgrounding epic through-lines and conflicts and doing more short term challenges with a broader cast in the background also engaged in fighting for the greater good, still concentrating on the history and capabilities of the PCs.

I think there are a few reasons we stepped back from Edge City. I think it rattled the group that Kristy didn’t want to play with them, and her character is tied into lots of stuff and her absence is notable. Also, some previous players who like my game table but aren’t allowed into Edge City after there was some bad blood in the setting returned at a good time, as my numbers were getting dangerously low (one of Kristy’s friends also dropped out when she did, without saying a word to me; she just quit showing up). Makes sense to avoid a setting where our number drops to max 3 players. And, I love it when my players have a great time, and Edge City just seems a shortcut to player discontent for one reason or another.

Birthday Gift Games

I give out birthday games to my table; what don’t we play that you’d like to? That’s my gift. One person wanted some modern monster hunting, with the Starkweather monster hunting family for context. That went okay, and another person wanted a follow-up. That’s where I learned that where I am in my head right now, I cannot enjoy running modern games in our real-world setting; too much frustration with the state of the world right now. I don’t trust my improv, NPCs, or creative choices.

I re-familiarized myself with Warhammer enough to run something for that as a birthday game, and that went alright but didn’t rekindle any itches I wasn’t scratching in the World Between game. Another couple birthday games were in the Breathing World with Fictive Hack, and as an outgrowth of that, I did decide to go with using a Breathing World open table as the alternate game for Fridays. Same system, very different feel, the players have little adjustment needed to play both.

Another OSR Crash

I did try to do a B/X game with some mods in a distinctive setting, but again it crashed and burned and was terrible; the players got the whole cautious exploration thing for the first 2/3 of the session, then got bored or frustrated and charged some foes that outnumbered them, died, and were cranky about it.

I had prepped a setting, dungeon, and so on so I could coast for a month during a stressful time at work, with little to no prep needed between sessions. The whole prep, setting, everything got chucked and I was back to weekly improv. I don’t seem to learn the lesson that my home table rejects the OSR play style; I can already feel that in a year or two if they’re still around I’ll try again. I don’t have anyone else to play with.

I really did try to make it cool; playable grays (little aliens replace dwarves), a culture of wizard gunfighters (revolvers and lever action gun tech level), an adventuring environment based on a crashed space-faring dragon opening portals to recruit an army, and adventurers used to mount spoiling raids to keep the enemy strength from getting too consolidated before massive military resources can be brought to bear. Sparked almost no player interest. Nothing enduring, anyway.

(I planned a birthday game for myself where the group would try out Pits and Perils, but I just let that session get absorbed into adding another part on to one of the other birthday games. I can take a hint. Gotta wait a year or two before trying again.)

Arrhythmic World Between for Fictive Hack

We did a lot of World Between for Fictive Hack with their established characters. Rhythm was a terribly difficult thing to nail down; we started in Relmeenos where they had been putting down roots, then they abandoned that and traveled to the coast and got a ship and were maybe going to swashbuckle, then they decided to pursue a more quest-like course to delve into some of the setting’s secrets, and when I set up an arc for that we had attendance troubles that derailed the game until 2019.

For the last bit I set up the arc with the Responsive Role Playing method session 0, that’s what I’m doing for all my games at this point. I figured if we all agreed on what the players wanted, and compared that to what they got, then we could maybe sidestep some of this squirrel-chasing randomness that made planning difficult (not even just for me, but for other players figuring out how their character fits into the game world.) Trying it out, see if it helps.

One of the players is going to have about half-time availability, another is dealing with chronic health issues, and everybody has a busy adult life so we have to miss sometimes. We all decided if we had 2 people out we wouldn’t do the game that has all the characters traveling together. We’ll see if we can work around that and get some arcs together, or if we drop the World Between along the littered back trail.

Still, about 20 sessions this year, and that’s a lot of story.

Breathing World for Fictive Hack

So to plug some open table into the gaps in the campaign due to attendance, I started up a Breathing World game, involving the players in making the setting, doing a Responsive Role Playing session 0. We go from established characters in a human-centric world to new characters on the set of the Muppet Show with no human guest stars. Ratling, kiskov, primordial ape, and plant person, with others making characters as needed to fill in the gaps.

We had 2 sessions for a birthday game with established characters, then 3 more later on with open table, and this is a strong contender for next year’s table. Not that I can easily predict what’s going to happen.

Bright Side Note: Bryan Mullins

Bryan came to visit in the summer, and he got to try out World Between for Fictive Hack and get a brief sample session of Axes and Anvils. It was great to spend some time with an online friend in meatspace, especially since online play doesn’t seem a likely option ongoing.

Bright Side Note: Tooth & Claw

As I was waking one morning, I realized I didn’t have paper copies of the first game system I heavily invested effort into. I reached out to some friends I haven’t seen much in the last 15 years or so, and they sent me what they have to copy and return; I had a great conversation with one of them that I haven’t seen in 4 years, and an online conversation with another one I haven’t seen in even longer. That was pleasantly bittersweet. (The game itself is an artifact of overplanned simulationist wordy and kind of terrible design, so it’s not that I’m going to play it; still, I want it in the collection.)

G+ Closing

I have been grieving because G+ is closing, and that’s my online community for inspiration, collaboration, freelancing, hunting for players and games, and so on. I don’t think I can replace it. I struggle with these feelings; the loss and grief are genuine. It was going to close at the end of summer 2019, now in the spring of 2019. It could happen any time. I don’t plan to migrate, I’ll focus on my blog and Patreon and see if something pulls me in elsewhere. G+ is still there, but people are sluicing away from it, so even if they didn’t close the damage is irrevocable.

Peripheral Issues

My Patreon for serial fiction has been a steady star in the guiding constellation, and I finished a book in the spring and another over the Christmas break. One is out for purchase except for the ebook, the other is about to go through that publishing process as I start the third book in the series. This is great.

My employment has been turbulent. A period of struggle and chaos led up to my boss getting a different job in the company, and taking me with him, and then the new position was intense, and has remained so, and that affects my creative life (while also paying more, and involving more overtime, relieving some of that freelance earning pressure.)

Losing my online gaming will and ambitions was (and remains) painful, but it’s less painful than continuing to struggle and fail. Am I ready to up my commitment to a weekly open table and arm twisting to fill it? No? I needed to either escalate or scale back, because it was killing me to feel abandoned in the middle space. I made my choice.

Losing Kristy from my game table remains painful. I can’t give her a new group of players, and the way I run games isn’t what she wants, so that loss feels enduring. Breaking off 20 years of gaming together, the very activity that brought us together and kept us together, is a loss that’s hard to explain or remedy. I don’t want people to play if they’re not having a good time and I don’t know how to fix problems like not wanting to play with the other players, and apparently I”m not navigating expectations sufficiently to counter frustrations. Also, I have no clear way to get childcare for game nights. So, it’s a loss I will live with until circumstances change and she reconsiders, and that may never happen. I understand, and I accept this.

I got as far as collaborating on a Kickstarter for November 2017 for Black Space, but I got cold feet as I would be the only one managing the promotion, handling the money, working with freelancers for art and layout design, and finishing the content. I’ve been trying to handle some of that piecemeal, but the money I had to work on this sort of project has dried up as my personal credit has been burdened with paying for a surgery in 2017, covering a car issue, and the occasional thing that comes up plus trying to minimize my expense impact on the family finances. During this break I got the cards for a character generation deck, so all I need now is art and layout for the rule book and the book with prefab characters and quickstart adventures.

Combine that with the stunt Patreon did with their pricing adjustment that lost me some backers, and a downturn in my freelancing work, and I had to prioritize. Black Space and Guns of Telluria were supposed to be shoo-ins over the finish line, and I’m still occasionally going back and struggling to get things together and closer to the finish line, but I’m demoralized and tired. Everything gets slippery, and I have to retrench and make sure I hit my key commitments and go after electives as I have capacity.

I need to learn InDesign. I struggled at it for maybe total 6 or 7 hours over the Christmas break; it’s a really frustrating process to try and use Youtube to learn how to use some complicated software that makes it arcane to do stuff that’s stupid basic in Word. I don’t know what I’m going to do to with that need, but I cannot afford the cost and lengthy delays that come from hiring people to do layout. Just for a novel, designer delays cost me months, and game books have pictures and tables and such.

My four paths: get a partner who kicks ass and works with me on it. Or, lower my standards and put things out that are as good as I can make them. Or, give up and quit putting things out. Or, stick with it and persevere and rise and develop a new skill set in spite of my own deficiencies. There’s an obvious right answer, but I don’t know if I can do it.

See also: I need art. ::sigh::

In Conclusion

I believe I am good at game design. I believe I am a good game master. I stubbornly DECIDE to believe these things even in the face of evidence that I am not successful in keeping long-term players happy or attracting a new player base, and I choke at the end of making my game projects available in a broader more commercial way. I will continue DECIDING to believe in myself, evidence to the contrary, as long as I can.

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