The Final Stage of a RPG Group: Dissolution

I thought I was done with this series when I wrote the last part about RPG group Stagnation, but recent event in my  gaming group lead me to a painful decision and I thought that tackling it as an addendum to the series would be a good idea.

When I discussed a RPG group’s decline, I quoted from Kyle Aaron’s Cheetoism philosophy website where he tackled the decline of a gaming group.  His solution was to get the ball rolling again by sending the group back into the storming stage through one (or several) of the following solutions:

  • Change game system
  • Change GM
  • Change players

Aaron says that a group storming anew should either get over its stagnation issues and return into the 5 stage cycle or eventually collapse upon itself.

Mine fell somewhere in between… and I chose to put it down.

My RPG DNA, Last Chapter

When my group showed signs of stagnation way back in the Spring of 2008, we introduced a few changes, mainly switching to D&D 4e and adding a new player (up to 6, to make sure we’d always be at least 4 at every game).  It worked well for a time, we went through the various “stages” and even hit the performing stage for a short while with the City Within campaign, this in spite of me going through a severe depression in the winter of 2009.

Not bad at all.

However, as we progressed through the game, hitting Paragon level (level 10+) numerous fun-dampening issues started creeping up.  While none were critical, as a group we were unable to address individually nor resolve them, leading to more game sessions where the fun levels of old were harder to come by.

Some of the issues :

  • The group’s 3rd wave of babies creating scheduling issues and game interruptions
  • Length and complexity (in terms of choices) of higher level 4e combat
  • High number of players making the above more pronounced
  • Shorter periods of gaming on Friday nights with no possibility of playing on weekends
  • Some players’ preference for playing previous editions of D&D
  • Slight personality frictions between players seen in increased razing and occasional flareups

The further we went, I felt the various threads that were these minor irritants evolve into open irritation and frustration throughout the participants.  This became more evident to me when we resumed our campaign after the self-imposed 2 month hiatus while I was working on preparing seminars.

To be sure, I started asking some of the players and my intuitions were confirmed, the group was fraying. Hell, when I half-jokingly asked one of them if I should nuke the current group before it imploded, he told me he was seriously considering quitting it! He informed me that he found the inefficiencies of our game sessions, coupled with the increased tensions made for too stressful an environment for him to spend his free time on.

Ouch.

Moving in with Very Sharp Shears!

This surprising declaration not only echoed my thoughts but made me realize that I had something more important on my hands than mere “group fatigue” or “DM Burnout”.  I surmised that the “issues” themselves were likely symptoms of something deeper and I eventually came up with the conclusion that as a gaming group, the motivations that had brought us together every two weeks for the last decade weren’t the tightly wound bundles they once were.

While no individual gamer shares the same motivations, a functional group has a core that shares a significant subset of those and play games (or gaming styles) that cater to these motivations and preferences.  In our case, it appeared to me that our interests, priorities and motivations had drifted over time without us ever truly addressing (or realizing) it .

Some players became more casual, staying around  to hang out, without fully buying in the game system we played. Some longed for the olden days of slaying monsters, 3.5 style leveling up and getting randomized magical loot . Others, myself included, were more invested in the current system and wanted to squeeze the most out of it in the small amount of time we allowed ourselves. Yet another subset preferred not to be bothered with the added pressure of self-imposed efficiency and were openly vocal about it.  Finally, some players longed for simpler a social  structure like those of our earlier groups.

All these motivations were valid… they just weren’t as compatible as those we shared in earlier times.  I discussed with the players, in groups and individually and my impressions were confirmed, we didn’t want the same things and I didn’t see how we’d  pull things back together. If we all liked to hang out together in a more casual way, we could all save energy and play board games, hang around a swimming pool or play online games.

Finally, I acknowledged that RPGs will likely remain my preferred form of tabletop entertainment. Thus, I was going to keep playing them as the GM, a role that I still prefer to being a player.  I therefore allowed myself to take all necessary steps to find my groove again and, by default, foster a groovy RPG group, including applying the potentially painful power to choose (and exclude) players.

I settled on dissolving the gaming group as it was and take a summer-long break from D&D, preemptively ending my Gears of Ruin campaign.

Now what?

I informed all my players, explaining my reasoning. More importantly, I informed that they would not be all called back when I started my next gaming group/campaign.  I’m painfully aware that there will be a social cost attached to this decision and I take full responsibility for it.  I remain convinced that I did the right thing to shut the group down before it frayed into further friction among friends down the line.

When we get the next (smaller, more focused) group together, we’ll  agree on common reasons to play and we’ll build our sessions on these common values.  We’ll chose a game that fits our combined needs (likely D&D 4e again, at a lower level) and rebuild our social contract accordingly. For example, we’ll probably agree to play less often when we’re missing players and call back our friends for bigger, board game, beer & pizza nights.

Have you ever actively put an end to a gaming group, or at least dissolved it for some time to restart later, possibly with some of its original members?  How did it go?

The Chatty Pilgrim

It would be way too easy to blame this on D&D 4e not being the RPG for us/me. It’s clear that if I DM any version/variation of this game, 4e will remain my main choice for the time being.  However, the people I’ve met over the last year and the games’ I’ve played have reminded me again just how large and diverse the field really is.

I’d like the following year to be some sort of game pilgrimage for me.  While I’ll likely have a new regular gaming group (with familiar and new faces), I’ll also likely do periodic “geek nights” exploring what the hobby can offer beyond the big ones (D&D/d20, WoD, Savage Worlds, Gurps/Hero,etc).  While I feel a current pull toward Burning Wheel, I plan to push beyond that and see what there is out there.

Rest assured that you will read all about it here.

P.S. : This means I will not post my last Gears of Ruin session, I’m sorry. But stay tuned for my Mouse Guard character generation and first adventure session we played last weekend.

Comments

  1. Sad to read that, since I know at least half of the players… but hey, how long have you been playing with (mainly) the same group? That’s something!

    On the brighter side (at least for me): this means more potential tabletop game nights, right? Right? ;-)

  2. One thing you can do when players don’t show up to a session is play a different game for the night. That way you can both chatty pilgrim things up, have fun, while at the same time maintaining a regular campaign. In the past it was always a good excuse for me to learn new games.

  3. It sounds like it was tough to do, but the best for all of you. Yay, for more fun nights for all with boardgames, and your new group-to-be

  4. I am very sad to not read about the continuation of Gears of Ruin, but I trust you Phil to do what was necessary for “the greater good” and not let the group dissolve any further. Sad to see it not be finished, but glad that you’re seemingly moving in a positive direction with things!

  5. Sadly, this happened to my gaming group as well about two years ago. We’d had a fantastic run, from 2003 to 2008, spanning multiple campaigns.

    Then, disaster struck in several critical places. My good friends (and fellow Stupid Ranger staff members) Josh and Tasha moved to Colorado, and my son was born. We tried reforming and adding some new members and culling a few, but it was hard to get anybody together for any length of time anymore and we were all feeling left empty by the experience compared to the “good old days” when we could play every week.

    So, we quit.

    We still play board games now and then, and WoW TCG. But it ain’t like it used to be. I’m all about enjoying my son while he’s young, but man I’ll be glad to get back into a regular D&D group again.

  6. That’s rough. I do not envy you there, but from what I gathered from my perspective, this indeed seems to be the right choice. Kudos for seeing it and being able to act upon it!

    I think you have a very good group of friends and I have no doubt you’ll find alternate ways to connect with the ones that won’t be coming back.

  7. @Vyper and Eric: Some of us were together for more than 20 years (and we’ll most likely reform around that core). For the rest, there will be more boardgame nights for sure. That remains a low investment, highly enjoyable way of hanging out with the whole gang. And we can also freely spill over 2 tables when we are too numerous and play more games! And both you guys are welcome anytime.

    @Wyatt: That’s exactly what with did with 3:16 and I hope we’ll do similar things with games like Fiasco and others. Heck, I should get all the fathers and mothers together and play “Happy Birthday Mr. Robot”

    @Bartoneus: The actual world of Gears of Ruin is alive and well. Yan and I have tweaked an element in it to make it more playable and there’s a good chance that it would be the featured setting for the aforementioned future lower level 4e game. Stay tuned.

    @Vanir: You will join a new group… although my coach genes tell me that you will spearhead such a group by openly announcing the creation of an eccentric game based on an older edition of the game. Mark my words.

  8. Another great post and I really have to congratulate you on what is a bold and scary move. It is so easy to type in a forum or on a blog “talk about it with your group”, but the social dynamics make the reality of that potentially as difficult as breaking off a romantic relationship! So to actually take the bull by the horns and do it is commendable. And I think for the best. Both your instinct and your rational analysis are in agreement and they are telling you that prolonging the group may cause greater damage down the road. Now you’ve given an out to the people who weren’t happy and left those who really want to game with an appetite for more, which bodes well when you start up again. Good work.

    I guess going forward, the challenge for you will be to determine what kind of long-term gaming group you want and then picking the players that have a similar desire. I would love to read about that process going forward.

    Finally, I’m going to challenge you on one thing. Why stick with 4e? I’m not asking you to answer that right now, but to really think about it over the summer. Nor am I saying you should not stick with it. I just have never fully been convinced by your arguments for sticking with a single system and more and more I am seeing cracks in your own conviction on this (and this is contrary to your other areas of gaming self-analysis where I tend to be quite convinced!).

    Anyhow, good gaming and good exploration. I hope to be part of some of those side games after Fantasia is over.

  9. The worst part of disolutions is when there is a pair or group of players that go togethor, and you want some to come back..but not all.

    Ie “You can come back..in fact we’d love you back, but your boyfriend can’t come back” or “You two are cool, but your friend McPervert creeps out the lady players”.

  10. It’s for the best I’m sure, but I have to say I’m very sad we don’t get to see the Gears of Ruin game through to the end. It was really fascinating.

  11. Dissolving and reforming a group is never an easy thing and something that, unfortunately, I can relate to. The good news is that in our case the core group that reformed has continued to meet and enjoy not only RPGs but also all manner of card and board games. We all understand that while RPG is what originally bound us together what keeps us together is now beyond that.

    I salute you for making this difficult decision and hope that all the members of your group, the ones returning and the ones not, continue to be friends.

  12. That’s unfortunate and a tough decision, but it sounds like it was a solid decision, to keep everything rolling and together. Here’s to continuing the Chatty DM trail! I’ll be very interested to watch along as you play Mouse Guard…

    And if I might make a suggestion, if you’re going to tackle World of Darkness, Hunter: The Vigil has always been a favorite of mine.

  13. @Walkerp: Friend, I swear I will hire you as my PR manager one day. Or at least as the guy in my entourage who helps me keep it real while still sugarcoating it.

    I will very likely rise up to your 4e challenge to discuss my reason to stick around (or move away from) that game. I will however answer later this summer when I’ve had time to properly reflect on it and discuss it with my friends. The short of it revolves around tactical choice, leveling up and ease of prepping.

    I shall call on you for side games, count on it.

    @Zzarchov: Yes, breaking couples/trios/units is a very delicate situation I agree. In such case, when the decision is made, I think that shooting wider while leaving the door open is best. Be clear and honest and let the sub-group sort it out.

    @Sian: Gears of Ruin will come back. If not, you can bet that I’ll have another, crazier idea to play with.

    @Scot: I do hope so Scot, thanks for the kind wishes and I’m happy that things turned out well for you.

    @Andy: MG will just be one of the games I’ll play. As for the new games… I’m pretty sure I’ll steer away from WoD games. I have yet to fell the called to them. I will however gladly join any demo game run by friends of mine at local cons.

  14. Sorry to hear about your game. I tend to take such thigns personally. I also tend to ignore the entire dissolution and I have to commend you for keeping a clear vision.

    I have been through 4 different groups of players, of which not one had the same player.
    The first group was in high school and ended at the end of high school. This group ran about 3 years and ended as people went to college or moved onto other things.
    The second group formed from former high school members (but none that I played with during high school). This group lasted a little over 16 years. It went through several members through the years so much that in the end it was an all new roster of players (11 years with one core group and then 5 another core group), though the campaigns continued throughout. It ended when I reached heavy GM burnout and despite attempts to reform later, it never quite came together.
    The third group ran during the time of the second group and consisted of some friends from college days. This group lasted about 5 years as people moved on after college. Note that while it ran at the same time as the second group there was not a single player in both groups other than me.
    The fourth group has been going for about 4 years now and is still going strong. In fact there is a 4.5 group which consists of 2 players that play in two of my games (my wife and a friend), but the rest are completely different people.

    This is not to say all my groups have run smoothly. I’ve had a player destroy the campaign on the second game night and tick all the other players off. I just started a new campaign and didnt call him up to join.
    Throughout the years of gaming (30), I’ve taken breaks from gaming but always managed to be able to pick up a new game later down the road, usually with new players. I’ve been fortunate in that I have a large pool of potential players (I am in a LARP with over 300 people, which is full of people with similar interests).

  15. Noumenon says:

    I always thought there was something wrong when you had to cut so many battles short because people were getting bored and impatient. It is good responsiveness to your players, but it shouldn’t be that frequent of a problem.

    I wonder how many RPG bloggers, if they were as honest as you, would have to reveal they don’t play any more.

  16. @walkerp, @ChattyDM – Try having a romantic relationship between your players break up during an ongoing campaign that’s otherwise going well! Let me tell you, that is also the suck. What was worse–and maybe weirder–was that both parties still wanted to play. I was faced with a very weird dynamic: two people who were still very emotional about each other; my own emotions about their breakup (I thought she done him wrong); and the rest of my players’ feelings about both parties and their breakup. What to do?

    I was leaning heavily towards just kicking her out: she’d joined up several sessions in because her boyfriend (my roommate) was a player, so he had the history with both the group and the campaign. I frankly didn’t really want her there anymore. But I decided that it wasn’t fair to curtail the rest of the group’s fun if they thought she was still a valuable addition. I asked one of them to be the representative for the rest of the group, and he polled the other group members to find out what their opinions were. He got back to me with the will of the group, which was that she not be invited back. I was a little relieved, frankly, but bringing the axe down was still hard; my roommate wasn’t too happy for a while. Nevertheless, the game recovered rapidly, and continued on for another year or two.

    We did eventually pull the plug, but that was because I was moving, and none of us were really into PBEM. That last session was actually a hell of a lot of fun: we recapped our memories of the campaign, and the players got to ask questions about what was going on behind the scenes. We brought it to a culmination with the in-game trial of one of the PCs, who thought he was doomed… but through a series of surprise cameos from people in the characters’ past, he was not only acquitted but also got to get a real appreciation for the impact that the party had made on the lives of the people they’d touched. That was a really good time.

  17. @callin: You are blessed to be one with many potential players. Many ,amy gamers are not so blessed and have a very tightly defined pool. All eddies in them are potentially harder to deal with. While I have a large basin of potential players, I have a much smaller pool of friends… which is who I want to play RPGs with.

    Enjoy it!

    @Noumenon: I’m well aware that were I to quit D&D and writing about it, I’d stand to lose a significant part of my readership. Thankfully, I no longer consider myself a slave to that, nor a D&D blogger. I write, I’m happy, people read… I’m happier.

    However, if I stick with 4e, I’ll play it such that the original annoyances aren’t a factor anymore.

    @Jeremy: Ouch. Good thing you did the “independent pool” technique. That was a wise move and allowed you to step back from it. Well played and I’m happy it culminated in such a great finale.

  18. Tough call but I could see that things where not going well. I personally think that it will be for the best for everyone, in the long run.

  19. So my gaming group fell apart a while back when one of the members moved to Bulgaria and the rest of us just had too much going on in real life (jobs, new relationships, moving, and player burnout, moving away for school) Then i found my current group. The group does multiple games every week and not every one is in all the games. So people who don;t get along don’t have to play together, people with conflicting styles can be in different game and so on. Of corse it helps that we have about 60 members to our gaming group and about half of those are active in at least one game. We use meetup.com to organise our gaming sections and keep track of who is in wich game. Then we get together for coffee adventures at restaurants, regularyly scedauled nered walks and potlucks in the park.

    The meet up group is what brought all of this together and i would recomened it for any one looking to orginise there local players to creet a deeper pool to draw from. We have had problems recruiting gms but that has gotten better now.

    Here is a link to how wee do it.
    http://www.meetup.com/dnd-1240/

  20. Breaking off at the right time is definitely more desirable than the alternative. Loyalty to my friends is a pretty strongly ingrained trait for me which is normally a good thing, but when my last gaming group started having repeated problems it wasn’t very beneficial. We just kept trying until eventually game problems became real life problems. I thought I had dealt with it (we ran into the same issue of not wanting the same things from the games and repetitiously playing the same systems and same types of adventures only exacerbated that) by just choosing to not focus on the parts of the game I didn’t appreciate as much but apparently not. One of the group wasn’t willing to let it go and I lost a friend over it. The way he acted afterwards made me less sure that this was a bad thing but if we’d sat down and worked out what was going on with the group we could have saved ourselves a lot of needless drama.

    I’m really a believer in switching up games now and then, either to run a short RPG scenario using different systems and settings or a board game. Collectible card games can be used too if no one has a big collection or you artificially limit yourselves to a newly bought deck. The key there is that the card game part of it can help reboot things while the collecting game part tends to be more divisive.

    In any case, however you do it, switching things up can get you a little bit of that convention feeling. And that tends to be a pretty positive effect.

  21. It may seem a little alien to me as the only group I have played with are a group of friends/brothers who have known each other for 15 years or more.

    Have you considered that the players you prune from your group may potentially resent you and the players you keep. Not knowing your group dynamics, could this lead to you guys drifting apart completely. I hear your suggestion for board games nights but you have to ask yourself- In their position, would you want to hang out by those that have rejected you? (nb. I’m reflecting upon potentional feeling not suggesting you are rejecting them)

    My group have had tensions and moments when 1 or 2 have considered walking away but have always managed to sit down and compromise (maybe thats the benefit of being buddies first and foremost & geeks as a secondary hobby.

    Ultimately from reading your articles you come across as a really genuine decent guy and I know that this must have been a tough decision. Good luck and here’s to more geek times ahead….

  22. @Yan: So do I. Looking forward to finding our groove back

    @Quinn: Joining an organized, larger group is definitively a way to avoid stagnation and dissolution since individuals can go back to the player “pool” as it may and go back to other groups more akin to their preferences. And jerks/selfish players get eventually weeded out as word gets around that they don’t fit anywhere.

    @Lanir: I see we had similar issues but yours went further before cracking up. Thankfully no member of our old group were problem elements. It just seemed to me that it couldn’t work out anymore and an imposed parting of ways was the “best alternative to a negotiated agreement”.

    You know… making events that felt like mini-conventions is exactly what I have in mind for this summer. We have “geekouts” where we play board/card games and often a one-shot RPG scenario. Makes for lighter headed gaming.

    @Aradan: I’m well aware of that and I mentioned that it was likely that the move would have social repercussions. But if as a Game Master I’m no longer having the required levels of fun I expect to have vs the free time I invest in the endeavor, the Status Quo will only lead to a collapse whose social cost might be higher.

    An alternative would have been to switch to another game master. And that might happen… but it would need to be with a smaller group too and our current pool of alternative Game Masters have either games on their side or are currently busy with small children.

  23. @Arandan: Some of us in the group have also know each other for more then 15 years. Math, Phil and I went to the same High school almost 20 years ago…

    The main issue was the size of the group with the given time. When you have 2 hours of actual game play and are 6 players this means that each player in the best of case can only have 20 minutes for him.

  24. Oh lord … that brings up SO many bad memories.
    Our group imploded not once, but twice. First time when our original GM (who was really great for the longest time) started to go on a powertrip and had us feel like puppets dancing to his tune. We fired him and since then neither of us has ever seen him again.

    The second time was when two of our players started to use our gaming sessions for heavy drinking which pretty much led to the ruin of our campaign. In the second to last session I stormed out of the gaming room because I was so fed up with their behavior, in the last session my character (after I had spoken with the GM if this is okay) turned to the dark side and killed the characters of those two players. We haven’t played since then.

    Ugh … so many horrible memories…

  25. Alberand says:

    I had my old 2nd Ed. D&D group break up when one of the players and the DM got into a physical altercation during a session. I won’t get into details because there was a lot behind that incident that I am not aware of, but it made things too awkward for the rest of us to continue playing.

    More recently, my old 4e group split up temporarily due to life getting in the way, and I discovered that two guys from my Accounting study group were former D&D players. We started talking about 4th edition and decided to put a game together since they wanted to get back into it and I had no current group.

    I’ve got a couple of players that are completely new to 4e, a couple that I knew from a D&D Meetup, and my girlfriend, who has been gaming with me since 3rd edition. Overall, only Kali (my girl) really knew 4e before we started, but I am still just truly amazed every time we meet! Everyone is interested in their character (that’s the actual character, not just the stat sheet), they pay attention to each other in combat and work together, they follow along with roleplaying scenes and everyone takes part, and one of THEM suggested that we meet outside our normal session because everyone had Monday afternoon off and they wanted to play more.

    I would gladly game with my old group again without hesitation, but having that party split up and this one come out of it has been the best thing that’s ever happened to my gaming life. Having a party break up is hard to recover from, but sometimes it works out for the best, and I hope your experience is similar.

  26. Having your group dissolve is never nice, there’s always someone’s feelings that get hurt… I hope your old players will be able to find a group that better suits them. :)

    Talking about that, my own group has kind of dissolved into three (!) new groups with some players in more than one group. This way everyone has a group with a certain style that better suits them. There’s three different types of play in them (casual, elitist and one inbetween) so everyone is happier with the current situation. But to keep everyone together we still have a forum where the players from all groups can visit. Even though it’s not a very large forum, it’s still visited daily (or weekly) by all players. ^^

  27. That’s rough. But I understand. We once played a game session with 20 people. Never again! Its one thing to try to run a game session with a large number of true and casual players, but when you throw in several ‘anarchs’ posing as players, it just becomes a huge clusterfck.

    We usually played with a group of 5-8 players. But even with smaller groups, you’re always going to have a ‘favored’ player and a player who is left out of a lot of action. Our DM would often try to make up for it by having some side encounters/quests for the player(s) being left out to have an interest in. The tricky part was realizing that the problem existed and could be addressed in some way.

    Enough of my personal experiences.

    Too bad that you couldn’t see and address the problems beforehand. There might have been a much better solution for all involved, that didn’t end up killing the game group as it was. And since it seems like the main culprit was the length of higher level 4e combats, a much better solution is STILL needed. I honestly have to say that the solution of limiting gaming sessions to lower level characters, is a NON-solution. Adding to that, being forced to play with a smaller group… its just that much uglier of a solution.

    I’m just saying that the combats are the MAIN culprit. I’m not overlooking the other factors mentioned. But when you have quoted one player being ready to quit because of inefficiencies of the game (combat) system and the stress it produces… and one (or more) other player(s) desiring another game system entirely (or a previous edition) (meaning, they probably recognize a simplicity from previous editions as well)… that clearly defines THE problem.

    If only you could take the 4e conveniences (especially to DM preparation) and apply them to 3x, 2e, or even 1e… you would probably be much better off. And in many cases, I do believe that some DMs have successfully accomplished that with older editions… and they and their players are very happy with the results.

    Just my 2 cents worth.

    Good luck with your future gaming! And good luck with keeping any egos as unbruised as possible!

  28. I’m in my second group now. I had to leave the first because I wanted something more. When I left, so did two other players. So, i guess the group has disbanded. It kind of sucked because I’d played with them for while. Friendships were formed. In the end, you gotta take care of yourself and go after what you want.

  29. @tiorn: Being the one that said that I considered leaving the group. I know that combat was not my reason why. I’m a tactician, combat IS the part that I like about D&D 4th edition. Most of my reasons where more or less stated in Phil analysis of the situation.

    -The group had a strong divergence in what each wanted of the session ( tactical dept vs easier combat, go back to a more loot base structure vs not wanting any loot at all, etc…)
    -We where over our comfort zone in the number of players. (Which arguably is 1 GM and 4 players)
    -We did not have a lot of time of actual play.

    Changing system would not have changed any of this beside temporarily masking the real issues. This is why I though of leaving because I did not foresee any solution to the current situation other then reducing the number of players and by leaving I was improving the situation. That Phil reached the same conclusion I did is purely the result of his own analysis as I never mentioned the possibility before he asked me what I though of it.

  30. Alberand says:

    Regarding combat length, I find that 4e is nothing but faster than 3rd edition at every level I have played or DM’d so far (up to mid-paragon, so I don’t know about epic level). If combat length were the root of the problem, there are a ton of great ideas and resources about how to speed things along.

    I agree with Yan that smaller player groups have some advantages, especially with limited play time. I love having the whole group together, but there is definitely a different dynamic when only four players can make it versus five or all six. It becomes easier for them to coordinate and strategize, and it is a bit easier for me to keep everything in my head as well. I think updating the game to five players as the “norm” was a good change in 4e, but there is something to be said for a small, efficient group of players. The only drawback to a group of 4 is that it sometimes becomes hard to adjust encounters to compensate, and you are almost always missing a critical role when someone can’t make it to a session.

  31. Strange. This week, I have signed out of the Unknown Armies campaign I was playing in. It was not a case of group stagnation (the group was nice) but still I undersand some of the feeling related to your post. I was hesitating a lot to make my decision. I think I have made right choice, but It not easy to tell.

  32. @Yan…. So throwing out game balance in favor of tacticians and excluding more heavy role-players (thats how I’m taking your response) is the solution? OK. I really don’t agree with that at all. But OK.

    I’ll admit that a lot of my past gaming time was in groups that favored a lot of combat. I definitely played with a lot of powergamers who geared their characters more and more for combat encounters as time went by. But we had a lot of time for role-playing and non-combat character development. And that was a good thing, because it brought more diversity to our games overall.

    Maybe I’m wrong with how I’m viewing your response, but it does seem like you will begin losing developing backstories in your campaigns. Non-combat elements leading into overall story arcs will become less and less of a factor. Of course, you all tend to play mini-campaigns with defined storylines in the first place, so this probably won’t be as big of an issue as it could be for other gaming groups. But heavy role-players/light tacticians have always had a strong place in our games as far as developing ongoing adventures. Now, you all will have way less of that input on your campaigns. An input that many DMs have made just as, if not more than, important than any other element in adventure design.

    Please don’t take offense to my usage of the term ‘powergamer’. I’m not implying that you are. But I do view that ‘tacticians’ and ‘powergamers’ are cut from the same mold…. being geared for combat. The difference between them is that one ‘uses’ the rules, while the other pretty well ‘abuses’ the rules.

  33. Hey, Phil, long time reader, first time poster.

    I think you did the right thing in stopping the group. Letting it continue on it’s own until it split would have been worse. Been there, done that, hated the t-shirt.

    In the end, you’ve burnt some bridges, but the new group will be, in some ways, stronger. You’ll need to leave the baggage of the old group behind and not let it interfere with the new. Don’t dwell on what went wrong but focus on what’s ahead.

    @Tiorn: It isn’t really a game balance issue. This is divergent player expectations. Combat is usually an important part of all games as it provides tangible proof of accomplishment, but, if some players are bored by it, it becomes dragged out as they never plan ahead nor pay attention to what’s going on. It’s frustrating to the other players and it makes the DM’s job harder by forcing to compensate for them.

    And it’s the same for players who enjoy heavy role-playing with the combat-oriented players. The combat players will tune out what is happening during social activities or, at the worse (which I had to deal with), will do whatever they think will start a fight, appropriate or not.

    The best thing to do is start fresh with the clear understanding between players and DM that they all will have to work together to maximize their enjoyment. Compromise is important. Yan said he enjoys the tactical aspects of combat, so, his character should be the strategist for the group. His character should be focusing on the terrain, environment, number of opponents, and other considerations while the diplomat is talking to whomever. Whether it comes to a fight or not, Yan’s character has spent the interaction doing something positive for the group that plays to his strengths. If it does degenerate into combat, the group will benefit from the preplanning of Yan’s character.

  34. @tiorn: You’re taking some large assumption on what I meant or I was not clear enough. Either way it won’t change anything to the end results that the groups as been disbanded and combat was not the core of the issue as we perceived it.

    Feel free to think otherwise I just responded because you where implying false reason to my statement.
    And right now it’s to freaking hot in Montreal, for me to really make any clearer response… ;)

  35. @Ken Zieger: First of all welcome, secondly you responded while I was as writing mine. But you’re close to how things where going around the table. I was ditching advise during combat, proposing strategy and course of action but I took a more relax approach when not in combat. Still following the story but letting the more story focus of the group get there candy.

  36. @Yan (and Ken)… I think we’re a lot closer to saying the same thing than we realize, perhaps.

    My assumptions certainly aren’t that far off. You stated that your tactical approach to playing (and your love of the combat system) were at odds with some of the others. Either they are more of the role-player type or they really do enjoy combat encounters, but feel that the increased detail to combat is unnecessary and not as fun. Either way, and there will be unavoidable clashes in game styles.

    The fact remains that if you cut down to no more than 4 players + a DM in your gaming sessions, then you’re still going to have 5 distinctly different gaming styles and personalities to deal with. Each looking for their own brand of fun at the table. Sure, there are going to be plenty of overlapping interests with each other.

    I think the real bottom line for me is that these guys WANT to play. But they want to play casually or would prefer a more casual game in the first place. They are still more than willing to play though, more to the tune of their own style. Pushing them out of the gaming group may alienate them from wanting to play at all though. Their differing playing style should be welcome at the table, no matter what. Its not like they have intentions of sabotaging the game. Far from it. That is a bit unsettling when its so much easier for many just to sit in front of the computer and play WoW or whatever their MMO flavor happens to be, instead of sitting around a table with friends and keeping this hobby going and growing stronger.

  37. Chris S. says:

    So I’m glad to hear your going on a sojourn of RPG’s and games in general. I did this myself last year and have drastically changed my opinion of RPG’s since then. I started my journey looking to take idea’s from other game systems and bring them back to 4e to make my ongoing campaign and other games I ran more interesting.

    First I hit Mouse Guard like you did and was shocked to find mechanics for personality and role playing. I know they’ve existed in WoD games for a while but the MG ones just made more sense to me. On top of that the tell how your going to help before you can give a die mechanic meant that every roll every player could be engaged in the game. That idea hit home like an epiphany. You mean players don’t have to wait there turn and be in a passive mode while other players are taking their turn. They can be active on everyone’s turn. Awesome. This doesn’t even cover the narrative control aspects of a long form Players turn vs a long form DM’s turn.

    Next it was Trail of Chuthulu which I haven’t played yet but have read and the concept of Core Clues in investigation games was the big thing the game pushed aside from Mythos stuff. The Core Clue idea is a GUMSHOE system idea, written by Robin Laws, and means you give the players the clue they need to go to the next part of the story but you don’t explain how it gets them there. They need to figure it out themselves so you can line your investigation game with these Core Clues to guide them down the trail but if they misinterpret they can get off the path. This way you never have the roll to find the clue which can be failed and causes the GM to think fast to place the clue somewhere else or halts the game. This might seem railroaded but in an investigative game the idea is to follow the trail of clues to it’s end point.

    Then I played Fiasco. Holy lord was that different and a blast. A GMless game where everyone takes the roll of a character in an Adlibbed Cohen Brothers movie. This is a storytelling game and the mechanics help you tell the story. Go read the review on this site for more info but this is a great game.

    Call of Chuthulu was played in there and if you haven’t played it go do it with a good keeper and don’t expect to survive. The original investigative horror rpg still stands up after all these years because it’s simple and stands on the premise “Once you need to roll some dice bad things are probably going to happen.” This game is about not having control as a horror game should be since real horror is about losing control. The Mechanics are so simple they just get out of the way and let the story be told.

    Then I got the Dresden Files RPG preorder so I have the PDF. Just got the books in the mail and the PDF doesn’t do them justice. They are so much prettier in real life. This game takes the Fate system from Spirit of the Century and ratchets it up to a new level of awesome.

    The GM and characters take part in creating the city setting together which creates instant investment for the players. They get to tell stories about what their characters have already done up to the beginning of the campaigns start and those stories turn into Aspects which are Mechanics in the game. Let me tell you how much I love having Mechanics for a characters back story and personality that affect the game in real moment to moment way. You don’t have to just say my character would do that because that’s how he is. You actually get rewarded mechanically because he is that way and the GM can tempt your character because of his aspects too. Great story hooks and ways to cause tension within scenes and situations in your game.

    You can also set your baseline for how powerful you want your characters to be and it’s not quite as complicated as Gurps or Hero but still pretty deep character creation.

    The advancement system is based on story milestones instead of experience so you don’t have to worry about keeping track of exp budgets just making stories that are compelling and interesting for yourself and your players.

    The Magic system is very free form like Mage the awakening but much simpler.

    All I can say is check it out especially if you love modern fantasy.

    Now that I’m done gushing about the Dresden Files RPG how does this all come back to 4e. Well I’ve used idea’s from all this stuff in the games I’ve run in 4e from core clues to aspects in creating a fate 4e hack. What found was 4e is the best exploration and tactical combat game I’ve ever played. The rules support it well but I’ve had to create and work a lot to get the other parts of my games to not feel arbitrary or constantly DM fiated. I don’t get a lot of complaints about the games I run and the people keep coming back for more but I see flaws in the system for the kinds of stories I’m trying to get my group to tell cooperatively. I also see that I have to put in a lot of extra work to make the cooperative story elements of my games go well and make the players personalities and back stories come alive on the table. It’s a lot of trying things and guess work on my behalf and it ends up being a lot of effort. I don’t mind the work but people say 4e is easy to prep. For the combat and exploration parts I’d say it is pretty easy and I still enjoy the game for those reasons. For the other side of the coin it’s not that easy.

    After my sojourn, and I don’t think I listed everything I’ve looked at and read just the most prominent books, I’ve come to realize D&D is really good as some things but not so good at others which is great. They kick butt at what they focused on and made it modular enough to tack whatever rules you wanted to onto it. They even gave a decent starting point for some of those other things in skill challenges. Anyways, what I’ve seen show’s me 4e D&D isn’t the only game for me. It doesn’t fill every want I have out of gaming. Other games appeal to me now more than D&D. It’ll always be my first RPG love but how many of us married our first loves?

    - Chris Sniezak

  38. I suffered a Bad End to my gaming group almost two years ago. A lot of things were coming together to make for an unenjoyable experience – people weren’t GMing when their turn was up, games kept being skipped, and despite our best attempts to include two of our good friends into the mix (going so far as to build entire games around what would supposedly please them), things still turned sour. Throw in reaching the end of college and personal issues on my end, you wind up with our end result: I snapped, and went off on someone, and then promptly declared I wasn’t going to be playing any more until further notice.

    Sad to say, that was pretty much the end of the group right there. They never really managed to get another game running, and it was even more depressing for me because I was the one who had even managed to get the first group together, and eventually we got a bunch of new people who had managed to make things even more fun. But I was trying to get more important matters taken care of, and I was really burned out on the RPG front (not to mention really displeased with one of the previous members, who was a great friend).

    Six months pass, and eventually I get that itch again. I decide to see what’s been going on with the group, to find out what I’ve missed in my half year absence, and I was surprised to find that almost nothing had gone on. Nobody wanted to run anything anymore, so I decided to get the ball rolling again, and asked what people would want to play.

    A year and a half later, and my campaign is now the second longest running game we’ve ever had as a group. New people have been introduced, and we’re starting to take turns rotating things again. From the previous group, we have only three people (not including myself), and on occasion a fourth (but he rarely seems interested). We’ve managed to attract some other new people though, who are fitting in real nicely, so hopefully this trend of awesome will continue for years to come.

    I guess the moral of this story is, sometimes good things can come out of a Bad End. To me, it doesn’t matter what system we play – for so long we’d been playing 3.5 Eberron, or 3.5 something. Now we’ve made a return to d20 Modern/Future, we’ve experimented with 4E some more (and are getting ready for another 4E game hopefully), and we’ve also been trying out the new Anima system (a lot of fun, let me tell you). This is working a lot better than before, when maybe we would have one game a week, and we would continue to abuse the GM and not give him a chance to play around some.

    Find out what works for your group, and maybe you can avoid the Bad End.

  39. The longest game drought for me was nearly twenty years. The group ended during college, with bad feelings, and real life-marriage, kid, job, moving-all conspired against gaming. I kept up on the book front, but never had the extra people to actually find a new group. I didn’t start playing again until my son was thirteen years old and asked about some of my old books. He talked some of his friends into coming over and that started my return group until they graduated from high school. The game system I’ve created is a direct result of that group. My last group disbanded just a couple of weeks ago when my son and his family moved to another state.

  40. This was one hell of an article, Chatty!

  41. Thanks Zachary. I long since lost control of the comments but read them all with great interested.

    So many stories around such a touchy subject.

  42. Sorry to hear this, Chatty but it happens to the best of groups. I am glad my group has not gotten to this stage, yet, but one of these days they will. You just need to enjoy it while it lasts.

  43. Phil,
    I took a few days away, so I have not posted on this yet.

    Sucks being an adult sometimes. You mentioned the third wave of kids and the busy lives. God, some times I wonder how we manage to game at all any more; other times I look back in wonder at how blissfully ignorantly lucky we were to play 2-3 times a week for 6-12 hours at a time when we were teens.

    I’ve had to end a few groups in my times, and had to give players the bad news that the group was continueing on without them at least a dozen more (and that is never fun…it’s like firing them from their favorite game).

    The game will be the stronger for it. You are often the exemplar for honestly seeing what is going on and dealing with it. I know your games will grow and profit from it. I have three groups I run, 2 live, one online. I will now do some couintings of the blessings, thanks to this most excellent article.

  44. We had something similar happen – we had a group that gathered a lot of people over time. We had people getting tired of the system (2e), people wanting to be casual, people wanting to do “serious” RP… What we ended up doing was “splitting the party”. I was DM, and said I was starting a new serious immersive RP game, and it was invite only. We still got together for more recreational gaming on another night and the other folks came to that; we tried out different systems and stuff there. Worked well – we had a couple claim they were up for the heavy RP one but kinda self-”washed out” to the casual game quickly. No permanently hurt feelings. Refactoring can be good.

  45. “I settled on dissolving the gaming group as it was and take a summer-long break from D&D, preemptively ending my Gears of Ruin campaign”

    Awesome campaign failure, man! >:)

    Hm, I guess I tend to see it as “the campaign”, not “the group” – I don’t want a permanent group of players, I recruit players interested in the particular campaign. IME campaign failure as measured by not coming to a satisfactory conclusion in a tabletop campaign has been rare, when it happens it’s in the first few sessions, the game doesn’t take alight and just peters out.

    One thing I do these days is GM in 6-session fortnightly seasons, several seasons to a campaign. This prevents GM burn-out and seems to minimise player attrition too.

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